HUTCH AND THE MERMAN
He hadn't wanted to die this way. Or at all, not for years and years.
Now he floated down, down, down. Into the briny sea he sank. He sank and sank, past fish and the sun going down, and the greenish water, and now he could no longer see; now seaweed tangled him, and he was going, going…
It shouldn't take this long to drown. The last of his air went out, bubbling to the surface, and he felt himself parting ways with his body, beginning to hover, where before he sank. Cold, tangled in seaweed.
And now something fitting into his mouth, a cold hard shell, and something slammed his chest; he took a gulp of water; except the water was air, was water/air. He coughed; he breathed out something bubbly and warm; a flush went through him. Another breath of whatever it was forced on him, and now he took it willingly; his vision began to clear. He saw before him an impossibility, a bronzed curly-haired man floating, holding a shell. He seemed to notice Hutch blink, and held the shell out again approvingly, and now Hutch drank/breathed willingly, drew the horn-shaped shell towards himself and greedily drank life.
His head began to clear, as he came back to life. Now he saw the man was a merman; he was fish below the waist, man above. The man part was covered with skin and had curly, dark hair where it would be on a man. The fish part had scales, smooth and muscular and fishy. And the whole being was totally naked.
The merman smiled, grasped Hutch's hand, and tugged him from the seaweed with which he was tangled, and began to swim. Hutch's limbs were jerky still. He tried to swim, but in the end the merman had to do most of the work, pulling him along, cutting through the water like a fish.
Hutch held the shell-horn in his other hand, and once in awhile took a breath/drink. He grew tired, but it was better than being dead. His limbs came back to life slowly, and now he and the merman reached what was obviously the destination. Here, other mer-folk swam around, fraternizing or going about various tasks.
The curly one released him, and he swam free, weakly, on his own in the middle of the depths of the ocean, surrounded now by curious mer-folk. Here were more men, and women as well. The women did not have the traditional well-endowed chests of a sailor's daydreams, but what they did have was rather pleasant to look at. Hutch found himself grinning back at a red-haired scamp that was giving him a saucy, toothy grin. She reached out and ran a thin, cold hand over the side of his face and hair.
A shrill warning call accompanied Curly's swift return. He gave Hutch a sharp box on his arm and a stern look, and then turned to the mermaid and addressed her with more of the hissing, vaguely dolphin-like language. Under his stern gaze, she frowned and pouted, and swam away with a toss of her luscious hair. Hutch stared after her and her smooth, mermaid curves. He got another box, and a stern, very speaking expression from Curly.
He shrugged, and gave an apologetic smile, and took another slurp of water/air from his shell to cover his embarrassment. No need to go causing trouble, after he'd just had his life saved.
Curly swam away, but stayed nearby, keeping an eye on him and his interaction with the other mer-folk. Most of them ignored him, only sending quick, shooting glances or sometimes smiles. But none of them got quite so close and personal as the redhead had done. After awhile of this, Curly returned, and gave Hutch a smile, and plucked at his arm. Hutch followed, swimming more awkwardly than the merman. He had always felt himself to be a good swimmer, but Curly put him to shame, made him feel like a beginner just learning how to stay afloat.
The merman led him to a cave, smiled at him, and ducked inside. Hutch followed, more hesitantly. When his eyes adjusted he found the merman waving his tail slowly, staying in an upright pose with his arms crossed, looking rather like a rakish sea-genie in the dim light. He smiled, and spread an arm, indicating shelves and seaweed baskets. They held foods harvested from the ocean: mollusks, clams, fish, and sea-plants. Curly paused to fit some thin seaweed strips through some tight-woven kelp, and watch it be nibbled up greedily by the fish waiting inside. Then he turned back to Hutch, and raised his brows proudly.
Hutch nodded awkwardly. "Nice," he tried to say. His words garbled, letting out air and water bubbles, and he fell silent, consternated. Curly smiled at him, and then headed to the far wall. He returned with a new conch shell, and traded it for Hutch's, indicating that the first one should be fitting in again at the wall. Little bubbles formed around it as he did this, and Hutch drew a sip from the new shell. It tasted slightly fresher, although the old one had not aged enough that he'd begun to notice any lack while he used it. He nodded his thanks.
Then Curly spent some time showing him what he could eat, and making it abundantly clear he could help himself to anything, everything, only be careful not to let the fish out of their cages. They were obviously special fish, fancily colored and unusual-looking.
He nodded his agreement, not trying to speak again. For his part, Curly didn't try to speak, either. There would obviously be no verbal communication between them, but it was not hard to communicate even without words. With signs and gestures, Hutch tried to make it clear that he wanted to go to the surface, back to shore. But to this, Curly simply shook his head, and waved his hands, dismissing it as utterly impossible. Hutch began to grow frustrated, but he contained the feeling as best he could. After all, this fellow had saved his life.
But when he was alone again, he waited a little while, and then began to swim towards the surface. It took a long time, lots of effort, many breaths-two shells-but he made it. His limbs were tingling with exhaustion, but he reached the surface, and gasped in a giant breath of air. It made him gag. He coughed up something bubbly and clear, the water/air, and gagged as the sea air hit his sore lungs. It ached inside, stung like saltwater on an open wound.
He spent several minutes just paddling, catching his breath, shivering in the cold. (It had not been so cold, below.) Then when he could spare the attention, he looked around and began to call. "Hello?" But there was no boat, no land, nothing. He was completely alone, not even a dolphin or whale in sight, no thin line of land to give him hope.
There was a little splash beside him; he turned, treading water wearily and clumsily, to see Curly pluck at his ragged shirtsleeve. The merman gave him a sad, sympathetic smile, and jerked his head back towards underneath the sea.
Hutch hadn't the heart, nor frankly the strength, to resist, but let the sea-man pull him down, down towards the bottom of the ocean and the mer-folk community.
His shells were very low indeed, and his head had begun to prickle and feel funny, and his limbs weak and disconnected, by the time they reached their destination. Curly had swum fast and easily, even towing the nearly-dead weight. At the bottom he took one look at Hutch, gave him a light slap on the cheek with a look of concern in his eyes-although Hutch's vision was blacking out, and even this was hard to see-and then whirled and swam away.
"Wait," he tried to call. He was too weak to fetch a fresh shell for himself. He needed help! But the word bubbled away, and Curly was gone, the shells were empty. He released the useless shells, and they fell lazily down to land in sand. He floated drifting and lifeless.
Someone was by him now, fitting something into his mouth, and again he prickled back to life, breathing the sweet sea goodness from the shell. When his vision cleared, he saw Curly swimming in place beside him, a worried expression on his face. He pushed Hutch back and forth, tried to make him swim in the water. Hutch tried to comply.
Curly's concern turned to anger as soon as Hutch could function again, and begin to swim on his own. Then Curly gave him a dark frown and a shove in the shoulder, and whirled and swam away with a quick flash of his tail. The edge of his fin caught Hutch a sharp slap on his face. Hutch drew back, and held a hand to his face, blinking after the merman. His head rang, and the salt stung. When he drew his head away, little tendrils of blood escaped out into the water, making it cloudy. He shook his head to clear it, and then swam slowly back to the cave. The other merpeople were watching him, but none approached, and all looked rather solemn.
Hutch stayed the rest of that day beside the wall, loathe to be separated from his source of shells-and sulking, rather.
How had he gotten this far out to sea? Surely he had not drifted that far. But the fact was, he could not immediately remember how he had gotten to the point where he was dying, drifting down, drowning and wishing he weren't. He had known once, but now it had drifted away. In fact, his whole previous life was beginning to seem like a blank book. He knew things; he knew his name for instance, but the facts, the details, now seemed as insubstantial and see-through as the blood still seeping from his cheek-wound.
He must have slept; he woke up sputtering, water in his throat, gagging him, and took a quick asthmatic drag of the shell still hanging loose in his hand.
It was an unpleasant way to live: in the cave, away from any good source of light, unable to sleep for more than a few minutes. Even when he tried awkwardly to keep the shell in his mouth, he found he could not; it slipped out while he slept, and he would awake with the curious and terrible feeling of drowning, all over again.
In this way he snatched only moments of sleep. It was terrible.
After he had finally had enough of the sleeping attempts, he emerged to find the sea-world dark, too. Only a faint, watery moonlight and the natural luminescence of some sea plants and fish illuminated the watery world. The fish people hung in the sea, ghostly and still, flapping their tails only slightly, every few moments. Their eyes were open, yet curiously blank, unseeing. He swam to his rescuer, Curly, and waved a hand in front of his face. Had they been poisoned?
Curly blinked and was now looking at him, curious and sleepy. Oh. Hutch withdrew with an apologetic smile and shrug. Curly turned around once, tucked his tail momentarily close, as if in a hug, and then returned by degrees to his relaxed, sleep-swimming state. In this, his arms spread out, drifting at shoulder height. His tail swished free and twitched occasionally. Now, close and with the freedom to look, Hutch could see little gills at intervals along the length of the tail, not quite like a fish's, but obviously serving the same function. His chest was still, now, but these breathed water with every movement of the tail.
He wanted to reach out and see what the fish tail felt like, but did not dare. It would be rude; and anyway, would probably result in another cut on his cheek if he dared.
The next day, Curly pointed at the wound on Hutch's face, raising his brows in a questioning look of concern. Obviously he had no idea he'd done it himself. Hutch just shrugged. Curly came to him a moment later, and pressed some seaweed on him, some curiously shaped seaweed. When Hutch didn't know what to do with it, Curly mimed crushing it up and rubbing it on his wound. Sure enough, the plant made the stinging stop, and the heat leave his cheek, and soon it was well.
Later, Curly used hand gestures and nods and smiles to show that he was going away, but he'd be back. Hutch couldn't understand the rest of what he tried to communicate.
Curly returned a day and a half later, looking tired and full of himself, accomplished. Curly handed Hutch something rather proudly: a small, round, purplish seaweed-berry. He mimed for Hutch to eat it, and watched expectantly while he did. In his other hand, Curly held another plant, this one very similar-looking, but entirely green. Hutch ate the plant under Curly's watchful and approving gaze, but when he gestured questioningly to the green plant, trying to figure out what it was for, Curly drew back, shaking his head emphatically.
Curly swam to the saving-cave, and stashed it away somewhere. Hutch did not see it later when he went to get a snack. But after eating the purple plant, Hutch found he began to breathe more easily; he could go longer between draws on a shell. He soon forgot to use it and suffered no ill-effects.
With the new ease of breathing underwater, he could sleep, and his strength returned. He had always been a good swimmer, and now it showed to advantage; within two days and nights of breathing and sleeping easily, he was able to swim well again. He did not feel so clumsy. He found he swam easier; he could keep up with some of the slower mer-folk.
