Wellspring



The rock group's driving rhythms boomed from the band shell through the amphitheater and up into the summer night. Gia danced out of the sweet smoke into the darkness beyond the crowd's fringe. Flashing a wicked grin over her shoulder, she kicked off her sandals and broke into a run. Night and her long, denim skirt concealed her lower body's changes. She rose to tiptoe on her bare feet, reshaping nails, bones, and muscles to goat hooves.

Lee, cautiously stepping around couples sprawled on blankets to get past the last of the audience, called, "Gia, wait up."

She bounded upslope, away from the concert's electric atmosphere of cheers and claps, frenzied dancers, and amped guitars. Adding a shimmer made her golden hair a taunting flag for Lee to follow.

The scant moonlight lit the way as Lee chased her toward the crest of the sea bluffs. She frowned as he fell further behind. Unsure which of them was the tease, she shifted back to full human form, halted amid upthrust rocks, and stripped.

Lee laughed as Gia drew him into the rock's shelter. They kissed while he helped her undress him.

She stuffed their clothes between boulders and moved a stone to hide the chink. She grabbed his hand and yanked him onward.

He gave a tug. "Gia, here we're hidden--and we can still hear the music." But her exuberance was contagious.

She danced them across the summit, springing past clumps of poppies, grasses swishing against their legs. Clouds veiled and unveiled the fingernail paring of moon. Gleams slid over their bodies, revealing their similarities: Hair like spun gold, slenderness of face and arms, tapered bulkiness of torso and legs.

Gia inhaled the scents of salt, fish, and kelp. Below, waves slammed, transmitting vibrations through stone and her bones, increasing her wild joy. She was bursting with song. The band's music, now inaudible to them, would keep the audience from hearing her voice if she sang. But she wouldn't want to attract other strays on these heights.

"Let's have a swim, Lee."

"Are you crazy? There's no way down to the water from these cliffs."

"So we'll fly!"

Lee took a step back. "What are you on?"

Gia laughed at his joke and stretched out her arms, head flung back. Twirling, she caught him in an embrace. "Ah, my Leandros, my lion." She brought her lips to his.

Cupping her shoulders, he returned her kiss with warm enthusiasm. They parted, smiling. She pulled her head back, smile faltering.

"Leandros?" she whispered. Never before had he failed to respond with his own endearment of "My Ligeia, my siren, my love."

He had the listening look of one awaiting clarification. No. He was only feigning ignorance. He wanted the clash that always resulted in lovemaking.

Laughing, she raised strands of her hair into hissing snakes, narrowing her face to give them substance. Calling up the power of her eyes, she struck--

And met no defense.

He stood rigid, mouth open in terror, eyes lifeless as a statue's. She stubbed her fingers against his cheek. Stone hard, stone cold. With a sob, she toppled him backward, exerting her strength to lower him gently to the ground.

Cold spread out from her depths. Too soon. Much too soon. How hadn't he known?  He should have felt the strong urge to return to the sea when his time to renew himself had come. And why hadn't she noticed he now believed in his humanness?

Last moon dark, he was on the East coast, repairing hurricane damage at animal preserves. Then they'd been working at separate beaches, helping after that oil slick. How long since they even spoke of past times, let alone reshaped in each other's presence?

With caresses, she restored his suppleness, restarting all the familiar functions throughout his human shape, tweaked chemicals and massaged facial muscles to produce calm. The shock of the changes she'd forced had rendered him unconscious. When he revived, instinct would adapt him to the existence in which he found himself. She should carry him to where they'd left their clothes. He'd rouse hearing human music.

Images flashed through her mind: Singing to the fog in sweet harmony with her sisters on rocks as Leandros finned up out of the ocean, flopping back, sending sheets of spray over them while more kin bobbed in the waves, grinning. Leandros, whose earlier antics created the legend of the sphinx, mocking the Great Sphinx by crouching in lion form, trying to maintain a human face expressive of wisdom, then rolling on his back, whooping with laughter. She and Leandros, shaped as bearded serpents, his gold mane ashine with sunlight, as they wormed off a cliff to swim across a river.

