There once lived a fisherman named Sandoval, who had a wife much younger than himself whom he loved like the sand on the shore. They had no children, her body’s tides always washing them away before they could grow into fullness, but one wind-wracked winter day she gave birth to a daughter with blue lips and eyes the dusky slate-blue of the sea, who struggled to breathe. Sandoval held his child in his arms and watched the village midwives shake their heads over his wife still bleeding on the thin pallet. They had no magic to save her.
Before her seas could run out, his wife called Sandoval to her and stroked their daughter’s grey skin.
“You must give her to the Nacreous Palace,” she told him. The midwives murmured. He felt the chill of her words. “She will live then.” Sandoval nodded.
His wife closed her eyes after that, content. When she breathed out her last breath he cried tears that left sandy tracks down his cheeks.
Now the Nacreous Palace had always been there, just beyond the village, its mottled pink spire rising haughty against the sky at the end of the point. The man Sandoval was frightened of the colossal conch-shell, of its glow and the sound of the sea that whooped from its portico when the wind was high. No good could come of folk who sought its mysteries out, but he bundled his dying daughter in rags, sent the muttering women away, and crossed the expanse of shore beneath a buffeting wind to stand before the Palace. The conch-shell stood upright, its tip thrust deep into the sand, knobbed whorls spiralling upward out of sight, a pearly dancer hugging herself, frozen forever in a spin.
The entrance, many times his height, curved up and around into pink-fused dark. It hooted at him with hidden gusts wrapped in a tang of bladderwrack, and Sandoval braced his daughter against his chest and started up. The slope that led inside was slippery and he used his right hand to draw himself along on nodules in the wall, infant pearls that would never be, he realized, and it was as though he moved inside his wife’s body. Each curve upward led to a new chamber, vast lips of ledges over which he clambered into glowing rooms.
When he looked down, he saw his daughter had turned greyer, and when he looked again he found he carried a little dolphin in his arms. While his head was bowed the air had become water. Of a sudden he was afloat, swept in a current that sawed back and forth, and he fought to stroke upward. You, you’re swimming, he thought in alarm. Old fish. But the current grew more confident; muscles of surf beat at him; the dolphin wriggled from his arms for all that he held it and darted away happy into the murk above. He couldn’t follow.
Take her, Sandoval cried without opening his mouth. But give her to me for a while.
A light flashed, yes or no, its brightness like a blow to the head, all his air knocked from him and darkness rushing in.
He awoke on the beach, a furlong from the Nacreous Palace, in a runnel of churned sand as though a great wave had washed him there. Beside him lay his daughter, pink and human and wailing for milk. His right arm was gone, replaced by a grey fin he found he could flap when he put his mind to it. A flipper. He bundled his daughter up, awkward with his new appendage, and saw that her eyes had become the sea. No white left, only pulsing slate blue, tides swirling behind her face. Sandoval carried her home.
He named her Ambergris. As Ambergris grew, she never learned to speak, only opening her mouth to let out the sound of the ocean, and Sandoval soon came to understand her from her watery moods expressed in these sounds, wintry-fierce or soft as foam on pebbles. She understood all he said, answering with a hug or sulk or a porringer of the fish soup he loved, heated and waiting for him in the evening. Life had grown meagre. His flipper arm meant Sandoval could no longer row and he sold his dory and turned to shore-fishing with a throw net. His left-handed casting often went awry, yet when Ambergris was near him the sprats seemed to leap into the net, and they had enough to live on. He would watch Ambergris chase the surf as though conversing with it, zigzagging up and down the beach, her diamantine hair flying, before she would scamper away to play with the village children.
Suspicious of her eyes at first, the others came to accept her. The villagers understood they were blessed. The bounteous catches the village soon became known for, gleaming shad thicker than any along the coast, were somehow her doing, they knew, a gift from the Nacreous Palace. They found they were immune to storms, that old enemy of fisherfolk since the earth rolled into place. When black clouds gathered offshore, Sandoval would watch the other fishermen lash down their boats out of habit and call their children in, and then he would go to sit beside Ambergris at the waterline and play a game of shells with her he did not understand, while the storm worried its way up the coast only to retreat out to sea as it passed their village, bearing inland again only after it had moved past them. Walking around them, as though in deference. You know it too, don’t you? he would ask the storm clouds. Fishermen who set out the day after would find fabulous creatures in their nets, crabs with the three-fingered hands of the gods, wrasse the size of children that would feed their families for a week.
