People warned her, but she didn’t want to be warned. She wanted to be fertilized — coated with warm jelly and kept close. Some laughed at her love’s feet, but the skin stretching between his toes didn’t repulse her. Together they lay on his island’s tiny beach, at the foot of the old lighthouse. He held one foot up to the sky. For her and her alone, he spread his toes against the sun, and she read the capillaries like an illuminated roadmap of her life. He asked her to be his wife. She agreed.
Her friends left for college and jobs. Not even her mother came to the ceremony, nor her sister, put off by the smell of kelp and salt.
On their wedding night, her love infused a pint of his own blood into her veins; enough to make her human ovaries release a thousand eggs at once. She gasped at the rush of unfamiliar feelings, her mouth a frantic, sucking ‘O.’ She was dizzy with panic and he had to hold her down to keep her from flinging herself into the sea.
I’m sorry, he said.
He hadn’t known the instinct would be so strong. He deadlocked the door at the top of the lighthouse stairs and pulled her back to the bed again and again as she clawed at the crack where the door fit the jamb. He replaced instinct with instinct, and they made love until the need for saltwater in her lungs had faded enough that she could control it.
A bare month later, the cramps came like a miscarriage. Her love was tinkering with the old clockwork pivot when she called to him. It’s time.
She laid the eggs in a rockpool near the lighthouse so they could watch over them. She squatted, and he steadied her with an arm around her waist, breathing encouragement into her ear until it was done. Then he took her in his arms and said, they’re fragile when they’re young, these half-humans. I must tell you now, they will not all survive.
She knew that. She must have known that. Still; she stroked the warm, gelatinous pile of life and wailed for the deaths to come. She protected them with sun-umbrellas and tarpaulins for two weeks until they hatched. Not all could breathe water; they died swiftly. Many would fall prey to fish. But the survivors would return in spring, so when the last of them had wriggled off into the summer sea and scattered, her love unrolled his blueprints. The nurseries twisted like giant nautili. He said it was to make the children more at home, but she did think it was as much for him.
When building started on the nurseries, some mainlanders complained that the modern design clashed with the landscape; it would ruin the tourist trade. In the end, all objections were dropped and they were left alone. Money lubricates. The workmen brought them amusing rumors from the mainland. People were saying it was a B and B, a research laboratory, or, best of all, a commune for retired dot-com computer-geek hippies. Her love always encouraged everyone to believe he earned his money on the web. In truth, he took what they needed from the ocean floor. Lifetimes ago, when the lighthouse was still in use, many ships smashed on the rocks despite the lighthouse keepers’ efforts.
In January they traveled to the mainland to order cribs and diapers. When she bought a book of baby names, her love kissed her forehead and the woman at the check-out said congratulations, when is it due?
Spring, they said.
After the highest spring tide, the watch began in earnest. They haunted the beach until finally, toward the end of April, the babies arrived. Dozens of them, so big! They were as clumsy on land as they were quick in water. Some had dark hair, some light hair, sea-colored hair, no hair. Every family trait in his ancestry and hers cropped up at least once. With shocking ease they adjusted to diapers and carrots and peas and after two weeks she tossed the book because the forty-seven babies named themselves, by action and temperament. She tried not to think of autumn, when they would toddle back down the beach and swim south for the winter. She tried not to know that there would be a few more missing every spring.
On each anniversary, her love gave her another pint of his blood. At the end of each April, the survivors of all ages returned. The little ones played with the hatchlings. The bigger ones, she taught―sums, reading, geography; everything they would hold still for. She told the mainlanders they were running a summer camp for underprivileged children. They bought enough food for an army and paid well; this kept the questions away.
Now is her fiftieth year as a mother. Her eggs are long gone. The shell-shaped nurseries are empty. They got quite crowded until the eldest children began to spawn. The long summer visits got shorter and fewer as visits do when children grow up. Their own children they raise in the sea. Every spring, though, they come by the hundreds to spawn. One shouldn’t have favorites, but she does and they always stop, with their shy mates, for a chat. Others lay in the night and go. As she shoos gulls away from the squirming rockpools, some sigh. Oh, Mama. You can’t save them all. You worry too much.
They all call her Mama.
One of her granddaughters is singing to her from the beach. She goes down to her. Granddaughter holds a yearling.
Look, Mama! A ghost of a fin! Granddaughter points to a row of spiny protrusions above his naked tail-bone, her face shining like a lighthouse beacon.
She is happy for her granddaughter and wishes she could remember her name. She has 5000 offspring, and her memory is not what it used to be.
Her love comes down too. He is such a proud Papa. He takes his great-grandson and admires the tiny fin. The infant squirms to return to the water.
Come for a swim, Papa! Granddaughter says.
Her love looks at her.
Yes! Yes, you must go for a swim and visit them. Visit them all, and tell them to visit me. I miss them.
Most of the time her love stays with her. He chose his mate and life willingly. They both did. He watches her hair turn grey, she watches the webbing between his toes grow wrinkled. They are happy on their little island, with the lighthouse and the empty shell nurseries. In time she saw that he built them for her, not himself, not the babies. They can crumble. The rockpools are all her children need now.
SUSAN KAEMPFER lives in Switzerland with her beautifully lunatic husband and three nutty children. You can find her work at Café Irreal, Echo Ink Review, and a few other places around the web.