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Myths & Fables

by T. Strange



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.

Myths & Fables by T. Strange Copyright 2018

Smashwords Edition

Cover by T. Strange

Published with permission

“Char” originally published by Torquere Press: February 2016

“Delphinos” originally published by Torquere Press: April 2015

“Lighthouse” originally published by Torquere Press: October 2015

All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the Canadian Copyright Law.



Myths & Fables

T. Strange



Contents

Char

Delphinos

Lighthouse

Orion

About the Author

Also by T. Strange





Char

Char is a foundling, raised in the palace kitchens. When he falls in love with the Prince, he decides to show his love, using a lifetime of knowledge gleaned from watching the cooks and bakers around him, to create the perfect cake.

* * *

Char was a foundling. Someone had left him on a pile of kitchen refuse bound for the hogs, and only his own hearty movement and the sharp eyes of a kitchen maid had spared him from an early and ignominious death. There were those who were in favour of putting him right back on the pile, the kitchen being no place for a babe, and besides, who had time or energy to care for him? But Maud, who had long yearned for a child of her own, but had no husband, took pity on the tiny boy and named him her son. With the filth washed away, the tiny child was revealed to be a fine, healthy boy. Maud named him Char, for the spot he came to occupy in the kitchen—close to the ovens where he could stay warm, if a little sooty—and for a large, dark birthmark on one of his thighs.

The kitchen was Char’s world: his nursery, his playroom, his school. As soon as he was large enough to be useful, Char was set to work, repaying his debt to the kitchen for saving his life and caring for him. He began with simple tasks: washing and peeling turnips and other vegetables, minding the ever-burning fires through the night while most of the others slept, and cleaning. There was always cleaning to do in the palace kitchens. Char worked without complaint, doing many of the jobs that no one else wanted. He seemed content enough with his life of toil and drudgery.

No one knew it, but Char was watching. As he swept, he watched the king’s chefs sprinkle pinches of precious spice—cinnamon, saffron, and pepper—over steaming plates of food, breathing deeply to memorize their odours. As he scrubbed saucepans, he tasted each dish to learn its secrets. On the rare occasions he left the kitchen to help at banquets when there weren’t enough regular servants, he noticed which foods were given the highest praise, and which were eaten without comment. He watched, and he remembered.

One night, when he had been set to watch the fires, he knew he was ready. He stole into the pantry and gathered what he needed—eggs, flour, sugar, milk, precious salt and cinnamon. He mixed them together, silently so he wouldn’t wake anyone, and then he put his creation in one of the great ovens to bake. A fine smell filled the kitchen, bringing smiles and sweet dreams to the sleepers.

* * *

In the morning, before the sun began sluggishly lighting the horizon, Char was asleep in his usual place by the ovens. The bakers stirred and grumbled awake, as their day began the earliest. To their surprise, there was already a cake made. It was sitting on the counter, without reason or explanation. Raoul, the head baker, lashed out with his heavy wooden spoon, scattering the other bakers from where they had been gawking at the strange cake. Raoul did not like surprises in his kitchen, and he grabbed the cake to throw it outside. As he did, a small piece broke off, releasing a scent that he would remember for the rest of his life. The cake fell, forgotten, from his thick hands as he reached for the morsel, lifted it to his lips, tasted it...Raoul was not a refined man, for all that he worked in the palace kitchens. He had no use for music or paintings or sculpture. He knew bread, and pastries, and sweet delicacies to tempt a king’s appetite, and that was enough for him.

Or so he had thought, until he tasted the mysterious cake. Symphonies, whorls of sound and color, burst through his tongue, down his throat, leaving a warm glow in his stomach when he finally, reluctantly, swallowed.

He didn’t like it.

Something this new, this colossally wondrous appearing in his kitchen without his say-so and not by his hand was unthinkable and he would not stand for it. He stormed into the small, hot, windowless room the kitchen staff slept in and began kicking everyone awake—scullery maids, drudges, serving boys. He stepped on legs, arms, fingers, toes in his rush to uncover who had dared to create this masterpiece. Sleepy and bruised, everyone could only tell him the truth: they knew nothing about any cake.

Raoul baked in a fury, throwing ingredients into bowls, tossing full pans and tins into the oven without care, raging at the other bakers when dough spilled over and was wasted and burnt on the fire beneath. He knew no peace that morning, with the taste of that extraordinary cake still on his tongue, and with its origin still a mystery.

Toward noon, when the bakers were nearly finished and preparations for dinner had begun, Char woke and emerged, sharpening his small knife to peel vegetables. He had been overlooked by Raoul earlier, and he was so used to the noise of the kitchen that he had slept through the commotion.

Just as he pulled the final cake from the oven, Raoul saw Char.

Unaware of any danger, Char smiled at Raoul as he passed.

Raoul had questioned everyone else in the kitchen. This boy, this useless scrap of pig-waste, must be responsible. The head baker set down his hot cake, very carefully, and grabbed the back of Char’s shirt, hauling the boy off his feet. Lifted in Raoul’s powerful grasp, Char could only squeak with confusion, his knife clattering to the floor. Raoul carried him outside, not far from where he had been found all those years ago, and slammed against the wall with Raoul’s large, coarse face pressed almost against his own.

“You baked that cake.”

Stunned and bewildered, Char nodded.

Very calmly, Raoul put Char down.

Char didn’t dare flee, though he was trembling with terror.

Raoul unbuckled his thick belt from around his thick waist, doubled it, and proceeded to beat Char.

The boy didn’t make a sound, though he bit his lip until it bled and he dug his fingers into the dirt.

Char’s silence only made Raoul angrier, but as he lifted his belt for another blow, one of the kitchen boys came rushing outside to find him.