And yet it would end, Sandoval knew.
As all parents did who lived in its shadow, he taught Ambergris never to go near the Nacreous Palace. In vain, for her heart and marrow drew her. She would begin the morning hunting gobies in the southern rocks but by noon could be seen far past the hovels in the north, where the point led out toward the Palace. A sideways scuttle, slippage, sand crumbling, always spilling her in the same direction. She was unaware of it, Sandoval knew. One spring afternoon he could find her nowhere and he hurried to the point in time to see her crawling up into the immense cavern of the Palace’s opening. Stifling a cry, he clutched her ankle with his left hand, yanked her out, careful not to touch the walls, and bore her struggling back to the main beach. When she looked at him, he saw the sea in her eight-year-old eyes roil with confusion.
He gathered a palmful of sand to show her. “I love you like the sand on the shore,” he explained. It explained nothing. The folk of the hard shores caught fish, not words, and the man Sandoval had never been one for speeches. He thought of her mother. “Don’t you see, every grain is something I would do for you.” Trickling through his fingers, the grains seemed only the moments he had left with her.
Ambergris scooped a handful of sand and raised it toward him. It was the same for her, her hand said. Tears made of sand seeped from her eyes and pelted down onto the mound in her hand, new grains on the moist ones there, as if adding to the infinity of things she would do for him in return. When she opened her mouth the sea-sound that came out was a susurration, ripples on the beach Sandoval had known all his life, meant as a comfort to him, saying all would be as it ever was.
Yet even as she leaned forward to kiss his cheek her gaze slid for a moment to the point beyond him and the Nacreous Palace.
As she grew she became more beautiful. A pearl, her father decided, or a flash of sunlight on water, with her silver hair floating on the breeze, always quick with a smile except when she looked toward the Palace. Lithe of limb and salt-clean, she would walk past the old men who, like Sandoval, cast their nets from shore and oh how their fish would leap! A princess of the sand. Sandoval watched the days and felt the tide going out.
One winter morn drumbeats sounded beyond the inland forest, steady as the thrum of a thousand boots, and by noon the boots were there, in the star-thistle field that lay open toward the west. The soldiers’ lances hung low, they were beaten animals, driven against the coast by their latest lost battle, mad with their ebbing life. The villagers cared nothing for the strife of kings far away, only for the salt-cod meant to last all winter that would be eaten now, the few possessions they owned and loved burned for drunken sport. Sandoval stood among them where they had gathered in the road, and he listened to them wail for their hovels and their daughters, and he thought of Ambergris.
And then in an instant his water-daughter stood with them. She quieted the villagers with the sound of a lapping rock pool, and Sandoval’s heart turned to ice. When she made to ascend the path to the field and the far line of men advancing, Sandoval clutched her arm, cried out with all the words he could catch, but she slipped free, wriggling. Her face was grey. She walked alone up the incline toward the ragged horde and Sandoval followed at a distance, still begging.
The first few men were on horses, the generals, barely able to check the line of soldiers behind them that stretched along the horizon. Sandoval could smell them. The generals gaped at the odd beauty of the girl before them. Their appeasement from the village, they would be thinking, a gift they could tear open among themselves if only they would lead their troops away afterward, up the coast, let them ravage some other village.
Then Ambergris opened her mouth and the sound of howling ocean surf came out, louder than was possible from the slim throat, a roar of waves higher than the heads of the men and which seemed to crash upon them over and over with a storm’s rage. It made the generals’ horses rear. It made men in the front rows drop their lances and kneel. Pines and sea-grass and the very rays of cold winter sun bent to her voice. The sound was the world, the world’s horn, commanding, the conch-shell that held them all in its whorls and would never let them go until they had drowned in life.
