Long ago, in a secluded village by the sea, there lived a boy. Every morning the boy would wake up before dawn and cook breakfast for his parents. He would gather his father’s fishing gear and help his dad into his great seal-skin coat. Just as the sun began to rise, the boy would stand in the doorway and wave as his father trudged down the hill to the nearby port. For as long as he could the boy would stand there, wishing he could join his father on the ocean. But soon enough his mother would call him and the boy would have to return to his chores.
The boy’s day was busy: he fed the goats, weeded the garden, cleaned house, and made repairs to his father’s gear. His mother worked next to him, joking and laughing through the day’s tasks. But he was always distracted. His mind was focused on the small sailboat in which his father was sailing. As the sun began to set, the boy watched for his father, stooped under the day’s catch, as he made his way back up the hill. The boy would help clean and cook the fish as his father told him of the day on the water.
On the boy’s thirteenth birthday he woke up early like every other morning, only to find his parents already awake. They had made a special breakfast for him: eggs and ham fresh from the market—not a fish in sight. He wolfed it hungrily, hardly noticing the stony silence of his parents across the table. Finally his father spoke. “Son,” he said in his deep rumble. “I think it’s time you joined me on the water.”
The boy couldn’t believe his ears, his dreams had finally come true. “Yes!” hHe shouted, launching himself to his feet.
“Settle down,” his father laughed. “I got ya’ something that might help.” He pulled a brown package out from under the table.
The boy tore back the wrapping. It was a seal-skin coat of his very own. The oily fur felt soft beneath his fingers. It was perfect.
As his mother helped him don his new coat, she knelt down before him and caught his eye. “Promise me you’ll come back.”
“Mom,” the boy laughed. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
And minutes later the boy and his father were headed down the hill towards the village. If he had turned around, the boy might have caught sight of his mother standing in the doorway, a glimmer of tears on her cheeks.
The sailboat seemed like a palace to the boy. Its single mast stretched upwards like a tower and its white sail blazed like a beacon across the blue sky. It promised adventure with every flap of the wind.
After they boarded the boat, his father showed the boy his job for the day: he was to be in charge of the rigging. The boy’s heart leapt with pride. It was an important job, it meant that he would be controlling the sail. And he swore that he would do it better than any job he had ever done.
Then they were off. Sailing out through the jaws of the bay, the boy could feel the ocean come alive beneath him. Every swell seemed magical to him. As the boat swung out into open water, two porpoises swam up alongside them, jumping and spinning through the air. The boy let out a giddy laugh.
“It’s said that they were chosen by the ocean. They bring good luck to any fisherman who sees them,” his father said with a smile of his own. “It’s especially lucky to spot them on your first voyage.” The boy stared in awe as the creatures gave a final leap and vanished beneath the waves.
As the morning passed, the boy proved himself to be a good sailor and a good fisherman. Within minutes of casting his line the boy had caught his very first fish. It was a huge rockfish, bigger than any his father had brought home. And though the man grumbled about “beginner’s luck,” the boy could tell that his father was pleased. By noon, they had caught more fish than ever before and the father was in a celebratory mood. He took the boy behind the wheel and soon had the boy running the boat at full steam. He was a natural sailor and the father complimented himself on having a son who had inherited so much of his talent.
When the two broke for lunch both were in high spirits. The boy had spent so many days dreaming about sailing but he never could have imagined the thrill that came with it. While he was out on the water, whether behind the wheel or just casting his line, the boy felt a sense of belonging. Never before had anything come so naturally to him. He wished he could stay out there forever.
As the two polished off their smoked fish, a loud a cacophony erupted from the village. The church bells peeled out over the water in a warning that every sailor knew: storm brewing. As the boy stared back towards the noise, he felt a small flutter of fear. He was not sure if he was ready to face the fury of a storm. And it seemed as if he wasn’t the only one: as he watched, the other boats from their fleet began to turn back for the safety of the bay.
But the storm seemed to have other ideas. Before the boats had turned about, storm clouds rumbled over head. They moved faster than any clouds the boy had seen, dark and angry—more like chariots brimming with lightning.
“Son!” His father’s booming voice pulled the boy away from the plight of the other boats. He was needed in their own fight for survival.
The wind cracked at their sails. He could barely hear his father’s orders over the roar of the storm, commanding him from line to line across the deck. Lightning flickered in the sky above them and the boy could feel the swells beneath them getting deeper and deeper, as if the ocean wanted to swallow them whole.
Suddenly, a blast of wind ripped the line from his hand. The mast above him splintered and the boat tilted into the waves. The boy screamed. He knew this was it. He closed his eyes and let all of his terror come pouring out into the storm…and the world froze.