Hutch began foraging for himself, nibbling at the seaweed they had shown him was most edible. It seemed the most grateful to forage for at least some of his own food, and not simply eat his way through their stores. The mer-folk gathered seaweeds and caught fish, and ate them with single-minded intensity. Hutch copied them the best he could, though the raw fish was difficult for him to eat, and one of them would help him get it open and cleaned, with their sharp fingernails or the little knives they carried. Curly eventually brought him his own knife, small and crude, pressed it into his hands and smiled at him. After that, Hutch was able to handle most of it himself, if a bit clumsily.
But the life undersea was difficult for him. He found he kept losing weight. The constant activity, and the unusual diet (for him) of sea plants and raw fish did not feed his metabolism in the way to which he was used, and while it seemed to keep the seafolk fat and happy, he continued to lose weight, until he was slimmer than he'd have thought he could bear, and his muscles corded; he always felt hungry.
Some of the sea-people took to bringing him extra bits of fish, and smiling and watching while he ate. He accepted the food gratefully, though he felt a bit self-conscious about eating in front of them, and wished he could understand what they were saying amongst themselves about him.
Now the free-swimming fish decreased, and they began a more purposeful sort of hunting. It was instructive to watch. Several of the fast young men, the cocky sort (which of course included Curly), would take spears and go swimming off with purpose. Soon they would return, herding before them a school of fish. The sea-people killed and ate them with relish, catching them with their hands, or spears, or slapping them out of the water with their tails. Hutch was clumsiest of all, but he caught something each time.
He was still hungry when the school was through, and when the smiling redhead from the first day swam up to him (with a certain swish to her curves, a certain smile to her face), and offered him an extra fish, he accepted it without a second thought.
He cut it open and ate the good flesh, and only realized a moment later that the beautiful mermaid was still there, swishing her tail, smiling at him. She reached out and touched his light hair, smiling at him.
Hutch swallowed the last bite of his lovely fresh sushi, and smiled back and touched her hair in return. It seemed the least he could do to say thank-you. And she was very beautiful.
The redhead brought him more: tiny gifts of shells, braided seaweed to strand around his neck (with the finest and most beautiful of braiding), and food. And sometimes when they were alone, she touched him, smiling, stroking his chest, reaching down to touch his hips, where no scales lay. And he investigated the differences in her, too.
One day, a clumsy, underwater kiss-her lips were cold, cold as the ocean, and then suddenly too hot-there was a wrathful screech, and something barreled through, shoved them apart.
Curly was in his face, giving him a glare, shouting something at him in the fierce, wild undersea language. Hutch backed away, holding his hands up, frightened by this wrath. The sea-man gave him a rough shove, propelling him back several feet in the water, and then turned on the mermaid.
With hissing sounds and hand gestures, he made his displeasure very clear. Her reaction was instructive, though: she acted guilty, evasive, avoiding his eyes, pouting a little-but definitely acknowledging with her body language that she was in the wrong. Then she swished away abruptly.
Curly watched her go with a frown, then turned another fierce look on Hutch. He regarded him a moment, and Hutch stared uneasily back, realizing all over again just how dependent he still was on these people, and especially on his rescuer. If Curly were to turn against him…well, it had not been worth the risk, really, but what was the harm in a little kiss, a little friendliness? He hadn't tried anything. Didn't even know how these people mated amongst themselves, or if it were possible with humans.
…but yes, it had crossed his mind.
Curly seemed to decide something, and grabbed his arm. Hutch found himself swimming very rapidly towards the coral, past it, and then to a sheltered sea bed. Several sea people swished nearby as if on patrol. Curly nodded to the nearest and moved past. Hutch followed.
They stopped, almost reverently, above a patch of clear, round objects that looked like fish eggs, only much larger. They crept closer, watched by a nervous, hovering mermaid, and Hutch could see, inside, the tiniest of tiny merpeople. They looked like half-formed babies, sightless babies with tails. Curly let him stare a moment, and then drew him back to the safety zone, beyond the guards.
He pointed at the babies. Then he made the international distress choking hand gestures-hands to his neck, and a gagging sign, as if drowning. Then he jabbed a finger at Hutch's chest. You. He nodded again to the eggs, and then made the gesture again. Hutch stared-and then his eyes widened in horror.
You're saying…if I were to have babies with one of your kind, the babies would drown?
Curly nodded succinctly. Hutch blinked, disturbed by the speed with which Curly agreed, as if he had read Hutch's mind, but more disturbed by the thought of infant merpeople, slowly suffocating underwater. He gulped a little water, and then decided to give this thought thing another try. Curly was watching him now. Hutch stared back, and thought distinctly. He tried to make a picture in his mind as he did so.
What about the plant you gave me? Wouldn't that fix them?
Immediately, Curly shook his head. He pointed at Hutch, and sketched his hands in the sea, indicating a large, fully grown form, then pointed back to the hatching beds, and mimed a tiny figure. He shook his head, the corners of his mouth turning down.
I see. They're too small. It doesn't work for them.
Curly nodded, and pointed a finger at him, as if to say, 'You've got it.'
Hutch bit his lip, and nodded, and turned to swim away, sobered and a bit concerned by this new ability of Curly's.
After a little while, Curly followed him, almost conciliatory, silent and companionable.
That day was the first time he took Hutch shark-hunting. It was a dangerous sport-one that seemed to bring out the wild daredevil, the ferocious scamp in Curly. And one which nearly got Hutch killed.
They went out armed only with spears, and returned with a bloody gash in Hutch's arm, Curly swimming alongside, holding Hutch's arm, squeezing it to stop the bloody flow. He'd abandoned the dead shark's carcass…simply left it to float, and taken Hutch back right away. On the way, Hutch lost consciousness, expecting never to regain it.
But he woke up with Curly's worried face above him, suddenly breaking into smiles.
Hutch recovered quickly, kept to cave-rest and with food brought to him, and various sea plants rubbed on his arm at regular intervals. Before he knew it, he was well enough to swim about in circles, and rejoin the others in catching fish and foraging. But Curly didn't lead him on any more shark adventures, and he stayed near the group from then on. Even once he was swimming and hunting on his own, Curly brought him extra food each day, and checked his healing wound.
It made Hutch a little self-conscious to realize the merpeople could probably all hear his thoughts. He felt like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. Curly seemed to be the only one who would go out of his way to communicate with Hutch, however, and even then, only when it was important, like that day at the nursery.
In some ways, the merpeople were a curiosity that Hutch still did not understand. They seemed to have no ambition, except for an occasional desire to hunt a shark. If they had enough to eat, and each other, they seemed happy. They could spend all day eating, swimming, and playing, and never seem to feel the need for any work at all. Even catching food could be a kind of play. Sometimes Hutch envied that. He was fairly sure his old life had not been like that.
While they accepted him easily, in some ways Hutch was a curiosity to them, and he did not like to be. While the fish-people obviously had no problem with nudity, they were embarrassingly curious about the differences in his body. Along with his legs and feet, his…organs…were of particular, eyebrow-raising interest to them, so that when he uncovered himself to pee, he had to make sure he was alone, or they would try to gather around to watch. He flushed miserably scarlet the first time his ragged clothing came loose, offering a public exhibition. Some of the girls laughed at him, turning to talk amongst themselves, showing their sharp little teeth in smiles, and the men appeared just as interested in this odd deformation of Hutch's person.
After that, he kept plenty of extra braided strings of seaweed on his person, so that he could make quick repairs to his decaying clothing, and be less of a sideshow attraction.
One day the eggs hatched, and everyone was excited, turning flips, swimming about wildly, pulling pranks on one another, and shouting and screeching all about the ocean floor. Someone caught a sting-ray and rode it in circles over and over.
But nearer the nursery, all was silence, deadly, serious silence. And now would prove the telling point: would the babies live? Hutch caught the mood, and found himself crossing his fingers, and sometimes even holding his breath. Curly had plucked his shoulder and drawn him towards the nursery, outside its bounds but close enough that they could both watch.
One by one, they watched the patches hatch. They seemed to have a good hatching rate, and the sea people were all smiles (and further away, cheers) when more than half the eggs hatched for most of the patches. Some patches stayed motionless, unhatching. At others, only three or four little babies emerged, swimming weakly from their eggs.
At each patch, two merpeople would swim forward, a man and a woman, waiting tensely. If the babies hatched, they smiled relieved smiles, and reached out very gently to touch their offspring, and then herd them gently towards the feeding ground close nearby where friends waited with carefully torn bits of fish and seaweed. If the babies did not, the parents swam slowly away, separating and not looking back at one another.
As the hatching proceeded, Curly grew more and more restless and worried, even though he still smiled at the others' successes. Then he motioned for Hutch to stay, but he swam forward. A pretty little merwoman swam forward as well. Hutch was surprised, as he hadn't noticed the two of them take any account of one another up till now. But now, they waited solemnly side by side, watching a patch. Moments dragged to minutes; at last, sadly, the girl turned away. She swam off without looking back. Curly stayed sadly in place, swishing his tail a little. Then at last he, too, turned away.
He swam back to Hutch's side, and they continued to watch the hatchings. Hutch glanced at him, but he portrayed no signs of being anything more than a bit sad. It was all very odd.
Curly again swam forward. A different girl swam to his side—also not one Hutch had seen Curly paying any attention to, or vice versa. They waited solemnly by a small patch, and once again, nothing happened. Hutch waited, gripping a rock, willing something to happen. But again, the pair swam away without any babies. Again, they didn't bother looking at each other again.
The hatching time seemed to be coming to an end, now. The successfully hatched families moved away, herding their little ones, now sated. The parents seemed happy, busy, and quickly harried.
A few couples still waited, sadly. Then they, too, turned and swished away, separately.
Now Hutch swam to the hatching ground. It was completely abandoned, no longer carefully guarded. Unhatched eggs still lay in their patches. Hutch went to the places that had belonged to Curly and the two different women.
It was all very odd. He tried to puzzle out the relationships between the sea-people. The successful parents had seemed elated, but not particularly fond of one another. They did, however, seem quite taken with their babies, smiling at them, and picking them up, herding them gently and finding safe, sheltered places for them, watching over them carefully as the little ones fell into sleep.
They looked like little fishes with human top halves. They were so small, and seemed somehow half-formed; but they ate very hungrily, and made little slurping sounds at it. They slept with their mouths open, in sheltered patches, guarded by their progenitors.
Hutch reached down to touch one of the unhatched eggs. He picked it up and peered through it. It was still opaque, and he could see the little one inside it, very still, unseeing. He put it down again, shivering a little.
