The Little Merman
On its surface the ocean is featureless, a bland blue mirror for a placid sky or a raging palette of angry grays and blacks to match the thunderheads that stir up mighty storms. Clumps of stray weeds bob on the surface here and there like floating oases, and an occasional seabird rests before continuing its never-ending fishing. That is all.
Below that surface, however, is a world of wonders beyond the most amazing sights on land -- jungles of tall kelp in which lurk beasts more bloodthirsty and terrifying than tigers or hyenas, vast plains of teeming life to shame the mighty Serengeti, and roving giants that dwarf elephants. Here, too, are living things in all colors of the rainbow, and creatures that live in places so dark they have no color at all, and flora and fauna quicker to change color than the chameleon.
Just as the world above water is ruled by the humans, so is the world below water ruled by the mer. As quick and sly as their evolutionary cousins the dolphins, capable of wisdom and intelli- gence, merkind has adapted to its world just as mankind has adapted from its original ape-like forms in prehistoric times.
And until a certain incident happened, a long time ago, no human and no mer had ever met face to face...
Until his tenth year, Ray was as carefree as was any mer-calf that still lived in his mother's pod. He spent his days playing with his uncles and siblings, swarm-feeding on schools of silvertails, racing dolphins and taunting the sharks just for the fun of a dangerous chase.
Ray's mother, Sei, loved all her calves with the indiscriminate love of the matriarch of any large pod. But Ray began to puzzle, and then to worry her. Ten cycles was the time of late adolescence, deep into the time when a mer began the journey into adulthood more fraught with peril than any calves' game of shark- chase. Four of Ray's older siblings had already left the pod to find a whale and spend a cycle of seasons exchanging songs. Whales' memories were linked from pod to pod, held in the cells from generation to generation; "To speak to one whale is to speak to all the sea that ever was," the mer said. Mer emerged at the year's end learned adults; they then scattered to far parts of the vast sea to find other mer, mate with them, and produce their own calves in those other pods.
Yet Ray showed no signs of leaving his mother's pod. A good scolding or even a blow from Sei's immense tail would shock the wild-tempered boy from his calf mindset, the matriarch thought.
But when she approached her son on the beginning day of his tenth cycle and found him curled at the ocean floor, yet again pushing his empty shells around on the smooth sand in imitation of the humans' wooden ships, those mysterious wooden shells upon which they travelled and hunted, throwing oval shadows through the undersea world.
Sei felt anger fill her. An adolescent who still played with shells and dreamed of the fierce humans above the surface was a danger to the pod. "Son of mine, your attention," Sei ordered, her voice the imperious squeal used only by the matriarch.
Ray knew that tone well; it meant scolding and discipline. Sullenly he lifted his head and met her large dark eyes with his own sea-green ones, darting to her side with a few strokes of his dappled kelp-red flukes.
Sei flipped her orca-black tail once, and the eddying water and swirling sand swept Ray's shell-ships aside, half-burying them in the backwash. "The time is long past for calves' games and calves' stories for you," she boomed. "It is now your time for whale songs and whale stories. Why do you deny yourself the learning that is your right as an adolescent?"
"I don't know!" Ray growled, displaying the temper that had given him the name he shared with the stinging devilfish. He darted once around Sei, twice, three times in the space of a breath, and faced her again, head lowered in an aggressive butting stance. "I don't know and I want to be left alone!"
Sei had seen too many children through this murky time to be impressed by this show of rebellion. "A calf taunts the matriarch," she said, her bubbling tone mild reproof, "knowing she cannot give chase. A calf butts and flees. An adult listens and thinks before speaking or acting."
Sullenly, Ray stayed where he was, but he lifted his head in the stance of attention.
"You are not a calf any more, Ray. It is time when you must leave us for the whale-road. It is frightening and painful to change, but the only alternative is death." Sei's words were solemn squeals. Her use of his name rather than "son" or "child," addressing him merely as a fellow member of her pod and not as her calf, was deliberate. She could not allow Ray to remain in the pod any more.
Mating-time was upon the adults. Sei was coming into estrus, as she did every other cycle, and her mood was spreading among the adult males of the pod. Soon, leaving a proud and responsible girl in charge of the other children as "mating-time matriarch," Sei would lead the bulls in a wild chase through the ocean. They would eventually surround her, and pounce and couple and share her in a frenzy which would last for days. The adults eventually returned to the children's pod gaunt and exhausted from mating and lack of sleep and food during the wild time, and the excited children would crowd around their weary, pleased mother to sing the welcoming-song against her belly to their newly-conceived sibling.
It was dangerous for mer to stay in their parents' pods into maturity -- mating frenzy spared no adult and made no distinction among family members. The matriarch would mate with her own adult sons, fathers with their adult daughters, brothers with sisters; the resulting offspring were horrors left to the sharks. Too many warning stories told of pods shattered from such destructive behavior.
Ray hovered where he was, his stomach turning wildly in fear of the unknown and in anger and rebellion. He knew his mother had not used the word "death" lightly or in exaggeration. To preserve the strength of the whole pod, Sei would not hesitate to drive out a sulky adolescent -- and, if that failed, she would have no recourse but to butt him in the sides hard enough to crush his lungs and kill him, rather than risk calving by her own son.
"Ships are put away with childhood, Ray. Put them away. Go find a whale and become an adult. Find your own pod. Swim with your friends and take turns catching and mating the matriarch." Her voice lowered to a gentle, kindly bubbling. "Then remember the stories you loved so, and tell your own calves about the humans, as Mako told you."
Ray listened as his mother's words put his childhood in the past tense. He looked at the overturned, half-buried shells embedded in the swirling sands. His mind was in turmoil. He knew she was right. But he didn't want to find a whale. He didn't know what he wanted. He'd caught the current of excitement and anticipation among his uncles -- one of whom was his actual sire. He'd known of the danger. Yet he felt nothing at the sight of his mother -- no desire to chase and catch her, as any adolescent or adult bull would who sensed her estrus.
Ray had played chase-games with his younger brothers, Limpet and Wrasse; they'd romped and butted each other's sides and teased enraged sharks away from each other. As all calves did, they'd played at mating, each taking turns being matriarch for a wild version of tag through the water. But recently Ray had felt a strange yearning in his belly when he curved over Limpet or felt Wrasse's flukes playfully thumping his genital slit. That same yearning had ambushed him when he looked at the long swell of Mako's bull-hump, or saw the powerful grace waving through old Coral's big shark-bitten flukes...
Was that the excitement his uncles felt, or something different? Did bulls respond to bulls first, and then cows? None of the other calves knew, and Ray had been too moody to question the adults. But now he had to leave them all; now it was too late.
At a warning squeal from Sei, he turned away, sullenly flipped his flukes and darted away from his mother, heading straight out into the murky green that matched his eyes. Dark heavy shapes flitted and swirled over and behind him -- his siblings and uncles, booming and chuckling and bubbling their farewells to him. But the adults were all too excited about Sei's upcoming mating time to take overlong about it -- not even Mako, his favorite uncle, who had poured his stories into Ray's delighted ears from the very first, had time for more than a quick "Luck and speed, and stay far below!"
Angry at the seemingly callous rejection, Ray darted away from them all, and soon he was alone knifing through the water, snatching startled silvertails and squid as he tore through their schools. He knew he would never see any of them again.
He knew he was following no whale-road as yet, was only darting through the water that started to echo his mood, roiling and rocking, becoming murky with sand and weed. When he was far enough away, he would think of what he would do next.
Humans had always been so much more than calf-stories to him! Mer-shaped from the waist up but with two jointed crab-legs from the waist down instead of a mer's smooth dappled flanks and flukes, who breathed air like the dolphins and could live above water like the birds, as fierce and deadly as the great sharks, predators that threw their teeth at their prey to catch them -- young Ray had never tired of Mako's stories about those marvellous monsters. Mako had once seen a drowned human, and the details he remembered had made the stories seem so real -- as if there was a whole way of life up on the barren lands, as if humans lived in another civilized world above, among the primitive beasts that dwelt in the life-choking air.
As the water roiled and heaved sullenly, a wild, disreputable thought filled Ray. Why not go to the surface the next time a ship came by? Why not go and see a living human for himself?
That was a deadly thought, an adolescent thought. Only a whale or two, and an occasional silly fish had ever escaped from living humans. Those who got too near the ships died from the long teeth flung at the humans' prey; few escaped the teeth, or the giant sea-spider webs the air-breathing sharks used to catch their food. It was a rare whale who did not carry the bite-marks of humans down its back along with shark-bites on fins and flukes. In addition to all that, there was the simple fact that mer could breathe air no more than humans could breathe water.
Ray grinned. Calves were forbidden to go to the surface -- but Sei had just told him he wasn't a calf any more. He was one of the fastest of Sei's pod; surely he could elude the humans if they scented him.
It was dangerous. That made it all the more exciting.
And if he wasn't smart enough to stay alive...well, then he wouldn't deserve to live, would he, to mate and make stupid calves?
He swam through the sullen rocking water, keeping his eyes open for falling shadows. Finally, when he was dangerously near the shore, he saw the trademark oval shadow of a ship -- a big one, bigger than most of the ones mer usually saw. Dark shadows fell across the water, cut by swirling water turning cold with an approaching storm above. Ray grinned as he darted straight up in the midst of the shadow, buffeted side to side by the agitated sea. He liked storms; they were such fun to swim through. As he reached the surface he breathed deep before broaching the surface -- and breaking the most important rule the mer lived by.
The sky almost made him gasp and expel all the water in his lungs at once. It was big -- so much bigger than the round disc of sky that showed from below. It stretched beyond a place where Ray could see below, and farther than that. So far, and so clear! It was puffed like disturbed clouds of sand, full of flat colors and heavy with rain.
But the ship stunned his mind into numb silence. Easily the size of a blue whale, it had great white billowing fins that caught the chilling air-eddies that heaved and whirled harder and faster than even a stormy sea. Long strands of webbing hung all over it, and a long sharp horn jutted from the front. It was a deadly-looking thing.
And there were humans on it! They did move like crabs, and were all colors like so many different fish! There was too much to see, too much for him to understand.
His lungs ached for water, his skin grew cold in the air, till a great wave slapped him in the face, forcing him to breathe and take down the good warm water. Then another wave, harder, knocking him all the way under and tossing him up again. He plunged deep, laughing exuberantly -- a storm was even more fun on the surface than below!
He flew straight out of the water as if breaching, and saw that the ship was doing the same thing! It was bobbing down deep, rising high up, on the fierce waves. White flashes cracked across the sky; the sky-clouds were now black and boomed like angry whales. Rain fell fast and cold; air-swirls whipped the warmth from Ray's skin. He never noticed it; he was rapt, watching the humans, diving only long enough to pump water through his lungs. He listened as the ship groaned and squealed, singing in an unknown language as it dove up and down in the waves. The ships' fins whistled and puffed out fatly in the air-eddies.
