Fujimoto ran a hand through his shaggy hair and scanned the rocky shoreline below the Institute of Algological Research, squinting against the glare of summer sun on the water. "Where did I leave that marker?" he muttered. As though the words were a talisman, the wind picked up, and the red flag he'd placed waved at him from the edge of a tide pool. He clambered down the rocky slope that led to the sea, his long legs picking their way among the boulders, though the large bucket he carried made his footing more precarious than it might have been.
Once he had managed to situate himself at the edge of the pool, Fujimoto reverently stroked the undulating mass of brown fronds. The living thatch of seaweed was rich with smaller specimens of another species of brown algae that grew epiphytically on its rhizoids. Bringing back a live specimen of the host organism would allow his graduate adviser, Sasaki-sensei, along with Fujimoto himself, to study the effects of each species on the other. Or at least, they would if he managed to keep the sample alive once he had it back in the laboratory. With utmost care, he used the blunt edge of his pocketknife to separate his chosen clump of seaweed from where it clung to the rock.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the voices of children joined him on the rocky beach, but they didn't trouble him nearly as much as the gangs of fishermen who would soon be racing past the Institute with their nets and their motorboats and their laughter even though salmon season didn't officially start for more than a month. Mostly, Fujimoto wished he had thought to bring a hat, or sunscreen. Setting his pocketknife atop a rock, he sat back and wiped his forehead when a movement further down the shoreline caught his eye. Abruptly, he reversed his opinions about the presence of children.
The smallest of the four young boys he recognized as Kudo Keiichi, the eight-year-old who lived with his parents and college-aged sister on the same floor of Fujimoto's apartment complex. Evidently Keiichi recognized him, too, because he was looking at anything but Fujimoto. Another, older boy was draped over the rocks at the edge of a tide pool while his giggling companions watched in fascination. His face screwed up with concentration, he poked a piece of driftwood the length of his arm into the water. When he withdrew it, a small octopus dangled pitiably from the end of the branch, the ends of its tentacles curling like fiddleheads.
Though he was quite literally up to his elbows in seawater, Fujimoto sat up and shouted, "Keiichi! Boys! Leave that animal alone -- this is a protected zone!"
Even the one hanging into the water jerked up at that, but it was only a moment before their eyes slid aside as they pretended to ignore him in favor of their prize. He was only a gawky graduate student, after all, with no real authority, but Fujimoto had thought Keiichi better than this. With a sigh -- he hated to lose a sample -- he flipped his pocketknife shut and extricated himself from the tide pool.
Watching Fujimoto stalk toward them, the boys looked a little more uncertain about standing their ground, at least until he caught his toe on a rock and fell face first onto the rocky beach.
Spitting sand, Fujimoto blinked the grit from his eyes and wiped his face with the shoulder of his shirt, but that couldn't clear the laughter from his ears. His pride scraped as raw as his hands, he hoped he had at least made enough of a spectacle to distract them from that poor octopus.
All at once, their laughter stopped. Though his eyes were finally clear of sand, Fujimoto found himself blinking again at the vision before him -- a tall woman with lush, red hair that tumbled down the back of her white robe, the trailing ends of both floating and swirling at the edge of the surf.
Where had she come from? The boys had to be thinking the same thing, but whatever their conclusions, their attention was as arrested as Fujimoto's. Even the one who had caught the octopus was gaping up at her with round eyes, his catch curled tightly around the stick that he was now holding almost upright. Smiling down at them, the woman leaned forward and placed a hand on the piece of driftwood, pressing it gently down until the unresisting tip touched the water's surface. Impossibly -- there seemed so much of the impossible around this woman -- the little octopus touched a coiling appendage to the back of her hand before working its way down the branch and falling into the water with a soft plop. None of the boys made a sound.
"Off with you, now," she said to them with a smile. Still silent, the boys obeyed, casting glances over their shoulders as they scurried back up the slope toward the institute -- all except Keiichi, who walked with back and shoulders hunched and face set resolutely forward.
Having by now scrambled to his feet, Fujimoto walked nearer, vision somehow less steady than it should have been after such a minor fall. Stopping at what he hoped was a polite distance, he bowed and said, "Thank you for what you did."
"You would thank me, little man?" she asked, her pale brown eyes sparkling like the gems that dangled from her ears and glinted along her collarbone. Fujimoto was taller than anyone he knew, but this woman was taller still. Her tone made him bristle, but he subsided when he realized there was no malice beneath the humor.
