I have always been afraid of the sea. It is too rumpled; it has so many angles. I do not like that at one moment it is a soft intimacy, and the next it knocks me like spent prey flat to the sand. I do not care for the swells that seem to be whole countries. I do not like that it will not lie serene.
Like anything that is worthy of fear, it is fascinating. I love to walk along the shore, listening to the sea crack its nose on the edge of the land, feeling the spray of its frustration. I go in ankle deep. Then I dodge back out and kick sand into it. I guess I am a coquette and I tease the sea with the completeness of my body, my possession of edges. I contain myself; poor sea, you are contained by the land.
Yes, I can swim. And I swim in the sea. I swim hand over hand like a man gathering distance; and I swim with a mermaid’s undulation, stitching distances together. I wade in from the sand-laden shore; or I dive, when the tide is lurking high, from the rocks that poke their fists into the sea. I swim, and I am afraid. I am more aware of my breath, cautious with buoyancy. I like the swimming, but I keep the shore in sight, and I know when the currents pull that they pull for me and I swim across their grip and into friendlier waters, before rushing into the limit of the land to delight in my escape.
It was on a night similar to this one, when the clouds were fathoming the moon; and stunted moon-rays would jut out from the clouds’ inadequate cover, tinkling over the sand beach like a small boy’s water-making; that I first met my love. I was tasting the salt in the air; the tide was as full of itself as it has ever been; and I was adrift in my fear and taunting of the waves. At first I only heard him: a gasp of air coming out of the water; and then I saw him rise impossibly from the surface. Eight feet tall, or perhaps nine. With the dark, I could not see his body waiting still beneath the craggy line of buffer between air and water – but I knew he had to be nearly beached, sucking himself as thin as wafer, just to get this close to the end of the sea, given that he could push his thin neck and dart shaped head as high from the water as he was doing.
I did not love him at our beginning. As he first looked at me I did not know what his heart held: if I were prey, or if I were simply an accidental witness. I thought to run, but no one has ever mentioned a creature like this, and I might have been the first to meet him, courageous captain or scoundrel. I am no coward. I fear the sea yet I kiss it with my body. I have my fears, but I hold them by the throat. I could stand the company of this newly found resident.
And so I stood watching him, and he rose watching me. His eyes set slightly to the side, he turned his head inches to get the view of me from both planes. The wind was sounding slightly behind me, whipping my dress flat on the backs of my legs and curling it pleadingly out in front of me.
My fear made of itself a ball, a ball I could float out on the foamless sea. A ball that could be the center part of a child’s game.
The water fell lazily from the part of him exposed to air, and I could not tell if his skin were scale or leather. His broad, strong trunk quivered a bit from its efforts, and his arms writhed like tentacles, or his tentacles wrangled like arms. I could see power in him, though I could not see the meeting of muscle group with muscle group or any outcrop of bone. But he had a presence of power, of mastery, of world making.
After a few moments I cooed, “Oh. Oh you. You. What are you?” And his head leaned back a bit and then forward a bit, and I asked, “What do you see?”
The small night air shifted, and my skirt fell flat against me all around. Fearing he might perceive the wind in my clothes a threat, I pulled them off and wadded them into the sand. He seemed to enjoy the fact that, for a moment or two, I was not focused on him, but on some other activity that did not know him. I wonder how many nights had perhaps he seen me, or others like me, moving through our lives in curious steps that had nothing to do with him; yet, there he was in the frame, an unknown watcher?
I should have feared him as much as the sea, or more: but I could not do so. My fear was adrift, but a ball in a child’s game. He did not smell of aggression. He made no attempt to manage me, to marshal my movements. I felt free to go. I felt I could be still my own master. I could not, then, even hear his breathing. And, the unclothed fact that he held his head so long out of the sea informed me that he must not be entirely of the sea, but must love the air as well. And so I waited. I watched.
We eyed each other thus, the naked girl and the leathery sea serpent, for ten minutes or perhaps even a few seconds more, as time began to miss its mark and the clock within me retraced its steps; and then slowly he backed away, and down went his head, the neck lying out into the surf, the skull slipping last away into deeper water.
I dressed. I walked home. I hoped the smell of my excitement did not give me away.
I did not see him the next two nights, but on the third he was back. As with our first visit, I did not see him approach. But then I felt him, all eight to nine feet of him poised in the air, his attention gifted to me. This night I stepped half steps into the ocean in front of him, my dress gone at the first sight of him, the water coming up to my ankles, my toes coiled in the sand like roots of the mangrove. When he bent his neck slightly, I bent my body. At my sympathetic movement he stopped, cold as snow on the face of still water. And then he whipped side to side, the supple coil of his strong body barely angering the surface; and I whipped side to side and he whipped even further and I could not bend so far, but I tried. In this way we mimicked each other near half an hour; and then he retreated, and I went to where I had left my clothes in a sack I had brought for them, and with my fingers tingling of salt dressed luxuriously before skipping all the way home.
