“How the Jellyfish Got its Spine Back” by Lucia Starkey
Once in the long ago, Ryujin, dragon king of the sea, wanted to eat monkey liver. His faithful servant, Jellyfish, went to procure the tasty morsel. When he got tricked by Monkey, and came back empty handed, Ryujin punished Jellyfish, and ever since, not one jellyfish has been born with any bones.
Tamiko Face made a grimace in sympathy with Tamiko Hip. It had been many months since any of them had fought, but Tamiko Foot had been surly since the morning, and was now making life difficult.
Tamiko straightened, as gracefully as shes could, and delicately hobbled to a bench near the elevator. Shes had important meetings today; coming apart was not an option.
Tamiko Hands tried to cheer up Tamiko Foot, stroking it and whispering.
“We are here,” said Tamiko Hands, in the language of the sea, “what can we do to make you feel better?”
Unspoken, the fear rippled through Tamiko. All of shes knew that to break here would be a disaster. It was ten years since Tamiko Stomach tried to leave, and all of shes remembered those long moments on the street before shes had flop-slid back together: the combined pain of drying and of separation.
Worse, coming apart now would endanger the work shes had done to get here.
Tamiko Foot knew all this, and wasn’t going to leave, but it was several minutes before Tamiko Hands could sooth her back into harmony.
“Are you okay, Miss?” The receptionist asked.
Tamiko smiled and nodded. In a moment, shes stood, glad that Tamiko Foot decided to hold shes up again, and handed a crisp business card to the receptionist. “Tell Mr. Takahashi that Ms. Mizushima is here for an eleven o’clock appointment.”
Tamiko spread her pictures of woodwork and stones across the large conference table, and waited for Mr. Takahashi to find the one that shes knew would pique his interest. He grunted, still not admitting that shes had won her point.
“As you can see, my workers have found pieces which will add to the beauty of your resort while saving you money and construction time. Using these old doors and floor tiles will also make your guests feel that they are staying somewhere with history as well as all the modern amenities. Your hotel will become the top place for international tourists to stay.”
“I see. Yes, and by using these materials, we will be saving them from rotting away and being lost to history. This fireplace, is it one you still have?”
“That piece, I have been reluctant to sell because I could not find a buyer who truly appreciated its beauty.”
“The one thing I tell my workers is that nothing is worth sacrificing beauty for,” Mr. Takahashi assured her. “But how is it that someone as beautiful as you is still thinking of business and not giving some lucky husband a fine son?”
Tamiko demurely avoided the question, speaking one last time about the number of tourists the new resort was sure to bring, and the cleverness that Mr. Takahashi was showing in buying re-purposed materials.
Once free of the increasingly obvious flirtations and the delicate dance of doing business, Tamiko drove home. The salt smell of the ocean made all shes relax, and as Tamiko Feet carried shes through the empty little house to the quiet bay beyond, the rest of shes shifted, first Tamiko Mind, then Tamiko Face, then Throat, then Ears. As shes hit the edge of the water, Mind, Face, Stomach, all separated, rolling over each other, away from their stolen spine and down into the welcoming water, making gentle plops of relief, like an extended sigh.
Floating gently in the protected waters of the private inlet, they rode the swells of the ocean. Who was sometimes Tamiko Eye beheld the beauty of each iridescent, undulating body, and tucked the image away to share later with Tamiko Mind.
Who was sometimes Tamiko Liver let the cool saltiness wash away the roughness of liquid lunches, and thanked Tamiko Stomach for also holding good food.
The inlet was a place of rest for they who were Tamiko, a private kingdom of their own. For many years, it had been their private domain, but that day was the last. That day brought the little urchin who was the sea king’s messenger.
“To the thieves which call themselves Tamiko! Our great king Ryujin demands that you attend him at his palace.”
“If we do not?” Who was sometimes Tamiko Mouth asked.
“Then he says your inlet will become deadly to you, and you will never be welcome in the ocean again. Did you think this wasn’t his domain too?”
So they who were sometimes Tamiko found themselves visiting the gleaming depths they had hidden from for so long.
Ryujin sometimes walked with the humans, but underwater his form was singular, and the long coils of it rested in magnificence at the center of his coral palace, as his subjects came to beg favors and mercies.
They who were Tamiko shivered in anticipation. Would he forgive them?
In the sea, time moves forward at a stately pace without the rush and bustle of the world above. Those who were Tamiko waited as the crowds around Ryujin’s palace went to speak with their king, one by three by many. They waited as Ryujin settled disputes, answered prayers, and solemnly marked the tides with his great jewels, giving a heartbeat to the world.
When it was time, they who were Tamiko took their own turn before the great dragon of the sea. Undulating in their most formal bows, they presented themselves to their king.
“Welcome, my spineless servants,” the great king spoke, opening his large mouth in a smile. “I hear that you have done well above water.”
They who were Tamiko bowed again, in their ripple-soft way, thanking their king for his praise.
“But tell me, how is it that you, who have no form on land, have found a way to stand and walk as men?”
They who were Tamiko shivered as if still one, but as had become their custom, only Tamiko Mouth spoke.
“Your tail, Majesty. When you lost a piece battling the great fire demon who wanted to make his home in your waters, we are the servants who tidied it away.”
“My tail? You stole away my tail and made a spine of it?” The great dragon rumbled his mirth through the ocean. Near him, white and orange coral cracked and tumbled, while far away, small islands changed their shapes forever. At last the roar subsided, and the king looked upon his servants again.
“Much as I love to laugh, you know you must be punished for stealing from me. Not only did you take my tail, but you have deprived me of your servitude.”
And so saying, he took up a branch of coral that had fallen nearby, and shaped it into a spine. Far smaller than the one Tamiko left on the shore, this new spine was a thing of delicate beauty. The dragon king lowered his head and breathed his magic into it so that it might live and grow, and gave it to they who were Tamiko. “Take this, and start your family line. May your child be a better servant to me than you once were.”
They who were Tamiko took the dragon king’s gift, and went back to the inlet which was theirs alone.
As they swam home, each pulled seeds from the ocean into her mouth and by the time they reached home, the tiny beginnings of life they carried were ready to be set into the ocean floor.
Tamiko resumed shes’ business, and each night shes watched over the little anemone-like polyps as they grew into shes’ sons. The inlet was no longer a retreat, and they who were Tamiko clung to each other rather than floating apart in the dragon king’s sea as they’s sons ripened.
One evening shes came home and found that the polyps were releasing. First, son knees began to spin off, one, two, three, seven. Then the rest. Within hours, the little bay was full of tiny, slippery son, and then they began to change.
The water teemed with pulsing hearts and livers, eyes and hands. Each perfect, and so small. Tamiko tried to introduce them to each other, holding the dragon king’s gift, and showing each part where to go. But while one son hand might make friends with one son stomach, another son hand would swim away with three son feet, and the son minds wouldn’t get along with anyone.
Frantically, Tamiko tried to sort one son of each to make a whole, but they slipped away, and refused to be a one.
Shifting, they who were Tamiko swam among their sons, telling them of the joy that came with working together, of rising and walking on land. They who were sons slipped through the water, not caring or hearing. As night became day, they who were sons left the little bay, and joined the wild sea, to be eaten, to eat, to live and die in spineless glory with their cousins who never became Eye or Chest or Ear.
They who were Tamiko watched their jelly sons slip away in the current, then took up their spine and went into the empty house. In the dry, shes could weep, and so shes did, crying over the coral spine that Ryujin had given they, the not-child. Shes hadn’t wanted a son, but now the lack of hims was an ache, and Tamiko saw the full punishment the dragon king had set upon them.
When even the tears dried up, shes slipped the little spine inside, where it nestled between Tamiko Lungs and Tamiko Bladder, a tiny, piercing reminder of shes’ last failure in the dragon king’s service, and of shes’ loneliness. Then Tamiko walked away from the sea.
Wandering as human, Tamiko saw the mountains and the cities. Shes slept in plush beds and in gutters, ate rich meats and ramen. The world seemed a lonely place with no order or reason. With no one else to turn to, they who were Tamiko didn’t dare to fight, but held on, each to each other, many as one. Shes wandered, finding forgotten and abandoned treasures, then finding places they could be used.
Those who are born to the ocean, even those who have left it far behind are guided by the tides, and though Tamiko wandered aimlessly, the gentle rise and fall slowly eased her pain.
One day shes met a scholar who also soothed the pain and helped shes feel less alone, if only for a little while. His arms were soft, and they made a comforting arc of oneness around her. Shes was so tired of running from everything. When he talked of his studies, his words made Tamiko Ears feel calm. Tamiko Hands enjoyed running across his skin, and Tamiko Shoulder held his head gladly when he fell asleep over his books. When a little vein exploded in his head, Tamiko found he had left behind a miracle.
The day of the dog is the proper time for such ceremonies, but even running from her past, shes chose the day of the dragon. A priest wrapped a white cloth carefully around shes’ belly. The temple he watched was closer to the ocean than Tamiko had ventured since leaving it, and the smell of the sea wrapped around her as real as the cloth. Around and around, the priest wound the prayer-painted silk, holding Tamiko together, supporting the miracle there.
Shes furnished the little house with the scholar’s belongings and treasures shes had collected that were too precious to sell, lining the walls with his books and ancient carvings. It was close to the ocean, but shes never ventured to the water’s edge.
Though this child grew much slower than shes’ sons, Tamiko was glad for the unhurried pace. With her belly extending more every day, shes no longer fit into the sleek suits shes wore to speak with influential men. Shes hired others to take over the daily salvaging crews and the selling meetings. Shes’ days became dreamy and fell more in harmony with the ocean than when shes had ridden the currents below.
The ripples started low with Tamiko Belly. Like the tides just beyond shes’ wall, they pulled, released, and pulled again. In shes’ little house, surrounded by the books of her scholar, the waves came inside Tamiko, as painful as the ones that carried shes’ sons away, but smaller, tighter.
No one watched the birth. There were no doctors Tamiko trusted, no women friends shes was close to. With just shes selves present, shes daughter slid from the warm safety of Tamiko’s body, into the cool uncertainty of the world.
Pink, solid, singular. Tamiko Daughter had fingers and toes, eyes and mouth. Shaking, laughing, crying, Tamiko held shes daughter close.
Tamiko and Kazuko lived by the sea, but Tamiko never taught shes’ daughter to swim, and as Kazuko grew older, she was never allowed to go with her friends to walk along the beach.
Kazuko did well in school. Her mind was quick, and she liked understanding the world. When she was home because of illness, there was nothing she loved better than to read her father’s old books. Tamiko would watch her, and smile at the way her head bowed, and when she fell asleep, they who were Tamiko carried she who was their daughter and rocked her like the tides.
When Kazuko went missing, all the neighbors helped look. None of her school friends knew where she had gone, and the other mothers took turns comforting Tamiko and holding their own children closer. Eventually they all went to their homes, the police promised to keep looking, and Tamiko was left with the books and art in shes’ empty home.
In the dark, shes walked to the beach, that shes’ had so long avoided. There, on the shore, Tamiko Foot stumbled upon a coral spine, and Tamiko Hand picked it up, and Tamiko Arm cradled it for a moment before letting go, flopping to the sand. They who were Tamiko jelly-squished to the water, and swam once more into the clouded depths of the dragon king’s realm.
As always, the parade of fish and creatures waiting to speak with Ryujin was long, a shimmering spiral around the dragon king’s palace. They who were Tamiko waited, joining the spiral procession, lulled by the currents and patient as one can only be before battle.
They who were Tamiko watched the patterns that flowed around the long receiving line. Snails scrubbed the turrets with their grater mouths, whales pushed past, all in service to their king. Among the other servants, they who were Tamiko saw the undulating bodies of jellyfish. There were many, far more than before Tamiko formed and left those ranks.
Just as they who were Tamiko gained entrance to the great hall, one of the shimmying forms floated past, turned briefly into a human eye to wink, then hurried on.
“I see you have returned, thieves,” Ryujin greeted they who were Tamiko, and Tamiko saw the way one of his coils shifted, trying to keep something hidden from her.
“I have come to receive my payment.”
“Payment? You stole from me, and have been punished. What do I owe you?”
“I stole myself from you, and in my place you have my sons, who are pleased to serve you. That debt is paid.
“The coral spine which you gave me, I combined it with another’s investments and enjoyed a large return on the combined fortune. Now you have taken all the return, and I am here for the shares that are not yours.”
“You wish to take a share of my new servant?” The great dragon turned, and then they who were Tamiko saw that hidden behind one of his coils was the biggest jellyfish theys had ever seen.
“Kazuko,” Tamiko sighed.
“You see, she has come to me at last, to join her brothers. Your punishment was to give all your offspring to me, and now you have.”
“But, Majesty, she is not part of my debt,” Tamiko Mouth said. “Though I carried her, and love her, and am her mother, she is not of my family line, and you can claim only her grown coral spine”
Those still waiting to see their king drew back, waiting for Ryujin’s wrath, but they who were Tamiko surrounded they’s daughter, and shielded her from the dragon.
When the dragon king began to laugh, great patches of the ocean churned and boiled. The coral palace shook and waves slapped across every shore.
“Oh, little thief, you are sharp indeed. Very well, take your daughter.”
Then he spoke to Kazuko, “I have learned not to give things to your mother, but to you I give my share of the coral spine. May you not think of me as an unreasonable ruler, but come to visit sometimes, and bring news of the world you were born to.” Then, still chuckling, he ordered a son hand to bring in the next supplicant.
Tamiko and Kazuko bowed out of the great audience chambers, rode the currents home, took up their spines, and went to bed.
About the Author
Lucia Starkey once went swimming with jellyfish, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. That experience has stuck with her, and continues to influence her writing and her life. Sometimes jellyfish don’t sting and sometimes dragons have a sense of humor. You can find other stories by Lucia in the anthology Broken Time Blues, and in Shock Totem #6.