While Raoul beat Char, Char’s cake had been on a journey. Raoul had carelessly dropped the cake onto a counter. A footman, coming to pick up a lady’s breakfast, had seen the cake and opportunistically broken a piece off for himself. He had dropped the tray of breakfast, earning him a kick and a tongue-lashing from the kitchen maid who had prepared it. He was enraptured; he hardly noticed that she was speaking to him. As apology for bringing her breakfast late, the footman carefully cut a neat square from the miraculous cake. The rest, he pocketed for later, and if his companions wondered about his dreamy smile that day, he didn’t care to enlighten them.

Lady Weatherby was quite ready to have the boy horsewhipped for his tardiness, but she was so hungry because of the delay that she took a bite of cake before deciding his fate. She sank onto a chair one of her maids quickly placed beneath her. She took another bite. Then she stood and, quite improperly, ran to the royal chambers.

And that was how Char’s cake came to the attention of the king. There was a small bit of confusion—the lady didn’t know the footman’s name, and could not immediately identify him when presented with all the lads in a row, so far beneath her notice was he. With the correct one found, he was questioned about this glorious cake. He didn’t want to admit that he had snatched a cake that had just been lying around, but he nervously assured everyone that there would be more of it at that night’s banquet.

The footman raced to the kitchen and examined each of the other cakes, neatly lined up and awaiting Raoul’s inspection and approval. He smelled them all. With a rising sense of panic, he knew that none of these cakes were the same as the one from this morning. He grabbed the sleeve of a passing kitchen boy, asking about cake: who made it, where did it come from?

Raoul was not pleased by the interruption. His face turned white, and then red, when he heard the footman’s story, that the cake—the cake that this nameless whoreson had the audacity to bake in his kitchen—had come to the attention of the king. He told the footman that it would be done, and to get out of his kitchen.

He left Char where he lay, bruised, bloody, and terrified. The kindly maid who had taken Char in had died some years before, so Char had no one to comfort him or tend to his wounds. He slowly uncurled from his defensive ball, wincing at each painful movement. When he could stand again, if stiffly, he re-entered the kitchen, found his dropped knife, and began peeling turnips. He stood instead of sitting, and his face was pale and damp, but he knew he had no choice but to continue his work.

* * *

The cake, Raoul assured himself, was nothing special. He had baked dozens of cakes as good—nay, ten times better—many times before. And he would do it again. Raoul couldn’t read, but he thought through every recipe he had ever heard. He smiled to himself, recalling an exquisite cake he had prepared for the Prince’s birth. Yes, that would do nicely.

It was as ash in his mouth. He might as well have been eating sawdust.

But Raoul was not discouraged. There were many other cakes in his mental cookbook.

Next, he prepared a light, tender cake, full of whipped egg whites and cream.

It may as well have been coarse peasant bread.

With an increasingly crazed smile, Raoul attempted a recipe he had never dared try before, a near-mythical recipe he had only heard whispered about and whose details were unclear.

It was beautiful. It was moist and rich and didn’t compare to a crumb of Char’s cake.

Raoul wasn’t a stupid man. The hour of the banquet was fast approaching, and still he had no cake for the king. He grabbed the boy, dragged him to the pantry. “You’ll make it again,” he hissed, “but you’ll make it in here. No one is to know that you’re making this...cake.” He spat the word like a curse. “I am, do you understand?”

Char nodded. There was a wild gleam in the head baker’s eyes, and Char knew how strong Raoul was, how good and how quick with a knife, and how little his death would mean to anyone. He made the cake, hidden in the pantry with a single candle while Raoul loomed over him, memorizing everything he did.

When the batter was ready, Raoul emerged from the pantry, holding the pan and shouting triumphantly. Char was to stay in the pantry for a few minutes, then slip out when no one would notice him.

If anything, this cake was better than the first.

Everyone in the kitchen could hardly resist tearing into it. They licked the pan and even the mixing bowl clean.

The king was pleased.

He requested the same for the next night.

Raoul scoffed. He had seen how the useless worm made the cake, and he could now do it himself.

Only he couldn’t.

He began in the morning, shirking all his other duties and giving himself plenty of time to prepare the damned cake, mixing everything in the exact amounts he had seen the boy use. When the cake came out of the oven, it was undeniably, unquestionably...decent. Good, even. But it wasn’t Char’s cake.

Raoul began again, measuring even more carefully, closing his eyes and picturing just what the boy had done.

By the fourteenth cake, Raoul was raving and dangerous. Not even his bakers would go near him, and everyone cleared a path when he suddenly veered through the kitchen, making his winding, seething way to where Char was calmly chopping apples.

“You. You...” Words failed the large baker, so he grabbed a fistful of the boy’s hair and hauled him to the pantry. “Do it again.”

Char wasn’t the sort to gloat, especially with a huge, enraged baker standing over him, so he meekly prepared the batter again, not concealing anything from Raoul.

The third cake was the best yet.

Raoul was called up to the banquet hall, where a toast was giving in honor of his cake.

He would happily have killed the boy, if only he didn’t need him. In the days that followed, Raoul continued trying to make the demon-cake, and each time he failed.

Everyone in the kitchen knew it was Char who really made the cake, but it was never spoken of.

Slowly, one pastry at a time, Raoul was replaced by Char, as the King and his court demanded the new desserts.

In the kitchen, Raoul became little more than a bread maker, but, because of Char’s cakes, he had an astonishing reputation. Noblemen, kings and emperors thronged to the palace in hopes of tasting one of Raoul’s fabulous creations.

* * *

Years passed, and the kitchen was busier than ever before. The prince was of a marriageable age, and the king and queen held a ball for his birthday. Every eligible maiden in the kingdom would be attending, all in the hopes of winning the prince’s hand.

