Every Breath a Kiss

by Natalia Theodoridou in Issue Fifteen, May 2024

He thought drowning would feel blissful. Scary at first, the panic of breathlessness, but then pleasant and mostly serene. He had already decided that, when the time came, he would be eclipsed from this life with a mangled Manfred quote: "It is not so difficult to die, after all."

It was not peaceful.

The salt stung the inside of his torso, his ribs turned to knives that sliced him open. His very blood felt like an attack: an enemy of his own making. He swallowed mouthful after mouthful of seawater. His throat burned, his stomach distended to bursting. The sound of the ocean filled his ears: a beast, roaring with aquatic laughter. Manfred? Who's Manfred?

But then, the strong limbs, the pull, the mouth on his—a kiss and a breath wrapped in one. The glimpse of a golden tail. The wide-set eyes, and the question within them.

He let himself drift into a state viscous and dark, without answering.


He opens his eyes, now, fleeing images that make little sense: blood, blood, and music. Organs in the caves, heartbeats and body-beats, and fins, and fishtails. His body feels spent, his limbs loosened from their sockets. The rock rough under his flesh. A man held together by a wish, or nothing at all.

He's washed up on a rock formation in the quieter part of the bay. The cliff is still visible from here; he looks for a familiar silhouette up there, imagines him searching the waves below for signs of life. There's no one.

The sun beats down on his body. He lowers his gaze.

The creature is half submerged in the water below. Its arms—human, muscled, hairless—wrapped around a rock for purchase, its tail glinting goldly under the surface, disappearing into the depth below.

"Why did you save me?" His voice is cracked, his throat raw.

The creature fixes him with its lidless eyes. Its face so human that it looks almost familiar: the sharp cheekbones, the wide forehead, the tangled hair. Its lips thick, plump. The man traces his own, recalling the feeling of those lips on his mouth, the briny breath deep in his lungs, filling him with life he didn't want.

"Nobody wants to die," the creature replies. Its voice comes as a low rasp, clumsy with lack of use, as if it's unaccustomed to the feeling of air moving through its lungs. It stares at him with its uncanny gaze. "You didn't."

Since he was a boy, in truth. He'd wanted to die since he was a boy. The excuse was different each time, and the reason unknown to him still. "You are mistaken," he says. He pushes himself up from the rock and the creature tenses; afraid, perhaps, that he might throw himself into the waves again and all its efforts will have been wasted. But he doesn't. He simply rests his head in his palms, fleeing the relentless light of the sun. It still worms its glare between his fingers and stings his eyes. He lets his hands fall to his lap.

"Fine, then," the creature says. A smile, quick and strange, passes over its face. "Try again. I won't stop you this time." It pauses. "I apologize," it says then, "for the kiss." It slips whole into the sea, and is gone.


He stays on his rock until night falls, looking at the wide expanse of water around him, the dark mirror of the sky. He should be dead. He lies down and lets the hardness of the rock dig into his back. He shivers in his thin shirt and, in a haze, remembers losing his waistcoat to the waves. Counts the flickering stars.

A glint in the dark catches his eye, a splash out of place. Upright again, he turns. The creature looks up at him from the water, hair plastered to its skull, dark with wet. Again it doesn't ask its question, but he answers it anyway.

"A man can be too tired to try again."

The creature hoists itself out of the water and onto the rock below with the strength of its arms and a fierce swing of its tail. He can see all of it now: the gilled neck, the long-nailed fingers, the strong, naked torso fading into a tail scaled gold and green. It hands him a bundle of pale meat wrapped in seaweed. "Eat," the creature says.

He takes it, and that seems to satisfy his peculiar benefactor. He's surprised to find the meat inside is cooked. It's delicate and filling, if slightly too salty. "What should I call you?" he asks, chewing.

The mer creature offers him a flask of sweet water.

"Fen," it says. "My name is Fen. I am male."

He steals another glance at the creature. "Lazlo," he replies. He consumes the meat in small bites and then proceeds to eat the seaweed wrapper. The taste reminds him of the way his lungs hurt when they were full of the sea. It makes him gag, but he swallows down the nausea and finishes it nonetheless. "You shouldn't have stopped me. You had no right." Something like anger bursts through his navel and up towards his sternum. Something like gratitude, too.

Fen climbs to the top of the rock, no part of him left in the water now. He looks out of place, but not vulnerable. He sits next to Lazlo, his body glistening in the light of the stars.