Four more nights, each separated by two unfulfilling cycles of dark, we did this. And each night I stepped further out: the third night to my shins, the fourth night to my knees, the fifth night to the mid of my thigh, the sixth to the join of my legs. I whipped and he whipped and we spun but a bit on our axis, and we tipped our heads to one another, and by the sixth night I was in love. I wanted the serpent to eat the whole of me and I wanted to eat the whole of the serpent and I thought maybe I could love the sea as well, even if I were afraid of it; or I could turn my fear into understanding, into currents and fish and chasing the embarrassments of oysters. I could evolve, and my fears could be small glints in the corners of his eyes, the laughter he would make if he could only laugh.
Three more nights of loneliness, and on the seventh of our courtship I arrived and even with no sight of him I bared myself and slipped my dress into the bag and began to scan for him; to look down the beach in very small, incremental steps; looking for the blow of air that would be his arrival; looking for the disturbance of the water that would mean he was working his way, for me, out of his secure and justly conquered realm.
And as I looked along the edges where the land and sea meet mouth to mouth, I saw it. Made of what I think is pearl, fashioned either by a community of magical hands, or by someone who had the command of thousands of artisan fishes. An ornament, placed well up on the beach by someone who had the command of thousands of crabs and crawlers and residents of the wash between completely dry and untangled wet.
I could not yet see him, but I asked of the empty night, “For me, my love?”
With the sound of me, he suddenly rose and trumpeted. Trumpeted. He had made no noise before that night. I had taken his silence as the cost of his hoisting himself into an unyielding air. But his voice was a harkening, deep like the sound of a man snoring in the bed of another man’s wife. I had no fear of it. Fear had drifted away, passed out of the bay with the last school of bait fish. Fear had become a memory. I welcomed him calling me, forming my name – I am sure it was my name – in his secret language. Or wrapping his sound around his pride at this small gift he had commissioned for me, this pearl wicker cage, with door and loving lock, standing formidable on the sand.
All love is entrapment. To be loved is to allow oneself to be owned: the thought of one owning the thought and physical shade of the other; a mutual trust in a physical binding; a sensual ennobling in the taste of ownership and surrender.
I would be anything that was his, and yet I did not even know if truly he were male, or if the concept of sex, stirring directionless to distraction within me, would to him make any odor of sense whatsoever. But I would be anything that was his.
I went over to the gift and ran my hand along its spines. It was a device we shared, this pearl cage. I could sense no edges, no welds. It seemed almost as though it had been formed complete. The weight of it could not be moved, and I marveled that he could command so many creatures as to fashion it and move it and place it here simply to dazzle me, simply to declare his love and endless protection.
He looked at me with his left eye alone and I walked into the pearl house, pulling the door shut behind me. The hinges moved with salty ease and the latch fell into place like a young man’s first properly used erection striking home. I placed my hands on either side of the thin bars of the door and tilted my head back and he tilted his head back and let go three mournful blasts, the sound rattling my skin and sending waves of ecstasy chasing each other all about the thrilled surface of me. I closed my eyes and quivered long moments as though to let the whole of me crawl within the precious brine of my own blood, holding myself upright with my grip on the bars, my feet in the sand digging in as if to steady me for the next wave, to hold me against the sea’s wish to push me out and onto the land.
I did not hear at first the lights of my village going out. In time, I heard the trumpeting released by the aim-of-my-heart’s fellow creatures, each rising out of the sea and then lumbering out of the sea and then charging out of the sea and swallowing my neighbors and friends and rolling about their houses, making sticks and mud of what were walls and trellises. Flattening, in their numbers, community and conscription and social obligation and institution and bonding each to each, bringing the land underneath again to its pristine state of destruction and disorder. I opened my eyes, dreaming and dreary and drugged with the vastness of my oceans of commitment, and I said, “My love, you have made this for me? For me? You have fashioned me this unimaginable gift? More than any other suitor could have managed; more than anyone worth the taking of me might muster.” I was thick with the blood caressing my brain, rolling through the center of me and leaving my limbs. “I will live within it forever.”
I was to be his. The fulfillment of my transformation, the metamorphosis he had these long days called forth from me, left me awash and uncaring and nothing more than a shell that would be what he wished it to be: nothing more.
And he twisted his left eye as close as it has ever come to me and I could luxuriously feel his breath: an air of deeper, fuller seas; and of fishes I have not eaten before, nor had the like of run through my fingers as I sat entangled and unsettled and selfishly fearing the sea.
And he was gone. And my village was gone; and gone were my neighbors and the boys who had sought to bind me to them, and the friends who wanted me to play at being more than a means to an end with them, and the elders who saw in me and in those like me their own dry, leathery limits. And the tide went out and the sea was gone a little, but still lapped at the land and promised it would return.
Now he comes back, coming so close as to leave fish and kelp within my reach at the edge of the pearl enclosure, and we bob and undulate and weave as reeds or Sargasso, and bend blending together: and I know he has come to understand the inflections in my voice, to trumpet in companion syllables. I understand his love as being but a mirror of the love I have for him, an eddy in the sea that carries us both around and around; and if one day I drown from this divine connection I could think of no better way to end my corporeality than in the crush of his sea: thrilled, loved, and unafraid.
Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, and many other wonderful places. His latest book of short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his web site, www.kpoyner.com, and from Amazon.com. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. He is also the animal parent of four rescue cats and two self-satisfied fish.