“Well, I’ve heard that sharks can never stop moving or they’ll die. And they don’t sleep as we do. I have a story that might explain why, but…”
Lia pretended to hesitate as she gauged the children’s reactions. The oldest looked curious but skeptical. The middle one started to grin at the mention of sharks. And the youngest cocked her head in such a way that the lamp light cast a twinkle in her eye.
“You know what?” Lia said. “I’m actually not sure I should tell you this one. I don’t want to give you nightmares.”
“Now you’ve got to tell us.” Tom, her oldest nephew, pressed his lips together in a tight smile.
“We won’t have nightmares. We promise,” said Ricky, her other nephew.
Jade smiled. “Maybe you can tell us two stories,” her clever niece suggested. “And the second one can be really nice and sweet.”
“That may not help,” Lia said. “But I think I know what may. If we talk about the story, about anything that scares or bothers you, then your mind won’t have to ponder it while you sleep. And you’ll be able to sleep well. And I’ll be able to tell you more…interesting stories.”
All three kids agreed. Tom looked cautiously hopeful. Ricky grinned and nodded vigorously. And Jade bit her bottom lip and set her shoulders, as if she were bracing herself for a daring mission.
“Long ago, when this land still had monarchs, it was ruled by a king, and a queen named Niyami…”
Niyami was known for three things. Her clever mind. Her clever tongue. And her luminous beauty.
It was that last thing that caught the attention of her mortal king.
And it was that last thing that caught the attention of an immortal king, a god who ruled over the other gods.
He pursued Niyami, disguising himself with different faces and different stations, not knowing what might entice the enticing queen.
But Niyami had a clever mind. She saw through the disguises, which were not so clever. The gods of old were poor judges of the cleverness of mortal minds. And Niyami had a clever tongue, which she used to rebuff the god-king’s advances without offending his delicate temperament.
And it seemed that she might have succeeded in convincing the god that she was unworthy of his attentions.
But the god-king was mocked by his wife, the god-queen, for failing in his newest attempt at being unfaithful to her. Ashamed by her mocking, he insisted that he had succeeded in wooing the mortal queen. The god-queen was not convinced. She continued her mocking. But the god-king had a notion. He said that proof of his conquest of the mortal queen would soon arrive.
Several months passed, and the mortal queen Niyami gave birth to her heir, a baby boy. There was much celebration in the kingdom. Niyami’s king was overjoyed.
But so too was the god-king pleased, for he pointed to the baby boy and told his god-queen to behold the proof of his union with the mortal queen.
The god-queen was skeptical. She proclaimed that even if that baby boy had been fathered by her god-king, the boy now belonged to the mortal king, for the mortal king had claimed him. Such a claim could not be overturned, even by a god.
The god-king fumed and was again ashamed. He told his god-queen that he would prove it again, his love for the mortal queen, and hers for him. And this time, the god-king would ensure that there would be no doubt of his deed.
Before too long, when the baby boy was toddling, the mortal queen gave birth again, this time to a baby girl.
When the god-king saw the baby girl, he prepared to descend to the earthly realm. When the god-queen saw her god-king’s preparations, all her arrogance vanished. She grew panicked. She had been certain that the mortal queen had rebuffed the god-king. But if he were descending to claim the baby girl, then surely she had been wrong. For why would a god claim to be the parent of a mere mortal?
And why especially would the king of all gods make such a claim? The god-king had innumerable children, including a few who were full gods. But still, by claiming her as his child, the god-king would grant that baby girl a true claim to the throne of the heavens.
The god-king appeared in Queen Niyami’s chambers, even as she held her baby girl for the first time, so she may present the girl to her king. All in the chamber were awed by the sudden presence of the god-king, who appeared in a shard of light. They bowed before him, every one, even the mortal king, save for one. Queen Niyami, who wanted nothing more than to gaze upon her baby, stared at the god-king with caution and suspicion.
As the god-king declared his claim upon the baby girl, Niyami stared with disbelief and grief.
She wanted to cry out, “It’s not true!”