And then he saw it: one had hatched! It was swimming around very slowly, in the second group of Curly's eggs, and didn't seem to know what to do with itself. "Hey! Hey!" Hutch looked up, and gestured frantically. His words did not come out right, of course, but several sea-people glanced back, anyway. Curly was one of them. Hutch beckoned to him, smiling broadly.
Warning: This chapter is kinda sad in parts.
Curly swam back obediently, but without any enthusiasm. Hutch pointed to the baby, now looking rather weak. Then he looked at Curly, and grinned. You got one, buddy!
Curly's brows rose. He moved forward, and nudged the baby. It toppled sideways, and swam again only weakly. Curly frowned, and started to turn away, with a swish of his giant tail churning up the water and sending the baby tumbling.
Curly! Quit that!
Hutch swam after the baby, frowning, and cupped it in his hands. He gave Curly a very speaking look of disgust, and moved to the feeding ground. There were still some of the scraps lying around. Hutch put them in front of the little one, and smiled while it ate. It seemed to be growing stronger. At least, it was swimming better now.
After a few moments, Curly came back. He waited in the background, watching, rather skeptical, his arms crossed.
After that, Hutch grew quite angry with Curly. Hutch looked after the baby all on his own, feeding and watching it, finding it a safe place to sleep, and guarding it carefully from all dangers. Curly was gone, and then he wandered back again…but he never stayed very long, and he never offered to help. He just…watched, skeptically. The baby's mother never showed interest in it either, and seemed totally uninterested when Hutch tried to tell her it was hers.
Meanwhile, Hutch was growing quite fond of and attached to the little creature. It was a good swimmer, and had a good appetite. It was quite bald, and so small its fins and tiny fingers were opaque. But there was something hopeful about it, something that made him think it would not give up.
When he needed to sleep, Hutch trapped the little fellow in a hollow, and guarded the entrance with his body. But even so, the little guy was too tiny and too energetic to keep there for long. One day, Hutch woke up at a tap on his shoulder, to see Curly grinning at him, rather teasingly. He opened his hand and the little one swam out, back towards Hutch.
After that, Curly helped keep guard, although he still seemed less than impressed by the sea-baby, and only sporadically offered it food. Hutch had to handle most of that by himself.
Around them, he saw other parents growing bored and careless, as well. They guarded the little ones less well now, and the babies were wilder and swam off to play and investigate. A number of them were picked off, or died, going belly-up and not waking up, for unknown reasons. The parents took it stoically, pushing them away from the healthy ones. And while the parents kept track of the babies the best they could—and chased away big fish or sharks with a great deal of ferocity—when babies did get eaten or lost, the adults portrayed little more than a brief agitation, and then returned their attentions to the remaining young.
Hutch felt odd about the rules here. He thought the parents were sometimes lax, and he could not behave the same way. He stayed very protective. And when Curly's little one grew frightened by a passing shadow, or a quick movement, it swam to Hutch and huddled in his hands, or hid behind him.
By the end of approximately a month, the babies had tripled in size, and there were only half as many. They continue to grow at an astounding rate. Curly's baby, perhaps because it was the sole charge or two people (even if one was only half-hearted about it), quickly caught up with the other babies.
Sometimes, all the little ones gathered in the middle of a safe area and played. Some of the parents wandered away, and others kept watch. Curly almost always wandered away, although once in a great while he would deign to play in the middle with the little ones. They swarmed around him, making high, cheerful sounds, and he smiled a little bit, as if finally allowing himself to enjoy them.
His baby, whom Hutch alternately thought of as Curly 2 and Junior (it had a great deal of curly hair growing on its head, already), would get quite defensive, and hide in his papa's hair, and dart out at everyone who got too close, showing his teeth and swatting them with his tail.
And then one morning Hutch woke up, and Junior was swimming lopsided; he was swollen on one side, and weak, and made hurting sounds when he tried to eat.
Frantic with worry, Hutch fetched Curly, demanded his input. Curly took one look at his sick baby, and his face went blank. He turned away a moment, then turned back, and made gestures in the air, with his hands: a wobbly movement.
A jellyfish? Hutch held the picture in his mind; it was important to get this right. Curly nodded, listless, looking away.
What can we do, Curly?
Curly shrugged, and started to swim towards his favorite spot, several feet away, where he could watch while staying out of the slow water. Hutch grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back, glaring at him. And they took turns holding the baby.
It did not live very long.
Curly did not seem to know what to do about the body, after the little one died. He just seemed to want to get away. Hutch buried the little one in the soft white sand. And then he had to get away, too, because there were other babies playing nearby, and he could not stand it.
This must be why they did not allow themselves to get overly attached.
He did not see Curly now, and no one else took any notice whatsoever. Hutch placed a little sprig of fresh seaweed to mark the spot, and then swam away slowly. When he was alone, he allowed the tears to come, wetting the ocean, getting it more salty.
When he next passed the little grave, there was a pink rock resting on top.
He went through the motions of living, avoiding the babies as much as he could, eating and sleeping mechanically. He did not see Curly for several days; he'd disappeared somewhere.
When he next did see him, nearly a week later, the merman was sporting a red gash on the arm, and wore a fresh necklace of shark teeth about his neck. He paid no attention to Hutch, ignoring him for a time, acting as if nothing were wrong at all; yet he turned his face away when one of the babies got near him.
They were growing quite huge. Hutch could not avoid them totally; he could not help seeing how they grew. They were the size of puppies now, and very rowdy; and there were fewer than ever. The parents were frustrated with them, and spent less time individually looking after their herds. Instead, watching the youth became a communal affair, with anyone who was nearby chasing them out of danger or giving them a warning hiss or slap if they approached something dangerous, and warding off sharks. When it was necessary, Hutch did his part.
And he wanted to go home, even though he no longer remembered exactly what or where that was.
With the babies large, so large they were half the size of adults, the change began to come. They were still rather stupid, but treated now almost like adults. They were expected to know dangers and avoid them, and swatted if they did not, but were otherwise left to their own devices.
The waters were changing. The temperature grew colder. Where before the sea-people had slept separately, now they began to huddle together for warmth. Hutch woke up every morning cold, where before he had not been cold.
Hutch noticed a restlessness in the group. The fish-people now swam farther, together, and with a restless feeling to the group. Sometimes they all swam away together, and then swung back, as if practicing for something.
As well as the restlessness, there was another kind. The males and females were beginning to notice one another. Except for the babies, which were still too young, the men and women began to chase one another, to flirt and tease and give presents.
Hutch was approached twice more, once by the redheaded girl, and once by a dark-haired beauty. He managed to smile and look apologetic each time; their charms were obvious, but the drowning babies were topmost in his mind, killing any feeling of warmth in his loins.
Curly chased the girls rather seriously. Neither of the ones he'd mated with last year showed even the slightest interest in him, nor he in them. He did win over a statuesque, beautiful girl with hair so dark and shiny it seemed to reflect green in the undersea kelp-light. There were gifts, chasings, teasings, kisses, and then, one day, the two swam together to the baby-hatching beds, and returned looking tired and drained. Curly looked quite proud of himself. He gave the girl one last kiss, and then the two separated, again without appearances of regret or lasting affection. Hutch did not understand it.
He also did not understand when, after the matings were completed, the whole group of mer-people up and swam away.
But the babies, the eggs!
Hutch swam to Curly's side, and tugged him back, tried to make him stay. Curly gave him a rather superior look, and a frown, and then swam with him back to the nursery. He motioned to mounds of sand, great heaps of white sand. Fish swam around aimlessly, and no one guarded the eggs—but now Hutch saw, that they were quite covered up. Nothing could get at them. Apparently they were uncovered only nearer the time of hatching, and guarded from then on quite carefully.
Curly grabbed his arm and started swimming after the group, pointedly. And now Hutch followed, willingly.
The group swam a long way. They swam hard enough each day to wear out the little ones, and leave them panting and exhausted, ready to drop immediately to sleep, even if someone (as was often the case), gave them a lift part of the time.
It was almost too much for Hutch. While he'd grown strong and comfortable as a swimmer, he had nowhere near the stamina of the sea-people, nor their ability to not eat for long periods. He still needed frequent meals or he grew weak and cold.
Curly was there for him, sometimes dragging him along, giving him a rest from swimming, sometimes dashing ahead with a flick of his tail and returning with a still-moving fish for a snack for Hutch.
Hutch ate ravenously, and even so, he lost weight. He had not thought he had any weight left to lose, but his pants would no longer stay up (what was left of them), and he was forced to jury-rig his clothing to offer some privacy.
They swam until the waters were warm, and the plants and fish looked different, and the currents felt slow, warm, and comfortable. Here they stopped, and the babies played again, and everyone ate as much as they could of the abundant fish and plants.
Hutch spent a long time recovering, just eating and sleeping for long periods of time. It seemed awhile before he felt truly like himself again, whatever that self was becoming. It was at least two weeks of much food and extra sleep before he looked around one day, and found he had the energy to spare to go exploring.
The babies had gotten even bigger, and were almost indistinguishable from the adults. No one looked after them at all now, and they seemed to know their way around the ocean. Sometimes several of the young males would go off on a shark hunt together, and return crowing and proud, and alive if they were fortunate. The girls also congregated, braiding one another's hair and talking, and weaving adornments for themselves. While everyone still hunted and gathered together, and ate as a loosely-knit group, the rest of the time the peoples seemed to enjoy congregating with friends. The older ones held no preference for only their own gender, and mixed freely, but the youths were sadly polarized, sometimes even getting into arguments about the spaces they wanted to use.
Hutch was surprised to see a number of the girls go off one day and return with their own shark. No one else seemed surprised, though. The girls did not seem to feel the need to prove themselves in quite the same way as the young males, and did not hunt sharks quite as often. On the other hand, he occasional found the young males weaving their own decorations. They did not seem to make quite as big a hobby out of it as the young girls, but they were still quite skilled.
Curly saw him puzzling over the differences and the social interactions one day, and just rolled his eyes and gave Hutch a laughing look. He made sign for 'small,' or 'baby,' and pointed to the young. They were only slightly smaller and slimmer than the adults now, and Hutch looked at him to be sure he'd understood that.
Curly nodded. He widened his hands, to show them getting bigger, and then made a stirring motion with his hands.
They will grow up and make other friends? guessed Hutch.
Curly nodded. He made a rather sexually suggestive gesture, a thrust of his pelvis, and Hutch's eyebrows rose.
When they mate?