Char was no less excited than anyone else, though he didn’t show it. He had seen the prince, once, at a distance. Char had been picking apples when the prince and his companions rode by, and the prince’s beauty and merry laughter had enchanted him. In that moment, Char had set himself a task, one he didn’t share with anyone—he would win the prince’s heart. Not through title or money, because he had neither, nor through looks; he had been called toad, rat, worm often enough to know that he was very ugly. He would win the prince through food. He would make the most wonderful, the most sublime, the most perfect pastry ever created, and he would have it served to the prince.

He couldn’t serve it himself, of course. Even when he did leave the kitchens to serve in the great hall above, Char was always kept out of sight, just another of the boys relaying full platters from the kitchen to the hall, and dirty platters from the hall to the kitchen.

No, the prince would never know who had sent him this scrumptious manifestation of his love, but that suited Char just fine. He would know, and that was enough for him.

In every spare moment he could find, Char prepared his masterpiece. He mixed spices in ways that no one had attempted in a thousand years. He lived for days on a single speck of flour, a crystal of sugar, learning how they tasted alone, in their most basic state. He spoke with the merchants who delivered ingredients to the palace. He learned, without leaving his kitchen, everything he could about baking. He baked delicacy after delicacy, pastry after pastry, each one lighter and more delicate than the last. He never ate more than a bite, and there was always fierce competition among the other denizens of the kitchen to eat what he left. Everything he produced was unimaginably delicious, but none of it was perfect. And to win the prince’s heart, Char knew that he could offer nothing less than perfection.

The night before the ball, he was shaking and red-eyed and hadn’t slept for a week, but he had achieved the unattainable. He had created something miraculous.

He used that pastry as a bribe to ensure his dessert reached the prince and no one else. He would bake the prince’s cake at the last possible moment, so it would be fresh.

The night of the ball, Char had no time to think about the prince or anything else. As quickly as the kitchen could produce food, it was carried upstairs to the great hall.

Long after the festivities had ended upstairs, Char and the rest of the kitchen boys and maids were still at work, cleaning almost every dish in the palace.

Char didn’t hear anything about how the prince had reacted when served his dessert. While he was a little disappointed, there were always new cakes to bake, new combinations of ingredients to try, and Char wasn’t one for moping.

* * *

To say that the prince had enjoyed the pastry would be a gross injustice. He had raved about it, gasped and writhed to an indecent degree while eating it. He declared it the best thing he had ever eaten, and demanded to know where it had come from.

But no one knew.

The servant Char had bribed to deliver the pastry had vanished in the night, with a large bundle of silverware for good measure.

Because nothing of this caliber had ever come from the palace kitchens, no one thought to inquire there. Every bakery in the town, the chef of each person in attendance, was questioned. Some claimed to have baked the marvelous dessert, but when asked to prove themselves by making it a second time, all failed.

The prince stopped tasting the desserts personally. There were too many, and he grew weary of the constant disappointment. He became quiet and melancholy and his parents, the king and queen, were very worried.

Lady Weatherby, who had originally brought Char’s cake to the court’s attention, suggested that, just perhaps, the pastry might have come from their own kitchen, here in the palace. No one dared mention this possibility to the prince, in his fragile state, but a servant was sent to the kitchen. Raoul, who hadn’t heard about the frantic search for the mysterious pastry chef—or, in fact, about Char’s wondrous confection—immediately exclaimed that, yes, it was he the prince sought.

That night, the prince was told to prepare for a marvelous surprise with his dinner.

Raoul forced Char to make the dessert.

If the first pastry hadn’t won the prince’s love, Char knew he had to try harder. He poured his soul into the batter along with the milk, mixed his love for the prince into the flour, sprinkled his devotion in with the salt.

If anything, this cake smelled more perfect than the original.

When the prince saw the delicate confection his servants placed before him, he underwent a dramatic change. Color sprang to his cheeks, he laughed the way he used to, and he ate every bite of his meal. He called for the chef to come forward, so he could thank him or her personally.

It was Raoul who came before the prince, bowing and wearing his best suit of clothes.

The prince was no fool. He had watched his father and mother dispense justice and wisdom to their subjects since he was old enough to stand quietly, and he knew when someone was lying, or at least not telling the whole truth. He told Raoul to make the dessert again—this time with the prince watching.

Raoul stammered and sweated, but agreed.

So that the prince wouldn’t have to descend to the kitchen, masons built an oven especially for the challenge. Raoul used every bit of baking wisdom he had ever learned, and the pastry he produced was spectacular. But it was nothing compared the one Char had made.

The prince was very angry and threatened to have Raoul banished, but the head baker refused to admit he had been bested by a foundling boy.

More depressed than ever, the prince locked himself in his rooms and refused to see anyone, even his parents.

The lords and ladies agreed that something must be done. One of them suggested that perhaps another person in the palace kitchens had created this delicacy. Once again, servants were sent down to the kitchens, and this time they were told to question everyone who worked there, from the highest chef to the lowest drudge.

And when they were asked, everyone pointed to Char.

The servants brought Char up to the special kitchen that had been prepared for Raoul and told to make the dessert or be banished. So Char baked.

This time the dessert smelled so divine that wild animals came out of the woods behind the palace, trying to find the source of the scent.

Several lords and ladies had tears in their eyes, having witnessed this pastry’s creation.

Servants brought the cake to the prince’s door, so he could smell the heavenly aroma and be tempted out to taste it. Char was swept up in the throng until he stood just outside his beloved prince’s chambers.

The prince emerged, his eyes full of longing and doubt. When he saw Char, covered in flour and smelling of cinnamon, his heart leapt. But he would not allow himself to be deceived again, and he insisted on watching Char bake with his own eyes.

When Char once again produced the divine dessert, the prince leapt to his feet and kissed Char fully on the mouth. Throwing open the door, he announced to the gathered lords and ladies that this young man, this—he had to ask Char his name—Char was his betrothed, and he would have no other. If Char would have him.