For the baby girl was her child and the child of her mortal king. For a brief moment, she feared it might be true that she and her king had been betrayed, that the god-king had come to her in disguise. She had heard stories of how he disguised himself as attractive youths, or rich lords, or the very husband of the one he desired to possess. She had therefore placed enchanted talismans in the bedchamber, in the royal carriage, and even woven into her very clothing, to guard against such illusions. But perhaps the god-king too had found enchantments that could overcome such protections. Being a god, he could more easily succeed in breaking through all protections than she could in raising and fortifying them.
Niyami’s king and husband gave no resistance. For he had no other choice. He renounced his claim to the baby girl, but offered to raise her for the god-king. The god-king pretended to reluctance when he agreed, for unknown to the poor mortals in the chamber, his only intention was to outmaneuver his god-queen.
The god-queen too stood in the chamber, hiding in the light that the god-king cast. She stood unseen, staring and glaring at the mortal queen. The claim upon the baby girl proved that the god-king had been telling the truth. All of the god-queen’s wrath and envy converged upon the mortal queen Niyami.
The god-king vanished, assured in his victory against his god-queen. The god-queen vanished too, so that she might ponder on how to get vengeance on the mortal queen. She conceded to the god-king’s victory and as was their habit, she fumed at him for his unfaithfulness, and cast him out. The god-king descended again, so that he might find a rich gift suitable enough to appease the god-queen’s wrath. The god-queen meanwhile plotted and decided upon the punishment she would wrought upon the mortal queen Niyami.
Queen Niyami was awake, trying to sooth her crying princess. So she was the first to see the strange shadows shifting behind the torchlights. She alerted her personal guard, who alerted the palace guards, and they began to search the shadows. But no amount of warning would have prepared the guards or the queen.
For the thing that lurched from shadow to shadow had been summoned by godly powers and imbued with godly powers. As it passed, it left behind a trail of slime that smelled of sulfur and rot. So the guards had no trouble in finding it.
What they could not do was stop it.
The creature reached the royal bedchamber. It knocked aside the guards. It was unharmed by arrows, unbothered by the striking of sword, axe, or mace, and unaffected by fire, poison, or acid. It broke through the barriers that fortified the chamber door. It slouched and lurched into the chamber where the king stood before his queen.
The creature was like nothing the queen had ever seen or heard of. It had no definite shape, just folds upon folds of pale, ghostly flesh, spattered with gray freckles. It had no face, no features, no eyes, mouth, or nose. It was the size of size bulls.
As her king raised his sword and prepared to strike it, as guards and servants threw stones and torches at it, as the queen watched, the creature swallowed all weapons and all wounds. It folded into itself, and as wounded flesh was folded in, new undamaged flesh surfaced.
The creature’s flesh gathered and grew into a tendril that swiped the king away.
Queen Niyami stood before the creature. She knew who had sent it. She knew there was nowhere she could run. She had begged her king to go into hiding with their children, for the god-queen’s vengeance was for Niyami. She hoped that his injuries were not dire and that he would remain alive to care for his son and his daughter.
But the creature hesitated. It seemed to shiver and then it receded from the bedchamber.
Puzzled and suspicious, Niyami ordered her servants to tend to the king, while she followed the creature. The guards warned her away, but she would not heed them. And when she realized where the creature was headed, she began to run.
Niyami ran ahead of the lumbering creature. It was drawing near to where she had ordered her maidservants to hide with the royal children.
She heard the creature behind her, and though she was running faster and faster, it seemed to be keeping up with her. It would arrive at the chamber the same time she would. She feared she was leading it to her children. But whether she was or not, she knew the pale creature would not stop until it found them.
Niyami burst into the hidden chamber. She swept up her children, her son in one arm and her daughter in the other. She ran with them through secret passages until they reached the courtyard where chariots were always waiting.
She heard the screaming cries of her servants behind her, cries that were cut off as the creature attacked, knocking them aside, clearing its way to what it had been compelled to seek.
