Adaptability is about the powerful difference between adapting to cope and adapting to win.
- Max McKeown
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The tall man, as dark as night, held a lime-green staff in his left hand that helped him walk. There was nothing wrong with his legs; he was just never comfortable walking when his legs were built to swim. Beside him, his wife who had her blue-grey hair tied in a bun, paced better than he did on the rocky forest floor. They both sat down on a fallen branch while their youngest son scanned the map. “Well, it’s safe to say we are lost.” he said in a bored voice. As if on cue, they heard a voice. A soothing song that traveled through the air- no, it was the air. It was as if the soughs were suddenly given a voice that made everything peaceful. A natural melody that was never out of place, it just seemed to belong everywhere and anywhere. The woman stood up, and she knew -they all knew- that they had to follow the song. She fastened her scabbard in her hip that housed a smaller sword than her husband’s, though made from the same hairy megalodon’s rib, with a new sense of purpose and trudged forward.
They climbed, slipped, crushed plants close to the ground and followed the voice. They moved as quickly as their land-forgotten legs allowed them to, while the curious animals from the forest peered from a distance at the determined people. Before long, they had reached the edge of the forest that expanded into a vast green meadow. A beautiful lush garden stood in front of a brown cottage. It wasn’t much but they knew it was different on the inside.
“Do you think this is it?” Asked the man who drank sea water which seeped from his gills attempting to conceal his weakened breathing. They saw a lean man with bronze-coloured skin sitting against the cottage playing with tiny fluffy long-earred animals and it was from him that the magnificent song emanated. “Yes, it’s them,” she said unsheathing her sword in a flash.
A Few weeks ago
The wolves howled their last for the night before turning tail. The silver light of the moon grew fainter with each passing moment while the Sun readied itself to come out. It was brighter these days which was absolutely cruel to the nocturnals.
Hal turned over in their bed of hay, pulling the woolen blanket over his head. Caine, however being the early riser, sat up yawning, stretching and felt a shock up his legs as his feet touched the frigid floor. He waited until the moment passed, took a swig of honey from his wooden flask and made an excruciatingly long journey towards the front door promising himself to figure out the enchantment to warm the floors. The powerful enchantments that already held their brown cottage together were a gift from the nature spirits, and they were not always so generous. Caine held the front door open and sucked in the fresh morning air, it was still slightly chilly but the Sun was already peeking from its blanket of clouds, thawing everything it saw. It was not long before the thumbflies stretched out their wings and quarreled with the faeries for pollen in their front garden. Hal snored loudly startling the thumbflies in the garden. Caine shut the door and walked across the frosted green grass towards the stream.
Caine was athletic and had the body to prove it; he just never seemed to tire. Every morning he hopped over thirty quartz stones on the stream to reach his favorite spot. Nearly most of the stream was between the dense thicket of trees, he took off his grey tunic and the sun’s rays found and bounced off his bronze skin making it seem almost gold. Then, he somersaulted into the cold water startling the many thirsty life who’d straddled there for a drink in the wee hours. He laughed at them and continued to splash the freezing water against his body, despite his earlier complaints of the cold, he was now thoroughly content. He sang to the forest around him that calmed the bustling life within and without. His voice was elegant and soft but held a strength that could take down a raging wild boar. He swam into depths of the stream, going deeper this time and found the hole waiting for him amidst the glinting scales of bluefins and pointy gold fish. The swarm of gold fish, whose scales were made of literal stardust, swam straight at him before deciding he wasn’t prey and jerked to the left in unison.
The hole opened up to a crystal cave that reflected his every move. He climbed up to the floor, shaking off the water and found himself looking at the many souvenirs he had collected over the last 200 years. A fish bone, a wooden boot, a liquid shadow in a vial, and then he smirked at the ivory chalice that lay on one of the tiny pillars. He picked it up and a distant memory flooded his mind.
It was at least twenty four seasons ago that he had met Hal and on a day that was much like today when Caine woke up to realise they were out of blue taurus’ milk. Caine swam along the stream until he reached the denser side of the forest, where he had found the herd of blue taurus. They were in and out of the stream, some were both, given their enormous size. Each weighed at least 100 tons and were well over 40 feet and stretched at least 20 feet. They had thick blue fur along their snout with curling tusks, while the rest of their body was brown. “The best time to milk the taurus was always when they chewed the poison berries,” his grandfather had told him when he was but a child, the beasts were so intoxicated by the taste, they had no idea of what transpired around them. Honestly, they were too high up in the food chain to care.
