We are delighted to share Dancing in the Maw of an Other by Fin Taylor, one of four shortlisted stories of The Space Crone Prize for speculative and science short fiction. The special one-off prize, established by Silver Press in collaboration with The Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust, celebrated the publication of Space Crone by Ursula K. Le Guin, a selection of writings edited by So Mayer and Sarah Shin.
The winner and shortlist were announced at Burley Fisher Books’ BFDay23 on Friday 22 September 2023. The winner and shortlist were chosen by a selection panel including Sophia Al Maria, India Downes-Le Guin, So Mayer, Una McCormack, Josie Mitchell, Nisha Ramayya, Sarah Shin, Angelique Tran Van Sang and Isabel Waidner. The winning entries, by Fer Boyd and runner-up E de Zulueta, can be read here.
Dancing in the Maw of an Other
I float, in wait for Sefi, the green water a cold soup around me. I barely feel it, such is the protection my Alghe suit gives me. I say suit, but really I mean skin: this malleable exoskeleton covers me head to toe in bright floral polyps, where Alghe and coral dance together to give me life under the sea. How grateful I am to you, little polyp. I tickle the colourful tendrils and they wriggle back, and oh! A small fish flicks out and in; they do like to burrow within my coral flesh.
I inhale a gulp of water and feel only air run through my throat as the Alghe skin does its work, filtering out the liquid. My mouth hangs open but you would not see it: best to call it a maw, a covered gate of wriggling Alghe. And my eyes? Don’t ask me about my real eyes. I’ve never dared look, but I can tell you about my goggles, made of the finest sea glass! I melted them myself – who else was going to do it? – into large cylinders by the Vent of Feri, and my dear Alghe skin agreed to grow around them, embed them into me. And now the goggles sit, jutting out of my tendrilled face, glittering like emeralds.
My goggles, my maw, my tendrils, do they scare you? I promise, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I am scav. A person of the deep.
I waited for Sefi above the Marisi Trench that day – though at the time I couldn’t have told you what ‘day’ meant. You taught me that. Without the consistent light of the moon and sun, it is hard to know what ‘day’ I am in. Time passes like a wave, ebbing and flowing, and how could you possibly contain a wave? But, of course, you found a way.
You’ve found a way to contain everything.
With the abyss dangling below my feet, my Alghe skin expanded and contracted around my limbs, bored – or, at least that’s what I thought they felt. I liked to project my thoughts onto them. The Alghe morphed into flippers, ready to swim, but I shook my body in response, we’re not leaving yet, and they morphed back, begrudgingly, clinging to my fingers and toes.
It’s a strange sense, your skin changing shape without conscious consent; I never really know what form I might take as I shift through these waters. Does it sound unsettling? I tell myself that this is the fun of living in communion with another being but if I am honest, sometimes it unsettles me too.
A faint light trickled above me. The Alghe strained towards it, wanting to bathe in the sun, but I resisted their urge: we’ve recharged enough. Besides, I loved this depth, the silent slip from light to darkness; a place where I can disappear.
A shoal of fish whittled above, silver arrows in the green mist. I envied them; how must it feel to be surrounded by others of similar form and thought? Then I heard the distinctive snap of a beak. Sefi! I whirled around to see a squishy pink bulb hurtling towards me. Nine familiar tentacles wrapped around my face, massaging into the polyps. They clung to me just long enough that I began to suffocate – a fun game they liked to play – then danced around my body, joyful, joyful.
Ready? – was what I would’ve said but since speaking is thinking with utterance and underwater utterance is just a breathy bubble, I bubbled something at Sefi. And Sefi, with their tentacles and knowing eyes, understood the bubble and responded with a clickety-clack of their beak: let’s hunt some crab.
Air bubbles billowed out of my Alghe skin as they contorted into a plume-like shape. We shot into the dark abyss, skimming over the Vent of Feri, through the Kelp Forest of Ester, reaching the Tuli Incline, where we swam along the seafloor. Sefi, tiring of the endless trawl, nestled into their favourite spot in the nook of my neck.
Then I saw it.
A cave, illuminated by the strange blue light of seaflies. I swam toward it, holding up my own hand, which glowed with the same light. This is the only part of my real skin that I ever expose to the world, purely out of necessity – how else could I navigate the darkness of the deep? Thick white branches stretched across the mouth of the cave, like a body that had died protecting a child and now only its hunched skeleton remained. Sefi awoke, their yellow eyes alert.
I held my glowing hand up to the branches and gasped a torrent of tiny bubbles: the remains of a Condur! A bubble home that my ancestors lived in before the Great Bleaching. I had swum past many of these skeletons in my lifetime, even lived in one. And here was another.
I inspected the remains. Some polyps still survived, polyps that breathed air into the space within. I pushed my glowing hand through the invisible barrier that marked the cave mouth and felt, sure enough, the tingling change from water to air. I pulled my hand back – could my ancestor, a relative, a me, be inside?
I looked for Sefi and found them tugging my leg away from the cave. I pulled them up and we met, green goggles to fearful yellow eyes. We gazed at each other for a moment. Then, a thick, warbling sorry came up and out of my throat, like a clump of kelp. Sefi understood and thrashed their tentacles against me, trying to pull me back. But I was stronger than them and delicately extracted myself. Without further thought, I pushed through a crack in the branches, into the gaping maw, where Sefi could not follow.