"I would. Their lives are so short, and so full of uncertainties," he said, gazing at the glassy pane of water where the octopus had vanished. With an affectionate smile, the woman nodded -- though oddly, her eyes were fixed not on the water, but on the fleeing children. Even more disconcertingly, she turned the same fond smile on Fujimoto himself.
"You should go as well," she told him. "You still have seaweed to collect."
"I suppose I do," he said, flustered. Although turning away from her was the last thing he wanted to do, he somehow felt as though she was leaving him no choice.
Halfway down the beach, Fujimoto suddenly wondered how she had had known what he had been doing. Had she been watching him all this time? He peered back over his shoulder, hoping she wouldn't be offended by his gaze, only to find that she wasn't there at all.
He retraced his steps, warm water lapping at his feet. The strange woman hadn't even left footprints. It was as if sea foam had come and gone.
As he climbed dazedly back up to the Institute, not only his sample but his bucket forgotten, Fujimoto half-managed to convince himself that the whole episode had been some kind of waking dream -- an incredible hallucination brought on by overheating. Certainly, the wind had done nothing to cool his head. He had never been one to procrastinate, but he had stayed late on campus all week, and the seaweed would still be there for him tomorrow.
At the front of the building, Keiichi was waiting for him beside the staircase, timid and miserable.
"You won't tell my parents, will you, Fujimoto-san?" Keiichi asked, looking up at him imploringly.
"I should," Fujimoto said, and the boy wilted. "But I won't... as long as you promise me that you and your friends won't disturb the sea creatures ever again. You can hurt them very easily, even without meaning to."
"I promise!" Keiichi said, melting with relief. "I don't think that lady would want us to, either."
"No, she wouldn't," Fujimoto said.
"You've never smiled at my sister the way you smiled at her," Keiichi said, and even though he spoke with an eight-year-old's smile, Fujimoto hunched down in embarrassment. "Do you like foreigners?"
He blinked at the boy. "Foreigner?" Red hair or no, whoever the woman was, she was no foreigner. She seemed to belong on the beach as much as the rocks or the seaweed, or the waves themselves.
* * * * *
The next morning, Fujimoto was back with another bucket despite the intermittent drizzle. He had almost freed his largish sample of seaweed from the rock when a rich, musical voice behind him asked, "Did you not find what you needed yesterday?" Nearly dropping his pocketknife into the water, he twisted around to look up at the source of the words, but he already knew who he would see. She smiled down at him. Her face, hair, dress, and accoutrements were the same as yesterday, and yet she seemed, in some unfathomable way, even more lovely.
"I did," he said, held captive by the sparkle of her eyes, "but it was lost." And now, found.
"You study the water weeds," she said. "I’m surprised to see a man who finds them significant."
His back went a little straighter. "Algae represents such a large portion of the ocean's biomass, and feeds and houses so much of the rest, that it sometimes surprises me that more people don't consider it significant," he said.
Her eyes crinkled at the corners. "True enough! What do you call this?" she asked, running a graceful hand through the fronds as she might through a child's hair.
"Cystoseira hakodatensis," he answered automatically.
"A lovely name. And the smaller weeds that grow upon it?"
It impressed him that she recognized them as distinct from the host organism. "Coilodesme japonica."
"Humans do insist on having names for things," she said, "but I find it a charming habit."
Her hand brushed his in an outrageously familiar way, making his throat go dry. Emboldened, he asked, "And what is your name, if I may ask?"
"You ask without offering your own in return?" No real offense accompanied the twinkle of mischief in her eye, but despite the coolness of the mist, he felt his skin grow hot.
"My name is Fujimoto," he said. "Fujimoto Hiroshi."
"Well then, Fujimoto," she said, adding no honorific as she touched his cheek. "I am called Granmammare."
When he heard the name, he understood, and his heart faltered as golden light flooded his vision. Closing his eyes and even covering them with his hands made no difference -- the glow filled his field of view, then his being; the sheer immensity of it eclipsed his awareness of where and even of what he was. It must have been only a moment, but it seemed more like an eternity before he swallowed enough of his fear to realize it didn’t hurt. That bit of awareness released something within him, and he opened his eyes, expecting to be blinded and welcoming the prospect in the face of that wondrous illumination. But all he saw was the empty beach in dull, mundane sunlight. He was on his knees, sand damp against his trousers, and she was gone, vanished into the ocean that was more than her home.
