She's only a baby. Ai Li A Le's been posing this argument to herself for months now, but with every passing day it grows weaker, less substantial.
She's my baby. And yet she knows this is the greatest act of love she can make, even though it breaks her, diminishes her soul.
The North Sea is vast and cold, and she lingered at the edge, cradling her child against the crisp air that flows across the water. What will become of her humanity here? Ai Li wondered, her eyes never leaving the depths, combing the surface for any sign of danger. Will she forget she's also human? Will she forget me?
O Kai had been a surprise, just as everyone's child since the geneticist's dismembered their species. Ai Li thought she'd been prepared for anything, for whatever mixture of spliced and diced genes would come to the fore when her baby was born. And yet she hadn't been ready for O Kai, hadn't planned on a child who needed the water to survive, who she'd have to abandon before she'd even learned to walk. Even with the genetic roulette that was the norm for the Islai, there was nothing natural about this, of not being able to raise your own child, of having to trust her existence to the vagaries of the wild.
Her daughter's low purr gradually grew in strength, became more urgent as she gently nudged Ai Li's chin. It was time. Soon all daylight would be gone; she must let go before darkness falls, while she can still see her child against the crest of the waves, to see if she takes to her first taste of open water.
Clenching her jaw, she walked resolutely into the water, the cold instantly freezing her veins. When she'd submerged up to her waist, she stopped and gently unwrapped her bundle, lowering her head to meet that of her daughters. "Remember who you are, all that you are," she whispered, closing her eyes against the sting of tears. Kissing the top of her beautiful girl's head, she mouthed "I love you" against her silky skin, then bent down and released her into the shallow waves.
She circled Ai Li playfully until curiosity pushed her further, skimming out deeper into the water, testing muscles long constrained by walls of aquarium glass and bathtub porcelain. Ai Li couldn't move, mesmerized by O Kai's beauty and grace in the water, her speed and strength. Only when a shudder wracked her body did she remember the cold, the freezing water quickly numbing her bones. She carefully returned to the shore but remained shivering at the edge, unable to leave O Kai to her world, to the place she clearly belonged.
She's still her baby, but she's outgrown her nest. The North Sea has enveloped her, welcomed her, and O Kai greets it with enthusiasm and inquisitiveness.
She's no longer a baby. Out here it's clear she's a young creature of the sea, and Ai Li hopes instinct guides her, that resourcefulness never leaves her side.
Ai Li A Le stood looking out across the inky black water, her eyes straining for another glimpse, one last look at her beautiful girl. For a moment she believed she saw her arc above the sea, a gentle crest. One last wave, Ai Li thinks, wrapping her arms more tightly against the bittersweet realization that her child had found her home.