I think back to that moment now, and I wish that I was not stronger than Sefi, that they had pulled me back. That I had never met you.
The cave was long and dark, the walls damp and dripping. I heard the thud of bodies as fish fell out of my coral dress, no longer held by the gracious hands of water. I left them, flapping on the floor.
The light of my hand cast shadows over white etchings of ancient creatures embedded within the walls, ghosts frozen in time. I could smell their white powdery bodies – I could smell? I inhaled a deep breath and smelt the rich scent of moisture and decay – delicious! I released a choking gasp, something you’d call a laugh. The senses that lived below my Alghe skin, that inhabited my real body, were coming alive! The Alghe writhed around my face; they wanted me to return to the safety of water but I ignored them.
I found your two bodies, frail, wrapped in robes, one yellow, one red – though colour, at the time, was indistinct to me. You looked like the corpses of two sea slugs desiccating on the seafloor, which I could swim over without another glance. But I gazed down at you now, and felt a spark of resemblance: the long breathing snout, the fungi on the side of the head; I knew that beneath my layers, something similar to me lay.
I knelt beside you and lowered my face to yours. My Alghe tendrils touched the folds of your skin, the delicate hairs that lined your closed eyes, your pouchy mouths.
A cold, rhythmic gust tickled me – breath! I jerked backwards, afraid now, ready to swim into Sefi’s tentacled embrace. But then your eyes opened and you released a wretched cough. You pulled yourself up, slowly, a seasnake ready to strike, and turned to me. But your gaze was childlike and confused. You bared your glinting teeth and I was overwhelmed with the desire to bare mine back.
How can I describe what came next? I sunk into that cave as though I were pulled into the deepest crevasse of the Marisi trench; one that ran so deep, it sucked me in and I didn’t stop falling until I reached the middle of the earth.
First, I brought you food. Then, I brought you fire. I flitted in and out, frenzied, ignoring Sefi’s persistent tentacle tugs. I felt my Alghe skin start to droop in the cave but I did not care. I was bringing you back to life.
You started to walk and respond to me. You approached me with soft hands, feeling my Alghe skin – with delight or fear, I could not tell. You drew lines on the cave wall with charcoal; strange shapes and images that you prescribed meaning to, and slowly, so did I. You showed me the pink fleshy thing you held, clamped, in your mouth: a ‘tongue’! You showed me how to roll my tongue into new utterances. You taught me your names: ‘Hil’ and ‘Kur’. You taught me words like ‘scarecrow’ and ‘doll’; inanimate objects that felt so strange in my animate world. You taught me the discrete. Day and night. Yellow and red. Soft and hard. Round and sharp. You taught me expectations:
Red, like Hil, is sharp and strong like fire.
Yellow, like Kur, is round and soft like the sun.
Colours I once saw as continuous, solidified in my mind like two thick paints on our cave wall.
Sometimes I felt your eyes on me, scouring my body, hunting for something. I pretended not to notice, told myself it was nothing.
Then you chose a colour for me. Yellow, because of my round shape. You didn’t know that the Alghe had chosen that shape for me. I didn’t say; I was enjoying the game. You dressed me, forcing a yellow robe over my body, covering my slumping tentacles. I complied, surely impressing you was more important than my discomfort?
You said I must be soft like the sun filtering through water, like sand on the seafloor. Strange, I always thought the sun was harsh and sand was coarse.
Within me, softness grated right next to hardness, but I let only my softness shine for you, and squashed away my hardness.
You taught me to dance like Kur, a delicate sway. The light in your eyes, when I moved right, made me happy; happier than a suckle from Sefi, at least I told myself that. Sefi’s frightened eyes still loomed by the cavemouth, waiting for me to return. I ignored them.
One night, I awoke to you standing over me, watching. You smiled and walked away when you saw my eyes open. I tried to think nothing of it.
Time passed and everything you taught me began to make sense: now that you mention it, maybe sand is soft, and so am I.
I felt myself change. I was reborn under your eyes; your expectations encased me, and like sand under pressure, my form solidified. I was soft, I was nurturing, I was sweet and delicate: I was yellow.
Sefi’s eyes grew more and more distant. Until, one day, they disappeared entirely. But I did not care. I did not care! I had you.
Time slipped from us and I started to tire of the yellow and all its floaty-floaty, soft-softness. The hardness began to erupt out of me in playful puffs. One day, I stole Hil’s red robes and danced like you in the firelight.
But you did not smile at this performance.
You grew angry and pulled the red robe off me, revealing the bleached, white Alghe skin beneath. My dear skin – though perhaps I should now call it a suit – had all but died, and I’d barely noticed. You grabbed sharp rocks from the cave floor and turned to me, four hungry eyes: time to see what really lies beneath.
I fled, through the white teeth of the cavemouth and plummeted, like dead coral, into the darkness below.
Now I float, in wait for Sefi, above the Marisi trench, my colourful tendrils tingling. I have regrown.
I don’t know if you are alive. I don’t know where Sefi is. But I will wait for them.
Fin Taylor is a writer and bookseller in London. They have a background in anthropology and plant science and are currently working on their first novel.