A Sound Like the Sea

"The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out." - Annie Dillard

Before he came here he has no memory of anything he might have seen or done, no remembrance of kindness or love. Perhaps he never knew it or perhaps it was a part of whoever - whatever - he was before that night. There's no way of knowing.

Sometimes memory will return as a sudden flash of light, a brief moment snatched away before he can make it out. Other times it's a knowledge that shakes him, knowing where to find a certain plant he hasn't yet studied, or how a sea creature behaves that he's never seen.

But it's gone before he can hold onto it and his memory returns to the moonlit night in the water, the night he washed up in the worst storm in anyone's recollection. The violence and force of the waves had thrown debris and plants up onto land and had brought him to them.

He was born out of that water, in that moment, life beginning as if he'd just come to existence with that first breath of the ocean in his lungs and the taste of salt in his mouth. The first thing he ever saw when he opened his eyes was her face, looking down at him.

She held him up until they brought a tank back and transported him to the labs. She held his hand in the water each time she came, hours spent there in silence.

Without her he would have been dead that night, his struggles to breathe oxygen out of the air ceasing before his heart failed. She had brought him back to life after that rattling last breath, had run the water through his gills like a beached fish and watched as his eyes opened beneath the surface.

After a while she started talking to him without expecting a reply, words in a strange language he couldn't understand. But the sound was gentle like the splash of the sea lapping against the shore. Over time he learned to grasp the concept of the words and finally the meaning. By the first time he was strong enough to leave the water for a few minutes he could understand every word she said.

He knows how the other scientists looked at him at first, the mixture of awe and fear, of myth and man come together within him. They could never quite lift their eyes away from the webbed hands, and if they did it was only to stare at his eyes, the eerie green depths that could see through the blackness of an ocean depth no light could pierce and yet be blinded by a single ray of sun.

But she never feared him or treated him as something sub-human. She never stared or questioned, spoke of him as if he couldn't hear.

She was always there, like the rocks the tide skims past, a constant in a world he still hasn't completely grasped.

Sometimes when she thinks he isn't watching he sees her by the door, following the motion of his hands as he strokes the koi that swim to him or the dolphin eating out of his hand.

The first time he laughed was when the seal learned to kiss his cheek and he saw her eyes light up, brim with an odd sort of joy, bittersweet like tears and smiles together. She knows someday he'll have learned everything. He'll remember and he'll return. She won't hold him.

He learned to smile from watching her, as a man would learn which fork to use at a dinner party by observing those around him. At first it was forced, a learned habit when appropriate. Later on it became second nature, part of her stitched onto him like a second skin.

He learned to read after a while, absorbing the words faster than a child but with the same eagerness. He can write all the words in the encyclopedia and someday he will have read every one, learned the meaning.

The first word he wrote was a name, each letter painstakingly printed and studied. M A R K.

It isn't his name but rather the one he's been given, the one she calls him. In the ocean nothing has a name but he has learned this one, knitted it to him until he answers to it without thinking.

Every now and then her world will become too much for him, overwhelming his senses until he flees to the water to listen to its lullaby and perhaps catch a glimpse of his world.

Once a child gave him a shell on that beach. Sometimes he sits on the shore and holds the seashell to his ear, the song of the water in the palm of his hand. Elizabeth has heard it, he knows, the hypnotic call of the water. It doesn't call her but she understands.

Sometimes at night when she thinks he's asleep she comes and stands beside his tank. He senses her hand against the glass separating them, a touch as gentle as that night in the water.

His world and her world. They speak of them as separate places, unbreachable, unable to be merged. Always carefully different. And yet there's a span of their worlds that cross and merge, salt they taste and whispers of the sea that both can hear.

Before he came here he has no memory of anything he might have seen or done, no remembrance of kindness or love. He has learned to laugh, to smile. He has learned the taste of tears and the warmth of arms holding him above the waves. And perhaps someday he will understand love and how a heart can break.