Malial did not drown if that is what you are thinking. He encountered some of the pitfalls that come with following plans of some old man that you met in the middle of a haunted woods two days ago.
With a tiny enchanted clay tablet that he knew nothing about in his mouth, Malial dived under the waves. His feet became flippers, his skin turned green and his neck developed gills. To Malial, breathing under water felt like breathing on land; magic works that way (sometimes).
Tucked into his belt was a large sack and his father’s knife. A better class of hero might at least have had the decency to carry a dagger. This was a small knife, mostly used for opening jars and sharpening pencils. Nevertheless, he dove bravely into the currents until he could no longer see the surface.
Malial gripped the tiny blue “hope stone” between his teeth for fear of swallowing it. His mouth was still watering with anticipation of a good meal and the stone tasted strangely of fish. Nevertheless, he swam on, convinced that hope and faith would see his family saved. He pushed fear from his mind by imagining how he would tell his own children of this day.
On and on he swam searching the seabed. He passed within less than an arm’s length of a chest filled with gold coins. Had he found it, he could have purchased the freedom of his family and this story would end. This is not what happened.
After some time of searching, Malial found a bed of oysters. They were clustered around the opening to a cave far deeper than oysters are normally found. Inside the cave was darkness. To be fair, at this depth there was not exactly a lot of light outside of the cave either.
Malial knew nothing of collecting oysters for pearls. Indeed, he knew nothing of diving and not a lot more about the sea. Thus, he was unaware that he had dived further and deeper than any freediver ever had. This bed of oysters had remained untouched and unseen by men.
With his total lack of knowledge, it may seem surprising that Malial was able to identify the oysters at all. This is a somewhat unfair judgement to pass on a boy you know so little about. There are books in this world, after all. Malial was a farmer’s boy but that does not mean he was illiterate.
Sack in one hand and knife in the other, Malial cut oysters free from the silty rocks and placed each one in his sack. Preoccupied with this task, he did not see that there was another close by. At least, not at first.
He saw her there, swimming not more than two arms lengths from him. Her golden hair floating around her and a warm smile upon her rose-red lips. Where legs should have been she had a tail like a fish with scales which shimmered like iridescent gems.
Malial opened his mouth to yell in surprise and sea water rushed into his mouth forcing him to swallow. As soon as sea water and hope stone entered his throat, a fearsome transformation overcame him. This startled the mermaid, causing her to dart away.
His gills enlarged and his eyes became a dark red. Malial’s vision cleared and he could see in the depths as if it were a sunny day. Although he did not know it yet, his head was fishlike and resembled, in many ways, a frog. His chin had a green beard of whiskers and pronounced green gills ran down each side of his neck. What was left of his hair was patchy and the colour of seaweed. Over his body, algae-green scaled skin with black patches had replaced his skin. His fingers were webbed and his feet more closely resembled flippers than feet.
When his surprise had subsided he collected more oysters. Only now he knew, somehow, which were the best ones to take. It was as if he could see which ones carried the best pearls. Malial did not question this. He assumed it to be part of the magic that let him swim under water.
When his sack was full he swam away, looking for the mermaid and enjoying the depths of the sea. When he could not find her, he sated his appetite be feasting on whichever fish caught his eye. He was fast now, faster than any fish and he ate his fill.
He might have stayed under the waves, content to live the rest of his life down there. He might have been lost but for the one thought that he had tightly held on to for the entire dive. The thought that of his bride to be and the children they might have together one day.
Malial remembered his quest and swam for the beach which was now a long way distant. He arrived after sunset but found that the starlight hurt his eyes and air was now difficult to breathe.
He tried to call for the old man but his voice only made a sad croaking noise, like a very loud frog.
A little way down the coast was the old man. Malial could see him hunched over by the fire eating.
Malial came as close as he could and tried, once more, to call out. Instead, he let out a long low mournful croak that startled the old man.
Malial felt a deep disrepair. Like a ship’s captain knowing that his vessel is sinking and that there is no way to save it. He could feel the ocean calling him away and he wanted to answer the call.
There must be some part of me that knows how to talk, he reasoned. I was able to just a few hours ago. He thought carefully recalling exactly what it felt like to speak. His throat remembered and his lungs filled with air once more. He said faintly but in a calm voice, “old man, help me.”
“Who is there?” the old man called. “I am not alone and I am armed.”
“It’s me, Malial,” croaked Malial. “I am trapped.”
The old man approached cautiously, walking carefully along seaweed covered rocks. Finally, he saw the monster that Malial had become. If he felt any fear he did not show it.
“You foolish boy,” said the old man. “I warned you not to swallow the hope stone.”
The boy croaked sadly. “I was startled by a mermaid,” he said. He held up a sack filled with oysters from the depths. Oysters better than any man had ever seen.
“I see,” said the old man taking the sack from the Malial. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“Help me,” said Malial. “How do I undo this?”
“It’s impossible,” said the old man. He looked into the sack and smiled. “I thank you for the fine oysters.”
“There must be a way,” said Malial, weeping.
“If it can be done, I know nothing of how,” said the old man. “You are a merde vodníoy. You cannot come onto the land for you now are a creature of the water.”