I live in the fifth reef in the Asora cluster, which is neither very deep nor very shallow. We’re told that there are gazillions of clusters spread around the vast expanse of the ocean. Ga-zil-lions!
Our reef is the most colorful there is. When you float above it, you see it divided into two parts. One side is almost flat, and the other is multilayered with different textures, heights, and shades. Soft, plant-like corals and hard ones that look like stones cling to the ledges; they have countless curvatures and many holes. Amid the corals, flowers sprout. Some of them look like tiny blue fish with their mouths wide open, and others make you dizzy with their overlapping colors.
On our reef, everyone lives peacefully. It wasn’t like that at the time of my ancestors, but gradually each fish took up a role. The patrolling seahorses always go about the reef making sure there are no skirmishes. Usually when a fight breaks out, they manage to resolve it in their calm manner. The whitedotted clown triggerfish are the exact opposite; they have sharp teeth and always initiate clashes. Whenever you hear a fight erupting, you know that they are involved. The clownfish hide in silence among the sometimes blue, orange, or purple anemones, which sting all the other fish except the clownfish. When I was very little, I always fantasized about swimming through those color-changing anemones, which isn’t what eels do. They looked so smooth and delicate, forever dancing to and fro. We, the eels, on the other hand, like to bury our long bodies inside the thick sand.
We rarely get any sharks swimming around; I remember it happening only once. A puffer fish signaled the presence of the sharks by screeching throughout the reef, and we all hurried to our corals and silently waited for them to pass. Everyone was so afraid, and, until today, it’s retold as the scariest event that marked our world.
My small coral enclave is situated between two giant black rocks, which we call the Masaka Rocks. Legend has it that long, long ago, two heroes were kidnapped from the enclave by four-limbed monsters that reside on fish as big as whales floating on the surface of the oceans. The monsters— who have a magical power of freezing our movements and forcing us upwards—take us away to a sea as big as my coral enclave and feed us poison. But the heroes refused to eat anything thrown to them. So their bodies stopped growing and the monsters threw them back. Our heroes were the only eels to have survived.
I was hiding in my enclave from the celebrating crowds at my Henkan—one of the biggest celebrations in our reef. To me, the Henkan was even scarier than the time sharks swam in our reef. After the Henkan, I would be taken to a cave to transform. From male to female. From black to colors: blue and yellow.
My lower body was undulating in a circular motion. I stared at it for a long time and almost got hypnotized. Looking closely at its contours, I noticed the millions of little black squares on my body. The bright yellow that would soon be infesting my body would shine. It would be screaming out at all the eels, “Look here!” I didn’t want to be glared at. All I wanted to do was stay here forever and dwell in my enveloping blackness.
The first Henkan I ever went to was Sepo’s. It was electrifying, and we played all these different games. Older eels plucked grass and collected stones to make a circle. All the other eels wrapped their bodies around one another and encircled the stones. Sepo had to break in through the knotted barrier, and, when he finally reached the center, we heard loud cheers from every nook of the reef. The sound of the commotion made the blueheaded wrasses march out of their hiding places, screech and whistle through shells.
Three wrasses swam upwards and addressed all of us.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . now we will start—”
“We will proceed with!”
“Yes, yes. Proceed with. We will proceed with— ”
“Shut up, you two. We are delighted to roceed with our much-awaited—”
“Our much—anticipated race.”
“Let the clatter batter begin.”
“Let’s proceed with our rattle battle. May you catch as many wrasses as you can!”
The corals were dug out by the eels to create complex mazes for the big competition of the Henkan. All the eels were anxious and had to catch the wrasses. These little fish were a lot more agile than the eels and hid really well between the shimmering coral pillars. The eels remarked, “These wrasses are fast, really fast.” Whoever came out of the maze first, won.
Sepo was stuck in the coral for a long time while we all waited. His mother was so nervous that she was biting hard on the piece of coral in her mouth. Sepo’s father went inside the maze to search for him. The festival had suddenly stopped. Even the water current lapsed into silence. But then Sepo circled out in striking blue and yellow. We all gaped at him—her. This whole festival was solely for that single event, but we had never seen it manifest before our eyes like this. Usually, eels went away to a cave to transform.
