The Choice

My inspiration this week is the above print titled, Strength, by Meredith Dillman. (I have to admit to falling in love with this print and promptly purchased an 8×10 from her shop online. Here.) I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing, The Choice.

The storm raged all day and into the night tossing the cargo-laden ship, Timandra, like a child’s toy in a tub. Slammed by waves and ravaging high winds, it battled to stay upright, teetering on each undulating wave.

Below deck were barrels of rice, whiskey, gunpowder, crates of coffee beans and bananas. And one stowaway. The cargo slid back and forth, from port to starboard with each crest and dip over giant waves. Just when the stowaway thought she had the timing down between each wave to be able to cross the floor, the cargo switched paths, going front to back, bow to stern.

Alanna Rathbourn threw a banana peeling into a crate as it slid by. She tucked an escaped long curl back up under the newsboy hat and waited. The pitching subsided for a moment and she quickly made for the stairs leading up to the deck.

The captain and crew were sure to have their hands full and not pay much attention to a single lad making his way back to a cabin. Surely, a coin or two could be found while all were occupied, she thought. Perhaps some leftover food. Or even some gloves, she thought blowing into her hands.

She hitched up the stolen pants and slipped the knapsack over her head, letting it fall crosswise against her body. It held one simple dress, her fathers’s letter opener, and a locket with the image of her mother. It was all she had dared to take the time to pack before the ship sailed. She added three bananas.

The bow rose skyward and she fell backwards to the floor. Then as suddenly, dipped forward. A barrel charged, heading right toward her, and she dove out of the way just in time to watch it slam into the bottom step spilling the contents everywhere. She got up, flicking off rice and tried again. This time she didn’t hesitate, bracing her legs, she climbed the steps and reaching the door, she heaved it open enough to slip through before the ship rocked again.

Forms blurred as the wind whipped rain and waves crashed on the deck. She tugged down hard on her cap, thankful it was made for a boy. Men scrambled to carry out shouted orders partially drowned out from the roar. The salty water made her eyes burn and the force of it thrust up her nose and down her throat, choking her.

The ship rolled sharply to port side, laying over a precariously too long. She quickly grabbed the nearest mast as she heard cries of men falling over board. Buckets flew through the air and ropes snapped midair like thrashing snakes as the dreadful crack she feared of hearing, resounded loud and sharp. It could easily have been been just a clap of thunder, she thought, hoped. Except that the thick pole her body clung to snapped in half high above her head and the three rolled sails were tumbling down toward the deck … and her.

~~~

Alanna awoke coughing and gagging from the acrid taste of gunpowder mixed with blood. The water’s surface had a thin sheet of the powdery stuff along with coffee beans and white rice. The broken barrels bobbed, along with planks of wood, a candle, a chamber pot, and other debris.

Groaning, she found she was draped over the wooden mast, half in half out of the water. Her head throbbed something awful. She lifted up and squinted at the bright rays bouncing off the water, then gingerly touched the huge bump on the side of her head. Encrusted blood trailed from her matted hair to her mouth. She twisted and looked all around. There was no sign of the ship nor sailors. She was all alone. In the middle of the ocean. She had a moment of panic and felt for her bag. It was still around her.

“So, this is my penance …” Her whisper drifted. She wondered how long she had been out, then glanced among the debris for anything salvageable. There wasn’t anything of importance, like a water canteen, or something wider than the thick wooden pole she was on to use as a raft. No rope, sails. Nothing. She watched the sun set in the horizon until it met the water. Her eyelids were bricks, and only until she could hold them open no longer, did she give in to the bliss of unconsciousness.

~~~

She was a little girl again standing on the sandy beach at the edge of the water. The frothy waves rolled gently to her bare feet. Her mother sat on a blanket holding her new baby brother and dad was throwing a stick to Samson, their dog. She heard a strange musical sound out to sea and as if an invisible string were attached, she walked, immune to the chill, until the water almost reached her waist.