The terrified generals brought their mounts under control and backed them away, turning the troops behind them, who were just as eager to flee. Enough had grown up with the old fanes. They would not attack a holy place.
And when they had vanished through the trees and Ambergris had come down into the village crowd, children dancing before her and grandmothers touching her skirt in awe, the old man Sandoval shuddered because he saw that his daughter had grown into a woman, ready to go the way of sons and daughters, which is to say, away.
So many years I’ve had, he thought. Too many to count on two hands if he’d had two, and he wouldn’t try, for the folk of the hard shores were not ones for counting, only for keeping bargains. And yet the pain of what he must do was sharp, as though he clutched a bladefish to his chest.
The next morning he gave Ambergris seashells to braid into her hair, ignoring her bemused look, and he led her by the hand down the point to stand before the Nacreous Palace. Oh, what conch had ever crawled from that mighty entrance! A day and a night they waited, sitting and sleeping in the sand, silent. The villagers left them alone.
On the second day a herald sounded, though it seemed more the triumphant rumble of whalesong Sandoval had used to hear when he put his ear to his dory’s hull. From the entrance a prince descended, followed by his court, and approached them across the sand. The prince had blue-grey skin and a face of such nobility that Sandoval lowered his eyes in obeisance, only looking back up when Ambergris squeezed his hand. The prince wore a red coral crown and vestments of kelp. His courtiers, though human like their sovereign, all bore the features of fish: here a lady flat-eyed as a flounder, there a gentleman tall and sleek as an eel. A scribe with squid tentacles stood ready to apply ink to a frond scroll. The royal guard had lobster claws for arms. All appeared awkward on their legs.
The prince gazed upon his bride with delight and she smiled back, joyous. Then he turned to study Sandoval’s wrinkled face with a puzzled expression. “You are…not smooth,” he said, with a dripping accent. Ambergris answered him in her sea language and Sandoval understood she was explaining time and old age to the prince. The prince looked grave for a moment, then nodded.
“You have sacrificed much for your daughter,” he told Sandoval. “Always living between the worlds.” The prince’s gaze wandered over Sandoval’s flipper arm. “We would reward you for your effort. A life below the waves, where the weight of all sorrows is lifted.”
Sandoval felt Ambergris’ hand squeeze his. He nodded.
The scribe squirted Sandoval’s decision.
Then it was time. Sandoval followed them up into the Palace, aided by gentle lobster claws whenever he slipped, until the air became pink darkness and then water. He awoke as a dolphin, in attendance at the preparations for his daughter’s wedding beneath the sea, learning to wield his two flippers in time to give the bride away. Ambergris wore a bridal veil of green sunrays that fell on her from above. The couple’s vows of foam floated upward and burst.
Then Ambergris turned and spoke to him, thrilling him with the knowledge that she had a voice beneath the waves. “If you ever miss land, dear Father,” she whispered, “tell me. They can return you.”
Sandoval never did. Now and then he’ll grow unsure and shimmy out of the water to have a look, ask himself if he misses what he left behind, only to decide he doesn’t. There, you can see him leap and spin, eyeing it all. Here we are, the village, his old hovel, here are the grains of sand on the shore, all the ways to love, but oh he has the water!
Story copyright © 2015 by Rhonda Eikamp
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Likhain
Rhonda Eikamp is originally from Texas and lives in Germany, far from the sea. She’s been writing since the 90s. Recent stories can be found in Journal of Unlikely Cartography, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, The Golden Key, and the Lightspeed special issue, “Women Destroy Science Fiction.” She works as a translator for a German law firm, where she battles tides of legalese and occasionally drowns.
Likhain (artwork) is a queer Filipina artist who tells stories through calligraphy and ink, watercolour, and poems. Her written work as M Sereno has appeared in Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Interfictions, and she has the happy honour of having previously illustrated for Lackington’s as well as creating the ebook cover for Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad. She lives in regional Australia with her partner and two ridiculous Pomeranians, and spends her nights dreaming in the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter at @likhain.