Now it was my turn. When we reach the ag of fifty waves, we go to a very old jellyfish. He slowly passes over our bodies and his transparent color changes us, if we are to become a she. I went to the jellyfish’s cave with Poko, Tawa, Pola, and Baka. We were racing, and I glided so fast that I felt the water swooshing against my body. I won, of course, like I did every time. The jellyfish asked me whether I wanted to start, but I said that I just wanted to wait for my friends.
Poko was the first. We all gazed in silence as the jellyfish passed over his body, and Poko unflinchingly waited. The transparent body of the jellyfish did not change. Then
it was Pola’s turn. I didn’t even notice what happened to him. My nerves were a mess.
“Taka, it’s your turn,” said the jellyfish. My eyes panned the cave. There they were, my four friends, all staring at me as the water held me in suspension.
As the jellyfish approached, I looked away. But only too soon I heard the gasps of my friends. “It seems we have one female here,” the jellyfish said, stroking my head with seaweed. His faint blue and yellow reflections seemed surreal. For a fraction of a ripple, it felt like this wasn’t me at all, swimming in my place and looking at the jellyfish. We had been told so many times about this moment, and I couldn’t quite register that it was actually happening right now. I was going to turn into colors. Me. I was the only one. They would all stay black.
“Let’s race back to the reef,” shouted Baka, and they all fizzled out of the cave. I was left there alone. “Go ahead,” said the old jellyfish. He rested on a rock, puffing algae. I couldn’t move.
“You should be celebrating, Taka; you are special, accept who you are. This is a blessing. Go catch up with your friends; when you’re as old as me, you’ll wish you could swim around the ocean so vibrantly. Enjoy it while you can,” he mumbled in between puffs.
I floated away, unresponsive, unmoving. I had nothing to say to that jellyfish, and left feeling like the loneliest eel in the ocean. I swam back, taking convoluted paths that brought me to foreign reefs. I watched as a school of tuna swam by in hysteria. One of them was zigzagging through the group, making squeaky noises. This made me remember my father; he had once told me that the monsters take many tuna out of our ocean, and that these monsters don’t have magical powers at all. They use something that we can’t easily see to catch us. It’s a white trap that looks like interwoven plants, but much thinner. He also said that the giant fish they ride is not a fish at all, but an inanimate floating object. My mother always objects to these stories, telling him to stop filling my mind with nonsense.
I always thought I’d turn out to be like him. But I won’t. I’ll be like my mother, who is just . . . a mother.
After the jellyfish’s visit, my friends avoided me. So I avoided them too—until, in the end, I stopped talking to them altogether. I swam around, thinking about our visit to the jellyfish and what would have happened if we had all been going to stay black. I envisioned a future filled with fun and great escapades. But now I was doomed to spend my future all alone, inside the boundaries of our reef. Without a single friend.
Now, as the festivities of my Henkan raged outside my hiding spot, I felt the absenceof my friends like a metal hook in my gut. I wondered if everyone was outside waiting for me. Soon, our reef dwellers would start looking for me and get me out of my small shelter and into the celebration. I knew I couldn’t hide here forever, but at least I was prolonging it as much as I could. I was still
hoping I could just transform in silence—away from the peering eyes.
The rocks in front of my shelter moved viciously, and I knew I was going to be dragged out now. My mother’s fidgeting nostrils peeked through that small space between the rocks. The space grew larger, and I saw her face. I was awaiting some intense scolding, but then I heard her voice calling my name. “Taka . . . my dear,” she said. Her whole body managed to slip through those rocks that had taken me many ripples to place. She encircled me and caressed me. “Don’t you want to see all those eels waiting for you? We made you a shell full of delicious squid brought in from the other side of the ocean.”
I didn’t reply at first, but after a lot of convincing, I allowed her to escort me outside. She had offered to cancel the whole event, but I rejected her offer. I didn’t want to be remembered as the scared little eel who did not go to his Henkan. I just wished I could become invisible. Why were our lives so complicated? Why couldn’t I have been born an octopus?
But soon enough, the festive atmosphere dissolved my worries. My Henkan was incredibly crowded. Two eels entwined and spiraled upwards before splitting and doing half-circles. In perfect symmetry, they dug their heads into the sand, slipped their bodies through it, and came out coiling from the same spot. Everyone cheered them.