* * * * *
Though it was suddenly the least of his concerns, it seemed ridiculous to return without his sample for two days running, so Fujimoto placed the clump of seaweed in the bucket with numbed hands, adding enough seawater to keep it alive until he could set it up inside the Institute. He hardly recognized what he was doing as he trudged back up to the laboratory and turned on the aerator in the aquarium he had prepared. Soon the feathery strands of Cystoseira hakodatensis, knotted together with Coilodesme japonica, were swaying gently in the lighted tank.
Is this what it looks like from beneath the surface? he wondered. With a pang, it occurred to him that the woman -- no, Granmammare -- would know.
It doesn't matter, he thought miserably. Now that I know the truth, I've surely seen the last of her. In retrospect, he thought that he must have been blind not to have known what she was.
He should be making slides of both species to examine their cellular structure. Instead, Fujimoto wandered over to his desk and picked up the plastic boat that sat in the shadow of a leaning tower of algological journals and taxonomical texts. It was only a child's toy in bright reds and blues, but as a boy he had pretended to sail it everywhere, whether or not he was near water, never knowing where it would take him next. It had seemed representative of what was even then becoming his obsession -- the exploration of the ocean and all its mysteries. His dour, strict parents had never understood, even as he had worked his way into Hokkaido University and then his graduate studies with the Institute.
He loved his research and would never regret his chosen field of study, but sometimes he read about the new undersea research vessels, and remembered his childhood fantasies of exploring the unknown wonders of the ocean floor, and was consumed with envy and nostalgia.
The sea had always been his greatest passion, and now that he had found another passion to rival it -- all in the span of a day! -- it seemed that she was also the sea.
* * * * *
After a week, the clump of mixed seaweed began to die. Fujimoto suspected the portion of the host organism hadn't been large enough to survive on its own. Sasaki-sensei wasn't discouraged -- "Even that tells us more about the species," he said -- and sent Fujimoto out to collect a larger sample.
His bucket full of water and feathery brown fronds, he turned from the sea to head back up to the Institute when Granmammare's voice behind him said, "Hello, Fujimoto."
He whipped around, sloshing water over his shoes. Granmammare stood smiling at him, framed by her hair and her gown and the ocean itself.
Overcome, he fell to one knee. "You came back," he said. A bit of sand or saltwater must have gotten into his eyes, and they closed at the touch of her hand on his hair.
"Of course," she said. "It's not every day I meet someone as interesting as you."
* * * * *
For a while, every time he went down to the ocean, she was there. Now that each of them knew the other's nature, they could spend hours in conversation as they strolled along the shoreline, his feet on land, hers in the surf. She seemed unaccountably interested in his research -- if she was a goddess of the sea, she must have known all of it even before she asked -- and he worked up the courage to ask questions of her that he never would have put to a professor. Sometimes he wondered if she was studying him the way he studied the seaweed, but that wasn't a question he had the courage to ask. Eventually he decided that even if that was the case, he was content.
And then, for a while, when he went down to the ocean, she wasn't there. The strength of his own reaction took him by surprise. He buried himself in his research, telling himself that he had been neglecting it in favor of his time with her anyway, but no matter how fiercely he told himself not to go, he found himself heading down to the beach at random times, just in case she might be there. And then, one evening, she was.
"Hello, Fujimoto," she said, as though she had seen him just the day before. Before he could stop himself, he ran to her and caught her hands up in his. When he realized what he'd done, heat crept up his neck, until he saw the answering flush in her cheeks, and that struck him utterly dumb.
"I have walked with you on land many a time," she said. "Tonight, will you walk with me in the sea?"
His heart quickened. Could this be a dream? The wind was warm on his face and arms, the sand coarse beneath his feet, but it had to be a dream.
Even in a dream, he could answer no other way. "Yes. Yes, of course," He squeezed her hands, and she squeezed back and pulled him toward the ocean. The waves lapped over his bare feet. "But how?"
"Just walk with me," she said, and the ocean was up to their knees. When the swell rose over her breasts, fear threaded itself with his excitement, but his gaze never left hers even as his toes lost touch with the sand underneath.
"Close your eyes," she said when a wave crested over his head, leaving him sputtering. "I will give you a piece of my magic." He did, and with an electric jolt, her lips touched his, and his mouth opened beneath hers as she breathed into him, filling his lungs. Her hands curved around him, sealing his body to the softness of her curves, and in a terrifying rush like a riptide, she drew him down, down, down. Bright lights burst behind his closed eyelids as the pressure increased.