Niyami felt a sudden cold. She gasped and fell. But she did not fall to the ground. She fell into a wave of pale ghostly fluid. She held her children close to her body as they were overwhelmed by the wave.
Niyami could still breathe, with difficulty. She kicked her legs, but without her arms, she could not swim. And even if she knew she could swim, she would not have released her children.
Even still she felt her grip on them slipping. She did not know why or how, until she saw tiny tendrils forming in the ghostly fluid, forcing apart her children from her embrace. Tiny tendrils with the strength of a creature many times her size.
The tendrils carried her son away as she reached and clutched. The tendrils carried her daughter away. Niyami’s arms were free now, and she kicked her legs and swept her arms to her sides, trying to swim toward her daughter. But little tendrils wrapped themselves around her ankles and held her in place. As suddenly as it had overcome her, the pale ghostly fluid washed away.
Niyami was left gasping and coughing, dripping and weeping. The creature lurched away. She ran to pursue it, slipping in its trail of slime. Even in her terror and panic, the queen knew she was not fast enough to catch up with the creature. So she turned and leapt onto one of the horses from the waiting chariots. She released the harness tying the horse to the chariot, and whispered in the horse’s ear, begging it to give chase.
Niyami chased the creature all the way to the sea. By the time she arrived, it was dusk. As the sun sank, so did the queen’s hopes when she saw the creature entering the waves. Her children lay somewhere within that creature’s form. She was certain they were alive. If the god-queen meant to slaughter them, she would have had the creature do so right there in the courtyard.
So Niyami dismounted, and she waded into the sea after the creature. The waves pushed her away. Exhausted, she trudged on, and on. The creature who had her children dipped below the water’s surface. She could not see it.
She too dove beneath the water’s surface and swam with all her might. She felt herself being buffeted by the waves. First one way then another. She could see nothing. Not even the water’s surface.
Niyami panicked. She had to emerge to breathe the air before she dove back down. But no matter which direction she swam, she could not see which way was up. It was too dark. Her lungs began to burn until she could bear it no more, and though she knew there was no air for her to breathe, she took a breath.
Water filled her lungs.
She was not thinking about the gods then.
But they were thinking about her.
The god-king took pity on Niyami. He could not save her himself, or the god-queen would only continue tormenting her. But he could try to help her to save herself. So he used one of his favorite powers, and his transformed Niyami into a creature of the sea.
Niyami found herself able to breathe again, but not as she had before. She had retained her clever mind, and so she understood that she was now a creature of the sea. She guessed that it was the god-king who had transformed her. She guessed it was the only help he would or could give to her and to the baby he had claimed as his own. By the feel of her sharp teeth, and the powerful whipping her tail, and the way that other fish scattered before her, she guessed that she had been transformed into a most fearsome creature, one she had never seen before. A shark.
She sensed the scent of her children. It was faint, but she followed it. She swam and she swam, and she found that she never grew tired. And she never needed to sleep. She observed the passage of time by the approach and the retreat of the sunlight.
The scent of her children grew stronger and stronger, and she at last found it to be the strongest on a small piece of rock, a small island, that floated alone in the middle of the sea.
She hoped that the god-king would transform her back into a woman, so she could go ashore and run to her children and comfort them. She could not think past that moment when she would have them back in her arms.
As she approached, she glimpsed a familiar sight in the waters. A pale and ghostly thing without definite form, appearing only as great piles of flesh.
It is you.
Queen Niyami perceived the words coming from the creature. Now that she too was a creature of the sea, she had the senses to perceive the words. And because her transformation was done with godly powers, she was able to understand the meaning of the words.
Niyami found that she could speak to the creature as well. She entreated the creature to return her children. She offered any bargain the creature could think of. She was a queen, she explained, and she would find a way to honor that bargain.
But it was too late.
She could sense it in the waves of remorse that struck her from the shuddering creature.
I am sorry, the creature said, but I was compelled by the gods. Your children are gone. I have consumed them. They are gone.