Never again.

She longed to stay with him in human form, transforming alone in secret. She could play human while that was all he knew, continuing their satisfying work.

But how long had it been since he forgot himself? The slow decay of his cells had begun. For his sake, she dared not wait.

Calling up all her inner strength, she murmured, "Farewell, my golden lion," and kissed his human nose, his cheek.

It felt odd to have control of his body's reshaping. She brought out gills, increased the fats beneath his skin, made all the adjustments for withstanding pressure changes. Formed webbing between his fingers. Fused his legs. Shaped flukes. From hair and skin to fluke tips, she shaded him slate blue to gray-green.

Gia stood, aerating her bones. She slimmed as she pushed substance out into huge wings sprouting white feathers tipped with gold. Her hair retreated, replaced with white plumage close against her scalp. Glancing up and around, she flicked her skin and feathers to midnight blue.

She levered Lee upright and hugged him against her, his back to her front, and sprang out over the cliff. They plummeted, sea foam reaching for them. Her wings snapped out to full extension. She skimmed low over the waves, veering south.

There. Sleek dolphins leaping. She pressed her cheek to the side of Lee's head, let him drop.

Dolphins dove to intercept him. The alliance held. The dolphins would protect him. He would wake at ease with the sea, his human life a fading dream.

The world ocean should welcome him home, nourish him, restore him, and, to some extent, it would. During early cycles, an unguessable span of years had stretched until he recalled himself, his entire life, and her. Past renewals included a period of seeking: Knowing names by which they called each other, long before the ability returned to recognize individuals of their kin, no matter the shape.

A rock isle protruded above the waves. She alighted, startled seals plopping into the sea around her. Only seals. She couldn't remember when she'd last met others of her kin. She resorbed her wings. No knowing how many lonely years before her own renewal time arrived. It hadn't always been so.

When they first mated, their cycles locked, giving them centuries together in each turn of life. Over the eons, their periods of renewal had lengthened and times aware of each other had shrunk. Last cycle, their time with freedom of the air and land had dwindled to just over a century, while her call to the sea had lagged behind his by several years. This time they'd had less than three decades together, living and giving as fully as they could.

Naked and chilled in her solitude, she found a sandy hollow between boulders. She raked stones into a circle, then flung together a nest of driftwood.

She wouldn't go back for the clothes, the house, or other appurtenances of human life. Sinking down, she reshaped into salamander form, flames roaring up from translucent orange skin flecked with emerald and sapphire.

Winged lions, winged serpents, eagle-headed humans. . . As part human, part animal beings or preternatural creatures, they had awed humans through the ages.

She extinguished her own fire. In pleasing spurts of color, flames consumed the driftwood. Treading carefully to avoid smothering the fire, she clung with toepads to the warming rocks, inhaling and exhaling the wood smoke and sparks.

Coiling her long body, nose to hip, she tried to sink into the weighty exhaustion of grief, her restive tail keeping the rocks near. Another memory blazed up: A stone hearth, spacious enough for both of them to bask in, concealed in the flames from a roomful of sleeping men.

The flames died. The stones cooled too soon. She crawled over the boulders and reshaped. Seated on a tall rock above the spume of breaking waves, she clasped human arms about the scaled skin of what had been human knees.

Lee's time had crept up on him, unrecognized. She should enter the sea, too. If her own time came without warning, she would be safe in their original home, usual place of restoration. She could go to him, be with him so long as she retained self-awareness. That would fade. And, this time, no waking would follow.

Tears sliding down her cheeks, she tossed back her hair and smiled, recalling their shared mirth whenever they discovered a new tale they and their kin had inspired. They might vanish, but they left behind a bountiful legacy for humans.

Last to live, last to love, she kicked her flukes against the rock and dove in a graceful arc into the sea.






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