I was the only one of my friends who had not yet been visited by the manatees. It was embarrassing. I was seventeen already.
They came to my friend Julie when she was only twelve. She was swimming in the pond by her grandparents’ house, and the manatees showed up and told her of the three great loves she would have in her life: a wild, fiery affair early on; a long, steady relationship that would last decades; and a short but sweet love when she was old.
The manatees came to Sylvia in the creek that ran near her yard when she was fourteen. It was early winter, and they poked their heads up through the thin film of ice to describe a vision of courtrooms and justice. She had talked about becoming a judge before that, and the visit cemented it for her. Afterward, she spoke of her future career as though it were a certainty.
Alicia saw them the following spring in a vernal pool in the woods. Amid the sound of the peeper frogs, the manatees delivered predictions of a tall, shining city she would visit. London or Tokyo or Paris, we couldn’t be sure; she said that maybe she would travel to all of them someday, just to be safe.
It wasn’t considered proper to discuss the manatees’ predictions with other people, but every girl did it, in whispers at school and hushed conversations at sleepover parties. There was endless speculation about how to interpret this or that bit of the prophesy, endless parsing of each phrase they had said. During those conversations, I was torn. I was annoyed that we were constantly analyzing everyone else’s experiences when I didn’t have my own to talk about yet. I felt foolish and immature, with nothing to contribute to the discussion. And yet, I was fascinated because, like all the other girls, I, too, wanted to understand what it all meant.
And so I listened and waited. Waited and waited. Even my younger sister had already been visited, in the pool at Aunt Shelly’s house. She wouldn’t tell me what they said, but she got a faraway look on her face and gave me a vague, smug smile any time I brought it up. I tried all the old tricks to make the manatees appear: tucking a sugar cube under my pillow, recording my dreams in a leather-bound notebook, tying a red ribbon around my ankle each morning. But nothing worked. Whenever I went anywhere near water, I searched for any sign of them, but still saw not even a ripple on the surface.
* * *
A month before my eighteenth birthday, I was lying in yet another bath gone lukewarm, more out of habit than out of hope. I’d all but given up on showers, wanting to give the manatees as many pools of water as possible and, by extension, opportunities to show up. But I was starting to wonder if they would ever come. And what if they didn’t? I was leaving for college in just a few months, but how could I go off and pretend to be an adult if I hadn’t even seen them yet? You weren’t a real woman until they showed up. Everybody knew that, and when my friends talked about their experiences, there was a growing sense of pity directed toward me. It was horrible. “I’m sure they’ll come soon,” Julie would tell me, but we both knew she wasn’t sure at all. I might very well go through my whole life as a manatee-less freak, a child with no direction or purpose, no understanding of how the world worked or what anything meant.
Right when I was about to get out of the bathtub and towel off, I heard a gurgling noise coming from near the drain. Could it be? I looked down toward the bottom of the tub, not seeing anything at first, but then two round heads the size of peaches popped up above the surface of the water and looked at me, one by each of my feet. The manatees were smaller than I expected, and I wondered if they were always that size, or if it depended on the girl they were visiting. I waited for them to say something, but they continued staring at me, unmoving. I supposed it was up to me to start the conversation. “How did you two get in here?” I asked, goose bumps rising on my damp, naked body. I folded my arms over my chest.
“We came in through the drain,” they said in unison. Their voices were soft, like those of old women or shy children.
“But how?” I asked.
“We live in the fluid,” they said.
They splashed down under the water and circled each other near my calves before dipping their faces up into the air again.
Again, I said, “But how—”
“Hello,” they both said.
I looked at one, and then the other. “Do you always talk in unison like that?”
“Always,” said the left manatee.
“Not always,” said the right manatee.
They circled each other a couple more times and then turned their backs to me, speaking only to each other in a language that sounded like Portuguese. “Hello?” I said. The manatee on the left (I wasn’t sure if it was the same one as before) turned its head to look back at me, but it didn’t say anything.
I waited. They swam around each other again and then pressed their bodies together between my ankles, flapping their flippers around.
Maybe they needed time to make their predictions, to gaze into whatever the manatee equivalent of a crystal ball was. I leaned my head back against the edge of the bathtub and stared up at the ceiling. Just as I was beginning to space out, the manatees spoke in unison again. “We’re hungry,” they said.
“What do you guys eat?”
“We’re sleepy. We want candy.” They began to cry like human babies.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I sat up, put an awkward hand on each of their heads. They quieted down some. Their skin was cool and smooth.
“Read us a story,” they said.