Char, feeling as though he had stepped into a dream, agreed.

The king and queen were sent for. Their son and only child was very dear to them, and they were ecstatic to find him laughing and smiling again. They were concerned, however, that he had chosen a commoner.

Smiling, the prince told Char to kneel and knighted him on the spot.

* * *

Their wedding was a grand affair, with feasting, dancing, and song long into the night. Though the prince had assured him that he no longer needed to work, Char insisted on helping with the banquet. Princely consort or no, Char would never give up his love of baking.

Char allowed Raoul to keep his job, but the former pastry chef was too proud to accept Char’s generosity, and he fled the kingdom in disgrace.

After the king and queen died in their time, and Char and his prince became kings, many of their advisors were concerned that the two would never be able to produce an heir together.

Char smiled to himself.

A few days later, it was announced throughout the kingdom that the royal heir had been found—a tiny girl, who had been abandoned in a pile of rotting turnips.

Theirs was a long and prosperous reign. The king grew fat and happy from Char’s baking. Char divided his time between his beloved husband, his adopted daughter, and his kitchen.



Delphinos

Ever since he visited the aquarium as a child, John has been fascinated by dolphins. After earning a degree in marine biology, he got a job at the aquarium so he can be close to his favourite dolphin, Trixie. When he’s left alone for the first time to supervise Trixie while she calves, he’s joined by a very unexpected companion.

* * *

Once a year, a man rents our entire park so he can visit the dolphins. When I started working at AquaLand, the head trainer warned me that this man paid extra for complete privacy. He’s been doing this for years, so long that no one can remember when it began.

I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of leaving a strange man alone with our dolphins, for his sake or theirs. I imagined a thousand scenarios in which one of them hurt or killed the other. I mentioned this to the head trainer, but he gave me a vague answer that didn’t mean anything when I thought about it later.

The first time the man rented the park after I started working there, I tried to stay past my shift to keep an eye on him, but the head trainer had predicted I would and made me leave.

In the morning, there was no body floating in the dolphin pool, and the dolphins were all fine. Happy, even. During their daily show, they kept doing tricks unprompted. Sometimes they’d do a different trick than the one we’d asked for, but some of them were completely new—tricks we’d never taught them. The audience was thrilled, but it was frustrating and a little frightening for me. Working with trained dolphins means being constantly aware that these animals are very large, powerful, and intelligent. They could easily kill me if they wanted to, or if they thought it might be fun. Even by accident. Having them perform behaviors without cueing them reminded me just how little influence I actually have over them. If they ever decide something is more interesting than the fish I offer, I would lose all control.

The audience, however, was delighted. The show was fresh and exciting. It seemed like the crowd noticed how edgy it was, and they loved it.

By the next day the dolphins were back to normal, dutifully performing their tricks on command in return for fish.

I forgot about the man. I remembered how worried I’d been about his visit, and how odd the dolphins had been the next day, but it no longer seemed important. There was a slight haze surrounding him in my mind, and if I thought too hard about him, I saw purple. I didn’t mention this to anyone, because it sounded crazy. Potentially-losing-my-job crazy, or at least serious-psych-evaluation crazy.

After I’d worked there for several years, I no longer worried about losing control of the dolphins after his visits, because I never did. I noticed that the audiences were always largest on the days after he left. I wondered if something drew the crowds to the dolphins’ heightened energy, because they had no way of knowing or predicting his arrival.

As I was saying goodnight to the dolphins before I left, Randall, the head trainer, stopped me. “I think Trixie might give birth tonight. Would you stay and keep an eye on her?”

It wasn’t really a question, but I appreciated that he didn’t demand I stay. Besides, Trixie is my favorite—don’t tell the others. I’m careful not to give her special attention, but all the staff knows my preference...and I’m pretty sure the dolphins do, too. Trixie does. She’ll always push her way to the front when she knows I’m there, so she can get the first fish or scratch. When the others bother her, she swims over to me and sighs loudly until I pay attention to her. At sixteen, she’s the oldest dolphin we have. “Sure. Of course.” I was pleased that he thought I was competent enough to oversee the birth alone.

“This will be her third calf. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s never had a problem before. You know who to call if you need help.”

There’s a bright orange binder in the trainers’ office, labeled “Emergencies”. It has instructions and phone numbers for a huge range of situations, from vets to the coast guard in case of an escape.

He left, and I was alone in the park, except for security guards making their rounds. Only a few lights remained on, casting eerie reflections from all the pools. The familiar sound of the sea lions grunting and groaning was unsettling. I’ve been here nearly every day since I was eleven, but tonight, for the first time, it was spooky.

I stayed outside with the dolphins instead of watching them on the monitors in the office, both to observe Trixie more carefully, and for their company. I never feel alone when I’m with dolphins. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re intelligent, and that they know we’re intelligent, like them.

That’s what drew me into dolphin training in the first place. My class visited the park I now work at when I was in grade six. The other kids ran around, screaming when the dolphins splashed them, tapping the glass in the underwater viewing room.

When I saw the dolphins, I was mesmerized. It was as though they’d invited me to join them in their world. I was underwater, and they were putting on a show just for me, showing me how swift and powerful they were. One of them swam right up to me, its long nose almost touching the glass. It turned a little until we were eye to eye. The world narrowed to the two of us. I couldn’t hear my shrieking classmates, or the recorded voice reciting dolphin facts. I looked at the dolphin, and I knew it was looking back. I pressed my hands to the cool glass, and it raised a flipper to match. We were all but touching—just a thin, invisible barrier between us. It stayed there for a long time. I didn’t understand that dolphins need to breathe air, and I was crushed when it swam away.

I watched it surface from beneath. Just as I was about to walk away—all the other dolphins were on the far side of the tank, and I could barely see them—I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. The dolphin had come back! I was sure it was the same one; it had a scar above one eye, like a raised eyebrow.