Another eel wrapped itself around a spiky urchin until it turned into a big ball. After untying itself, it cracked the urchin between its teeth and chewed it.
A group of golden rays was gliding above us, singing a harmonious, serene melody. We all floated there, transfixed. Their appearance was infrequent in our reef, and I remembered my mother telling me they were a sign of good luck. My eyes searched for her amid the crowds—and there she was, smiling at me. . . .
As the last traces of my Henkan disappeared, a beautifully colored eel came to take me. “Hello, Taka,” she said, giving me a most reassuring smile. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“I’m . . . I’m not so sure,” I replied.
She laughed, and a bubble floated out of her mouth. “That’s normal. Don’t worry. I’m Kuma, by the way. Follow me!”
I noticed that her long body, rippling as she moved forward, had about seven or eight curvatures, while mine had only two. Kuma took me many, many reefs farther to reach that cave I was dreading.
“How do you know your way so well around the ocean?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but ever since I was your age I would go around the ocean, reach different clusters, and always manage to come back My parents were always so worried, and they marveled at how well I knew my way around.”
“Your parents let you go so far?”
“They didn’t let me. . . . They couldn’t stop me, I guess,” she said and laughed.
“And you never got scared?”
“No, not really, but I always had the strangest encounters.”
The water became colder and denser and pushed harder against my body. Swimming was more tiring in this part of the ocean.
“It’s a lot warmer inside the cave,” Kuma said, swimming upwards.
That cave, which I had envisioned as a horrific place, turned out to be a warm, colorful abode tucked within a colder area of the ocean. The seabed was splattered with anemones that flaunted a spectrum of colors.
“Don’t go near them,” Kuma warned.
We reached a sandy area inhabited by eels at the very end of the cave. Some were fully grown, while others were like me: still black. One of them had hints of blue on his back and was dozing in a corner.
They all greeted me and introduced themselves. One eel had reddish bruise marks on her body, which bore witness to the time she had escaped the fangs of a shark. Another was going around in circles and making me dizzy. “That’s our newest morpher from the fifth reef of the Asora cluster; she’s just getting used to her body,” Kuma told me.
Two older, pale-colored eels, the Komkoms, took me to one corner and explained their roles to me. The two of them had lived there ever since their own transformations. Kuma was responsible for the Henkans and bringing in the new eels, while the Komkoms made sure we adapted well to our transformations. Some eels shook violently when they were transforming; others spent many ripples wrapped around themselves, as if petrified.
Suddenly, an eel, in mid-transformation, started screaming so loud that I felt the vibrations on my unformed body. The scream terrified me, and I just wanted to swim back home. Hurriedly, the Komkoms told me to rest and promised to explain everything later.
Time passed, and I spent what seemed like waves in this haven, away from everything I had known in our small reef. As my body grew longer, the distance from my friends and family stretched tremendously. My whole life in our reef diminished to a seemingly small speck compared to everything I was experiencing. Along with its growth, my body formed bluish blotches that turned darker as they spread. It took a while for me to get used to those streaks of color—but, once I did, I paraded this beautiful budding crust around the cave. I was told that my transformation process was a smooth but slow one. One of the best combinations, the Komkoms pointed out.
In the cave, I met eels from adjoining clusters, the Arora and the Eurora. Our friendships went a lot deeper than those based on slipping in and out of the sand. I became especially close to the eel with the bruise marks, Shawa.
One time, as darkness pervaded the cave and all the eels were in deep slumber, I went up the hillside by the cave’s entrance and found Shawa awake, lying on high rocks watching other eels. Her reef’s inhabitants were constantly endangered by sharks, she explained, so she had trouble sleeping.
“I was on top of some stones that time I got attacked. I didn’t even hear the warning calls, and I almost didn’t survive. Last second, I found a place to hide between the rocks, only these bruises remain to remind me,” she said, with a slight smile on her face. “Most of the eels in my reef were certain I was inherently male. They couldn’t comprehend how an eel as fearless as me could turn out to be a female, but I have to tell you how afraid I was between the shark’s teeth.”
When I arrived, the marks on Shawa’s body were deeply engraved, dark divots in contrast to her spreading colors. Now, the marks seemed dim next to the bold sunshine, yellow and royal blue almost aglow over her body.
