The foal peered out at the sea, the forbidding sea, and he wondered. He wondered at what his mother had just told him.
“It can’t be true,” he said, swishing his tail. He was still new to the world, but already he had a favorite thing to do, and it was swishing his tail.
“Why not?” his mother asked. She had warned him not to get too close to the waves. But she need not have. He wasn’t going anywhere near that roaring, reaching, grasping beast that she called “the sea.”
That couldn’t be where they came from. How could the first horses have emerged from the mouth of that monster?
“We are only one of many different kinds of horses,” his mother said. “And all of us, the ones who fly through storm, the ones who canter on land, the ones who wander in dreams, we all came from one place, the sea. We all came from the first horses, who dwelt in the sea, and dwell there still, though they haven’t been seen in many ages. It’s thought by some that the horses of the sea no longer exist, even that they are only myth. But this is not so.”
The foal thought upon his mother’s words. His mind wobbled as he thought, even as legs wobbled as he walked.
“But if they haven’t been seen,” he said, “why do you believe they are still out there—or under there?”
His mother tossed her head, so that the wind could catch her mane and sweep it away from her eyes.
She began her first story for her first child.
When they first came into being, the seahorses were tiny creatures, so humble they curled into themselves. They did not have enough fins and muscles to swim as well as the other fish. But they were gentle and lovable. So friendly were they that they could often convince other fish to give them a ride upon their backs.
In those early days in the history of the world, all creatures had some measure of influence over their forms, their colors, and their powers. In those early days, the limits of nature and the cosmos were broader.
The seahorses found that when they tried to ride on the sailfish, the fastest swimmers in the ocean, they kept falling off, so they influenced their forms and constructed powerful tails that were long enough to coil around and grip. This way, they could hold fast even to a sailfish swimming at top speed. There was even one family of seahorses who reconstructed their eyes so that each could look in a different direction, and thus help the sailfish navigate.
While there was friendship between the seahorses and the sailfish, to many other fish, the seahorses were baffling. Their forms were odd. And their ways were odd. When it was time to mate, they chose one and only one other to mate with, and the two remained bonded for all their lives. The two would show their affection every day with twirling dances, gripping each other’s tails, and touching their foreheads together, not forcefully, but gently. Yet they spent their days apart from each other. When it was time to conceive, it was the males that carried and bore the young.
One day, one such male was being ridiculed by a passing pufferfish. The seahorse was releasing his first brood from the pouch in which he’d nurtured and protected them for many days. In a life already filled with joy that moment should have been the most joyous, and it was, until it was marred by that interloper.
Being a seahorse, and a new father, the male’s anger was quick to dissipate. As quickly as his children dissipated. They were off to find their own adventures in life.
When he told his mate about his encounter with the pufferfish, she shared his irritation and anger. But she also reminded him that it was likely out of envy and rigidity that such fish spoke such words.
The seahorse mused on the two words that his mate had used to describe the one who had insulted him. Envy seemed both likely and unlikely. It was an easy reason for his mate to choose, one that pleased the pride within him. But that his mate had spoken of rigidity intrigued him. He asked her what she meant. And her answer was as expected. She meant the rigidity of thought.
“Have you noticed?” he asked her, “that many of the other fish no longer shift color and form as we do?”
“Some do,” she said.
“But most do not. It could be that they simply prefer the colors and forms they are dealt, but could it be that they have forgotten how to shift?”
His mate caught on to his notion. “Because their thoughts have grown rigid?”
“Ours might too if we don’t take care to keep them agile.”
The seahorse noted that he had not heard of any seahorse making significant changes to their forms in a few generations. Gone were the days when the seahorses built stronger tails, more decorative crests, eyes that rotated in different directions, and voices that could cry loud enough to be heard by a distant whale. The great deeds of self-construction were done by their forebears.
“Is it to honor our forebears that you seek to self-construct, or is it to show that pompous pufferfish that seahorses are not to be ridiculed?” His mate danced and twirled around him in such a way that he knew she was teasing him.
“Can it not be both, my love?”
“It can,” she said.
So the seahorse began his great construction. He received the help of his mate. And he received the help of a curious sailfish. The sailfish asked him questions as she carried him here and there in the ocean, so that he could observe the other creatures of the sea, and gather the materials and knowledge he needed for his work. The seahorse asked the sailfish questions too, about whether she had ever influenced her form and colors. The sailfish had not, for she was satisfied with her form and her colors, especially as she was among the fastest swimmers even among her own kind. She taught him much about how sailfish were able to swim so swiftly.
With great effort and care did the seahorse perform his work. When he was done, he rested for many days.
He had grown immensely in size. His new head alone was several times the size of his old form. He retained his general shape. His head and chest in particular followed his old form, curling in. But behind his majestic head, he now bore a spiny dorsal fin. On top of his head protruded ears that could hear from great distances. From his muscular chest emerged two powerful long limbs ending in fins. Fins adorned his sides and back, and his powerful tail, a tail made not for coiling and gripping, but for swimming. He retained only his colors, fuchsia, magenta, violet, and shimmering turquoise, for those he had always favored.