It stayed with me, only leaving to breathe.

“That’s Trixie.”

I jumped at the voice, feeling almost guilty, as though I’d been doing something wrong. I resented having my communion with this beautiful animal interrupted.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Randall, the head marine mammal trainer here.”

“Johnny,” I replied, not breaking eye contact with the dolphin—Trixie.

“She likes you.”

“You think so?” I blushed, like he’d told me a girl had a crush on me.

“She’s a good judge of people. You should come and visit her again sometime. Maybe you can even feed her one day.”

“I’d really like that!”

He clapped me on the shoulder and left the two of us alone.

My teacher was mad because she’d had to come and find me. I hadn’t heard the announcement telling my class our time was up, and where to meet to get back on the bus. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away. I watched Trixie as long as I could, until I was on the stairs and out of sight. Before I left, she moved her flipper, like she was waving at me.

After that, I was obsessed. My room became a shrine to all things dolphin—posters, stuffed animals, toys that made real dolphin sounds, T-shirts, pajamas, sheets. I wore dolphin jewelry, even after people told me it was ‘for girls’. I became the easiest kid to buy things for—stick a dolphin on it and I’d love it. Sometimes literally. My mom bought me a plain, black binder for school and I hated it until she had the brilliant idea of putting a dolphin sticker on it.

I read every book the library had about dolphins, and not just the watered-down kids’ books. I learned a lot of new words from those books. Luckily, my parents didn’t freak out when I started asking about copulation.

I made my parents check every food item that entered the house, even ones completely unrelated to the ocean, for dolphin cruelty. They humored me. I started eating a lot of tuna and asking the man at the seafood counter why they didn’t sell squid. He played along, giving me a different reason every time I stopped by—a notorious gang of international squid-thieves had gotten to the shipment before it had arrived; there had been a breakout of a rare disease in a nearby town, and the only cure was squid. I could never tell if he was joking or not, and in retrospect, I have to admire his creative answers. My brother and sisters started calling me dolphin-breath and insisting we have non-seafood based dinners.

I kept suggesting to my parents, completely innocently, that we go to Orlando for vacation. No, I hadn’t known they offered dolphin swims there, what a coincidence!

My teachers made a rule that no, my next project couldn’t be about dolphins, didn’t I think I knew quite enough about them? My book reports, too, had to be dolphin-free.

The internet was just starting to become popular at that time, but I remember the first time I ever used it. I searched for dolphins. I was disappointed when I didn’t learn anything I hadn’t already known.

And I visited AquaLand at every opportunity. My parents held my twelfth birthday party there. I had a dolphin-shaped cake and pretty much ignored my friends so I could stare at Trixie.

I’m sure my parents hoped I was going through a weird phase and would eventually quit with “the dolphin thing”, but they supported me when it continued. They bought me a bus pass so I wouldn’t bother them for rides to the park every weekend. Armed with the power of public transportation, I went even more often, sometimes going straight to AquaLand after school.

I was there so often that all the dolphin trainers knew me. They’d stop and tell me something about the animals, or about an individual dolphin, whenever they had the time.

While I’m sure the park loved the money—first my parents’ money, then my allowance and any money I could get from doing odd jobs around the neighborhood—Randall eventually made a deal with my parents: I could get in for free, as long as I helped out with the dolphins.

For me, that was a win-win situation.

I think both my parents and the dolphin trainers were surprised that I kept going and I did all the work I was asked to—a lot of cleaning and hauling heavy buckets of fish, and not just for the dolphins. One day I asked if I could give the dolphins some of the tuna from my sandwich. Randall told me they fed the dolphins a specific diet, and could get sick if they ate the wrong food. He thanked me for asking, and promised I’d get to feed them eventually.

I’ll never forget the first time I fed a dolphin.

Karri, one of the trainers, gave me a lecture as we prepared the fish. “Dolphin teeth are really sharp. Even if they don’t mean to, they can give you a nasty bite. You want to let go of the fish—just let it slide into the dolphin’s mouth. Don’t try to hang on to it! Dolphins are strong, too, and one could accidentally pull you into the water.”

I was a little nervous after that warning, but I wanted to finally feed one of the animals I admired so much.

Karri passed me a fish from the feeding bucket. We were sitting at the edge of the dolphin tank, Karri in her wetsuit, me in my regular clothes. As soon as the fish left the bucket, the dolphins surrounded us. They chittered at us, some racing back and forth, all vying for the treat. Trixie pushed her way to the front and sprayed me with water from her blowhole.

“Hold out the fish.”

For a moment, I thought Karri was talking to Trixie.

“C’mon, would you like to be kept waiting for a chocolate bar?”

The fish was heavier than I’d expected. It was really slippery, and I could feel its scales digging into my palm as I held it tight so I wouldn’t drop it. It also reeked. It didn’t look or smell anything like the tuna and other fish I was used to eating. “Are you sure it hasn’t gone bad or something?”

Trixie rose out of the water and butted my leg with her beak. She gave three sharp squeaks.

Karri laughed. “Yes, I’m sure, and so is Trixie. Are you going to give it to her or not?”

Trixie’s head rested between my legs.

I felt like I should be scared, but I wasn’t. I leaned forward, holding the fish by its tail.

Trixie opened her narrow mouth, showing surprisingly sharp teeth, like Karri had said. They hadn’t looked quite so intimidating in pictures.

I let go of the fish. At the last moment, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, Trixie and the fish were gone.

“Good job! Want to try again? The rest of these beggars are still hungry.”

Another dolphin, Florence, swam up and opened her mouth. I lifted a fish out of the bucket and fed her, too.

After all the others had eaten, Trixie came back.

“Can I give her another?” I’d missed the first time, and Trixie was special to me already.

“Sure, one more for the old girl.”