“I’d have to get out of the bath to get a book,” I told them.
“No!” they cried, splashing around in frantic figure eights. “Don’t leave us!”
They stared at me, waiting.
“I guess I could make up a story,” I said.
They both nodded emphatically.
I leaned back, and each manatee put its head on one of my knees. “OK,” I said. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a small village deep in the woods. One day, she was out picking berries when she came across an old witch standing right in her path.”
The manatees were rapt.
“At first, the little girl was scared, but then the witch smiled and said, ‘Hello, my pretty. You remind me of myself when I was small. I will grant you one wish. Shall you wish for a handsome prince to love you forever?’ But the girl said, ‘No.’ And the witch said, ‘Shall you wish for great riches and a grand castle to live in?’ But again, the girl said, ‘No.’ And the witch said, ‘Shall you wish for eternal youth, to be the most beautiful girl in all the land?’ But the girl just shook her head. So finally, the witch said, ‘Then what shall you wish for?’”
I paused. The manatees were frozen with attention.
“‘I shall wish for knowledge and understanding,’ said the girl, and the witch nodded slowly. ‘I see,’ she said. ‘That is a most powerful wish. I will grant it to you, but for a wish that powerful, there is something you must do in return. You must burn down your home. You must burn down your village. You must burn down all of these woods and walk away, never to return again.’”
“No,” breathed one of the manatees.
“And so the girl burned down her home, and her village, and the woods, and she walked away, never to return again, and she became the wisest and most powerful girl in the land.”
“Oh, no,” whispered the other manatee.
“The end,” I said.
“That’s all?” they asked together.
“That’s intense,” they said.
“I know.” I looked down at my fingers, which were thoroughly pruney by now. The manatees looked at my fingertips too, and then down at their own smooth flippers. When were they going to give me my fortune? Maybe I was using the wrong tactic. Maybe I needed to ask rather than wait to be told. “So,” I said.
They turned to stare at me again with eyes like tiny black caves. Their noses twitched at the ends of their whiskered snouts.
“So,” I repeated. “Is there anything I should know? You know, about the future?”
They turned away and chattered to each other in Portuguese again and, before I could react, dived down under the water and swam toward the drain.
“Wait!” I cried. I leaned forward and tried to cover it with my hands, but the manatees zoomed around and slipped under my fingers, resulting in my accidentally pulling up the stopper. They didn’t come back up, but the manatee now on the right turned and waved at me before they both disappeared through the drain, chased by the tiny tornado of emptying bathwater.
I sat in the tub, wet and cold, until all the water was gone. That was it? That was the great life advice I was supposed to get, the personalized guidance for my future? Shivering, I hoisted myself out of the bathtub and wrapped my towel tight around me. I put on my pajamas but didn’t bother to tuck a sugar cube under my pillow before going to bed. For a long while, I stared into the depths of the unknowable night, and then I fell into an all-consuming sleep.
* * *
The next day, I wandered through the hallways of school, distracted through each of my classes. What had it all meant? Had I missed something? I went over every detail of the visit, repeating every one of the manatees’ words and gestures until the whole thing started to blur, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. Was my visit abnormal, or was I perhaps defective in some way? What was I going to tell my friends?
I saw Julie, Sylvia, and Alicia at lunch, but didn’t say anything about my visitors until the four of us were seated together with our sandwiches. I was unsure what to say, but I couldn’t resist letting them know that it had finally happened. “The manatees came last night,” I whispered, and they all beamed and leaned in to hear about my prophesy.
I looked around at each of them. It wasn’t until that moment that I noticed it: the look on their faces, that same hunger, frustration, and uncertainty I had felt each time one of them told her own story. They didn’t know what any of it meant, either. This was the secret they had all been keeping, and not just from me. From each other, even from themselves. All of them must have known that you had to make up your own story, but nobody wanted to admit it. As soon as I saw it, the words poured forth like a river in springtime. “They said I would have great power after a while,” I told them. “That I would be in control of important things.” My friends grinned, delighted, demanding as many details as I could give them and scouring my face for clues as to what it all meant.
A few months later, when it was time to leave for college, I boarded an airplane by myself, headed to a distant place far from the one I had always known. As I soared over bodies of water and the first trees turning to flame under the early breath of autumn, I smiled, and let a faraway look come across my face.
Heather Kamins is the author of a poetry chapbook, Blueshifting (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2011). Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, Pear Noir!, Chiron Review, and elsewhere. She lives in western Massachusetts. Visit her online at http://heatherkamins.com.