The krakenmaid invaded Fennel’s dreams unasked. Deep in the treacherous REM landscape she appeared, sliding through her vast seawater tank, short silver hair waving like anemone fronds. Fennel watched the hypnotic pattern of her movements as she pumped all eight tentacles rhythmically, milkweb light refractions dancing over her speckled form, belly muscles rippling under fat and supple skin that turned ridged and wiry where mammalian waist gave way to cephalopod. Look at me, look at me, Fennel thought, and the krakenmaid obeyed. Her mercury-coloured eyes, unusually wide-set, fixed on Fennel. Then her lips parted and she began to sing, filling the dream with the same low, melodious noises that wrapped around Fennel’s days at work.
In her dream Fennel understood what the krakenmaid was singing about immediately, but the song’s meaning slipped away the moment she thought about it. Ursula, Ursula, Fennel whispered in her head. Come to me, Ursula. Tell me I’m pretty. Ursula’s body hovered, heavy and inviting, in the water. Fennel desperately wanted to touch her, but the krakenmaid was unreachable light-years away in her dream, separated from her by a gulf of dimensions.
Fennel woke with a tide pulsing heavy and slow between her legs and a mixture of shame and terror in her chest at the images her unconscious mind had shown her. On the pillow beside her Yan-yan slumbered still, her slackened face unaware of the desire that had accumulated within her partner. Fennel was afraid to shatter this stillness by slipping one thigh over Yan-yan’s hips, pressing their mounds of Venus together. She refrained from cupping a hand over one of Yan-yan’s apple-like breasts, or from kissing the lines around her mouth and eyelids. The clock on the wall blinked some measure of three in the morning, and Yan-yan would wake at six-thirty for an important meeting at eight. Fennel considered slipping her hand downwards to relieve the ache there, but she knew the noise would wake Yan-yan. So she curled her hands to herself, shut her eyes and counted herself into a dreamless sleep.
Yan-yan made breakfast in the morning, filling the steel-capped kitchen with the smell of frying bacon, a Westerner’s smell. It was Yan-yan who had to do the cooking, always. It was a point of pride for her. Fennel sat crumpled in a chair, wiping sleep from her eyelids. If she kept her mind fuzzily blank, she could almost forget the contents of last night’s dream.
Look at me, look at me, tell me I’m pretty.
All Yan-yan wanted to talk about was the dead krakenmaid. Yesterday Ariel, the younger and smaller of the two, had succumbed to the injuries she sustained from the fishing nets, despite the best efforts of the scientists. Accusatory headlines had filled local news all day. Ocean Park Hong Kong had barely recovered from the salmonella deaths of two dolphins last month, and now a rare, newly discovered sea creature had died in the tanks of a premiere research institution. Moral outrage had suffused the chatter on Hong Kong public transport.
“I heard someone on the late-night radio say it was stress,” Yan-yan said. “What nonsense! What did it have to be stressed about in that big tank? No sharks, no boats, people feed it every day, what stress? It’s a good life.”
“Being kept in a strange environment stresses animals,” Fennel said, as Yan-yan made a dismissive noise. “That krakenmaid was a wild creature. She preferred the sea.” The English word, krakenmaid, lay heavy and foreign on her tongue. But it was what everyone called them.
It was Fennel who had discovered Ariel facedown in the bottom of the tank, arms slack, tentacles trailing limp. When the scientists arrived it had been a wet-suited Fennel they sent into the water to retrieve the corpse. Inert and lifeless, Ariel had been surprisingly heavy for a creature so nimble and graceful in life. Ursula, the survivor, had darted back and forth a distance away, her face unreadable to Fennel under the snorkel glass.
“It’s a pity I didn’t get to see them both,” Yan-yan said, scraping fried bacon and eggs onto plates. “Too bad I had that meeting Tuesday night!”
“You were supposed to come see them since last week,” Fennel said as Yan-yan set a plate in front of her.
Yan-yan froze. “What’s that?”
Yan-yan turned away to put the frying pan in the sink. When she turned back to Fennel the smile had returned to her face. “Let’s do it tonight. I’ll go over to your place after work. I want to see the last krakenmaid before it dies.”
She laughed at the expression her words drew up on Fennel’s face. “Well, if one’s gone, what’s to say the other won’t?” She sat down. “I’ll be there around eight at night. Okay?”
Fennel pushed at sunny-side-up on her plate. It slid around, unappetizingly wet with grease, rubber-like surface trembling.
“Okay?” Yan-yan repeated.
Fennel nodded. Yan-yan leaned across the table and kissed her on the cheek. “That’s great. We’ll see each other tonight then.”
