Ahohako Bjorkman was not like the other kids on Matahina Island. He was oddly pale and blond compared to the other islanders, thanks to his parents’ Scandinavian lineage. But that was not all. Ahohako had a deep, dark secret, which only his parents knew.
“You don’t have to tell anyone,” his parents assured him. “No one has to find out what you really are.”
“But they all make fun of my legs,” said Ahohako, whose legs were covered with an odd, scaly pattern.
“Just tell them that it’s a rare skin condition,” said his mother. “Like psoriasis.”
So he did. But still, Ahohako never managed to fit in with the other kids at school. While the rest of them flocked to parties and basketball games, he was often perched on some lonely bench, reading Kafka and Steinbeck and Poe and desperately wishing that he could be someone else. Anyone but him.
Every so often, one of his classmates would notice him and, perhaps in a rush of pity, invite him to come along and grab some pizza with the rest of the group. But Ahohako always declined. He never quite knew when an attack would come over him, and was afraid that it would happen while he was around other people. Without warning, his skin would begin to prickle and burn, and he would have the horrible sensation of being cooked by the sun. Within moments, he would begin to shudder and gasp.
There was only one remedy.
Still gasping and wheezing like an asthmatic, Ahohako would begin to run in the direction of the sea. Without hesitation, he would discard his clothes and dive into the waves.
The cool, salty water enveloped him, soothing the dry, burning skin and letting him breathe through the tiny gills that opened up along the sides of his neck. He glided through the water, feeling his human legs melt away, replaced by a strong bronze-colored tail that thumped against the water and propelled him forward. This was who he was.
“It is a curse,” his mother had told him ten years before, when he had transformed for the first time. “It is a punishment from the gods for my misdeeds.” Ahohako had not known what his mother meant. But in time, he came to understand the truth; that his father was not his real father. His mother had had an affair with a mysterious and strangely pale man seventeen years ago. A man who claimed to have come from a home deep in the ocean, though his mother had laughed in disbelief.
But what if he was telling the truth? Ahohako wondered. What if his real father was a merman, just like him? One day, he decided to find out for himself. He dove down toward his favorite thinking spot – a grotto of kelp, which flowed with the current like trees blown by the wind.
Then he stopped, lifted his head, closed his eyes, and called out as loudly as he could, “Father!” Nothing happened. He tried again. “Dad?”
There was a great rush of bubbles around him, then suddenly, a man appeared. He did not have a tail like Ahohako, but human legs and bluish-white skin. “My son,” the man spoke with a voice that was deep and strangely clear for being underwater. “I have always wondered when you would summon me.”
“Dad?” Ahohako stared, unable to believe his eyes. “You’re real!”
His dad chuckled. “Of course I am real. Now tell me…what do you wish?”
“What do you mean, wish?”
“Your rite-of-passage wish, of course,” his father looked surprised. “A son of the sea gets to make one wish before he reaches manhood. Your mother never told you?”
Ahohako shook his head. His mother had never explained anything to him about his real father.
“Well then, tell me what it is you wish more than anything else.”
Years of isolation, taunting, and secrets came rushing to his mind. There was only one thing that could make his life better. “I wish…that I could be a human instead of a merman.” The moment the words were out, his face burned with shame. Here he was, telling his father, a merman, that he no longer wanted to be a merman.
“It is a common wish,” his father said calmly. “Then my son, the day that you turn twenty-one years old, you will be a human man, with human legs. But when that happens, you must never return to the sea. Do you understand?”
Ahohako nodded. “Thank you.”
“Now I must leave you.” His father turned to go.
“Wait!” said Ahohako. “Who are you? What is your name?”
His father smiled, his teeth glowing white like oyster pearls. “My name,” he said, “is Tangaroa.” And in a rush a bubbles, he was gone.