To Seek Himself Again

November 2, 2021

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Marie Croke, a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, has had stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dark Matter Magazine, and Cast of Wonders, among other fine magazines. You can find her online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter. She lives in Maryland with her family.
Content Warning(s):
Body Shaming

The lady possessed all her fingers. Even the useless fifths wiggled in obscure movements as she stroked the vines drooping from the terrariums and grazing the aquariums below. With curiosity bordering on the obscene, Keba sank the viper’s coils that made up his neck that he might gander at the lady’s feet, but they were tucked away neatly inside laced boots. If she’d traded a toe away, it had not been for something larger. And if she had traded for anything at all, she had hidden it so completely that she might as well never have. What a waste.

“I’m told you’re the creature to ask when in need of parts.”

Her voice held the plainness of a pure form. No chirping of a cricket or haunting echo of a wood thrush harmonizing behind each syllable. Ugly, he’d have called it, had he not been striving for professionalism.

He hissed deep in this throat, then nodded and altered his voice so an original human creature might hear all he spoke. “What will it be?”

“A third eye.”

He shifted, but didn’t have to straighten his front legs—goat they were, hooves strong and nimble—for he merely stretched his viperous neck joints until he looked within one of the aquariums.

“I’ve wolf and feline, eagle and shark. I’ve also insects: spider, cricket, ant, and many others. And if you could afford a steeper trade there’s another tier.”

“A witch’s eye.”

Keba hissed again, though this time he tried to cover it. “Another human’s?” He glared her over with his phoenix eye—fiery little thing it was, always lightly burning in a pleasant, easy way.

Her braided hair, dark and thick, hung like rope down her back, but was not of another creature. Her arms, her shoulders, the muscles of her back and thighs, and the curve of her calves all bore signs of singularity. Her eyes, her nose, her mouth, her everything

“Is that a problem?”

He ground teeth he’d traded from a sabertooth, but did not hiss again. “I know of a witch who might be willing to trade. What would you offer in return?”

“I’ll pay with land.”

He scoffed and then recoiled viscerally when the lady’s eyes—gray and powerfully intense—narrowed. With another hiss and a chittering of his tail that he then tucked promptly under himself to avoid the embarrassment again, he sank further into his cushions.

“I work in trade, lady.” Voice now deepening with a bear’s light grumble—all the beast had been willing to part with. “Trade in parts and pieces, in bits and bunches. Not in metals or grains or rough, old spits of earth.”

“New land,” she said, her narrowed eyes shrinking to slits. “Land I’ve created with receding water. I’ll give you the fish there and let you have their gills. I’ll give you the octopuses so you might pick apart their suckers. But you will not lay your knives on me.”

Land she created ...

“Then I cannot work with you.”

Oh, Keba knew the moment the words hissed past his teeth that they’d been a mistake, a horrible, mindless mistake. He twisted in on himself, tail catching, hooves skidding, neck curling in sudden panic as the lady tapped her finger against the nearest terrarium. The glass shattered, flinging through his home, little weapons piercing cougar skin, tearing an elephant nose, slicing spider legs in thirds. He shivered and covered his face with his hands, his heart pattering and squeezing in fear.

“Your toes!” His shout muffled by his hands. “A few fingers! Maybe an ear or your heel or just a slip of scalp? I would not dare ask for something more dear.”

“Everything is dear to me. I am not parts to be frittered away. I am the sum.” She reached out her finger to touch an aquarium.

“But you’re already powerful! You don’t need a third eye to see.”

“The world hangs in the balance and you argue with me about what I am and what I need.”

She touched the aquarium and Keba ducked as water gushed down the stand and splashed across the wooden floorboards. Soggy frog fingers and fish gills and a single, perfect dolphin fin flopped across the floor.

“What do you mean, hangs in the balance?” he growled out with the bear’s strong voice. He peeked between mismatched fingers.

The lady’s eyes softened. “Oh, you poor thing.”

Thing?

“Such a hodgepodge of creatures, no true form, no direction.”

Keba scowled and began to straighten up from his now water-splattered cushions. Then he jerked back as the lady lifted her finger to another terrarium and held it there.

“The world is falling apart, being cut and torn and put back together, bursting at the seams, ready to explode.”

“Is it?”

Keba surreptitiously bent, keeping his head in place, and scooped up the dolphin fin. He’d traded a black ram’s horns for it, after all. He cradled the fin in his lap, uncaring that it soaked through his pants.