I picked the biggest fish, not sure what other criteria might make them appealing to dolphins.

Trixie rested her head on the edge of the tank, mouth open expectantly.

I slipped the fish into her mouth, watching as she bobbed her head and swallowed.

She made a soft noise that sounded happy, and sank back into the water.

I felt like crying, and I had no idea why. I felt so full of emotion, so...blessed. I pretended I had to go to the bathroom, and if Karri realized I was lying, she didn’t call me on it.

After that, I got to give the dolphins a few treats every time I was there.

I had noticed early on that the trainers had hand signals for the dolphins to get them to do things.

“Karri? Do you think I could learn some of the hand signals?”

“I’m not sure. You’d have to ask Randall.”

“Okay.”

She looked at me and sighed. “Fine! But just one.” She raised her hand and pointed. All five dolphins swam in that direction.

“Neat! Can I try?”

“Sure, but they might not listen to you.”

I raised my hand and pointed in the opposite direction.

The dolphins ignored me.

I lowered my hand, disappointed.

Trixie twirled in the water, and slowly swam to the other side of the tank.

“Hey, great job! That’s a good start. We might be able to make a trainer out of you after all.”

As I’d suspected, Randall was reluctant to teach me the trainers’ hand signals. “We don’t want them getting confused. Maybe when you’re older, or if you decide to become a trainer here. When you’re done with school.”

I really wanted to swim with the dolphins, but I knew Randall wouldn’t allow it so I didn’t even bother asking.

* * *

The summer I turned fourteen, my parents and Randall agreed I could work at the aquarium. I’d be doing more than earning my admission; I’d actually be making money.

I wasn’t just working with the dolphins. I had to clean other animals’ enclosures, and feed them. At first, I found the sea lions really intimidating, but I quickly learned that, while they might roar and grunt at me, they were too lazy to move more than they had to. It was hard work and not nearly as glamorous as putting on a dolphin show, but I did everything anyone asked of me. Getting to feed and play with the dolphins was my reward at the end of the day—I’d throw a ball in the water for them to bring back for me to throw again.

I worked at AquaLand every summer and during school breaks until I graduated from high school. My local university didn’t have a great marine biology program, so I had to move away from home—and Trixie. I missed her almost as much as I missed my parents, and I visited both every chance I got.

Between my reading and working at AquaLand for so long, I thought I knew everything there was to know about them, but the library books hadn’t mentioned much about dolphin sexuality or violence. I wasn’t thrilled to hear about dolphins playing with and killing porpoises, or rape, but I concluded that, just as there are horrible people, there could be horrible dolphins. I realized how naïve and anthropomorphic I’d been when it came to the animals, but not even a big dose of reality made me change my mind about them. They still had a powerful hold over me.

I realized I was gay because of dolphins.

I’d dated in high school, but I’d never been really attracted to anyone. I’d gone out with girls because they’d asked, and that’s what everyone expected me to do.

Learning about the close, frequently sexual, bonds formed between male dolphins made me realize I’d been looking in the wrong place. If dolphins could be gay, so could I.

I started dating a classmate pretty seriously, but I knew I was moving back home after I’d graduated, and he wanted to work at a larger marine center.

I’d gotten my diving certification, and I’d had the opportunity to swim with dolphins during my post-secondary education. It was one of the most profoundly moving, spiritual experiences of my life to that point. They were even bigger when I was in the water with them, but they moved with such grace and agility, twisting their bodies so quickly I could barely follow them, at speeds I could never hope to achieve even with swimming fins. I felt honored when they let me touch them, but I was never the one to initiate contact. I let them come to me, and they were curious enough that it didn’t take long. They poked me with their beaks, squeaked and chattered at me. Some let me hold onto their fins, and carried me for short distances. For a few, brief moments, I felt like a dolphin myself.

As soon as I had my diploma, I applied to be a marine animal trainer at AquaLand. No one was surprised when I was accepted.

It was Trixie I really wanted to swim with. The first time Randall gave me the go-ahead to get in the water with our dolphins, my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly put on my wetsuit. I’d never been so afraid to get in the water, not even when I’d dived in places I knew there were sharks. I wasn’t afraid of Trixie, I was afraid...I don’t know. That she’d disappoint me, and it would be a swim with dolphins like any other. They were all magical, but I wanted swimming with her to be even more. I was afraid that she might ignore me.

“Get in already!” Karri pushed me, and then I was among the dolphins.

They all recognized me, but my presence in the water was different for both the dolphins and myself. They stayed back at first, chattering and clacking to one another, swimming around me in increasingly smaller circles.

Trixie was the first to touch me, and then she wouldn’t leave me alone. She got beneath me and swam me to the surface, as though I were a calf who needed help breathing. She swam right beside me the whole time I was in the water, never farther away than arm’s—or flipper’s—reach.

When I finally had to climb out, I was trembling with exhaustion, and I had never been so happy in my life.

* * *

It was almost midnight, and Trixie still hadn’t shown imminent signs of giving birth. She was restless and agitated, swimming from one end of her spacious tank to the other, violently driving off the other dolphins if they got too close. I thought it might be dangerous for me to get in the water, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to help her calf. Even though I’ve always felt a connection with her, I’ve never fooled myself into thinking she’s a harmless bunny rabbit.

I went to the office to make myself a cup of coffee. Watching the dolphins swim back and forth was soothing—too soothing. I couldn’t risk falling asleep at such a critical time, with Trixie so close to calving.

When I returned to the dolphin arena, there was a man sitting at the edge of the tank. He had his legs in the water.

I opened my mouth to yell at him, and then I saw the dolphins.

They had surrounded him in a semicircle. They were all looking up at him, clicking and squeaking furiously as though talking to him.

The man nodded occasionally, even laughed, as though he understood what they were saying, or was making up mental dialogue for them.

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing? The park is closed, and you’re not allowed to be here.”