Curly nodded. Just then two girls swam by chattering, chasing a boy who'd stolen a piece of their neat braid-work. Curly rolled his eyes.
For his part, Curly seemed at home and at ease with everyone, and also seemed to have a position of at least some authority in the easy-going, loosely-knit group. But he did not spent a lot of time around his own friends. He seemed to be a bit of a loner, friendly but not close friends with anyone. If he went after a shark, it was often alone, and if he spent time with adornments, he did that alone, too.
On the other hand, when Hutch needed help with something, or seemed likely to get himself involved in danger, Curly would always appear out of the blue, help him out, and then drift away again, leaving Hutch to wonder if he'd just happened by, or if he'd been keeping an eye on him.
Even though the two rarely communicated, there seemed little need for it. Curly could read his thoughts, but seemed both uninterested and undisturbed by whatever he saw there. By now, Hutch could read most of his hand-signals, and understand him without too much frustration or effort on either part. But more often than not, no communication was necessary. Curly would hand him an extra fish, Hutch would offer some seaweed in return. Curly nodded, accepted it, ate and then moved on about his own business. But Hutch definitely thought of him as a friend.
One day, he decided he was ready to go to the surface, to see if there was any land near here.
Sure enough, he had swum only a short distance towards the surface before the curly-headed merman was by his side, swimming along with powerful strokes of his muscular fish body.
Curly kept pace with him, neither pulling ahead nor falling behind. They swam without communication, but none was needed. When Hutch had to stop and rest, Curly waited with him easily, swimming wide circles slowly around him, keeping an eye out for sharks and sea beasties.
Then Hutch regained his strength and continued his swim towards the surface. When his head broke the surface, he looked around, blinking in amazement, squinting against the bright glare of the first direct sunlight he'd seen in ages.
Curly's head popped up beside his, and peered around as well. Hutch scanned the surface for signs of human life, and…there! A line of beach, surprisingly close. He turned to look at Curly, grinning. He tried to speak, and ended up spitting up water. He choked and ducked back under the water to take a breath.
When he came up again, he wasn't smiling.
What's happened to me? What have you done to me? I can't go back, can I?
Curly laid a hand on his arm and smiled at him. He gave Hutch a very firm nod and then reached for a little pouch tied around his neck on an intricate, delicate seaweed string. He also still wore his shark's teeth necklace, although some of the teeth had fallen off, and he had a couple of fancy braids around his neck as well, with shiny bits of shell tied on them like beads, flashing translucent pink and white in the sunlight.
Now he undid the little bag, and opened it, smiling at Hutch rather importantly. He took out one of the berries, the green ones that he'd not let Hutch have earlier, and handed it to him with great ceremony.
Hutch fumbled and dropped it.
Curly let out a scree, and dived down, quick as a flash. He returned a moment later, powering up through the water, holding it in his hand. In his other, he held his sack, carefully kept. He gave Hutch a stern look, and held the berry out again.
Meekly, Hutch took it. I eat it, and I'll be normal again?
Curly nodded, smiling at him. Then he poked him in the chest, pointed back towards the ocean floor, and raised his eyebrows.
It took Hutch a moment to get it. Uh—no. He shook his head. I've got to go home.
Curly's smile disappeared. But he just shrugged.
Hutch took the green sea berry, and popped it into his mouth.
It tasted nasty, and he had to cough. After that, he felt funny; and he had to cough a great deal more. Water and more water he coughed up, from his lungs, retching and gasping, drawing his first breath in months. The air tasted strange; tasted good; made him cough harder than ever. At last, he was treading water weakly, drawing deep, full, gasping breaths, his throat raw from coughing, feeling weak as a newborn.
Curly, who had stayed back watching this whole time, now moved forward. He took Hutch's arm—his grip felt too strong—and then began to tow Hutch towards shore.
It took a long time; they were not as nearby as Hutch had thought, or perhaps they were, but they had to travel more slowly now that he was properly human again. Curly was patient with him, a powerful swimmer, and kept Hutch's head fully above the water so that he could breathe. The land looked and smelled so good to him after this long time. He couldn't wait to reach it.
At last they reached the shallows and Hutch could stand on his own in the deep, deep waves. Curly hung back, let go of him, and swam one quick circle, looking at him closely, almost as if he were a dog taking one last sniff to remember him by. Hutch gave him a smile, and powered forward against the waves. He could not stand here long or he would get swept back out to sea; he was feeling too weak to fight the tide for long.
Curly looked at him, giving him a close, somehow intense and rather worried look. Then with a great flick of his shiny, scaly tail, he was gone. Hutch caught one glimpse of the curly head, bobbing in the surface, moving away, and then had to turn his attention back to shore.
He made it, and collapsed onto the sand, gasping, his limbs burning. He was so glad to be…home.
Even though the people were strange to him, and he spoke with an accent, he was welcomed to the little fishing village where he came ashore.
His tale of a shipwreck and losing his memory seemed to satisfy them. He was welcomed into a family's home until he was feeling better. He was very thin, and they fed him much fish—cooked. He was hired as an extra hand on one of the fishing boats. He found the people kind and calm and…so regular, after the fish people and their oddities. Here, he understood and could make sense of the flirting looks, the words, the hierarchy.
It was a good life, and he was not always hungry.
His story was interesting enough that tales were bound to spread of the mysterious blond man appearing in a village of dark-haired people, a strange gift from the sea. He would be the new guy forever, but he still felt accepted by them. He worked hard, and grew strong, and he did not behave inappropriately with the young women who found him fascinating; and so the young men did not end up hating him. He was quiet, and worked hard, and even though he could not help standing out, he began to feel a part of the village.
If he could remember who he was, he would perhaps not be so glad for even that belonging. Sometimes a hint of memory, a wisp, seemed to slide by his brain, or he would awake with a flavor on his tongue, a taste of memory sliding away, almost remembered. It frustrated him, and yet…yet he liked the newness of this life, being a simple fisherman. It would come back, he thought. He hoped he would be ready when it did.
And when he was out fishing, he could not help it…he kept looking for the sea people. Or at least one dark, curly head.
The weather changed. Warmth strengthened in the already-warm land. Hutch wilted in the heat. The natives found it slightly humorous, his intolerance for heat, how quickly he got tired in it. He was not such a good worker now, but still useful. And he still looked for Curly sometimes, and thought wistfully of the cool ocean depths.
Then he'd think of the raw fish and always being hungry, and no one to talk to (not even Curly, not really). And he'd sigh and go back to cleaning fish in the shade.
Halfway through the long terrible summer, strangers came to the island. Everyone crowded to the docks to see, shielding their faces, speculating about who had come. Perhaps traders? But this was not the normal trading season. Hutch shaded his eyes too, and watched.
The brow of the ship looked somehow unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. The sight of it made his heart pound hard with excitement and something like fear—and memory. Home? Home—maybe?
He stared when they disembarked from the ship—these tall, lordly blond people, so like himself. One tall man stepped forward; and he was weeping. "Hutch," he said, in an accent that sounded as familiar as Hutch's own, and embraced him.
Hutch's brother had found him.
The two of them sat down in the shade, and talked. Ulam told Hutch everything that he had forgotten; that their father was a rich man, that his youngest son, Hutch, had been on a trading voyage on one of their father's ships, and then a storm had blown up—but not the kind from nature—and the men had thrown him overboard, and taken over the ship.
The family despaired of Hutch, even though they had caught and prosecuted the mutineers. The family mourned him and set wreaths on the water for his death. But when they heard tales of a tall blond man on an island far distant, they could not but come to investigate, on the slightest chance. And here he was, as though back from the grave.
Ulam promised Hutch would never be alone again. They would return to their home, in a very trustworthy ship, sailed by only the most loyal of men; and Hutch would remember everything when he saw it; he would see. He was alive, and they would all be so glad.
Happy as he had sometimes been in the village, Hutch warmed at his words, and at having a brother. Ulam looked so like Hutch, though stronger and slightly taller.
"And you will never work as a common fisher again," said Ulam, and gave him an affectionate swat on the head.
Hutch ducked it, smiling.
And that night, when his brother and the rest of the crew had bedded down for the night, paying extravagantly for one of the nicest huts, Hutch wandered down to the beach.
They would be leaving, tomorrow. This was it. He wished that he could say his goodbyes to his curly-headed friend and the sea people, but he had already said his goodbyes—or not said them. He knew he would not get another chance.
Oh Curly… I'll miss you. I'll never see you again. I hope you have a good life! I hope your babies hatch.
He turned away with a sigh.
And the next day he sailed away with his brother over the wide, deep ocean.
He looked down into the water, trailing his hands in it. This made his brother laugh; he said he would think someone who had nearly drowned would not be fascinated with the wetness, at all.
But Hutch continued to look, rather wistfully, and one day his looking paid off. He saw a mirrored shadow racing beneath the ship. He startled and drew his hand back.
But it was not a shark. It was Curly.
He came up through the water indistinctly, and his head popped grinning from the watery depths, his curls damp and flattened. He reached a hand up and patted Hutch's face. His hand felt cold and wet. Hutch could not stop grinning. He caught the hand and gave it a warm squeeze between his own; Curly tolerated it for a moment, then pulled away in dislike from the heat, shaking his hand out a little.
I'm going home, with my brother. Thank you for everything, Curly. We're headed this way—to the large land. I don't know if I'll ever see you again….
Curly listened and smiled at him, and made quick signs for Luck and Family. He gave Hutch another fond smile, and patted at his chest, then waved, turned back to the ocean, and dove down again.
One last splash of his great big tail, and he was gone, leaving Hutch feeling oddly dashed. Yes, he had been allowed his goodbye, but—it had been far too short!
It was nearly six months later that he was walking the beach, reminiscing about his time beneath the waves. He had finally told his brother about it, but the difficulty that even his own brother had believing the story left Hutch loath to tell anyone else.
So he had for the most part kept his silence on the matter, and only thought about it sometimes. He still occasionally wondered how Curly and the rest were doing, but for the most part, that part of his life had faded, until sometimes he nearly thought it was a dream. Only when he was near the water did it come flooding back.
His father had a large shipping company, and while Hutch loved being a useful part of it—he was quite good with numbers, and an excellent bookkeeper, amongst other things—and while he liked having always enough to eat, he sometimes missed the casual, free, easy-going ways of the sea people, who focused not on money and status, but on babies and friends. Hutch had changed in his time with them; everyone said he was different now.
Hutch no longer cared about many of the things that had once been of primary importance to him. Status seemed foolish, when there were people who were hungry. His family tolerated his new benevolence, and seemed glad to have him back, but they did not really understand.