“I need the eye to see the way to the Shrine of the Original Creation.”

“Oh.”

“To set things right.”

Keba remained silent, careful not to glare at the lady.

“A third eye. I’ll be back tomorrow.” She looked around his home, at the skins draped through the low rafters, at the jars of ears and noses and fingers, at the hooves and paws and claws and talons lined up in perfect, organized rows on wooden shelves. Then she looked back to Keba with sorrow in her eyes. “Tomorrow. Please don’t make me ruin the rest.”

“I’ll find it,” he agreed miserably and wished he’d had the bravery to argue with her further, or better yet, tell her to drown herself at her shrine. But he merely watched her go, her form singular and unchanged from birth. Unnatural and terrifying.

§

With a gourd almost as large as himself strapped to his back, Keba set out that very evening. The sun sank quickly, sending an amber wash across the pockets of marshy land dipping toward the ocean, white blurs of herons just barely visible. As he strode with his unique gait, the gourd’s ties bit into the feathers of his shoulders and his tail scraped at it repetitively in a quiet protest of this outing. Bat-winged rabbits froze their nibbling at his passing, but he paid them no mind.

The air smelled of danger—that scent the lady had given off, pure condescension in its visceral, terrible form. Keba swung his neck coils out and twined his head back to look the way he’d come, his little stone and wood hut already lost behind golden trees and giant stacked rocks. Maybe he should have just packed things up and headed somewhere to the north where the land grew dry and brittle, or to the west to hide within the briny edge of the ocean with a fresh set of gills in his neck and his strong, leaping back legs traded for a shark’s tail.

But this was his home and he liked it. Liked that creatures knew where he was and came in trade, speaking in hushed tones that Keba held a name of honor. His knife, his needles sharp and accurate, and the whispered hisses he spoke above their limbs giving full mobility, unlocking the stiffness that came from removal. He liked being sought after.

Or, at least, he had.

He grumbled and growled to himself, allowing the bear to override the viper as he sweat and huffed toward Isamelle’s copse. The gathering darkness did not bother him, for his phoenix eye burned warily and the hooves of his front legs stepped in surety. The creatures did not either, for many he knew personally; he had swapped wings for extra limbs, given teeth to prey, and embedded eyes to the backs of scalps.

This copse of pines laid down a blanket of soft needles every year, so a carpet spread out around Isamelle’s home. He ducked under sparking blue draperies of plaited vines that lit the copse in a blinking glow to rival firefly bulbs (which he had brought in a little vial, probably shifted toward the bottom of his gourd by now). Moths with spider legs flitted among the branches overhead. He found Isamelle braiding a new vine, a woven basket hanging from her wrist that she tugged a plant with heart-shaped leaves out of as she worked.

“Keba, your step is plodding today.” Her ear flicked toward him. A mare’s, though he hadn’t done that trade himself.

“Isamelle.” He stopped a few paces behind her, but found he couldn’t go on. Her single human eye shone with intrigue when she glanced around, the only eye she had left of her original self.

“Quiet today, are you? No hissing or growling or muttering about children asking for unicorn horns or dragon breath?”

“They’re impossible to get,” he muttered.

She laughed, a deep laugh that harmonized with a cooing dove. “You’ve come to ask something, so let’s hear it before you bound away like a frightened kangaroo.” His back legs tightened at the suggestion.

“A request ...”

Then he thought better of that approach and swung the gourd off his back and began to pull out wrapped bundles—macaw feathers, venom sacs, cricket legs still chirping now and then—glass jars—firefly bulbs, lizard scales, cougar whiskers—and small, tubular sacks—the trumpet of an elephant, the whisper of a doe.

“So many eyes,” murmured Isamelle, looking past his offerings to the jars beyond. She tied off the end of the braid and turned to look at him more fully, the blue-sparking vines oscillating beyond her.

“Yes, eyes are ...”

“You want my eye.”

Keba grimaced and twisted his long neck to see down inside the gourd to avoid Isamelle’s amused smile.

“You can’t possibly want it for yourself.” She idly massaged the rolled-up fur traded by a fox. “Who then? And why would they want it? Or do they not know? Is this a chance for you to impress someone?”

His scorpion tail jerked upright.

“Not someone you like then.”

“I don’t know who she is. I didn’t ask and I don’t want to. She’s ... original.”

Yet, instead of concerned, Isamelle’s expression turned more intrigued. “Original,” she echoed. “I’ve never met one who’d not had even the smallest of trades as an infant.”

“I have.”