The humans were making funny seal-barking noises and moving faster around the ship; scuttling along the big fins, hanging on to the webs. They looked as if they were having such fun on that great wooden ship; Ray almost wished he could join them. Storms drowned humans, but they kept coming out in their ships to hunt despite the danger. The merman laughed out loud, merry in a way he had not been in a time. Humans were just like Ray and his siblings, taunting sharks for the fun of the danger of being eaten.
There was one human all of them seemed to be connected to. That human stood near the ship's horn, and seemed to be directing the rest of the human-pod's activities as they ran and climbed the air on the webs. This human had a deep blue hide and its voice was a loud boom; it must be their matriarch. Was she directing a hunt, or chiding them for their fear? Had she seen Ray, and was she ordering the other humans to throw their teeth at him?
No; no, it was the violent storm that worried them, not catching prey. Ray stared in delight as the humans pulled the fat white fins down into the belly of the ship, leaving only great bare wooden dorsal spines; it immediately slowed down. Why, the ship was like a great toy animal they played with, a toy so much bigger than any of them, and they all worked together to make it move like an animal! They were trying to make it go toward the long arcing curve of the harbor between the jagged cliffs, perhaps to make it go ashore there. Ray stayed out of the water to watch, not wanting to miss seeing that.
The rocking waves and wild air pulled the ship around, listing it hard to one side. The matriarch boomed and roared, clinging to a round coral-like growth jutting from the ship; Ray did not know what she was doing, for mer did not use wheels. But the ship righted itself and moved gracefully as it could through the pitching waves, moving in rhythm with the waves and the air.
Ray watched all this, light-headed from oxygen deprivation; only the occasional slap of fresh water against his face reminded him to breathe. Such control of such a whale-sized thing, residing in that little matriarch! For little the human was; surely no longer than Ray from head to flukes. Sei would have considered her a girl, able enough for "mating-time matriarch" duties but surely not grown enough for mating. But all the other humans in her pod were that same size, or smaller. She was surely their leader. What fierce courage. What ability to control and command the bulls...
Ray stared at the blue-skinned human matriarch, twirling the wheel and booming in human speech as the ship pulled through, diving and ducking through the waves to make its way through the storm. A twinge of the yearning ache echoed within him again, strong, real --
A loud crashing, splintering noise startled the merman into submerging into the peaceful warmth of the water. Violent waves of water slapped Ray in counterpart to the storm's agitation, turning him over in the water. He darted toward the sound that had come from the ship, moving automatically in, out and through the shoals of jagged rock that bordered the cliffs. Bits of wood and other heavy stuff brushed and caught at Ray just before the shattered hull of the ship loomed before him.
The storm had done what storms often did with humans and ships. The ship had become a wreck, another sunken destroyed piece of wood. And with wrecks came...
For just a moment, Ray felt excitement at the thought of seeing actual drowned humans. Until he remembered that he'd already had the treat of seeing them alive, especially their cool-headed matriarch who'd ordered her pod with such authority.
Ray breached the surface to noise and screams. The humans on the tilting ship were scattering, the way yellowtails did when mer dove through their school. But there was the matriarch moving among them, booming and roaring her presence to calm and control her panicked pod, as small and brave as a fierce dolphin.
Finally Ray saw that they were lowering smaller ships into the rocking water, ships no more complicated than Ray's shells, full of humans from the big ship. Once in the water, the ships full of humans set out for the beach, waving two stiff fins to propel themselves to shore. More boats left, full of humans.
And as the last ship lowered and set out for the shore, Ray darted from boat to boat, looking for the matriarch -- but she was nowhere to be found. A speedy return to the whale-sized ship told the tale. One little ship had been splintered beyond use, the one the matriarch would have used. And like a moray herding her brood into a cave and blocking the entrance with her body, the human matriarch had sent her pod to safety and remained behind to face death herself.
She was clinging to the round coral-growth as fierce air rocked the ship on the reefs and buffeted her this way and that. Waves battered the shattered hull, driving it further onto the rocks. The great spines that bore the white billowing fins screeched and cracked.
So small, so fiercely brave. Humans killed and ate from the sea as wantonly as did the stupid sharks, but they had the souls of mer. Ray wished, impossibly, that he could have gotten to know the human matriarch. Ah, if only --
The wooden fin-spine cracked and screamed, driving down upon the ship and smashing it in two upon the rocks. Ray had to dive down deep, side-swiping the reefs, to avoid the blow from the great chunk of wood. He started toward the surface, making his way through the debris of the ship. He bumped against something soft and cold.
And a flash of light from outside lit up blue eyes not an arm's length away from Ray's eyes.
Ray started, stared, taking in what was before him; the human, tangled in the ship's webs, still clinging fast to the round wooden growth, sinking through the water. Air escaped its nostrils and mouth in great silver bubbles.
But it had stared at Ray. It was alive.
It was a human. An enemy, not to be approached, ever.
She had saved her pod. Let her die as she had planned.
A human had seen him. The human would have to drown now...
With a fierce swipe of his flukes, Ray darted to the human's side. His arms wound around the creature's waist, just at the place where the swelling of the back and flukes should begin, and he heaved upward, flipping his tail with all his stubborn and savage strength.
The human would not dislodge from the growth -- the webbing bound it tightly to the round piece of wood. Ray set his sharp mer's teeth to the cord, squeaking in anger as he broke a tooth on the wood in his haste to chew the human free before it breathed water and died.
Kelp was harder to chew through than this human-web, weakened by water. As the human came loose, Ray propelled both of them to the surface, and held the human's face above water. But it would not breathe.
As Ray had not breathed until the wave had...
Ray slapped the human's face hard with the flat of his hand. It jerked, gasped, then coughed and expelled water from its mouth. It breathed, and went limp against Ray.
To the shore...
Holding the exhausted matriarch firmly just above the place where the awkward crab-legs branched off from the middle, Ray stayed just below water to breathe and avoid being seen, and swam the two of them toward the shore, faster and more easily than any of the clumsy little ships were capable of doing.
Shores were deadly places for sea-folk like the mer and whales. Their own weight crushed their lungs in the thin miserly air that would not buoy them as the water would. But Ray was a mer; he was not afraid of dying.
He flopped through the scouring sand, the matriarch-human now draped over his back and adding to the cruel weight. He gasped one last rich intake of water to his lungs, and flopped up the shore, releasing the human and rolling it onto its back so that its face would stay above the water. More light flashed in the sky, accompanied by sky-rumbling. Curious, Ray stroked one hand against the wet blue skin of the human, and felt it shift beneath his hand like sloughing scales.
And the eyes of the human opened again, looking right at Ray's face. Not flat stupid shark's eyes, not sly dolphin's eyes. Soul-deep mer's eyes, eyes as blue as its skin, gazed out from that human's beautiful face.
Ray stared back, unmoving, as if truly caught in a human web.
The human's mouth stretched to show a fine row of blunt flat teeth. Ray made the same gesture to show that he did not intend to bite the human either, feeling elation swell within him -- humans knew what a smile meant! The human matriarch stared, eyes round; Ray's thin pointed rows of serrated mer's teeth were very different from flat human teeth. There was so much to learn about each other...
White lights flashed in Ray's head as tons of stone crushed him against the harsh sand. No. It was only oxygen deprivation and the cruel weight of air on his back. He had to get back to the water.
Ray pushed at the heavy ground with his arms, flopping away from the blinking, staring human who was still too tired to move or lift her head. He heaved and rolled and twisted back into the shallows for a few grateful breaths before mustering strength enough to push back into the deeper water. Finally he managed to get far enough away, under cover of the heavy rain and chilling air, and waited until he saw humans from one of the first little ships find their matriarch and lift her away to safety.
Ray spiralled all the way down to the bottom of the reef and curled up in a pocket of stone to doze. His mind was in a greater state of distress and turmoil than his body.
"Captain! Captain Phillip, thank God you're alive!" the bosun exclaimed, supporting the groggy man by one arm; the first mate did the same service on the other side. "Ah, God, when the mast came down I thought you'd been sent below for sure. 'Twas a fool's thing to do, swimming these rocks on such a night, but you've done it!"
The captain stared out at the frothing sea, heedless of the rain pelting down on him. "I'd lashed myself to the wheel," he murmured. "A boy saved me. A beautiful boy rose from the sea riding a dolphin..."
The mate exchanged a worried look with the bosun and rested a hand on the captain's forehead. "Just a trick of the water and the night, Captain Phillip. There's dolphins everywhere, sure enough, friendly as monkeys; heard stories of 'em pushing sailors to safety meself. That's all it was. Now let's go find a tavern; we all need a good meal and a hot toddy after what we've been through."
Captain Phillip nodded absently. And as his men supported him away from the beach and toward the bright lights of the harbor, his clenched right fist tightened even more; the broken tooth he was clutching dug into his hand.
Ray swam around the area for many days, risking trips to the surface to look for the blue-skinned human. But it wasn't enough; not as the days passed and the ships moved in and out of harbor and Ray did not see him.
Ray began to suffer from a strange illness that had overtaken him. He no longer thought to eat. He did not sleep very much.
He had to find that human again. He had to.
There was an answer, and only one. It frightened him.
But he caught a big sea-turtle, and made his way to Cowrie's grotto bearing his present.
The Sea Witch was not to be approached lightly with any request for his powerful magic. Old Cowrie had lived till he was as wizened as the mouth of the shell for which he was named; had only grown stronger with age, not weaker. The Sea Witch was the last of a proto-mer race; a race that remembered when sharks were the new creatures in the sea.
Cowrie could speak to any creature above or below the water, and was notorious for his temper at receiving an improper request. He knew everything that went on below, and many things that transpired above. But Cowrie was no whale to teach mer; vast and solitary, he shunned all company save his own.
But Ray was nothing if not stubborn. He would not let his fear tell him his business.
He went to the grotto where Cowrie lived, keeping a firm grip on the shell as the turtle flapped and snapped its beak. "I have a turtle for you," he called into the great echoing reefs of rock, as carelessly as possible. It was how one requested help of Cowrie; those who demanded the old one's appearance would be left waiting for a full year. He waited, switching his tail impatiently, busying himself by keeping a hold on the flapping turtle.
Long minutes later a great dark shadow loomed over Ray as the immense proto-mer emerged from his cave. Long-tailed, ancient of form and big as an orca, the Sea Witch twirled his four spade- fins to turn a piercing blue gaze upon the little merman. "Well, young Ray," Cowrie hissed in the strange lake-dialect of his birthplace. "Out with it!"
Ray was not surprised that the Sea Witch knew his name. And for all his temper and fierceness, he was cowed into fear by the simple presence of the old one. "I -- I have a sickness, Cowrie, that requires your aid," he stammered. He already knew that he would have to begin with the beginning. "I have...I have been to the surface."
He waited for roaring wrath to fall on his head for this deadly breach. But Cowrie said nothing; his face did not change.
"I saw living humans on a ship. They have not seen me."
Now the harder part of it. "Their ship was destroyed in a wreck. I... I saved their matriarch from drowning. I pulled her to shore." The breaking of the most important law of the mer.
Cowrie kept his piercing blue eyes on Ray. "You saved the life of the captain of their ship." The strange word snapped out of his mouth.