Fennel turned down Yan-yan’s offer of a lift to work and chose instead a hot, rumbly bus that needed forty-five minutes to reach its destination. This time, she would turn up after the scientists had arrived.
The entrance to the research institute was clogged with protesters, as it had been for the past two weeks. Students and retirees with signs and flyers and slogans, calling the scientists murderers and monsters, invoking Sook Ching and the Holocaust. Ariel’s death had given them the ammunition they needed. Two of them, dressed in tentacle suits, lay chained and gagged on the ground, framed by chalk lines. Members of the media crawled all over the scene with their cameras and microphones.
A boy with hair striped blue and green lunged at her, sign in hand. “There’s blood on your hands,” he accused.
Flecks of his saliva speckled her face. His breath was closer and louder than she’d like. “Leave me alone,” she said, trying to get past. “I only work here.”
“You chose your job,” he shouted, shaking the sign at her. She walked away from him as fast as she could, gritting her teeth.
Indoors it seemed a different world from the heat and chaos outside. The tank chamber’s wet-salt smell had become formaldehyde-suffused, clinging deep to the back of her throat. In the fifty-thousand-gallon tank Ursula swam back and forth, still alive. The krakenmaid watched Fennel as she descended the metal stairs to the lower floor. There, working with gloves and masks over Ariel’s corpse, was Prof Lam and his assistant.
Prof Lam greeted her, gloved hands busy and dripping. “You’re late. Slept in?”
She nodded. She didn’t feel like talking now: the encounter with the sign-boy had left a long shadow of irritation, and she felt that if she opened her mouth, that irritation would pour out like black smoke. Prof Lam was dissecting Ariel’s body, putting her viscera into separate labelled jars. Fennel tried not to look at the cut-open torso, the skin grey with exsanguination and chill; she tried to ignore the face with its half-lidded, rolled-up eyes and slack-lipped jaw.
Prof Lam was the one who had given the krakenmaids their names. The institute was just ten minutes away from Disneyland, and one corner of Prof Lam’s office was filled with round cuddly character plushies. He always said, “It’s my daughter, she’s a big fan of Disney,” but the careful way he stacked the plushies said otherwise. He was meticulous, Prof Lam, and that extended to his precise filing of Ariel’s organs into neatly labelled jars. Heart. Liver. Ovaries. Lungs.
In the tank Ursula swam in circles, her throat working as she sang her mournful song, a sound powerful enough to transmit through foot-thick glass. A language expert at HKU was working to decipher the vocalizations they had recorded, but it might take years. Fennel wondered what was going through Ursula’s mind, watching her companion being cut to pieces by strange land-bound men. No one knew what the relationship between them was. Were they mother and daughter? Relatives in the same pod? Prof Lam had decided that Ursula was in her late thirties or early forties, while Ariel had been in her early twenties. Fennel couldn’t help but match those age ranges to that of Yan-yan’s and her own.
Ursula’s gaze, focused laser-like on Fennel, unnerved her. The krakenmaid would often ignore the two PhD students who were observing her, but Fennel was clearly an object of constant interest. “She likes you,” one of the grad students had said to her the day before. It hadn’t entirely been a joke.
Fennel turned away. She spent the day cleaning tanks and tending to the other animals housed in the institute while the researchers and grad students were all distracted. Some days it was good to be a lowly research assistant. A blessing not to have made it as a scientist.
Prof Lam was second-last to leave that evening. Ariel was back in the morgue freezer; tomorrow they would begin preserving the main part of her body. “I’ll leave you to lock up,” he said, by way of good evening to Fennel. “Don’t stay too late, alright?”
Fennel nodded, and settled in for a long wait. She kept to the office area, one floor up and encased in concrete, away from the tanks. Yet she imagined she could still hear Ursula’s song coming through the walls, like the single note of a distant foghorn.
Yan-yan showed up at eight forty-five, nearly nine. The protesters outside were still at it, the sound of their chants wafting in as Fennel let Yan-yan slip in through a side door. “How was your day?” Fennel asked.
“As expected, won’t bore you with the details.” She gave Fennel a quick kiss on the cheek. “Come, come, where is this amazing creature?” Without invitation she marched down the fluorescent-lit corridors of the institute, Fennel trailing her.
A sound of surprise and delight escaped her as she entered the main tank chamber. “Wow, this is wild,” she exclaimed, tapping the side of the tank all the way down the curved metal staircase. Ursula watched her, warily, her tentacles at pause. “Look,” she said, grabbing Fennel’s arm and pointing, “she’s looking at me! It’s almost like a monkey or a trained dolphin. Can they talk?”