“No tufts of fur? No feather or scale in place of skin?”

“I didn’t strip her naked. But she certainly had the ruin about her. Shattered two of my tanks and threatened to wreck them all if I didn’t—if I ...”

“She shattered your tanks?”

“With a touch of her finger.” He mimed the move in the air and about them the sparks intensified, showering the pine needles so they glowed purple in the dim light.

Isamelle swayed as if listening to some unheard music, which she might have been given she had three sets of ears, two hidden under long, multicolored tresses from creatures large and small. Then she smiled disarmingly. “I’d like to meet this original lady of yours.”

§

Isamelle turned her jarred eye over and over, and though the lady crossed her arms and drummed her fingers against her sleeves, Isamelle did not hurry. Keba edged closer to a tank that held pairs of black and tan antlers and velvet of varying sizes and shapes, hopeful the lady would not take out any aggression on his home.

“Keba says you need this to find the shrine.” She held up her eye, the jar’s thick glass distorting the shape. “What do you intend on doing there?”

“What needs to be done.”

“How cryptic. I’ve been told the shrine can’t be found.”

“It can’t be found by people like you.”

Keba hissed, but kept it deep in his throat where the growl lingered.

“People like me,” murmured Isamelle, her ears flicking again. “I’d like to see this shrine for myself, so this”—she held out the eye—“is a loan. I expect it back. And will be coming with you to ascertain its safety.”

The lady stiffened as she examined first the eye, then Isamelle with her partial mask, streams of plants flowing to her chin, each leaf sparking softly. “Agreed.”

Keba scowled into the tank, then swallowed his hiss and smiled gamely. “You seem to have come to an arrangement. Wonderful. If you’d please ...” He tried to usher them out.

“I’ll need you to come with us. In case I end up requiring it embedded in my—“ The lady pursed her lips. “—my body.”

“I’ll just do it now,” said Keba desperately.

“I’d rather not if I can avoid it.”

She strode out the door, the jar held tightly to her chest. Isamelle shrugged and stepped after her, leaving Keba to fume, all four of his legs tense as he struggled to contain his anger. She’d probably ruin his home if he resisted. She’d destroy everything he’d built and leave him no trade, no life. He grumbled, but followed reluctantly into the grey morning and its sagging spirits.

The lady held Isamelle’s eye before her like a talisman to ward off evil, if one believed in that sort of thing. Keba certainly didn’t see the eye move other than to bob in its viscous liquid, but the lady saw something, and in some part, Isamelle must have as well for the jar began to glow with the same soft blue as her copse of pines. The lady turned south, dragging them from Keba’s hidden abode and leading them through the hills past deer with wicked talons who murmured in hello.

His hooves sunk into soft dirt and his fur became damp as they headed through familiar country, turning east, then west, crossing back over their footprints as much as they tracked through muddy, cracked stream beds and under crisscrossed branches. The mist thickened into fog, and trees Keba knew became unfamiliar as if by turning in circles the three of them had somehow become lost in a wood more cloud than ground. Even the steady welcomes of the creatures he knew—jays with cardinal songs, groundhogs with lithe fox legs—tapered off.

In the silence, Isamelle hummed as they walked, a harmonizing coo echoing about them, filling the spaces on either side of the tracks the lady made through the soggy leaves. Keba ducked his neck until his head rested chest-height and though he huffed, he tried to hide it.

“What are we doing? Back and forth, forth and back. I’ve mud to my knees.”

“Are you tired too?” asked Isamelle.

He’d started to answer before realizing she’d been mocking him. “I think it’s a valid question. We’ve been walking all morning under the same trees.” He lowered his voice so the lady wouldn’t hear. “And I’m certain she’s the reason all the water’s gone from the streams.”

“The land has been roughed,” agreed Isamelle, becoming serious. “She has the ruin about her, as you’ve said.”

In front of them, the lady made an angled turn, the blue glow from the jar dim within the fog. Isamelle picked up her humming again and though there were no words, Keba thought he might have felt some answering song far behind them.

More than once, the fog swirled, beckoned, fingers in the air reaching toward Keba. Human creature fingers they were. Each one triple-knuckled as it bent and danced somewhere to the side of the lady’s path.

“She doesn’t see them,” murmured Isamelle at one point as the fog thickened, squeezing out the sunlight and leaving them with only her mask and her eye as any source of light.

Keba shuddered. “It’s not her they want gone.”