Ray remembered that some of the humans had made that noise when they spoke to the matriarch. Cowrie knew the names of humans as well as mer? "Captain? That is her name?"
"That is the human male who controls the ship."
It was as if Ray had been butted in the gills. "Male? A male, leading a pod?" he said feebly.
"Humans are not mer," Cowrie snapped. "Only the males go out on ships to hunt the seas. One male is chosen as hunt leader. He is called the captain."
Ray sank down into the sand, his flukes flapping, mind blank with shock. He'd responded to the human as any adult male should respond to a matriarch -- and now this... It was Wrasse's and Limpet's games all over again. It was his strangeness again.
"Continue," was the only word Cowrie spoke, after a chilling silence. "What happened after you saved the human, laddie?"
They'd looked each other in the eye. They'd smiled...
"Cowrie, I..." Now the worst of it rose up, and Ray made the words come out in a rush. "I am not like other bulls! At play- mating, I felt hunger when my brothers mounted me or I them. I felt nothing when I saw my mother Sei. Now, now it is worse! I saw this human, this air-breather, I saved her, his life because she, he was so brave and I could not bear to think of him drowned and eaten by sharks, and now --" Ray made himself look at Cowrie's face. "Now, I feel mating-hunger for a human male!"
Cowrie's face was turned in. Ray was seized with terror. Was the Sea Witch contemplating the proper way to destroy such a dangerous mer?
"You wish to mate with the human male?" No inflection.
"I...I don't know!" Ray swam in tight circles. "I, I want to be close to him, part of him, making new life with him..." How foolish and insane that sounded! "But, but I also want to bump against him and go shark-teasing with him, as if he was my brother or my uncle. I want to ask questions about humans, and I want to tell him all about my life! I want him to like me. I want to see what he sees, know what he knows, and it has nothing to do with mating-hunger -- Cowrie, do you see how sick I am? Can you help me?"
Cowrie did not move, save for a slight movement of his great spade-shaped fins to keep himself immobile. He did not speak for a long time. When he finally did, it was to say one word. "Love."
Ray stared at the old proto-mer. "Is that another human word? Is love the name of the sickness I have? Can it be cured?"
The old proto-mer stared at the young merman; Ray could not read the language of that piercing gaze. "You already know that it would have been better to let the human drown. Would they hesitate to kill you if they found you helpless on the beach?"
He would have hesitated, Ray thought fiercely, remembering the look in the human's eyes. But aloud he said only, "Cowrie, what can I do? I want to see more of the human! I want to be where he is and see how he lives!"
"My advice, young Ray..." And with a whirl, the turtle was snatched from Ray's hands. It flapped and struggled once, before Cowrie snapped off its head and began chewing as the blood cloud- ed around him. "...is for you to go find a whale and complete your education. Forget you ever saw the humans; put it down to fever dreams or a poison fish you ate. Live as a mer lives. Be happy." He continued the perusal of his favorite delicacy, still chewing absently.
Ray gave a long squeak of anger.
Cowrie looked up. "What, lad, still here?" he snapped in an exasperated growl. With a flicker of his great spade-fins, he was looming over Ray, eclipsing him in size and age. If knowledge were proportioned the same way, Ray knew Cowrie's would eclipse his own in just the same fashion. One gnarled hand rested on the back of Ray's neck and ran down the smooth back. Ray trembled as the hand passed lightly to the hollow place in his back and over his slight swell of a bull-hump, over the small firm dorsal fin and down to the broad red flukes. "You are young," Cowrie said sternly. "Your back and flukes are as smooth as they were the day you kicked your way out of your mother's belly." Cowrie turned away slightly, enough for Ray to see the long white scars of human teeth mottling down the immense black hump of the Sea Witch's back. "In the same way, your mind and heart are smooth. What you ask for will scar you -- perhaps be your death wound."
"I'm not a calf!" Ray growled. "I'm not afraid of a few scars! Or of death!"
Cowrie nodded, looking at the youth. "It is a great responsibility to cause experience and pain," he murmured, speaking to himself. "Knowledge brings bitterness and learning you never wished to have. But your eyes are as open as your years and life permit. I see great pain ahead for you; but they will be your scars, and your knowledge." Aloud he said, "You are already meant to be different, young Ray. You are not bound by estrus to a matriarch but by desire to your fellow males. It is not a sickness, only a difference of your birth, as if you had been born with three flukes instead of two. It is very rare in mer, but I have seen it before. Dolphins, now..."
Ray bubbled indignantly at the comparison. Dolphins cheerfully mated with anything and everything of either sex, and even stimulated their genitals against stationary objects; they would mate with sharks if the sharks would hold still for it. It was a wonder that they ever found enough time for the mundanities of food, sleep and raising young.
"Perhaps feeling love for a human is not so strange for you."
"But can you help me?" Ray asked. "Will you help me?"
He was transfixed by the open blue eyes. "Ray," Cowrie said, "I cannot cure you of your love for this air-breather. To truly do that, you must go above and find him. You must become a human. I can do this."
Ray gasped. He'd heard how powerful Cowrie's magic was -- all the more powerful for his rare use of it. But to make him a human...
"But think about it, Ray," Cowrie cautioned sternly. You will have two legs instead of your flukes, and will have to move upright through heavy air, slowly and awkwardly, instead of speeding through water. All your weight, uncushioned by the water, will fall on your feet, and every step will be agony. Their language you must learn on your own; they will not understand mer-speech.
"The water will be your enemy from now on. If you breathe it with your lungs, you will drown and die like a human.
"You must find your human by yourself, not knowing their language, not knowing his name. If you find him, you must make him understand how you feel. He may feel the same about you, or he may not. If he does, you may be able to come to an understanding with him. If he does not, you will be left alone in the waterless world above.
"And, finally, I cannot reverse this magic. If he does not love you, you will be alone, among enemies, for the rest of your life.
"It is a bigger risk than you ever took teasing sharks as a calf. It is your choice, Ray. Go away. Think about your decision. Then come back and tell me."
It was daunting, all that Cowrie had said.
But what else was there for Ray? A solitary life, like Cowrie's? Life in a new pod where he would yearn for his fellow mermen throughout the year while they felt nothing, never joining in the estrus-caused chase of the matriarch? An occasional mating with a willing dolphin? A simple, safe lifetime of learning and whale-singing?
Ah, but to live among the humans, to learn more about them than any mer ever had before...To find his fierce brave bull- matriarch!
And the human would know him. They had seen each other.
"I have decided!"
Cowrie gave a soft grunt that might have been regret, or respect. He turned to go back into his grotto. "Then follow me. I will do as you wish."
Ray had never been in the Sea Witch's dwelling before. Living coral formed the walls, and vividly-colored poison fish of all kinds glared sullenly from their niches in its surface, amid swaying fronds of the sea-plant whose slime stuns everything that bites into it. He was careful not to touch anything, including the coral, as he drifted after Cowrie. A human skull grinned down at Ray from its hanging place on a jut of coral.
Cowrie was taking bits of various fish and plants and grinding them between two stones. Ray recognized the pufferfish and the stun-kelp, and the glow of a deep-water fish, and little else after that. The last thing Cowrie added was a bit of bone -- a tooth from the human skull ground to coarse powder.
Now Cowrie turned, and between two long fingers he held a soft mushy ball about the size of a spineless urchin. "This is it, laddie. Eat it as it is, or stuff it into the mantle of a squid and swallow it whole if you want to make it easier. It is bitter and has the taste of death, because to change is bitter, and a kind of death. Go to the shore as far up as you can, at high tide, and swallow the ball. The pain will cause you to faint. When you waken, you will be a human."
Ray took the ball between his finger and thumb and looked at it. It looked just like the mush found in a fish's belly at feeding time.
The gnarled hand on his round shoulder made him look up into the ancient blue eyes. "Whether you fare well or ill, Ray," the Sea Witch said solemnly, "learn all you can about humans. That will help you to survive in the world above."
He found the same place where he had pulled the captain to safety. The moon shone down, fat and full, bathing the beach in silver. The human's lights glowed from the land.
It was easier for Ray to flop up onto the shore now, without the human's weight dragging him; yet the weight of the air still crushed him.
Ray's lungs ached for water, and he pressed a hand to the gill- slits between his ribs for a moment. Soon it would be over.
Without looking behind him to the ocean that had been his home since calfhood, Ray popped the medicine ball into his mouth and swallowed it.
The watchman hurried down the cliff-path toward the beach, his torch making his shadow sway back and forth from the moon shadow. The screaming had come from the beach, like someone being murdered. He shifted his grip on his cudgel and looked up and down the shore from the path down from the watch-house. At the sight of a prone figure outlined in the fierce moonlight, his heart jumped. Murder, it was...
But the curly-haired man was alive. He was naked, wringing wet and insensible, but his heart was beating, and his chest rose and fell with every breath he took; there was not a mark upon his body. Had he swum from some wreck? But there had been no wreck since the Roberta was lost on the rocks a week before, and Captain Phillip had reported no losses from his crew. Could someone have thrown the lad into the sea from the cliffs, to try to drown him?
"God preserve us," the watchman whispered. Then he ran back to the path up the cliff to get help.
Ray was aware of heat and light and noise. And he wasn't choking. His lungs automatically expanded -- and air whooshed in at his mouth! He squeaked in surprise -- and a croaking, gagging noise came out instead. His eyes opened, and the bright hot light made him close them tight again. He shifted, and felt a surge of panic as something long and binding tightened around him, like a tangle of kelp or a human-web -- human-web, he was out of the water, they had caught him!
He kicked his way free of the long thick binders, and hit a hard surface all along his side. The pain stunned him, and he expelled a long squeal.
Hands were on his shoulders and arms. And on his legs. He was hoisted, and he gasped for breath at how heavy he was out in the air. Loud booming noises came out all around him.
He looked around at three human faces. Hair bristled from their chins and cheeks like sea-grass; their eyes were as many colors as mer's eyes. They all had different-colored baggy hides. Their mouths opened and closed like fish; the loud, harsh booming sounds came out.
They'd caught him. In that moment, he panicked, thrashing, trying to get away before he was hauled up by their sea-webs into their ship --
He fell into softness and warmth; softness and warmth covered him. His gullet burned and hurt. He gasped, squeaked. Something hard and cold touched his lips; liquid sloshed toward him. It tasted bitter and sour -- but nothing as horrible tasting as the magic he had eaten. He opened his mouth and sucked the fluid in, swallowing.
The faces crowded around his, blocking out the light, features hidden in shadows. What was wrong with his eyes? He blinked, moved his tail, and it moved in two different ways. He remembered his legs. And he was breathing in the air. They thought he was a human like them. He had to let them know who he was trying to find...
The one word he knew in human-speech...
"Kkkhh-- Kkk--" he croaked; the faces moved closer. "Captain." Exhausted, he closed his eyes.
The men looked at each other as the strange young man fell asleep again. "Captain?" one of them said. "Captain who? Don't remember seein' this one, not at 'is age."
"What if he was on the Roberta?" another man asked. "Captain Phillip he's asking for?"
