by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Furry Trash, December 2018
The air turned salty in Arlow’s whiskers as he pedaled his watercycle out of the shade and protection of the thick rainforest trees. He squinted down the river, but he couldn’t see the ocean yet. The river curved around rolling grass knolls and disappeared behind a thicket of coastal brush. Arlow pedaled harder with all four paws and felt the cool water slip even faster around his body, pressing his clothes against his fur.
The spinning turbine at the back of the watercycle and the smaller one at its nose, propelled Arlow forward. Two ski-like buoys kept the entire contraption skimming along at the water’s surface. The river’s current was in his favor, and while otters swim fast, a watercycle is faster.
Arlow was eager to round that bend and, hopefully, catch his first view of the ocean just beyond. His whole life, Arlow had dreamed of leaving his small hometown on the banks of the river and traveling downstream. He’d heard thrilling tales from retired sailors of the ocean. And the beautiful sirens who lived there.
Around the bend, Arlow found another bend and, after that, another. The sun began to set, filling the sky with an amber red glow. When he gritted his teeth in frustration that he’d have to spend another night camping on the riverbank, Arlow realized that — so slowly he hadn’t even noticed — the quiet rhythmic roar of the ocean had crept into his rounded ears.
Arlow redoubled his efforts.
He didn’t make it to the ocean that night, but he did make it to civilization. It had been many days since he set out from his home village on the watercycle, so, although it wasn’t the ocean — the pearl of his desire — he was happy to see an inn by the riverside.
Arlow unstrapped himself from his watercycle and left the tangled contraption of turbine wheels, gears, leather straps, and pedals to dry on the ground in the darkening evening outside. He kept his pack of supplies on his back and went to the front door of the inn. The door was cracked open, so he stepped inside and greeted the pudgy, puff-furred otter lady he found bustling about the small diner-like front room.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, dusting off her frilly apron and sizing up the sleek, young specimen of otterdom before her. “A river boy! We don’t get too many of you down here. My name’s Florentine, and this is my inn.” She had a pleasant matronly nature.
“I’m on my way to the ocean,” Arlow said. “Do you know how close it is?”
The apron-clad woman made her way to a desk at the side of the room near the door Arlow entered by. There was a small bell on the desk and an open registry where patrons of the inn signed for their rooms. “You’re quite close,” she said. “Though, you won’t find a better inn between here and there. We have a room available tonight and a homemade breakfast in the morning.”
Arlow looked around the small front room that served as both restaurant and office. There were stairs in the back, presumably leading to bedrooms upstairs, and another door that must lead to the kitchen.
“I don’t have much money,” Arlow said. “In fact, I have none.” He could see the otter lady’s whiskers droop as she pondered whether she could turn away a tired young traveler simply because he couldn’t pay when there were perfectly good rooms going empty upstairs.
“Never mind that then,” she said, recovering her composure and putting on a cheerful grin for him. “Just sign your name on the registry here, and you can make yourself at home in the room at the end of the hall upstairs. But, mind you,” she pointed a well-manicured claw at him, “you’ll be expected to help cook breakfast in the morning.”
Arlow’s pride stung at the idea of anyone taking pity on him. “I appreciate your kindness,” he said, keeping his voice level, “but I believe I can earn my keep a little better than by merely helping out in the kitchen.”
“Is that so?” Florentine said, looking Arlow up and down. He was a skinny river otter boy on his way to find out that sailing on the high seas wasn’t all big adventures and fighting pirates. She’d seen his kind before. Arrogant. Ready for a fall. “Well, then, what makes you so special?”
“I’m an inventor,” Arlow said.
“Fancy!” she exclaimed. “Well, I don’t think we have need for any inventing just now, but some help peeling the potatoes in the morning would be nice. Now, I’ll leave you to yourself,” she said. “There are extra blankets in the closet under the stairs.”
Arlow grumbled to himself, “Everyone needs inventing,” but the older otter woman clearly wasn’t paying attention. She’d bustled her way back to the dining tables and was gathering up table settings, most likely left over from dinner. Never mind, Arlow thought. He needn’t convince her of the invaluable nature of invention with mere words. If an automated potato-peeling machine awaited her in the morning, that would be far more persuasive.
And so it was.
After a comfortable night of sleep, Arlow woke up early the next morning and brought his pack of supplies down to the kitchen with him. He found the potatoes in a bin by the back door, and he set about designing a peeler for them. First, he carved a chute that was the right size for the potatoes to roll down, using some young tree bark from a sapling outside. Then, he built grips from nuts and screws to affix the chute to one of the bowls he found in the kitchen and created a slotted, hinged arm to hold one of Florentine’s paring knives. He was careful to make sure that the bowl and knife would still be removable, in case Florentine wanted to use them for something else.
Except for the borrowed bowl and knife, all of Arlow’s supplies were either carved out of the stand of young trees behind the inn or pulled from his backpack, where he stored many sizes of nuts and bolts, and other small gadgets and widgets. The final touch was to take a piece of slender, flexible pipe from his pack and affix it to the nose of the kitchen tea kettle. When he put the kettle on the stove and heated it, the steam from its nose flowed through the pipe, and into the potato peeler, where it powered the entire contraption.
The little machine was peeling away with a merrily flashing blade when Florentine entered her kitchen. “Lordy!” she exclaimed. What have you done to my best mixing bowl?”
Arlow dropped the potatoes, one at a time, down the bark chute into the mixing bowl where they danced around getting peeled. “Don’t worry. It’s all reversible,” Arlow said. “Here, you try one.”