So sometimes he walked along the line of the waves, watching the water retreat and advance, retreat and advance, and thinking of these things and many others. He wanted to keep the good parts of those days with him, while forgetting the worst, the hunger and cold.
He was a soft touch these days, and would often go out with his pockets full of coins, only to return with nothing, having freely given to every beggar he saw. His brother, when he went along, sometimes chased them away, and told Hutch he needed to be more careful, that some of them were merely scam artists. But Hutch could not bear the thought of turning away someone who was hungry, and always tried to give at least a little something to anyone who asked.
His father might not understand, but he was a kind man, and he quietly increased his son's wages until he could spare this extra money. His family seemed to look at Hutch as a bit of a harmless, scatterbrained, childish person, and they would not let him pick out clothes alone. Which was perhaps wise, because he seemed to have lost all sense of fashion, if he had ever had one, since the merpeople. Nowadays he just wanted to dress warmly, if it were cold, and to dress coolly if it were warm.
It was cold more than it was warm, here. For they lived in a northern land, a land prone to snow, a land of little warmth. Yet it pleased Hutch, the cool, clear beauty of the sky and the snow. His body chemistry was used to it; and he wore lots of warm clothes.
In this weather, it was nearly always too cold to swim, and so he walked by the water, thinking his sea thoughts, missing his friends from the sea, and wondering how they fared, before turning back to his life, and the things that must be done.
One summer day it was pleasant enough to stay on the beach, to fall asleep on a blanket facing the ocean. He had for company only the little dog that his family had bought him for protection; a mutt which was supposed to be quite protective, but which Hutch had rather easily taught to be polite to beggars.
Now, it was barking its loudest, most protective bark. Hutch awoke, blinking sleepily in the sunlight—and then stared. A man was rising from the ocean, walking straight out of it. And he wore nothing.
He had a lot of body hair. All of it was dark and curly. He looked strong and muscular. The water sheeted off him as he waded, then walked, from the waves. And he took no notice of the dog, but started towards Hutch without an instant's hesitation.
Hutch sat up and stared. He remembered to close his mouth.
The man—Curly—stopped in front of him. And said 'hello.'
"Hello," said Hutch. He caught the dog, which was going into a panicked sort of circle, barking hysterically. It quieted almost instantly in his arms, but continued to tremble.
"This is my friend, Curly," said Hutch, nonsensically. The dog shivered.
Curly stared down at him, and then sat cross-legged on the sand. "You—are—surprised," he said, in a croaking sort of voice, as if he had to pick carefully from a list of words to know which to say.
Hutch nodded. He ruffled the dog's ears, and then let it go. It sprang away from Curly, and stood behind Hutch to keep an eye on things; but it no longer barked.
"You turned yourself human. The green pill?" he asked, suddenly realizing how it might affect a mer-person.
Curly nodded. "I—can—stay—one day. Or—forever."
Hutch stared at him, trying to figure out his words.
Curly held up a finger. "One day. And then go back. Or—stay longer, and—forever."
"But how are you speaking?" asked Hutch, feeling befogged and confused by this sudden turn of events.
"I learn from…" He pointed to Hutch's head, and then raised his brows and nodded.
"You learned to speak just by listening to my thoughts?"
Curly nodded. "I come ashore. Maybe place for me here."
"And… your home? Won't you miss your home?"
Curly shrugged. "No hatch," he explained.
"No hatch…" Hutch stared at him.
"No make babies," explained Curly matter-of-factly. "No life for me, no use try more." He shrugged, broadly, looking resigned to his lot. "Maybe life here. No more skreesah waste eggs on me. May as well go."
Hutch looked at his eyes carefully, and thought he saw the pain behind the calm words. Then he jumped up. "I'm sorry! How stupid of me. You're cold and wet. Here." He pulled up the blanket he'd been sitting on, shook it out, and handed it to Curly.
The merperson stared at it, then at him.
"You wrap it around yourself, for privacy," explained Hutch, gently doing the same on Curly's naked form. He tucked the edges in at Curly's waist for him. "You must wear clothes, if you are to be a person—even for one day. Come, I'll take you to get some." So saying, he motioned for Curly to follow him, and the sea person did, placidly.
It was so strange, having him here, walking barefoot and solemnly silent, watchful of everything, plodding along beside, taking the world in. He had lost some of his smile, Hutch noticed, and now there were lines around his eyes. How long and hard had he swum, away from his family, to come here? How many disappointments had he endured, with no eggs hatching for him—and now so infamous for it that no girls would even consider him as a mate?
Had he been chased away, or left in a cloud of disgrace? Or, simply, as he said, come of his own accord?
"They would not chase," said Curly quietly. He glanced at Hutch, and then looked away again. "They would not chase. All have value—even without babies, I can watch other people's. I can catch. I can shark." He shook his head. "But—nothing for me there. And miss you."
Hutch blinked at this honesty of emotion, the stark words that said so much.
"I missed you too," said Hutch. He took Curly's arm, and gripped it warmly for a moment.
The dog had by this time accepted Curly, although he still kept a suspicious eye on this funny-smelling man who wore so little. They also received glances in the street, until Hutch got Curly home to his rooms, and helped him dry off and dress in some things of Hutch's. Hutch had plenty of clothes, and Curly was only slightly shorter and stockier than he; the clothes fit him well.
Curly looked very strange and out of place standing there in a good suit, his curly hair drying even curlier. He looked at Hutch with large, solemn blue eyes, waiting to be told what came next.
"Now we eat," said Hutch.
They went to a restaurant, and Hutch ordered a great many dishes. Curly must be exorbitantly hungry by this time, and Hutch meant to give him proper sustenance. He made sure to order plenty of seafood dishes.
At first, Curly tasted everything cautiously, eating only slowly. But soon he decided it was all good, and fell to with abandon. He ate even the bread and vegetable dishes. He devoured the fish and lobster and clams, and Hutch had to warn him not to try eating the bones, in a human body.
Curly nodded, and looked at the bones hungrily, and then reached again for his glass of wine. …And spilled it all over his clothes. He stared in consternation down at the mess, and then brought the shirtfront to his mouth, and tried to suck on it.
Hutch gave him more wine, and then brought him home again for another change of clothes—after leaving a large tip, for Curly's eating style was very odd indeed, all fingers and plate-licking.
After that, they walked the city streets, Hutch pointing things out to Curly, telling him things until his throat began to grow hoarse. Curly nodded and watched, taking everything in, very watchful and quiet.
Curly stopped once to ask a fisherman how he did, and whether he liked being human. The man stared, and Hutch managed to smooth things over by buying a few fresh fish. Curly ate them, too, as they walked, slitting them open with his sharp fingernails and eating the good parts of the fish as easily as if they had been a cooked chicken. Hutch tried not to shudder, or pay any attention to the stares.
After the tour, they headed back to Hutch's rooms, Curly so tired he was beginning to droop, his eyes heavy-lidded. Hutch helped him change into sleeping-clothes, and brought him to the bed, to sleep—Hutch would take the divan—but Curly shook his head, and would not. He slept on the floor, curled up strangely at first, all awkward limbs, but then, as he fell more deeply asleep, stretching out as he had done at sea. He slept with his mouth open, his arms splayed wide, his face exhausted.
Hutch covered him with a blanket, but Curly kicked it off in his sleep.
In the morning, Hutch fed his friend a good breakfast, and helped him change once again. This time, Curly tried to fumble with the buttons, to figure out how to work them. He got in the way, rather.
Then they walked down to the beach again. Hutch savored the enjoyment of Curly walking beside him, not even needing any words for the sort of curiously comfortable silence they had together. He would miss this companionship, when Curly went back.
Curly turned to stare at him. "Why went back?"
"You need to return to your home. I'll miss you, but there's—"
"—nothing for you here. You don't know the life, and you would be unhappy without the water. You would miss your home. The rules are different here, and you would be unhappy following them. You cannot do as you wish, you have to find work, and always wear clothing, and learn manners, and—"
"No Hutch. I stay. Why want me gone?"
Hutch sighed, and took his shoulders. Curly did not try to get free from him, just stared at him with a solemn, wondering confusion, his eyes very blue.
Hutch said, "I don't want you gone. I want you to stay. But I also, most of all, want what's best for you. How do you think you can fit into human society? And don't you think you'd miss your people? One day is very different from a whole life, and—I can only shield you and look after you so much. You would have to learn, and quickly—and—" He shook his head. "You would be very unhappy."
"No. Unhappier than I was? No." He gripped Hutch's arms in return, his hands still shockingly strong. "You miss me. You think of me still. I hear you." He waved a hand, incoherently. "On—trip here. You think of me, want say goodbye. I say goodbye. But you think of me still. I—hear you. I find you that way. Guide." He pointed to Hutch's head, solemnly. "You think of me. They do not. Already, they forget." He crossed his arms, stubborn and sad. "Stay."
Hutch stared at him for a long moment. "If you're sure. Curly, it's your decision. I can't make it for you. I just don't want you to make a mistake."
Curly shook his head. "No make stake."
Hutch smiled at him.
They went to the beach anyway, and stared at the waves. And then Curly turned away and walked up the beach, picking up shells.
He had much to learn. A name, for one. He could not be called Curly forever. Hutch lost his nerve and introduced him the first time one of his family asked, as his friend David.
The first handshake Curly was given, by brother Ulam, Curly accepted the hand into his own, and stared down at it. Then, solemnly, he bent to lick it. Ulam pulled back his hand as though hit, and wiped it off quickly. He turned to stare at Hutch in disbelief. "This is your sea-man, isn't he?"
"I never quite believed you before."
"Why not? Hutch never lie," said Curly, and then wandered away to break some curios.
Ulam and Hutch stared at each other, and Hutch shrugged, his cheeks growing warm with a blush. "He wants to stay. I can look after him, till he gets on his feet."
"Hope you know what you're doing," said Ulam, and shook his head in slow amazement. "You could exhibit him, I suppose, if you could turn him back into a mermaid…"
"No. He's a person now. He can't go back."
Ulam shrugged, but kept a speculative eye on Curly.
"He can't," said Hutch firmly, moving to stand between them, to guard his friend even from prying eyes.
Curly was very curious about the changes in his body, and he did not yet always remember the importance of clothes. When he came out of a long soak in a bath one day, dried off carefully, and emerged from the bathroom wearing nothing but a hat, Hutch's visiting female relatives almost fainted.
Curly stood confused by the commotion, and stared around him uncertainly, trying to figure out what was wrong when the ladies shrieked and Hutch hopped up to stand in front of him.
"I think you forgot something," snapped Hutch, and Curly, looking confused, turned around and went to put the required garments on.
