A legendary creature embarks on a journey during World War II.
The winter evening was pale and cold, and the sky held promises of an impending storm, but such weather did not hinder a certain young merman's love for star-gazing. He laid there on the banks of the Rhein, watching as the light grew dim above him, until there was nothing left but a wolf-gray moon and the glimmering white specks that peppered an infinite black canvas.
He let these distant mysteries fill his mind, let them wander and dance across his eyes. By then, he had committed every constellation to memory, and even created some of his own. One he called Steinhauer, the German word for Stonecutter, because its shape was that of a man, building a temple to the gods.
On these clear nights, the merman wished he could be great, perhaps become a beacon of hope and courage to those who had none.
But these were the dreams of an unknown creature in a ruthless world at war. Four years ago, his country fell to violent invasion when its people turned against it, claiming to stand apart from the “commoners” as a superior race of humans. They drove families from their homes, showered villages in endless mortar rounds and grenades, and when the ruins stood no higher than the charred grass, they burned what remained. The beautiful lands the merman had once revered for their glory and might were brought to splinters and ash.
Even the stars were robbed from his view by dark smoke and debris. He waited for the obstruction to pass, but the heavy air was permanent.
He did not understand. “What could have happened,” he asked his mother in their cavern under the water, “to cause such reckless hatred?”
“I do not know,” she replied, and she meant it.
During those interminable months, the merman pretended not to notice how the mist would weave in between the trees with grim intentions, how the cries of soldiers would penetrate the River and wake him, how he could taste blood on the current. Since these nasty occurrences did not end seem to end there, the merman made a decision. He would leave, and he would not return.
“I want to explore,” he told his kin, “and be great, like the man in—!”
Then, without prior warning, his father raised an authoritative hand, and all was silent, for this was the custom. The patriarch was law, and he was not to be questioned. “No son of mine,” he said, “will abandon reality for dreams.”
Much later, when the sun was low on the horizon and the Rhein was an abyss in the valley, the parents continued their tense conversation in private.
“You have no faith in him.”
“No. I suppose not.”
Her husband's back was turned, and he did not see her contempt. “Why must you debase him in this manner? He loves you, Herman. He has—”
“Love,” he muttered, “is simply dependence.”
And she, quiet in her rage, knew that this moment was the crux.
“Then he need not depend on you any longer.”
And he, desperate in his shame, forged his heart into stone. There were no words he could utter that would calm her, for she was his wife, and in the shadows, she was queen, and he feared her like he feared the air above them. It was a terrible power that she held, but she held it better than he ever would.
That same night, the mother took her young merman by the wrist, and said, “It is well past the time you should have heard this story, and now, before I send you away, I will tell it. But you must listen, do you understand?”
He nodded, and searched for the quickest escape.
“Long ago, there was a prince, and he was great. The kingdom worshiped him, wrote his name in the old books, painted him in the sand, for he was the image of perfection. His face was a white pearl from a trench that led to the Earth's center, his hair was cut from the rays of light that brushed the sea each morning, and his trident was forged from the bones of his enemies. But his beauty only rested on his skin, and his people were blind to his true evil.”
The merman stared at her for an age, but she did not continue.
“Mother?” he whispered.
Her gills flared upon her neck. “There is malice even in the kindest of us. You must not let it command your soul, as your father has. Promise me.”
“Why...why have you told me this?”
“Oh, for many reasons, all of which you must discover on your own. Go, child, and carry this knowledge inside you. Do not let it die. Do not forget it.”