Arlow held a potato out to the sea otter lady, and she took it reluctantly. But, when the potato emerged all smooth and slimy, perfectly peeled, she clapped her paws. “My, my,” she said. “I guess you are an inventor.”
Arlow was pleased. His own mother hadn’t reacted nearly as well when he’d built inventions out of her kitchen utensils. Of course, he’d been younger then, and the inventions had been less reversible.
Just to show off, Arlow took Florentine out front and showed her the watercycle he’d invented for his ride down the river. When they went back inside, she made a delightful pair of chowders out of the potatoes he’d peeled — clam chowder for them and corn chowder for the herbivores staying at the inn.
The other tenants came down and joined them for breakfast. There was a beaver couple, come to the coast to see the woodcraft at the harbor, and a tourist squirrel who chittered energetically through the whole meal about what a treat Arlow was in for — visiting the coast for the first time! Oh the sights to see at the sea!
Arlow, however, was only interested in one sight: the sea lion caves. And, before he set out, he made sure to get directions from Florentine to find them. She also packed a lunch of fish cakes for him and entreated him to return and build more “clever contraptions” for her.
* * *
The last of the ride down the river was pleasant and smooth. He passed slowly through the harbor town, enjoying the sights it had to offer and waving at the various figures he saw on shore. Most of them were puffy-furred sea otters like Florentine.
When the ocean finally opened up before him, Arlow was stunned by the long line of water-filled horizon, broken only by the various sailing ships moored in the bay. His paws stopped pedaling, and he drifted along in the current with his mouth agape. He’d never seen so much water. The whole world was blue from the tip top of the sky all the way down to the water he floated in. He wondered idly if he swam far enough out into the ocean if it would meet the sky, and he could watercycle his way upward to the sun and moon.
Eventually, Arlow started pushing the pedals again. He rode out of the bay and pedaled against the surf to a stretch of golden beach where he shed his watercycle, backpack, and clothing on the sand. He danced bare-furred in the breaking waves, cold as they were, like a tiny pup. Then he swam in their swelling undertow, flirting with its strong pull outward, into the inexhaustible vastness of the ocean.
By the time Arlow tired of reveling in the exhilarating power of the ocean’s edge, the sun was high in the sky. He lay in the noonday heat, eating his fishcakes and wishing he’d been born by the ocean instead of deep in the forest. The fishcakes were good, and Arlow decided he would return to Florentine’s inn that night. Perhaps he would make his home there for a while. He had a lot of ideas for improving her kitchen and record-keeping. He could turn that bedroom into his workroom and live in an inn beside the sea.
Arlow stayed stretched out on the sand until his thick fur was thoroughly dried. Then, he threw on his shorts and jerkin, strapped on his pack and watercycle, and delved into the water again, enjoying the delicious transition from being dry to being thoroughly wet.
This time, Arlow didn’t intend to stop until he’d pedaled his watercycle all the way to the sea lion caves.
The ocean was calm, just out past the waves. Arlow watched the golden beach pass by on his right as he cycled north. The farther he went, the rockier the shore became until the whole beach was interrupted by a sheer cliff side. Arlow made sure to stay safely past the wave’s pull for he had no wish to be dashed against the rocky cliffs. However, the cliff side opened into a deep, wide cavern. Exactly as Florentine had described.
Arlow stopped pedaling and floated in the calm beyond the waves, watching the wide cave. There were brightly colored cloth banners — mostly yellows, oranges, and reds — dangling and flapping in the breeze. Funny buildings made from cloth hung over wooden frames clustered along the edges of the cave, built in the range of rocky floor that served as the tidally fluctuating dividing line between dry land and ocean’s water.
Arlow saw the canvas walls of the small buildings billow softly in the wind. Some of their walls trailed in the water; others clearly would when the high tide came in. Farther into the cave, where the rock looked to be usually dry, there was a giant bonfire and strings of fish smoking in the air above it.
Most importantly, though, there were sea lions — those mythical creatures halfway between otter and dolphin. Arlow felt his heart skip beats as he looked at them. A group of sea lion ladies bathed in the sun that shone down on the edge of the cave. They lay on the sun-soaked rock, dressed only in the barest slips of colorful silk. Their fur was sleek and shiny; their muzzles were long and elegant; and, the smooth curve of their bodies into hydrodynamic flippers and fins was a revelation of reality. They were beautiful sirens. He had found his mermaids.
Other sea lions — both men and women — moved around the small town, stoking the fire, hanging strings of fish, and otherwise facing the chores of daily life. They kept mostly to the border between the worlds of hard land and deep water, but when they ventured farther out onto the rocky floor of the giant cave, the sea lion men and women pulled themselves with their strong arms, dragging their flippered tails behind them.
Arlow was so absorbed in watching the sea lion village that he didn’t notice one of its denizens approach him.
“Hello traveler,” said a husky, sonorous woman’s voice from behind Arlow. He turned to see her, but the speaker was gone before he arranged himself and his watercycle to face the right way.
The voice laughed, from behind Arlow again, and he began turning back. Another laugh kept him pedaling, and soon Arlow was turning in awkward circles.
“You’re not very dexterous in that thing,” the voice said, still full of laughter. “What’s its purpose? Can’t you swim without it?”
Frustrated, Arlow exclaimed, “Of course I can! I am an otter.” Then he gave up paddling and flipped his tail, angrily splashing the surface of the water.
“There’s no need to be angry,” the voice said, finally floating lazily into Arlow’s view. She was a sea lion with the narrow, earless face of her species and the long, wide neck. Her head tilted, and her neck arched elegantly. While the sea lions in the village looked strange and awkward pulling themselves along land, this sea lion woman looked utterly natural. She was in her proper element, bobbing at the surface of the sea. “So, what’s it for?” she asked Arlow again. “What is it?”