Niyami floated in the water, suspended in the moment between hope and despair. Then she too was compelled.
She surged toward the creature. She was faster than it now. So fast that she slammed into it and plunged into its flesh. She opened wide her jaws and clamped her teeth around that flesh, feeling it shiver and quiver. She whipped her head to one side, then the other, thrashing the creature, battering it against the rock. She heard it begging, begging for its life. But she did not relent. She did not let go. The creature might turn to liquid as it had done on land. It might flee from her wrath, from her grief. It might flee from her vengeance. She could not allow it.
Frenzy overwhelmed all other senses, all other thoughts.
Niyami ripped, and tore, and thrashed until nothing was left of the shapeless creature but ragged chunks of pale flesh sinking down to the sea floor, and torn sheets of ghostly skin floating away in all directions, already being nibbled by smaller fish. When there was nothing left to tear, she struck her own face against the rock of the floating island, until she knocked herself senseless.
When next she woke, she found herself lying just under the water in a pool that lay within a cave. She discovered that she had transformed again. A shard of light heralded the appearance of the god-king.
He explained that he had transformed her back into herself. But the transformation became distorted, for Niyami was now cursed.
That pale monstrous creature was rare and sacred. By killing it, and by the viciousness of that killing, Niyami had desecrated her soul. She had brought a curse upon herself.
The god-king tried to take her eyes from her, so that she would not see the terrible face she now bore. But her eyes kept crawling back into her head. So he let them be. And he gave her the island to be her home, for she could not return to her kingdom.
Then the god-king vanished.
Despite his warning, Niyami tried to return home. She could not swim as quickly as she could when she was a shark, for the front half of her body was human again. But she could swim faster than a woman, for the bottom half of her body was that of a shark. When she returned to the shores of her kingdom, she found she could not emerge from the water. When she tried, she was attacked by warriors who saw her fearsome face and drove her back into the sea, fearing that she was a monster.
Niyami saw why this was so. Her face was half her own and half that of a shark, and it was warped by the curse and by her grief. She swam back to the island that the god-king had given her. But she could not abide there alone for long before she was compelled to return as close to shore as she could go, and she would watch with envy as mothers walked along the beach with their children. What was left of her heart would ache as she longed to kiss her own children and muss their hair and sing songs to them and tell stories to them.
Before the joy of others could cast its light upon her, Niyami’s thoughts would turn upon the god-queen, whose vengeance was now complete.
Well done, she would think, bitterly.
And she would swim back to her island, unable to sleep, unable to forget.
Lia drew in a breath and sighed it out. The children seemed to be waiting for more. When they realized she was finished, they spoke almost at the same time.
“It’s so sad…”
Lia drew back. “What?” The children did not know it, but she had softened the story for them.
“That can’t be the end,” Tom said.
“That can’t be the story,” Ricky added.
Lia nodded. “Alright then. Let’s have it. One at a time. Jade, you start.”
Jade frowned. “Why did the poor children have to be eaten? They didn’t do anything.”
“Why did the monster have to be the villain?” Ricky said. He too was frowning ferociously. “Monsters don’t look beautiful, so people assume they’re evil. But being beautiful doesn’t mean you’re good. Even Jade is old enough to know that. That monster had a spell on it.”
“He’s right,” Tom said. He peered at Lia. “We all know who the real villain of the story was.”
“I take it you mean Niyami, because she was very beautiful, but she killed that monster, in a terrible way.”
“But that was instinct,” Tom said. “Because she was a shark when she did it. She just learned that her kids were killed. But she couldn’t scream because she was underwater. If she were human, she would have screamed and cried. But she was a shark, so she did what a shark would do. It’s sad.”
“Some stories are sad,” Lia said.
“In real life that’s true,” Jade said, “but why does this story have to be sad? Why do any made-up stories have to be sad?”
Tom crossed his arms. “If the god-king claimed the little baby as his daughter, why couldn’t he interfere to protect her at least? Our father is only mortal and not even a king, but he would do anything he could to protect us.”
