The sea dragon, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus, lay on the sand, his little head resting gently, and his frills and fronds lifting and falling as the edge of the tide stroked him. His magnificent belly was plump and spotted and his long snout pointed proudly towards the rising sun. He had washed up onto the beach during the night; perhaps he had still been swimming in moonlight only a few hours ago. Ariel put out her hand and gently ran a finger over the frill on his tail. It was striped sunny egg yolk yellow then translucent and then orange. Such a beauty, she murmured. If she were to write myths about dragons, they wouldn’t breathe fire. They would swim, elegant, among swaying kelp forests and fight nobody because they had their minds on higher things.
She straightened up and looked along the beach. Miles of white sand were arranged in gentle curves between outcrops of orange rock. The sea shone metallic in the distance, throwing off sparks of light that hurt her eyes. When calm, it was a clear, enticing, aqua blue, but today it was hectic with waves crashing at angles into other waves, frothing and chaotic, stirring up the sand. It was in the mood to spit things out; a bright indigo man-o-war jelly fish, a green scrap of netting, a speckled dragon. Her.
It was the third time she’d tried to go back. When she sacrificed everything to become human, she was only 19 years old and her certainty was half ignorance and bluff. She knew the cost but what she had not known, and could never have comprehended, was that she would become not one complete and different being, but two; her new self and her old tangling and splitting like a strand of frayed rope. She walked beautifully as if gravity felt light to her but at night, she dreamed herself all the way down into the depths and gasped for air on waking. No matter how hard she tried, there was a persistent, invisible, barrier between her and others, like the clearest of water on a sunny day. In human company she concentrated hard, always, to work out how to behave. In the water, her useless legs were unable to propel her and her thin bones kept her bobbing up to the surface. She was tired.
Ariel walked around to the nearest outcrop and climbed over the rocks, looking for pools. Here was a small one, perfectly round. Here, a luxurious bath lined with sand. Here, a shallow cove full of tiny darting fish.
The first time she had tried to go back was after her fourth miscarriage. Her beautiful baby had been born too early, with legs fused into a tail, and a pretty frill on its back like the dragon’s. The doctor had tried to hide it from her but she had won, and had held it close, inhaling its salty scent and closing its delicate, silent, gills. Four babies and not one who could survive. Two months later, when others had already started to forget, she left a note and crept out of the sleeping house with a set of diving weights. She was found later by a fisherman, sobbing and half drowned, on a rocky island made white by gulls. He had thought for a moment she was a seal.
The second time, she was more composed. She divorced her husband, packed up her belongings, paid the bills, and took her own boat, which she intended to wreck. It didn’t work. Again, she nearly died. Again, the sea rejected her. It felt like contempt, but it could have been compassion.
This time was different. She had come to the island alone, with all the time in the world. She would swim every day at the very edge of the sea, respectfully and with care. She would live on seaweed and muscles until she smelled right. She would relearn the names and habits of every creature, starting with the birds. She would float lightly so as not to disturb anyone. She would become familiar again. And then one day, the sea would send an undertow to draw in her wrecked body and her ungrateful soul and wash her clean as a bleached shell, and welcome her home.