Arlow couldn’t stay angry while staring a mermaid in her beautifully whiskered face. “It’s a watercycle,” he said plainly. “It’s for speed.”
The sea lion’s eyes sparkled. “I’ll race you,” she barked, floating onto her back. The pink silk of her slip, wet with sea water, plastered against her belly and narrow hips. Beneath the water, Arlow could see her hips slim down to where they ended in a long, brown-furred flipper tail.
“All right,” Arlow said, enjoying the idea of impressing a mermaid. He was confident in his invention’s abilities. And his own.
The sea lion girl pointed with a long flippery hand to a rocky outcropping farther down the shore, about a mile away. She counted to three, and before Arlow had his watercycle properly positioned, she was off, swimming away.
The sea lion girl’s first burst of speed was breathtaking. As Arlow pedaled after her, he felt his heart in his throat at the sheer unbridled joy of his situation: he was chasing a mermaid! Oh, she was fast. The curve of her head and back kept breaking the surface of the water; sometimes, Arlow could see the serrated line of the tip of her tail.
The harder he paddled, the faster the mermaid seemed to swim. Arlow reconciled himself to losing the race. It would be disappointing, to be sure. But, at least, when he reached the rocky outcropping, there would be a mermaid waiting for him.
Yet, as the race progressed, Arlow’s speed stayed steady, and the sea lion’s burst of energy wore off.
Arlow passed her by, not long before they reached the rocky outcropping. He back-peddled, bringing his watercycle to a stop just in time for the front turbine to bump gently against the rough rock. He turned his watercycle and watched the sea lion girl swimming toward him.
Arlow was surprised to find as he watched her that she swam by pulling herself forward with her flippers rather than by swishing her tail. Her long body cut through the water toward him, flying straight like an arrow. To his heart, he thought. Arlow was smitten before he even learned her name.
* * *
Angelica, for that was his mermaid’s name, spent the rest of the afternoon showing Arlow around the sea lion village. She teased and flirted with Arlow, splashing him like a bratty young pup one moment and then locking eyes with him, only to glance away, shy and mysterious in the next. As the evening approached, Angelica asked if he would stay for dinner, but Arlow’s heart was already faint from a day filled with so much fantasy. So, instead, he promised to return on the morrow and retreated to the safe haven of Florentine’s inn.
As the days passed, Arlow and Angelica fell into a comfortable pattern. They swam together every morning as soon as Arlow arrived from his night at the inn. Sometimes their morning swims took them north up the coast; sometimes they swam straight out to sea, losing themselves in the featureless, flowing landscape of the sea. Always they talked and played, sharing the sweet nothings of their pasts mixed in with games of chase that ended, more and more often, in an embrace.
Arlow told Angelica about his many failed attempts at invention as a young pup. He’d burned many bridges in his hometown before learning to put his clever ideas to useful purposes instead of devilish pastimes like catapults for his mother’s silverware. For her part, Angelica made a guessing game of her past for Arlow. He learned about her parents and siblings by answering riddles. She infuriated him by making him guess who among all the young men in the caves with them was her first love. He guessed nearly every male in the village who wasn’t related to Angelica before discovering, with many hints, that the answer was himself.
In the afternoons, Arlow helped Angelica with the crafts and jewelry she made and sold to the tourist shops in town. Arlow had no eye for artistry himself, but he could string shells and beads in the patterns Angelica instructed him to — though, much more slowly than she herself did. In spite of her long, webbed, flippery fingers, Angelica was quite deft with the delicate beadwork of the jewelry and the complex braiding of seaweed baskets. Arlow couldn’t master the basketwork at all.
While he helped with the beads, Arlow thought about the ways that his inventions could help Angelica and the other townsfolk in the sea lion village. When he finished modernizing Florentine’s inn, he fully planned to make the sea lion village his next project.
Arlow split his evening meals between the sea lion village with Angelica and the cozy dining room of Florentine’s inn. Whether he stayed with Angelica for dinner or not, though, he always returned to the inn to work on his inventions for the remainder of the evening.
By the end of a month’s time, Florentine’s kitchen was an engineer’s dream of Rube Goldbergian innovation. Gears turned; steam whistled; clockwork machinery tick tocked; and it was almost entirely automated. To make dinner, all Florentine had to do was buy fish at the market, dig up vegetables from the garden, and set the kitchen contraptions in motion. Delicious steaming meals prepared themselves, and, after the inn’s guests finished eating, the automated kitchen even washed the dishes. As far as Florentine was concerned, Arlow had paid for room and board at her inn permanently.
If Arlow had been interested in selling his inventions to other merchants around the town, he could have made a tidy sum. However, what truly interested Arlow was the challenge of new creations. So, while he didn’t mind other animals from the town poking around his inventions, seeing if they could figure out how to copy them, Arlow had little interest in re-building a machine he’d already finished simply to turn a profit.
Instead, Arlow’s sights turned to different goals.
* * *
The first invention that Arlow brought Angelica was a beadwork loom. The wooden loom was small and light enough that Arlow was able to transport it, strapped to the back of his watercycle. Though… just barely.
Given beads organized into different compartments in its boxy belly, the loom could grab and string the beads into any pattern that Angelica typed onto a primitive keyboard at the loom’s base similar to a miniature church organ. The different keys symbolized the different compartments, except for one key that symbolized the end of a string and told the loom to tie off the beading thread.
