"Archie! Look! Dorian's back again."
Archie had heard of Dorian, but he had never seen him in the flesh because he had never worked the aquarium. Archie's ginger head swiveled around to catch a glimpse of their famous visitor. All the staff at the zoo called him Dorian Grey, after the famous story. Mostly, it was because he was grey. However, at least some of the reasoning behind the name had to do with the legendary good looks of the titular figure and the fact that Dorian was one of the most handsome—if a bit rotund—cats the staff had ever seen.
For some unknown reason, the plump Russian Blue chose to spend an afternoon in the watery blue tunnel once every few weeks. The first time he visited the zoo, he caused quite a stir. An over-enthusiastically concerned visitor spotted the fluffy and infatuated feline gazing longingly through the glass walls of the tunnel, tracking the fish darting by with emerald eyes so dilated by darkness and excitement that they were nearly black. The visitor attempted to catch the wayward kitty, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Each time he would get close to Dorian, the cat would spot his reflection in the glass and dart away around a bend or two in the serpentine passageway.
Finally, the story goes, the frustrated do-gooder resorted to informing the zoo personnel of the uninvited guest, citing concerns for the cat's safety amid the stomping feet and rambunctious children making their way through the underwater labyrinth. The aquarium personnel, at first, were more concerned for the health of the nearly-hysterical man. After all, who would expect a cat to wander into an aquamarine exhibit where the main attraction was walking below the waves? But, upon reviewing the security footage, they realized there was, in fact, a feline guest within the confines of the aquarium, and concluded it must be too scared and confused to find its way out.
It took nearly ten employees, some called in from other exhibits, to catch the feisty feline, or so they say. The cadre of zoologists and maintenance personnel had to form a tight semicircle behind the cat while he was enraptured with the creatures in the walls to snag him. A few still bear the scars from their brave rescue efforts for a very, very unhappy cat. Dorian Grey's name is Dorian, or so it says on his tag, and his owner was called to retrieve him from the aquarium. Dorian apparently lives in the old mansion next door and has always been fascinated by fancy fish. His owner apologized for his intrusion on the attraction and took him home to see the sea creatures who dwelled therein.
Since that first incident, Dorian Grey has visited the aquarium two hundred and eighty-two times. After the first year, when it became apparent the cat was not lost but was deliberately seeking out the experience like any other zoo patron, the staff awarded him an honorary lifetime season pass. All employees were instructed to look after the cat as though he were a minor on a field trip, ensuring he didn't get hurt while he made his way through the immersive attraction and that he safely made his way out of the corridor before the doors closed for the night. The staff kept other visitors from approaching Dorian for fear he would tear them to ribbons but encouraged them to take photographs and spread the word. Eventually, someone started telling the tourists a tale that has, over several years, evolved into the urban legend of the cat at the aquarium.
Dorian Grey's legend begins not at the aquarium but at the seaside. There, nestled in the palm trees that rested at the edge of the sandy beach, was a cottage. The cottage belonged to a fisherman named Dorian. Every day, he rowed out to sea in a shabby boat with a fishing pole and a net, hoping to catch enough fish to sell at the market or at least one for an evening meal. On most days, he was unsuccessful, eating fruit from the palms and rice from the paddies instead of an aquamarine delicacy. About once per week, he would catch something on his line or snag something in his net, and he cooked his catch with spices he saved just for such occasions. Then, a few times per season, he would catch enough fish to make a trip to the market after salting a few to last until the next good day. He traded his catch for spices, salt, and rice—sometimes a coin or two if his haul was big enough—then he returned home and went to bed with a full belly and an empty heart.
Dorian was lonely in his seaside cottage; his only company the waves crashing on the shore. He longed for someone to share his life with: to cook for, to talk to in the wee hours of the night when the sea was silent and the jungle loud, to hold in his arms when the weight of the world was too much to bear alone. But no one wanted to share the life of a poor fisherman who couldn't even catch a meal most days, so he continued on alone. Day in and day out, he scoured the sea for a change in his fortune while his hopes washed out with the tide.