He had planned to begin work as a fisherman right away, but something else materialized. The sea-inspired jewelry than he wove from seaweed, string, or leather thongs, decorated with shark teeth, beautiful stones, or shells, had a quirky, beautiful design to them that fascinated people. With Hutch's encouragement and help, he began to sell them at a little stand, and made more money in a few days of that than he could have in two weeks as yet another poor fisher.
And he was happy, after his fashion, though quiet and self-contained, no longer the smile-flashing, grinning rogue who had gone to tackle sharks by himself, and returned the victor.
Yet he still threw himself into the ocean, and went for long swims, even when it was far too cold for a human to do so comfortably, and he returned shivering, for Hutch to scold and wrap in blankets.
Although he made good money with his jewelry, he sometimes grew bored. On these days he did not open shop at all, and wandered down to the docks—a rough part of town. Hutch worried. Curly never seemed to take the least concern with his person. And he did not usually take it into his head to tell Hutch where he was going, or invite him along.
By repeated asking, Hutch managed to impress the desirability for company, when going into a bad part of town. Finally, Curly invited him along one day, and the two headed down to the docks, with Hutch looking around nervously.
But to his surprise, Hutch found that Curly waved to and was greeted by most of the people around. Rough-looking men had smiles for him, and asked him how the fish were biting—and seemed to take his replies seriously. And when they reached his destination, an older man's face broke into smiles. "Come to volunteer again, son?"
Curly nodded, and then jerked his thumb at Hutch. "Him too."
So Hutch found himself working for free on a fishing boat. They helped the old man, and Curly got to be around fish and the water. Sometimes he paused to eat a particularly nice fish, and once he handed one to Hutch, offering to share. Hutch waved it away, uncertain how Curly could still enjoy the 'treat' now that he was (at least mostly) human. Once Curly dived into the water and was down for so long that Hutch began to worry. But he needn't have: Curly returned with a large fish, and thumped it onto the deck. He went back down and returned three times with big lobsters, one for each of them.
Hutch tried to convince him they would be far tastier cooked, with butter, but Curly kept shooting longing glances at the seafood, looking so hungry that Hutch felt guilty.
By the end of the long day, Hutch was ravenous, almost hungry enough to rethink ungutted, raw fish. They helped haul in the nets, docked at last, said a friendly goodbye to the fisherman, waved, and headed off, carrying their lobsters.
They stopped at a favorite restaurant that welcomed Hutch's business, even with Curly as company. He asked for the lobsters to be cooked to specification, and lots of butter brought, and Curly did indeed enjoy the lobster, very much. He sat back greasy and sated, and then reaching for one of Hutch's lobster's claws, to chew on.
Curly once again fell to sleep on the floor of Hutch's bedroom. He couldn't seem to get used to bed, although he quite liked to sleep in the tub. (He didn't even seem to mind when the water got cold. But Hutch worried about him, and tried to impress upon him the need to go to bed warm and dry.)
Curly would sometimes get annoyed by the feel of fabric against his skin, and strip off his pajamas in the middle of the night. Hutch would wake to find them draped over the end of the bed, and a naked man asleep on the floor.
Curly was getting better about remembering to wear clothes during the day, however.
He was not used to everything. He embarrassed Hutch hugely the time he pointed to an obviously pregnant woman's belly and observed, "Eat too much." Hutch had apologized, and taken him aside, and tried to explain about pregnancy—instead of hatching, human babies were grown inside—and after that Curly was even more amazed. Hutch had been obliged to grab him by the elbow and propel him away, with some very harsh words about how inappropriate it was to pat a pregnant woman's belly and ask her how many of her batch she thought would survive.
Curly was curious about humans, and asked some questions that Hutch found awkward, though he tried his best to explain. Curly, though he was mostly human now, still viewed things from his old perspective, and was utterly amazed when he first heard that humans could breed any time, and that they often chose to stay together in pairs, for the children and for love.
He did not understand that concept at all—staying together for more than a few months, to raise children. Human children took longer. But when he understood that, he still had difficulty understanding why someone would stay with another without children, for this 'love.'
"What is it?" he asked Hutch, looking up at him, and then going back to eating his fish. It was baked today, and he kept burning his fingers because he did not want to wait till it was cool. He put his fingers in his mouth, and sucked on them, and looking at Hutch, waiting for him to explain.
Hutch sighed, and pushed a serving of sorbet at him, and Curly put his fingers in gratefully. It would taste fishy now….
Hutch said, "It's a feeling and a decision. You are very fond of someone, and—"
"What is 'fond?'"
"Another feeling. You like someone. You want to spend time with them and you want them to be okay. Like family, or friends, or a mate."
"Oh! You are fond of me." Curly broke out into a grin.
Hutch looked around the restaurant nervously, at Curly's loud, carrying tone, and then said, "Yes, I'm fond of you."
"I'm fond you, too!" Curly thumped the table, making the silverware jump.
"I know. Please keep your voice down."
"This love," said Curly, attacking his fish again. "Like fond, but…different?"
"Well, it's stronger than fondness. It's—" He tried to think of the times he'd been in love, the way to describe the all-encompassing, strong, passionate need for another, the way you could miss them when they hadn't been gone five minutes, and want them in your life forever.
"Ooooh," said Curly. He nodded, his eyes looking strangely reflective and solemn. "It a human thing." Then he dug into his fish again, without any words from Hutch. It left Hutch feeling oddly disconcerted—both that Curly had read his thoughts so easily and thoroughly, and that he had immediately dismissed love as 'a human thing.'
It seemed sad to Hutch that the sea-people apparently had no conception of romantic love, but it did not really surprise him, from what he'd seen of their society. Kinship and friendliness seemed to be their strongest bonds; and perhaps it had been for the best, as their society had been remarkably peaceful and free of jealousy and strife, during his time there.
But he had somehow gotten used to the idea of Curly being human now, and he had thought his friend would understand such a simple human concept.
One day there was a knock at the door, and a truly disreputable-looking, villainous man stood there, holding up a baby, and leering, rather. "Got your son, Mr. Hutch, haven't I?"
Hutch stared stupidly. "I don't have a son."
"You do now. Got my daughter preggers, didn't you? And then she died. So I've got to raise him, see? And it'll cost ya, won't it? Should've married her, you should. Abigail. Good girl, till she met you. Cost you plenty, unless you want everyone to know—"
"I said I haven't—"
But he was cut off by Curly brushing past him with a delighted, "Baby!" He caught the grubby, tear-streaked infant out of the man's hands and disappeared into the apartment. Hutch and the man stared at each other in consternation.
"Cost you plenty…" The man faltered on his pitch.
"Excuse me a moment. Come in, won't you?" Hutch pulled the man in and the door shut. "Curly…"
"Nice baby, Hutch. You make good one! Real wet," said Curly enthusiastically, holding the child at a weird angle and bouncing it enthusiastically in his arms.
Hutch plucked it from his hands and then grimaced; it was indeed wet. "Curly, it's not my baby. We're giving it right back."
"No!" said Curly, horrified. "You don't want one? I'll take it," he told the man seriously.
The man opened his mouth, then shut it.
"I'll take it and keep it. No trouble. You don't want, I'll keep Hutch's baby."
"It's not my baby!" said Hutch. "I never heard of the girl!"
"Wonder if your neighbors will believe that, yes I do," said the man maliciously. He got up and began to leave.
"Hey! Come back here and take the little—take little—whatsisname."
"No," said Curly. "Mine now. Hutch's. I'll keep!" He waved cheerfully at the man who was retreating sourly, and then reached for the baby again, taking it in his arms. "Real big," he said under his breath. "You sure to survive."
Hutch cast him an agonized look, then hurried after the man. "Come take it back! It's not mine."
"I'll take it back when you pay me, sure enough, I will," said the man with a leer. "Own son…."
He retreated down the steps, muttering, and far too fast. Hutch chased him to the corner, long legs powering his run, still too slow, and promptly lost the man. He headed back, frustrated, to figure out what to do about a baby, and to convince Curly that they were not adopting it.
Curly did not take that too well.
"Your baby, Hutch." He pouted, and reached for a chunk of bread, and tried to feed it to the infant.
"They don't eat that, Curly." Hutch removed the bread from his hands. "And it's not my baby. You can't keep it."
"You kept mine," explained Curly. "You found it, and you kept it. Alive. Fed." He waved a hand, nearly dropping the baby. Hutch lunged forward and caught it. "I keep this one," explained Curly, as if that satisfied him. "Sure to live."
"Yes, Curly, it's 'sure to live,'" said Hutch, exasperated, "but it's not mine, and it's not yours, and you can't just keep some random baby!"
Curly frowned at the new word he did not yet know. "Keep it," he argued, and stared at the pink creature that had begun to writhe in Hutch's arms, and bawl. "Noisy bugger," he said with what might have been admiration.
"Don't talk like that," said Hutch, and then looked down at the baby, and sighed. "Guess I'd better take it to the police station. It probably wasn't that man's to begin with."
So he walked down, with Curly by his side the whole way chattering and trying to convince him what a good idea it would be to have a child. The proceedings became ludicrous to the point of comedy when Hutch was trying to convince the police that this baby was not his, and it needed help, and Curly was trying to convince them that it was, and they should keep it, keep it, keep it.
At last Hutch looked at Curly, and narrowed his eyes, and thought some things very sternly, and Curly snapped his mouth shut, looking surprised. "Keep it," he muttered once more, and with one last, reluctant glance at the baby, moved away and began to study the walls with the appearance of nonchalance.
When they at last left the station, Curly was downcast and reproachful. "Should've kept it."
"Curly, that wouldn't be good for the baby. It deserves a real home."
"Real home!" echoed Curly. "We have one!"
"That baby was not mine," repeated Hutch, falling back on his earlier words. Besides, what did he know about being a father?
Curly looked at him, and for a moment stopped scuffing his feet. "You were good father to mine," he said quietly. Then he walked ahead, and did not spend any more time with Hutch that day.
He did not seem angry exactly, more solemn and reflective, and sad. Hutch felt a bit guilty about disappointing his friend—and it had obviously been a great disappointment to him, to realize that not everyone wanted children the way he did.
They did not speak much for the next few days, but after that it blew over, and Curly stopped acting subdued around him. And Hutch stopped feeling like Curly should understand love when he did not understand Curly's feelings about babies.
Curly was doing much better about not embarrassing Hutch, and attempting to follow all the rules.
So Hutch was surprised when Curly returned home one afternoon naked in the middle of the day, interrupting the conversation Hutch had been having with a beautiful woman over a pot of rose-flavored tea.