Angelica laughed when she saw Arlow cycling his way toward the village with the loom strapped behind him. “This invention doesn’t help you swim faster,” Angelica said. “That’s for sure!”
She kept laughing as he untied the boxy contraption from his cycle and began shaking the water out. Arlow wasn’t bothered by her laughter. He didn’t take teasing well from most people, but Angelica’s whiskery smile melted his heart every time and her jabs rolled harmlessly over him. Besides, he knew she would be impressed when he showed her what it could do.
“No,” he said. “It is for speed though. Just a different kind of speed.”
Angelica looked at Arlow quizzically with her head cocked to the side.
“It’ll work better after the sun dries its innards a bit,” Arlow said. “C’mon, let’s go for our swim.” He reached his paw out to grab her slender flipper, pulling his beloved mermaid toward the water.
“All right,” Angelica said. “But, I have a different direction I’d like to swim this time.”
Now it was Arlow’s turn to look at Angelica quizzically. He thought they’d swum together in just about every direction there was. Angelica showed him he’d been wrong.
Arlow followed Angelica lazily along the surface of the water, swishing his powerful tail to push himself backward as he lay staring up at the sky. Angelica swam with much more energy, but she hadn’t dragged a heavy piece of machinery in from the town that morning. As the fog set in over the ocean around them, Angelica bobbed her head under the surface. A moment later, the flip of her tail splashed salt water on Arlow’s face. He blinked the drops out of his eyes, and, suddenly, the meaning of her words made sense to him.
With a rising sense of excitement, Arlow rolled over and pointed his nose downward. His ears and nostrils clamped shut against the water as he submerged and swam after Angelica. All he could see of her was the graceful serration at the tip of her tail and the trail of turmoil she left in the water. Arlow swam deeper and deeper, feeling the same exhilaration he’d known on the first day they’d raced together. He was chasing a mermaid again! He would chase her until his lungs gave out and his body burned for air.
Angelica didn’t make him wait that long. Her body twisted around and she came back to meet him. They swirled around each other, feeling each other’s motion in the currents of the water they shared. They danced a slow spiraling dance. Then their whiskery faces met in a kiss.
Arlow wondered how deep they were. When Angelica broke away from his embrace, Arlow looked around and saw the ocean landscape around him. Kelp forests swayed between rocky outcroppings beneath him. He could see deep crevasses in the rock formations. Their depths disappeared into the darkening blue and the thickening of the kelp. Suddenly, Arlow was less curious about how deep he was now and much more curious about how deep the crevasses went. There was an entire world to explore down here! But the pressure in his lungs was growing…
Arlow breached the surface to great gulps of air. Angelica appeared beside him a minute later, barely out of breath.
“Holy mackerel,” Arlow gasped. “How long could you have stayed down there?”
“Not much longer,” Angelica replied. “Though, apparently longer than you.” Her black eyes sparkled.
Arlow ignored the jab. It was only fair that a mermaid could swim deeper underwater than him, a normal otter. Though… He wasn’t a completely normal otter. He was an inventor. Arlow’s breathing began to settle, and he asked, “Have you explored those crevasses down there? Do you know how deep they go?”
“I’ve explored them some,” Angelica answered. “But I’ve never found the bottom.”
Arlow’s curiosity piqued. Although he knew he couldn’t hold his breath as long as Angelica, he had to try. All in all, they made four more dives that morning before Angelica’s desire to return and discover the meaning of the machine Arlow had hauled into her village outweighed Arlow’s desire to keep swimming stubbornly toward the bottom of the ocean.
The loom’s mechanical innards were sufficiently dry by the time Arlow and Angelica made it back to the village. So, Arlow asked Angelica to bring him some of her beads and beading thread. Hesitant at the idea of feeding her precious jewelry supplies into Arlow’s strange box, Angelica gave him only the plainest, simplest beads. Arlow assured her they would suffice. For now.
By this time, a number of the other sea lions had gathered around where the loom was set up on the smooth rocky floor of the giant cave. Arlow’s chest swelled imaging how pleased Angelica would be with her gift and how jealous all the other sea lions who made jewelry would be.
To begin the demonstration, Arlow cranked a lever at the side of the loom to wind it up, then he took Angelica’s slender fingers in his paws and played a pattern on the loom’s keys. Their webbed fingers pressed down on the keys together, and the belly of the machine ka-thunked and ker-chunked. Beads slipped onto the thread, visible through an open panel in the box, and the growing bracelet — or necklace, whatever Angelica wanted it to be — came out of the side and dangled down like a tail.
Arlow kept playing the loom until the string of beads hung all the way to the ground. It fell in a coil when he pressed the final key, and Arlow picked it up ceremoniously to present to his lady.
The crowd of sea lions who had watched the performance applauded and congratulated Arlow on the cleverness of his machine. They had all heard about his inventions, but none of them had seen any beyond the watercycle until now. When the crowd lost interest and wandered away, Arlow turned to Angelica and asked, “What do you think?”
“Oh, Arlow,” she said, “It’s terribly funny.”
“Funny?” he repeated in amazement. Her choice of words had him completely flummoxed. Surely she was trying to express the idea wonderful, amazing, useful, or life-changing. Funny was a strange way to put it.
“I’m sure you were trying to be helpful,” she said, “by making this for me… But, I can’t possibly use it. Not for the jewelry I actually sell.” She went on to explain to Arlow about how much she enjoyed making jewelry by paw and that much of the value in her crafts came from the time and loving care she put into them. It all sounded very backward and superstitious to Arlow, and he, quite honestly, had trouble listening.
Arlow was sure Angelica would realize the value of his gift with time. Besides, he was already busy planning the next machine he meant to make for her: a basket-weaving loom.
* * *
As the weeks passed, Angelica showed no further inclination towards using her jewelry loom. It became a toy for the young ones in the village. They could make bracelets and necklaces to play with — jewelry that was discarded when the young ones were done with it; jewelry that no one cried over if it were broken. Arlow was sure that the basket-weaver would be different, except he could never get the baskets to come out quite right.
While the loom-made bracelets and necklaces were indistinguishable from hand-strung versions — to Arlow’s eyes, at least — the machine-made baskets were obviously different. The reeds never bent quite right. There were sharp corners where Angelica’s baskets were always smooth and round. The tightness of the braids varied, growing loose and sloppy at the ends of reeds. Sure, Arlow could have tinkered with his machine, improving it until the baskets came out right. But the more work he put into it, the more despondent he became. What was the point? The jewelry loom worked perfectly, and Angelica didn’t use that.
Instead, Arlow began developing a new passion: He read treatises from the dolphin oligarchy that explored the secrets of the fishes and the nature of the breathable aether. He studied tomes of internal anatomy focusing on the lungs; and he convinced himself he could build an apparatus that would allow him to breathe underwater.
Dolphin physics was strange to Arlow, but if the translations of their science was correct, he needed only to frission the water — summoning breathable aether out of it like an alchemist summons gold from lead. Then, he could stay underwater indefinitely and explore those deep crevasses in the ocean floor.
Angelica encouraged Arlow’s new passion, in part because it kept him from building more useful machines for her. Florentine was also excited, and she elected herself to become Arlow’s lab assistant. With the extra time she had available now that most of her daily chores were automated, Florentine made it her job to gather the supplies Arlow needed for his experiments. She also helped with record keeping — writing down neat columns of the data Arlow collected in a large empty book, much like the register she used for the hotel.
This freed Arlow’s paws for the delicate alchemical work necessary of frissioning the aether: pouring fluids from one beaker to another, carefully titrating them, and the like. Arlow enjoyed listening to Florentine’s tiny gasps of amazement as she watched him work. He felt that Angelica would better appreciate the importance of his work if she could only see it the way that Florentine did.
For a while, Arlow thought of moving his lab and quarters out to the sea lion cove, but he knew the logistics weren’t right. It would be much harder to bring in supplies there. He’d have to cycle in jugs of oil for his work lamps himself, regularly. The sea lions simply lit their nights with the unsteady, flickering glow of bonfires.
Besides, the way that they let high tide rise into their canvas-walled homes was quite comfortable and charming when one was relaxing, but it would destroy any work he tried to do on paper. The more Arlow thought about the primitive state of their lives, the more he wondered if it was really the right environment for his beloved Angelica.
* * *
The night when Arlow finished building his breathing apparatus, he proudly displayed the final product to Florentine and her current guests at the inn. It was after dinner, and Florentine was entertaining a troupe of river otters who were her guests with a few hands of gin rummy in the small dining area.
“It’s done!” Arlow exclaimed, skipping down the stairs. “Get me a big bucket of water, and I can show you!”
The visiting river otters didn’t know about Arlow’s local fame as an inventor, but they were always up for a new game. So, the hands of cards were set aside, and a big bucket, sloshing with water, was fetched from the kitchen and set in the middle of the table. Arlow climbed up on the table beside it.
Arlow strapped on his breathing apparatus — a rubbery, membranous mask that covered the bottom portion of his face. The mask was attached to two bulbous, fist-sized metal canisters that rested at either side of his neck. Arlow tightened the leather strap that held the mask against his face, and then he shoved his head into the bucket.
For a moment, Arlow was afraid to breathe. He knew the apparatus should work, but there was a difference between trusting his calculations and trusting his calculations to protect him from a lungful of water. Still, he could picture Florentine and all her guests staring at him — head already stuck in the bucket. It was too late, for his pride, to back out now.
Arlow drew a deep breath of cool, clear air. Then he pulled his head out of the bucket, hopping and dancing, whooping at his success. At first the other otters misunderstood his actions and thought he was choking on a deep breath of water.
“No, no!” Arlow cried. “It worked! I was able to breathe!”
“But you were only under there for a few seconds,” one of the otters objected. “How do we know you aren’t making it up?”
“Yeah!” another one said, climbing up on the table beside Arlow. “Stay under there for an hour, and I’ll believe it!” The otter guffawed and several of the others joined in. A couple of them were already poking at the apparatus, hanging loosely on the leather strap around Arlow’s neck.
Florentine merely stood at the back of the room, her paws raised to cover her face. Arlow was the closest thing she’d known to a son, and she was overcome with amazement and pride in him.
“Here, you can try it,” Arlow said, undoing the buckle behind his head and holding the contraption out to the other otter standing on the table.
The other otter pulled the contraption over his head, tightened the straps, and ducked his own head in the bucket. When he emerged with his head dripping to exclaim, “He’s right! It works!” the whole group burst into a round of applause. Each otter insisted on a turn at this new game of ducking their heads in the bucket to breathe.
Florentine came forward and hugged Arlow as he stepped down from the table. “You are brilliant,” she whispered. “This invention will mean so much to our relationship with the dolphin city out at sea.”
Arlow’s whiskers prickled with pride, and, despite the fact that there was no music, he whisked Florentine into a clumsy cross between a waltz and a jig. She’d become as much a surrogate mother to him as he’d become a surrogate son to her.
All the other otters — heads dripping from the new game — joined in the dance, whirling about the room to the padding rhythm of their own webbed feet slapping the wooden floor. It was an almost perfect evening. Only one thing was absent — Angelica.
