I suspect it’s to do with love, this problem of mine.
Deep down, I worry I am incapable of it, not worthy of it, not up to the task of it. If love is an inheritance, then I’ve been given something faulty. I don’t trust love or myself to remain consistent; I don’t trust that I’ll feel the same way tomorrow as I did today. All my life I have pretended otherwise, and I have avoided feeling unacceptable feelings, and I wonder now if I’ve ever really felt how I really feel.
Rhiannon asked me recently if I was angry at my parents for everything that happened, and I told her I wasn’t. But the real answer is: I don’t know anymore. The rare times I’ve allowed myself to feel any anger towards my father it has ended up feeling like a betrayal. So I try not to go there. I’ve avoided the deep waters and mostly kept to the shallows.
But recently, late at night especially, I’ve found myself drifting downwards, down to the depths where the waters are darker, and I spend hours on the seabed, looking inwards at the black nothing, the sorry hurt washing through me until my body is heavy and solemn. And then, when it gets all too much, I let the air out of my bladder, allow the gas to stream into my blood, and I rise through the turbulent tides, floating up and up, until I’ve returned to safer waters.
It was on a shrimp hunt that I first heard of Aberkariad.
Uncle Nol had taken us out for the day, and after the first twenty or so feeds, he instructed us to take a break. Hitched on thick yellow fronds in a forest of kelp, he regaled my brothers and I with stories of his travels. When he mentioned Aberkariad, we must have looked dumbfounded.
‘You seriously telling me you’ve never heard of Aberkariad?’
‘Never,’ I said. ‘What are Aberkariad?’
‘Boys bach!’ Uncle Nol said, and his eyes turned outwards in disbelief. ‘Aberkariad is the region where the two territories overlap and our waters commingle with theirs. It’s the dizziest dream made real. It’s where you fill your pouch and dance until your head is spinning and your fins are in a twist.’
‘Aber-kariad,’ my brother Aled repeated, and the way he said ‘Aberkariad’ it sounded almost enchanted. It was as if he heard a music in the word that the rest of us couldn’t.
‘I still don’t get it,’ Hywel said.
Uncle Nol clicked his mouth. ‘Bloody hell boys, what has that father of yours been teaching you?’
‘Hunting plankton,’ Berwyn replied coolly. ‘The secret is keeping still.’
‘And the importance of rest and sleep,’ Llwyd added, quite proud of himself.
Uncle Nol sighed. ‘Hunting and sleeping are vital, but what I’m on about is way more important.’
‘Lies!’ Ieuan said.
‘I don’t lie,’ Uncle Nol replied, and then feeling Aled rustling at his side, he turned to him. ‘Young buck, what am I talking about?’
‘Females?’ Aled ventured.
‘Got it in one, son!’ Uncle Nol cried. ‘Aberkariad is the place we go to meet and mate with the fillies. And I’m telling you now boys, it’s the greatest place in the sea.’
‘Yes!’ Aled shouted, and then he twirled 360 in celebration.
Uncle Nol’s narrow mouth widened into a smile. ‘Seriously, boys, if I could die anywhere, well—bloody hell, what a place to expire. Hot horses all over the shop.’
Buoyed by Uncle Nol and Aled’s excitement, my brothers started giggling and bashing their heads together.
‘Ask your father about it tonight,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘It’s about time he started letting go.’
‘Letting go of what?’ I said.
Uncle Nol looked at me, and craned his thick neck, as if to consider another angle on the matter. ‘I think that’s a conversation for another day,’ he whispered. And then turning back to the boys, he called out: ‘Let’s get back to the hunting, is it? Those shrimpy pricks ain’t gonna eat themselves.’
Leaving the forest, I asked Aled why he was so enthused by the idea of Aberkariad and fillies—because I couldn’t see the appeal.
‘It’s about doing what we are born to do,’ he said. And then, inflating himself with gas, the better to show off his newly-emerged brood pouch, he added: ‘It’s about finally filling up this hole.’
That evening, at home in the living room, Aled asked Father about visiting Aberkariad.
‘Can we go tomorrow?’
‘There’s not a worm’s chance,’ Father growled. ‘Aberkariad is no place for young foals.’
‘But we’re five months old!’ Aled shouted.
‘You’re still too young for what goes on there,’ Father said.
Dewi got involved then. ‘But me and Aled already have brood pouches. We’re studs!’
‘Oh for crying out loud,’ Father said. ‘A brood pouch doesn’t make you a stud.’
‘Then what does?’ Aled asked.
‘What have I always told you?’ Father replied. ‘Millions of young fry die every year simply because their fathers abandon them. Ignore what Uncle Nol tells you, and take my word for it: there’s more to being an adult than screwing.’
But if my brothers were listening, Father’s words didn’t seem to register. A few minutes later Aled shouted, ‘Starfish!’ and they all quickly joined their tails together at different angles, and glided off through the ocean, slowly floating away from Father and I, singing as Aled led them in song: ‘Aberkariad—wooh! Aberkariad—wooh!’
Before I heard about Aberkariad, I had never questioned how exactly love would find me. Father had always presented it as something inevitable: when the time was right, and only when the time was right, we would meet the right partner—a female with whom we’d form a life bond—and we would love and be loved for the rest of our days.
It was presented as something ordained and natural, like the way the light of the rising sun coursed orange through the waters at dawn; and how the waters brightened as the sun climbed higher and the day turned yellow; and how the waters eventually faded golden with sunset; until finally everything darkened, and we basked on coral in the diffracted light of the bare lonesome moon.
‘Let them go, mun,’ Uncle Nol was saying a few weeks later. ‘Let them go to Aberkariad.’
We were in the living room again, gathered around Father as he worked on a portrait of Mother. In this one, she appeared side-on: her curvy white tail wrapped around a long blade of grass; a serene smile lighting her face. Many such portraits lined the whalebone shelves of our home, and in each picture Mother looked so warm and so friendly I felt as if I knew her.
‘Please, Dad,’ Ieuan said, inflating his own new brood pouch. ‘Let us go to Aberkariad!’
‘It’s not the right time for you boys yet,‘ Father replied. ‘You’re just not ready.’
‘Of course they’re ready,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘For cod’s sake, they’re six months old.’
‘I’m talking emotionally,’ Father said.
‘Oh here we go,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘Captain Loveheart strikes again.’
‘Mock me all you like,’ Father said.
‘Thank you,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘I will.’
Father did not react to that comment. He simply gazed down at the portrait and applied delicate strokes to the dorsal stripes on Mother’s back. I too had the same distinctive stripe on my back, and was secretly thrilled that I was the only one of my brothers to have inherited it.
‘Seriously, though,’ Uncle Nol said, ‘your behaviour is just so unmale. How did you ever grow so attached to one partner?’
‘It’s called love,’ Father said. ‘It’s called honouring a commitment. She’ll be back soon, once the seasons change. The waters are just a bit choppy right now.’
Uncle Nol shook his head and tutted.
‘You really need to get back out there, mun,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to meet someone new.’
Father laughed. ‘As much as I appreciate this little pep-talk, I’m happy as a seal, thank you.’
Uncle Nol shook his head and turned to us.
‘You know what, boys? Your father should be doing my portrait. Because without horses like me, there’d be no bloody species left.’
But Father gave no reply.
He simply smiled to himself, dipped the stem of his reed into his dish of octopus ink, and continued with his painting.
That night, at supper, Aled again pushed Father on the topic of Aberkariad. He wanted to know if Aberkariad was where he had met our mother.
‘It was indeed,’ Father answered.
‘Then why deny us that same chance for love?’ Aled argued.
‘I’m not denying you that,’ Father replied. ‘I just think you should wait a little bit longer. There’s still some things you need to learn.’
‘Like what?’ Ieuan said.
‘Well, for starters: the importance of taking responsibility,’ Father said. ‘My own father abandoned me soon as I was born. Can you imagine what that was like? Can you imagine how different life would be for you boys if I hadn’t been around to look after you all?’
‘Plenty of other horses live like that, and they’re just fine,’ Aled said. ‘Look at Uncle Nol!’
‘Listen,’ Father answered, ‘your Uncle Nol was affected as much by our father’s leaving as I was. But he just deals with it differently. To come into the world without a clue of who you are or what you’re meant to do… I… I just don’t think you ever get over it.’
‘But it’s so common though,’ Berwyn said. ‘Almost every horse has to deal with it.’
‘I know,’ Father replied, ‘but just because an experience is common, it doesn’t make it any less painful to go through. And when I became a father, I—well—I made a vow to do things differently, you know? I promised myself—and I promised your mother too—that I would stick around and support my children. And you know what? I don’t regret that. Every single day I am happy and grateful that I made that choice.’
To which Aled replied: ‘Yeah well, look where it got you.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You’re here on your own, aren’t you? And where the hell is Mam?’
‘She’s coming back,’ Father said.
‘But how do you know?’ Ieuan said. ‘How can you say that?’