He wondered then, if he were to step away, wander into the mist under these unfamiliar trees with no creature he’d ever helped, would he find himself back in familiar country again ... or someplace else.

He moved closer to Isamelle.

§

They strode for hours, possibly hours within hours, and only stopped for a brief respite inside a bundle of blackberry bushes Keba swore did not grow in this direction. In the deepened grey shadows, the lady set the jar down and disappeared behind the trees, the sound of her shifting clothing drifting over to them. He licked his lips and swung his neck out, white knuckles on his muddy, furry knees.

“We could bury it.”

Isamelle didn’t respond but for her chewing of blackberries.

“The glow, would it extend through the dirt? Can you make it stop?” He fumbled in the dirt as he spoke, his hoof gouging a hole in the damp soil.

“Aren’t you curious?” she asked, her lips smeared darker from the berries.

“No,” he hissed. “I’m happy with my world the way it is.”

With a glance toward the lady, he quickly swiped up the jar and tucked it into the hole, his fingers stiff with fear. Maybe they would have to turn back. The shrine a myth lost to this unnatural fog with its unnatural, beckoning hands. He scuttled sideways, slipping in the mud as the lady returned to only the glow of Isamelle’s mask shedding light.

Her gaze cut like the broken glass of his terrarium, but she did not say a word, merely reached down where the grass had been disturbed and sifted until the glow from the jar lifted into the air. Keba cringed away from the lady in case she wanted revenge, but she only cleaned the jar with her skirt before announcing their break was over.

The air became hard to breathe, thickening, becoming a murmur and then a roar in Keba’s ears. Even Isamelle flinched and staggered, though the lady did not seem to notice anything amiss, her breath coming as easy as her steps.

And then, between one step and the next, they broke out of the cloying haze and found themselves standing at the base of a low, rumbling waterfall, the waters crystalline teal, the sky a cerulean, and the stones carved to represent original creatures. Deer lapped at the shrine’s edge. Birds perched on low branches and sang the songs with which they’d been born. Keba searched, but found nothing more, nothing beyond original creatures.

He shrank into himself, glaring at the creatures and their stone counterparts in their singularity, in their birth-forms, so simple and ...

“Boring,” he said. “So incredibly boring.”

The lady let out a sigh that bore a wealth of relief. “It’s the right way of things. And we need to put things back to the right way of things.”

“We?”

She turned to him with pity in her gaze, the water rippling behind her. “You, most of all. You’ve forgotten what you are, who you are. You’ve been sliced apart and put back together so many times you don’t think straight, see straight, you don’t even move straight.”

“I don’t want to move straight,” Keba all but shouted, then recoiled when the lady’s eyes narrowed into sharp slits. After she’d dismissed him with a wave of a hand, he whispered low, so only Isamelle could hear, “I don’t want to think straight.”

“Regret comes in many forms,” said the lady, her voice stringent as she forced it louder than the rumbling of the falls.

“Regret?”

“Most people only choose a few trades in their youth. But you, your regret became such a burden that you dove into the wretched world hoof-first, desperate to become something, but unsure what.”

“I am something,” he muttered, but not too loudly.

“You are ... something.”

Isamelle dipped one hand into the shrine’s water, allowing it to drain between her fingers and sparkle in the sunlight. “What do you intend, now that we’re here?”

“To set things—“

“Yes, you’ve said that. Set things right. But what exactly does that mean to you?”

In answer, the lady handed Isamelle the jar holding the eye. Then she faced Keba, causing him to shirk back from where he’d been inching over the moss.

“It will restore you,” she said, holding a hand out, palm up as if offering some peaceful gesture of goodwill.

A few more paces backward. “I think I’d rather not be restored.”

“That’s what you mean,” said Isamelle. “Of course. The shrine would put us back to our birth forms.”

“You must bathe in it.”

I must not do anything,” said Keba desperately. “I’m perfectly happy as myself. No need to take that away.”

“How curious,” murmured Isamelle, her mask shivering in the breeze as she bent to dip her hand in the water again.

“No, it’s not curious. There’s nothing curious here.” He spun to leave and leaned onto his back paws, readying to bound away—

The lady’s hand curled around his forearm and with a pop, pain reverberated down to the tips of his fingers and up past the swell of his shoulder. Keba growled, then hissed, then shouted as the lady swung him around by his broken arm, her touch as ruinous to him as it’d been to his tanks.

“It’ll be okay,” she soothed, her voice grating in its sympathy, in her frail attempt at empathy.