Lazlo pulls back as Fen puts a daring palm on his chest, planting in him a quavering he cannot control.

"I heard your heart's call," Fen says. "It was not the call of a heart that wishes for death."

The gall. To speak such words without permission, no matter how true. "What do you know of my heart?" Lazlo snaps.

That smile again, that flash—there one moment and then gone again. "My home is the Drowned Man's Bay, after all," the merman says. "People jump to their deaths all the time here."

And then Fen's arm is around Lazlo's neck. A thrash, a push—and they're falling.

The water closes blackly around them. Fen's grip is like a vice on Lazlo's wrist, and the mighty flapping of his tail leads them to the deep, where little light penetrates. Lazlo fights and shouts, abandoning what precious air is still in him. Fen faces him then, something astonished in his round eyes. He stops, draws Lazlo in. Their heads level, he waits for the man to calm down. Then, he nods, and Lazlo nods back. The merman takes the back of Lazlo's head gently in his palm and reaches for him until their mouths meet. Then, air floods Lazlo's lungs, rich in oxygen, as if freshly plucked from the sky above, and sweet. A kiss, and not.

Lazlo holds Fen's breath inside and lets the merman guide him home.

Soon, the cold, dark depth erupts in a knot of scales glistening gold and silver and green. Then arms and hair and faces. Merfolk greet their brother with a kiss on each of his eyes, and Fen reciprocates the love. Others hold gently onto Lazlo, pulling him deeper still, laughing after every breath they kiss into him, their sharp teeth thin and shiny like needles. They lead him to a cave under a giant slab of rock.

It's half-dark in the grotto that is Fen's home, but there is a large bed grown with algae, and they deposit Lazlo on it to rest. It is not deep enough for the pressure to crush him, though he does feel it in his ears. Fen makes sure he never starves for air. The other merfolk gather around them, and curious fish do too, pecking at the merfolk's hair and cleaning their skin where it pimples in the cold. Lazlo settles into the lulling rhythm of his breath-kisses and looks around him through the stinging salt; the leviathan of the sea, a burnished mural on the cave wall, watches over them all. It makes him feel small, this gathering, like a speck in a world of gods.

He drifts into sleep.

He dreams of lips and exhalations, of hands and arms, of a thousand thousand names and faces, of oceans and seas, and drowned men breathing their hearts' desperate call into the dark.

He wakes with Fen's kiss in his lungs, warm and salty. Lazlo shivers in the merman's embrace and, in return, Fen holds him tighter. Lazlo reaches to kiss him back, the stolen breaths not stolen at all.


He doesn't know how long he stays in the grotto with Fen and the other merfolk. Faint light reaches into the cave with the pace of a slow lighthouse. He sleeps, and wakes, and sleeps again. Fen teaches him about the sea, its songs and storms, its harsh embraces. Lazlo considers how much his life has changed, and how little: he was a man of leisure before, with nothing to show for his existence but his devotion to the one he loved. And now?

Somewhere along the way, he realizes he has chosen to stay. His cravat floats in tatters, like a strange, pale eel coiled around his neck.

Other merfolk take Fen's place when he needs to go away to feed, and Lazlo misses him with a pain in the centre of his chest. They teach him how to let the tiny fish nibble his hair and scour his skin clean. They teach him to swim like they do, with his eyes open and his hands at his hips, lace cuffs swaying behind him, and how to tell apart the dreams of salt from the dreams of the land.

When Fen comes back, he carries with him delicacies and gifts—the sea urchins' orange flesh that he scoops out with his fingers and drops into Lazlo's mouth, bite by bite, or dead shells he places on Lazlo's ears to teach him how to listen to the call of the sea. Lazlo accepts the food and the gifts with grace but then presses his ear against Fen's chest instead. There's one call he's more interested in learning.

He comes to the surface for breath now and then, and Lazlo relishes the opportunity to share a few spoken words with Fen more than the freshness of the breath. They discuss the stories sailors tell of merfolk when they sojourn on land—the lure of their songs, their empty promises, the death of their embrace. False, mostly, Fen says, and Lazlo laughs. The sound comes strange to his ears. More and more, the air seems too coarse up here, too hot, and his skin feels like parchment that might burn under the sun.