‘Because she’s not like other horses,’ Father replied. ‘She has a good light within her, and the good light will guide her home. Just as soon as the seasons change. The waters are just too rough right now.’
Berwyn said: ‘But if most horses leave their fry, then how can it be wrong?’
Father looked at us earnestly. ‘Just because something is normal,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t mean it’s right.’
‘Now I’m confused,’ I said. ‘Does that mean Mother is a bad horse or what?’
‘Oh boys bach,’ Father said. ‘Your mother didn’t leave you. She just hasn’t come back yet. Your mother is a wonderful horse.’
‘If she’s so wonderful,’ Aled said, ‘then how come she isn’t here right now?’
‘Ah crabs,’ he said. ‘I can see I need to tell this story from the start.’
This is what our father told us:
The moment he was thrust into this life—the first thing he saw was his father’s back as he swam away and abandoned him. Immediately, Father said, he felt within himself a throbbing lack, a deep wound that ached in his core.
Of all his surviving siblings, Nol was the only one he found. Alone and tiny in a vast sea, they joined tails and vowed to always stick together.
And so they swam on, hunting together, feeding together, and resting together when they were tired. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was good to have someone by his side.
However, as tides turned, they met new horses and they made new friends, and Uncle Nol began to meet and mate with fillies. Each time, the same thing would happen: Nol would get pregnant, give birth, abandon the fry and each time he and Father would have the same argument: how could Nol do this when he knew exactly how it felt to come into the world alone?
Uncle Nol’s response was to laugh at Father and tell him to lighten up (‘Your skin’s getting so grey!’) and he kept urging Father to just mate with someone, anyone. So for a while Father went on dates and he met with fillies, and… well… they were all great horses in their own right, but in their company he did not feel the charge he knew he should feel.
He sang to us then from his favourite folk song:
Come to me, the wave of love,
Wash over me, from high above
Carry me to distant waters
And carry me to secret shores
For I long to meet the one who’ll tell me:
‘You are mine—and I am yours.’
He said he wanted more from life than just a series of casual encounters, followed by multiple births and what he saw as a dereliction of parental duty.
One evening, after Nol gave birth to another herd of abandoned foals, Father’s skull was throbbing with all these thoughts; and a deep pain emanated from the pit of his guts, and he just wanted it all to go away. Without thinking, he started swimming. He swam farther than he’d ever gone in one go before, he just kept swimming, without a care for where he’d end up. Looking back, he said, it was a pretty senseless and dangerous thing to do—there were crabs and rays and so many other predators along the way—but it was the pain that pushed him on, it was the pain that powered his fins.
He kept going until he suddenly felt a trembling in the water, a kind of grumbling that shook his bones. And that’s when we saw a volcano in the distance—the white smoke billowing from its rocks—and he realised he’d reached Aberkariad. He’d been to Aberkariad once before with Uncle Nol, but he had hated the place: all the noise, all the horses parading themselves; all the thrusting and the callous boasting and the pumping and the clicking, it had all seemed to him distressingly indecent.
But it was late now, and Aberkariad was as quiet as a cave, and everything was still and empty, except for one horse who floated alone, her tail wrapped around some seagrass.
Can’t sleep? she said. And in the distance the volcano rumbled.
Not in ages, he replied.
Well that makes two of us, she said.
At first, Father didn’t know what to make of this horse. He sensed something cold and distant in her, but he also kind of liked it—he liked that she hadn’t immediately tried to mount him.
What’s on your mind? she said.
The whirring in his head and the shuddering of the volcano all rose inside of him and what spilled out was just the truth:
I’m in pain, he said.
And the horse nodded and smiled.
You’re not alone there, she said.
I am just so sick of pretending I’m fine, he said.
Me too, she said. I’m in pain, and I feel so lonely.
This is it, he said. The loneliness. Where does it even come from?
I don’t know, she said. I’ve been too scared to ever ask.
They both fell into a long silence, and then the horse finally said: I’ve never told anyone this, and she proceeded to tell Father about her birth, and how it had felt to watch her father swim away, abandon her. She spoke of her childhood, of the lack she had carried inside ever since, of the throbbing wound that pained her, that kept her up at night.
As she spoke, Father’s blood rippled, his gills flittered, and the horse’s face seemed to transform before his eyes.
He confessed to her that he too had felt the same lack, and that the pain moved inside him like a seeping madness.
So much of my life feels unreal, he said. It’s like I’ve switched off from it or something.
Yes, she said, I know exactly what you mean. But how come everyone else doesn’t feel like this? Everyone else just seems fine. Unless they’re just pretending?
They talked like this throughout the night and all through the morning, and as day broke Father’s tail began to glow, and he told the horse how it felt like he was finally commencing his life proper now. For so long, he’d just been swimming in circles, but now he could see his true course—and it was beautiful.
He told her how the light inside of him throbbed when they spoke and how it shone throughout him now, so that that his skin was brightening, changing from light orange to red.
He told her how, for the very first time now, his fins finally felt at rest.
It was hard to explain, he told us, but with this horse everything felt familiar and nostalgic, as if the present was a fond memory he wanted to always recall. It was the joy and blood-thrill of being understood, he said, of being ready to give himself entirely to another.
And when he explained all this to the horse, when he told her about his inner light and how it shone for her and only her, she kissed him.
‘Oh!’ our father exclaimed, ‘your mother and I were head over tails in love!’
On the mornings of their courtship, she greeted him by rubbing her snout against his. For their pre-dawn dance, they joined tails and promenaded around one another for hours, her eyes fixed on his, his eyes fixed on hers. Sometimes they even did the cha-cha.
Mother apparently adored silly jokes, and she was forever making up ridiculous dance moves to get Father to laugh. His own favourite was the one she called The Hurricane—she’d fill her bladder with gas and speedily zip upwards through the water, pretending she was being cast away by crazy winds. She, in turn, couldn’t get enough of Father’s impressions. She particularly loved his one of the carp who’d eaten something disgusting and couldn’t get the taste out of its mouth. He told us that she made him do it repeatedly, her head flipping back as she succumbed to a fit of laughter. Sometimes she’d laugh so much she would blush, and she would turn her back on Father for a moment while she composed herself. With her back to him, he would look at the distinctive red stripes that lined her dorsal and think how wondrous it was to be alive.
While the other females returned to their territory after the mating dance, Mother stayed on, and she and Father would talk for hours about all the many possible functions of family, and all their plans for the future—and the sacred life-bond they were swearing to keep. They both despised the neglect and the selfishness they saw all around them. Neither wanted to be like the other horses, the ones who gave birth then left their fry to fend for themselves; and they were passionate about the idea of setting up a family unit, of raising their offspring together, and teaching the next generation how to survive and lead meaningful lives.
Some days they didn’t even feel the need to talk. They just floated together quietly, their tails wrapped around the same reed, each content to be in the other’s company. If she was tired and needed a little rest, he would keep watch for predators. And she, in turn, would do the same for him.
When he fell pregnant with us, Mother visited each day, checking up and making extensive inquiries about his well-being. Was he eating enough? Was he comfortable? Did he want her to scratch his back with her snout? As the pregnancy progressed, and he slowly brightened to match the bright red kelp they swung among, Father’s pouch swelled, and he said it was as if his body was swelling not just because of the pregnancy, but because of this love—this shape-shifting, transformative love that he felt for this family they were making together.
Snaffling at meals, he would listen contentedly as Mother sung merry songs about the future. In Mother’s songs, she and Father were raising a big family, and they all lived together, and they all looked out for each other, and no one felt as if they were travelling through the waters of life alone and unknown, drifting through the sea without hope or purpose.
Then one morning, a week before he was due to give birth, Mother didn’t show up for their courting dance. He waited all day, and only hunted nearby in case he’d miss her, but she didn’t come. This worried him immediately—it was so out of character for her—but he figured she must have had a good reason. He knew for sure that she was still alive—he could feel it in his gills—and he was certain she would soon return.
The following morning, he woke early, though he hadn’t really slept at all, and he hung onto the reeds in their usual spot, and he waited. He waited all day again, and he waited all night. And he waited the entirety of the next day, and the one after that. But she never showed.
It must have been because of the seasons, our father concluded. The skies above were darkening and the waters were becoming rough. It would have been too dangerous for her to visit.
He considered going to find her, but at this stage he could feel his brood pouch stretching as we all began to hatch and swim around inside him, jostling to be the first ones out into the world. He felt he was close to bursting, and he needed to conserve energy, so he decided to stay put.
A few days later, alone and afraid, he went into contractions, and thought he saw Mother peering at him from behind a rock, but it was a hallucination, the delirium of birthing pain.