After his rest was done, he went about exercising his new form.
He practiced swimming with the sailfish one day.
The seahorse and the sailfish surged past the other fish in the sea, who caught only a glimpse.
As the two friends raced, the seahorse was astonished to find himself pulling away quite easily. The sailfish slowed.
When the seahorse realized that his friend was not beside him or even behind him, he kicked his legs, arced his great tail, and whirled around. By the time he reached the place where the sailfish had slowed and stopped, a multitude had gathered.
“And who might this be?” a hammerhead asked as she saw the seahorse approach. The crowd made way for the seahorse.
“His name is Hippocampus,” the sailfish said.
A dolphin smirked. “You’d best beware, sailfish. This ‘hippocampus’ has just stolen your glory.”
But the sailfish only laughed. “That’s my friend, you fool!”
The seahorse had taught the sailfish humility. She bore no envy toward Hippocampus, the one she called “Po.” She cheered him on.
News spread of the seahorse’s great triumph. But the farther it spread, the more the story became muddled and misperceived. Soon it was not news, but rumor that spread, of a new kind of creature in the sea, the hippocampus.
Because the seahorse known as Po had constructed the form, he knew how every spine of his dorsal fin was honed, how every sinew was crafted, and how every segment of his previous form had been molded and reshaped into his new form. Po’s mate, while proud of his dazzling achievement, was daunted by even the thought of being in a form so vast and so different.
“Aren’t you being rigid?” he teased.
“Perhaps,” she said, as she flickered through a rainbow of colors. “Or perhaps I am pleased with myself as I am.”
“I’m certainly pleased with you as you are,” Po said, his new eyes glinting in the watery light.
Though his mate told him that he could remain as he was and she would remain a seahorse and they could still be mates, Po undid his construction. For it had been a joy to be magnificent for a moment. But he had missed dancing with his mate. He had missed swimming with his friend, the sailfish, for he had once swum with her, but now it was an effort not to pass her by. He had missed his tail, for in constructing a form that was a powerful swimmer, he had to sacrifice the curling and gripping of his original seahorse tail.
Po taught his methods to other seahorses. They learned how to self-construct, but many did not understand the details. They only followed his instructions. For those, it remained a mystery how their forms and colors made such grand changes, and the changes were more a transformation than a reconstruction.
These seahorses remained in their new forms all their lives, and so more rumors spread that these creatures, the hippocampi, were the grown-up forms of the tiny seahorses.
A few seahorses, inspired by Po, learned the true craft of self-construction, and they built upon the knowledge and methods that he had originated. Some seahorses even shifted their forms so that they could leave the sea. They learned to dwell upon the land, and they learned to dwell up in the skies.
While Po lived, he taught as many as he could, and the ability for the hippocampi to reverse their transformations and become seahorses again, if they chose, remained. But after Po passed into the afterlife, and after all his apprentices and their apprentices passed into the afterlife, the knowledge faded and eventually was lost altogether. First the knowledge of reversal, and then the knowledge of the transformation itself. The seahorses too became rigid, the stories said. So the world saw the last of the hippocampi.
But other stories said different. For the seahorses did tend to do things differently. And while the wider world cherished and rewarded the boastful and their deeds—even if those deeds were not truly done—it mostly ignored the humble.
The seahorses were humble. They still possessed the knowledge of their forebears. They still possessed the cleverness of their forebears. They could grow into magnificence if they chose to. Some still did, but they did not declare themselves to the world. For the seahorses simply did not wish to show off. And many of them preferred being small. They preferred the forms into which they naturally grew. The only evidence of their influence upon their forms was that they sometimes shifted colors.
It is said that at the end of their lives, both the seahorses and the hippocampi swim down into a vast deep where they abide forevermore, in whatever form they choose.
“When you’re big enough,” the foal’s mother said, “and your legs are strong enough, you’ll be able to run through the waves, as long as you don’t go too far in. You’ll be able to touch the place your ancestors came from.”
The foal lifted his foreleg. “I don’t think my legs will ever be that strong.”
His mother neighed with amusement. “They will. You’ll even be able to swim a little, though not as well as your oceanic ancestors.”
Once again the foal thought upon his mother’s words, upon the story she had told. His mind and his legs were a bit steadier now.
And he asked his mother, “Where do the horses on land go when they die, if they can’t swim into the deep realm like the seahorses?”
“Oh, you won’t have to worry about that for a long while, if all goes well for us. But for all the horses, of land, of sea, of sky, there is a fog that forms when we pass out of this life. We need only walk, or swim, or fly into that fog, and we will all end up in the same place.”
The foal felt a calm in his heart. He was satisfied, at least for the moment, and he asked his next question.
“Do you think I could influence my tail to coil and grip things like a seahorse’s tail?”
“I don’t know. I think we may have grown rigid. If there is a way, we will try to find it. But if not, I hope you will still enjoy your tail in whatever form you have it.”
“Oh, I will,” the foal said, swishing his tail. Then he asked his next question.
“Did I come from my father’s pouch?”
His mother did not miss a step as she answered.
“One story at a time,” she said, and she cantered on down the beach, her little foal trotting alongside her.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel