I have heard the humans say that sex is the most intimate act of which they are capable, and though I did not say so to their faces, I felt great sorrow for them.
Demendrenna’s tail twines twice around my torso, above and below the point where my scales phase into mottled skin. She is lustrous brown to my orange-white; her fronds sway among the sharp lines of my body armour. A good contrast, I have been told, by other hippocampi who watch us floating in the open water above Sea-Mount with a sting of envy.
“Ysellin spoke of you when she and I were twined last week,” Demendrenna says into the shell of my ear. Her arms hold me close. The skin of her stomach is hot against my back, flattening my dorsal fin. “She would have you bear her children, given the chance.”
“Ysellin is a flirt.”
“But a shy one.” Her fingers find the line between skin and scales. I am not embarrassed by the way my body arches in her grip. “She would not have mentioned your name if she were not serious, Tevulian.”
Demendrenna says my name in a breathless imitation of Ysellin—thrilling precisely in its proximity to mockery. My pulse quickens. I know she can feel it.
“Regardless,” I say. “I will bear no brood but yours.”
“I know,” Demendrenna whispers. The fine scales of her snout brush against my bare shoulder. “And you will bear it now.”
It sounds like a demand, but there’s a question in the way she angles herself against me: tentative and wanting, waiting for me to twist in her embrace and expose myself. Unyielding in her words; gentle in her actions.
I don’t keep her waiting.
Now we have sex.
It's a brief, mechanical affair. She aligns her ovipositor; I open my brood pouch. Her eggs pass into me and settle inside. The sensation is one of heaviness, not unpleasant but unusual. Then we are done.
See now my sorrow at the humans and their ways! How could two minutes of sex compare to what led up to it? We have had children twice before and twined dozens of times. Days, weeks, of courtship; long hours spent touching and tasting and learning. Sex is brief. True intimacy is languorous. It is the way Demendrenna’s gills flare when I brush my fingers along them. It is the knowledge that she lets no one else touch her there.
I do not need to think about the choice to become a father again because I have been doing all my thinking piecemeal, in every moment I spend with her.
This is what it means to be intimate.
And then the storm.
When the insensate currents finally calm, I am alone in foreign waters, still tangled in the kelp where I had intended to give birth. My eggs are heavy; the uprooted end of the kelp tickles my stomach. The sea here is cold and dense, murky with the storm. I do not panic.
Home is warmth. I follow the slightest gradients in temperature like a fish swimming upstream. My body rebuffs the chill, but I can feel the pain settling in my abdomen. The cold will kill my children before long. The muscles at the base of my fins ache with effort. I should be ensconced, languid, doted on by Demendrenna. I imagine us watching our newborn children disappear into the wilds at the base of Sea-Mount, to return as people or not at all.
The temperature rises. My eggs are out of danger. But thoughts of home distract me from the truth of my surroundings: the seascape is unfamiliar. There is no mount rising from the seabed, no forest clinging to its sides. Instead the water shallows. My tail beats against stone. I break the surface in a rush of disbelief. I am practically ashore. White land-trees rise in the darkness; in front of them, a human structure braces itself against the wind, lit by the strange flickering beast humans call fire.
I am in a natural pool carved out of the rocky shore, large enough to hold me comfortably submerged but no larger. The cold water of the sea mixes with hot water coming in from land. This at least is familiar; Sea-Mount is dotted all over with such sources of heat.
There is a human standing by the edge of the pool, staring at me.
He is taller and broader than most humans I have met. His chest is heavily furred; whether this is normal I do not know, because he is the first human I have seen naked. He has a white cloth slung over one shoulder. His skin steams.
“You’re one of them,” he says at length. His voice is heavy, the words falling from his mouth to tangle in his beard. It makes him difficult to understand. “The seahorse people.”
“Hippocampi,” I respond automatically.
“Unnatural. Human mouth, seahorse snout.” He grunts. “What’s that for?”
My dorsal fin ripples indignation where he cannot see. “It’s unnatural,” I say primly. “Human everything. How do you smell anything with that ridiculous nose?”
“It was not, you were the one who—”
“No, no.” He waves one meaty hand. His fingers are twice as thick as mine. “I meant me.”
“What do you eat? Fish?” He says this suddenly, eyes bright. Too much energy for a casual question. I wonder when he last spoke with someone else.
“Sometimes. Or seaweed.”
He nods, several times, each time with less vigour. Then he turns and disappears inside. Ten minutes later he returns, clothed, with a bowl full of dark green seaweed. I eat cautiously, then ravenously. It’s less salty, out of the sea, and seasoned with some human spice; but the texture is right, crunchy-wet like gravel giving way.
“My name is Tevulian,” I say once I am done. I am not yet sure what to make of this man, but his hospitality deserves a measure of civility.
“Yes,” the man says, and frowns. “You eat more than I expected.”
“Being caught in a storm is tiring work!”
“Ah. The storm.” He nods. “Leaving soon?”
“I—cannot.” I hesitate. What truth to share? But he will know the moment he sees my belly. “I am pregnant. The water is cold here. I was lucky my eggs survived the journey once.”
“Pregnant? I took you for a man.”
“I am a man. Why? Do human men not bear children?”
“Rarely.” The man blushes. “But it was a bad assumption.”
“It is almost always men with us.”
I’m not sure why I share this fact, but I can see I was right to do so. He relaxes. His eyes focus on a point beyond the ring of firelight.
“Pregnant,” he repeats. And then, “Yes,” as if I had asked; “You can stay. I will help you.”
The man never offers his name.
He brings me food when I ask for it. Sometimes he sits by the pool and gazes out to sea until his cheeks turn pink in the wind, but when I ask, he claims he has nothing on his mind. When he speaks, he speaks slowly.
He is like no one I have ever met.
I am used to pregnancy, but I am also used to the comforts of Sea-Mount and the possessive attentions of my lover. Hippocampi would have gathered at my spot in the brood-kelp, marvelling at the glow of my scales, bringing morsels of food Demendrenna would not have let them feed me. It would have been easy and glorious, like everything we did. In the past I have envied humans, but now I am glad hippocampi do not carry their eggs as long as humans do. Weeks in a stone pool on a frozen beach would be uncomfortable at the best of times.
I resolve to bear this discomfort in silence. A day later the pain settles in a band around my hips. I resolve to ask for help if it gets worse. My host is awkward but gracious. He would want me to ask.
When he brings me dinner the next day I say, “I need your help.”
He blinks slowly at me. “How?”
“I am in pain. My abdomen. Usually Demen—my partner would wrap herself around me to ease the pressure.” I pause. This next part is delicate. “I think you could do the same.”
His eyebrows converge on his nose. “I have a wife!”
“You do?” I had been so sure he lived alone. When he makes no further audible response, I add, “It is not as if I am asking you to have sex with me,” and he emits a strangled sort of noise.
“It’s not about sex.”
And here I had been trying to put it in terms he would understand. The pain puts a snap in my voice. “What is it about?”
“Intimacy! I will not put my arms around another.” His gaze finds my hands, clasped atop my stomach. “Your people do not understand this?”
I want to tell him that it is the opposite, that I had not expected a human to understand, but he is still agitated beneath his clothing, and I judge it better to remain silent.
“I apologise,” I say stiffly. And then, because it is not my fault, I add, “You have not mentioned your wife before. Nor have I seen her. I did not know.”
The man hunches forward, as if avoiding the wind, except I have seen him face the wind for hours without flinching.
“Had a wife,” he admits. “Decades ago. She died in childbirth.”
“That’s preposterous. Childbirth is easy.”
His body stiffens. For the first time, I consider the threat his size could pose; but the expression on his face isn’t angry. It isn’t even hurt. He does not comprehend why I have said this, and for once I think the fault is with me and not with his long isolation.
Perhaps childbirth is a spinier subject among humans.
I do not think he has children.
“I’m sorry,” I offer.
He says nothing more.
The man speaks to me only once more, the day I give birth.
I feel the first egg hatching early in the morning. It is like being tickled from the inside. By lunchtime only a few stragglers remain in their eggs. I urge them on, eager to open my brood-pouch, release them into life and myself from this ordeal.
The man sits and watches like he has not done since before I asked for his help. Among the hippocampi it would not be strange to come and watch a friend give birth, but I suspect humans think differently. When the first hatchling wriggles free of my body, he averts his gaze and blushes. I wonder if this means he no longer holds my words against me.
“How long until you leave?” His words are once again caked in a sediment of silence, as they had been the day I arrived. “Until they can travel?”
“I will leave after dinner.”
“The cold isn’t dangerous for them?”
“Probably it is.”
“I do not understand.”
I slap my tail in exasperation. In the past I have delighted in swapping tales with humans, basked frivolously in the mutual absurdity of our respective ways of life.
This interrogation does not feel frivolous.
“I have carried them,” I say stiffly. “Given birth to them. I will return home, and in time a few of them will find me there and learn to be hippocampi.”
“And the rest?”
“Monstrous,” he says, like he’s commenting on the weather.
My fin-spines splay into their aggressive postures. Deliberately, I cross the line that made him leave me alone the first time. “You would rather I died along with them?”