“We don’t know.”
“She looks so human. Look at her face!” Yan-yan pointed, and then laughed, a wicked sound. “Those tentacles, though. Do you think they use them during—?”
“We don’t know.”
Yan-yan scoffed. “What do you know, then?” She looked around. “What did you do with the other one?”
Fennel banished images of Ariel sliced up like livestock, lying in a dark freezer box. “Prof Lam is studying the remains.”
“Can I see?”
“I don’t think you should.”
Yan-yan made an irritated noise. “You’re never any fun.”
Ursula had swum close to the glass where they were standing. “Look, she is watching us. How coy.”
Playfulness tugged at the corner of her lips, and Fennel knew what was coming next. A messy, tongue-filled kiss found its way into her mouth. Yan-yan pulled away, looked at Ursula in the tank and laughed. “I think she likes it.”
Yan-yan’s blouse smelled of strange perfume. As her mouth left wet marks on jawline and neck Fennel had the strange feeling that Yan-yan was repeating actions that she had performed earlier that day. Yan-yan tried to get Fennel down onto the floor, the sticky floor that formaldehyde and krakenmaid innards had been dripping on. Fennel shook her head and pointed to the metal stairs.
The stairs made no sound of protest as Yan-yan got to work on Fennel. The unforgiving, rough press of them against Fennel’s bare skin should have been enough to stop her cold, but there was something about the situation that turned her insides molten. The brazenness of it, the salt-smell in the air, the way the noises she made echoed in the vastness of the room. The girlfriend between her legs, who had probably been between some other woman’s legs at some point earlier that day. On the other side there was Ursula, watching, fingertips pressed to the glass. As Fennel’s legs shook and her hands clamped on stair-edge she tilted her head back as far as it would go and let sound out through her open throat.
Yan-yan’s smile glittered and curved as Fennel rebuttoned her shirt. “Someone has an exhibitionist streak,” she said. “I like that.” It was praise she didn’t give often.
“You didn’t undress,” Fennel noted.
Yan-yan shrugged. “I like giving pleasure more than I like receiving it.”
That was a lie. The Yan-yan of three years ago, the Yan-yan who had just met her, the Yan-yan who was completely enthralled by her, had taken pleasure enthusiastically and often.
Fennel reached for the hem of Yan-yan’s blouse, and was rebuffed. “What are you hiding under your blouse?” she asked. Her mind was already supplying her with answers: it was mottled peach-mark hickeys, it was the marks of someone else’s teeth, it was ten raking scratch lines from the buffed and manicured nails of some office girl with a made-up face who wore skirts and pretty heels and better understood the needs and wants of an ambitious creative director in her forties, in her prime time, a somebody who was going somewhere.
Yan-yan’s laugh was like rocks falling, crushing everything in their path. “Nothing. What do you mean?”
Fennel hesitated for two excruciating seconds before unknotting the question that had tangled in her mouth. “Who is she? This girl you’re seeing?”
Now Yan-yan’s expression turned hard. She stood up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You come home late every night. Ten, eleven o’clock. Hoping that I’d be asleep already?” Fennel knew she was heading for the edge of the bridge, she was going over the railing and she couldn’t stop herself, but the sea was rushing up at her and it was already too late. “When I ask you about your life you never answer or you give me some silly excuse. I’m not stupid. Who else are you seeing?”
Yan-yan’s face coloured. “I’ve been very busy at work. You think my job is easy? I don’t see you complaining when I bring home the money. I’m not like you—”
“A glorified cleaner? That’s what you called my job, right?”
“That’s right.” Yan-yan’s expression had turned igneous, her face harsh-edged as geologic structure. “The way you act, it’s like you’ve forgotten who pays for the house you live in. Who buys you clothes, pays for your vacations.” She began up the metal stairs, each footstep ringing out. “If you’re so unhappy with me, you can stay here with your stupid krakenmaid. See how you like it.”
“Are you going back to the other girl now? Are you?” When Yan-yan didn’t reply Fennel sprang up after her. “What’s she like? Does she look up to you like a big sister? Does she make you feel ten years younger?”
“Fuck you,” Yan-yan said, and stormed out.
Fennel sat down on the steps, cold from the bones out. Sudden explosions of temper were a fact of life with Yan-yan, but something felt different this time. It felt like something had broken in their flood of words and would never be put back together. It felt like Fennel was standing in a vast and open field of debris, and she didn’t know which of the pieces she should pick up first.