“Alanna, that’s too far,” Her mother said, “Come back …”

~

Now, she was a little older. A younger boy was playfully chasing her. Sand flew out from under barefeet as they ran, laughing. Her strawberry blonde hair flew out behind her like a curtain in a breeze. He tagged her on the back.

“You’re it,” he said. They both stopped, bent over at the waist to catch their breath.

She looked out to sea and saw something. She heard the beautiful song again, felt the water draw her and absently walked toward the ocean. Then she saw it. Far into the distance was the flip of a fin, it was at the end of a long serpent-like tail. It was like the one in her dreams …

“Tag you’re it, Alanna,” her brother yelled again. “Coming,” she said over her shoulder and the spell was broken. She turned and splashed her brother, laughing at his squeal from the cool wetness.

~~~

The high sun bore down relentlessly. Her mouth was beyond dry, her lips flaked and split. She sat up and searched the horizons. Still nothing.

Wait … What was that …

There … a figure sitting atop something round. An arm went up and down as if hammering something. The figure stopped and looked at her.

“Papa?” She shouted and waved. He waved back. She jumped into the water and guiding the large wooden pole, kicked hard with renewed energy.

She reached the object, but there was no Papa. It was just a barrel, sloshing with liquid inside. Whiskey. Well … liquid was liquid. She thought of the letter opener and got it out of her bag. She hammered away, stabbing it over and over until she was spent, but it barely made a dent in the wood. She tried to pry up the metal band. The opener bent. She pushed the barrel away with a foot and watched it until no longer in sight. She saw small fish beneath her, so tried to stab one with the opener. She might as well been trying to walk on water.

She contented herself with a banana and futilely paddled with one foot. She would’ve cried again, if she had any tears left. Instead, stomach full, she laid down on the broken mast and watched the second sunset …

~~~

She was older still, running scared in a dirty nightgown and crying for help into the night.

She had begged to stay up late, reading in bed. “Move the candle away from the drapery and be sure to blow out the light, Alanna.” Her mother reminded her.

The fire was huge, engulfing the house. She ran to the water’s edge and screamed and screamed until hoarse and numb, hugging herself. She sat in the shallow water rocking back and forth, until the sunrise pierced her eyes.

She kept hearing their ghostly voices over and over; her father’s steady tone, her mother’s beautiful humming, her brother’s giggle … her father’s deep laugh, her mother’s gentle instructions, her brother’s whine …

She clasp hands over her ears and got up, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up!” she cried.

Suddenly, she heard the song, just a whisper of yearning, across the water and turned, remembering. It calmed her. The tune was sad and compelling. She walked into the water. Have to find the source, was her only thought. No one left to warn her away from the depths. She felt the wet coolness to her neck, above her mouth, then over her nose, and closing her eyes, let it ease her heartache as she her hair floated, the was gone.

Underwater, she heard something strange— a muted howl or moan—and her eyes popped open, burning. Something large was swimming to her. Fast. She felt the current move her body and still holding her breath, she waited. It was her creature, huge and beautiful moving gracefully through the water. As it swam closer, she saw half animal, half serpent; the face of a wolf and a thick tail like that of a dragon or serpent. It had a body and long full mane like a lion, paws the size of a her mother’s wide-brimmed garden hat. Underneath, it was covered with scales down to the end of the tail, diaphanous fins waved back and forth.

It brushed her legs, the the touch feather-lite. She watched it, and it her, as it swam in circles around her. She was mesmerized. The long tail wrapped gently around her body. It tightened a little and began pulling her back toward shore. She shook her head, and struggled to get away. The creature was trying to save her. But, she didn’t want to be saved. The pressure built in her head, behind her eyes to a palpable hum, her lungs about to burst. She opened her mouth in a soundless scream.