Because then, a moment later, it began: he thrusted and he expelled sixty, seventy tiny horses into the sea. He tried to gather the fry together, but they kept swimming off in all directions. His blood ran cold and his skin turned grey, but there was no time to think. Because then another surge came, and another gush of foals sprung forth out of his reach. And so it went. Each time he managed to gather a couple of small fry by his side and re-compose himself, another batch would be expelled from his pouch—another school of tiny horses flung out into the world confused and alone, swept away by the unforgiving tide. ‘Come here!’ he shouted to them. ‘I’m your father and I love you.’
He said it was just too difficult, too tiring, to gather them, to bring them all together in one place. It was an impossible task to achieve on his own.
Over the course of three hours, he gave birth to over one thousand horses, almost all of whom were lost to the sea.
He told us: ‘You six boys are the only ones who survived.’
But our mother couldn’t wait to meet us, Father said.
She’d be back any day now, he just knew it, he could feel it.
I took the story on as though it were my own: in my bones, I felt Father’s love, his loss, and his separation from Mother. I can’t be sure—because I never talked about it with them—but I don’t believe my brothers felt like this. I don’t know why—I don’t understand how siblings can react so differently to one another—and I don’t judge them for it either. It’s just something I observed. They were respectful enough to stop speaking about Aberkariad in his presence, but I sensed that they were able to elude the shadows of Father’s pain in ways I never could.
I don’t know whether it was coming from me, or from him, but after hearing Father’s story about Mother, I noticed a change in his behaviour. I felt a new urgency in the lessons he taught us. His voice took on a fresh intensity as he tried to rapidly impart everything he knew. On certain subjects, he constantly repeated himself. Again and again, he emphasised to us the value of rest. He explained that compared to other creatures, us horses are very poor swimmers. Because our fins are small we are prone to exhaustion. Every year, he said, thousands of horses die through simple overexertion. The amount of times I saw my father stopping a speeding brother in his gallop! (‘Slow down!’ he’d yell. ‘Where’s the drought?’)
A few days after the story, however, we woke to find Aled missing. It sent Father into a tailspin. (‘If he means to break my heart, he’s going the right way about it!’) Aled eventually returned and he told our father he had only popped out to practise his length-swimming. Father’s response was to give Aled an extended lecture on the importance of not tiring oneself out.
‘But I’m not you!’ Aled snapped. ‘I’m young, I’ve still got energy!’
‘All I’m saying is you need to pace yourself,’ Father answered. ‘This goes for all of you. Because, believe it or not, you will get old, and you never know when you’ll need to set your fins a flutter. A bit of rest, when it comes down to it, could be the difference between living your days out here in the water or ending up as a nice dessert in some giant tuna’s belly.’
And so the days went: with small family bickerings as Father attempted to make us into ‘real horses’.
Mornings, he would wake early just to find the best seagrass for us to curl our tails around. When he found us a good spot, he would come back and gently wake us and bring us out for hunting lessons. We’d stalk out, holding still in our hiding spots, watching the copepod as they floated passed.
‘The trick is keeping steady,’ he’d whisper. ‘Let them come to you. These fellas are blind, but they detect movement in the water. You need to keep so, so still if you’re going to catch them.’
We’d gently swill around the rocky seabed like this, wrapping our tails around the best seagrass, and then waiting till Father gave us the signal. As soon as prey came our way, he would nod and make a clicking sound, and we’d swivel our heads, and huuuuuuu!—we sucked and slurped those fellas right up our snouts.
One day, after a good hunt, we were all laughing and recounting the best bits when we arrived home to find Uncle Nol lying languorously on Father’s clam-shell couch. His face was bloated, and his brood pouch was so large and swollen; he looked grotesque.
As we swam in, he began to bob his head and sing, ‘Up the duff, up the duff, guess who’s up the duff?’
My brothers gasped.
‘Can I rub my snout against it?’ Llwyd asked.
‘It would be an honour,’ Uncle Nol said, and he pulled Llwyd close.
‘It’s amazing!’ Llwyd said. ‘I can feel them all in there! There must be a million fry inside you!’
Uncle Nol nodded to Father then. ‘I don’t suppose you want a feel, do you?’
Father rolled his eyes and shook his head in reply, and I felt a keen tension between the two. I watched Father’s eyes closely then as they slowly took in the picture of Uncle Nol. I wondered what he was thinking, how he saw our uncle. But then Father’s face broke into a resigned smile and he swam over and offered his tail to Nol to shake.
‘Well, here we are again,’ Father said, before proposing that Uncle Nol stay for a celebratory dinner.
That evening, as Father prepared shrimp in the kitchen, Uncle Nol brought me and my brothers out to the swing-bench in the garden.
‘It’s clear your father’s not gonna tell you any of this,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘So I guess it falls to me.’
He blew in a little air then—the better to show off his swelling pouch. The skin looked so tight I feared the pouch might burst.
‘The first thing you need to know is that fillies come with the tide and leave with the tide. You got that, kids? I love your father, but he talks a lot of guff about all this—that we should be monogamous, and that we should mate for life, but let me tell you—it’s crab shit. You can’t trust a filly. When you’re courting, they’ll tell you everything you want to hear. They’ll greet you every morning, have a little dance with you, grab your tail, tell you they love you, tell you there’s no other horse they want to mate with, tell you that they’ll be there for life, that this is a life-bond, that they can’t imagine life without you, that there’s no one else they want, and then before you know, it, you’re up the duff, swollen with a thousand of their sprogs, and then they’ve gone. The day after you give birth, you go to find them, but where are they? They’ve swam off to shack up with some other horse on the other side of the volcano.’
I let out an involuntary snort.
‘Trust me,’ he added. ‘I know what I’m talking about—I’ve been with a lot of fillies.’
I hated everything Uncle Nol was saying. But I could see that his pregnant state bestowed him—in the eyes of my brothers—a certain authority. They looked at him with wide eyes and they listened with a special intensity. His round pouch granted him a degree of practical wisdom that our father’s thin frame seemed to lack. But looking at Uncle Nol’s pouch, I kept imagining the thousand tiny horses inside of him. In one of our recent night-time conversations, when everyone else was asleep, Father had told me again about how so few young foals lived beyond a day because their parents abandon them at birth; and looking at Nol’s fat pouch now, the nature of life and death seemed strange and cruel to me. How arbitrary it was that I should have lived, while so many others had died. It was a thin line that divided the good from the bad, and it was a thin line that separated our pleasant ease of living from the sheer horror of abandonment and death.
‘Now listen up, and listen clear,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘There’s no one true partner for anyone. We’re out here alone. You just need to go to Aberkariad, get your pouch filled, and then move on. That’s what life is about.’
I couldn’t contain myself any longer.
‘But what about love?’ I said.
Uncle Nol looked at me, and then gave a pitiful shake of the head. ‘You’re worse than your dad, you are.’
And all my brothers laughed at that.
‘Look,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘When you grow up you might meet a stunning female, a real big one. The kind that really gets your gills pulsing. You might think it’s a great idea to form a bond with her for the mating season. I admit I have had these thoughts myself! And hey, that’s okay to believe. It’s called hope, it’s what gets us through the waves. But at the end of the day, when the moon shines high above, love is codswallop. Once the mating season’s over, it’s kaput, move on! There’s no use being like Old Captain Loveheart over there and getting hung up on one female.’
As Uncle Nol spoke, I felt a tingling in my coronet. I looked to the kitchen, where Father’s face appeared in the window. He was whistling the tune to ‘The Wave of Love’, and for a moment I felt pity for him—and then I became angry at Uncle Nol for making me feel this way towards my father. Watching him slowly move around the kitchen, his face seemed to dissolve, change, until it finally belonged to someone I didn’t recognise. The face didn’t look like my father’s at all, but like the face of the crazy old horse I once saw beyond the green kelp, the one who dithered in circles, muttering about sharks. But when that horse in the kitchen looked up and saw me watching him, he smiled at me—a small, tired smile—and in that face I again recognised my father, and I realised, maybe for the first time, that he was deeply sad.
‘Shrimp!’ Nol was shouting. ‘Bring out the shrimp!’
That night I dreamt uneasy dreams. I was at the bottom of the ocean, swimming in the dark among the debris of the dead: all the horses who had never made it, their spines and flesh rotting and decomposing in the ocean floor.
When I awoke, Aled was already up and about.
‘I’m off out for some hunting practice,’ he said. ‘Wanna join?’
‘Why are you practising so much?’ I asked. Bits of the dream still clung to me and my flesh rippled with a creepy tingling.
‘I’m going to Aberkariad,’ he said. ‘I’m going soon.’
‘But we’re not ready yet,’ I said. ‘You heard what Father thinks.’
‘Dad’s wrong,’ Aled said.
‘He’s not,’ I said.
‘Of course, he is,’ Aled said. ‘He’s just scared of losing us, that’s what it’s all about.’
‘You’re the one who’s wrong,’ I said.
‘Berwyn’s coming too,’ he said, ‘and Ieuan, and Dewi. Are you in or what?’
‘When are you going?’ I asked gently. I did not want him to go.