Ricky glanced over at his brother and nodded. “He would do everything.”
“Just like the queen tried to do everything,” Jade said.
Tom grunted. “But what could she do against the real villains of the story? They were way more powerful than her.”
Lia blinked at her nephew. “The real villains?”
“The god-king and the god-queen.”
“They ruined everybody’s lives. They’re the reason everyone was hurt. Why everyone died.” Jade’s voice grew high, and Lia feared she had made a mistake in letting her niece stay for story time.
But Ricky reached over and gave his sister’s arm a firm but friendly slap. “But that was a fierce monster that the queen turned into at the end, right? If only we could keep that part.”
Lia began to smile. “If only…”
Tom turned his head to the side. “What are you up to, Auntie?”
“What if you kids are right?” Lia glanced from one to the other. “All of you?”
The frowns upon all three faces faded. All three leaned forward.
“What if there are forces more powerful than the gods…?”
Queen Niyami was troubled by the god-king’s claim upon her daughter. But she was clever. And she dared to use that cleverness to tease out the intentions of the gods from knowledge and rumor. She came to guess that the claim upon her daughter must have been how the god-king might prove that he had succeeded in conquering—or as he might tell it, of wooing—Niyami. But to whom would he feel compelled to prove such a thing?
She was certain it would not be the god-queen, for it was rumored that the god-king tried his best to hide his dalliances from his mate. And it was not the god of the afterlife, for that god was forbidden from visiting the mortal realm. So it was that she deduced who would not require such proof.
Meanwhile, the worm of worry in her heart grew bigger and bigger.
All the children whom the god-king claimed as his own were in danger from his enemies, and oftentimes even from his friends. But they were all demi-gods, possessed of strength and sometimes other powers.
Her daughter was just a mortal. And even though she was one among a legion of children claimed by the god-king, she now had a right to claim the throne of the heavens. No one would suspect her of being mortal and harmless.
Though Niyami did not think she would find any clues among those who were present in the chamber when the god-king appeared, she asked each of them to come and speak to her in her chamber. It was as she suspected. All heads were bowed and saw nothing but a heavenly radiance from the edge of their vision.
However, there was one who admitted, when pressed, that there was another present in the chamber. An interloper who was not meant to be present at the birth of the princess.
But he knew a secret hiding spot where he might stay and watch the arrival of the one who was to be his sister.
The prince had been present in the chamber.
Niyami asked her son what he had seen. He did not admit to anything, of course, being afraid that he would be punished.
But his mother asked him, “Are you sad that your sister is here?”
“No,” said the clever little prince. “I am glad.”
“And do you love your sister?”
“I do. I do love her.”
“Then would you help me to protect her?”
The prince saw that his mother was in earnest. “I would,” he said.
And indeed he did, for the prince did not bow his head in reverence when the god-king arrived. The prince’s eyes were on his sister, who was indeed dear to him. When she took her first breath, and cried her first piercing cry, that cry struck his heart, and cracked open a door to a chamber that none other ever could or would enter.
From his vantage, the prince could sense another in the room, and his gaze shifted to the one who was standing behind the god-king. As mortals cast shadows, the god-king cast light, and this other was standing in that light, hidden from the sight of the queen and everyone else in the chamber. But from the prince’s vantage, the light was not as bright. And he could see what was hidden. He described to his mother the person he had seen.
She asked him to be sure of his description. He could see that she was in utter disbelief, not because she thought he was lying, but because it did not make sense to her why this person of all persons should be present at such a moment.
The person the prince described was the god-queen.
With that revelation, Queen Niyami’s clever mind whirred, assembling the pieces of a puzzle that now clicked into place and revealed a picture.
The queen visited the temple of the god-king late one night. She performed rites and rituals to invite and entreat the god-king to appear. But he did not. So she returned, night after night, until one night, he finally appeared. Before he could speak, the queen began to speak.
“You have claimed my daughter as your own. You must protect her.”
As expected, the god-king explained that he could not, and he began to explain why. Niyami listened, though she knew all the arguments he would make.