"Don't be daft -- Roberta's in pieces at the bottom," the first watchman said stoutly, the one who had found the young man. "Anyone left behind 'ud be washed ashore drownded, not alive. Captain Phillip didn't record no losses, and his word's good enough for me. None of the men looked like they was hidin' anything."
"Captain Phillip is in town. Staying at the Albatross," the apprentice said. "Suppose I go fetch 'im and see if 'e knows 'im." After a deliberation, the first watchman nodded. The boy was off like a shot.
The strange man turned and twisted in his sleep, making odd, high-pitched squealing noises.
Captain Phillip had had worse weeks, but offhand he couldn't remember when.
Everything had started with the wreck of the Roberta and his near-drowning. He'd barely had time to recuperate when he'd had to go appease a furious merchant over the loss of his ship and cargo. When he'd asked for the payment for himself and his crew, that had been like jumping into a barrel full of tomcats; Gregory Hoffleigh was of that breed of businessmen who believe in no pay for no results -- acts of God like shipwrecks didn't factor into the equation. Only Phillip's own iron stubbornness and vitriolic streak had made the man grudgingly and with bad grace mete out half of what had been promised. The crew were grateful; some of them, who'd worked for Hoffleigh before, were surprised they'd gotten what they had. They'd taken their money and scattered to their families, other boats, other work.
But a captain with no ship to command is a useless thing indeed. Phillip had had to live in idleness, a week of which now chafed at him. And now, when he was at last trying to enjoy the quiet of an undisturbed night, he was roused by the watchman to come view a man saved from drowning.
"Strangest thing, Captain Phillip," the boy said. "Just lyin' there naked as the day he was born, like the sea had carried him up. Watch heard 'im screaming and found 'im."
"Probably sleepwalking and the idiot fell over the cliff," Phillip grumbled, tucking his watch into his waistcoat pocket; a broken serrated tooth, like a shark's or dolphin's, dangled from the chain. He trudged beside the lad to the lookout post. He was led into the back room where the watchmen slept, to see the man who'd been found washed up on the beach.
"Been sleeping, mostly, since we brought 'im in," the watchman told Phillip, pulling back the quilt to show him the sleeper. "But 'e did say 'captain' just before 'e went back under. That's why we come to fetch you. D'ye know him, then?"
He stared, blinking. He couldn't be sure, not nearly sure. He'd almost convinced himself that the boy on the dolphin was a trick of the water and his drowning mind.
His second thought was that a boy from the harbor town had dived in to save him, but in his perambulations around the town, looking, he'd seen no man who matched what his mind had seen. (He'd seen other men that had made him look in admiration, but always in complete subterfuge; Captain Phillip was adroit at hiding his unnatural desire for his fellow men, having done so for nearly all his life.)
But there was the curly hair he remembered from his drowning- dream. He resisted the urge to lift the man's lip with his thumb to examine the teeth -- that incredible image that had imprinted on his mind when his rescuer had grinned at him with those unnatural teeth.
Could this be the man who'd actually saved his life?
"Well? Do ye then?"
He blinked. He took a breath. "Yes. Yes, I think I do know him." He turned to the watchman. "Let me know when he awakens, and I will come here at once. Tell him I am coming."
Captain Phillip returned to the his room at the Albatross and undressed for bed. But weeks of idleness made him toss and turn with restlessness for a long time before sleep came -- or so he told himself.
The next morning he was up early, ate early and was up to the watch-house without being summoned. The sleepy-eyed apprentice met him at the door and let him in, guiding him to the back and casting one wistful eye at his half-finished breakfast by the fire.
The stranger was sitting up on the cot, looking around and around the room in wide-eyed silence.
"'Ere then, sir, is this the 'captain' you wanted to see?" the apprentice asked.
The man jumped at the voice, whipped to look at the new arrivals. His eyes widened when he saw Captain Phillip. His mouth worked. "C-- Capp-- Captain," he said in a strange accent and an oddly high voice -- nearly a squeal.
Curly hair, those strong round shoulders, that face shape -- surely this was the man who'd saved him that horrible night--
"Yes," he said, nodding. "I am Captain Phillip."
"Captain," the bare-chested stranger choked out again. And a smile of recognition broke over the man's face like a sunrise. It was as if an arrow smote Andrew Phillip in the heart. Oh, it is my dolphin boy, my savior --
--Until he saw the curly-haired man's grinning teeth.
They were blunt, flat, ordinary teeth, as any man would have. One front tooth was slightly chipped, true; but these were not the filed-sharp shark's-teeth that had torn away the ropes that would have been his shroud.
He would have been able to dismiss the teeth completely as a vision, did he not carry the evidence on his watch-chain. The teeth in that unforgettable grin... There were tribes in Africa where men had their teeth filed to sharp points; the man might have had his teeth treated so on a trip along the Ivory Coast, the way other men got tattoos or pierced ears.
No, this was not his dolphin boy, not the sharp-toothed man who'd saved him. A cruel likeness, so close, so close --
The pang of disappointment was sharp and strong, and he closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them, he saw worry in the green eyes. It wasn't the man's fault, whoever he was.
"What's your name?" he asked gently.
Incomprehension on the man's face.
"Your name." He pointed at him. He tried another way. "Parlez- vous francais? Quelle es votre nombre?"
Nothing, though the man's eyes did not leave his face, and there was a rapt look of attention on his face.
Phillip tried Portugese as well, and Spanish, Dutch and German; his trading profession had carried him to many ports and opened his ear to many tongues. No reaction to any of the languages.
In exasperation, he pointed to himself. "Andrew. Andrew. My name is Andrew." He pointed at the man. "What is your name?"
Comprehension dawned. The mouth worked again, and a high, cracked keening sound came out just as the watchman walked into the room. It echoed in the tiny room and reverberated with a hidden power.
"Gawd bless us!" the watchman gasped, crossing himself. "What Godforsaken heathen language is that?"
What indeed? And why did Captain Phillip feel a thread of recognition at the sound?
"Not deaf-mute," Phillip muttered, staring at the confused and stricken man. "You say he was found naked at the shore?"
"Aye, not so much as a ring or stocking on 'im."
"And no one in town's seen him before either."
"No one's raised hue and cry about a murder or kidnapping, no one looking for a lost brother or husband. It's as if he just sprung full-blown from the sea, sir, like Venus. Seems a bit soft in the head, sir, if you know what I mean."
Phillip looked again to the sea-foundling who had not yet taken his eyes from him. Something in him tugged at half-buried memory. If it weren't for those teeth...
"No one's claimed him. Sir, do you know him? We've only just the few beds for the men, and 'ardly provisions for us and Prentice," the watchman said. "Not as I'd cast any fellow man in need of help into the streets, you understand, but we've families of our own to tend to, don't we?"
Captain Phillip nodded at the watchman's words, looking thoughtfully at the other man the entire time. What was there for him to do in town until he got another sailing job? Perhaps he could solve the mystery of this strange man. "He does look familiar," he said to the watchman. "Perhaps on one of my voyages..." The relief on the watchman's face was palpable. "Let me go fetch some clothes for him and I'll be back." He smiled at the curly-haired man and held out his hand. "I will be back soon."
The man smiled tentatively, and gripped Phillip's hand hard. But when the captain turned to leave he uttered garbled squeals and bubbling noises, belling through the room; and Phillip had to turn around and, through sign language, make the obviously- panicked man understand that he would return shortly. The stranger lay back down, still staring around him with wide, hardly-blinking eyes.
Phillip left the watchhouse and headed back to the Albatross; some of the duds in his locker might fit the man. He flexed his hand and looked at it wryly. So much like my dolphin-boy. Are you the reality of my dreaming memory?
The man sat naked on the edge of the cot, and simply stared at the clothing laid out for him before looking up with a puzzled expression. Incredulous, Phillip had to show him every article of clothing, and wound up dressing him as if he were a child, the man expressing amazement all the while. After an initial struggle with having the cloth drawn over his legs -- he made the strangest hooting noise when he parted his legs, and he stared at his own genitals with an indecent amount of attention; Captain Phillip fought to keep from blushing at his own less-than-pure thoughts -- the man sat clothed, Phillip's shirt and pants bagging somewhat on the slighter frame.
Phillip helped him to his feet -- and caught his elbow when he lurched sideways, uttering a sharp cry of surprise or fear. He was heavier than he looked, and he was more awkward on his feet than a newborn foal. Under the eye of the watchman, Phillip led the stumbling awkward man out of the building, wondering what in the world he had gotten himself into for the sake of a likeness to a dream-vision.
It was a gray overcast day, but the fog had lifted, leaving cold white sky. The stranger looked at everything with wonder in his eyes. The houses of the small town overlooked by the watch- house, the gulls crying overhead, even the very grass and dirt -- which held his rapt attention every time he lost his balance and fell, which was lamentably often. Finally, in exasperation, Phillip pulled up a tuft of green and held it to the man's face. "Grass," he said. "Grass!"
"Grass," the man said. He bent down to pull up some of his own, overbalanced and fell. He lay on the ground where he'd fallen, a tuft between thumb and finger, beaming at Phillip. "Grass!" he shouted.
Phillip shook his head. Bloody hell -- I've given myself a full- grown babe to raise! The stranger must be a child-man, one of those unfortunates who never lose the mind of a child or who return to a childlike state when hurt in some fashion, such as a severe blow to the head. The proper place for such a man was the insane asylum...and yet, as he helped the man to his unsteady feet and brushed him off again, and once again saw the look in the man's eyes that he had seen in the watch-house, he could not bring himself to keep thinking such a thing.
By the time they reached the Albatross, the man had added ten new words to his vocabulary and had fallen at least five times -- with gradually-growing intervals between falling. Just as well Phillip had given the man some of his work-clothes -- he was quite sure that nothing would remove the grass stains and dirt smudges they'd acquired. As they entered the small inn and the grubby man looked around again with the delight of new things that seemed to live in his eyes, he wondered what would happen to this child-man when it was time for him to return to the sea... We'll sail through that storm when the time comes.
Just then the man's stomach rumbled loudly, and he grinned -- and Phillip was struck by the feral quality of this grin, less like the delighted smile of a child and more like the hunting grin of a shark.
Well, children are little savages when they're hungry...
Andrew Phillip ordered chowder and ale for both of them -- and found a whole new set of problems when he tried to get the man to sit on the bench. He kept overbalancing and falling backwards, his legs slamming against the underside of the long wooden table; the look on his face making Andrew hard-pressed to control his laughter. Some of the other patrons openly stared at the man, which helped him control himself. But after a few times the stranger mastered the knack of sitting forward enough to let his weight ground him firmly on the bench. The captain shook his head as the innkeeper came, bearing the tray with their food: You can hardly speak, you walk less assuredly than a babe-- someone has surely kept you chained up in a room somewhere as a madman. And though he should be frightened at the thought of hosting such a creature, Andrew could only feel pity for him. If he was a madman, he seemed a harmless enough madman.
