A/N: It's been quite a long while since I've been on FictionPress... almost three years, as a matter of fact. Thought I'd post a short story and see how this place has changed since I last visited. Cheers.
Recommended soundtrack: "Lullaby" by Low
Sea, Land, Sky
Even in the summer, the wind howls at the seashore where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise out of the Pacific. Roll down the car window as you pass by on Highway 1, and the waters of Big Sur look almost serene, a rippling sheet of blue silk trimmed with white-lace foam as it brushes against the shoreline. Snap some photographs of the scenic view, and roll up the window once more as you continue south from Carmel, glancing at the dashboard to estimate how many hours until you make it to Los Angeles.
The shores of Northern California are far removed from the sun-baked powder of the south; granitic and basaltic rock form the sea cliffs sculpted by centuries of battering waves. Step into the surf, and the cold saline water seems to seep into your pores and fill your veins with ice. The abrasive wind slices into your face, and if you are lucky, the gray tendrils of fog may have slinked away by the time the sun reaches its zenith. After the winter storms, the tempestuous Pacific rises and bares its great white teeth at the jagged cliffs, lunging with a ferocious snap at the coastline. Daredevils try their luck—some conquer the crests, while others perish beneath the pummeling waters.
Somewhere along the coastline between Carmel and San Simeon lies a stretch of land that once belonged to a family of rancheros. Brown cattle still graze there, though the lodge that had housed the family for generations has been converted to a picturesque inn—a favorite of artists and writers seeking inspiration. Rumor has it that there is something odd about this particular stretch of the coast. Every so often, something strange washes up onto the beach a couple miles west of the inn. At first glance, it resembles any another sea-polished rock tumbled ashore. But, upon closer inspection, the object brought in by the tide is indisputably confirmed to be a human liver, with no remaining trace of flesh elsewhere in sight.
The water horse has a fondness for pretty girls and tender flesh. Rising from the water, his black opalescent coat—gleaming with a tint of kelp green—renders him nearly indistinguishable from the rearing ocean waves. Others like him lurk in the depths of the Pacific among the bones of their victims, dragged from land to drown in the sea. They are shape-shifters, each with a preferred form. Some approach land in the form of a pony or stallion, while others assume the appearance of a handsome man—disarming and debonair in manner and looks, save for the eerie coldness of the eyes. They lure their victims into the ocean, where they immediately devour the flesh, stripping every last sinew from bone—except for the liver, for which they have yet to acquire a taste.
The water horse, detecting an unmistakably human scent on the shore, approaches land half-submerged, with the agile stealth of a predator. The tall frothing waves gnash at the sand, falling away to reveal a lean young man with glistening black hair and stormy sea-green eyes. Yards away, he spots the intoxicating source of fresh blood. A young woman sits barefoot on the sand bordering the water's edge. Her dark brown hair tumbles in curls with the ocean breeze as she rubs her arms with her hands, kneading warmth into her bare skin. She sings a melody the water horse does not recognize, but her crystalline voice is almost as entrancing to him as the smell of her ripened flesh.
Her singing ceases as he approaches her, his dark hair still dripping with salt water. His sensitive ears hear her heart race with each step he takes, and he smiles, knowing this prey will come willingly. He slides onto the patch of sand beside her, stealing a glance at her face. She is beautiful—skin clear as rose-leaf and wide blue eyes reflecting the light of the full moon.
"Where did you come from?" Her voice bears a hint of guarded curiosity.
"From the sea," he says with a teasing lilt, though there is no mirth in his eyes. "What were you singing? It's a beautiful song."
"A lullaby my mother used to sing to me," she says. "Shall I sing it for you?"
"Please do," says the water horse, sidling closer to the young woman. As she sings, he lays his head on her lap and looks up at the stars in the night sky. Such proximity to his prey drives him delirious with hunger, but the water horse knows that patience has its rewards. As the last verse of the song fades into the lulling of the tides, he asks—"Your mother, she doesn't sing this lullaby anymore?"
The water horse suddenly feels a tangle of rope fall around his head. Startled, he acts on his first instinct and shifts into his natural form but realizes his mistake too late. With the rope halter around his head, the young woman now has him trapped under her power.
"You ask me about my mother, Water Horse?" she says as she rises, grasping the rope tightly with both hands. "She disappeared into the sea. We never found her body again, but a liver washed onto the shore not long after. Needless to say, I've learned how to defend myself since then." She yanks at the rope, directing him towards the cliffs. "Now let's go home and figure out what the hell I'm going to do with you."
