“This inexplicable sadness will destroy you in the end,” said Nautilus to Magpie. She waved her tentacles to form the words in her mute, fluid sign language.
It was better than ‘cheer up;’ it would’ve sounded much nicer if it had made any sound. Last words should sound nice, if nothing else.
Magpie's eyes were the only thing moving as he watched Nautilus' tentacles go slack for the last time. He couldn’t have said anything even if he'd wanted to; his beak had crusted over with salt. And now, the girl held Nautilus up, in her pincers: her trophy. Magpie noticed the sticky gleam where the points began to pull her slack body from the shell, and closed his eyes.
He had come to see his best and only friend because he had been so long in the mountains. One sunny morning had drooped into slow rain, and the apple snails had started wandering around on the logs, and suddenly the years of missing her all stacked up at once. Those brown, coiled shells, wet and shiny, were her shell. The doddering little snails were nothing like Nautilus, but their shells were a sad copy. Like the little, red windflowers in the grass copied the astonishing, blue sea-anemones.
Magpie found Nautilus in the same place he had first found her. He was careful not to step on any anemones this time, and thought he had avoided getting stung, until he saw Nautilus. And his foot disappeared into the the irritable, contracting balloon. Yanking his sore leg up and out of the thing, Magpie cocked his head at the change in Nautilus. She was almost larger than him, now.
But soon, they’d chatted about next to nothing, just like always, and Magpie tried to pretend he'd never left. The tide pools, the beach, the cliffs, the water, all exactly the same. But every time he looked back down, the fantasy washed away.
So it was Magpie, looking discreetly over his friend at the strand beyond her, who noticed it first.
Just a tiny shadow crawling across the sand to the base of the rocks. It disappeared out of view as it came closer to the base of the jetty, and Magpie asked Nautilus what kind of person could possibly be out at the beach at this time of day, in this kind of weather. The sun about to set, enormous violet thunderheads rising up out of the clouds.
Nautilus said that she didn’t know, but seemed a little upset. But she always seemed a little upset. Magpie dictated each movement he saw to Nautilus, who couldn’t see up over the edge of her pool. A little girl, finally, with messy brown hair, winding and hopping slowly across the tide-pools like she were dancing. Something in her hands.
Then, Nautilus wanted to see.
Gently, Magpie tried to lift Nautilus up in his beak, as he'd done when she were smaller, but she was too big to fit. Eventually he had to stand with his mouth to the ground as she twined her soft tentacles cautiously around the sharp points of his beak. She suckered herself to it, but her shell dangled wildly off the end. Magpie watched the velvety horseshoe of her eye flap closed to focus, straining to keep his sharp beak still. He could so easily cut her soft little body like this, without even knowing it; she could fall; she used to fit so safely inside.
“It’s doubt,” Nautilus gestured emphatically with all ten of her legs pointing out from her face. She swayed and waved frantically to be let down.
Magpie put her gently into the water, stepping aside as she swam briskly to her niche between the rocks. She curled up into her shell the slightest bit, and sat very still, and neither of them said another word.
Magpie had heard of doubt, but had never seen her before; he took another look and watched the pale thing skip across one of the channels. She looked like any other little girl, but he'd heard enough to know better.
“I could carry you, and fly away to somewhere safe.”
“Your beak is too sharp for me to hang on that long.”
“I could carry you with my feet, and you could hang on to my legs with your suckers.”
The image of the seagulls taking up the sea snails and dashing them against sharp rocks to pick out their bodies came suddenly to his mind as he said it. He wondered if it came to hers. They both knew that he would never hurt her. He was not a sea bird, anyway.
Nautilus sat for a long time with her legs curled into a little flower around her mouth, watching him out of one, delicate, saucer-eye.
“Anyway, where else could I go?” she’d said, fluttering out from behind a piece of coral, “This pool has been my home since I hatched. Even when the tide is high enough for me to swim out on my own, I never want to.”
Magpie couldn't say where she should go.
He just stood and watched as the girl came closer, rubbing his head against his side as the spray needled his eyes. The tide was coming in, and the white foam that flew off it began to coat him in brine.
Doubt stopped several times to comb some of the tide-pools. The salt began to lodge between Magpie's feathers, while Nautilus drifted mutely in and out of the antler-like red coral.
Finally, as she climbed the little bluff beneath them, Magpie could see what she was carrying.
In one hand she gripped a bucket and a large net, and in the other a set of calipers. Her arms stretched out ridiculously straight to either side, balancing as she tiptoed over the slippery rocks. Her tongue stuck out endearingly in a look of deep concentration, and her pale eyebrows knit together charmingly over her snub little nose.
And Magpie shuddered. He couldn't have carried Nautilus away by then, even if she had wanted him to. The salt had weighted down his feathers, and he would be too heavy to fly. He probably could have just barely lifted himself.
So he stood, transfixed by the tools, and watched in silence as the girl closed the last few hundred yards between them. The steel of the calipers had a mirror-shine, except where it was dull at the ends from sharpening, where they were stained with the purple and black and red blood of an army of different kinds of little creatures. And the net, an odd thing to carry to the tide pools. It was long and attenuated, but wide at the mouth; the kind of net that people used to catch butterflies.