He looked up from the dolphins, but I hadn’t startled him. The light hit his face, and…he was gorgeous. Stunning, even in the sickly yellowish floodlight. His skin was warm olive. He was short, maybe 5’6”. His eyes were bright green and seemed to take in everything and nothing. His hair was long, black, and curly. It hung in a loose ponytail between his shoulder blades.

“Hello, John. You are John, aren’t you?”

I nodded, still approaching him. I didn’t run, because wet concrete was slippery, but I was hurrying. “How did you...”

“They told me.” He gestured at the dolphins.

“Or you saw my name and picture on the sign about the trainers.”

He smiled. “Or that.”

He didn’t seem like he meant me—or more importantly, the dolphins—any harm. He felt...oddly familiar. Soothing.

“Seriously, though, you can’t be here.” What if he’d put something in the water or fed them something bad while I’d been in the office? I would never be able to forgive myself.

“They don’t mind.”

The dolphins, besides Trixie, who was too pregnant to frolic, were leaping and twirling as though showing off for the stranger.

“Why are you here?” Should I call the police? Randall? Maybe I could make him leave on his own, without having to call my boss and admit someone had snuck in on my watch.

“For her, of course. I’ve been here for every one of her calves’ births, just as I was there for hers.”

“Did you used to be a trainer or something? If you don’t leave, I’m going to have to call the cops.”

“I’m staying.” His expression was still soft, but his voice was firm. It was a command; there was no mistaking it for anything else.

I sighed. “Just don’t...do anything weird, okay?”

“I’m just here to watch. I won’t interfere.”

I’d never heard of someone getting off watching dolphins give birth, but it takes all sorts, right? And he seemed harmless enough.

“Fine. But you’ll do exactly what I say, and stay out of the way.”

“Whatever you say,” he repeated, his tone gently teasing.

“Who are you, anyway?”

“You may call me Dennis.” It was a common enough name, but he managed to make it sound exotic.

I suddenly had goosebumps, and I rubbed my arms to make them go away. He hadn’t exactly said his name was Dennis, only that I should call him Dennis. Even though he hadn’t done anything strange—well, besides being here in the first place—there was something deeply unsettling about him. “Okay, Dennis. This part is really boring, just so you know.”

“I know. As I said, I’ve been here for Trixie before.”

We sat together at the edge of the pool, watching the dolphins. I was wearing my wetsuit in case I had to jump in and help, since the water would be chilly.

Dennis was dangling his legs in the water again. Every few minutes, one of the dolphins would swim up and nuzzle his feet, like an eager-to-please dog. I tensed each time, worried he’d get bitten or dragged in, sue me and the park, and order the dolphins euthanized.

“Aren’t you cold?”

He shook his head.

Finally, close to dawn, a small tail emerged beneath Trixie.

I was wide awake, as though I’d spent the night in bed and not sitting on cold concrete watching dolphins swim back and forth.

Dennis leaned forward, chin resting on his folded hands.

Both of us focused on Trixie.

She swam in slow circles, occasionally sinking to the bottom of the pool to rest. After the tail appeared, it wasn’t long before the rest of the calf emerged in a small cloud of blood.

Trixie swam beneath her new calf, and gently lifted it to the surface for its first breath.

Dennis and I sighed with relief, our breaths coming at the same time as the calf’s.

“He’s beautiful.”

“He?”

“The calf.”

“There’s no way you can tell from here.”

He gave me a haughty look.

“Well, I have to go examine him and take blood.” I slid into the water and swam to Trixie and her newborn. The other dolphins had scattered, occupying themselves on the far side of the pool. I approached carefully—animals of any kind are protective of their young, no matter how tame or accustomed to humans.

Trixie seemed tired, but she was dutifully swimming close to her calf, rising to breathe with him. She let me approach, watching me carefully.

I slipped a sling under the calf—as far as I could tell, Dennis was right, and the calf was male. But he had a 50% chance of being right. I clipped the sling to a scale hanging over the pool. I gave the calf a brief exam and drew a vial of blood before releasing him. He darted back to his mother’s side, squeaking and chittering at her. She responded, and he swam beneath her to nurse.

I swam back to the edge of the pool and pulled myself out beside Dennis. He didn’t seem to mind when I accidentally splashed him, and water pooled around me. “I think you were right, the calf is male.”

He smiled, looking pleased with himself.

“He’s healthy and strong.”

“His name is Caleb. Well, not really, but you couldn’t pronounce his true name.”

Just when this guy seemed okay, he had to say something nutty like that. “Oh yeah? What’s his true name?”

Without missing a beat, Dennis opened his mouth and gave a perfect imitation of a dolphin’s clicks and squeaks.

I wasn’t impressed. “Look, I can do that too.” I pulled out my phone, where I always have recordings of dolphin sounds. I played one of them, moving my mouth in time with them.

“This wasn’t a trick—well, not an electronic one, anyway. I don’t have a recording device on me...though you’re welcome to search me.” He winked.

I blushed, and damned if my wetsuit didn’t get tighter. Why did this insane, middle of the night dolphin-pervert turn me on? What did that say about me? Probably that I was lonely and hadn’t gotten laid in way too long. “I’ll pass,” I replied, trying to keep my voice flat and a little sarcastic so he wouldn’t know he was getting to me.

“Here, I have an idea.” He grabbed my hands and lightly placed them around his neck.

Oh, God. Now he was going to ask me to choke him. “I’m really not into...”

“Hush.” He repeated the same dolphin sounds, and I could feel that they were coming from his throat.

“That’s pretty neat. Could you teach me?”

“Probably not. But I want to do better than pretty neat.” He turned to the dolphin tank. All of them were looking at him. “Hold my hands behind my back.”

“I don’t...”

“I want you to know this isn’t a trick. I’m not cueing them in any other way.”