So she just sat and waited. Waited to see if she was wrong. Maybe Yan-yan would change her mind. Maybe she would come back and tell Fennel it was a mistake, she was taking her home, all was forgiven. All was back to normal.
Hours passed. Yan-yan did not return.
Fennel was startled from torpor by a tapping noise. When she turned, Ursula the krakenmaid was hanging in the water mere feet from her, pressed up to the surface of the glass. There was something strange about her expression. A smile—that was what it was, her lips spread out to form a curve, dimpling the flesh of her cheeks. Ursula beckoned to her. She had been watching them. She had been learning.
Fennel climbed to the top of the staircase, her mind turning slow as tower clock gears. Cephalopods were very intelligent, of course, and they were quick to mimic behaviours that they saw. Even as invertebrates they were hard to manage, hard to keep in check. How much more so for Ursula with her human shape and dolphin intelligence?
Fennel stood on the platform, at the edge of the water. Ursula came swimming up to her, and pulled herself out of the water with her arms. The gills under her jaw flapped wetly in the air. Pigmentation in blue and orange circles ran down her shoulders and dispersed over her back, but if Fennel squinted hard enough she could pretend that Ursula’s wide-eyed, flattish face was completely human.
The krakenmaid ran one hand along Fennel’s calves, before sinking back into the water. Her hair formed a small silver cloud around her face as she looked up, still smiling.
Fennel began to strip, down to her shirt, down to her underwear, down to nothing at all. When she was naked she slipped into the water.
Ursula rose up to meet her. Fennel felt the tentacles wrapping around her, a dozen muscular tubes enveloping her lower body. Ursula rose out of the water until they were face to face.
Look at me, look at me, tell me I’m pretty.
Ursula kissed her, mouth closing over mouth. Her lips were rubbery and the teeth hidden beneath them sharp, reinforced for cracking the shells of mollusks. But her tongue was long and strong and Fennel thought she would choke from the force of it.
The krakenmaid grabbed her by the upper arms and pulled her downwards, into the water.
From the inside of the tank the laboratory looked warped, surreal. Ursula kept her mouth over Fennel’s as she swam downwards. Fennel’s arms and legs trembled in Ursula’s grip. Her flesh clenched as the tentacles invaded her, easy as anything. The water filled with low, harmonious sounds: Ursula was singing, singing into her mouth, and she could feel oxygen bubbling between them.
Weightless in the water, surrounded by glass on every side, Fennel felt like she was detaching from her body. If it writhed and bucked it did so of its own accord. She was the alien in here, cut off from all the things she needed to live, and so alone. Alone, alone, alone. There was a whole world out there, filled with Disneylands and cheating girlfriends and angry sign-carrying students, but in here there was only water and krakenmaid song and the sensation of something moving against her, again and again.
Ursula sang and sang and sang.
Fennel was shrinking into herself. Perhaps tomorrow morning Prof Lam, he of the Disney plushies, would come in to see Fennel emerge naked and sated from the water, still carrying tentacle imprints around her thighs, and he would fire her on the spot, scandalized. Or Ursula would drag her to the bottom of the tank and hold her there until her body stopped thrashing, and it would be she who was discovered floating limp-armed and heavy, waiting to be retrieved for the morgue table. Perhaps Yan-yan would finally turn up and apologize for what she had done, and she’d ask Fennel to take her back even though she could never satisfy Fennel like a krakenmaid could, not in a million years. Or perhaps she would pack her bags and fly away with her new lover to Shanghai or Tokyo or somewhere else glorified janitor Fennel could never follow. She was probably packing already, in the space that used to be their shared bedroom. Underwear and shampoo and warm socks. Boarding passes in hand.
Fennel closed her eyes. In the darkness that unfolded, where the milkweb sparks of oxygen deprivation danced, she listened to the words of the krakenmaid’s song, filled with strength and grief and loss, before their meaning slipped away from her completely.
Story copyright © 2015 by JY Yang
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Likhain
JY Yang is a queer Chinese Singaporean woman cheerfully destroying SFF, one story at a time. Her fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Lightspeed, among other excellent venues. A graduate of the Clarion West class of 2013, she is currently pursing a Masters degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She casually neglects her blog and spends her time tweeting in frustration about Bioware RPGs at @halleluyang.
Likhain is a queer Filipina artist who tells stories through calligraphy and ink, watercolour, and poems. Her written work as M Sereno has appeared in Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Interfictions, and she has the happy honour of having previously illustrated for Lackington’s as well as creating the ebook cover for Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad. She lives in regional Australia with her partner and two ridiculous Pomeranians, and spends her nights dreaming in the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter at @likhain.