* * *
At Florentine’s insistence, Arlow taught her how to make the completed breathing masks. For himself, he only wanted two. Florentine, however, intended to sell the masks to the local navy yard. She had already discussed their development with one of the ranking officers, and he was eager to begin training an undersea battalion and open diplomatic negotiations for setting up a standing trade agreement with the dolphin oligarchy.
None of that mattered to Arlow, though he admired Florentine’s gumption in handling such mundane matters as the distribution of his inventions. She was an invaluable partner.
It was Angelica, however, whom Arlow wanted to share his success with. It was her eyes that he wanted to see shine at him with admiration. And, so, he brought the first two breathing masks with him to the sea lion caves the next day.
“I thought we could swim downward again today,” Arlow told Angelica when he found her at the rocky ledge of the cave.
She had a basket in her lap and was working the reeds with her slender flippered hands. She sat with her tail over the edge. The end of her fin trailed into the lapping ocean water. “Why?” she asked, wrinkling her delicate nose.
“I’ve made a…” Arlow pulled the two masks out, hanging on their leather straps, “I mean, invented…” He found his heart beating too strongly and his throat too thick to speak. The masks simply swayed on their straps in front of him, and he watched Angelica eye them carefully. She tilted her head and looked up at him.
“What does this one let you do quickly?” she asked wryly.
“N-nothing,” Arlow stammered. “I mean, they let you stay underwater. Breathing. As long as you want.”
Angelica smiled then, and her eyes sparkled. “You want to explore the crevasses,” she said.
Arlow nodded, feeling the tightness in his chest release as his mermaid smiled at him. She set the basket she was working on aside, and she slipped off the ledge, sliding smoothly into the water. “All right, then,” she said. “Let’s explore.”
Arlow slipped the mask over Angelica’s face, and he reached around her neck to fasten the buckle and gently tighten the straps. Then, he fixed his own mask over the bottom of his face, and he was sure that Angelica laughed at him behind her mask. He could tell by the merriment in her eyes. Seeing her though, he had to admit that he must look silly. If a beautiful mermaid like her could look goofy wearing his breathing mask, he must look absolutely clown-like.
The two of them swam together, side-by-side with her slender flipper clasped in his webbed paw, along the ocean floor. They followed the sandy floor downward, letting the twisting sunlight from the light blue surface above fall away from them as they swam deeper and deeper.
They couldn’t talk, but Angelica squeezed his paw when they came to the beginning of the rocky crevasses. Arlow turned to look at her, and the excitement in her eyes told him everything he needed to know. They explored the twilight kelp forests of the rocky crevasses together, stopping each other to point out starfish, intricately patterned coral, and gelatinously tentacled sea anemones.
At the nadir of their journey, Angelica stopped Arlow. She pulled him in close, and then she slipped the mask from her face. For a moment, he panicked — being so far beneath the sea — but, then he remembered how easy it would be to pull the mask back up. So, he let his body relax against hers as she pulled his breathing mask down as well. They kissed at the bottom of the kelp forest, slowly twirling in the dim blue night of the ocean floor. Arlow felt her fin pressed against his legs, and he wrapped his arms around her back.
He was breathless when he pulled the mask over his mouth again. Angelica had already begun swimming back. He followed her, entranced by her magic, all the way up to the surface. Watching her swim, he came up with an idea.
The breathing masks let them explore deep under the ocean together; with the right invention, he could make it possible for them to explore the land together. He wanted Angelica always by his side, and that meant she would need to walk on land.
Arlow would build his mermaid legs.
* * *
The legs needed to be light-weight but strong. They needed to provide support and impetus while still responding to the intentions of whoever wore them. It was a tricky project, and Arlow spent longer in the design phase than was usual. For weeks, he scribbled sketches and tested materials without truly beginning construction.
Arlow kept his work secret from both Angelica and Florentine. He wanted to surprise his beloved, and he didn’t want his business partner cheapening the purity of his gift by filling his head with ideas of how to monetize it. No, this was just for Angelica. If she liked it, then she could come tell Florentine herself whether the legs were allowed to become a mass-produced commodity. If she didn’t like the gift… Well, that didn’t bear thinking about.
Of course, Angelica would be thrilled to come live with Arlow in Florentine’s inn. She talked of how she and Arlow should spend more time together constantly. Better yet, the two of them could pack up and travel the world together. Arlow had heard a lot of tales lately about the sunny climes, south down the coast.
Arlow did wish that Angelica would show a little more interest in his secret work. He wanted to tease her about having to wait until the project was done. He wanted her pleading eyes to overcome him, and he would confess his plans to her.
But only Florentine pleaded with Arlow to tell her about his work. So, the project remained a secret, built entirely behind the closed door of his upstairs laboratory in Florentine’s inn. All summer, he slaved in that stuffy room.
The long summer days stretched their waning light late into the evening. Nonetheless, he burned through many jugs of oil, supplementing the natural light with hours of extra work by lamplight.
He cut the framework for the legs from a newly discovered, ultra-light metal called aluminum, and he welded the pieces together into hollow braces. Leather straps held the braces against the sides of his body — for he had only himself to test the legs on. At each hip there was a lever that he could work with his paw. The levers cranked pulleys that ran down the inside of the hollow braces; gears inside the knees amplified any pressure on the levers.
Thus, a light touch at the hip could trigger one of the legs to step. Gyroscopes in the feet kept the entire contraption balanced. With a little practice, Arlow was able to walk about his laboratory quite easily, entirely under the power of his mechanical legs. His own legs dangled unnecessarily, dragging on the wooden floor.