Lightning hung in mid-air as the boat teetered towards its watery doom. Silence broke over everything. Only the boy seemed immune. He gazed around, taking in the broken mast and the frozen waves. Even his father stood frozen: hands on the wheel, eyes bulging in fear. And then something else moved.
At the back of the boat, standing on top of the waves, was a woman. Ethereal in her beauty, she radiated a blueish light. Slowly she strode towards the boy, each step casting small ripples across the frozen waves.
The boy felt compelled towards her, his legs moving on their own accord. He stopped at the edge of the boat, barely able to stand under the weight of her gaze. Her eyes were the deepest of greens, with something dark swimming in their core. He knelt as she stepped onto the deck and the whole boat groaned underneath them. In a motion that could have lasted eons, the woman leaned forward and placed her lips on the boy’s forehead.
His head exploded in pain, radiating outward from that kiss. The boy reeled as darkness overwhelmed him. The woman vanished.
The boy recovered to find himself flat on the deck of their boat. Above him, the mast reached up into the blue sky. The storm was gone. Their boat undamaged. As he got to his feet, he saw bobbing in the water around them the other boats of their fleet. It was as if there hadn’t been a gust of wind all day.
The boy’s father stood at the helm of the boat, exactly where he had been during the storm. For a second the boy thought him still frozen until the man’s eyes flashed over him. “It’s time to go home,” he said. But the command had lost some of its power.
“Why?” The boy objected, it seemed as if the danger was passed. Why couldn’t they reclaim the fun they had been having before the storm? But his father didn’t answer him. Instead he just swung the boat back towards land.
As soon as the boat pulled into port, the boy flung their catch over his shoulder and made to climb the steep hill home. After a good day fishing, the port was usually alive with the calls of merchants and sailors. Today however there was only silence. As the boy looked around, he noticed all of the villagers staring back at him. They recoiled away from his gaze, unable to meet his eye. The boy hoisted his bag and began his climb.
From then on, the boy was an outcast in the village. Whenever he appeared, the rest of the village cowered away from him. But this did not stop the him: he began every morning with the long walk down the hill. In the beginning he was joined by his father, but more and more he found himself walking alone. Every morning, as he swung his boat into the ocean, he was greeted by a pair porpoises. And every night he always returned with the biggest catch, no matter how many other sailors went out that day.
“Tell me: how was the ocean today?” It was the question that his mother always asked him when he returned to the house on the hill.
“It had its ups and downs,” was his ritual reply. And then he would tell her everything about his day on the water. By the end of his story, his mother would always be in tears.
His father had a different response to his son’s newfound life on the ocean. Before the boy’s daily story had even begun, the man would already be deep in his cups. He avoided eye contact with his son and even went so far as to curse his son’s skill on the water. Most nights ended with him stumbling blindly to bed or worse, passing out in his chair at the table.
“What’s wrong with Dad?” The boy asked his mother after one particularly bad evening.
“People fear what they don’t understand.”
The boy began staying out later and later, too depressed to come home. Between his mother’s crying and his father’s cursing, the boat became a much more friendly place. It’s gentle rocking lulled him to sleep as the keening of the whales wove into his dreams.
He fished less and less, more content to swim amongst the fish than to pull them above water. The porpoises became his playmates, always ready to gambol about whenever the boy dove beneath the waves. And in the evenings, after the day’s adventures, he would sit and watch the jellyfish light up the ocean, their eerie glow almost ghost-like beneath the waves. This was home now. This was where he belonged.
Time passed quickly for the boy. He did not know when the anniversary of the big storm came—he was too busy frolicking with the porpoises. They darted through the water just out of his reach. It was a game they played often: if ever he caught one, it dove deep as the boy struggled to cling to its back. Only when he finally let go, or was on the verge of losing consciousness, would the porpoise turn back towards the surface.
On one of these dashes skyward, the boy caught sight of a dark shadow above them. A dinghy, much smaller than the boat that he had borrowed from his father, was making its way towards his craft. The villagers had long since gone out of their way to avoid him. Never had any of them dared come near his boat.
The boy gasped as his head broke above water mere feet from the foreign vessel. As air rushed back into his lungs, he heard the stranger onboard give a shout of surprise. The boy turned in the water, keen on seeing who dared disturbed him. To his surprise he recognized the haggard face that stared back at him from the oars.
The man didn’t respond. He just slid the oars into their locks and stared at his son.
“What’re you doing here? Do you need more fish?”