‘I talked about it with Uncle Nol last night,’ Aled said. ‘Nol says if Dad won’t do it, then he’ll happily take us to Aberkariad. Once he’s given birth and recovered, he’ll be good to go. In the meantime, he wants us practising our swimming. It’s a long journey.’
‘It’s really not right,’ I said. ‘You shouldn’t—’
‘We have to live our own life,’ Aled said.
‘I know that,’ I said, ‘but—’
‘Listen,’ Aled said. ‘Are you a horse or a shrimp?’
‘I’m clearly a horse,’ I replied.
He snapped his head at me. ‘Well start acting like one.’
His snapping pierced me and I lowered my head, and then he added: ‘Ah look, I just want my brother to be happy.’
‘I am happy,’ I protested.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
With Uncle Nol pregnant, Father seemed to withdraw into himself. He became oblivious to Aled’s plotting, and between hunts he would retire to the couch and paint portraits of Mother. One evening, he asked me to pose for him so that he could perfect the dorsal stripe that she and I shared.
‘She’s going to get such a kick out of seeing your stripe,’ he said. ‘She’ll give you such a big cwtch.’
I tried to keep the smile on my face, but the effort became wearing, and soon I saw the colour draining from my body.
‘What’s going on?’ Father said. ‘Are you alright? Are you getting enough rest?’
‘I’m not tired,’ I said.
‘Then what’s the matter?’ he said. ‘I’m your father, you can tell me things.’
I sighed and I hummed. And then finally I said it: ‘I’ve been thinking about Aberkariad.’
‘Oh,’ my father said, putting down his reed.
‘Were you ever going to tell us about it?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘But only in good time.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘And now’s not the time. Once the seasons change and your tails lengthen, it’ll be different’ he said. ‘You boys will have met your mother by then, and all of this will have been worth it.’
‘She’s coming back,’ I said, almost to myself.
‘She really is,’ he said, and then he looked up at the portraits of Mother that lined our shelves. ‘She’s going to love you so much when she sees you. She loves you so much already. I hope you know that.’
‘I do,’ I said.
I joined my father in gazing up at the portraits, and for the first time in my life I began to doubt him.
Over the next week I shrivelled. My tail turned grey and inside of me I felt my guts being pulled apart. I had an urge to flee, but I also felt this pressure—a physical pressure—to stay put. I felt finless and stuck. I was exhausted, as if some vital life force was seeping away.
One morning, I was hitched on a blade of grass outside our home when I had the sudden sensation that I couldn’t, shouldn’t, swim even a tail’s length away to the next blade of grass. If I left the spot I was in, if I so much as moved a single beat of my fins, I was convinced that something terrible would happen to me or my family.
And that’s where I was when Uncle Nol passed on by, singing an upbeat ditty.
‘Well hello there,’ he said.
‘Oh hi,’ I said, and I noticed how newly slim and limber he was. While I felt sombre and stuck, he was passing through without a seeming care. I nodded at his empty pouch. ‘Well, how did it all go?’
‘Like a dream,’ he answered, beaming. ‘It was just: ping ping ping, fry, fry fry.’
‘And where are they all now?’ I asked, as a current inside me began to rise.
‘No idea,’ he said, and he shrugged. ‘But it’s none of my concern.’
The current inside of me rose higher still and my snout began to quiver.
‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘This is how horses have always done things. We’re meant to be independent. So please, don’t go believing everything your crazy old father tells you.’
I finally snapped.
‘Crazy?’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you what’s crazy: the fact that fewer than 0.25% of all the horses who are born ever survive into adulthood. And why? Because their fathers don’t stick around. They up and leave, and then the poor kids have to learn everything on their own. Horses like you make me want to never have kids.’
‘Woah, now,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘You need to calm it there.’
‘I’m only stating the truth.’
‘You mean the truth as your father tells it.’
‘Well, is he wrong?’ I said.
‘Your father’s soft in the head,’ he said.
‘My father’s a good horse,’ I said, and I could hear the anger in my voice. ‘He has honour and integrity, and that’s a lot more than you have.’
Uncle Nol clicked in derision.
‘You’re a bright kid, son, you always have been. But you’ve got to use your own head: have you ever wondered why your father stays around here, looking after you kids? Has it ever crossed your mind to consider why he hasn’t moved on and found himself a new filly? Or for that matter, why he hasn’t gone to find your mother?’
‘Because she’s coming back,’ I shouted. ‘As soon as the seasons change.’
‘Boy,’ he said, ‘the seasons have changed twice since you were born, and where’s your mam, hey?’
The current was up in my mouth now. I was furious. ‘She’s coming back, you stupid blobfish.’
Uncle Nol shook his head.
I spat at him, more in desperation than in anger, because I suddenly realised I no longer believed in what I was saying.
Uncle Nol looked at me. His big open face was full of sympathy.
‘Boy,’ he said.
‘She’s not coming back, is she?’ I said finally.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Listen,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘Once upon a time, a filly made a promise to a stud, because she wanted to screw. That’s all it was. A phoney trade. But your father was always too much of a pipefish to see it.’
‘Why are you saying this to me?’ I said.
‘Listen now, son, that filly doesn’t give a shit about you or any of the many other fry she’s had and will continue to have.’
‘What do you mean, “continue to have”?’
‘She basically lives in Aberkariad,’ Uncle Nol replied. ‘Go there if you don’t believe me. You’ll recognise her. ‘Cos credit where credit’s due, she looks exactly like your father’s paintings.’
The conversation filled my body with sensations I didn’t want to feel. A heavy liquid settled in my gut, and slow trickles of it seeped into me throughout the day. There was a tightness in my gills and with each breath a jagged tooth stabbed me, made me think I might die. My brothers were laughing and joking, but I couldn’t join in. I was folding in on myself.
The following morning, however, my own brood pouch emerged, and I couldn’t be sure if all these feelings coursing through my body were because of the conversation or because of the pouch. I looked down at the pouch and was filled with disgust. I had lied to my body: I had led it to believe that I was ready to be an adult, and it was absurd to me that a female could now drop her eggs into the pouch and within weeks I would be a father. All these young foals would enter the world; new lives, made without meaning or reason, except for the fact that two horses once had sex. The fry themselves would have no choice in the matter, in the same way I had never chosen to be chosen. It seemed incredible, almost negligent of nature, that there was nothing else governing this, that no greater permission need be sought. I suddenly realised that anyone could become a parent—that what qualified you to have fry was not your intentions or your heart or your abilities. You just had to be alive long enough. And yet, this didn’t make me any more capable or up to the task. Deep down, I felt I still didn’t measure up to some standard of fatherhood as I understood it. These ideas often took a physical shape: Father was still so much bigger than me, his tail so much thicker, his bones stronger, his voice deeper. But yet, it was more than just the physical differences that made me feel ill-equipped. Father seemed, in unequivocal ways, archetypically adult. He possessed mental maps I could never read. How could my brothers even believe they were ready to become parents?
That afternoon though, I joined Aled on a hunt, and I immediately saw how mistaken I was. In the last few weeks Aled had become astoundingly skilled at catching copepod, and I watched with awe as he sucked up meal after meal with aplomb. He seemed to me like an adult.
‘You’ve gotten so good at that,’ I said. ‘You’re fearless.’
‘Well, I know what I want,’ he said. ‘And I know what I need. Once you know these things, everything else falls away.’
I didn’t really understand. I had never before thought about what I wanted or what I needed. Surely I could only want what I needed. And Father had always been there to make sure we had all that we needed. So what more was there to want?
‘How do you know what you want?’ I said.
‘Dad was right about the light,’ Aled replied. ‘You just have to be still a while, very still, and then you’ll feel it.’
There was a silence between us. I tried to picture the light inside of me, but all I could feel was a hole, a hole where the light should be.
‘We’re going to be leaving tomorrow,’ he finally said. ‘Will you come with us?’
I let out an involuntary growl and turned my head. I couldn’t look at him.
‘You can do whatever you like,’ Aled said. ‘It’s your life. You’ve got the pouch now, you’re an adult. But you have to make sure you’re doing what you want to do. That’s what Nol’s always telling me.’
‘It’s just I still think we should all wait a bit longer,’ I said. ‘Then we can all go to Aberkariad together, you know? Father can take us, and Uncle Nol could maybe come along too. Why not wait a bit longer?’
‘I’m not going to stop you doing whatever you need to do,’ Aled said. ‘But I’m not going to wait around here a day longer than I want to.’
‘Well, I’m going to miss you,’ I said.
‘Ah, but I’ll be back before you know it,’ he replied, and with that we joined tails and began the swim home.
As we glided, I tried to really feel what it was I wanted. I was focusing very hard, trying again to imagine the shape of the light inside of me. Was it firing? Was it dimming? If I did have a light inside of me, it felt as though it were aching.