Then all went black.

~~~

Alanna woke with a jerk and promptly fell with a splash. It was dark yet again. She came up gasping and sputtering, sucking air through her teeth as the cool water stung her cracked skin and abrasions.

She lost the wooden pole, her life raft, and frantically patted at the surface like a blind beggar for it. She bumped it, and grabbed it to her in relief. She held it in place, then heaved herself up on her stomach.

She had all the time in the world to reflect on her dreams, remembering a lifetime ago full of innocence and security. She’d done things since the fire—things she wasn’t proud of just to survive—and she was ashamed. Her life was a mess, but felt more at peace here, stranded in the middle of the ocean, than she ever had on land.

The night was calm and strangely comforting in it’s shades of black. The water met the horizon; a buoyant tarry liquid meeting an ebony velvet blanket pinpricked with trillions of twinkling dots. The stars looked close enough to touch, and she reached up. The moon was low, barely more than a crescent, shimmering dimly across the quiet water. The black immenseness made her feel dispossessed, as if she were the only person on the planet.

“Certainly, a fish out of water,” she said aloud, laughing weakly at her own joke.

She lifted a leg out of the water and swung it over the width of the wood. Hugging the length with her body, she let her feet —where had her boots gone?—and hands dangle in the water. Then she heard the song. Was it in her mind? Or real? She listened to the melancholy tune, well into the night before drifting off to sleep.

~~~

Another day, another night, and the sun peeked above the waterline yet again. She moaned, dreading the heat, the day. How long can a person can go without water? Three days? Four?

“Why can’t I just die already?” She said, sitting up. Her breastbone ached from sleeping on the hard wood every night. “Please, God, let it be today just … slip away and not wake up.”

Her voice was hoarse, her mouth raw, like she had munched on hot sand. Her lips so dry they stuck together. She scooped a handful of ocean water, grimacing at the intense sting, and swished back and forth in her mouth before spitting it out. So very thirsty. She was tempted to cup more and swallow. She gently touched a sunburned arm and flinched, cursing the missing sleeve. The tender skin on each side of her face and neck was blistered as well as the tops of her feet. She fished the last banana from her bag. It had turned black, but she savored it and rubbed it soothingly over her lips before swallowing. Then she scraped at the inside of the peel and rubbed it over her face and neck. It felt heavenly.

She stared without blinking.

The water beckoned. Just do it.

She couldn’t. Not yet. Was this day three or four? She’d lost track.

“It’s today. It is always just today.” She said, then giggled. How many more todays would there be? She’d dreamt of her serpent. He’d come to her and asked if she was ready. Yes! She had replied.

Reality came and went. It mixed with dreams and conversations until she didn’t know which was which. She talked aloud to her mother and laughed with her brother. Her dad tickled her. She sang to her serpent. She mumbled a market list to herself, fought with the owner at her job, whispered apologies, and crooned to the fish.

“Here fishy-fishies.” She said, dangling the peeling over the water. “Today is my trial. You are judge and jury.” She tossed it in to the water and continued the litany. She held up a finger with each guilty act spouted, “… burned my house down … killed my family … and I—I even—sold myself for money. To eat. To live. And not just once this year, mind you.

“And—drum roll please—” she said, insanely louder. She tossed the peel and pounded the log fast with her hands. “I committed murder last week.” She giggled sharply, then hushed and put a finger to her mouth. “Shhhh. Don’t tell. I can never go home. I, Alanna Rathbourn, heiress to the —unbeknownst at the time, a very bankrupt Rathbourn estates–am an arsonist, a whore, a thief, a freeloader and—a murderer.

“So what if he—that putrid ogre, whose advances I wanted nothing to do with—attacked me from the shadows after work– after a backbreaking shift at the pub?