Fortunately, the man's awkwardness in simple matters was enough of a warning to Andrew that he firmly restrained the man before he could plunge his face into the steaming bowl of chowder, and picked up the spoon. The ineffective -- and messy -- lesson reminded Captain Phillip of some trading encounters with several island tribes far to the south, and the natives' reaction to silverware. Taking a hint from that memory, Andrew instructed the man to wait until steam stopped rising from the bowl, then showed him how to lift the bowl up to his mouth and to sup from the rim, as the islanders were wont to do. Once started, though, the man sucked his bowl empty in a few noisy seconds and set it down, looking as if he was wearing nearly as much of the chowder as he had eaten, and looked around for more. Phillip covered his eyes with one hand for a moment, hearing the shocked whispers and mutterings about the lunatic sharing his table; but a pang of remorse hit him when he raised his eyes on a stricken look from his charge, who wiped at the splatters on his cheek and began licking his fingers clean. "No, no," Andrew said, oddly touched, "like this." He wetted his own linen napkin in a cup of water and applied it to the man's face and hands. "And from now on," he said gently, smiling at the man, "you don't eat chowder until you can handle a spoon." Someone has kept you like an animal, he thought, imagining this man on his hands and knees, eating out of a bowl like a dog, and was stunned at the depth of rage he felt for those unknown keepers.
Andrew was almost afraid to show him how to hold the ale tankard, but the man had learned even in that little time; he drank slowly and carefully, wincing at the bitterness of the brew, spilling only a little bit down the corners of his mouth. This time he wiped his own face with his own napkin. Andrew smiled, relieved. Well, you learn fast. This might not be as painful as I thought. He turned to his own chowder, now stone-cold, and drank his own ale slowly.
The look of pain on the man's face was not all remorse; he winced and rubbed his backside and legs as if they ached, and he blinked sleepily. Well, if he'd been chained up, not using his legs, of course they would ache after that little bit of walking, and he would be tired in no time. Andrew shook his head at this strange man, who now was very much a grubby, tired child, and was ready for bed again.
He helped the man away from the bench and once again caught him as he lurched, this posture aided by exhaustion and ale. "Up the stairs, my lad," he said -- and had to show the man how to climb stairs! They had to pause after every step, and the man was gasping for breath before they'd gotten halfway up. By the time they reached Phillip's room, the man was a heavy weight in the captain's arms. Phillip reversed his dressing procedure only down to the underlinen. He felt a twinge in his bladder, and had a sudden, horrifying thought. "Here, lad, don't sleep yet!" he said urgently, tugging the man upright again. All things new... "Now watch me," he said firmly. "Watch me!" That was a phrase the man had learned during the meal, and the stranger kept his eyes open and on Andrew. With only a little embarrassment, Andrew pulled the chamber pot from beneath the bed and freed his penis from his clothing. The stranger watched intently as he urinated, looking at how he held himself, watched the fluid arc into the ceramic bowl, and winced, biting his lip. "Come on, lad, stand up." Andrew finished quickly and showed the stranger how to free himself. The man only sighed as he began to relieve himself as well, perfectly copying everything Andrew had done, and -- greatly to the captain's relief -- not missing his target. He recovered himself, and Captain Phillip poured water for him to wash his hands. The stranger stared into the little puddle of water in the basin for a moment, dabbling his fingers in it; then he pulled out his hands and went back to the bed. With a quick look at Andrew, he reached down and carefully pushed the chamber pot back under the bed. "Good," Phillip said warmly, patting his shoulder, and was rewarded with the smile of an angel.
An angel riding a dolphin.
"Sleep," the captain said, to cover his confusion, and left the man in his own bed while he went back out to ask more questions.
Ray's head was whirling with everything inside it, providing a small distraction from his aching lower half; the weight on his legs had been as if his tail had been caught between two boulders.
He treasured his new small wealth of human words, rolling them over in his mind.
The whole concept of wrapping the skin in other skins was very intriguing; he was pleased that he'd solved the mystery of all those different-colored skins that humans had. It wasn't for camouflage, the way some fish glued bits and pieces of rock and shell to its skin; perhaps it was to display mating-colors, or to keep the skin from drying out too much in the air...
Andrew was the very human he'd saved, and he knew Ray, had recognized him -- but why was he so sad-looking? Why did he look at Ray as if he remembered, and other times as if he didn't?
He was so tired --
His new, human weight pushed him into the deep scratchy bed and sealed his eyes.
By midday Captain Phillip was no closer to learning the man's identity and background than he had been for a week. No one in the market had a relative missing or feared dead; no one knew a man with curly rust-red hair who had trouble speaking and standing. No one who'll admit it, he thought grimly. It was easy to believe that his keepers had simply tired of their charge and had tried to drown him.
He returned to his room at the inn to check on his charge. He found the man awake and sitting on the edge of the bed, diligently pulling his trousers on wrong way 'round. He looked up and beamed. "Andrew!"
Captain Phillip smiled at the man. He learned fast, for having such childlike ways. "Yes, that's right. Good," he responded, and the man lit up; he knew "good." He walked over to the bed and showed the man how to switch the pants around so that they fit him better. "Are you hungry?"
At that word, the man smiled his feral smile; he knew that word too. "Hungry." His face changed to apprehension. "Chowder?"
Phillip laughed. "No. No chowder," he said, and the man smiled back, repeated "No chowder," and made a face.
Oh, he couldn't be a simpleton! It was more as if he were a blank slate, completely blank, and had to be taught everything but breathing. How could his keepers have left him in ignorance and helplessness for so long when he learned so quickly?
Going downstairs was another problem. The man clutched the rail, looking down the stairs with terror, and would not budge from the top for all Andrew's cajoling and demonstrations of where and how to set his feet. Finally, the only way he would get down was to sit on the stairs and slide down on his buttocks, his face set; if it pained him he made no sound. He looked around as men pointed and whispered, laughing rudely.
"Leave him be, he's harmless," Andrew said calmly, but inside he was angry; he got bread and cheese and ale for both of them and joined his strange companion. The man held a piece of bread in both hands and looked at Andrew. They didn't even give you solid food? Again quashing his anger, Andrew said only "Watch me," and proceeded with his own food. He was not prepared for the look of intentness and awe on the man's face, his eyes following the movements of his cheeks and jaws as he chewed. When he had swallowed, Andrew said, "See? These flat teeth?" pointing to his own.
"Teeth," the man said, pointing to his own.
"That's right, good." Andrew held the man's mouth open and reached one finger inside to lightly touch one of his molars. How I wish they were all sharp... "Grind your food here, back and forth." He showed the motion of his own teeth against empty air. "Chew."
The man moved his teeth the same way, then took a little bite of bread and wrestled it over to the flat teeth. It was a mechanical chopping motion he made, and he swallowed in distress as some bigger pieces got stuck in his throat; a little ale shifted them, and he swallowed in more comfort. The cheese was more comfortable, not as scratchy, and he concentrated more on that than on the bread. By the end of the meal he had developed a natural rolling chewing motion and was looking very proud of himself. And he was no longer drooling, which was a considerable relief.
"Come," Andrew said when lunch was done. "Outside."
Andrew took the man to the market. Perhaps he would shame someone into confessing, or someone would recognize the man.
Andrew was starting to keep a running commentary on everything; he would point to any object, no matter how prosaic, say its word, and the man would repeat it. More of the world opened up for the man.
Another disaster was averted when Andrew saw the man start to bear down, grimacing. "No!" he snapped, startling the man. He took him firmly by one elbow and led him to a privy-station. By this time the man had figured out enough basics to handle the delicate details by himself, and Andrew was greatly relieved. When he came out, he washed his hands at a pump and wiped them on his shirt.
At one point, disaster nearly struck. They passed a fish-seller, and the man stared at all the wares laid out in barrels, before lunging forward, mouth open. Before Andrew could yank him back, the man had seized a bloody raw herring from the barrel in his mouth and had gulped it down. A shopping woman screamed and her children shouted in laughter; the fish-wife lived up to her breed's reputation, screeching about damaged wares, lost wages, boy's pranks. "No!" he snapped at the man, mind gone blank with disbelief at what he'd seen. "No!" Of course he didn't know about money -- and god, what life would have produced a man who ate raw fish like a porpoise...?
Perhaps the life of a man who rode a dolphin. A man with a porpoise's sharp teeth. Porpoises bit and swallowed their food; they had no teeth for chewing.
But that dolphin-man was a dream, nothing more... A man who'd been treated no better than an animal since childhood might eat raw fish that way, also.
Andrew silenced the screeching fishmonger with a penny for the lost herring. He turned to admonish his companion and add a lesson on taking things without paying for them first, and found him gesturing wildly at someone else's display of fish. "Andrew, Andrew!" while a woman held her children away in fear.
All right. He wanted fish, he'd buy him some more bloody fish, and teach him to cook it first...
The man was pointing to the prize catch of the man's lot; a great black manta ray, its limp fins draped over a table. He pointed at the approaching Captain Phillip. "Andrew!" He pointed at the devilfish and then at himself. He squealed in excitement.
Oh, no. He wasn't buying that whole ray for his new friend, no matter how...
The man pointed to the fish with his inquiring look.
Andrew sighed. "Ray," he said, pointing to the fish. "Ray --"
"Ray." The man beamed. He pointed at the captain. "Andrew." He pointed -- at himself. "Ray!"
"Ray." It was Andrew's turn to stare at the man, his mouth open. "Ray? Your name is Ray?"
A smile of delight. Then a furrowed brow. The man pointed and carefully said, "Your name is -- Andrew. My name is Ray!"
Andrew laughed out loud -- and the man did too, heedless of the stares they were getting in the market.
By the evening, when they were back at the inn, Ray was making and repeating other small sentences, soaking in everything like a sponge, and his vocabulary had increased by leaps and bounds. His nap had done wonders for his energy level, and he was rattling off things he saw around the room, perfectly. Andrew responded with praise or the occasional correction, feeling a strange enchantment at seeing the world unfold before Ray; because it was all new to Ray, it was new again to him, too.
Andrew had bought a few more herrings in the market, which the landlord had fried for their supper; he was instructing Ray in the use of the fork when an alcohol-rough voice called from behind them.
"Eh, good evening, Captain Phillip, and 'ow's yer trained seal?" The other men roared with laughter, which only became louder at the puzzled look in Ray's face.
Andrew covered his anger in ice, and replied coolly, "My friend's name is Ray. He has come from a place that is very different from ours, and everything is new to him."
"Yeah, like not pissin' his pants to show how much he likes you." More loud laughter. "Or does he lick your arse?"
The sudden look of comprehension on Ray's face -- he knew they were speaking about him -- made something knot inside Andrew. "Is that what you make your children do?" he said coldly. "Or do you just beat them to sleep every night after drinking your wages?"
He heard the chair slide back and a hoarse hiss. "Oh, that was a smart thing you said, Cap'n Phillip. You want to settle that with me?"
Ray was looking back and forth from Andrew to the man just behind Andrew. He looked as if he were trying to figure something out; maybe learn some new words.
"I want you to leave us alone," Andrew said without turning around. "Keep eating, Ray." He dug into his own herring and chewed automatically.
"A coward," the man spat. His cronies, all the worse for the ale, grumbled in agreement. "A stinking, crawling coward. Is that why you can't get any more ship work, Captain Phillip? Eh? Just how did the Roberta get wrecked, anyway?"