After our late night encounter, we became inseparable, to the point that other eels stopped mentioning our names individually; we became Taka-Shawa. Many of the eels even predicted we would become the new Komkoms of the cave. It is known that whenever the Komkoms’ life ends—and peculiarly death always strikes both at once—another two who share a very deep connection take over.
One day, I woke up from a strange dream in which sharks, their teeth glistening, surrounded me from all directions. I looked for Shawa around the cave but didn’t find her anywhere. The place wasn’t that big, so the absence of any eel was palpable. I wanted to tell her how scared I was in that dream and that I understood her. I wanted to tell her it must have been one of the most difficult things in the world. I wanted to tell her many things.
When I finally saw the Komkoms and asked them where she was, they both floated away in silence. “What happened to her?” I shouted.
“Nothing, dear. Don’t worry. As a matter of fact, she left today for her reef.”
The water felt denser, closing in upon me.
“She did not want to leave at all and resisted hard,” they said.
spent the remaining days in silence. I watched the anemones as they fiddled to and fro, picked up sprinkles of conversations here and there, but never released a sound myself. I became an outsider in that same place that had once been my refuge. Why am I alone? Why am I always losing my friends?
First in my own reef, Poko, Tawa, Pola, and Baka, and now Shawa.
During one of the warm ripples, my body woke me up as a deep pain passed through it. It felt like the touch of a jellyfish. As the horrible pain subsided, I saw the streaks of color spreading and covering my whole body. It happened so fast, I didn’t even understand that this would be the end of my stay in the cave. Upon hearing me, the Komkoms visited me and told me that I had already accomplished what I came for and that Kuma would take me back again.
Then I saw Kuma coming in with a young, distraught, completely black eel and I was reminded of my old self as a he, which felt like a very long time ago. I took one last peek at the cave, and followed Kuma out.
It felt odd arriving at the old reef with my new body; swimming was now less hurried. My body rose and fell, producing a swell in the surrounding waters. Everything was strangely familiar in this place: the pattern of the sand on the seabed, the shape of the coral—with one side densely populated and the other almost sleek—and, of course, the two big black rocks that identify our reef, seeming so bland now in contrast to my colorful body.
I went in between the two giant rocks and saw the surprised eyes of my parents. It took them a ripple to register that it was indeed me, and they encircled me in awe of my newly formed body. Their own bodies now looked paler.
They inspected my body as if wanting to ask me endless questions, but instead they remained silent, so I had to initiate the conversation. “I met an eel who was bitten by a shark!”
“How did that happen?” my father asked. “I’ve never heard of an eel surviving such a fierce fish.”
I recounted Shawa’s story but left out everything that had to do with the Komkoms
or how close we had been. It seemed like a phase that was no longer relevant. I looked at my mother and realized that, for the first time, I knew how she felt when my father left for waves. When I was done, they asked me whether I wanted to meet the other eels in our reef. As we went outside, I saw four male eels resting against one of the rocks, smoking algae, and eyeing me as I went by.
“These are your friends,” my mother told me.
I looked at them again and saw that they were indeed Pola, Poko, Tawa, and Baka. They had no idea that it was me, Taka. Losing our friendship because of differences in our bodies seemed ridiculous now. I approached them, trying to see if they recognized who I was, but their faces were blank.
“Hello,” I said. They all looked at me, confused.
“Do you not have any clue who I am?” I said, trying to suppress my laughter. Nobody answered as they all stared at me. “It’s Taka,” I finally gave away.
Their eyes grew wide. “Taka! How have you been, and how was your stay at the cave?” asked Baka in a genuine tone.
“It was . . .” I began and was then flooded by all my memories of the cave, the Komkoms, Shawa. They listened, captivated by all the stories. Overwhelmed and tired from all the talking, I ended my description with “just great!”
The awkwardness of these casual exchanges made me realize that they too had grown. It melted the pain and diluted the time we spent apart. We were again the lifelong friends that I had spent my whole childhood with. My whole life as a little black eel came gushing back, and I realized that I was indeed both at the same time.
“Do you want to race to the end of the reef?” I asked.
They gave me amused looks.
“For old times’ sake!” And off they all disappeared.