THE MARVEL AND

OTHER SHORT STORIES

The Marvel
by Elle Heiderich

They were going to see a marvel – that was what his father had said. Londinium was dreary and grey that day; hardly a place for marvels, with all its smoggy drizzle. Sebastian followed close at his father’s heels, just tall enough to reach the man’s hand as he trotted along in suit and flat cap, cheeks ruddy with the nipping cold. His mother had objected at first – said it wasn’t appropriate to visit anywhere but church on a Sunday – but with the whole city clamouring even she hadn’t been able to fight off her curiosity for long; not even when tickets were a half-sovereign a-piece. They’d caught it off the coast of Devon, he’d heard someone say. Almost as soon as they had, there’d been something in the paper about it; tiny, of course – barely noticeable in its corner of the page. No one had believed it, after all. But then ‘experts’ had got involved, and the articles had quickly grown larger. Sebastian had no idea what an ‘expert’ was, or what they did, but the word seemed to carry weight with people and he assumed, therefore, that they belonged up there with other important people like ‘bank manager’, ‘God’ and ‘bloody politicians’ (who often earned his father a smack). According to these ‘experts’, the thing the fishermen had netted was no hoax. No. It was a marvel. Sebastian had never heard of one of those, either, but judging from the haste in his father’s step and the steadily-thickening crowds as they drew

closer to the Aquarium, he was definitely looking forward to seeing one. There were men, women, boys and girls of his own age – everyone bustling and hurrying and eager as they filed into their queues, money ready in hand for their turn at the ticket booth. The walls were so plastered in posters that they looked like giant broadsheets, blazoned black letters bleeding into soggy paper as they defied the miserable weather. ‘THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD!’ they declared audaciously, ‘SEE IT HERE TODAY WITH YOUR VERY OWN EYES!’ Slowly Sebastian and his parents drew closer to the entrance; slowly, the distance between him and the ticket booth shortened until the boy was so heavy with impatience he practically hung from his father’s hand. The cockle-shaped fans of the door plates had now become the most magical things Sebastian had ever seen, the brass shiny with the promise of something wonderful waiting on the other side. He watched with envy as the couple in front of them collected their tickets and made their way into the Aquarium. The girl seemed far more concerned with the effect of the drizzle was having on her hair than whatever spectacle awaited them. She even had a parasol to keep her dry, and still she fussed. She clearly wasn’t taking this half so seriously as Sebastian was. She didn’t deserve to go in first. In the time it took Sebastian to study the girl and conclude her his new worst enemy, coins became admission, and suddenly, they were walking again – walking towards those glistening brass seashells, following in the wake of that ridiculous pink bustle that Sebastian couldn’t even be bothered to glare at now as they passed into the cool dimness of the foyer and left the crowd behind. The marvel was close at hand, now, and Sebastian’s eyes were alight with it. All around them, ornately bracketed tanks lined the walls. Every wonder of the sea looked out from behind the glass – anemones and eels and jellyfish, all Sebastian’s favourites from previous visits, now passed by without a single glance. A

dark mass of people had gathered ahead of them in the gloom, similarly blind to anything but the largest and newest tank which stood in the centre of the hall, the blue of its illuminated water dancing in trembling shards across the walls. A human wall, ten bodies deep, stood between Sebastian and his marvel, and he strained on his toes in a valiant effort to glimpse it. No such luck – the forest of legs was thick. Loosing himself from his father’s hand with a tug, Sebastian stepped forth and began to navigate through the maze of britches and bustles: pushing and worming where necessary as he forged his way forward through the crowd. He hadn’t come all this way – in his Sunday best, he might add – just to settle for a brush of blue light! His stubborn squirming might have drawn a remark or a clip about the ears ordinarily, but it seemed that no push nor shove was noticeable enough to draw attention away from whatever sat in the middle of the mass. That dancing glow was growing stronger the closer he fought to get to it, too, and Sebastian redoubled his efforts until suddenly – finally – he found himself standing nosetip-to-nosetip with-… Himself. No, not himself, he realised after a start – merely a reflection of his wide-eyed gaze staring back at him in the glass, a ghostly twin against that solid, luminous turquoise. The colour filled his vision, stretching as far as he could see in every direction. The tank seemed so much bigger up close than it had done from a distance. He pressed his hands against the cold glass and leant in attentively, staring into the depths with a hopeful kind of breathlessness. He waited. The world suspended itself in a moment of endless stillness. He waited. And then a thread of silver bubbles glittered past his nose. It was the tail he saw first. A swipe of its fins had flicked against the confines of the tank and stirred up the whorl of air and water, drawing his attention as they did so; but these were

no ordinary fins. Sebastian had been to a wedding once, when his aunt had married his uncle, and the wind had been so fierce that day that the lace of his aunt’s long veil had billowed like it had a mind of its own; a fat floating river of gossamer, delicate and mesmerizingly spectral in the air. These fins, he thought, were just like that veil. Like shrouds of pearlescent smoke they drifted and furled, the dancing blue light glimmering between veins as fine as sewing thread. They moved with such grace, such languid fluidity, that they could have held him spellbound all on their own. But there was something beyond the fins. She was hesitant to emerge at first, shy of the crowd. There were always those one or two in Aquariums who insisted on knocking on tanks, as though noise and bad manners could command the occupants to perform, and a young man over to Sebastian’s left seemed perilously close to acting in kind – jollied on by his friends who all whispered and snickered amongst themselves like a pack of cautiously excited hounds. Before wind-bitten knuckles could beat their tattoo, however, a ripple of fin lowered in wary curiosity, and all about Sebastian, the room went deathly silent. It wasn’t the fact that she looked human, exactly… No human could have moved so perfectly in water as she did. It was more, perhaps, that she was the most beautiful thing anyone in that room had ever witnessed; so exotic and so strange and so perfect that no conman, no taxidermist could ever have hoped to come close with their withered homuncular fakeries – half monkey, half fish, and all wrong. Little though Sebastian was, little as he’d seen of the world, he stared up at the creature that floated above him with just as much rapture as anyone might – quiet and still as any child of six could be. Dinner plate eyes saw the mane of tendriled hair, the soulfully black eyes and the sculpted marble hands; the flash of silvermail scales on a long, snake-like tail as she slowly uncurled to study them.

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