“Okay...”

He made a long series of clicks, whistles, and chirps.

The dolphins, with the exception of Trixie and Caleb, arranged themselves into a perfect number four.

I hadn’t taught them that trick. No one had. I had goosebumps. “What are you?” I asked, before I realized what I was saying.

He tapped the side of his nose and winked again, less lewdly this time. “Ah, that’s the right question, isn’t it?” He slipped into the water, and he was naked. His clothes lay in a crumpled heap on the side of the tank.

He hadn’t taken them off. There hadn’t been time.

“This is crazy. I’m crazy. This is all impossible.” I watched him swim, as natural in the water as a dolphin. He was stunningly gorgeous, almost inhumanly perfect. I shivered and rubbed my arms. I knew I should stop him; that he shouldn’t approach the new mother and calf, but I couldn’t seem to form words.

He swam up to Trixie and Caleb, circling them, running his fingers along their sides and fins. They swam with him, rolling and spinning around him as though rejoicing in his presence.

Dennis swam back to me and hooked his arms on the edge of the pool. “Thank you.”

Jason, another of the dolphins, came up behind and bumped Dennis with his beak. I was a little worried—Jason can be pretty aggressive with the other dolphins, and none of the female trainers will swim with him.

Dennis gave the dolphin a look, and he swam away.

“Are you going to explain what’s going on, or are you just going to keep freaking me out?”

“I’ll do better than that—I’ll tell you a story.”

A story. Well, that was more than he’d given me so far. I shivered. Even with the wetsuit, I was chilly. “Can I change first?”

“Of course. I’ll watch them.” The reverse was also true: everywhere they swam, the dolphins’ attention was clearly on Dennis.

I didn’t think he’d hurt them, but I still hurried. Dried off and dressed, I joined him at the dolphin tank. He was still naked.

He noticed me staring and smiled, shifting position to spread his legs. “This isn’t going to be a distraction, is it?”

“No.”

“Do you know where dolphins come from?”

“Of course. During the early Eocene, small hoofed animals such as Pakicetus spent more and more time in the water, eventually evolving and becoming specially adapted for spending their entire lives underwater.”

He sighed. “All right, I should have expected that one. I’ll phrase the question differently—do you know where people say dolphins come from?”

“You mean, like, mythology?”

He nodded. He seemed very...focused, and I wasn’t sure why.

“Which?” I hadn’t just read about real dolphins. I knew about dolphin mythology from around the world.

“Greek.”

I shrugged. “Sure. A bunch of pirates tried to kidnap the god Dionysus and he turned them into dolphins.”

“Mmm. A bit shorter than I would have liked, but, yes.”

“What does that have to do with—no. Just...no.”

He sat there while the dolphins watched him like expectant puppies. He was very...Greek-looking.

“Prove it.”

He closed his eyes and swayed a little. I was starting to wonder if I needed to call an ambulance when I noticed the sounds coming from the water.

I looked up. The dolphin pool was full of people; men and women splashing and flailing as they tried to keep their heads above water. The dolphins were gone.

“Stop it! They’re drowning.”

“I didn’t change Trixie or Caleb. They’re not up for that right now.”

“Please, change them back.” I didn’t care that what I was saying was crazy and impossible. These were dolphins I had known for years, and they were struggling and terrified. I could pick out each of them, even as humans. “Stop. Please.” I was crying. I’d grabbed his wrist without realizing it.

He clapped his hands, once, sharply, and the dolphins were themselves again.

“How dare you?” I screamed at him. My hands balled into fists and I was shaking with the effort of not hitting him.

“You asked me to prove it,” he said, gently.

“I did, but that...are they really people, trapped in dolphins’ bodies?”

“There are many layers of reality, you know. In one layer, they’re dolphins—very intelligent, but animals, not at all human. In another, they’re the descendants of pirates I turned into an entirely new creature. Sort of like Australians.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“What do you want?” I was talking to a god. What was I supposed to say or do? Should I bow? Or was I just going insane—that seemed far more likely.

“Like I said, Trixie is a favorite of mine. I visit her as often as I can, especially when she’s about to give birth.”

“I only saw you because you wanted me to, didn’t I? Or someone else would have seen you here before.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they forgot about me.”

I snorted. “Not likely.” I gave him a very brief glance up and down, then looked away.

“Mmm.” He rolled onto his side, showing off his...everything.

“Put some clothes on...please.” I probably shouldn’t give him orders, fantasy or god. Either way, he could probably smite me.

“Do you have a towel?”

“Can’t you just...be dry?”

“So can you, but a towel is more convenient.”

He dried off and dressed, rather than his clothes magically appearing on his body. “I think we need to celebrate, don’t you?”

* * *

I woke up feeling like shit. I felt hungover, only I hadn’t been drinking. Had I?

My alarm went off and I batted at it, knocking it to the floor. I rolled out of bed, the motion sending a nasty churning feeling through my guts. I froze, hoping the feeling would stop and I wouldn’t be sick.

There was a leather band or necklace on the floor. I’d never seen it before and I had no idea where it had come from. I picked it up, and my stomach settled. My head felt clearer. I pressed it to my forehead, and I felt like myself again.

“What’s with the headband? Has working with dolphins turned you into a hippie?” Karri was preparing fish for the dolphins’ breakfast.

“How’s Caleb doing?” I asked, ignoring her.

“Caleb?”

“Trixie’s new calf.”

“Who you apparently already named, thanks for asking for suggestions. Caleb is doing fine. What’s up with you? You seem weird this morning. Almost like...” She grinned.

“Like what?” I grabbed a bucket of fish.

“Like you got laid.”

“Jesus, Karri! Even if I did—and I didn’t—it’s none of your business.”

“Uh huh.” She clapped me on the back, probably getting fish blood and scales on my shirt. “Whatever you say.”


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