Caine decided to milk the closest one, he had reached the bulbous udders and tested their sensitivity before pulling out his wooden bottle, the taurus didn’t react. As he began unscrewing the bottle, a strange commotion began to unfurl like a cat that had just been splashed with ice-cold water: A giant snapping turtle was racing towards them and unfortunately towards him too. The taurus were agitated and the turtle jerked them out of their peace. Just as he kicked off to swim to the closest shore, a giant brown tail hit him across the face knocking him at least 10 feet in the air. He should’ve flown further and should’ve hit himself against the great oak tree and should’ve cracked his skull open and yet neither of those things happened.
He was dazed and all he could see were two strong arms holding him as they descended with a much lesser speed. It was a man of the Water. He was a textbook example of tall, dark and handsome and, much further from his land. He had gills that flared when he swallowed and was dressed in dark green fish-skin robes. Hal of the Water with bright green eyes grinned with relief as he had watched Caine stitch the events together before passing out.
The many reflections of Caine smiled as he caressed the chalice and sat down. It was not the first time he wondered if his entire life since then was a dream. His grandfather had warned him many times about the faeries, “Son, them faeries are a wicked lot. They’d do anything for a taste of honey. Especially sprinkling their faery dust while we sleep, it will trick you and me and everyone into believing that dreams are real and we’d sleep the longest while they steal. Always check your beds for faeries.”
Caine however, hoped he stayed asleep if that was the case.
It seems like a whole lifetime ago Caine thought, as he swung the door to the cottage open after his swim, holding a couple of green-fin fish in his hand and allowed a few thumbflies to visit before shutting the door. He found the dark-skinned Hal up and ready. “Good, you’re finally up.” Hal simply waved back from the bed. “You scared half the thumbflies and faeries off their wings with that snore.” He said dropping the fish on the table, “keep that up and I’ll have you kicked out this season of long days.”
Hal managed a smile that was lost as quick as a long-earred rodent in the bush. Caine noticed the whimper in his smile and looked to the window near the bed and realised they had a visitor. How he could have missed the giant silver eagle that had perched majestically on the window sill, he would never know. A messenger. His blue eyes scanned Caine and let out a screech that probably meant a “hello” or “hey, how about some of that fish there?”
“Well, what’s the big news?” Asked Caine crossing his bronze arms and looking slightly concerned.
“Oh, it’s just the matters of the Water,” waving his hands to physically swat away the question. The circles around his eyes were darker and his dark form made him appear like a sad, blue cloud. A handsome one at that. Caine touched his arm and sat down beside him. He kissed his cheek and tried to use his vibe to calm him down. Hal smelled of the sea and it made him blush, he shooed the memories of last night away and gathered focus instead.
“What’s troubles you, my dear one? Do you have to visit your family at the shore? I’ll be fine here if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Hal barely moved and it was in that instant, that Caine realised that the messenger brought a much sombre news than previously thought. The eagle scrutinized the two and when he finally realised he wasn’t getting any fish, he screeched in distaste before he expanded his great silver wings and took off, leaving the room looking utterly windswept.
Caine shook his head at the mess while Hal took a long deep breath which also fluttered his gills and said, “They have found a suitor for me. They want me to wed a woman from the Water.” Hal looked at Caine. His expression was unreadable until Caine snorted and threw his head back and laughed, his eyes soon watered and his stomach started to hurt. His booming laughter caused the trees outside to laugh too. He slapped Hal’s back twice before he noticed Hal wasn’t smiling, and he calmed himself. “I’m sorry but your family has found you a suitor. And it is a woman. A woman.” He said the last line in a hushed tone. “You must admit that’s worthy of a laugh.” And laughed again.
Hal smiled. A genuine smile this time and pondered how Caine could always surprise him by the way he looked at things. Long ago on a hunt, they both found a terribly wounded golden bear and Caine had refused to help him. “The creature will live and that is enough. He is now blessed to carry the scars of wisdom and that is his path to greatness. We must not interfere. He will most certainly win at life.” Sure enough, the scarred Golden bear now led its own pack. Caine never saw any problem as a life-ending threat, he knew there were ways to pick up the pieces and he has never been wrong so far. So far.
“But this is serious, they want me to have a family, carry on their legacy and whatnot.”
“Is that how you wish for life to be with you?”
“No. Of course not. I chose to leave because it’s… just a fish bowl.” He finished crudely.
“So, why don’t you tell them so?”
“It’s easier by words, my love but even they, who have attempted to understand my wanderings, will bring the seas down upon us.”
