An old figure stirred slowly—with purpose, inspiring silence and the attention of eyes and ears.
“It is said that the first Shii’reti crawled from the ocean during a mighty Seastorm. As she lay dying on the beach, a white vision pulled her spirit from her sleek body, past the distant groves of trees to flat land. There was much wonder at this different place, dry and smooth but green, too, like water.
She wavered, What is this?
A soft answer. Home, home.
My home is in the Sea! cried the spirit.
Home. Waves of green whistled.
And the Shii’reti opened her eyes to a golden sky, sand in her sea hair, and water trailing along two long spindly limbs (no fin, no tough scales). She attempted to return to the Sea, but It roiled and rocked and spat her back out. With a sore heart and weeping eyes, she gathered her after-life and left the hot sand for the shade of a forest. Some moons later, the first Shii’reti emerged to find a place as lovely and green as the vision granted. Here she bore children who loved the land, whose children’s children loved the land too and called it Home. But the first Shii’reti could never forget the before-life, and when her legs were feeble, she made that last journey back through the trees, to the beach, home to the Sea.
And so the people of Shii’ret (for the flatland became the birthplace of this city) have a healthy respect for the ocean and all creatures that abide therein. It is blasphemous to take from the Sea, unless the gift is freely given. A festival is held down by the docks on the longest day and children toss flowers on the waves. They celebrate along the shore, dancing with bare feet and making secret wishes that they hope It will grant (the return of a lover, a newborn, that pretty doll in the corner shop). But never do they feed from the Sea; for all love the land (the true Gift), and it is understood that to devour the soul of a Sea creature is to give up Home. It poisons one with the longing of the first Shii’reti; drives the mind mad and turns the babe from the breast; some even claim that it curses—with a white vision that sees too far (too much) and leaves behind fear.
Thus, at the knee of the adult, the child learns this: The Sea is Great and Powerful. Do not take from the Sea, or it will take from you.”
“…Fascinating,” murmured a shadow from a far corner of the room. His shadow companion made a noncommittal noise and raised his hand to gesture at the tavern hostess for more drink.
“You li-like wives’ tales, Spock?”
“A wife’s tale, Captain?”
Laughingly, “A story. Usually embellished. Very embellished.”
“It is documented that most cultures share the tradition of—“ a pause, “implausible anecdotes which are often based on some fact. Perhaps this ‘first Shii’reti’ did indeed come from the Sea—or across it—and could not return.“
“Alright, alright! Far be it from me to criticize a story about a pretty mermaid.”
“… Jim, I believe you have consumed enough of the native beverage…”
“Only three o’ these!”
“…for the average Shii’reti. Terran metabolism functions at one-third of the Shii’reti metabolic rate.”
“You saying I’m drunk? ‘Cause I’m not drunk.”
“There is a 73.677% chance that you are inebriated.”
“It’s all Bones’ fault. Wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
“Leonard is not present, nor did he direct us to our current location.”
“He won’t say a damned thing to either of us, Spock! How’s a man supposed to take that from his—“ Jim’s voice dropped off to a whispered, “shit.”
A hand touched his shoulder gently in understanding.
“We have done no harm, Jim. I suspect there is another matter which bothers Leonard.”
“We cannot help him if he won’t tell us what it is!” Jim angrily thumped his boots on the wooden floor. “This was supposed to be a vacation, time for us together, all of us! In another week…” his anger had spent itself, giving way to a brief despair which he locked behind closed eyes. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Silence lengthened between them, broken finally by the arrival of the hostess bearing another pitcher. She reached for Jim’s glass, but he quickly placed his hand over top and gave her a rueful Kirk smile. “No more for me, thanks.”
She smiled in return. “Did you enjoy the tale of our city?” the translator chirped in Standard.
“Spock here,” Jim indicated the Vulcan beside him, “found it very fascinating.”
“Indeed. The story explains much; I have observed that the local markets do not sell any form of sea animal or plant for consumption, despite being within relative distance of such a large body of water.”
“Oh, no, we could not! It is against our Way.”
“Then mariculture is not condoned here?”
She stared at them both for a moment, and Jim wondered briefly if the translator was doing an adequate job of keeping up with Spock.
Her response was slow, when it came. “We do not harvest the Sea. It is wrong. It is forbidden.”
One of Spock’s eyebrows rose. Jim could not resist asking, “But surely someone has eaten a fish—or whatever there is—“
“No,” sharply. She turned on her heel and disappeared in the crowd. Upsetting everyone tonight, Jim thought with a pang of regret.
But the hostess returned again with the story-teller hanging precariously onto her arm. Jim automatically reached out to steady the old man, who grasped his hand in surprisingly strong hold.
“You are strangers here,” he spoke quietly. As before, they all leaned into his words.
“I have said that we come from the Sea, but we will not return there. This is our Home.” He pointed at Jim. “The wood, here, the earth underneath. For one to feed on that which gave the people life—it is not done.”
“And if one does?” Spock questioned softly. Jim held his breath, knowing that this Vulcan could not deny his (scientific) curiosity to understand a new culture.
The old man looked at them (sadly, Jim thought). “He is Changed; all Shii’reti will know, will recognize this in him.” The air was grave. “He who feeds on the Sea is no longer a Shii’reti, a -–“ the translator garbled here for a moment before spitting out ”—man; he does not exist to the people of Shii’ret.”
Both Spock’s eyebrows rose at this statement. Jim uttered to himself (and Spock’s hearing), “Old-fashioned persecution. Even here.”
Then he became aware of the group that had gathered around to hear the elder speak. Someone spoke out of the crowd, “That’s them; he was one of them!” Cries of “Yes, the stranger!” “The medicine man who yelled–” “—grabbed my arm—“
But the story-teller never wavered his attention on the two Starfleet officers. “Your third, he knows.”
Jim felt his mouth go dry. “Ah—excuse… Bones? Bones knows?”
“Yes. He knows, he touched One who forsook Home.“ His low tone offered his condolences. “He knows because he is Changed too.”