When we reached the homestead, we detached from one another, and I thought of all the portraits inside the house. I pictured finally meeting Mother, and what I might say to her. I didn’t know if Uncle Nol had told Aled what he had told me. I considered saying something, but I didn’t want Aled confronting Father, not before he left. Or maybe it was something more selfish, maybe I still didn’t want to believe that Mother was in Aberkariad. Maybe if I told anyone else, it would become real.
We were about to go inside when I saw a figure approaching us.
‘Who’s that?’ I said.
‘It’s a filly!’ Aled cried.
And he was right. I had met so few in real life, outside of paintings, that it felt almost unreal for this filly to be so getting so near. When she swam up close, I was struck by her wondrous eye-lashes and her snout that was so beautifully curved.
‘Well, well, well,’ the filly said. ‘You two must be Gareth’s sons. I’d recognise those eyes in any waters.’
I smiled and nodded, and Aled inflated his brood pouch.
‘Adult sons,’ he confirmed.
‘Ah very good,’ the filly replied. ‘Hey, your Uncle Nol said I might catch your father around these parts. Is he around? I’d love to have a little chat with him.’
‘He’s probably having a nap,’ Aled said. ‘But I can fetch him if you like?’
‘There’s a good boy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’
‘Just wait here,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back before you know it.’
While Aled went to get Father, I stayed out front. In the filly’s company, I was suddenly aware of my brood pouch, and how it silently rested there between us.
‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ she said.
I couldn’t quite make eye contact with the filly. I kept thinking of my pouch, of how it would feel were it full of a filly’s eggs.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Lovely day.’
I finally raised my eyes. The filly’s rounded cheeks glowed, and her long snout seemed somehow wise.
‘We’re old friends, your father and me,’ the filly said, and I noticed how large her eyes were.
‘Oh right,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘It’s just I ran into your uncle recently and he mentioned your father. It got me wondering how he was doing.’
I didn’t know what to say; in this filly’s company, I felt strangely deferential.
‘You know,’ she said. ‘You really do have your mother’s snout.’
A cold tide surged through my body, but before I could reply, Father had joined us outside, with Aled beaming beside him.
When Father saw who it was, he told us boys to go inside for a minute.
‘Who do you think she is?’ Aled said when we reached the living room.
‘She could be anyone,’ I said, still thinking about Mother.
‘Well obviously,’ Aled said. ‘She was sexy, though, wasn’t she?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. I didn’t know how you were meant to tell who was sexy and who wasn’t. Had the filly thought I was sexy?
Father soon returned, panting and annoyed.
‘Your bloody uncle,’ he said.
‘Who is she?’ Aled said. ‘Is she still out there?’
‘He’s an interfering cod is what he is.’
We both stared at our father.
‘Her name’s Rhiannon,’ Father said. ‘She’s someone I knew a long time ago.’
‘Does she want to mate?’ Aled asked.
‘I’m too old and too tired for all that,’ Father said. ‘Once you bring up six boys, the thought of having any more is enough to make you want to lie down. Besides, I love your mother, and she’ll be here soon.’
‘Just as soon as the seasons change,’ Aled scoffed.
‘Exactly,’ Father replied, as if he heard only the words and not the tone with which they were delivered. ‘Once the waters calm down, your mother will return and we can finally be a family again.’
Early the following morning, as Father slept on, we all waited outside for Uncle Nol’s arrival. Aled entertained us with the mating-dance moves he’d been busy practising all night, but the other boys seemed tense, quiet. Aled tried to gee them up, but something wasn’t right.
When Uncle Nol arrived, he called out, ‘Ready, boys?’ and no one said anything except Aled. Giddy, he burst out, ‘Bring on the fillies!’
‘Shh,’ said Berwyn, ‘you might wake Dad.’
‘Good point,’ said Uncle Nol. ‘We don’t want this to be any harder than it needs to be. Let’s get going, is it?’
He unhitched himself, and began to swim away. But my brothers stayed still.
‘What’s going on?’ Aled said. And from a short distance away, Uncle Nol watched on.
‘Well, the thing is, I’ve actually got this pain in my head,’ Berwyn said. ‘I don’t know if I should… you know. I want to, but I don’t think… you know?’
‘Oh right,’ said Aled. ‘I see. Well, how about you Ieuan?’
Ieuan’s face was twisted with worry. ‘My fin hasn’t been right since that big hunt last week.’ He shifted awkwardly. ‘I think I might have strained it or something?’
Aled shook his head.
I could see Hywel almost shrinking, retreating behind us all.
‘Howie, baby,’ Aled said. ‘Talk to me! How are we doing?’
But Hywel couldn’t even speak. His face was shaking and his eyes kept moving in different directions.
‘Okay,’ Aled said, and then he turned to Llwyd, whose face was grey. ‘Woah Llwyd, you actually do look peaky. Have you eaten something bad?’
Llwyd yawned and his cheeks looked drained of colour.
‘I just didn’t get a good sleep,’ Llwyd said. ‘I’m knackered. There’s no way I can do that swim.’
‘I see,’ said Aled, and then he blew out his cheeks.
Uncle Nol called out then, ‘Are you boys coming or what?’
Aled looked dismayed. ‘But boys, mun, this is what we’ve been waiting for.’
But in reply, our brothers only mumbled.
Aled turned to me then. ‘Is it even worth asking you?’
‘I don’t want to go,’ I said.
‘Well, finally,’ Aled said. ‘Someone with the guts to just tell the truth.’
And all my brothers bowed their heads.
‘Look, I’m not going to make a scene here,’ Aled said. ‘But at some point you’re all going to have to make your own way in this sea. We can’t all keep following Dad.’
The boys around me shifted awkwardly.
‘Come on,’ Uncle Nol shouted again. ‘Are we going or what?’
‘Coming now!’ Aled shouted in reply.
And then to us, he said: ‘Well, boys, the next time you see me, I guess I’ll be pregnant. With a bit of luck, I’ll be fat as a whale!’
‘Good luck,’ I said. ‘Be safe.’
Aled smiled, and turned away, my brothers and I waving our tails in goodbye.
And we watched them swim away, Aled and Uncle Nol growing smaller in the distance.
And I felt the light then—I felt it so deeply—the light inside of me. It was there and it was withering.
A day passed.
Then two days passed.
And then a week passed.
But neither Aled nor Uncle Nol returned.
I swam around with my brothers, and I hunted and I slept, but life seemed empty without Aled among us.
At night, Father and I stayed up late talking about him. Father said that Aled had always been headstrong. In the end, he said, Aled always did whatever Aled wanted to do. Father was trying to act as if his leaving had no effect on him, but I began to see a certain pensive strain in his portraits of Mother. She seemed smaller, further away. She was still smiling in the paintings, but her lips were thinner, and her smiles were more ambiguous, the waters around her darker.
As the days passed, I thought a lot about Aled. I imagined him returning in his pregnant state, I imagined the dinner that Father would throw in his honour. I imagined him sat out on the garden swing-bench, telling us all about his travels. I would take strength from his experiences. Being close to him, I would absorb something of his capability and maybe begin to understand what it was I wanted or needed.
Some two weeks after they left, Uncle Nol returned. He came into the living room while Father was painting a portrait of Mother, once more studying my back so as to perfect the red stripe on her dorsal.
‘Evening!’ Uncle Nol called, showing off his pouch. He was pregnant again.
‘Where’s Aled?’ I asked.
‘Ah,’ Nol said. ‘Now here’s the thing: your brother appears to have been struck down with Aberkariad fever.’
‘It can happen,’ Uncle Nol said. ‘Especially on first outings. I’ve seen it a hundred times before. A horse makes the trip, meets a young filly and then they get all these crazy ideas about love into their heads. It might be a while yet till you see your brother.’
‘Wait, wait, wait,’ Father said. ‘What are we actually talking about here?’
‘I think you know what I’m talking about,’ Uncle Nol said and there was a bite in his voice. ‘You know yourself the kind of horses you can meet out there.’
Father’s eyes began to cloud. ‘I told you he was too young to go,’ he said. ‘How many times did I say that, Nol?’
Uncle Nol blew out his cheeks. ‘He was going to have to grow up at some point, you know.’
‘You’re a piece of fucking crabshit,’ Father said.
I had never before heard my father swear.
Uncle Nol went to say something, but Father shouted, ‘I don’t want to hear it,’ and then he left the room.
Uncle Nol looked at me. ‘What?’ he said.
‘I’m missing something here,’ I said.
‘Yeah, working testes,’ he replied.
‘Oh come on,’ I said. ‘What’s going on? What’s happened?’
‘You really want to know?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Aled is my brother.’
‘Well young boy, your brother has just met your mother.’
‘I told you she was at Aberkariad. I wasn’t lying. Your brother met her and—and, well, the conversation didn’t end well, and now he’s flung himself at the nearest filly; and, if truth be told, he’s not right in the noggin. I haven’t seen anyone this bad since your father.’
‘We have to help him,’ I said.