She tugged and Keba pitched forward, hooves scraping up moss and his stinger jerking wildly. He splashed into the water, mud sloughing away and the pulse of his arm like the beat of drums in his veins. He flailed, righted himself, cradled his arm to his chest as he checked himself over: hooves against the rocky bottom of the pool, feathers matted down on his shoulders, neck coils loose and long.

The lady, however, looked stricken.

“Ha!” he yelled, uncaring if he seemed outrageous. “It’s all a worthless story anyhow! Look at this, I’m still me.” He laughed at her, a little hysterically, but no less relieved that her misguided attempts to change him had failed so dramatically.

“It didn’t work.” Her voice lost and lonely.

“Good,” Keba muttered again. He staggered forward, clumsy despite his goat hooves as the pain soared past adrenaline to throb across his entire right side.

“It should have worked. The shrine is the answer. That’s what all my research has shown me; it caused the Rebirth of the Emerald Age.”

“That’s probably a myth too,” muttered Keba, sweating though the water remained cool. His stomach clenched and he was thankful he had eaten little but blackberries.

“There’s no tale that explains everything from the past,” said Isamelle. “And every tale hides something within its folds.”

He wanted to scream at her. No, he truly just wanted to scream at nothing in particular, to create a physical sound to represent the pain spiking through his arm with every minor movement. If he could just lay against the rock ...

“Could be,” continued Isamelle, “that there’s a reason the path resists those of us who are not ... original.”

Keba scrambled against the moss-riddled bank and settled in a tangle of limbs under the watchful eyes of a trio of stone otters. Shivers began at the base of his tail and trailed up his rounded spine and a cold seeped into his limbs. Would that he’d have resisted her far earlier, headed north.

“I see now.”

He struggled to open his eyes at a scuffing noise. The lady removed her second boot and approached. Thinking she planned to grab him again, he recoiled, jarring his arm so badly the air became lodged in his throat. But the lady merely crouched a few paces away.

“It needs a sample, a blueprint for the rebirth. Don’t worry, Keba.” Again with that sympathy. “I will remake you.”

“I don’t want to be remade,” he gasped.

But she had already turned away, to where the rocks curled down into the shrine in an approximation of welcome. Behind her Isamelle stood, ears flicking.

“Stop ... her,” he said, striving to push the bear past his tight throat, though the growl came weak.

Isamelle did not hear, or she chose not to listen, for her eyes glittered in curiosity, that same curiosity she’d had when he’d first come to her sparking copse with a request he never should have made. She stood aside serenely as the lady stepped one naked foot—all human creature toes—and then the other into the shrine, the water rippling away from her.

Pushing off against the stone otters, their leering little faces unperturbed, Keba crawled, his arm kept raised and his voice a rasp that blended hiss and growl in a way uniquely his own and less uniquely pained. “This isn’t what the world needs. We’re not torn, we’re not pitiable.” And as the lady spun slowly, waist-deep, the tip of her dark braid floating at her side, he broke on one whispered last word, “Please.”

The lady placed her hands on her cheeks and then swept them down flat against the water. Her lips moved in prayer, and then she sank into the shrine, her braid last to be swallowed.

“Isamelle! Do something!” The growl, finally erupting, too late to be of use.

The roar of the waterfall gained pitch, the surface of the pool roiling, bubbling, like the foamy crash of surf on sand. Moss tore from stone, spotting the water. The living creatures took flight, bounding, hopping, flying away to the relative safety of the nearby trees. The dark blur that had been the lady just under the surface swept into the whirl and disappeared as the spray splattered Keba and Isamelle.

He jerked away, flinching in anticipation of the pain from jarring his arm, yet the pain never came. Throbbing became an ache, the ache morphed into nonexistence, and it was only after he realized his arm no longer hurt to move that there were other changes, explicit and bone-deep.

A chill ran across his shoulders as his feathers tore off and soared away. His lower limbs fused into two, the fur thinning, darkening. The gentle burn in one eye and the strength of the other swept away between one blink and the next. And his neck ... oh, his neck twisted and struggled its way into something short and squat and ungainly, threatening to choke him with its conciseness. He gasped and groaned, clawed at his flesh, half-moon fingernails leaving welts across thighs he no longer recognized.

Gone, all gone. Everything that had been him.