Arlow couldn’t wait to see Angelica wearing the gleaming metal legs. He decorated their smooth silver surfaces with etchings of swirls, hoping to make them pretty enough for her. They would be yet another piece of jewelry for her to wear.
Arlow planned to sneak the legs out of the inn under the cover of breaking dawn once they were finished. He planned to leave for the sea lion caves before Florentine or any of her guests arose. Angelica would be the first to see them.
But in the pale light of early morning, Arlow’s resolve faltered. He had put so much of himself into this gift. He needed reassurance. And, so, Florentine found Arlow and his mechanical legs, sitting at the dining table waiting for her, when she came down to start the automated kitchen machinery cooking breakfast.
“What is this!” she cried, clapping her hands and bobbing her head in excitement. “Have you finished your secret project? What is it? What does it do?” Her questions ran together, leaving Arlow little space to answer her until she fell into oohing and ahing over the gleaming invention. Her claws traced the patterns of the etchings, and she poked at the joints, trying to ken their functions.
“They’re legs,” Arlow said simply, certainty and pride returning to puff up his chest.
“I thought they looked like legs!” Florentine exclaimed. “What are they for?”
“I built them for Angelica.”
Florentine straightened, her long sinuous spine growing stiff.
“I mean to ask her to marry me,” Arlow said, voicing the thought for the first time. “With these legs, she can come live here in the inn with us. Perhaps the Angelica and I will travel down the coast for our honeymoon.”
Arlow felt more sure of his plans than ever, but Florentine looked worried. That troubled him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You don’t mind if Angelica lives here, do you?”
“Oh, dear no,” Florentine said, looking away from Arlow. “I wouldn’t mind at all. But…” Her paws pulled nervously at the fabric of her dress. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this plan, yes?”
“Oh my, yes!” Arlow exclaimed. “I’ve been planning it all summer.”
“And Angelica likes the idea?” Florentine pressed, looking hopeful. “She wants to come live here?”
“Well…” Arlow said. “The legs are a surprise. She doesn’t know yet that she’ll be able to walk on land with me. Travel the world. Live here, together.”
Florentine nodded. It was a somber nod for a jolly sea otter like her. No matter how Arlow pressed her after that, she would say nothing other than that he needed to go talk to Angelica.
Florentine hoped fervently that Arlow knew his beloved better than she feared he did. Perhaps any sea lion lady who could fall in love with a skinny, quirky river otter inventor like Arlow would in fact be thrilled with the mechanical legs he’d built her. Perhaps Florentine’s inn would become home to the first sea lion cyborg as well as an increasingly renowned inventor.
If not… Florentine only hoped that Arlow’s heart would not be so broken that he’d move on from this town, taking his laboratory and inventions away from her inn and taking his strange, eccentric energy out of her life.
* * *
Arlow rode his watercycle downriver from Florentine’s inn, out the bay, and down the coast. He had folded the mechanical legs up in his backpack, and their knees dug into his spine no matter how he shifted his body. The morning air was cold, and the slant of the sun hurt his eyes. But the real pain was impatience.
He couldn’t wait to see his mermaid put on the shining mechanical legs he’d built for her. Angelica’s elegant, tapered body would float above the ground with the magic of invention holding her up. The delicate curve of her flipper tail — usually hidden under the distorting curtain of the sea — would trail over the ground, revealed by the silken hem of her dress at mid-thigh. She would be glorious.
She was already glorious, but his gift would make her more.
It was a relief when he arrived at the rocky ledge at the border between sea and land that was the sea lions’ home and comprised the bulk of their world. A few sea lions were already awake and cooking breakfast kippers over small fires, but most of the village was still asleep. Angelica, however, was not among the dreamers. She was threading jewelry on her loom, and Arlow’s heart jumped to see her. It was the first time he could recall ever seeing her use it, and he knew that was a good omen.
Arlow dropped his watercycle on a rock that was high enough to be dry on top, and he slipped the backpack off his shoulders. Pulling it by the straps, he rock-hopped over to where Angelica was working. As he got closer though, he could see something was wrong.
“What happened to the loom?” he asked. The loom’s keys had been removed and were piled in a basket beside it. “I can help you fix it.”
Angelica looked up at Arlow and smiled sadly. “Oh Arlow,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want it fixed. Actually, it isn’t broken. I’m just taking the keys out.”
“W-why?” Arlow stammered. “I thought the children liked it.” He didn’t add, even though you clearly don’t.
“They do,” she said. “That’s the problem. Some of the older ones are refusing to learn how to thread beads the right way. By paw. So, I’m going to hide the keys until they start attending to their lessons better.”
Arlow was disappointed that Angelica still didn’t like the loom, but he tried to focus on the fact that she wasn’t destroying it permanently. Just disabling it for a while. It was still a valuable toy for the children, even if she didn’t use it the way he’d envisioned.
“What’s in your pack?” Angelica asked, pushing the basket and loom further back on the rock. She scootched her body closer to where Arlow stood, and he sat down beside her. He plunked the heavy pack down, feeling very mixed emotions about opening it. The omen of the loom did not speak well of his chances.
A burst of prickly pride swelled through his chest, and Arlow knew that the mechanical legs were different. The loom had been meant to replace an activity in Angelica’s life — an activity that she clearly enjoyed. The mechanical legs were not meant to replace anything, merely to supplement.
“Angelica,” he said slowly, feeling the shape of her name and savoring the way that it meant her. “I’ve brought you another invention.”