Eventually, they venture out beyond the bay together, past the shallows, where the currents are so much colder and where giant jellyfish roam. They watch the ships traverse the horizon and listen to the sailors' clipped calls, then dive to pick through the traces of their passage: pieces of mirror, a chest of cloth, chipped china cups. Lazlo remembers the long afternoons he used to spend having tea, listening to the distant rumbling of the sky and his lover's talk of business ventures. He thinks of his return home, then, but every time the idea seems more and more far-fetched.

He loses his cravat.


One day, while resting on the rock where they exchanged their first words, Lazlo gazes towards the cliff that looms over Drowned Man's Bay, and sees the dark figure of a man scouring the sea for signs of life.

He gasps despite himself.

"What is it?" Fen asks with his land lilt, and follows Lazlo's eyes to the cliff. "Who is he?"

He recognizes the love of his dry land life: the delicate shoulders, the strong posture, the expensive clothes.

But who is he? Some stranger, he thinks, looking for someone else.

Still, he delays. Reaches for Fen and draws him close, steals the breath from his mouth without needing to. Fen smiles and licks his lips with his small, rough tongue, but the question remains.

Lazlo looks away, at the sea. The waves, the mourning gulls above.

The merman lies on the rock, drawing Lazlo gently down with him. His kiss is slow now, lingering. Lazlo savours it.

But then Fen glances at the figure on the cliff again. "Will you tell me now?" he asks in his drowned voice.

Lazlo avoids the merman's gaze. The sun casts diamonds on the waves, the rest of the world lost in the glare. The breeze bears the tang of open water, and of rain-drenched stone far away. "We loved each other. Being apart—for whatever reason—was nothing short of agony. Then he decided to get married to the daughter of a well-off family." He pauses, swallows, the air like gravel in his throat. "Perhaps I wanted to hurt him." He runs his fingers through Fen's hair. It's drying in the sun, the crust of salt turning it to rope. "A silly thing to do."

Fen jumps off the rock to briefly wet his tail. When he returns, he lies on his side next to Lazlo. He traces the length of Lazlo's torso from the base of his neck to his crotch with a long-nailed finger.

"And you?" Lazlo asks. He owes an explanation, too. "You don't go around saving every fool who jumps off that cliff. Why me?"

Then Fen tells him the story of the sailor boy thrown overboard by his shipmates, long ago. How he fought in the waves, how desperately he wanted to live.

"The call of your heart reminded me of that boy's," Fen says. "I'd give anything to hear it again." He places a kiss on Lazlo's bellybutton. "To keep hearing it."

Lazlo allows himself to shiver. "What happened to him?" he asks.

And Fen tells him.

Some time passes in silence.

"What do merfolk do when they wish to die?" Lazlo asks then.

"When merfolk wish for death, the call of the sea turns to lead in their heart and drags them to the deep," Fen explains.

As he listens, Lazlo thinks he should be dead. And yet, there's the memory of Fen's mouth between his legs. All the water in the world cannot wash his smell from Lazlo's nostrils, his taste from Lazlo's throat. And the long nights, hour after hour of Fen's hands on him and in him.

"Take me under again," he says.


They grow a habit of swimming around the grotto in the middle of the night, when the moon shines down through the water, vividly green. Lazlo looks up and stares at the shadow of the island hanging over him, the rocks and the trees waving in the heights. It comforts him to see the old world, the familiar world, filtered through this liquid lens. Fen's arm always around his neck. He turns to face him, heart beating against chest. His eyes, he thinks fondly, are as golden as his tail.


It happens at a time when Lazlo thinks they've never been closer. He feels happy, and then immediately inadequate, unworthy. He reasons: What did he ever do for Fen? All he ever did was give up air when he had already given up air. His skin grows hot, the blood racing through his veins. He pushes his lover away, rushes out of the cave, and up, towards the waves and the light. He swims until his muscles tremble in the current and his skin goes numb with cold. If Fen follows him, he does not hear him. He can't hear anything above the ruckus of waves against his ears and the throbbing of his blood in his temples.

Then he sees it: a giant jellyfish moving in his direction, its tentacles iridescent with venom. It reaches for him with its terrible harpoons, and he doesn't immediately shy away, though his heart beats furiously in his chest, nothing like lead. He looks at the jellyfish, and it feels to him like a test. The question returns to him: How much has he changed, and how little?

He shivers in his indecision, and his body decides for him, despite him, set in its old, drowning ways. His hand thrusts out to touch the deadly flesh. He imagines it, then, as panic blooms in his belly: the sharp, brief pain, the quiet spreading like oil.