There was a commotion in the hall, the sound of shoes being kicked off, and then Curly walked through, completely nude, carrying two fish, wet and sandy. Curly walked through the kitchen, paused to offer to shake hands with the lady, saying hello, and then went into the bathroom. Hutch heard the water beginning to run.
Hutch's lady friend seemed distracted after that, despite Hutch's apologies and excuses, and she shortly made her excuses to leave.
Hutch headed into the bathroom, to find Curly soaking in a tub so full it was nearly overflowing. The fish were washed clean, lying on the floor, waiting to be eaten.
"How-dee Hutch. Didn't know lady here. Took off my clothes outside, to wash," he explained, looking up at Hutch with a cheerful, innocent gaze.
"Curly—" Hutch sighed, and went away again.
The woman would never be back, and, in the coming days, proved reluctant to even speak with him, after asking around about him and finding out that he lived with this 'eccentric' friend.
"I am sorry, Hutch, but I have my standards," she said, and Hutch left, frustrated and angry—as much with himself as with her.
He kept his silence, but sometimes he wondered—
Curly sat up and blinked at him in astonishment. He was sitting, once again naked, on the floor, and Hutch had been lying in bed, waking slowly, thinking how nice it would be if he did not have to share his bedroom. At least not with Curly.
Now Curly stared at Hutch with wide, amazed eyes. "You want me to go?"
Hutch flushed. "Well—yeah—kinda—sometimes." Then he wished very much he could've taken it back, because Curly's face went completely blank.
Curly nodded. "I go. Soon. I go soon," he repeated, and got up and wandered out into the kitchen.
He returned a few moments later, to fetch the clothing he'd forgotten about once again.
Curly was a man who had learned his place, and his limits. And sometimes Hutch did not see him for days; Curly slept not far from his little stand, at a small room he'd rented, with a dreadful bed he still wouldn't sleep in.
Hutch found it wonderful to have his rooms back, to be able to entertain or visit without the fear of Curly doing something outrageous or offering advice to strangers. His advice had varied from how to lose weight (if he thought the person needed to), to a more socially acceptable, if little less strange, monologue on where and when the person he was talking to could catch the best fish.
Finally, Hutch had breathing space. It was not that he did not care about Curly—he had just needed some room. As much as he had missed him while they were apart, he still needed less closeness now.
But even though he thought it had been the sensible choice, and even though Curly had gone willingly, Hutch felt guilty about the whole thing.
After a few days the parties and visitors began to pall. Ulam even, with a drink in his hand, asked where Hutch's fishy friend was. Hutch gave a guilty smile, and said that David hadn't been by in a few days. Ulam raised his eyebrows.
So Hutch found himself walking down to Curly's stand again, seeing that familiar figure. With a start, he realized Curly was sad. Hutch might not be able to read Curly's mind, but he could read his face.
He stepped forward, and Curly stated in a flat voice how much the jewelry cost, without even looking up.
"Curly. It's me."
"You." Curly looked up, blinking in surprise.
Hutch smiled at him. "Didn't you 'hear' me?"
Curly shook his head. "Wasn't listening."
"C'mon. Let me buy you something to eat. Sorry I haven't been around much. I was catching up with friends."
Curly nodded, and closed up shop, and went with Hutch. He ate voluminously, so much (even more than normal), that Hutch laughed at him, and asked him if he'd been starving himself or something.
Curly shrugged; he'd gotten good at that human gesture. "Just haven't felt hungry," he said. Then he raised his eyebrows. "More lobster?"
"Of course," said Hutch. He would put it on his tab; he'd better pay it soon. And he needed to give some more money to the shelter, too…. "I guess I forgot myself a bit," he admitted. "Sorry."
Why had he gotten so restless and selfish? He had cared little for parties and things before Curly came, and he'd been content enough afterwards for awhile, too. But then he'd started to feel trapped—constrained….
The talk about a child had made him think of his fading youth, and Curly's sometimes-outrageous presence had interrupted a romance; and that had been enough to trigger it. He wondered at himself, though, and he wondered at Curly, for missing him so much.
They ate a lot, and then walked down to the water together, not talking, just walking. Hutch had the feeling, though, that Curly was listening to his thoughts. He seemed content with no more communication than that, and Hutch certainly didn't know what to say. He picked up a rock and threw it out to sea.
"Are you sorry you stayed?" he asked finally.
Curly shook his head. "There was nothing for me out there anymore."
"And is there something for you here, now?" Hutch looked at him.
Curly look at him. "I think so."
Hutch threw another rock, stared out over the ocean. "Well, what? You can't have children. You already know that."
"I know that," admitted Curly. Then he grinned. "But maybe I find another one someday."
Hutch grinned as well. "Well, you probably wouldn't be allowed to keep it."
Curly shrugged. "I know all this. I still like to be here." He squinted at Hutch. "I fond of you."
Hutch looked down, and scuffed his feet in the sand. "I'm fond of you, too, Curly. But…it's hard to share everything. It's…not like under the sea, up here. People need space sometimes."
"Is okay," said Curly, nodding. "Sometimes me too. Space—you got it, pahtner."
Hutch could not help but smile at his inflection. He clapped a hand on Curly's shoulder, gave it a friendly shake. "Let's go home."
"Where home, my home, yours home?" Curly looked at him, wide-eyed and trusting in the near-darkness.
"Mine for now. And maybe I can rent the room next door for you. You could be near, but still give me a little privacy."
Curly nodded. "Okay. I like be near you."
"Me too," admitted Hutch. He hesitated. "And—maybe someday I will have a kid. You can be an uncle, if I do."
Hutch blinked. "Well—like my brother."
"Ulam?" Curly grinned.
"Yeah. He'd be an uncle to any kid of mine, and you would too."
"Ahh," said Curly, sounding intensely satisfied. Then, "Hutch."
"Hurry up. I want be uncle!"
Hutch laughed at him, but for some reason he didn't feel pressured by this demand. It just made him smile at Curly's innocent enthusiasm.
Curly was a lot more fun when you could talk to him. Hutch had needed his help just to survive under the sea, but sometimes he had been so distant and cold, and they had rarely communicated in any meaningful way. Now, all Hutch had to do was look across at him and say whatever occurred to him. Or even just think it. Perhaps becoming human (after a fashion) had made Curly a warmer person, too. Hutch could not imagine the old Curly admitting he wanted or needed anything or anyone.
"You," said Curly. He cast Hutch a quick, shy glance, half embarrassed, half pleased, his gaze hooded. "Even then."
"Even then?" Hutch was impressed.
"You were my—my—" He shrugged. "Not sure of word. But I rescued you. You were my—"
"That too. Friend! You were my friend. And you not survive without me. You need me. It's not every day somebody need you."
"Yeah," agreed Hutch, and felt a sudden warm gladness that, after all, someone did need him. Curly had missed him, and he still needed help getting used to human culture. Perhaps he always would.
Curly slipped his hand into Hutch's. "I try not make you ashamed anymore, and learn rules. Remember clothes," he added. "And—learn talk to better. I practice lots."
"I know you do." He gave the hand a warm squeeze, and then they let go of each other. Hutch wiped his hand surreptitiously on his pants; Curly had been rather sticky.
"Do better that, too."
"Well," said Hutch, looking up at the rising moon and smiling, and feeling the sand still slightly warm beneath his feet. He put a hand on Curly's back. "Don't change too much."
"Okay, Hutch. Hutch…."
"You think it work for me to have baby with human lady? Lots human ladies?"
Hutch stifled a groan. "Curly, if you're not fertile with your own kind, what makes you think— Besides, you're the one that said crossbreeding merpeople and humans is dangerous."
"Merpeople. I never say that! Merpeople. You mean sea folks."
"Sea folks," agreed Hutch.
Curly sighed. "And you right. Hurt the babies. Maybe just find one…." he said disconsolately.
Hutch caught his arm, pulled him around to face him, and wrapped him in a tight hug. Curly accepted it, although he did not seem to understand. He gave Hutch's hair an awkward pat.
"You need space?" he asked in a muffled voice.
Hutch released him. "Only sometimes. Just—don't torture yourself, buddy. About kids. I mean—you're a great guy, whether you have babies or not."
Curly shrugged. "Not great. Defective. They all—they not make it, Hutch."
"What?" He felt himself growing nervous. The way Curly had looked so aged when he came ashore, so troubled and sad. And now he'd said, not 'they didn't hatch,' but 'they didn't make it.' Oh dear… "Something happened?"
"Three hatch. Last try, Hutch. I watch so careful— But they die. Too weak. They die, Hutch." He shook his head, and said, "So I decide, No more. Not gonna do that no more. Too much…." He frowned, trying to think of the word, and put a hand over his chest. "Too much—bad thing—in here."
"Hurt? Pain?" said Hutch. He covered Curly's hands with his own. "It wasn't your fault, you know. A person—or a sea folk—can't help that sort of thing. It's just the way it is."
Curly shrugged. He looked less than convinced, and something in his eyes said he was still remembering, and hurting.
After a moment, he let his hand drop. They continued walking. Hutch wanted to comfort him, but didn't know how.
"You do already," said Curly, once again answering the things he hadn't said.
Hutch smiled at him. "I'll get used to you doing that someday, I suppose. How do I comfort you?"
Curly seemed to mull this a moment. "You don't see me different. You don't see, 'He's the one who can't have baby.' You just see—Curly. Friend." He smiled at Hutch, a blazing smile, even in the darkness. "I like that."
Hutch felt choked up. "Me too." He gave Curly a pat on the shoulder. After a moment, Curly leaned his head on Hutch's shoulder.
For a time, they stared out at the sea, thinking of all the things that had passed, and then they headed in to land.
(Three years later)
"Ah. There is the big boy!"
Curly's grin widened as he held out his hands to take Hutch's red-headed offspring. He held the boy high, and smiled into his face. The child gurgled and smiled back, kicking his feet cheerfully.
He put the little kid on his knee and bounced him. The boy giggled.
Curly looked over his head and smiled at Hutch. He raised his eyebrows. "When make more, Hutch?"
Hutch gave him a stern look. "Honestly. I had one kid and already you're telling me to have more?"
"Who had the 'kid?'" asked Felisse, Hutch's wife, Hin a wry, humorous voice. She crossed her arms and smiled down in a scolding manner at the two friends.
Their son got his red hair from her. Though Felisse sometimes had a quick temper, it was not in evidence today. And in truth, she was remarkably forbearing and understanding about Hutch's best friend, the ex-merman next door.
Curly was doing better about remembering his clothing. He almost never forgot, these days. But he did tend to look as though he'd thrown on whatever he could find and then forgotten about it. Hutch had never noticed until he found his girlfriend (and later, his wife), fixing Curly's collars and tsking at him for looking so slovenly.