Her name is Azura. Descendant of the original ranchers who settled the land by the sea, she graduated from university three years ago and now has her hands full with managing the seaside inn as her widowed father recuperates from a fall that re-injured his bad leg. With February nearly past and the summer season approaching swiftly, phone calls for room reservations punctuate every hour of the day.
It is almost midnight when Azura returns to the inn with the water horse in tow. Anticipating a busy day ahead of her, she decides to keep the water horse in the stables—at least until she can take him to Nana during her lunch break tomorrow and consult her for advice. The other horses in the stables whinny in trepidation, but Azura knows that as long as the halter remains around his head, the water horse is powerless to attack.
What does a water horse need? There is already plenty of hay in his stall, and the bucket of water is filled to the rim. She wonders if he is hungry, and for a second she is tempted to leave him to starve, in retaliation for his earlier attempt at devouring her. But there is something pitiable about the water horse—such a majestic creature of the sea, left to languish in unfamiliar confines of wood and metal—that stirs a certain sympathy in her heart. She leaves the stables for a moment, and when she returns from the main house, she is carrying a bucket of apples and a whole fish.
"Here," she says as she places the bucket before him. "I don't know what you can eat, but this is the best I can do. Hopefully the cook won't notice I've taken the sea bass from the freezer." As she rises to her feet, she takes one last look at the water horse before shutting the stable doors for the night.
Nana lives in a small cabin a mile's distance inland away from the inn, sequestered in a shadowy area dominated by California redwoods. She is not actually Azura's grandmother by blood, but nobody else in town ever seems to remember this fact.
"Well, child—how on Earth did you find yourself in possession of this beauty?" says Nana, removing her garden gloves as she walks over to examine Azura's prisoner. Her long silver hair is pinned to the back of her head in a braided bun, and her khaki pants are stained with mud from tending the herbs in her garden. The water horse stares back at her, eyes cold as obsidian.
"He tried to seduce me," says Azura, tying a knot around the hitching post. "Good thing I was carrying the rope halter with me, like you've been telling me to do for ages."
"And it saved your life, I'm willing to bet." Nana places a hand on the base of his neck, scratching at the withers as she looks the water horse straight in the eye. "You're damn lucky this girl didn't shoot you dead on the spot. She's got a soft spot for animals, killers or not."
"That's what I'm here to ask you about," Azura says. "What do I do with him now?"
Eyeing the water horse thoughtfully, Nana doesn't respond at first. The call of a mourning dove cries in the distance as the coastal breeze rustles through the redwood trees. Azura would like nothing more than to spend the rest of the afternoon in Nana's garden, but the ever-growing to-do list back at the inn sinks like a weight on her mind.
"Have you fed him yet?"
"I left a bucket of apples and a white sea bass in his stall last night. He barely touched the apples, but the entire sea bass was gone this morning."
"I guess we can't help it—water horses are natural carnivores, after all. He'll need more fish than that for a day's meal though. Beef and lamb should be fine as well."
Azura's eyes widen in disbelief. "Wait, you want me to keep him?"
"Bring him back to me in six months," Nana says. "In the meantime, find a saddle and take him out riding, every morning when the sun rises and every night when the sun sets. But whatever you do, don't take him back to the beach. The closer he is to the ocean, the weaker your power over him will be. The smell of the sea will be enough to drive him mad."
When Azura still looks unconvinced, Nana smiles and gives the water horse a playful pat on the side. "Cheer up, Azura. Your father will be pleased to see such a beautiful and powerful horse in his stables—though you might not want to tell him you've captured a water horse just yet."
Early the next morning, Azura zips up her riding boots and tucks her dark curls in a loose ponytail under a faded baseball cap. She barely notices it during the bustle of day, but in the quiet hours of the chill morning, the sound of the ocean waves washes over her fatigue like a cool salve. When she opens the stable doors, the water horse is already awake. Hoisting the saddle over his back, she cinches the straps and pulls herself onto the wide, muscled back of the water horse.
In the beginning, they regard each other with distaste. Azura cannot lead the water horse with any confidence, for his hide—cold and clammy to touch, like a body that has been submerged in ice water for too long—makes her squeamish. The water horse, humiliated by the human contraptions strapped all around his body, seeks out any possible way to defy his rider. Yet in time, the routine becomes bearable for both of them, and as the months pass, both begin to anticipate the sunrise and sunset of each day with eagerness. The water horse, possessing the strength and endurance of ten horses, roars across the grassy terrain with thundering hooves as Azura laughs in delight, locking her fingers through his kelp-green mane.
At night, she grooms his coal black coat as she recounts her day to the water horse. She complains to him about the neurotic wedding planner, who harangued her with voice messages all day about details for a reception to be held in mid-June. She tells him about the major repairs needed on the roof of the main house, racking her brain for a way to procure the money for repairs before May. She tells him about her father—how the medical bills for his injury had depleted their funds and forced their plans of remodeling the inn to an abrupt halt.