“Why yes, he did, glad you asked.” She spoke fast, rambled conversations to the floating peel and small fish swimming beneath her. “I was held at knife point and yes, defended myself. I kneed him in the groin and wrestled the knife. He went to his knees in pain. He grabbed me and fell on top of me and —I did it. I stabbed him. Right in the gut. I left him for dead in that dark alley. Hated that stupid alley. I’d have to pass there every night and I couldn’t do that, don’t you see?” She turned her to the fish, “What? No. No, I did not go for help. Yes, that was me, too, stealing some poor boys clothes hanging out to dry.” Then back to the banana peel. “Yep, did that, also. Snuck aboard the ship without paying.”

The mad tirade left her exhausted, shivering uncontrollably. “So … what say you … judge and jury?” She whispered, dizzily wavering on the pole. Her strength was gone. Her food was gone. Her mind was–

“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” she sing-songed.

Silence answered her, but she wasn’t fooled, she heard the murmurs beyond the silence. They said,“Off with her head.”

She loved that book as a child.

She nodded. “I expected nothing less,” The last of her strength flowed from her body. It was if watching the tide ebb when she was little.

She was done. She would finish this now. No more todays. She slipped off the pole, not caring to watch as it floated away.

Suddenly, a second second later, she gasped. A punch of adrenaline surged through her veins and sped up her heart. Something was below. Something large. It shoved her feet. She brought knees to her chest and looked down, treading water back and forth with her arms. She searched for the pole. How was it already out of sight?

A single large fin was sticking up out of the water.

She watched it circle her. How stupid could she have been? She could’ve drowned herself days ago, going peacefully and without much pain, but no, she hung on deciding her crappy life was worth going mad over. Let’s have fun by hallucinating and acting out while we wither away! Now, she would be eaten alive by a shark—and feel every damn bite.

Brilliant, Alanna.

She watched it swim away. But then turn and swim back toward her. Beyond exhaustion, she closed her eyes and prepared to meet her fate.

But just then, the water gushed up forcing her eye back open. It was here. Her serpent! It sprang up from the water; huge and foreboding. The tail alone looked at least ten feet long, whipping this way and that. It growled and roared ferociously before pouncing on the shark, biting and tearing and clawing. The two beasts thrashed over and over in the water. The serpent-like tail wrapped around the sharks head and mouth, squeezing, as claws held the head to bite at the eyes. The shark’s mighty tail hit air, striking one last time, then floated downward. The animal serpent looked at her, snout and teeth dripping blood, eyes bright with bloodlust, then turned away and dove out of sight back into the depths.

She waited. Surely he would come back. Save her! But, he didn’t return. She was alone again. The red water reached her and her thin arms moved slowly, swooshing forward and back. It was the only sound in the aftermath. The treading lessened and lessened, and she found it hard to draw a breath as the last rush of the adrenaline was spent.

She stopped treading altogether, unable to raise arms anymore. She felt herself slipping, falling.

She was swinging higher and higher under the oak tree, laughing.

She closed her eyes and drifted down into the darkness of the sea, sinking lower and lower.

Paws grabbed her just before oblivion did.

~~~

Alanna woke to dripping water echoing all around her. And to that song, faint and luring.

The second thing she noted was, she didn’t hurt. She felt—great, actually—and touched her lips. They were soft and supple. The third thing worth notice; she wore a beautiful long white gown, and her mother’s locket rested around her neck. And the fourth thing; she was out of the water.

But then, where was she? Was this heaven? The ground solid, but not land. It was a floor with millions of different shells, iridescent mother of pearl, and fossils, all melded together. She ran her hand over the array of color. It was smooth and cool like marble. Brilliant turquoise water glistened all around the island of shells. The walls, moist and craggy, were imbedded with jewels and coins. It was breathtaking.

The next thing she noticed was—no exit.

Her serpent rose out of the water, startling her. He shook his mane fiercely, droplets of water sprayed everywhere. Then he rested dark eyes on her.

“You’re awake.” His voice was deep and precise. “Hello, Alanna. I hope you are feeling better.” His warm eyes looked concerned and she lifted a hand to touch his fur. He responded with a near purr, his eyes only slits.

“I don’t know how, but I seem to be healed,” she said. “What is this place? I know you but–who are you—what are you?”

“We’re in the royal den cave. In my realm. My name is Leodolfo, King of this MerWorld. I am part serpent, part lion, part wolf. But, in my royal line, I am considered a MerLion.”

“You mean as in a Mermaid, MerLion?”

“Yes,” He laughed. “You would not have survived much longer in your world, had I not brought you here. Even so, I—was afraid you would not live through the trip. Even the healthiest of humans have not survived the fathoms to reach our depth. That you did survive, in your weakened state, proved to me what I suspected all along. That you would be fit to be by my side—that is if you choose to.”

She looked at him with apprehension. “I—I don’t understand. By your side?”

“Do you know what your name means, Alanna?” At the shake of her head, he continued, “It means Song of the Lioness.”

“A song. I’ve heard a song by the ocean all my life—and you.”

“Yes, I watched over you, allowed the song to find you. You were destined to be here. And I’m sorry, but once here, you can never go back to your land.”

“I have nothing left to go back for.” She whispered to her hands, then frowned. “But, how would I live in your world? I can’t even swim.”

“MerWorld is a beautiful, magical place, Alanna. The longer you are here, the more you will adapt. Change. Within time, your old life will no longer be a memory. The quicker you forget, the faster you will change and— grow your fins.”

She gasped. “What are you saying?”

“You have already adapted some, Alanna. You have been here only one day and your wounds are gone. And you can breath water, now, on your own. You will find that your ribs are replaced with gills.” He smiled patiently at the look of terror on her face.

“Come. It is easier to show you.” He held a huge paw out to her.

She touched her side lightly, then tentatively placed her hand in his. He wrapped an arm around her and down they dove. She discovered she didn’t gave to hold her breath and couldn’t resist blowing a water bubble out of her mouth. It was true! She was breathing underwater.

They passed red coral. Yellow, blue and lavender coral. Phosphorescent light shined in the tunnel-like passage, lighting the way. There were thousands of shells, all colors of the rainbow, around every turn.

The tunnel widened to the width of a street with seaweed trees resembling weeping willow. Structures made of rock abounded, like homes, and each surrounded with vibrant sea anemones for landscaped décor.

Finally, they entered an open area, a park—of sorts. Hundreds of Mermaids, Mermen converged, talking and laughing, petting fish and dolphins. There was a waterfall, and a smoothed crevasse creating a hidden slide where MerChildren emerged laughing and splashing into a lagoon. Some looked to be sunbathing in a spotlight of filtered sunlight, as if a hole was punched through the sea floor and rays shone down from above. Clams opened holding a cushion for a chair.

She gaped, looking at Leodolfo. “They’re–mermaids.”

“Yes, they are.” He said, smiling at her awe. He set her down on the chatoyant surface.

“Now, you must choose, Alanna.” He said.

“What do you mean?” she dropped her head with embarrassment. “I can’t go back even if I wanted to. You should know I’ve done things, not—good things.”

“No, that’s not what I meant.” He said. “Of course, you shall stay. I give you the choice of what you will become living here.” He dropped his head, his turn to be uncomfortable. “I give you the choice of becoming one of my court, a Mermaid. Or … My bride and queen. My MerLioness. “

She looked up into his eyes. “Will I be like you?”

He nodded, hoping she did not find him repulsive.

She nodded at her serpent, this MerLion she had known all her life. And the choice was an easy one. She placed her hand in his paw.

“How long before my transformation is complete?” she asked, feeling her gills flutter through the fabric. She smiled wide, ecstatically as happiness radiated from her every pore. She had truly, finally, come home. She lifted the hem of her gown a bit revealing her feet. There were tiny scales on each one and a baby fin behind each heel.

Leodolpho threw his head back, and roared with laughter, holding her close. “At your rate, dear heart? Not long at all.”

The End

By Ronda K Reed

©️ November 2018

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