‘I don’t know if you can help a horse like that,’ Uncle Nol replied.
I looked at Uncle Nol’s swollen face, the way his eye spines seemed to have retreated into his head.
‘Do you even care about Aled?’ I said.
‘What a stupid question,’ he said. ‘Of course I care. ‘But I went through all this with your father once before. I went to Aberkariad and I dragged him back, and a fat lot of good that did.’
I felt the colour draining from my skin and I realised what I had to do.
Later that evening, my insides knotted like weeds. There was a heaviness in my bladder, and it kept tightening and tightening until I approached Father. Once more he was perched on the clam-shell couch, painting another portrait of Mother. In the portrait her tail was gripping the leaf of a blue kelp, and her back was to the viewer.
‘I think I’d better go get Aled,’ I said.
Father didn’t look up. It was as if he couldn’t make eye contact with me.
‘Okay,’ he said, and I watched him apply brushstrokes to the painting. In the portrait the water was so dark it was almost black.
‘I’m worried about him,’ I said.
Father finally looked up at me then.
‘You know, son,’ he said, ‘you’re a good horse. One day you’ll make your mother very proud.’
Though Uncle Nol had been surprisingly helpful in laying out the route to me, I still wasn’t confident of the way. I couldn’t keep in mind the order of the seamarks. In some stages, the waters hummed with life, with schools of flame cardinals and blackcap basslets. When puffers and jellies passed by, I obscured myself, as father had taught me, blending into the nearest grass.
But swimming on, the waters grew suddenly dark and I could barely see a tail’s breadth ahead of me. After a while, I could no longer distinguish between weeds and fronds. The currents kept pushing me off course. Father had been right: we weren’t ready to make this trip. Swimming against the tide, my tail felt too short, and my fin too small. It became a gruelling effort just to keep going.
I began to feel sleepy, so I took a break among the grass. I fed on copepod and tried to regather my strength. But I told myself that I had to go on. It didn’t matter that my fins felt flimsy and my bones as heavy as rocks; that in my body I felt old before my time; that I felt small and inconsequential; just a tiny light moving through a limitless expanse of dark.
My brother was far away, and between us was all kinds of danger, but I told myself if I just focused on the beating of my fins, on moving one small increment at a time, that I would eventually get there.
So I let go of the grass, and I went again. I swam through the waters, and though at first my fins burned with the struggle, I reached deep and told myself I could do this. Moving at a steady pace, I chanted a silent spell:
Each syllable was a stroke of my fins, and each syllable, I knew, would bring me to my brother. As I swam, the water no longer seemed to work against me. I was in harmony with it.
So I swam on, my head no longer a heavy weight, and not one distracting thought could keep me back. I quickened the pace of my chanting—A-ber-kar-iad, A-ber-kar-iad, A-ber-kar-iad—and I quickened my stroke, and my body and mind were as one, and I moved through the water, not with ease as such, but with a firmness of intention. I was sure of what I wanted and I was ready for what I was arriving at. It felt glorious, this wholeness of being, and I was thinking all these thoughts, and feeling all these feelings, blinded really, when I saw the eel—its gaping mouth ready to swallow me whole.
It was all about to end—my future, my history, everything—wiped with one bite; the light inside of me forever dimmed in the belly of an eel, but what’s strange, and what I’ve never told anyone, is that in that moment I felt ready. Maybe it was just fear, or maybe it was something else, something I won’t let myself understand, but I accepted it all and I took one last breath—and then my tail was suddenly tugged and I was being dragged away and the eel just swam on by and I was pulled into a forest of grass.
‘Bloody hell,’ Rhiannon said. ‘In the mood for a bit of dying are you?’
I shook my head.
‘Where are you trying to go?’ she said. ‘Because if you’re trying to get home, I can assure you that an eel’s stomach is not a shortcut.’
‘Aberkariad,’ I said. ‘My brother—I have to find him.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I see. Well I guess you’re in luck. Because that’s where I’m going too. Grab my tail and I’ll give you a ride.’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘But hold on tight, alright?’
With nothing left inside of me, I clutched my tail around Rhiannon’s. I was anxious at first, and I kept seeing the image of the eel whose mouth I’d only marginally escaped. But as we moved steadily through the water it felt good to be holding her tail, and I gradually began to feel within me a serene sense of calm. I was sleepy still—but I was alive, and for that, the world was a beautiful place; and, what’s more, I felt a new feeling inside of me, a sensation which filled me with a slow steady warmth. Because at the far end of this journey I knew I would finally meet my mother.
Rhiannon said she needed a breather, so we stopped to feed on plankton. In the distance I saw a volcano pumping out smoke.
‘Is that Aberkariad?’ I said.
‘It is,’ she said. ‘Well, not the volcano itself, but the waters around it.’
‘Is it a big place?’ I said.
‘It can feel both large and small,’ she said. ‘Right now, with all the horses there, it’s a metropolis. But later on, when it empties out, it can feel like a very quiet place indeed.’
‘I hope Aled is okay,’ I said. ‘Do you think he’ll be easy to find?’
‘There’s no knowing,’ she said.
I sighed and clicked.
‘Why can’t we know things in advance?’ I said. ‘I thought I’d know things once I got a brood pouch.’
‘The not-knowing is the hard part,’ she said. ‘And believe me, I have to keep relearning it: we don’t know, we’ll never know, but we have to keep on swimming.’
‘I know I’m technically an adult,’ I said. ‘But I really don’t feel like one yet, not the way Aled does.’
‘I’ll let you in on a secret,’ she said. ‘I don’t always feel like an adult either. I’m not sure anyone ever really does. I bet your own father doesn’t always feel like a grown-up.’
I looked at Rhiannon now, at her elegant snout.
‘How exactly do you know my father?’ I asked.
‘He didn’t tell you?’ she said.
‘Well, we have some… history.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘If he hasn’t spoken to you about it, then—’
‘Please,’ I said, and I heard the exasperation in my own voice. ‘Just tell me.’
She puckered her mouth and clicked.
‘Well, we mated once,’ she said.
Every part of me felt still.
‘My father has had other foals?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You didn’t know?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Oh my,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’
The volcano burped out a cloud of gas, and it was as if the gas moved through my gut, my gills, my bladder. I had no words now; I was just a body full of churning, like the seabed after a commotion, the dust and dirt set a-swirling.
‘This was years ago,’ she said. ‘We were both very young at the time. We were just starting out. The same age as you are now. It was long before your father met your mother. I think that’s why he’s so protective of you boys. He wanted to put things right.’
I remained motionless. All the air had left my body.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘That’s all in the past now. He loves you boys to bits.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘Don’t tell him I told you,’ she said. ‘If he kept it secret, he obviously had his reasons.’
I pictured all these other fry, all these foals, my brothers and sisters, all floating in the deep waters, all alone and afraid.
‘Are you okay?’ she said.
‘I don’t really know what I think,’ I said.
‘Ah, she said. ‘In which case, you maybe are an adult after all.’
Onwards we swam, until directly ahead of us was the volcano. It was belching giant bubbles and clouds of gas. Lit in its eerie light, Aberkariad seemed to be twinkling, shimmering. I swam alongside Rhiannon, and before us, I felt a crackling, as horses twirled coloured circles around one another. I heard the pulsing and the writhing, and the frenzy of clicking and growling as males pumped their pouches and the females tried to hitch onto them to mate. The waters around us vibrated and my gills shook as the clicking grew louder.
I tried hard to focus both my eyes. The waters glittered: green, orange, red. The whole scene was throbbing in a rainbow of refracted light.
‘What are all those colours?’ I asked as we neared.
‘It’s incredible, isn’t it?’ Rhiannon said, and her small mouth broke into a smile. ‘That’s mating in action. Horses changing skin colours to flirt. Some horses brighten to stand out from the crowd, while others transform to match their partners. From this distance it all makes for a dazzling sight, doesn’t it? Every time I’m here, it takes my breath away.’
I was stunned by the spectacle and couldn’t imagine myself in there, among it, a participant and not just an observer.
‘There’s just so many horses,’ I said. ‘I’m never going to find Aled.’
‘I have a feeling you will,’ she said, and she smiled and then unhitched her tail from the grass.
‘Are you leaving me now?’ I said.
‘Yeah, it’s probably best we say goodbye here,’ she said. ‘Once you get in among all them, it can get kind of crazy.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m meeting an old partner,’ she said. ‘We’ve been meeting regularly for a while now.’
‘So some horses do stay together?’
‘Some do, some don’t,’ she said. ‘But you never know how it’s going to go.’
I laughed without really knowing why.
‘Ah, there’s those eyes again,’ she said. ‘Do me a favour: when you see your father next, please don’t be too rough on him. He’s a sweetheart really.’
I pictured my father at home then. At this moment he was probably resting on the couch, painting another portrait, waiting for me and Aled to return.
It was finally time to enter Aberkariad.
So I took a deep breath and swam towards the crowds of heaving horses.