When the waters calmed, when the sudden displacement of himself passed and left him achingly alive, when he could hear past his own heart once more, he heard Isamelle humming. He staggered to his feet, fell, then rose again. She’d taken her mask off, her eyes both whole and her ears relegated to one set. And yet, she still held her eye, its blue glow faded, yet very much there. Gone from one eye, to none, to three in a matter of a day. He stumbled over to her, finding two flat feet and ten individual toes difficult to control in ways his chosen body had never been before.

“Why didn’t you stop her?” he demanded, trying to hiss, but the words erupted with as much plainness as the lady’s had been. “You could have done something! Instead, you just watched it all happen, like you didn’t care that you’d become something else.”

“I haven’t become something else,” murmured Isamelle. “I’m still ... me.”

Her words broke what little control he had left. Because he didn’t feel like himself. Because he felt the loss like a blade in his gut. “Lucky you,” he snarled.

He ripped the jar from her and threw it, watching as it arched through the air where, at its zenith, the glass abruptly shattered, shards like rain scattering, winking in the sun. As if that had been the permission he needed, he turned and swept his palm across the closest statue—a boar—and staggered back when the stone splintered into a crumbling mess.

“The ruin’s about us all, then is it?”

Keba ignored her, choosing instead to run his fingers along the tall form of a giraffe, a squat badger, a horse, the bats hanging between two pillars made of a walrus and a lion. The shrine shook like it hadn’t before, the water bubbled and the waterfall split into two, then three, then tumbled in on itself, crashing so the streams poured off to the sides, drowning moss and shrubs. He stumbled on unfamiliar feet and fell, palms flat to rock that vibrated beneath him, sending cracks outward from his touch.

“This is too dangerous for the world.”

He tried to growl, but the bear had been stolen from him. He tried to twist his neck to see if Isamelle realized the gravity of what had happened, but his neck stopped, wouldn’t turn past his shoulder.

As the Shrine of the Original Creation fell to rubble, Keba struggled to his feet and ran unsteadily toward home, bypassing Isamelle’s seeking hand that may or may not have been an attempt to calm him, as if his anger wasn’t deserving.

He didn’t remember much about that homeward-bound dash, but that the cloying fog seemed nothing but a distant memory, and that the woods cried in sorrow. Towering oaks split into pieces when the jays hopped along their boughs, their raucous cries the same ones Keba had once removed. The ground quaked, the hills spitting sod and the stream beds breaking farther apart.

The creatures—they mourned, in howls and shrieks, in screams and yips, they cried the same pain echoing in Keba. The Ruin had come, cursed back to each and every creature as they wallowed in regret for their lost selves.

§

Isamelle knocked on his door at some point, her voice muffled through the wood, but when Keba tucked his blanket over his head and ground teeth that no longer felt of a saber-tooth, she eventually went away, back to her copse, back to her unaltered life to hum to her pine needles and braids. Outside, the world raged war on itself, shivering with the constant ache of the lost and damned.

“This is what you wanted,” muttered Keba. “A world put together how you wanted it instead of how the world wanted to be. Like there’s some right way and a million wrong ways.”

The hanging terrariums clattered against the walls at a particularly strong quake. Water sloshed in the aquariums, but already too much had spilled for the tremors to spill more. Everything already too broken to bother breaking more.

Then came a shiver at the doorway.

“Excuse me?”

It was a boy, or maybe a girl. He couldn’t tell because his neck no longer curled and he couldn’t bring himself out of his melancholy enough to ask.

“Are you the one they call Keba?”

He curled tighter, hating the sound of his name on the child’s lips, for that Keba no longer existed.

“I’ve lost myself. Parts of myself. Been trying to find ... something ... the same.”

He hissed before remembering he couldn’t. Not really.

“I used to be able to breathe in the ocean and swim with my friends, but now they don’t even understand me.”

Keba loosened at the echoing emptiness in the child’s voice. An ache there that matched Keba’s own. And the one that trembled the world outside.

“What kind of gills?” he whispered.

“Those of a sailback. And I had the flippers of a seal. And the eye of an octopus.”

“Ah.” He sat up, slowly, still unused to only two legs and the straightness of his spine. “I have the eye and the gills, but we’ll have to take a trip to the sea to find a seal willing to trade.”

“You think we will? Find one?”

He turned awkwardly, wiggling toes he’d not had in decades. The goat herds would be in the mountains; he could start there, climb with two legs and unsteady feet until he found a billy needing a trade as badly as he needed hooves, to seek himself again. He placed flat feet on the ground and leveled a gaze on the child, seeing past the salt-roped hair draping that round face.

“We’ll look until you’re you again.” 

 

© Marie Croke

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