Inside his head, a voice like Granmammare's but more said, Relax. You can breathe freely now. He opened his eyes, not to a salt-stinging blur, but to the clear sight of her beautiful face. He realized that he was already breathing, and how had that happened?
There is much more to see than just my face, she said, the humor still present even without the rich thrum of her voice to carry it. Her left hand wrapped tightly around his right, and she pulled him along with her into the depths of the sea.
He had seen photos and grainy film footage, but this was more than he could have dreamed. She must have gifted him with something beyond even the ability to breathe underwater, because although it had been sunset when she pulled him beneath the waves, he could see the hillocks of stone that formed the undersea coastline as if the midday sun shone on them. At the upper reaches, sea grass waved in the current as true grass might in a mountain wind, while further down sea urchins and starfish the color of fire encrusted the volcanic rock. Granmammare pulled him down with her into the undersea ravines, and he gaped in awe at the gardens of coral and multicolored sea anemones, the brushy, crinkled edges of their mouths reminding him of the lengths of chenille that had filled his mother's sewing basket. He recognized Edwardsia japonica from a former classmate's research project, but the rocks abounded with species he'd never seen even in photos, much less studied in any detail. Yellow-finned butterfly fish darted in and out of the undersea garden, careful not to let themselves be caught.
With him still staring goggle-eyed at the wonders around them, she took hold of both his hands and pulled him out into the open water, the multi-hued deep fading into darkness beneath them. A tiny, luminescent creature like a slip of ribbon fluttered past his face, a flicker of red beating at its heart, and even though he knew better than to touch any creature that lived in the sea, his hand approached that living pulse. It made the barest brush of contact with his fingertip before darting away into the blackness.
His eyes did burn, then, and he realized that he was crying. He was glad it wouldn't show under water, because he couldn't have explained it even if he was capable of speech.
In his mind, the voice that was Granmammare said, I understand, and more tears came. She kissed his eyes, his mouth, and her hands moved over him like warm water, pulling open his clothes and letting them drift away on the current. He should have been embarrassed -- he was a man of modest habits, not one to bathe in public; even walking to the beach barefoot had been a strange, impulsive indulgence. He should have been even more embarrassed when her own attire fell away even more easily, not even needing her touch but apparently in obedience to her thoughts. Of course, he thought dimly; she's a goddess; everything under the sea is subject to her will.
And you, Fujimoto? she asked in her silent, playful voice. You are under the sea now. Are you mine to command?
Nothing would please me more. The impropriety of such a response -- surely a woman should not be commanding a man -- was only the faintest of echoes in his mind. In any case, she was no mere woman. She was not only taller, not only wiser than any mortal man could hope to be. She was -- she was --
I am yours. Her smooth, impossible voice stepped in where even his thoughts faltered. Even if you are mine to command, I would rather you show me how mortals of the surface give pleasure to one another. She had been holding his hands at arm's length, and he had appreciated the distance, not only because it let him see the wonders of her breasts and belly, and the promising flame of her pubic hair, but because he was still awed merely to be in her presence. Now she drew him toward her, and a fraction of his usual self-consciousness asserted itself as he realized how visibly aroused he had become. No, not just visibly -- palpably, and the warm touch of her flesh made him harden even more.
I'm not -- I've never -- I don't --
But you want me. Again her silent voice steadied him. And I want you. His hardness was pressed between them as she kissed him, a long, deep kiss that seemed even more life-giving than the magical breath she had bestowed on him as they entered the water.
Yes, he finally told her, not caring whether the word was affirmation or assent. Their lips parted, but he held her gaze. A hand glided across his back and around his hip, and then was around him, as smooth as the touch of the water itself.
This is something that pleases a man, is it not? Fujimoto lacked even thoughts of words but could only nod as that grasp stroked his length. And will you take even more pleasure of me?
An engraved card could not have given a clearer invitation. In this setting free of boundaries, it seemed not to matter that neither of them was above or beneath the other; rather, the water buoyed them both upright as she guided his hips between her legs -- down, then forward into her warmth. Fujimoto knew the rightness of it even as pleasure overwhelmed him, his course as natural as that of a salmon slipping between the rocks where it was spawned.
* * * * *
Fujimoto awoke on the beach with the stars spinning overhead and rocks digging into the backs of his legs. His chest seized up with the crushing thought that it had all been a dream, until he realized that he was still quite naked.