Andrew closed his eyes and drew in one icy breath, releasing it through his nostrils. When he opened his eyes, cold with fury and purpose...he was stunned to see the identical expression in the green eyes across the table. But the green eyes were hot, hot with fighting fury. And they were not the eyes of an innocent child. Ray glared over Andrew's shoulder at the man who'd insulted both of them.
And suddenly a look of understanding dawned over the curly-haired man. He looked from Andrew to the man and back. His hot rage disappeared; and in its place was a sly smile. He clearly said the word, "Shark."
An incredulous laugh exploded out of Andrew. And he saw that he and Ray had identical grins.
Drunk was hissing, "You little bastard. When I'm done with your master, I'll teach you a lesson."
Andrew said, "Ray. Stay here." He grinned. "Watch me."
Five minutes later Andrew was back at his seat, rubbing his stomach and wincing, and sniffing gingerly through a bloody nose. The man who'd interrupted their supper was being dragged out the door by his stunned and silent cronies.
Ray made a fist of his own. "The thumb goes outside, like this," Andrew said, and showed him. "Fist."
"Fist," Ray obediantly repeated, looking at his fisted hand. He opened it. "Hand." He made a fist and punched the air with an evil grin. "Shark." He slapped the table in imitation of the sound made when the man had hit the floor.
They both laughed, Andrew a little painfully over his punched gut. "Very good. Finish your supper, Ray." Andrew sipped at his ale to soothe his belly as Ray picked up the fork with a grimace and set back to work on his cooked herrings. No one else disturbed their meal.
Again, Ray had to be helped up the stairs, panting in weariness. He stripped down to his undergarments and lay down in the bed with a sigh of exhaustion. Andrew undressed in similar fashion, put out the oil lamp and got into the bed next to Ray; it was a narrow fit, but their close bodies also made the bed very warm and inviting.
What a day he'd had, Andrew thought. Never thought anything would be more exhausting than handling a ship in heavy seas...
And he found that he was looking forward to what the new day would bring to Ray, what he would learn, what he would say next.
He chuckled sleepily and put an arm around the more slender body that seemed to exude heat. "Good night, Ray."
"Good night, Andrew."
And with a vague twitch of yearning easily overcome by exhaustion, Andrew closed his eyes and let sleep come.
Ray's progress was a visible thing; by his fifth day with Andrew no one would have seen anything out of place in his deportment, clothing, or dining habits. He spoke in a stilted fashion, and with a strange accent that made his voice either very low or very high, but his words were understandable. He walked with more assurance and strength, even though he continued to require a nap in the middle of the day and still tired easily. He was still awkward with his silverware, but he spilled no more than an adult would. There were no more scenes like the one with the herring at the market. But he still kept saying "No chowder" at mealtimes, until it was a little joke between the two of them.
Ray's chief difficulty was his feet, even though Andrew's first expense for Ray had been a good pair of comfortable boots that fit him properly. They were very tender and blistered easily, and Ray was often in pain as he walked, limping or hobbling even though he tried to cover up his discomfort. Andrew reminded himself that Ray's feet had had no calluses on them when he'd first seen him.
As Ray learned more and more, his childlike demeanor dropped away. Andrew saw not a child-man, but a man of his own years, though Ray could not tell him how old he was; he could only count up to 10, using his fingers, and that was how old he kept saying he was.
And Ray's background was still a blank wall to Andrew. He asked where Ray had been before they found him on the beach; what he remembered; who had cared for him; who his parents were. When Ray could no longer plead ignorance of Andrew's language, he would simply say "No," his head lowered, his eyes angry. Andrew was frustrated by his inability to learn any more of Ray's background -- not even his surname -- but he was also oddly pleased by Ray's stubbornness. It felt like a natural part of the man's personality.
If Ray's complete innocence of the world around him had caught Andrew's attention and then charmed him, the person who was emerging from that blank slate intrigued the captain. Hot- tempered, stubborn, prideful of his accomplishments, Ray could also be solicitous of Andrew, needful. He did not like to be separated from him for long, and seemed to enjoy Andrew's company. Often he knew just what to say that would make Andrew laugh when he was worried, which became more and more often as he wondered when he would next get work. The half-sum Hoffleigh had paid Andrew after the wreck of the Roberta would soon be gone, and he didn't know what to do about Ray.
They no longer shared the small bed in Andrew's room; Andrew slept on the floor. As Ray's stamina and Andrew's ability to deal with Ray increased, they were not so tired at day's end. And Andrew did not want to tempt himself with such a tempting bed-mate. There were times when Ray gave himself to the bed with the sinuous grace of a lazy lion, stretching and eyeing Andrew with such a shameless invitation that Andrew did not trust himself to lie against that wiry body without becoming aroused. He knew it was his own unnatural desire for his fellow men that made him see the look in Ray's eyes as lust. Andrew's lack of self-delusion did not keep him from lying awake in aching sorrow long after Ray had fallen asleep, though he told himself it was because of the hard floor upon which he slept.
Ray was still not accepted by many people, who remembered the simpleton who'd stumbled into the Albatross on Captain Phillip's arm. Mostly their distrust was kept to whispers and sidelong looks; but an incident on the fourth day since Andrew had taken Ray from the watch-house brought it to a head.
At the market, Andrew lost track of Ray. He retraced his steps, his worry turning into active fear, until he found Ray in the main square of the town. Ray was blindfolded and trying to catch some boys, laughing as loudly as they were as they ducked and dodged around their new playmate. Andrew watched for a while, charmed at how enthusiastically his friend took to the game, and laughed as Ray managed to grab one boy, who let out a little shriek at the shock of being caught.
But the boy's mother ran over at the sound, saw who was playing with the children and screamed, "The madman has my son!" She ran in, wrenched the boy away from Ray and slapped the still- blindfolded man across the face.
Ray pulled the blindfold off and rubbed his cheek, staring in disbelief as other mothers came running in, shouting in anger and herding the protesting boys away, all of them promising a good whipping at home for playing with a dangerous lunatic. The confusion in Ray's eyes as the boys were dragged away, some bawling as the promised beatings began already, was like a lance in Andrew's heart. "Keep that madman away from decent folk!" one harridan screeched at Andrew before turning to backhand her howling son again and again.
"Andrew, I not hurt them, I not!" Ray said hotly, eyes flaring with anger. "Them play game, I play!"
"I know, Ray. I know you didn't hurt them." Andrew glared after the retreating women. His cold rage swelled as he turned to find others in the market square eyeing Ray with suspicion, muttering to each other about what the crazy man had done to those poor boys to make them cry in pain. His fists clenched at his sides. Mobs had killed innocents with less provocation; the first one of them who laid a hand on Ray... "They are stupid people. They are afraid of everything."
"Stupid people," Ray repeated with heat. "Sharks." This last in a tone of utter contempt.
Andrew turned to look at Ray -- and saw the exact same expression of disdain for the townsfolk on his face. At that moment, he felt a closer kinship to this acquaintance of four days than to the community with which he had done business for so long. And one thing, at least, was sure in Andrew's mind; whatever work he got next, there was no way in Heaven or earth that he would leave Ray behind to the tender mercies of these people.
The very next day Andrew was informed that Gregory Hoffleigh wished to speak with him concerning a job. Andrew did not like working for such a harsh taskmaster, but he needed the work, and idleness weighed more heavily than Hoffleigh's hand. As Ray trudged up the inn's stairs for his midday sleep, Andrew went out to see the merchant.
"The cargo is already aboard the Marie Suzanne," Hoffleigh said, his bespectacled blue eyes peering through his laced fingers at the man standing before his desk in his office. "The bills of lading are here for your perusal. The crew is being collected. I want results this time, Phillip, not an empty hold and a wrecked ship."
"Yes, sir." Andrew bent to inspect the bills. All seemed to be in order. Hoffleigh was a harsh man for whom to work, but his paperwork was always immaculate and impeccable.
"This time I will not pay half-wages, or indeed any kind of wages, for no results. I have been forced to insure my goods this time."
"Yes, sir." Andrew kept his opinions to himself, knowing what crew Hoffleigh had; desperate men who needed to feed their families, who would accept the work. As he did.
"Be prepared to leave at first light."
"Good," Andrew murmured as if to himself. "This will be an excellent training run for my new cabin boy."
Hoffleigh elevated his bushy gray eyebrows. "Cabin boy?" A strange cold look came into his eyes. "Ah, yes, that imbecile who's been shadowing you all week. Charity is a virtue, Captain Phillip -- but it will not be practiced on a ship of mine. Return him to the lunatic asylum where he belongs, and report for duty."
"He is not an imbecile, sir," Phillip returned coolly, while his gut churned with fear. "He learns rapidly, and would easily be able to undertake the duties of cabin boy for this trip."
"Madmen cannot be predicted. Look at the way he attacked those boys in the market and started hitting them."
Calm, Phillip told himself, stay calm. "Sir, he did not hit those boys. He was learning a game --"
"I am not interested in your excuses for his behavior, Captain." Hoffleigh spent an interminably long time eyeing Andrew from his usual position. His eyes narrowed. "Would you accept full responsibility for his actions at sea?"
"Yes, sir." Relief began to trickle into Andrew's stomach.
"And accept all consequences of his actions?"
A small thin smile almost formed on Hoffleigh's lips. He exhaled in what sounded like a small laugh. "You are determined, Captain. Perhaps your confidence is justified."
Andrew did not let his relief show as he drove home the single blow that would assure Ray's chances. "Since this trip will be a teaching one for Ray, he would of course not be expecting any payment for his duties aboard."
"No pay?" Hoffleigh was silent for another long moment. "He had better work as if he was earning twice your pay, Captain."
"He will." Andrew knew he had won.
Andrew left Hoffleigh's office, his papers under his arm, jubilant. Work at last, even if it was for the skinflint -- and best of all, he would be able to keep an eye on Ray! He headed for the inn. If Ray was still sleeping, he'd wake him; they were moving their things down to the dock right away. It was time Ray started to learn the finest trade known to man.
Ray's excitement at seeing the ship made Andrew smile. "I go on ship! I go on ship!"
"Yes, Ray. We're both going on the ship."
Together, they moved into the hold, to match the numbers on the lading lists with the boxes of cargo. Ray proved to be quick at catching identical numbers and marking them off.
That night they both slept on board the ship. Andrew thought wryly that one advantage to sailing again was that he had his bed back. He shook his head at himself. It wasn't Ray's fault that he was the most desirable creature a man who loved men could ever want, with a lean whipcord body and that quicksilver mind and those beguiling eyes...
His eyes went to the broken serrated animal tooth dangling from his watch chain. He laughed a little at his drowning fancy. How much better was a man of flesh and blood, than a dream creature from a faery world. The familiar melancholy pain filled him as he realized that he would never have either of them. He lay back and closed his eyes.
Ray took to sailing like a duck to water. Or, rather, like an albatross to water, considering the way he fell and flailed his way through the first day at sea before he learned to balance himself. He was the object of a great deal of laughter from the other crew members on that account; but as Ray got his sea legs -- and never showed any signs of seasickness -- they stopped most of the ridicule. But there were sidelong looks at Ray here, too, and the muttering that Andrew had come to hate in the week he'd spent with Ray in town.