“For loving a man or for loving a greenie?” Caine sincerely asked as he always was perplexed when strings are tied and choices to be made. Nature is flexible and he has watched the seasons be warm, cold, wet and change, watched nature take many forms, many colors and many lovers. His confusion was always a source of amusement for Hal who had grown up with instructions and things called “rules”.
“It’s both. I’m sure one over the other but it’s both either way,” he sounded like every word tasted bitter in his tongue. He was always grateful to the taurus whose tail knocked Caine away, he had even managed to find a tusk at the spot and carved it to a chalice, grotesque one at that but Caine had loved it. He had made friends with many a children of the forest and he felt liberated. Liberated from the chains he never knew he had forged from the many things that made him a child of the Water. Every day, ever since that chance encounter with Caine, he felt lighter as the chains unlinked themselves, loosening his reach and finally there were just a few that held him. He now viewed the world with a sense of freedom that allowed him to accept everything that has happened, everything that will happen and everything in between.
As a child, he was taught the way of life was a cycle but it was much more, the way of life can be just like a river: gentle, powerful, uncontrollable but never just a loop. He may not need to head the Water someday, he may not even need to swim anymore and that was okay. He learnt that it was okay to be. Just be. And that was the night they first kissed and the meteors bore witness to their love as the glowing giant tortoises walked past them.
The eagle though had just brought back new set of chains. “Well, that’s just utterly splendid.” Caine clicked his tongue. “Maybe if you told them?” Caine told the last few words as carefully as if he walked on a log over a river of flowing fire. He wasn’t sure how Hal would take it, more so because it wasn’t his place to push him about revealing his sexual inclination to his family. It was easy for Caine because his entire family had died a few millenia ago in the Second Great War. There were a few extended relatives but they didn’t care much for him as did he. It probably is exceptionally hard to come out but somehow he knew his family wouldn’t have cared, or would they have? That was a question he’d never know the answer to and in all selfishness, he was grateful for that. Hal looked at him as though he had just swallowed a fly. Then his face changed and became softer, “it is a crazy thing to do, but it’s in our best interest to ignore this message, maybe they’d think the eagle took a mating break and didn’t make the trip”
“Well, if you’re sure of this… Your people will wait, I suppose,” said Caine standing up and stretching.
“They want me to wed the next season.” He said bitterly.
Caine laughed out loud and left the house to fix the fire.
Weeks had passed since the letter and the glorious Sun spread its blanket of light and warmth making the entire forest feverishly cheerful. It was Hal’s turn to cook and whilst being blinded by smoke, he heard voices outside and then heard a cheerful cackle that was unmistakably from Caine. I didn’t know we were having guests, I didn’t cook enough! and then another thought quickly took over: We never have guests who is he talking to?!
As the smoke cleared, the blue-gray haired woman entered the cottage first followed by two more familiar faces and then Caine, who was now holding what was unmistakably a megalodon sword. Hal dramatically dropped the ladle and the thud made the three guests look up. They found their son and brother look back at them.
“Hal! How are you, son?” Cried the woman, who had quite apparently passed down her piercing green eyes to Hal, and rushed to hug him. She wore a strange gown that was cut at the midriff and was sewn together with the same fish-skin cloth of Hal’s old robes. The tall dark man dressed in fish-skin cloak; his father, smiled warmly. Everyone in the room however knew he was not a man who would tolerate being talked down to. He gripped his lime-green staff tightly as he struggled to hold back tears. Hal’s brother looked almost identical to their father except he was a lot skinnier. He smiled but seemed bored of the very air around him.
The conversations were as awkward as expected but Caine managed to come out on top by asking them about the ways and life of the Water and sharing stories of the forest in return. The talks went well into the evening and before they knew it, it was time for supper. As they sat down for the meal: Baked fish, fried chicken with a lump of blue taurus’ cheese and some dark wine. Hal found himself hoping he could switch places with the roasted berries on the table. He was edgy, wanted to disappear and scream out loud. He barely listened in on the talks, and spent his time mostly carving a piece of chicken for everyone. Hal hated the inquisitive Caine. Their whole future was but a footprint on the shore, threatened to be washed away by the next wave, and all Caine cared about was what they ate when the tides were low.
The ever-cheerful Caine only went quiet when the topic of the wedding pushed its ugly head into the conversation. Though, he cleverly drove it away by questioning them about their festival of the rainy days, the ugly head of the wedding refused to stay down and bobbed up once again. They began discussing what kind of fish-skin dresses would go well and if they should consider the eels and anglers for the lighting.
“Tell me, my good son.” Hal’s mother asked Caine. “Would you bring your family for the wedding too? Shall we have a room made out for them further away from the ocean?” She asked curious if the Greenies were comfortable being so close to water.
“ENOUGH!” Yelled Hal. “I am not doing this anymore. I CANNOT! I cannot wed someone I do not know.”
Hal’s parents were startled and dropped their food back on the plate while the brother chuckled. As if the show, he was waiting for, had finally begun.
“Hal, please sit,” his father told him, what went unsaid was: or else.
Hal quite comically shuffled to his seat, it was his walking lesson all over again. While the people of the Water spent their time swimming with ease and breathing in the air from the water, they were initially terrified to walk on land. Their legs often betrayed them and most of them gave up but Hal’s father made sure he could walk, swim and if Hal had feathers, probably fly in circles and make a legendary landing.
Hal’s Father cleared his throat and said, “You misunderstand, Hal. We know you have found love in this strange place,” he looked at Caine as he said this, “the eagle brought us the news but birds are silly.” He laughed and suddenly seemed very tired. The journey and the very solid reason of being away from water made him –his wife and second son- feel rather exposed and tired. Caine and Hal, however, looked like they had just been slapped with a beaver’s tail.
His wife held his hand and continued. “We knew they’d do anything for more fish so we had to see for ourselves. We were sad, disturbed and worried. Our boy, who was to lead the Water some day for our clan, was not going to come back. It’s shocking.”
“I admit I wanted to whack some sense into you, little one.” Said his father but with a smile that reached his eyes, so the threat didn’t seem full. “But it was the beautiful song we heard from this lad that carried us here, when we were quite surely lost in the great forest trying to figure out where you lived.” He said extending his hand to point at the forest.
“The metaphor is apparent, we found our way to you and you found yours in life. There is no mistake there.” The shocked expressions on the lovers’ face were slowly being replaced by glee and fear. A flower of fragile hope seemed to be blooming slowly and carefully within them. The impossible seemed to be happening but they were too afraid to admit it because if they did, it could fall off. Withered. Dead.
“I’m sure your hearts were well above the Sun by us coming here unannounced and that is possibly why both of you,” she held a finger accusingly pointing at first Caine and then her son, “didn’t pay attention to the wedding we were discussing.”
Caine was the first to speak or rather babble among the two. “I am sorry… Forgive me… I mean I don’t mean to interrupt but forgive me if I am wrong, are you implying that the wedding is for…. for us? For the both of us,” he said moving his hands uncontrollably and ending up pointing at Hal and himself and switching hands comically.
Hal’s father, the dark man clasped his hands together as if in prayer and leaned forward. “Son, we knew our child was different ever since he knew how to speak. His questions were not what Waterlings asked. It was then that we knew he does not belong here. We were ready to let him go and seek the world much before he gathered the courage to ask us to allow him.”
Hal’s mother nodded and said, “we watch you, son. We accept our young and that is what families do. Should do”
“Our life was a choice, we made choices that we were forced to live with. But of course no regrets” He quickly added unclasping his hands showing them to the roof after his wife flashed a smile at him. “We never wanted that for you, you were a strange boy you didn’t belong and that...” he paused “… is not the most terrible thing.”
Caine was smiling, already accepting what they said but Hal found it incredulous. If there was a pride of large, black-maned cats that purred and jumped around like a pouched-rabbit, Hal may have believed everything that his parents just said. But there weren’t. Hal thought of all the times his family had taken his side against the other clans, of all the times they made sure he walked on the safer side so he won’t be picked on. He realized that his family really did care and suddenly found himself grinning uncontrollably at his life. He had definitely lucked out in this lifetime.
The brother finally spoke, “The wedding is for the both of you, if you two haven’t figured it out yet. At the shores of our great Island under the Gods of young and old. It was really our greatest pleasure meeting you, brother Caine.” He said looking at Caine and raising his glass of red wine. He continued after every one took a sip, “I’m sure the most fun part of the wedding will of course, be the look on the faces of the other clans especially The Elder and GreatFin. I cannot wait.” He was absolutely beside himself with glee. The boy was a rebel, and now his elder brother was beating him at it.
As they bid goodnight to the family, who now attempted to tackle the mysteries of the strange hay bed in the spare room, Caine twirled the sword -a gift from Hal’s mother for the song- between his fingers and voiced something that had been bothering him for a while now, “Wouldn’t be wise to check the hay for faeries’ dust. We could still be asleep after all that’s happened.”
“Let it be, Caine”, Hal smiled and pulled him to a deep embrace, “Just let it be.”