“No,” the man finally spoke, his voice more gravelly than the boy remembered. “Your mother asked me to come.”
“Mom asked…” The boy trailed off. Confusion washed over him. What could his mother possibly want from him? Wanting more answers, he pulled himself over the side of the boat.
“You’re to come home now. No more fishing or sailing,” his father said as he watched the boy settle onto the bench across from him. “Not now, not ever. She said she’d explain everything. Said it was important…” The man trailed off, his fingers fiddling with the oar shafts.
“Never sail?” The boy didn’t understand. “But why?”
The man shook his head, “Dunno. Said she’d tell you when you got home”
The boy looked around him. He could just see the shadow of one of his porpoise friends deep beneath them. “No. No way.” He moved to dive back in the water but his dad grabbed his hand.
“She begged me. Begged me to come get you.” A breeze licked at the man’s scraggly gray hair. In that instant the boy saw not his father, but a tired old man.
“I-I’ll come by next week. I’ll bring some fish. But I’ve got to go now. Tell mom…Tell her something from me.” He moved again to leave but his dad did not let go. In the distance, a bell started clanging.
“Please son, it’s important,” the old man rasped.
But it was too late. Other bells took up the cry as storm clouds began to gather. It was all too familiar to the boy. He spun to face his father. “What’s happening?”
But the man was already panicking. He reached for the oars, finally letting go of his son, and struggled with the locks. “We need to go.”
The boy had had enough. He launched himself over to his own boat as lightning crackled through the sky. He landed hard on the deck as the boat began to buck under the waves. Another fork of lightning lanced across the sky, this one pummeling straight into his mast. The timber creaked under the impact and in an instant fire sprung up everywhere.
As the flames rushed across the deck, the boy did all he could to quell them. He pulled the burning sails from the rigging, casting them overboard. He tossed water on the spreading flames but, even as the fire sizzled, he knew that the he was in trouble.
He took to the helm, driving the boat into the deepening swells of the ocean. The giant waves washed overboard ripping away anything that wasn’t tied down. Still the flames spread and, even worse, the ocean rocked so hard the the boy lost his grip on the wheel. As the boat jerked away from him, teetering over the edge of the deepest swell yet, the boy screamed.
And for the second time, the boy found himself in a frozen landscape.
A giant wall of water loomed before him and he knew that if the spell lifted his boat would be cast asunder.
From the middle of this giant waves pulsed an eerie blue light. As if from an egg, the wave cracked open and the woman emerged. There was little thought of her beauty now. A fish would not linger on the beauty of a shark. As she smiled down at the boat before her, the boy shivered.
“What do you want from me?” His voice rang small across the frozen landscape.
Her voice hammered back at him. “Nothing but a choice.”
“You have been shown the beauty of the ocean. And the anger. And I have seen both beauty and anger in you. Which will you choose?”
“I don’t understand.”
The woman smiled again, “You must choose where to spend your days. You can come with me to the bottom of the ocean and live a joyous life amongst the whales and porpoises. Or you can return to land, frightened and confused, never to sail again.”
The boy looked again at the towering wall of water before him. “If I chose the land you’ll let me go? You won’t drag me under with the storm?”
“You will be safely returned to harbor.”
“Or I can live under the water. With you.”
“With me and with the others who have chosen the sea.”
It was a tempting decision. In many ways it was one he had already made. He already lived on the ocean. And everyone in the village already feared him. Who would even notice that he was gone?
“What about my dad?”
The woman’s smile wavered. She cast her eyes out over the ocean where a single frozen wave began to move. On its crest, the boy could just make out the shape of a tiny dinghy. “He could be saved. But the ocean must claim someone today.”
When the storm broke, the boy’s mother found her husband washed up on shore. He was waterlogged and half-drowned but he was alive. She helped him to his feet and they embraced. There were no need for words.
As her husband turned to make the long journey up the hill, she paused a moment to sit on the end of the dock, her feet dangling in the water. Occasionally it would seem to pull at her, as if trying to sweep her off her perch. She watched the waves roll in; they were so small that it was as if there had never been a storm at all.
A chirping sound from the water in front of her broke her trance. She turned to see a porpoise leap into the air and performed a single magnificent backflip. The woman smiled as the beast slipped back beneath the waves.
“Goodbye,” she whispered as she climbed to her feet. “I hope your choice brings you as much happiness as mine did.” She turned started the long walk up the hill, there were goats to feed and a husband to care for. She was headed home.
Z.B. Wagman has found work amongst the stacks in libraries and bookstores. He can currently be found at Powell’s City of Books looking after all of his childhood favorites in the Rose room.