By: Catherine Olaso
Arabella roamed the cliffs until sunset’s dwindling glow. The jagged rocks snagged her skirt, her footsteps wretchedly slow. Sorrow rent her soul, her heart, her mind; for the loss of a beloved brother she would not be resigned.
Her eyes heavy with longing searched each point of the vast horizon. Numb in emotion, scouring the ocean, pleading for a homebound mizzen. Days and weeks bled into a year, yet still, the kindest of brothers did not appear.
Pirates, storms, revenge at sea – murder, slavery, pillage. These rumors blazed a fiery trail that consumed the entire village. Arabella shunned the groundless gossip and mindless chatter; he said he’d return, and so he would – his promise they could not shatter.
The Argosy’s crew dropped sails at dawn, greedy for the exotic cargo boasted in perilous journeys foregone. Silks, spices, pungent teas, the lure of foreign ports, Henry embraced adventure of any kind or sort. “I’ll be back, Bella, keep mother well. No frowns, and don’t fret; think of the stories I’ll tell.” He kissed her cheek and squeezed her hand, then ran up the plank, forsaking land.
Arabella sniffed and swallowed more grief, remembering his smile and eager belief. “I’ll return with pockets lined with gold, we’ll have all that we need, no more scraping,” he consoled. “Look for me port bow three months hence, I’ll wave through the fog, no matter how dense.”
Arabella sighed, the captain she spied, a man hard and uncouth. Apprehension creased her brow – if only Henry wouldn’t leave the plow for a voyage defrauding his youth. But there was naught to be done, he would stay home for none, the call of the untamable sea had won.
Fresh sobs streaked her face, her gaze eager for a trace of the Argosy’s frame amid sunset’s embrace. As miserable tears pierced the waves, white crests dissipated, leaving the water concaved. Great Neptune himself surged up from beneath, amid fountains of churning sea foam circling him like a wreath. “Maiden, your anguish doth move me to speak, stretch forth thine hand, I’ll show all that you seek.”
Wide eyed, Arabella cast all timidness aside, her fragile palm soon nestled in his. The depths sprouted an alabaster chariot, with mother of pearl wheels, iridescent reins and dolphins to carry it. Neptune, God of water, blew a great conch, shed his tail for legs and set the chariot to launch.
Silver white light cut a beam through the dark, the speed of the vessel as quick as a spark. South past Morocco, around the tip of Africa, then to Madagascar – the isle to disembark. “Careful,” Neptune warned when Arabella slipped on a barnacle, “the inlet may be precarious, but it is executable.” He pointed a muscled forefinger at the rain forest ahead. Arabella’s stomach tightened with dread as the confidence in his sapphire eyes faltered … had she been mislead?
“I don’t understand.” She kept a brave face. “How will I find Henry in such a strange place?”
“Follow your heart, don’t succumb to disbelief. He’s there below the rattan palms. I’ll wait by the reef.”
Under the light of a brilliant moon, and unsure of the vines draped around her like a cocoon, Arabella set out with a self-soothing croon. Damp heat pricked her skin, alarming noises rent her ears, but she steadied onward, resilient to fear.
“Henry?” she called in her softest tone. The hair on the back of her neck tingled … she wasn’t alone.
A jaguar as sleek and black as the night with emerald eyes proved the cause of her fright. It jumped from a branch, graceful and lithe, Arabella froze, but wanted to writhe. The predator circled once, then twice, each movement meditated, careful, precise. The gleam of its teeth cinched Arabella’s every muscle, no doubt she would lose if it came to a tussle. The glint in its eyes held her bound, but she met them straight on, unprepared for what she found.
Human, not cat, stared with eyes surrounded by fur, then to her astonishment the jaguar purred. “Dear, Henry,” Arabella gasped, “can it be I’ve discovered you at last?” She reached a trembling hand toward his neck, unexplainably comprehending all – down to the shipwreck.
Henry purred louder and welcomed her touch, nuzzling in closer, reluctant to budge. A voodoo curse left him solely alive, but only in the form of a cat could he survive. Henry laid down at her feet with a whimper, flattened his ears, gave a pitiful simper. “I’m sorry, Bella,” he seemed to say, “I wanted adventure … but not this way.”
“I know,” she soothed and hugged him close, “we’ll figure out something .” She kissed his nose. “Neptune!” Arabella said with a start, “he waits by the reef, he can conquer black art.”
Henry looked confused, then lunged to his feet, obliged to lope beside her through the humid heat. Alongside the enormous cat, Arabella appeared even more petite.
“I know what you seek, but I cannot revoke the curse. He insulted their magic, the penalty will not reverse.” Neptune’s voice was sad, but terse.
Henry stared out across the sea and whined, hating his faults, how they left him confined. He turned toward the trees, restless – unable to be appeased.
“Come with me, don’t say farewell,” Arabella coaxed, his anxiety to quell.
“You can share the curse,” Neptune offered, sympathy ripe in his voice. “Half the year one bears the grievance, relieved only by the other’s free will and choice.”
“No!” Henry growled, his nostrils flared wide.
“Yes!” Arabella insisted, close at his side. “Go home Henry, see mother … alive.”
The burden passed on Neptune’s cue, the jaguar with eyes of green blinked into eyes of blue.