Zale’s tail thrust him toward the ocean’s surface, and his head broke through the frothy surf. With a mouthful of salty liquid, he halted his breath, careful not to draw in the substance called air just yet. A darkened tower with a flat top caught his gaze. It stared back at him with slitlike eyes.
A thirst for knowledge washed over him.
He dipped below the surface and continued south. Cool liquid glided over his skin and scales. Breaking out of his watery world again, Zale spotted a structure jutting out just above the waves. He tilted his head and studied the cylindrical forms hugging its sides. What could their purpose be?
Spewing seawater out of his mouth, he gulped in the oxygen-rich air. His lungs burned for a moment at the new sensation. He coughed and inhaled again, this time at a more gradual pace. He willed his gills to close, and they did.
Water splashed behind him but he ignored it. The promise of discovery pushed him toward the jagged line where sea met land. With each stroke, he closed the distance between him and the strange object. The expanse of space beneath him dwindled as he approached the shore.
He swam closer and scanned the beach. Wet hair clung to his face. The yellow-orange of the darkening sky bathed the tall structures beyond the sand. How often had his mother warned him against going ashore and risk being seen by the mammals who walked on legs? Humans, she called them. Their ability to use those legs to swim through his watery home amazed him, but they lacked the skill to breathe in the sea. He could inhale oxygen above water or below. His nose and the gills behind his ears made this possible.
Strange human sounds reached him from beyond the mounds of sand—dunes his teachers had called them. A few males and females walked to and fro and into various structures. The humans all wore coverings, some revealing more skin than others. Curiosity drew him dangerously close.
“Stop.” His mother’s voice warned him—as she’d done for the past seven cycles since his birth—against doing what he longed to experience, except, it wasn’t her voice but that of his twin sister, Maris, speaking to him in the language of their dolphin cousins.
He waited until the humans had gone, and digging his talons into the grainy earth, he pulled himself onto the beach. Muscles strengthened by long-distance swimming made quick work of this. Brittle sand scraped against his emerald scales, the same coloring as his mother’s. The cool air chilled his skin, causing little bumps to rise. He studied them, amused. Creeping up to the structure splashed by the waves, he reached out to touch the cylindrical shape—wood from the texture—and marveled as his claws changed into unwebbed hands. He hid beside the structure and strained to see around it. A sweet tune reached his ears. The music beat in his chest. He flapped his tailfin but shuddered when it morphed into two legs.
His mother had explained the world of mermaids and mermen and told him he was special but never explained what it would mean. “You have the gene,” she’d said. Could this be it? He possessed the means to become a human just by escaping the water. He stood, wobbly at first, and took his first steps. His quick adaptation to walking made him smile.
He had only tried to go on land once before. His mother’s friends had distracted her with conversation, so he had grabbed the chance to heed the call of the land that came from deep in his core. But he’d only just pressed his tailfin onto the ocean floor not far from the shoreline when it transformed into legs. His mother grabbed him, scolding him before he had a chance to do more. In an instant, his fin had reappeared.
“I told you not to go where the humans can see. Stay by my side,” his mother had said, and pulled him toward their underwater cave, the place they called home.
Upon reaching a huge maw in the undersea cliff, Zale trembled as a shiver ran from his dorsal fin down to the tips of his tail. His father stood at the entrance with his forked spear.
“Merton,” his mother said, “our son is determined to rush into his destruction. He has too much of my independence in him. Please teach him how to stay alive.”
“I will, my love and queen,” his father had said.
She turned and locked Zale’s gaze. “Now, my son, pay attention and gain wisdom. Humans are not to be trusted.” She’d instilled fear into him.
Though his father never chastised him for disobeying his mother’s command, Zale hadn’t attempted to return to the beach until today.
“Come back,” Maris said.
“No,” he clicked once with his tongue.
He took another step. She couldn’t follow as she didn’t possess what he’d been born with—the gene adult merfolk could smell on him.
His mouth watered at the scent of warmed fish floating on the breeze. He gazed farther south. Two adults and a boy sat on a large, rectangular cloth covering the sand beneath them. Their teeth showed, but happy sounds reached his ears. This must be what his mother called laughter.
“I’m so glad we came to Rehoboth Beach. This is the best vacation ever,” said the boy.
“Re…” Zale struggled to work his tongue with the human word. “…ho…” He pursed his lips for the last bit. “…both.” He inhaled and opened his mouth. “Re…ho…both. Rehoboth.” He smiled. That’s where I am.
He longed to go near them, but lacking material with which to cover himself gave him pause, and instead, he turned and rushed back into the sea. In an instant, his legs reverted back to a tailfin, causing him to plop hard into the water.
“Shush or the humans will hear you,” his sister said.
He looked toward the shore, determined to figure out a way to get something to cover his nakedness the next time he returned.
Mother would not be pleased.
The entire story will be published in upcoming Zale’s Tale and Other Shorts Anthology.