There were so many bodies, promenading around one another, touching snouts, clicking and pumping. After the smallness of my family, it was unreal to be here among the throng of a city. From a distance, the horses had all seemed on top of each other, but moving through them now, I saw there was some order, though I didn’t really understand what exactly the rules were. As I swam through, male horses shouldered me out of the way, shouted at me for swimming in the wrong channels. Was I an idiot? they asked. Was there something wrong with me? I apologised, stuttered that I was new here, that I was just looking for my brother, and they scoffed and told me they weren’t interested in my life story, and could I please just get the fuck out of the way.
Everywhere I looked, there were short snouts, long snouts, tails twice my length, and skin colours that sharpened and brightened as bodies neared each other.
A blue filly with large eyes approached.
‘You’re a cute one,’ she said. ‘Would you like to dance?’
But I said no, I wasn’t that kind of horse, and that I was only looking for my brother.
She laughed and moved onto another young horse beside me, a young stud whose brood pouch swelled in readiness.
The waters were quivering with desire, but to my eyes there was very little of what Father had told us about love.
I swam and I swam, and I called out my brother’s name, as the strobing colours of shifting skins left my eyes dizzy, and the clicking and pumping of pouches became a sore rhythm in my head.
I saw males pursuing females, and females escaping the clutches of drawn-out tails. I saw females butting heads with males. I saw males tail-wrestling rivals out of the way, the females looking on, almost bored by it all. I saw copulation and kissing, and stroking and caressing, but I just kept moving.
Exhausted, I finally rested among an empty patch of grass on the far side of Aberkariad. It was, thankfully, unpopulated, and I was the only horse hitched in the grass, though I could still hear the nearby moans of mating couples. I watched the eddying sway of the green blades and tried to picture Uncle Nol here in Aberkariad, amidst all this throbbing, pulsing life. I could imagine him clicking and puffing out his pouch and feeling proud. But I wondered about the why that lay on the other side of Aberkariad. I wondered why Nol always wanted to be pregnant. Was it a want or a need? When Aled had talked about wants and needs, I couldn’t see the difference between the two. I had never truly considered that I would want or need anything beyond what Father had wanted for us. Watching the grass sway, I became almost hypnotised by the questions: what did I want? What did I need? I’d never before regarded myself as existing separately from my brothers. There was Father and there was us boys. We did as he told us, and I felt as he felt.
Through the twitching blades of grass then, an older filly emerged, the green leaves parting as she passed between them.
‘Well hello there,’ she said.
‘Hi,’ I said.
‘You look deep in thought,’ she said.
‘I’ve come a long way,’ I said.
‘We all have,’ she said and she smiled. ‘Where are you from? Would you like to dance?’
‘Please, I’m not looking for a mate,’ I said. ‘I’m looking for my brother. Have you seen him? We have the same snout, and the same eyes, though he’s a much better hunter and swimmer than I am.’
‘There’s a lot of horses around here,’ she said. ‘But if I do meet anyone matching your very thorough description, I’ll tell him you’re after him. Why do you need to find him?’
‘He’s apparently gone a bit mad,’ I said.
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that happen before.’
I nodded as if I understood.
‘But look,’ she said. ‘I’m not after a screw. I just thought it could be good to dance. Do you like dancing?’
‘I need to find my brother,’ I said.
‘Wherever he is, I doubt he’s leaving any time soon,’ she said. ‘So take it from me: have a break. You need to dance. Because right now, you look so, so tense. A good dance will help you relax. I swear by it.’
Against my conscious will, her words stirred something inside me; maybe I didn’t want to dance, but a dance was what I needed?
She said: ‘Have you ever danced with a filly before?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘But I did hold tails with one earlier.’
‘Ah, so you’re halfway there already,’ she said. ‘This will be easy for you, and an honour for me.’
She moved in close then, as close as she could be without touching. My guts stirred, and I felt my brood pouch becoming moist.
She was older than me, considerably, and her eyes looked tired, but there was no doubting she had once been beautiful. Her snout seemed almost familiar, as if all the other snouts I’d seen were based upon it.
‘You have a lovely smile,’ she said. ‘And such lovely eyes.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘Shall we promenade?’ she said, and then she explained the moves.
As we danced around each other, circling in the water, something unfolded within me. I felt the future enacting a pull upon my fate. The filly drew near, bringing her snout so close to my face. I felt nervous and giddy. Suddenly, her tail was entwined in mine, and it felt good to be held like that.
‘And promenade!’ she said, and she let go of my tail, and she turned 180, and I saw her back, and then I saw the red stripe, so distinctive, so unmistakable from all the portraits I had spent my lifetime looking at.
I stopped dead. And yet she continued to spin around me.
‘See, dancing isn’t hard,’ she said. ‘You just have to let yourself go and feel the mood.’
She was smiling still. She began bobbing her head from side to side then, as if to make me laugh. But it was as if some essential part of me had left my body and I was hitched to the spot.
Her mouth was twitching with a smile, and I watched as the expression shifted, transformed into something else.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said.
‘I have to go,’ I said.
‘Wait,’ she said.
‘I have to go now.’
‘What’s up?’ she said. ‘What’s happening?’
I did not answer. But when I turned to leave, I heard her gasp.
‘Oh my gills,’ she said.
I didn’t know what to do then. I didn’t know whether to turn around and face my mother, or swim into the waters of the nearest predator.
‘Your brother,’ she said. ‘I spoke with him a few days back. He said there were more of you, and that one of you had my stripe. But I didn’t believe him.’
I turned to face her now. She already looked different. Older, sadder.
‘His name is Aled,’ I said. ‘And you drove him crazy.’
‘My darling, I just told him the truth.’
‘I am so sorry,’ she said. ‘Please know I’m sorry.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘You’re sorry are you? For what exactly?’
‘For everything,’ she said. ‘For your brother, for this, but for everything else as well. Your brother explained how much your father talked about me.’
‘If you’re so sorry,’ I said, ‘then why did you never come back?’
‘I just couldn’t,’ she said. ‘I didn’t have—I didn’t have it—I just didn’t—’
‘Didn’t have what?’
‘It’s hard,’ she said and her voice broke.
‘What’s hard?’ I said.
‘It’s hard to admit this. To admit to having these feelings.’
I looked at her.
‘Why didn’t you come back?’ I said. ‘You made a promise.’
She sighed, and I watched as her face crumpled.
She said: ‘I just didn’t—I just didn’t feel I had enough love inside of me.’
Something dropped inside of me then, a heavy stone that landed in my gut. I felt as if I’d been dropped to the bottom of the ocean.
‘Your father told me that love was a light that shined inside of him,’ she said. ‘Well, it didn’t shine in me.’
‘That’s not what he told us,’ I said.
‘I mean, I did have the light once,’ she said. ‘And it was with your father. When we met, I felt love glowing inside of me, and I thought: yes, this is it. I felt ready for the life we had talked about: a family, together, forever. But then, something changed. In my heart, summer became winter. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. One day, I just looked at your father, and I felt nothing. And I knew then that I could never give myself to anyone else.’
‘To no one?’
‘Not to any male and not to any offspring,’ she said. ‘I know that I broke your father’s heart when I told him I didn’t love him. But I thought it was better to tell the truth than to live a lie.’
‘So he knew you weren’t coming back?’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I told him before he gave birth to you lot. He’s always known.’
‘Then why didn’t he tell us?’ I said.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I never realised he didn’t.’
We both remained still, motionless in the water.
And a large stud swam between us then. Looking at Mother, he said, ‘Hey sweet thing. How about filling this big hole of mine, eh?’
She looked at him and shook her head.
‘Come on baby, you know you want to,’ he pleaded.
Mother looked at him.
‘Would you just fuck off?’ she said, and the male pulled a face at me—as if to say, ‘Fillies, eh?’— and then he swam on, without a care in the sea.
We were both quiet then. I looked up and I watched her sigh and cast her head down. I wondered how much of her was within me already. Would my feelings come and go like hers? I’d never felt the light within me either, not really. Not the way Aled did, not the way my father did. Maybe I had no real light, maybe there was just an empty chamber where the light should be.
Slowly she raised her face to look at me. ‘Are you okay?’
I went to answer, but then, without warning, I felt a howling noise pass through my body and out of my mouth. I howled and I howled and my skin rippled, and everything was still, it was like something was leaving my body. It was leaving me through the howl. The howl that was coming from somewhere deep, from the empty chamber whose walls now echoed with the sounds of the howl.
‘Oh boy,’ she said, ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Why though?’ I said, and the why was a howl. ‘Why did he lie?’
‘I think I probably know why,’ she said.
I was choking and all I could say was why and why and why.
Her face became a warm smile then, the same smile that all my life had shone down at me from the portraits.
And then my mother said: ‘I think your father just wanted you to always feel loved. Is that such a bad thing?’