His head swam and the ground tilted beneath him, but the strength of his elation propelled him up the stairs of the Institute to his sensei's office, where he kept a change of clothes under his desk. It wasn't the first time he'd been glad of his foresight in keeping them there, but never had it been for a reason such as this.
In the second-floor washroom, he stared at his reflection in the mirror, stunned, then hung over the sink to get a better look.
The roots of his hair were red.
He would have to dye it now. Fujimoto laughed so hard he thought he would burst with it.
* * * * *
Days later, they stood on the beach together, holding hands.
"You know what humans do to the ocean," he said. "You know how we take too much from it, and use it as a place to get rid of our poisons and throw away the things we don't want. You know how we ruin whole underwater ecosystems, building new habitats for ourselves."
"Yes," she said, a shadow of regret in her eyes. "Everything in the sea strives to survive, but humans strive too well. Someday it will be the death of them -- but before then, it will be the death of much else."
His hand broke from hers. "I'm no different from the rest of them," he said, his voice rough. "I eat the same fish, live in the same wasteful cities. Even when it's for the sake of knowledge, I take other things from the sea as well." Despairingly, he thought of the seaweed samples dying in his aquarium.
"Why?" he whispered finally, searching her eyes as if he might find the answers there.
Granmammare smiled gently. "You talk too much," she said, and kissed him.
* * * * *
It had been several weeks since Fujimoto had seen Granmammare, but after what they had shared, he was not so restless as he had been during her previous absence. Still, every day he went down to the sea, both in case she had come back and because it was the closest thing to having her with him that he knew. One evening, when the wind had taken on a hint of autumn chill, his patience was rewarded, and he found her standing radiant in the tide.
"Hello, Fujimoto," she said as always, but her smile was uncharacteristically muted, and he stopped short, bewildered.
"What's wrong, my love?" he asked, not quite daring to take her hand.
"I'm afraid the time has come for me to move to warmer waters. I must leave this place, and soon, though I do not wish to." She cast her somber gaze down the length of the beach, and then at him.
"Is it the climate? Will you come back when it's warmer?"
"Someday. But when that time comes, you may no longer be here."
Fujimoto felt as though he had swallowed broken glass. What was happening to him? Even underwater he had been able to breathe. Stepping into the water, shoes and all, he clasped her hands and said, "If you gave me more of your magic, could I go with you?"
She shook her head. "It would be a start, but it would not be enough. Not in so little time. There are some matters even a goddess has little knowledge of until they are upon her." Looking more sorrowful than he had ever seen her, she stepped into his embrace. "I have failed you, my love," she said into his hair.
He held her tightly, his mind racing. "Do you know where you're headed?"
"I believe the humans call it Setonaikai."
The national park that encompassed the Inland Sea. "I could transfer my studies there." Somehow. "Find you on Itsukushima Island, or in Tomonoura."
Her eyes widened. "You would do that?"
"I would. Wait here!" Taken by a sudden notion, he ran up the slope to his office, chancing a look over his shoulder to make sure she was still there.
When he came down again, he was carrying the toy boat in his hand, and he pressed it into hers. "I give you this as a token of my promise. I will find you again, no matter what it takes."
She looked down at it with a funny little half-smile, and suddenly Fujimoto was horrified. She couldn't know what it represented to him. To her it was another piece of plastic junk. He might as well have thrown a styrofoam cup into the sea at her feet.
"Yes, this will do," she murmured to the toy. "You truly wish to come with me?" she asked. "Abandon your life here, and everything you have?"
A breath swelled his chest, and with it, hope. "Yes," he said, without hesitation.
"Thank you," she said, folding him into her embrace. "Because soon, we will have an entire shoal of young ones to protect."
"Young ones?" he whispered. Could she mean...?
Granmammare laid the toy boat down in the water and held out a hand. It grew larger, and larger, and larger than Fujimoto could have thought possible, until he could easily have walked on its deck. And as large as it was, it somehow bobbed lightly in the water instead of running aground. As if in a dream, he walked up to it and touched its hull, then stumbled back -- a fin grew from the smooth surface and gently undulated, like the seaweed.
Of course it has fins like a fish, he thought. Goddesses don't use gasoline engines.
"Even with this, I think you'll need supplies and human things, for a time, until you begin growing magic of your own. But you will be able to come with me." She turned to him, a hint of a question in her smile. "Will you?"
"I will," Fujimoto said, and he placed his hand in hers.