Prodigal
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One night, beneath the waves, the fish began to sing.

I should not have heard them. For had I not forsaken all such things, forsaken my home, my colony, shed my skin and clambered up onto the dry land to follow my love? She had led me stumbling under the crush of gravity, flinching at every gust of wind that scraped across the foreign nakedness of my skin (I could feel it dessicating, feel the air sucking the molecules away and high, high out of my reach), brought me into her den. She had fed me odd vegetal things that split under my newly-dulled teeth like bones, and stroked my fur - what small patches of it I had, still - as I choked and retched at its alien tastes and textures.

But I was willing to endure all this, I told myself, when the sun had dropped down to its rest and she slept beside me with her hair falling onto my new knees like a golden slash of tangleweed. Love is not love if you are not willing to bleed, and freeze, and die, and suffer many worse things than this in its name.

So I let her work at teaching me how to stand, and walk, how to navigate with hands and eyes rather than whiskers and nostrils, the wearing of clothes, the using of tools. And the moon waned to a half-circle, and then a claw-like sliver, and then to nothing. She laughed and embraced me when I got each tiny fragment of the human world correct; I struck and cursed myself each time they were wrong.

But the moon began to swell again, and one night I woke suddenly amid the foreign tangle of blankets to the singing, to the whistles and pops conducted through the rock and into my bones now that the air was too weak to carry them to my ears. I am here, I am here, they called to each other. Come my lovers, family, friends, let us be together, let us be in this current as one.

And I knew that all that struggle was only the smallest part of that which was to come.




The moon’s siren song does not end at the tideline, though. Every thirty days she waxes and wanes again to nothing, and it is when she is empty that her pull is strongest - calling her littermate to come to her, to fill that emptiness. And so every new moon I am dragged into the awful reminder that I am not of the air, not of the land, not the same as the mate who has opened her home to me.

They mock her, the other humans - daily she goes into the town to give starchy, sour drinks and slabs of fat-soaked flesh to them in exchange for the tokens of metal that gain for us coal to warm the dwelling, and wood to mend the walls, and food to fill our stomachs. But why she, they ask, and not I? What kind of mate - husband, she says, the word is husband - has she taken for herself, who does not work for his own keep, who cannot provide for her wholly?

Some whisper that there is something wrong with me, that I am somehow hideously deformed or diseased. Some think I am fleeing a bloodied past. Some doubt I exist at all, and think me just cover for the begetting of a pup on another woman’s mate.

Don’t listen to them, she says, kissing my forehead. I chose you, and would keep choosing you in a dozen lifetimes, no matter what they say.




Our actual first pup - child, she says, the word is child - is born into that soft water, into great waves and drifts of it, needles flung about the walls like spray, encrusting all edges and corners. I turn circles in the inglenook, trying to trust that yes it should be this loud and yes it should be this long and yes this is all normal your wife is fine now stop fretting -

None of this stops me from lunging for the door when a scream stabs through the dwelling, from forcing splinters into my palm, because I knew it, I knew it was wrong -

My mate is beaming like the sun off an iceberg’s flanks, and she calls my name as the midwife places something dark into the circle of her arms. One step closer, and I freeze in recognition.

It’s my coat. The coat I gave her in token of my promise to follow her up into the air, thick and waterproof and ringed with silver and charcoal, and it is wrapped around a terribly small, red, wrinkled thing that scarcely looks like a human. But my mate smiles and holds the bundle towards me, so it must be, and she bids me say hello, so I bend over -

And when our pup opens its eyes they are black lid to lid, and I gasp.




Possibly to disprove all the accusations, she asks me to come with her to our pup’s - anointing? I was unclear as to what the ritual actually entailed, when she attempted to describe it to me. But she said that she had made a promise to her own mother to have it performed on all her children, and I understand - though I abandoned my own family and past to her, I cannot demand that she do the same just for the sake of my discomfiture over her human rites.

So she pulls a comb’s tines through my hair and clothes our pup in a long, shapeless white garmet and has me follow her through the streets to a building with brightly-coloured glass set in the windows, and we sit on hard benches among all the other humans, who whisper and point towards us.

Yes, I think spitefully. Despite all your assumptions, I do exist.

There is a small platform up on the side of the room that all the benches are facing, and I watch a man dressed in a cloak with shimmering edges climb up behind it, and begin to tell a story. His voice is dry as wood-ash, and far more granular; it could be used to smooth wood. A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father -

(It is still odd to me, slightly, that fathers remain with their cows and the pups they have engendered for all of their lives. I do not reject it - she is enough to love for more than one lifetime - but.)

Our pup squalls, when the cloaked man pours water over her head, and I wince in sympathy. That’s right, that’s right, it should be warmed by all the rest of its bulk, should be salty and silty and achingly alive, not dead in this marble basin. My mate looks on with pride, though, and kisses the newly-damp wisps of hair when she takes her back, dandles her against her shoulder. And with a cold slice of shock I realize that I have never known her mother, nor heard anything of this ritual before she told it to me. Suppose it is not required by her family after all? Suppose it is instead a way to claim our pup for the soft water, for the land and the air and the heavy wrench of gravity, because she fears that she is somehow poisoned by my engendering?