Sometimes, Azura tells the water horse about her life in the seaside town. She tells him about how she spent her entire childhood wishing to leave, only to realize after heading south for university that this place is where she truly belongs.
She tells him about her mother. She doesn't remember her very clearly—she was only eight when her mother disappeared. She tells the water horse that she grew up hating his kind. She tells him the Scottish story of a blacksmith who successfully killed an each-uisge with red-hot metal hooks, and how she had asked Nana to teach her how to trap a water horse. But something changed when she got older. Anger, hatred, vengeance—none of these remained in the foreground. She could not fault a water horse for its innate nature to kill.
Some nights, Azura sings her mother's songs to him, her voice ringing in the sea breeze like wind chimes. The water horse listens, and with every passing night, the coldness in his sea green eyes disappears, the storm dissipating to reveal a calm glow slowly pulsating within him.
Winter abdicates its throne to spring, and a handsome man with golden hair appears at the inn. He does not dress like one of the bohemian artists who usually frequent the inn, but wears a white crisply laundered shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and dark tailored slacks. When Azura sees him, there is a faint gleam of recognition in her sky blue eyes, but the water horse cannot decipher what relationship links her to this man. Hostility surges through him, and the water horse knows instinctively that this man poses a threat to Azura.
The blond man appears at the inn again a week later, and then a third time not long after. Azura treats him with the same tempered politeness that she offers every guest of the inn, but the water horse notices with alarm the gradual softening in her demeanor. The man begins to visit Azura almost every day, and then finally one afternoon, they have lunch together on the veranda before walking towards the beach and out of sight. The sky is already streaked with pink and orange from the setting sun when Azura finally returns. She does not say a word to the water horse during their ride, and only when they return to the stables does she speak.
She tells the water horse about Rowland—the man who has been courting her for the past month. She and Rowland met as children, back when his affluent family first purchased the upscale beach house on a nearby sea cliff, in which they resided every summer before driving back to the city in the fall. They lost touch with each other after he went off to attend one of the prestigious universities on the East Coast, while she went to school in southern California not long after. He returned to the seaside only recently to look into the real estate market and was pleasantly shocked to find Azura, who had talked of leaving for so often as a child, managing the inn almost entirely on her own.
As Azura speaks of Rowland, the water horse feels a sharp wrenching in his gut, her words rattling meaninglessly in his head. The ache only worsens the next morning, when they return from their sunrise ride and the blond man stands at the gate waiting for her with two paper cups of steaming coffee and a dashing smile that rips through the water horse like a bullet.
Though the water horse grows leaner and stronger from his daily excursions each day, inside his mind he grows delirious with longing. Banished from his ocean home for months, the water horse realizes only now how much he has come to take solace in the girl with sky blue eyes—his captor in more ways than one. But his words cannot reach her. Cursing his mute equine form, the water horse can only look upon her with sick, melancholy eyes as each day she grows more enraptured by gold. One day in early June, the couple returns hand in hand from the beach and the water horse catches the sparkle of a diamond on her finger.
With the wedding set for the end of August, Azura grows more absent-minded during the hot summer nights as she grooms his coat. Sometimes she tells the water horse about Rowland's great plans for the inn after they are married, or the honeymoon they have planned to take in Europe. On other days, she does not say a word. She no longer sings her mother's songs to him.
The week before the wedding, she forgets to lock the gate when she leaves the water horse in the stables for the night. Instead of running towards the sea, the water horse heads in the opposite direction towards the redwood forest.
Nana is standing outside under the moonlight when the water horse arrives, as if she has been expecting him all along. The water horse dips his dark head before her, and without a word the old woman removes the rope halter. Instantly, the water horse transforms into a dark-haired young man, light green eyes as dazzling as sea glass, infused with the warmth of love.
"Water Horse, something led you here, when you could have returned to the ocean you loved," Nana says softly. "What do you seek?"
The deep voice of the water horse trembles, brimming with emotion as he says her name for the first time.
The old woman beckons him into the cabin, leading him to the kitchen where a glass vial sits on the oak dining table, filled with a strange liquid the color of goldenrods. "I began preparing this potion six months ago—the day that Azura first brought you to me," Nana says, picking up the vial. "It will put you to sleep for six days. When you awaken, you will be human and no longer a water horse. You will no longer thirst for the blood and flesh of humans.
"The choice is yours, Water Horse. I have freed you from the imprisonment of the halter. You may return to the sea and leave all of this behind, a distant memory in your long life. But if you seek a future with Azura, you cannot remain a water horse. You know very well that you cannot live away from the ocean for much longer, and your love for her remains in danger of being overpowered by your hunger for her flesh."