The work was hard and long, and Ray had to be taught everything aboard ship as he'd learned everything new in town. He was already used to obeying Andrew; now Andrew had to teach him to say "Yes, sir," when he was told to fetch a dipper of water or wait at table; Andrew didn't want the crew muttering even more about the pampered cabin boy being "kept" by the captain.
Andrew's thousand-and-one duties as captain -- and Ray's interminable chores -- meant that they could not be together as much as they had been in town; conversely, the living space aboard was smaller and closer, and they were comforted by the sight of each other.
When Ray asked him what "dummy" meant -- the favoured term for the curly-haired man by Mr. Menker, the first mate -- Andrew wisely banked his anger and said that it was a nickname for the cabin boy on some ships. If he had told Ray the truth, Ray would have lost his temper, the first mate would have suffered, and Andrew would have been forced to punish Ray as a discipline measure.
In the few times when Ray was free of work, he was to be found as far in the prow as possible, staring out over the ocean, watching the dolphins and the gulls, the wind fluffing his wild red hair; Menker continued to call Ray "dummy," but the rest of the crew quickly named him "Figurehead." At times Andrew would look at the slender solitary figure clinging to the rigging and feel an ache inside him. Other times he would look to the prow to see Ray looking at him across the ship, smiling, and the expression would hollow his bones.
Ray did not tell Andrew about his nighttime explorations around the ship when he was too tired to go to sleep right away, peering and prying into everything that was not part of his regular duties, trying to figure out everything about ships. His curiosity would not have been surprising to Andrew.
But on the fourth night at sea, well away from sight of land, Ray woke from a disturbing dream, hearing a scraping, thumping noise that had little to do with the creaks and sighs made by the vessel. He eased himself from his hammock and through the dozing crewmembers, and went out.
An overcast sky made everything very dark -- but Ray could see several shapes dragging a big box across the deck before hoisting it and tipping it overboard with a mighty splash.
He heard Mr. Menker talking to someone else. He caught the word "dummy" and laughter from the others. Ah, he'd been spotted and the first mate was calling him.
Ray stepped out, polite. "Yes, sir? You want my help?"
The men -- there were three of them -- whirled to stare at him.
Then Menker shouted, "Thief!"
"Thief! Madman! Stop him!" they all shouted.
All three of them rushed Ray. Menker's fist slammed into the side of his head and the other two knocked him to the deck.
"Captain! Captain Phillip! Your madman's tossed the cargo overboard!"
Andrew bolted out of his cabin to shouts and roars of rage. The entire crew had been roused from sleep and lanterns swayed and bobbed, throwing swinging shadows and light over the assembly. He looked over them all, over the rumbles of rage and angry shouts, and saw murder in their eyes.
Ray was being held upright between Mr. Menker and Shepson, the second mate. His wrists were bound before him, and his legs were tied at the ankles. A black eye was blossoming over his right cheek. And if the men were angry, it was nothing compared to the anger in Ray's face. "Andrew, they drop box!" he shouted.
"Captain Phillip," Menker said coldly, "I was performing my rounds for the evening and came upon the cabin boy dragging a box up the hatch. Before I could stop him, he sent it over. Look!"
There were the furrow marks on the deck from heavy crates being dragged. The men murmured, ugly.
"Look below, Captain Phillip," Menker continued. "All the crates are gone, lost overboard, because of this idiot's mad whim. The cargo is lost. And you know what Hoffleigh will do -- and what he will not do."
"Andrew, I not, I not! I see they drop box!" Ray shouted, heaving at his bonds, squirming, his temper so lost that he forgot to call Andrew "Captain."
The men grumbled sullenly, loudly.
The cargo, senselessly thrown overboard. No wages at all, for any of them. No wonder they were ready to commit murder.
Andrew stared at them; the raging, righteously angry Ray and the cold narrow look in Menker's face. Could Ray lie at all? "Why would Ray want to do such a thing?" he asked sternly. "More to the point, Menker, why would you? What scheme do you have with Hoffleigh?" The insurance, it had to be... And how convenient to pin the blame for the senseless act on the "dummy."
Menker turned to the men. "You see, men? It's as I told you. He is so besotted with his creature," the word purred out silkenly, hatefully suggestive, "that he has no recourse but to blame me for this animal's insanity, and to impugn the honor of a man who has done business in our town for years. You know what will happen when we return to port. No pay for any of us. Your families will go without. Your children will cry from hunger -- because Captain Phillip turned his creature loose on us."
Sullen thundercloud murmuring. Andrew felt sick inside. Nothing he could say now would regain his authority as captain of the ship. Nothing.
Menker turned to face Captain Phillip again, displaying only the righteous anger that any of the crew would rightfully feel. "Captain, you were warned against bringing your pet aboard ship. You also swore you would take full responsibility for his actions. Well? Is your word better than your judgement? And will you accept the responsibility for our lost wages?" He took one step toward Captain Phillip.
Hungry men, desperate men; oh, Menker had them in the palm of his hand. What could Andrew do against them that would not turn into a double lynching?
"Captain Phillip, you are confined to quarters until we reach port," Menker said briskly, taking on the authority he had so smoothly usurped. "There's no point in going on now. Mr. Shepson, prepare to turn and head back home." Menker turned to someone else as if to hand off his side of Ray. "Get this animal into the hold and lock it."
Ray wrenched at his arms. "Andrew!" he squealed.
"Go with them, Ray," Andrew said coldly. Go with them, or they will kill both of us right here, right now.
The look of betrayal and hurt on Ray's face made Andrew feel even sicker than the raw ugliness of the hatred filling the ship directed at both of them. But what could he do? Ray told the truth, he'd seen them toss the cargo, Andrew was sure of it. All right, then. He turned to return to his cabin under the watchful glare of a pistol-carrying man. Cool, they had to stay cool. A cooling-off period for everyone, while he regrouped and figured out how to get the truth from Ray, and how to make it plausible in court --
A high squeal. "No! No, Andrew, not go! Not go!"
Andrew whirled around in time to see Ray yank free of his captors and hop-stagger against the rail. His eyes were like chunks of flaming St.-Elmo's-Fire, his teeth gleaming as Menker reached for him again --
"Ray, no, don't!" Andrew shouted. He lunged forward.
It was too late. He saw Ray sink his teeth into Menker's arm, and watched as Menker shouted in pain and rage and swung out with his arm across Ray's face.
In slow motion Andrew watched as Ray toppled backwards over the railing. The blackness outside the ship swallowed the sound and the sight.
Andrew didn't know he was screaming until Menker smashed him across the face to shut him up.
"Lock him in his cabin," Menker snapped to the two men holding Andrew between them. "He will answer for the missing cargo, not us."
Andrew pulled as the two men holding him dragged him to his cabin. "Ray's overboard," he said numbly. They had to stop and pick him up. They had to. Sharks everywhere, Ray was bound hand and foot, he couldn't even walk when Andrew'd first met him --
"Where 'e belongs," one guard said grimly. "Not stopping to pick up that bastard. 'E's done enough already."
"Better pray they put it all on you," the other guard added. "They dock our pay again, we'll come looking for you."
And the door of the captain's cabin clunked shut. Andrew was standing alone in the middle of the room, as he had when he'd been wakened less than half an hour ago.
If you breathe it, you will drown and die like a human.
The cold black water pressed against him, squeezing his lungs cruelly, blocking his human sight. But his hearing was the same; he heard the multitudinous swaying strokes of shark tails, the subliminal noise of the stupid creatures as they surrounded their easy prey, closed in on him to tear and feed.
But where there are sharks, there are --
Ray squealed out into the water with the last oxygen in his human lungs, not knowing if he could be heard under water any more, not knowing if there was any nearby to hear --
Andrew sat on the edge of his bed. He heard the guards muttering outside his cabin door. He stared at the opposite wall, unmoving, uncaring.
A set-up. And a perfect scapegoat. Hoffleigh would get the insurance money on the cargo, and Andrew would receive the blame. He had promised to take full responsibility for Ray's actions. His word against Menker's, Shepson's, who else was involved? And what was the worth of the word of a man so besotted with lust he'd bring a dangerous, unstable man on board a working vessel?
Menker would get a captaincy for his prompt discovery of this laggardness in Andrew. Perhaps he would even get a share of the insurance.
He had brought Ray to sea to keep him safe from those stupid townspeople.
He remembered the look of disdain in fearless green eyes. Stupid people. Sharks --
He buried his face in his hands and wept.
Mer-calves whirled and darted around Ray, squealing at seeing a human speaking their tongue; at least the ones not busy teasing and drawing off the sharks, squealing in laughter and fun. "Ray, you've got legs! You're a human!" Anemone said. "What happened to your skin? You did see Cowrie! Mako thought you might! They're all off mating --"
Ray gestured upward with his bound hands as the water squeezed his ribs.
"Oh, humans, air!"
Briskly, Ray's younger sister called Wrasse and Limpet over. "He needs air to breathe!" the mating-time-matriarch squealed imperiously. "Take him and go up fast." Anemone had absolute power at this time; she could ignore restrictions that ruled calves in regular times.
Ray's brothers darted upward, Ray squeezed between their bodies as if they were play-mating once again.
The water crushed at him, squeezing his life. Black spots whirled before him, the overwhelming need to open his mouth and breathe --
They broke the surface, and Ray gasped, coughing out water. Again, and again. Oxygen flooded his blood like ale. And he had once thought air thin and life-choking.
"Did humans throw their teeth at you?" Wrasse asked.
"What's Cowrie like? How big is he?"
"Can humans talk like us?"
Ray submerged and boomed, "Cowrie is big as a whale. Humans have their own language. One human put a web around my hands. Free them!"
Limpet's razor-sharp mer-teeth snapped Ray's wrist-bonds in seconds. "Your tail -- no, your legs!"
Tail? Ray kicked his still-bound-together legs, and felt a surge of power carry him, nearly as strongly as his mer-tail had once done. "Leave my legs the way they are."
"But I want to see your legs, Ray," Wrasse growled, breaching to take a disappointingly dark and murky look at the forbidden surface.
"They're stronger the way they are."
And Ray's legs and feet, properly buoyed by ocean, no longer hurt with every movement. He kicked some more, his arms at their old stance for steering and guiding, and managed to bring himself to the surface for more air.
"I fell off the ship," he said. His blood boiled, thinking of the first mate --
And his heart nearly killed him with pain as he remembered Andrew angrily telling him to go with the first mate, believing him instead of Ray.
He'd thought they understood each other. He'd made Andrew see how he desired him, and Andrew wouldn't touch him. They had been as close as siblings. But what he had felt was not true. Andrew did not feel the same as Ray did...
He moaned into the water.
"Ray, are you injured?" Limpet asked, whirling around his brother. "Did a shark take a bite out of you?"
He was remembering Cowrie's words when he'd given Ray the magic to make him a human to find his captain: "I see great pain ahead for you." He had thought the pain of the magic would be the worst thing he could ever feel.