His hands claw at the air like he is trying to reshape the world. “That is how it happens sometimes,” he says. “For humans.”
“This is how it happens sometimes,” I retort, “for hippocampi.”
I do not think he will be bringing me any more food. There is no reason to delay. I leave immediately, bracing myself for the shock of the cold seawater, and when I turn to look back, a hundred yards out, I cannot make him out against the dark rocks of the shore.
It takes me a little more than a day to reach Sea-Mount.
The man and his solitude lie only a short distance outside the area we hippocampi call our own. Had I chanced on a different current in the storm, I might have found my way home, and everything would have gone as it was meant to. Instead I return to Demendrenna twining with someone I do not recognise. This would not be so unusual, but her throat is bared. The other woman’s fingers trace the edges of Demendrenna’s gills.
Those same gills flare briefly in agitation when I approach her later and tell her what happened to her last clutch of eggs.
“It is a shame,” she says. “We would have been the pride of the Sea-Mount. When did a pair last produce three clutches?”
I am not sure how to respond. I fantasised about that, too, in the throes of my discomfort. I longed to be the shining pair of the Sea-Mount once more.
Now my scales have lost part of that shine. Some have sloughed off where I could not avoid contact with the hard stone of the pool. The fresh ones beneath look unformed and out of place. I am not like Demendrenna, who grows weary of my silence; who smiles blithely and exits the scene with an ease I no longer possess.
The life of a hippocampus is seldom hard, but like an otter that pricks itself on the spines of urchins it has spent its whole existence eating without injury, doubt suddenly factors into mine.
When my children return, I don’t immediately realise that is what they are. Ten youngsters on the verge of society, in from the northern wilds; but we hippocampi bear many young. The survivors often band together. I think nothing of them, these odd flitting shapes of youth, even when the gossip spreads that there is something stranger than usual about them.
“They keep together,” Ysellin says to me one day, foraging among kelp-bases for urchins and starfish.
“So I am told,” I reply. The matter of the children is still vague in my mind; presently I suspect that she is using them as a pretext to speak with me. Her last lover, I have heard, chose not to bear her clutch. I find myself more amenable to her advances than I had been. “Have you seen them yourself?”
“Yes. I was braiding kelp near the surface. There are ten of them, all of an age, scarcely one scale out of place between them. They keep to the shores.”
“Many of us once preferred shallower water.”
“This is something new. They say a human has come with them. He has brought a boat and set traps for crabs. They say he is building a house, on the rocks above the plunge. They say the youngsters help him.”
Belatedly I understand that this is not flirtation. Ysellin’s fins are not flushed erect. Her voice is not coy.
She is anxious.
“Who?” I demand. “Who says this?”
Ysellin shrugs one lovely shoulder. For a moment her beauty has me in its grip; even now the easy pleasure of our people nearly wins out. Then I think of ten identical young hippocampi, scales shining with the hot-cold water of the foreign shore where I birthed them. Attraction unclouds my thinking like settling silt. Ysellin watches me go, and I think she is glad it is me and not her rising to meet the something new.
The highest peak of Sea-Mount rises far enough above the water to be called an island, and it is here, on a flat shelf of rock above a deep, sheltered pool, that the man is building his house. The frame is already up: wooden beams he must have taken from his boat, held together in a way I don’t understand. Hippocampi do not build.
I keep my head below the surface. It is a bright day; the reflection off the water keeps me hidden. Currently, the man is constructing something at the water’s edge. The lower end descends below the surface. I drift closer.
The voice startles me. It wouldn’t have were my scales still unmarred. The speaker emerges from a patch of seaweed: young, fidgety, and, yes, distinctly the product of my union with Demendrenna. “You are in my way,” she says, and there is difference here too. Her voice is clipped like a human’s. Impatient. Hippocampi are not impatient. We are rarely so committed to a goal.
My daughter pushes past me. There is a crab trap wedged in the uneven seabed, which I might have noticed had I not been so intent on the man and his construction, and she frees it of its bounty. Then she is gone, fins working, and moments later I understand the purpose of the man’s contraption when she hoists herself up its rungs and deposits the crabs at his feet.
I feel myself puffing up with indignation. Without heed to the wisdom of my actions, I break the surface and call out, “You! What have you done to my children?”
My daughter says, “Father?” I have a moment of triumph before the man says something to her, too quiet to hear, and I realise she is talking to him. She gives me one more puzzled look and dives beneath the waves again.
“I have looked after them,” the man says once we are alone. “Since you would not. Since they were alone. Like me.”
“You have made them your servants!”
