But Sometimes They Came Back (A Modern Fairy Tale)

The following is a modern fairy tale, written by me and illustrated by Laurel Sprenger. Scroll down for a video version!

A long time ago, before I had a name, I lived all alone in a house by the sea. There was a small pebble beach and, beyond that, the sand. Then the water — sparkling and deep — stretched out like a blanket across the world. It would’ve been easy to imagine that the water never ended, or that it fell away somewhere in a great torrent of salt and spray into an abyss never seen by man. But I knew, somehow, that it had an end.

My house was a small house made of wood. It had only one room with a squat little stove, and a pipe that escaped through a hole in the roof, and a little wooden bed where I suppose I slept, but I don’t remember ever lying there. On the wall there was a photograph of a woman, with yellow curling hair and bright green eyes and a smile meant just for me. I’d only ever seen her in the picture, but I knew her.

I spent my days swimming, and digging for clams, and lying on my back as the waves lapped my toes, and wondering about clouds. There were others like me, and sometimes we played — chasing the waves as they crashed on the shore — but we didn’t talk much, and someone was always leaving.

There were boats on the beach. More boats than I could count — all of them broken, and lying in pieces. But every day a new boat appeared — smart and trim and neatly painted — bobbing merrily in the waves. And one of us would get in. There would always be someone to see him off — a man, or a woman, or sometimes both. And the rest of us would stand and wave ’til the boat was lost in the sparkling spray.

Mostly the boats that left stayed gone, but not all. Sometimes they came back. The sea would turn stormy, and the waves would rise, and the boat would crash back on the beach in a squall. The others and I would stand and watch. And the man or the woman would come running back to stand waiting — clothes flapping in the wind — with outstretched arms. Then they’d scoop up the one that had been like us — but wasn’t really like us so much any more — and rush away as the boat smashed to pieces and was still.

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No one knew where they went after that. We never saw them again. But the men and the women always cried as they carried them away — somewhere else now, not for us. 

The woman that was mine was old, I think. She looked a little like the woman in my photograph, but only a little. She sang to me sometimes. Songs with words I didn’t understand. And she held me and she rocked me while she sang. She didn’t live in my house, though. I don’t know where she lived.

One day, when the sun was high and the water sparkled with a million tiny stars, a new boat appeared on the sand. It sat, moored to a wooden post, beside the smashed and broken boats, bobbing up and down in the waves. It was painted white with a neat blue trim and a name painted boldly on the side. Mine.

The old woman was there beside me. She swept me up in her arms and held me close. I didn’t know she couldn’t come with me. But she knew. She set me down in the little boat and bent to kiss my head. There were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling too. Smiling and crying at once and she said, “Give this kiss to your mother.” And she kissed my cheek. “And give this one to her mother too.” She kissed me again. “Tell them you love them every day.” I nodded. But I didn’t understand.

The others lined up on the beach to see me off, and they waved — as I’d waved — but I didn’t really recognize them. Only the woman was familiar. I tried to memorize her face but even that was fading.

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I untied the rope, and raised the sail, and took hold of the rudder and made for the sea. I waved to the woman and she blew me a kiss and I turned to face the sun. 

I went out to sea, and into the sea, and I lived, for a time in the water — listening to the ebb and flow of the waves. This must be where the others had gone. Well, not exactly this, but similar. 

At first there was no sound but the waves, rushing and pulsing and lulling me to sleep. But then I became aware of other sounds. Voices. One voice. Hers.

And soon the sea began to shrink around me, or perhaps I grew so it could no longer hold me. I wouldn’t go back to the island now. At least, not for a long long time. My boat was safe in the warm, dark water. 

And one day, suddenly, or maybe not really so suddenly at all, I came out of the sea into the world.

The End


Watch the video version here:

3 thoughts on “But Sometimes They Came Back (A Modern Fairy Tale)

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