So Andrew thought he'd thrown the crates into the sea.
Angrily he breached for air, and submerged to talk to his siblings. "I have to follow the ship," he said.
"We saw the ship," Wrasse said. "Now it's going back the way it came."
Back to the town. Good. "I'm going to follow that ship," Ray said. "Wrasse, go get Anemone, and ask her to bring all the calves to the surface. I want you to help me do something." Something that would prove to Andrew that he hadn't done what they said he did.
As Wrasse darted away, Ray kicked his legs strongly, and broke the surface to take another breath of air. "I'm hungry."
"There's some yellowtails around here --"
"Couldn't catch them now." Ray grinned at Limpet.
"You really did turn into a human," Limpet said, awed at seeing the strange teeth in his brother's mouth. "What are they like?"
"Like sharks." He remembered the look he had shared with Andrew after the women had hit him and dragged their children away from him. They had understood each other. But Andrew had believed the first mate, had sent him away... "All of them."
"You're all alone up there."
More pain, worse pain, as if a shark had bitten out his heart and was eating it before his eyes. "Yes. Now I am all alone." He remembered the look of respect Cowrie had given him when he'd taken the risk of becoming a human. "It was my decision." He bubbled a painful little laugh. "I shall have to live alone and learn all I can, like Cowrie. Perhaps I will become a Land Witch, and humans will come to me with fish and turtles, asking for magic." And perhaps, in time, his heart would stop hurting so badly.
But first he would find Andrew and show him, before going away from him.
Just then Anemone, Wrasse and the other calves came darting up to Ray and Limpet; the excited calves broke the surface only to re- submerge, grumbling at how boring the upper world was. One calf held a yellowtail in her teeth; Ray neatly yanked it away and bolted it hungrily, ignoring her squeal.
Anemone ignored the childish pranks as a matriarch should. "What do you want us to do, Ray?" she asked her older brother.
It took the Marie Suzanne five days to return to the town's port, against the winds. She had been in dock for two hours when two members of the town watch, armed with pistols, entered the captain's cabin to bind and lead away their unresisting prisoner. The pistols were for their prisoner's protection; they were followed by the jeers and yells and spittle of the crewmen who trailed them to the watch-house.
Andrew was deposited in one of the two cells in the watch-house; the men clustered around outside, and the apprentice eyed him as he bustled about doing his work, but apart from the two guards the room was empty.
From Andrew's vantage he could see the cot where he had first seen the sleeping curly-haired stranger, not three weeks ago. Ray had been found on the beach, where someone had tried unsuccessfully to drown him.
And now Andrew had drowned him.
He should shave, comb his hair, straighten his clothing at least; he would not help himself if he came to his trial looking like a wild man. He had promised to take full responsibility for Ray's actions. All he had was the "madman's" panicked word that the first mate had tossed the cargo. Fines, reparations, prison, scandal; he'd be lucky if he could get a job rag-picking or rat-catching once he was out of gaol. He had lost the sea, as surely as the sea had taken Ray away from him.
Such sweetness in his life, tasted so briefly; it had become a future of bitterness and pain. The sharks had won.
Heavy steps sounded as a portly man walked into the room. Andrew looked up with no surprise, to see glittering eyes behind spectacles on the other side of the prison bars. And there was Menker as well, with the proper angry look of the bearer of bad tidings. A somber man in a black robe stood behind Gregory Hoffleigh and Menker; the arbitrator. "My entire cargo," Hoffleigh said flatly. "Lost."
"The only good that came out of this was the lunatic threw himself overboard and won't be able to do any more damage," Menker added coldly.
"There's always the insurance money, of course," Andrew said heavily.
"It's as well I did insure the cargo. My fears were justified, weren't they?" Hoffleigh said silkenly. "As my trust in you was not. When I am done with you, Captain Phillip, the only way you'll be allowed on board a sea-going vessel again is as ballast."
"Andrew Bartholomew Phillip," intoned the arbitrator, "you are hereby charged with willful and criminal neglect, and by your actions you have caused the destruction of a shipment of goods worth --"
A squeal pealed out from the shore below, over the low voices of the men outside. A squeal like whale-singing; like a gull crying; like many other sea noises.
But Andrew knew what -- who -- made that sound. He could not believe, he should not believe. But his heart moved inside him for the first time in many days, lifted; grew wings and flew through the bars of his prison.
The men fell silent. Menker turned ashen.
The watchman ran outside, out to the path.
After a pause of annoyance at the sound, the arbitrator cleared his throat. "A shipment of goods --"
"Andrew!" squealed the voice from down at the shore. The word was unmistakeable. "Andrew!"
The sick look on the florid face of Hoffleigh -- face turning white, turning grey -- filled Andrew's blood like ale.
Andrew straightened, felt fire fill his heart and mind and eyes. His guards shrank back a little. "Let me out," he said coolly. "Ray is down at the beach."
The watchman ran in again. "God in Heaven, it's a miracle!" he gasped. "It's a miracle! For God's sake, man, let him out of there!"
The watchmen, the arbitrator, Hoffleigh, Menker, the crew, ran down the path to the two objects at the shore.
Ray stood at the water's edge, water dripping from his curls, still wearing the clothes he had been wearing that night. But it was the box beside Ray -- a big wooden box, dripping, marked with numbers -- that made Hoffleigh sink to his knees, pasty-faced with shock, that made Menker bolt and run, till a guard seized him and dragged him back. The men gasped, murmured, whimpered at this sight; many of them crossed themselves and knelt.
A ghost, surely. A haunt risen from the sea to torment Andrew. But the full afternoon sun shone down on this apparition, and his slender body felt real when Andrew ran forward to throw his arms around it. The strong arms around his back were not the arms of a wraith. "I thought you were dead, Ray," he whispered. "I thought--" he choked, and buried his face in Ray's neck, squeezing him tightly. "Oh, love," he whispered.
Ray went still; trembled. "Love," he said.
There were others present. Andrew made himself pull away from his green-eyed apparition. "But, but how--? Your hands and feet were bound! You couldn't walk when I met you!"
He was met with an evil grin, one he thought he would never see again. "Swim good," was all Ray said. Then his eyes were hot, glaring at the shaking, wide-eyed Menker. "I not lie, Andrew. I see he drop box." The watchmen, still gaping in astonishment at the twin miracles, glowered at the squirming first mate and tightened their grips on his shoulders. As for Hoffleigh...
"Ray, how--?" Andrew gasped, now staring at the box. It was a cargo box from the Marie Suzanne, still sealed.
"We find on bottom. Heavy!"
"Mother of God..." Shepson murmured, eyes wide, hand covering his mouth. "There were sharks everywhere..." Then his hand fell away and he straightened, his eyes meeting those of the "madman," and a kind of peace seemed to settle on the second mate. "Open it up, there's nothing but rocks inside."
"Shut up!" Menker screamed in hysteria, all his suave assurance gone. He yanked at the guard who gripped his arm, till another closed in to take the other arm.
"Shut up you fool!" roared Hoffleigh.
"Rocks?" Ray said.
The crewmen murmured. They moved forward, prying at the boards. One of the watch had a heavy decorative sword, and they used it as a crowbar to pry up the top of the crate. And there, packed in straw, were stones instead of the valuable ceramic bowls listed on the manifest.
Rocks. Ray would have been drowned and Andrew disgraced for the sake of a worthless cargo.
Now -- now -- Andrew began to feel fire in his blood.
"Hoffleigh did it," Shepson continued, almost droning, as if he were in the confessional booth. "He set it up. Insurance. Just supposed to make it look like a broken hatch did it, but then the dummy came aboard--"
Hoffleigh tore free of his guards and charged toward Ray, hands outstretched for his neck, shrieking, insane with rage. Before Andrew or any of them could react, there was a sound of impact, and a high squeal of pain.
And Hoffleigh was sprawled on the ground, blood etching one cheek from his broken spectacles. Ray was shaking his bloody hand and wincing. He looked up at Andrew. "Fist," he said with satisfaction and shook his cut hand again.
Andrew smiled, then laughed and couldn't stop laughing.
Menker, Hoffleigh, Shepson and Drake -- the third man that night -- were carted away by the guards, followed by the enraged mob of cheated crew members. None of them would look either Ray or Andrew in the eye.
"Sharks," Ray snarled, and kicked a stone. He winced and looked at his hand again.
"Here, let me see that," Andrew said, taking the hand in his and inspecting the bruised and cut knuckles. "Don't hit people wearing glasses, Ray. You might get broken glass in your cuts." He looked up, and their eyes met. "Ray," he whispered, "God himself brought you back to me."
Ray looked confused. "Not God. Brother."
Andrew blinked. "You have a brother?"
Ray nodded eagerly. They were now alone on the shore. "I tell secret, you not tell." Ray walked over to the water, knelt and stuck his head in. A deep squealing noise thrummed outward. Ray pulled his head out and shook it vigorously, droplets flying everywhere.
Then, not far off the shore, a man's head broke the surface and looked at both of them. It was a young man, almost of age, with a shock of thick black hair plastered wetly down his sides. The head went down, the water rippled, and the young man's head broke the surface much closer to them. He grinned.
Andrew sat down on the sand in shock as he saw what the teeth looked like. Numbly, he took in the other details as the young man hoisted himself onto a hummock of sand; the long slits between the ribs like a shark's gills, the speckled black back that tapered into a black lower body and flukes like those of a small pilot whale.
Ray squealed, and the merman grinned and flipped back into the water, darting away, flukes working strongly, until he was gone from sight. "Brother," he said firmly. "We find box."
Andrew stared at Ray. He looked down at the beach where the water lapped gently at his feet as the sun began to set. "The wreck, that night," he murmured. "I'd tied myself to the wheel." He looked up at Ray. "That was you," he said wonderingly. "The boy who was riding -- no. The boy who was half dolphin." He pulled out his watch and stared at the dangling tooth. "You chewed my ropes. Broke a tooth." Ray grinned, and Andrew stared at his chipped human tooth. "But you're a man like me!"
"I man now," Ray agreed. "I make me man."
Andrew gazed in awe. "You were like that once? You became a man and left the sea? Why?"
Ray looked at Andrew, eyes warm and green. "I love at you."
Andrew stared, hands grasping Ray's. He brought them to his lips and kissed them, and looked at Ray again. "You love me?" A tight cold blossom was unfurling inside Andrew, stretching its bright yellow petals out to eagerly take in the rays of the setting sun. His dream-rescuer; his lovely stranger...
Ray smiled. "I stay you. You love me?"
Andrew smiled till he thought his cheeks would ache for days. "Yes, Ray. I love you. Here."
And Ray was pulled forward, and Andrew's mouth covered his in warmth and moist softness, caressing, causing the yearning inside him to be stroked to a ruddy glow.
Ray pressed back with his own mouth, and pulled away to meet the blue eyes he had first seen underwater; these eyes now full of a strong pulse of heat.
"Kiss," Andrew said, smiling. "Kiss, Ray."
Ray smiled back. "Kiss," he repeated.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Other Times and Places 4, OTP Press, 1993, edited by Nina Boal.