“Then when the time comes that my children are in danger,” she said, “grant me the power to protect them.”
To this the god-king agreed.
And the time came, when a strange creature emerged from the sea and lurched toward the palace, seeking the children of Queen Niyami. It found them and took them. The queen gave chase, on foot, on horseback, and at last, found herself at the shores of the sea.
She did not hesitate to leap off the horse, wade into the water, raise her head to the sky, and cry, “Now!”
At once, she was transformed into a shark, and she hurtled through the water, chasing the creature who had taken her children.
She entreated the creature to release her children, but the creature did not heed.
And she chased it all the way to a small island in the middle of the sea.
Niyami could smell her children. Even though they still floated within the creature with the pale ghostly flesh, she could feel the throbbing of their hearts through the ripples in the water.
I am compelled, the creature said.
As she sensed her children’s fear, Niyami could sense the creature’s sadness and reluctance. She did not have her clever tongue underwater. But she did have her clever mind and her clever thoughts. She spoke to the creature, only to appease at first, but with shock, she soon learned that the creature with the pale ghostly flesh also had progeny, and those progeny were in danger.
The god-queen had kidnapped the creature’s progeny, and held them for ransom until the creature took Niyami’s children and brought them to the island.
The god-queen had promised no harm would come to the mortal queen’s children. The creature knew this to be a lie, but agreed to the bargain anyway.
She has commanded me to consume them, the creature said. They will feel no pain.
Niyami felt a panic rise within her heart. She struggled to calm her heart so that her mind might think.
Perhaps there is a way I could protect both our progeny, she said. For saving mine from you means saving yours from her.
As soon as she spoke the words, she knew where the creature’s progeny were being held, on that very island. She transformed back into a woman and came ashore onto the island. She found the creature’s progeny within a pool of water inside a cave. She was surprised to find that they were the most beautiful and colorful little fish she had ever seen.
She entered the pool and began transforming into a shark. Through the water, she would send a message to the pale creature, and all parents would be reunited with all progeny.
But as she slipped into the water, the cave grew bright with a shard of light. The god-king appeared.
“Stop!” he cried. “This was not part of our bargain. I allow for you to protect the prince, for he is the girl’s brother. But these are not part of the bargain.” He gazed down at the glittering fish, his godly gaze unable to see any wonder in the sight.
Niyami rose out of the pool. She stood upon the shore before the god-king.
“Protecting my children means you must give me the power to protect these children, all children, or you must give me the power to kill your queen. For she will never stop hunting them so that she may torment me. The choice is yours god-king. You brought it upon yourself when you claimed my child as your own.”
Perhaps there was a way around the bargain that the god-king had made with the mortal queen. But he could not find that way.
So the god-king gave Niyami the power to protect all children, though not all at once, for that was beyond even his power. He gave her the power to transform into a fearsome shark, or any form between shark and woman. He gave her the power to remove her eyes and send them roving into the world, searching for any wrongdoing toward children.
Niyami was reunited with her own children. And the pale ghostly creature was reunited with its glittering progeny. The creature had never truly been the queen’s enemy, but would thereafter be her friend.
So many monsters in so many stories are feared by children, for they hunt children and seek to hurt children. But the monster that Niyami became was feared by the enemies of children. For she protected children, her own, and all the children of all the mothers in all the world.
Ricky grinned from ear to ear. “The monsters are the heroes! I knew it!”
“All the children are protected. Not just the prince and princess.” Jade threw her pillow in the air and cried, “Yay!”
“This story is not just happy,” Tom said, grinning. “It’s better. Niyami used her cleverness. Why say she’s clever if she never uses her cleverness?”
“I couldn’t have done it without your help,” Lia said. “You’re right, Tom. It’s better.” She beamed at her nephews and her niece. “What Niyami said to the god-queen in bitterness, I now say to you in admiration and sincerity…”
The kids began to smile, and Lia felt her love for them swell in her heart. And she gave them the ending they deserved.
“Well done,” she said.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel