The Magical Plant
By Peace Chung
Lola spent much of her free time swimming through schools of fish. The physical contact tickled her all over, and she constantly counted to see how long she could endure the tickling. Many times, she would giggle until her stomach and tail cramped because she would intentionally leave plankton on her body, causing passing fish to linger as they fed. Different species of fish would kiss her glittering periwinkle and lavender scales and get lost in her silky, electric-blue hair. Her cheerful and inviting giggles radiated throughout the water that, many times, dolphin pods would follow her voice and join in on the playful fun. Although momentarily interrupted, each school of fish always formed back into an organized group as they swam away.
One day, Lola had been playing in this field of seaweed—on the northern edge of Melloasis territory—for so many hours that she had forgotten to eat. Starving, she decided to pick out some seaweed before heading back to the communal caves.
She had only swum a few hundred meters when the water suddenly became dark. Looking up towards the water’s surface, Lola could tell a storm was brewing. Now, with only the bioluminescent plankton on the ocean floor’s rocks lighting her path, Lola continued to swim towards the community center. The water quickly became colder and rougher. The waves started to push Lola’s 100-pound body side by side—a whirlpool was forming.
All of a sudden, Lola felt a heavy force twist her body around and her hair blew over her face. Her hair covered her eyes, and she found herself being pulled apart in complete darkness and terrifying silence. A large piece of driftwood, pulled into the same unfortunately fate, hit Lola in the back of her head. Although her body kept twisting and turning, her mind succumbed to a dangerous stillness.
Lola began to stir, feeling like her body had been hit with a ton of coral. Her limbs felt cramped and sore; her closed eyes winced at the sunlight that still managed to pierce through her eyelids. Slowly adjusting to the bright light, Lola opened her eyes through a series of blinks. The strange sight of a dirty, brick wall surprised Lola to raise her eyebrows and fully open her eyes in shock. Alarmed, strange sounds became to accompany her sight—monotone beeping and honking, chirping and buzzing, and words that were not in Mermish.
With her eyes fully adjusted to the light now, Lola saw that she was no longer underwater. More shockingly, her tail was gone. She had a pair of legs covered in a stiff, blue material with front and back pockets. She had a pair of feet covered in sturdy black gear with white decorative swooshes or wings on either side. Wings? Could she fly?
Lola found her upper body covered in a light coral, loose-fitting garment. Her shoulders were covered but the rest of her arms were bare, and her neck was still exposed. She peeked under her shirt and discovered that her beloved starfish trinket, which covered her left peck, was replaced by some black ink outline that was permanently etched into her skin.
Looking around, she found herself to be in between two very tall brick buildings—in a small street that did not lead to anywhere else. She saw ladders attached to the sides of these buildings, much like ones she has seen aboard sunken, shipwrecked boats. She started crawling around the small, dirty space and learned that a nearby green box held stinky waste. For the first time, she was able to smell. Lola had only heard of the ability to smell—when the Elders back home narrated the old legends of human beings. But oh (mer)man, smelling was indescribable! It was like tasting without putting anything in her mouth. It was…absolutely horrendous. And, humans? Has she turned into a human? Her new bodily form resembled worn out, framed illustrations of unmoving humans that she’s seen in shipwrecked sites– “pickures” that Elder Core has explained to her once or twice before.
Before Lola’s thoughts had an opportunity to panic, she saw something move in the corner of her eye. At the entranceway of this dead-end road, she saw someone walk by, but she only moved with her two feet. Taking cue, Lola stopped crawling on all fours.
Surprisingly, Lola found it very easy to stand up on her feet and balance upright without having to hold unto anything. She also found it strange that she knew how to move her feet in a mobile manner. She was “walting”– she thinks that’s the term Elder Sage uses in her tales. She walted towards the area she saw her first real human, and was surprised to see a larger road littered with more humans, even taller buildings, and alien machines that zipped by quickly.
Yet, still thrilled with her newfound ability to smell, Lola’s nose became distracted by something that smelled so indescribably pleasant. She walted towards a human who was roasting something small in his cart—a sign with the words “peanuts $1.50” was printed against the sneeze-guard glass, but Lola was unable to read. There was no such thing as reading and writing back home. Instead, everyone interacted with each other through speech—and information was preserved orally.
Lola remembered how hungry she was and reached for a small bag of peanuts. The human behind the cart slapped her hand, and Lola, shocked, withdrew her pale hands. She did not know why the human would not share his food—back in Melloasis, everyone freely shared their food. Another human approached the cart, gave a green piece of paper and two silver circles, and was granted one bag. Realizing something had to be traded, Lola walked away saddened that she no longer had her starfish trinket to exchange with.
Walking down a long street, she passed by tens of humans who all looked very different. The only common characteristic that they all seemed to have was a body and covering garments. However, they also had different builds and chest sizes. The ones with smaller builds had larger chest sizes and longer hair, while the ones with bigger builds generally had smaller chest sizes and more facial hairs. There was definitely a divide, Lola decided—humen and humaids. In Melloasis, everyone usually had long hairs on their heads and no facial hairs. The only different major difference between mermen and mermaids were in their reproductive roles (fertilizing or egg laying, respectively).
She was wondering how humans reproduced when she saw a humaid walking towards her direction—and she had the same electric-blue hair as Lola. She excitedly beamed at this human, giggling the same giggles that invite dolphin pods to her presence, and she waved her hand hello with upmost glee.
This humaid was dressed head-to-toe in shiny, black garments with spiky, silver decorations on her shoulder pads and belt. The humaid made eye contact with Lola but did not smile. In fact, her eyes were outlined with a heavy black coating and they seemed to be piercing through Lola’s blissful aura. Now close enough for physical contact, the humaid did not stop to interact but continued to walk past Lola, shoving her shoulder against Lola’s. The decorative spikes dug into Lola’s skin and her smile quickly turned into a frown of painful rejection. This hurtful feeling was new to Lola, who hardly experienced any negative personalities and situations back at home. These humans were indifferent and hard to connect with.
Lola continued to walk down this long avenue when she came to a some kind of open entrance. She saw luscious and green fields, polished shrubs situated along a metal fence, and large trees speckled within this green space. These must be breathing greens that survive on land, seeing as they look so similar to aquatic trees and and sea plants. But why are they trapped in this enclosed space? Why don’t they exist among the tall buildings?
Somewhat relieved by the presence of nature, Lola entered the green space with a renewed, optimistic energy. She copied other humans and stretched out on a small, green hill. Running her fingers through the blades of grass reminded her of swimming through school of fish and fields of seaweed. Slightly ticklish but pleasurable, Lola smiled at the familiarity.
A group of human children who seemed to be around her age walted by her and tossed some red metal cans towards a circular bin. Some missed, though, and three cans lay abandoned a few feet away. Curious, Lola got up and walted towards the bin. Her nose wrinkled at the similar, foul smell she experienced earlier. It must be some type of waste collection storage, she thought. But why didn’t those humans properly place the cans into the bin? And what materials are these things? Can they even decompose in the land or water?
Suddenly, Lola saw something sticking out of the trash that resonated with her—a six-ring, plastic object with holes. Lola’s friend had once found one while exploring a sunken yacht. Elder Sage told them that those rings are harmful to nature, especially to marine life, and immediately had it ripped up into smaller pieces and buried under a large rock.
Do these cans belong in these holes? Why are humans not taking care of their environment? Why are there so many waste-collecting bins throughout this land, overflowing with trash? Lola began to recall similar stories narrated by her fellow mer-people—fables and tales of the destruction of nature brought upon by the human species. Because of humans, the sea temperatures rose a few degrees, ice glaciers melted, hundreds of animal and plant species were destroyed, and the air became heavily polluted. Were these stories real? They couldn’t be. How can one species influence nature to a colossal degree?
Lola thought back to her earlier years. She spent her days happily exploring her colorfully vibrant environment underwater. She engaged with other marine life that was never harmful. She never created waste that could not be recycled into the ecosystem. She never behaved in a way that created damaging consequences to mother nature. That’s how she was raised.
Her community never intentionally drove a fish population into extinction, or created waste that negatively impacted their world. Mer-people were considerate, positive mermen and mermaids who thrived when their environment thrived and suffered when their environment suffered. Did humans not have the same relationship with nature? Disheartened, Lola started to miss home.
I have to get back. How do I get back? How did I even get here? When will I get to return and enjoy my life as a mermaid, again? These thoughts bounced inside Lola’s head and she looked for a water source.
Walting throughout the park, she came across a body of water, filled with small toy boats and real, life-size rowboats. Her excitement quickly turned into distress when she realized that this body of water was enclosed—it was a lake. How could she return home from here?
Thinking of Melloasis made Lola crave the water. She knelt by the lake’s edge and dipped her hands into the water. The water felt slimy, and there was a weird smell radiating from it. Lola immediately took out her hands after realizing the water itself was a dark green-grey color and obviously contaminated. Traumatized, she met the glares of equally traumatized bystanders who witnessed her bizarre act.
Lola quickly stood up and determined that she must find a larger body of water, something connected to the ocean. She longed for home. She used the sun as her compass and wran westward– “wran” like humans in a race, as Elder Sage once mentioned in a story about marathons–at least, she thinks that was the word. She exited the park and found herself back on hard black and grey streets, surrounded by tall and artificial buildings. With the sun beginning to set, these structures began to look ominous and cold. Shadows raced to grab Lola’s feet as she continued to run westward, dodging weird cars and leashed animals and more weird smells. After a few blocks, Lola realized that the smell came from her hands—she was filthy and tainted. She wran faster, towards the sun until she reached the Hudson River.
The water seemed to glow orange from the setting sun, and provided a rather warm and familiar invitation. Without thinking, Lola climbed over the rails and jumped into the river.
But the water was not warm and inviting. It was colder than what Lola had ever experienced, and she could not see beyond six inches in front of her underwater. The murky water did not house fish and coral reefs, but garbage and rusty metals. When Lola tried to breath underwater, her nose tried to smell the water instead. She began choking on the toxic water, and her feet would not function as a tail. Lola did not know how to swim. During brief, sporadic moments, her head resurfaced and she let out distressed sounds. Yet she was unable to be heard above the noises of construction noise and aggravated traffic.
Lola’s head bobbed above the water’s surface less and less, and her body became heavier in weight. As the last bit of water filled her lungs, Lola’s body started sinking towards the ocean floor. Stillness took over her mind and body. Above ground, hundreds of city humans nonchalantly passed by.
Lola jolted up in panic.
The first thing she saw was her glittering periwinkle and lavender scales. Her silky, smooth, electric-blue hair tickled her torso, and she looked down at her pecks and saw her treasured starfish trinket still on her body. Her feet were gone, her garments were gone, and her ink drawing was gone. She took deep breaths and realized that she was able to breath underwater again. Where was she?
She was back in her communal cave at Melloasis. She was greeted with the clarity and pureness of the ocean water, and the overwhelming sensation of feeling clean again. The water felt warm, and the familiarity was extremely comforting.
Her caretaker entered the cave, and looked relieved to see Lola awake.
Excited, Lola began to share her story without pauses in her sentences.
“I was human! I had feet and I could smell, and it was exciting at first…but it was so terrifying! There was no community, and nature was mistreated. The legends are real, I’m telling you! They’re real!”
“Lola, why did you eat the seaweed? Good thing a hunter saw you and brought you back here.”
Confused, Lola stopped her racing thoughts. In the midst of her hunger, she had forgotten that Elder Sage had warned her and the other mer-children that the seaweed in this playing field was laced with ciguatoxin—a tasteless and odorless poison often found in tropical waters.
“You were hallucinating,” she was told.
But she was able to breathe. And smell. And walt. And she wran. No. It was real. It was all too real!
A few moments later, Elders entered the cave. Lola’s caretaker immediately exited the cave, leaving Lola alone with the wisest mer-people of Melloasis. Surprised to see all five Elders at once, Lola trembled at the possibly of being exiled out of Melloasis– a decision that requires every Elder in presence when announced. Was her action harmful to nature? Did she cause harm to other marine life? Will she be the first one in the past 1200 years to be exiled from Melloasis? Her heart began to beat quickly, and the surrounding water pressure magnified the beating sounds from her chest.
“Lola, were you not warned to eat the seaweed in that area?” asked Elder Core, gently.
“I was not thinking, Elder Core,” Lola responded as she bowed her head in shame. She spoke with such softness, in a melancholic melody. “I was hungry and had forgotten what Elder Sage had told me and the other mer-children.”
“At least you have not caused harm to yourself, others, and our environment,” responded Elder Core in his steady, sophisticated voice. His words were calming yet sophisticated, and it began to warm up Lola’s mood.
Elder Sage spoke, “You have discovered our key to wisdom, Lola.”
Confused, Lola responded, “What do you mean?”
“The plant is magical, Lola. It scans our unconscious and conscious curiosities and sends us on a unique journey to experience and understand our questions. Sometimes it’ll bring one of us to a human world, where we can learn about this environmentally destructive and now-extinct species; other times it’ll allow us to consume foreign aquatic plants and fish so we know which ones are safe to eat,” continued Elder Sage.
“I was a human, I was a human!” exclaimed Lola. “It was real, it was real!”
“Yes, it was real in the sense that the plant never lies,” answered Elder Sage, “but your body remains in this world and to others, it just looks like you’re in a deep slumber– experiencing a vivid dream or hallucination.”
“Then why can’t we all gain wisdom? Why are we cautioned to stay away from consuming this magical plant?” questioned Lola.
“Because too much wisdom gets confused for power, and too many powers in one place encourages conflict…” began Elder Sage.
“…and too much conflict will disrupt the equilibrium!” injected Lola.
The Elders smiled at young Lola’s revelation. “That is correct,” spoke Elder Core. “It is important that you must refrain from eating again from the plant, Lola. You mustn’t even tell others about the magical plant. Or else Melloasis will become a dangerous place.”
Lola internally sighed with relief knowing that she was not being exiled out of Melloasis. She knew this was a big responsibility to keep the Elders’ secret of gaining wisdom– but it was one she knew she would have no problem keeping. She loved Melloasis so much that the mere thought of her society becoming as destructive, dangerous, and unfriendly as the human world terrified her. Her worry was a comforting sign of honor towards nature, and the Elders were wise enough to know that they could trust her.