“Castleborn” by Isaac Harder

Written by plumtree

Topics: 2021-22 School Year, Complete Archive (2012-2020)

Once upon a time, there was a boy named James who lived in a castle in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes the castle would float just above the surface of the water, and other days it would sink down and settle itself at the bottom of the sea.

James was born of the castle. He remembered no father or mother, only the castle he had never left in his entire life. He could not float, since his body had a mineral quality that came from being castleborn.

Every night before bed, he would take a deep, deep breath and hold it, just in case the castle sank beneath the waves while he was sleeping. Because he was part castle, he could hold his breath for hours at a time. There was no way to breathe in the water, so whatever oxygen he held in his lungs would be the only breath that he could use for the entire next day if the castle was underwater.

One night, he forgot to hold his breath.

He woke up in the silt-filled darkness, gasping for air that had long since left his lungs. Tearing free of the covers, he swam up as fast as he could, reaching in vain for the light above.

It was impossible. No matter how hard he kicked, James couldn’t rise through the water to reach the surface. His muscles screamed for the sweet oxygen that couldn’t be found and his vision turned deep gray. Gasping in pain, James accepted the end of his story and closed his eyes. He drifted down, down into the depths of the indigo sea.

But even as he sank back to the sea floor, collapsing spread-eagled in the sand, his mind stayed half-alive. Partly unconscious, James willed the pain to leave his mind, wishing for his suffering to end. Still nothing changed. Even with no air, he stayed alive.

Why me? he begged silently to no one. I never wanted this.

Nothing happened, so James pulled himself off the ground and began to walk aimlessly. He didn’t know where he was going and didn’t even care anymore, but he needed something to change.

James came upon two sea nymphs sitting and giggling together.

“Help me,” James pleaded with his lips. “I must breathe.”

The nymphs simply shrugged. “James, do you truly think you are the first to come to us?” one asked him. They laughed at him, their taunting chortles like the peals of bells.

“There have been many others before you,” the other nymph remarked. “We helped none of them. Why should we help you?”

James could think of no reason, and so he left the nymphs. Their giggles haunted his mind for hours.

A deep, rich noise filled his head, and he turned in the direction from which it came, pulled by the powerful music. After a long time, he saw several whales swimming together. Every few minutes, one would break from the pod at the bottom of the sea and rise to the surface, breaching the waves far away, so small that even those massive creatures were barely specks swimming miles away.

James tentatively approached the largest whale. The whale turned to stare at him as it continued to sing balefully.

James’ silent voice seemed even weaker in comparison to the whale, with its sounds so tremendous that James’ brain ached from the noise. “I want to get to the surface. Would you please bring me there, great whale?”

The whale ignored him and turned away again. Its threatening sounds led James away from the whales, downcast from another failure.

With no air to breathe from, James’ mind faded darker and darker as he continued to walk across the sea floor, with incessant swells and currents making him wish he could follow them to the surface.

As night approached, James came to the edge of a thick forest of seaweed. Turning his face to the distant surface, he noticed one stalk far higher than the rest. A single shadow rested at the top.

James needed any help he could get, and so he began to climb.

By this time, he was more than half unconscious; he was near death. So James walked the tightrope between life and death as he slowly ascended the seaweed stalk, always watching up at the ocean surface and never looking down at all that was beneath him.

After what felt like lifetimes, he reached the top of the seaweed and found there an ancient, wizened dolphin.

The dolphin smiled at him and James counted the dolphin’s three old, brown teeth. James heard nothing, but a pulse that seemed to emit from the dolphin entered his mind and sent him words. “I am the Wise Dolphin Star. Why have you come here?”

James mouthed, “I am only a boy, and I need air. I have come to you because I am nearly dead. Can you help me?”

The dolphin’s wrinkles deepened as he closed his eyes. “All I can tell you is that the end is within reach, one way or another. You have asked others to help you, but you must first be able to help yourself.”

James’ brow furrowed and he grew angry. “I know I am almost dead, of course the end is almost here! I have helped myself. You do not know the miles I’ve walked and climbed just to get to—”

He stopped. A familiar shadow graced the ocean surface that glistened above him.

The Wise Dolphin Star smiled again. “Tell me, James, what is it that you see above you?”

James realized wordlessly, “My castle.”

“Yes. And only you know how to get there.”

Something whispered inside of James’ mind. Something that only James knows. Something that only James will ever know. And whatever it was allowed James to leave the seaweed forest and glide in the open ocean. Then the castleborn boy kicked through the water and propelled himself to the surface.



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