“I have taught them what I know of the sea. If that is what you mean.”
“Hippocampi do not build houses and set traps! We do not need to work the sea as humans do! You have done them no favours.”
“I have brought them here. To learn from you.”
I cannot see how to make him understand. Ysellin’s anxiety will spread once everyone learns what has happened. There is too much doubt. I do not know how to handle doubt.
“They would have died,” he says softly.
My spines wilt. I know he is right. I would have mourned, in the detached way any hippocampus mourned, and then I would have moved on. I would have found someone to replace Demendrenna. We would have courted among the kelp. The sun would have danced on the water’s surface. It is our way.
But now I have met one of my new children as a person. I have seen the curiosity on her face and the strange way she holds her arms, like they were distinct from her tail and fins.
Her death would have been a light sorrow, but I cannot regret she is alive.
This, too, is our way.
Her name is Aster, and she returns my curiosity with none of my uncertainty. To her, I am the stranger who comes to watch her work every day; to me, she is the subject of ever-louder whispers among the other hippocampi, of side-long glances that begin to catch me in their wake. I do not know what will come of it. I am the best of my people at accepting newness, and I am struggling.
“Besk says that you’re my father too,” she says one day, and this is how I suddenly come to know the man’s name. “He says that I was born twice, and that you took care of me the first time like he did the second time. Is that true?”
“He—Besk said that?”
“Yes. After the first time you came. Hold this?”
I take the thing she offers me without thinking: a human tool I do not recognise, with which she has been joining two lengths of wood. The structure by the water’s edge has grown by the day, spreading across and into the water like a bloom of algae. There are places now for a human to sit chest-deep in the ocean, and weighted ropes already slimed over with seaweed to mimic the kelp forest that does not grow so close to shore. It is a thing that could only exist at the juncture between human and hippocampus.
And so is Besk’s explanation. I wonder how he came by it. We mark the distinction between thoughtless childhood and personhood, true, but we do not think of it as a second birth; and certainly I have never heard of such a thing in humans.
But Besk is an odd man. Perhaps it is not so strange a thing for him to say.
“Well?” Aster asks.
“Oh. Yes? That’s ... true.”
She nods, firmly, as if validating the fact despite my uncertainty. Then she extricates herself from her woodwork, turns to face me, and pulls me into an embrace. Her hands on my back-scales are rough from frequent exposure to the air. She does not touch me with her tail. After a moment, I reciprocate.
“Thank you,” she says once she has let go. “For looking after me. And my siblings. I think dinner is almost ready. Would you like to join us?”
The speed with which she shifts topics undermines my doubts. I do not wonder what the others will say; I simply say yes, and she smiles and leads me up through the tiers of her home, to the surface, where humans and hippocampi can lounge together in comfort, and I finally realise what it is Besk has built: a purposeful version of the pool by the shore where he’d spent long hours in mostly-silent conversation with me.
The food is more varied, the youngsters more talkative. Even the water is different, warm like old age.
Besk clears his throat. He looks at home in the water. “Tevulian,” he says, and it is the first time he has spoken my name. “Tevulian, I should not have left you in pain. I would like to apologise.”
His arms encircle my abdomen, flat now for many months, and squeeze gently. His hands are rougher even than Aster’s, not at all like the algae-slick skin of a hippocampus; but for all that my body stiffens slightly in his embrace, it does not feel wrong.
“You asked for help. I should have given it. My pain was in the past. Yours was now.”
His gaze slides off me, bashful and darting like he so often is. Why do I feel so comfortable in his presence? I shouldn’t. He is new.
But I am a hippocampus, and it is not our way to second-guess ourselves.
“My pain is past now, too,” I say, and then I curl my tail around his foot and learn that when he is surprised, the noise he makes is unusually high-pitched for a man his size. “Thank you, nonetheless.”
“You have soothed my pain. Also.”
I take in the things he has made, the lonely decades of life he has uprooted, the things he—we—are still inventing here, and I do not think these are actions humans take often.
I say, “What is the most intimate thing humans are capable of?”
Besk does not find the question odd. He turns his gaze towards the sky, ruminating.
“Ask a dozen people,” he says at last, “hear two dozen answers.”
I take the time to think on this, because Besk is a person who knows the value of silence and thought. The conclusion is inescapable. I was wrong to pity humans. We hippocampi have perfected the art of intimacy: ritualised it, formalised it, twined our bodies in it. Humans have done something else. They have made as many forms of intimacy as there are people wishing to be intimate.
Which is better, I wonder, and then stop; and then watch instead as our children twine together on the fake-kelp in preparation for the night.