She arranged Hutch's collars sometimes, too, but seemed to take Curly on as a special project, in a "this man needs a woman to look after him" manner. She was really remarkably tolerant of "the weird friend." It was one of the things that had made Hutch realize how special she was. Her kindness to Curly, despite his unusual ways, was one of the things that had first shown Hutch her gentle heart beneath her sometimes-tempestuous surface.
Now, they looked up at her sheepishly. Hutch smiled at Felisse. "You did, of course! I only meant—well, I didn't mean anything. It's all his fault." He pointed at Curly, grinning, shamelessly 'blaming' his friend.
Curly, trying not to smile, gave Felisse his innocent, put-upon look. He was quite good at it.
She laughed, and shook her head. "You two!" She picked up the baby and carried him off for his feeding.
Curly watched her go, and watched the baby. "Nice kid, Hutch. But…"
"But?" Hutch frowned at him. He might feel awkward as a father sometimes, but he was very proud of his son.
Curly gave Hutch a darting, shy look, mixing the innocent expression he'd tried to pull on Felisse with a little of the self consciousness he sometimes showed about human things, when he was feeling uncertain that he really understood them. "Need more, so he's not lonely. One is too lonely."
Hutch snorted. "Maybe you should have one, then!"
Curly's face went blank. "Maybe I will." He got up and walked to the window, and stared outside.
Hutch swallowed hard. "Curly… I didn't… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—" He hurried after his friend. He hadn't forgotten the sore spot that was his friend's inability to have children, but Curly never complained, and sometimes it slipped to the background of Hutch's mind.
And now he'd said these words; they had just come from his mouth, seemingly without passing through his brain first at all.
He caught the ex-merman's arm and gave it a squeeze. "Sorry," he said.
Curly nodded. "I know." He stared towards the waterfront for a few moments.
Then he turned to Hutch wearing a brave little smile. "Is a good life, Hutch. Not perfect, but good. Maybe someday I find safe way to have baby of my own. Till then—I am happy with your and Felisse baby, and I am happy to teaching babies swim." He gave Hutch a little nod, his eyes halfway hooded. His expression held truth; he meant what he said, and Hutch felt relieved.
No, Curly's life was not perfect, but Hutch was glad it was not a complete disappointment—partly for selfish reasons, because he was very glad to have Curly around. Especially once they had adjusted to the new living arrangements, and the boundaries for the two of them to be comfortable with on the long haul.
Curly rarely talked anymore about the choice he'd made to live on land, and it made Hutch glad to hear him say he didn't regret it. Hutch gripped his friend's arm and smiled.
The swimming Curly referred to was an informal swimming class Curly had started for the local kids. They liked him, even if he seemed weird to many adults. (Though he'd been trying, he really had, to fit in.)
He enjoyed working with kids, and always remembered all their names, even if he still sometimes struggled with keeping straight the names of adults he'd just met.
He took local kids for swims in the ocean, watching them carefully. It was all games and sometimes even roughhousing, but he kept an eagle eye and noticed if any of the kids were struggling or frightened, right away. He would not take more than the number of children he could safely watch, and he always made them ask their parents first. (Hutch had impressed on him the importance of this, of parents needing to know where their children were at all times.)
Curly seemed to have a knack for teaching human swimming, even though he'd learned it himself only since becoming human. With his inability to breathe underwater, he had worked out how to swim effectively on his own, and he still seemed natural as a fish in the water.
Hutch considered himself a strong, agile swimmer, but if he ever went swimming with Curly, he was always completely out of his depth in comparison to Curly. In the water, Curly seemed to revert completely to merman and could swim circles around Hutch (and often would, teasingly).
He was not nearly so careful of Hutch as he was of the children, and he often tried to start a splashing fight or a race. Which he always won.
On land he was more docile, and listened to Hutch's corrections without argument, his brow furrowing slightly when he learned a grammar rule or an etiquette rule that he had never before known, and that seemed to contradict the other things he'd learned. But he never argued, and went along with whatever Hutch said.
But in the water he was still king, and he sometimes seemed to regard Hutch with the affection he'd have given to a rather clumsy, but cherished child. It was true that Hutch was not nearly as good of a swimmer as he'd been while living among the sea folk, after the plant Curly gave him to make him into a half-merman, but he was still quite good—for a human.
At last Curly interrupted the reverie by turning to Hutch and asking, "Want to go fishing again soon?"
Hutch nodded. "Yeah." He actually enjoyed the volunteer fishing trips Curly still made. In his work for his father, Hutch spent most of his time behind a desk. Laboring with fishermen of Curly's choosing allowed him a sense of satisfaction in physical labor that he sometimes missed with only his book work.
To reach the end of the day feeling that you had accomplished something, because you had helped bring the fish in. To know that someone would eat tonight because of your work. That felt good.
The great blue ocean. It spread before them, swaying and majestic, and full of fish.
Hutch was working on the back of the boat, lost in thought and the sound of the waves and the rhythm of hauling in nets. He finally got the net the whole way in, and straightened. He stood still a moment, his hand on the middle of his back, catching his breath.
Suddenly, he heard a shout. "—utch—! Hut—"
He turned around to see what had upset Curly. His friend's voice sounded frantic.
The boom swung round and hit Hutch smack on the forehead.
Down he went, backwards into the water, into the briny blue.
At first he saw black. Then he saw blue—the waters closing over him, as down he sank.
It was like last time.
Except before, he had been rescued from below.
He caught it now, the snatch of the memory he had lost those years ago—Hutch, hoping he wouldn't disappoint his family on this trip, and then the crew revolting. He'd been hit on the head, and overboard he went. Sinking—forgetting even as he began to die. Losing himself, all but his name.
Then a curly-headed enigma had saved him.
He saw the giant splash above him, as Curly dived into the water. He blinked, trying to clear the flashes from before his eyes. By reflex, his lungs tried to drag in a breath, and he gagged on salt water.
Curly was right above him now, his expression intensely worried.
Strong arms plucked Hutch towards the surface. Curly swam like the merman he'd once been, towards the surface, towards life.
They burst the surface and Hutch coughed and gagged, fighting for air. Curly shoved him towards the fisherman's waiting hands. Hutch was hauled on deck, his back was pounded, and he coughed up the sea.
This time, Curly had rescued him from above.
Curly crouched beside him, one hand warm on his arm, tight and radiating concern.
When he was able, Hutch turned to meet his gaze, and thank him in a hoarse, croaking voice it hurt to use. "Th-thanks, buddy."
Curly's hand tightened and then released. "No problems," he said and smiled, relief beginning to replace the intense worry in his eyes.
The fisherman, who had apparently dealt with a few cases of people falling overboard before, hefted Hutch to his feet, looked at his face and asked him brusquely how he did, how many fingers this was, and then told him to get back to work or go below and rest, his choice.
Curly, beside him, turned away to deal with another net, while the fisherman took care of the errant boom.
Hutch felt foolish and his lungs burned, and he was very glad to be alive. He also felt somehow extremely embarrassed. And he halfway wished someone would make a fuss over him being alright. At the same time, he was relieved no one did!
In the mix of these conflicting feelings, he busied himself sorting the fish he'd hauled in before he went overboard. Crouching on the deck, he picked through them, tossing back the little ones.
Curly came over and joined him. They worked side by side for several long moments, Hutch's ears burning, and not with the salt water. At last he spoke.
"I owe you my life," he rasped. "Twice."
How easily he had accepted this, accepted Curly as his sometimes-foolish friend, who had to fit his life comfortably or go, instead of the complicated and unique person he was….
Then he remembered the shark-hunting. "Three times. No, more than that." His mind flitted back to the times he'd pushed himself too hard—visited the surface, and couldn't have made it back for more of the breathing shells without Curly's help—and the other times Curly had looked after him, helping him, keeping him alive while the other seafolk had been content with blandly accepting him and paying him little heed.
"No," said Curly. He shook his head. He looked embarrassed! Hutch couldn't remember the last time he'd seen that expression on Curly's face. It somehow didn't fit him.
"No," said Curly again, meeting his gaze, still embarrassed but also sincere. "You owe nothing. Isn't like that." He shook his head again, and looked away. Ducking his damp, curly head, he focused on the fish, sorting them with his quick, olive-toned fingers.
It is a big deal, though. Hutch thought the words to Curly, because his throat hurt. He knew Curly could hear him anyway.
There were a few times when they were near each other and Curly missed his thoughts, when Curly wasn't paying attention, or was busy with something else, but for the most part this ability of his former days had remained, yet only with Hutch. When asked to explain why he could hear only Hutch's thoughts, he'd shrugged and said, "Knew you before." That seemed to explain it to his satisfaction, and Hutch had no alternate theory.
It's a big deal. I owe you everything. I'd never have survived, or made it home without you. And I might have died again, just now…. These thoughts were sober. With his remembered past, he knew just how much he'd lost, when he fell overboard. His childhood, now coming back, was a time of aching to belong, to be good enough to please his family….
But now he'd had so much more to lose. If he'd lost his memory or his life, he'd have lost his parents, his brother, his wife and son—and Curly. All his family.
He cleared his still-aching throat, and gripped Curly's arm. He gave it a warm squeeze, and didn't let go right away. Curly's hands stilled. They shared a moment of silence on the gently swaying deck, near the flapping fish and the pungent nets.
Don't let me take you for granted, Curly.
Curly shook his head. "You don't." He met Hutch's gaze, and raised and lowered his shoulders in a shrug. "If you did, I wouldn't care. Means I belong."
Hutch stared at him. He had nothing to say to that simple declaration. He felt humbled and glad.
Curly smiled at him quietly, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and then pointed to the pile of fish yet to be sorted. "Fish," he suggested. Hutch nodded, and began to sort. "But if you feel bad, then rest," added Curly, darting a look of quick concern at him.
Hutch didn't, and they finished out the fishing, sailed back and docked, and then walked home together in silence.
Hutch appreciated the sights and sounds around him, realizing just how much about life he'd begun to take for granted these days. He couldn't wait to hug his kid and his wife again.
Hutch put his hands in his pockets and walked jauntily. He glanced over at Curly, and took his hands out again. He caught a hand around the back of Curly's neck and gave it a friendly squeeze. In turn, Curly reached around and put a hand around Hutch's back.
He turned his head and smiled at Hutch. "It's my job, you know."
"What is?" Hutch smiled back.
"Looking after you." Curly poked him in the chest, pulled free, and took off running towards home.
Hutch ran after him, smiling. Yes. It was both their jobs to look after each other—now and always.