The air was tense and silent between them, although wavelets splashed against the rock at their dangling tail and feet.
“This one is to make you faster. When you walk on land.” He opened the backpack and pulled the shining legs out. He stood them on the rock between them, and his paws grasped the ankles tightly, all his nervousness squeezing into that one gesture. “I want you to marry me, and we can live in Florentine’s inn together. We can travel the world. We can go anywhere.” Arlow’s eyes drank in every nuance of Angelica’s face — the way her dark eyes shifted; how her whiskers pulled closer to her muzzle; and the gentle tilt of her chin, drawing closer to her body.
“Will you marry me?” he asked. “Will you walk beside me for all your days?”
The air was filled with sounds. Arlow could hear other sea lions waking up and beginning their days. Gulls cawed in the distance, and waves continued to crash. But Angelica was silent, and that was unbearable.
“Why do you ask me both questions together?” she said, her voice soft enough that it was almost lost in the sound of the waves.
“What do you mean?” Arlow asked.
Angelica reached out and touched the mechanical legs with her slender flipper. She traced the swirling etched patterns much as Florentine had, but the gesture felt completely different. It was filled with sadness. Arlow didn’t understand.
“These would let me walk,” Angelica said. It wasn’t a question, but Arlow nodded anyway. “I’ve never wanted to walk.” Her voice was distant, and Arlow wanted more than anything to pull her back close to him.
“Will you try them on?” Arlow asked, hoping that when she took her first steps that the feeling would set her free. Her heart would fly to him.
Instead, she dashed his hopes against the rocks like the slapping waves: “No,” she said.
Angelica shook her head fiercely. Arlow could see tears in her eyes. Then she rolled to her side, pushing herself off the rock they sat on. For the first time she felt awkward and lurching, maneuvering herself off of the land by the power of her arms. By giving her legs, Arlow had made her less.
Angelica swam away from the sea lion caves, straight out to sea. Arlow hesitated a moment, nursing the pain in his heart and the wound to his pride. The pain in his heart was stronger though, and he had to chase his mermaid. He followed her along the surface, unable to catch her or even keep up. Yet, he chased her all the way out to where she dove down toward the rocky crevasses and kelp forests that they’d explored together with his breathing masks.
Arlow dove down too, but Angelica’s lithe form had already faded into a mermaid shaped shadow, rapidly disappearing into the eternally twilit water. He lost her there. Although, he swam through the ocean for hours, diving until his lungs ached, peering through squinted eyes and imagining her shadow everywhere — in the waving kelp fronds, in the shapes of the rocks, and in the inscrutable, endless blue.
He finally gave up and returned to the sea lion caves. She had to return to her home sometime, so he would wait in her tent for her. When he drew the burlap door-hanging back though, he found Angelica already inside, leaning against a rush-woven ottoman with her flipper tail stretched out before her. She held a necklace in her hands.
Arlow hardly knew what he was saying, but he burbled apologies one after another. He had to win her love back. It was what made his life complete, grounding him in reality. Without his time with her, he would be lost entirely in the whimsical, unreal climes of invention.
“Stop, stop apologizing!” she said, cutting him off without even looking up. “I won’t walk beside you.” Her words were sad and bitter, as if she was balling up all the hurt he’d caused her and trying to throw it away all at once. “But the other question…”
She lifted the necklace up, and somehow Arlow knew that she meant to give it to him. He knelt down and lowered his head; she placed the beaded necklace over his head, letting the heavy pendant fall on his chest.
Arlow touched the detailed beadwork. Blue and purple bits of shell alternated with each other, and a mother of pearl pendant hung in the center. He’d watched her work on this piece. It had taken many days of concentrated work, and all those hours of his mermaid’s time were now strung around his neck, surrounding him with her and serving as a reminder of those happy hours together. He finally understood why Angelica insisted on making the necklaces and bracelets herself.
“The other question is the only one I really want answered,” Arlow said. He touched her face, and traced the long curve of her neck with a gentle claw. She looked up at him, but then she glanced away shyly, reminding him of the looks she’d given him the first day they’d met.
“If you will come live with me here in these caves,” Angelica said, “share my home with me… then, I will marry you.”
“My work-” Arlow began to say, but he knew that was wrong from Angelica’s frown.
“Keep your laboratory in Florentine’s inn,” she said. “But sleep in the caves, and wake to the sound of waves echoing off their walls.”
And the feel of his mermaid sleeping in his arms.
Arlow considered this new proposal. He had imagined grand adventures, traveling along the coast and exploring the world with Angelica. The life she suggested was much smaller. It was the life he was already living. Only better.
Arlow thought about the life he’d imagined. Did he really care about adventures? He wasn’t sure he did. He cared about inventing, and he cared about Angelica. He was happy with his life here.
“You’ll need a bigger tent,” he said, looking around the small chambers, “if we’re both to live in it.”
Angelica’s eyes shone, and she cried out in happiness. Arlow pulled her into his arms, feeling her body press against him. He lifted her up and spun around. In his arms, she floated above the ground.
When he put her back down, lying down on the floor of her tent beside her, Angelica rushed to tell him that sea lions had a tradition of building larger tents for newly married couples. It was part of the wedding preparations and had to be done a very specific way. She didn’t want Arlow getting any ideas about mechanized tent-building monsters with long pulleys and metallic spider-like legs.
She needn’t have worried. He was already imagining a way to increase the speed of his watercycle, so he’d have a faster commute between the sea lion caves and Florentine’s inn. And, although he didn’t know it yet, Florentine was writing out a list of inventions that she wanted them to work on together. It would keep him busy for a long time.