When I finally found him, Aled’s eyes were romping, and he was sucking on something that wasn’t there. He looked thin, as if he hadn’t been eating properly.
‘My earnest brother!’ he said, laughing. ‘Come to disapprove, have you?’
‘I’ve come to bring you home,’ I said.
‘Ah, a bit of a wasted journey then,’ he replied, and he started telling me his story. He spoke quickly, his sentences frantic. From what I could understand, he had fallen in love with a filly named Susan from the other side of the volcano. They had been dancing together for some time now, but she was, for some reason, reluctant to mate with him. When I pressed him to explain, he started talking about the volcano.
‘There’s something about it,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what it’s pumping out but I can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s love it’s pumping out. Maybe I need to get Susan into the volcano.’
‘Where is she?’ I said.
‘She’s gone back to her side of the water,’ he said. ‘I keep visiting but her sisters tell me to leave and just wait for her. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m not leaving here until I’ve waited for her. I think I’m maybe too small for her, maybe that’s what it is. Maybe I just need to wait here until I’m fully grown. Maybe then I’ll be enough.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I said. ‘You’re more than enough. You’re a great horse.’
‘Then why doesn’t Susan love me?’ he said. ‘Why doesn’t she think I’m enough?’
He was hunched in on himself, and he looked scared. His eyes were restless, darting in all directions. Looking at him now, everything suddenly fell away: I saw through this adult shell of his—and I saw the little colt in him.
‘Is this about Mother?’ I said. ‘What did you two talk about?’
He fidgeted, sucked again on something not there.
‘Dunno what you’re on about,’ he said, and he started nodding his head quite quickly.
‘You met Mother,’ I said.
‘Oh, I’ve met a lot of crazy old fillies out here,’ he said, and then he blew out his cheeks and inflated his brood pouch. ‘But I’m my own mam now. The volcano is my mam. Love is my mam. Maybe Susan is my mam. You can be my mam if you want.’
He laughed then.
‘We’d need to get you into the volcano first!’ he said, and then he continued to laugh to himself.
‘You have to come home,’ I said. ‘Come back with me. You’ll be able to get some rest, eat properly, and just get a good sleep. In a few days, you’ll feel good again, I promise.’
‘But I feel great!’ he said, and he burst upwards, until he was high above. And then just as quick, he swooped back down beside me. ‘I’m alive!’ he cried. ‘I’m feeling everything, I’m open and everything is flowing through me. I’m lit from head to tail. Can’t you see that?’
‘Please,’ I said. ‘Please come home. I’m worried about you, Aled.’
‘That’s Dad’s doing,’ he said and he chuckled to himself. ‘You’ve taken on his worry as your own. But look into that volcano—really look into it!—and let it fill you. Some days, I just stare at it, and I watch the bubbles rising from it, and each bubble is like a new thought, and it allows me to see everything with new eyes. That’s what love is, I promise. It’s new eyes.’
He smiled then. ‘You don’t understand me, do you? You don’t understand what I’m saying?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘You have to learn to see things for yourself,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, what are you actually looking at?’
In the end, Aled wouldn’t relent or see reason. I pleaded and I begged, but he would not leave, and so I left without him.
It took me two days to get home.
On the evening I returned, the homestead from outside seemed so small. After all my travels, it was faintly astonishing to me that the house could still be there, that my father could still be inside. It felt like a relic, like revisiting a place from my own ancient past.
That evening, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t sleep. When I came down for a bite to eat, I found Father perched on the clam-shell couch, painting another portrait of Mother.
He looked up at me. ‘She really was a beauty.’
‘Dad—’ I said.
‘She’s coming back,’ he said. ‘She told me she would. She made a promise.’
‘You can move on now,’ I said. ‘We’re old enough now. You can leave here, do whatever you want.’
‘But your mother—’
‘She’s not coming back,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to pretend for my sake.’
‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘Your mother loves you and she’ll be here anytime now. As soon as summer comes, she’ll be back.’
Time passed, waters warmed and cooled then warmed again, and I forgave my father without ever telling him I knew the truth. Though maybe it wasn’t true forgiveness, maybe it was just cowardice on my part and I was just avoiding a fight. Maybe I don’t know the meaning of forgiveness. Maybe instead of forgiving my father, I just buried the pain deep down, and maybe that’s what aches me at night. I do sometimes wonder if his lies about my mother are what damaged me most. If I had never expected her love, would I have ever felt its loss?
Some days I looked at my father and I did feel rage, but I could never fully hold onto it.
Against my will, I began to notice how he became greyer around the eyes, how his tail lost colour, how his speech slowed, how he would sometimes forget what it was he was talking about. He began to sleep more; he started taking naps in the day while the boys and I went out hunting. He ate less and I watched him, day by day, shrivel and shrink before me. And the frailer he became, the more my anger seemed inappropriate. In response to his demise, the colour of my feelings softened and muted.
By the time we boys would arrive home from our hunts, Father would be fast asleep on the couch, lying horizontal, his head resting on a rock, snoring not loudly, but not with grace. I don’t know why, but the sight and the sound of him—his head on the rock, his small collection of shiny stones set in front of him—the whole thing made me terribly ashamed.
One by one, my brothers left for Aberkariad and not one of them returned to visit. By most accounts, they each fell pregnant, and each of them abandoned their fry. I haven’t seen any of them in ages, though a turtle told me that Aled is dead—mad on love and loss, he went raging down a dark channel of the volcano, where he was swallowed by a spotted eagle ray.
I was the last of the fry to leave home. Remembering it now twists my guts. That day, when I told Father I was just popping out for an after-supper swim, he looked up from his painting and smiled at me.
‘An after-supper swim,’ he said. ‘What a lovely thing to be able to do.’
I looked down at the portrait he was working on. It was uncanny—the bright smile, the pouch full to the brim—it was unmistakably Uncle Nol. The very same Uncle Nol who—Rhiannon had told me the day before—had passed away at Aberkariad, just as he’d always wished.
‘It’s a great likeness,’ I said.
‘Ah, it’s alright,’ my father answered. ‘But a portrait is always a poor substitute for the real thing.’
His eyes were full of feeling, a feeling I knew all too well but could no longer carry with me. Father tried to brighten, but it was a faint blue smile that crossed his face, and his fading skin betrayed the truth of his ailing spirit. I knew for sure then that I had to leave. I felt it within me, the flame was withering, and I had to go before my father’s sadness and kindness killed the light forever.
Because it was a kindness, what our father tried to give us. The story of our mother was a lie, but I believe he meant it as a gift.
When I think back on those early days of my life, I remember the colours of plants, and my childhood fascination with them, the way the very specific shade of red kelp meant something holy and mythic to me, and how I would have happily spent an entire day staring entranced at its swaying fronds. I remember how tired I’d be after swimming any distance. I remember my blood running cold when I saw a predator—and I remember the relief and the sound of Aled’s manic giggling when it swam on by. I remember the great size of things, and the feeling that I was so small in the world but that I saw everything exactly as it was, and that I could handle anything that was thrown my way. I remember how on a golden evening of hunting and laughing with my brothers, time would stretch and those short hours could feel like forever. And, as the night turned cold, I remember the warmth of being among my brothers, of the joy and the thrill of belonging to this sacred family, of the way that the light inside of me was fanned by the glowing embers of our father’s love.
Sometime after leaving my father, I began meeting with Rhiannon. She was wonderful company, and for a while I thought she might close the gap I felt inside. We would often stay up late, talking about our lives, and she would listen with care and patience as I spilled my guts, as I tried to express my guilt and confusion at my father’s life. At some level, I felt I was to blame for how things turned out for him. And when I reflected on the smallness of his life, it made me wonder: what was it all for?
One night Rhiannon said to me: ‘When you have children yourself, maybe you’ll find that it’s enough to live for them and them alone.’
‘But how could we have ever been enough for him?’ I asked. ‘How could we have ever been enough, when we meant so little to her?’
I have yet to settle down myself. My friends say I am too fussy, that I am over-critical, but I tell them: I just haven’t met the right horse yet, and there are still things I want to do before I become a father. There are things I want to understand. But maybe I’m asking the wrong questions and I’m wondering the wrong thoughts. Maybe, by the end, my father didn’t think about his life in terms of a purpose beyond his being a parent. Maybe in the end it just became a matter of getting through each day, of getting enough food to eat, and keeping the light burning—keeping all us kids alive and loved. But when I think about these things for too long, I do get down. I begin to see my own life in abstractions, and I begin to wonder what my own life means—and what any life is really for.
There’s a hole in all of us, I believe. We can each try to fill the hole with explanations and distractions, and for a while our efforts might work and we might go to sleep feeling full, but in the morning we’ll always wake up empty.
Though maybe I’m dressing all this up too profoundly, maybe I’m straining. Maybe the thing that I can’t get over isn’t something that can be answered. Maybe the thing I can’t get over is just the sad bare facts of it all: Mother never did return, and Father died alone.