But another hand reaches for him. Fen wrenches him out of the jellyfish's way and down to the depths again. Lazlo's eyes prickle, his tongue weighs a ton, sluggish with the residue of his melancholy, but also tingly with something else, something new and unknown to him. They reach the cave. Sorry, he wants to say, so sorry, I must be broken somehow, but a wave of desire swallows him instead, and he rolls Fen onto his back. He demands his breath and finds it rich with the scent of the ocean. His mind empties, no words are spoken and no other thoughts formed, except the knowledge of who he is, now: Lazlo, the twice-saved.


He spends even less time above water after that. The figure on the cliff—whoever he is—becomes scarcer and scarcer, until he disappears, or until Lazlo himself forgets to look for him when he goes up for breath.

His muscles fill in, his body grows accustomed to the constant swimming and his lungs fond of the kissing breaths. Living becomes easier, and, because of that, he feels light—or, perhaps, it's the other way around.

Fen helps him venture further and further away from their reef home, even into the wide ocean, beyond where the giant jellyfish roam. He enjoys the coolness of the water on his skin, the way it makes him feel: alive, awake, a harsh joy without memory bursting in his stomach. He catches himself thinking thoughts like this: if I were a seabird, I would croak my call from the highest cliff I could find. And if I were an oyster, I would let the ocean stream through me and my joy would make of dirt a tiny, perfect pearl.

Sometimes he forgets, tries to speak to Fen aloud when they're out at sea, only to have the words stuck in his chest, drowning him. "I love you" are the choking words, and he already knows what Fen will say: "What good is love, if we're living? What use are your lovewords to me, if I can put my ear to the call of the beating heart in your chest? Love is not the reason to live; life is."


Waking up with Fen's body in his arms is like coming up for breath. It doesn't matter where they are; but, tonight, they are on the rock where they first met. Lazlo's skin is grainy with salt, the merman's tail twined around his legs. The moon lingers in the sky above, watching them as they lounge together in the night air. Fen slips into the water, unafraid of leaving him alone anymore. Tells him, "I won't be long." He'll catch fish for them both, bring it back wrapped in seaweed like that very first time.

In the quiet, Lazlo looks up at the cliff face towering over the Bay. He sees the shapes of trees he can no longer name, clouds drifting in invisible currents, night birds swimming across the surface of the sky.

A splash far off brings his attention back to the sea. Something fell. Lazlo's body tenses, reaches for the sound with a leap into the cold. He swims towards the thrashing body, the gasping, open mouth, the churning waves, until his arm is around the young man's waist, his hand grasping the man's hair to keep his head above water. He pulls him without thinking, his muscles doing what they know to do until they're both splayed on the rock, gasping.

The rescued man coughs, spits salt water onto the rocks, retches. Then, he turns to Lazlo and recoils.

Lazlo imagines what he must look like to this man: lips cracked by the salty habit of the sea. Hair braided with seaweed and coral. A face too hollowed-out to be human. Slowly, Lazlo reaches out a hand, strokes the man's sun-kissed skin.

The man flinches. "You can't save me!" he shouts. Pleads. He moves to throw himself from the rock again.

"Wait," Lazlo begs, an abyss yawning open in the pit of his stomach. "Please." A word he was taught underwater, breath after breath. "I have something to give you."

Lazlo struggles to his knees and reaches for the man again, breath saved in his lungs. A gift for this sad youth who—he understands—only tried to drown because he wanted so desperately to live. He takes a moment to look at him, to take in his beauty: the dark eyes rimmed with red, the white teeth, the curls cascading down to his delicate clavicles.

"Why did you have to save me?" the man asks, cries.

"It is not so difficult to die," Lazlo replies.

He draws the man to him as he lets his body slip into the sea. Their lips meet. Then the water closes above them, briny as a kiss.

© 2024 Natalia Theodoridou

Natalia Theodoridou

Natalia Theodoridou has published over a hundred short stories, most of them dark and queer, in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and F&SF, among others. He won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction and has been a finalist for the Nebula Award in the Novelette and Game Writing categories. Natalia was born in Greece, with roots in Georgia, Russia, and Turkey. His debut novel, Sour Cherry is coming in April 2025. Find out more at

Fiction by Natalia Theodoridou
  • Every Breath a Kiss