One day, the sea was so calm to looked like glass, and Dorian was watching schools of colorful, tropical fish dart around his net near the bottom of his boat. Then, from the cool green depths, a strange sight caught his eye: a woman's face floating deep beneath the waves. Without a second thought, Dorian dropped his net and dove into the surf, searching for the drowned woman, but she was nowhere to be found. Could he, in his lonely state, have imagined her?
He held his breath and stilled his body, willing his eyes not to close as the sting of salt tried to force a blink. His heart, slowly sinking with the rest of him, fluttered when a shimmer of silk swished through the water to his left. Suddenly, he was bursting with hope. If she was moving, maybe she was alive. Dorian twisted his body around, swimming over to the reef where he had glimpsed the movement, but one badly placed kick brought him to the brink of disaster. His ankle became lodged in a table of coral, and he could no longer move. His lungs were screaming for the surface, but he could not oblige. Cursing himself for this foolish rescue mission, Dorian looked around once more in search of the woman he had tried to save. Perhaps they could keep each other company in the afterlife.
He turned his head to the left and screamed, expelling what air was left in his body in a flood of bubbles. Two milky green eyes met his own, just inches from his face, but the face they belonged to wasn't human. Scales adorned the chiseled features like iridescent sequins overlapping on a mask. The slender neck bore twin sets of gills, and the hands, now reaching for his trapped leg, were webbed. What he had mistaken for silk was a sheer tail fin that shimmered in the murky light as the mermaid attempted to free him from the reef. Her green eyes were the last thing he saw before it all went black.
When he awoke, Dorian knew that something was terribly wrong. He wasn't in a boat, nor in the sea. He wasn't in his cottage near the seaside. And yet, he could smell the ocean from this dark, warm room. He tried to stand, but he couldn't keep his balance, falling to all fours. That's when he saw the problem, recoiling in horror and confusion. His hands were no longer hands; where his human palms and digits had been were two furry grey paws instead. He was in some kind of long tunnel with mirrored glass on the walls, reflecting his newly feline face. In a panic, he bolted down the tunnel, not knowing or caring where he was headed but knowing it was imperative that he escape.
Instinctively, he toward the smell of the sea, escaping the labyrinth through a grate that had come unscrewed and ducking under the wooden fence at the edge of the property. When he found the source, he was mesmerized by the sea creatures glancing back at him through the glass. The sea—his home, his love, his life—forever out of reach. He could not weep, but neither could he look away. What had happened to him was impossible, wasn't it?
When the zookeepers captured him, they called the owner of the mansion to retrieve him from the zoo. The woman walked in less than ten minutes later, wrapped head to toe in black: a silky blouse, a full skirt, full-length gloves, dark sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. By the time she arrived, Dorian had accepted that he was a cat and had presumably always been a cat. She told them that the feisty feline has always been fascinated by fish, which he supposed sounded true enough, but something about her and the way she walked felt wrong. She bundled him in her arms, thanking the staff for taking such good care of her loyal companion, and made her way to the house. The scarf she wore around her neck shifted as she opened the door, and he saw three neat dark gashes amongst the pale sequined skin.
"Now, now," she cooed as she removed her glasses to reveal twinkling green eyes filled with malice and amusement. "We must return you to your exhibit!"
She glided over the wet entryway floor to the threshold of what should have been a living room. Instead, it was a massive pool of saltwater with several merpeople apparently chatting within. They all seemed to be fascinated with the walls of the room. As his captor dropped him through a marked grate in the floor, Dorian realized what held the merpeople's attention. He resumed his rightful place in the merquarium, the memories of his human life fading as he entertained the visitors in the pool. The full moon would bring them back to the surface and send him reeling for the sea once more. Until then, he was simply a cat who cleaned the remnants from bones tossed down by his owner when her guests had eaten their fill.
About the Creator
I fell in love with speculative fiction and poetry many years ago, but I have precious little time to write any. I hope to share the worlds I've built and the songs of my heart with all of you here and that you enjoy them as much as I do.