No, I want to say, no, you cannot take her from me like this without even telling me, not in front of my very nose -

But our daughter’s eyes are still dark, when she blinks. And I remember what giving things up is supposed to mean.




Another pup follows the first - this one male, and again she dresses him in white and washes his head in soft water. Our first begins to grow, begins to stumble around on her stubby limbs, and more than once I find her bending over the second, waving her fingers in his face until both he and she break out in laughter, one gurgling and one barking, and when I laugh with them I can almost forget.

It is when our third has taken root within my mate that it all turns worse again. I wake to an opened shutter and the star-spotted darkness beyond it, clutching at my ribs: the moon has reached out her hand across the distance and slipped it over the windowsill to seize them, try and wrench them out of my chest. The sea, the sea, the sea - I am deafened by its song, trying to block out my ears with one hand and my marrow with the other and failing at both, I must, I must to the shore, there is no choice - my limbs belong to the moon and the tide and their siren song. But in my effort to rise I pull upon the blanket, and my mate catches me before I have unlatched the door, reaching up to lay her hands on my shoulders, my face, asking what is it, what’s wrong?

It is an effort for even the single human word, tide, but she seems to understand, and she makes me sit upon the floor (clay-tiled, and its touch pushes back against the song ever so slightly) and closes the shutter, brings a cup and tells me to drink. I taste the salt anyway, and curse the human tears. But she strokes my hair as though I am not (am not, never will be), holds me in place until the moon ceases her singing (or my body is too exhausted to hear it), hums her own airy dissonance into my ears.




But it takes her longer, the next night. My fingers have unlatched both the inner door to our sleeping-chamber and the outer door and I have run out onto the path by the time she calls wait from the door - I do not even want to obey, but the cry halts my limbs in their tracks.

I turn, and her shift is a white slash of foam across the dark facing of the dwelling. And she comes and takes my hands, her own so gentle, so warm, and I find myself falling, seizing fistfuls of her shift as though she is the thickest stipe of oarweed and I can anchor to her to prevent myself being swept away. The growing curve of her belly rests against my forehead.

I can hear the doubled beat of her heart and our pup’s, the pulsating flow of blood through their veins. Our pup floats in its own small ocean, its fingers still webbed, its tail still sturdy.

I do not know what I am, I finally whisper into her stomach. Human or kópamaþur, ocean or land.

She strokes my hair. You are my husband, she says. I am your wife. That is all there is to it.

A bull does not ask things of anyone, neither his pups nor their dam. But this, at least, is something that is mine, something half-me, a bond that I can wrap around myself and pray will hold me to them. No longer just a bull - a father.




But it is not enough. It was never enough. The singing is subtle and low and yet all the more alluring for that, for there are two things to consider in resisting its draw: the intensity, and the duration.

I can endure, can curl up and bolt the door and dig my nails into my temples for one month, or for two. But not for a human lifespan’s dozens upon dozens of years.

The moonlight through the window covers our pups in a gossamer comforter. The youngest has his lips pursed as though sucking upon sorrel, his eyelashes dark against the curves of his cheeks. The eldest faces away from me, her breathing a slow and steady swell. My coat is heavy over my arm; I suddenly remember her newborn, sleeping nestled within its fur.

I bend over each in turn, gently brushing my lips over their foreheads. Breathing in their scent, to fix it within my memory. Then I straighten, and close the door slowly so that it does not squeak, and walk across the darkened room to the outer door. I unbolt it, and step outside, and pull it closed behind me.

A silver smudge of cloud gives testament to the moon’s position and provides just enough light to see by that I do not stumble as I walk down the path, emerge into the street. The compass of my nature points unerringly to the west, and it leads me to the drifting smell of salt, and then to the swash of wave upon sand. A line of rock and driftwood emerges out of the darkness, and behind it, a glimmer of light.

And guilty as I feel for abandoning them, I feel so right.

I had left behind my boots, so I feel every tuft of lichen, every eroded edge as I climb over the rock and drop down into the soft, enfolding sand. The singing pierces its way into my veins, seeps in through my skin, saying yes, this is where you belong. You are home, my child, at last - home, home, home.

I unfold the coat and, for the first time in many summers, sling it over my shoulders. It melds into my skin - I am not hot nor cold nor wet nor dry, but in balance: part of the sea.

The next swell breaks, and scampers foaming across the sand to play about my bare ankles, and as it retreats I run with it, exulting in the smooth rush, its happy engulfment of my limbs. And the water closes over my head, and I extend my flippers on instinct to steady myself within it, and the salt floods - into my fur, into my ears, between my whiskers and unclosed nostrils. The human world washes from me like silt, my last memory that raspy voice intoning: no matter what you’ve done - just come home.

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