When he was a young man, a year and 97 days ago, he lived beside the sea. They all did, his mother, his father, and him, up in a tired house that smelled of salt and old nets and home.
Every dark morning, he would tramp down, check her hull, test the ropes, and shove off. Then hours throwing the net and hauling it up, looking to see what the sea would let him take. Back to harbor, checking and mending the nets, sorting the fish, and flinging away the seaweed. Finally to market, haggling for the best price, and then home again to collapse on a wicker chair and wait for his mother’s soup.
Sometimes the sea was generous, and the nets were filled. And then his mother wore a new dress and they had beef in the soup. And sometimes, there was nothing and they hoped they still had salted fish.
But that was life.
One morning, the sea offered him a fortune. A great sea turtle with lacquered gold shell, big enough to feed a ship of men. Not a single barnacle to blemish the ornamental shell. It was the sort of thing they told stories about. He hauled her in gently, not wanting to scratch the shell, wary of her strong jaws. Sometimes, they bit. But this one made no struggle.
He ran his fingers over her, wondering at the smoothness and shine. Oh, he was rich now! He could imagine the rich meat in his mouth. He would take the shell down to Kenki, sell it, well, maybe not all of it. He would save some of it for his mother, make her a hair pin, maybe a brooch as well. And another portion for when he would take a wife, an engagement necklace and earrings. There would still be enough for good money, maybe 550, at least 300. He would ask for 800 to start. You had to start high to get a fair price. That would be enough to improve the house, maybe get some tiles for the floor. Or maybe, he could get his own ship. A smooth, sleek one that would glide over the waves, brightly painted so it shone yellow as the sun. He thrilled with his future wealth, felt the excitement pressing up inside him.
Then he looked at her eyes. They were so gentle, almost human.
He was almost back now. It didn’t do to stay out when you had a good haul. “It’s not yours until the boat’s drawn up and the sand stops sticking to your feet.” Anything that’s on the sea or right by the sea is still the sea’s.
Those eyes, so soft and sad…
The shore was in sight. He could see the children on the shore, poking at crabs and stomping out clams.
He was almost there. He was almost rich.
But those almost human eyes...
He stopped, let the anchor drop, reached down and hoisted her over the edge. Then, sat down, dangled his foot in, and watched his treasure glide away.
He didn’t tell his parents when he came in. It was just folly. He regretted it, now stirring the thin, salty soup. He would have to stay out late tomorrow. But they would make it. If the sea was kind….He would not make the mistake again.
She came back. He thought it was a fairy tale, a reward for his mercy. She was so beautiful…In her true form...
It was only a week, he thought. A beautiful, glorious week of those gentle eyes, the lacquered hair, the smooth cool skin, the silks, the great feasts.
He thought occasionally of his mother watching the doorway, of the abandoned boat bobbing on the waves. But it wouldn’t matter, he’d be back soon. Home with silks and riches. He was Prince of the Sea now. They would never have to work again. His mother could lay in bed all day. His father’s hands could grow soft like a merchant’s bejeweled fingers.
And then she kissed him again and he rolled back into the loveliness of his bride.
She was almost human. That was his mistake. She did not know. Could not understand. Time went for her like the waves on the shore, back and forth without much consequence. The water does not watch the shore.
She told him not to open it but he was young and frightened at a world that had grown old without him.
The sand-worn village was a tall, bright city now. Pasty, rich strangers came to lay and get dark. Now, it was the poor people who were pale.
He went up to the hill he was born on. The house is gone. His mother, too. His father’s old woven chair is kept as a curiosity behind glass. Who knows what has happened to the blackened cook-pot? He can not find his parents’ stones.
The resort owner was sympathetic, in his gaudy concrete mansion with giant fluorescent green seahorses at the gates. There's plenty of tile now. Before the ocean palace, he would have been impressed. Now it just seems like a cruel shadow.
The sympathy doesn't make much difference.
“But it’s my land,” he pleads.
“I’m sorry, there was no one living to claim it.”
“I’m not dead! I’m just 23,” he stared down at his wrinkled hands, “I was.”
He knows why the man hesitates. It doesn’t look good to have the crazy old man hanging around. Might drive away paying guests. But neither does it look good to send the lost son away if his claim is real.
So, he lets him stay in the janitor’s quarters and the Prince of the Sea spends his days spearing bottles and cans for the recycling money. He envies the young men in their boisterous life, splashing up into sweeping boats, taking the tourists out to the reefs.
He had tried to apply for fishing work but now he stumbles in the sand and the rope slips from his fingers. A year and three months ago, he was young. Now everything creaks, like salted rope and rusted metal.
The eggs will hatch tonight.
Carissa’s already there. She’s a skinny thing, meticulously clean, still in her school braids.
“I could write her a message,” she says, setting a turtle in the tide. “I brought my pencil,” she says showing the finger-length piece.
She had asked why he didn’t write his princess a letter himself. He told her he didn’t know how. They were too busy in his time. She tried to teach him, but his eyes were too blurry and the pencil kept falling out of his fingers.
She’s got sea eyes. His cousin, Cari, had them. They had to tie her to the coconut tree while they worked so she wouldn’t dive in. They said they were fated to drown, so they tied them to the land or sent them to the city. Didn’t matter though, the water always got them.
They don’t do that now. Say it’s all superstition. Now they fence the sea or balloon their children with orange lifejackets.
There’s not much he can do this old, but he tries to be her sea rope, tries to keep her from being swept out and lost like him.
He’s still surprised that she talks to him. That her parents let her. Everyone else looks with wary pity on the strange old man from the sea but she always finds him after school. Maybe because she’s got no one else. Oh, she’s got parents but her father’s off on one of the cruise ships and her mother nannies until 11 pm. Maybe there’s not such a difference between a lonely little girl and a lost old man.
“I don’t know what to say. Don’t even know she could read it.”
“You still love her, though?”
“I’m old now, Carissa,” he said. Love was for young men with time to spend. “I’d like to see her again.”
“What do you tell the turtles?” she asks.
“Just that I’m still here.”
“I’ll tell her to come back to you.”
“Carissa, I’m old and ugly. I don’t have that much time left. She’s beautiful.”
“But you’re nice. And besides, she’s magic. Maybe she can put you back.”
“She put my time in that box. And I opened it. I don’t think it can ever be put back,” He doesn’t like striking at her hope in life, doesn’t know how to explain it, “Look, Crissy, everyone else I knew is dead. I just want to see one person who isn’t.”
So, they whispered to the turtles as they let them free. His was simple, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. She pleaded for him, Come back. He misses you. If you’re a princess, you have to. You can make him better. I don’t want him to die.
She reads him a story about a mermaid princess who gave up her tail to marry a man on the shore. He keeps falling asleep. That’s another thing about being old. He sends her home so she’ll be rested for school tomorrow, watches to make sure she gets out of the reach of the water.
When he was a young man, he lived beside the sea. Now, he just waits.