Without hesitation, the water horse reaches for the vial. In a single movement, he swallows the entire contents of the bottle and falls to the floor in deep slumber.
It is almost midnight when the he stirs from his sleep. The moonlight casts eerie shadows on the bed as he stretches his arms, flexing as he examines his transformed body. The warmth of his skin feels surreal. He inspects the pile of neatly pressed clothes on the dresser by his bed—presumably left by Nana—and puts them on.
He leaves Nana's cabin as quietly as possible—she is already asleep in her rocking chair, book open in her lap—and returns to the inn by the sea. The chattering of nocturnal animals hums in the darkness. The pale light of the moon filters through the redwood trees, illuminating a path through the forest in the direction of the Pacific.
The rustic inn looms into view, rows of windows emitting a soft yellow-orange glow in the distance. When he walks into the stables, he sees Azura leaning against his empty stall, gazing into the emptiness. The rocks shift under his feet, and she whips around, startled by the sound. Her mouth is open but the cry is stillborn when she suddenly recognizes his face—the man who had rest his head in her lap on the beach six months ago.
"It can't be…" she says, murmuring. "The water horse?"
"Yes… and no." Towering over her height, his body is tanned and muscled from six months of riding, though a sickly weariness in his face hints at the damage inflicted by his exile from the sea. "I'm a human, Azura. I can be with you now."
Her eyes widen as she processes his words. The diamond gleams in the moonlight, and he resists the urge to tear it from her finger. Silently, she reaches up and touches his face with her hand, as if confirming he is truly standing before her and not some apparition sprung from her imagination. Her breath inhales sharply when she discovers the warmth of his skin. They stand like this with bated breaths, fragile uncertainty suspended between them like a thread of spider's silk.
"I'm getting married tomorrow," she says finally, after what feels like hours. "The caterers are coming in the morning and the flowers will be delivered by noon."
The odd tone of finality in her voice rings in his ears. Desperation pools in the pit of his stomach as he grips her shoulders. "Forget about all that" he says quickly. "You love the ocean just as much as I do. Rowland doesn't understand that. He will never understand it, not while he has both feet planted firmly on the land." When Azura doesn't respond, he spits out the pleading words. "Stay with me, Azura. Can't you see that he's completely wrong for you?"
"What else am I supposed to do?" she cries suddenly, voice crackling. "I mean, my father isn't young anymore. Maybe his leg will get better, but that doesn't mean all the other problems will go away. Money keeps slipping away, and I can barely manage the inn on my own as it is. Everything was falling apart, and then Rowland comes back into my life and promises to turn everything back around… "
"So, is this what it's coming down to?" he asks, fighting to keep his voice level. Her head dips downward to hide her face as her shoulders begin to shake in his grip. "Is this really what you want, Azura?"
She doesn't move at first, save for the tremor of her shoulders that feel fragile in his hands. Then slowly, she lifts her head and meets his gaze, wet lines glistening down her face. In that moment, he remembers the first time he looked into her eyes, the light of the moon reflected in her wide blue eyes, and he knows what she will say before he hears the words in the salty air.
The waves of the Pacific roar in the night, clamoring against the sea cliffs as a coyote howls in the distance. The August night sky is warm and clear, with a waning gibbous moon suspended among the shining stars. He stands on the sand bordering the water's edge, dark hair tousled by the ocean breeze as he sings a melody that he heard for the first time on this very beach. He has watched the sun rise and set, barely moving an inch all day. He cannot stop picturing her. There she is, dressed in a flowing gown of organza and white Chantilly lace, taking the hand of the groom as the people raised their sparkling champagne glasses in a toast to their happiness. There she is, holding the hand of the groom as he leads her to the honeymoon suite, removing her silver jewels and unfastening the back of her dress as carnivorous lips descend upon bare skin. Both sea and land fell for the sky, but it was the sea that would reflect the sky's image for eternity.
The dark vast expanse of the sea ripples before him, but he knows he cannot return to its cold embrace without the black iciness filling his vulnerable lungs. He belongs neither here nor there—perhaps he will be a specter, doomed to haunt the rocky beaches where livers polished by seawater are said to ominously wash ashore. The tall frothing surf crashes onto the sand, and a dark equine figure emerges from the veil of water, kelp tangled in its dripping mane and black eyes cold as obsidian. It rises from the water without a sound, muscles rippling under slick black hide. Still singing the lullaby, he approaches the water horse with no fear.
The song ceases abruptly mere moments later.
The next morning, another human liver washes ashore.