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The memory of water
“It’s a beautiful day,” said Zlinka’s father, the old, white-haired tribal leader of her family, before her sister and her sister’s mate had taken over the day-to-day running of their small island off the coast of Durotar. “Why don’t we go down to the beach?” He looked at Zlinka expectantly.

Zlinka stood up from the mossy log by the campfire, and helped her father to stand, putting one hand behind his elbow and the other behind his shoulder, bracing her feet against the log.

Beside her, a small, one year old Pandaren clung to her leg and squealed. Her adopted son. Once her father was standing, swaying slightly, getting his balance, she let one hand drop to her son’s head to soothe him.

Her mind was already buzzing with the details of the short walk to the beach. It wasn’t far. In the past she would have covered the distance in just one minute and a half – and had done so, flying through the tropical rainforest on silent feet, her long, turquoise hair streaming behind her, until she emerged into the dazzling sunlight and sprang joyfully onto the sand, and dashed headlong into the warm, azure waves.

No longer.

Today, the path was long and arduous. She took a deep breath, and slid her left hand onto her father’s elbow, and gently took her son’s paw with her right. Today, the path was full of obstacles, and already she was navigating them in her mind.

They set off at a slow pace, leaving the clearing of family campfire and open-air huts for the narrow path to the beach, the path that wove its shady way between the palm trees and vines, showing every now and then a bright, shining view of the sea between the leaves.

Her father teetered on her left, slow and unsteady like a tree with weak roots swaying a little too far in the breeze, her son toddled at her right, tripping, losing his balance, caught from a fall only by her hand.

There was the first obstacle, on the left: the buried, sand-covered rock a few yards in to the trail, the one she had stubbed her toe on when she was three years old. Ever after she had leapt over it, effortlessly. But today she steered her father around it, carefully nudging his elbow, while holding her son away from the encroaching vines on the right – those leaves were at the level of his face.

And there! There was an overhanging palm frond, half blown down in the last storm, still hanging from the trunk, but now directly in her father’s path. It was something she would have ducked under without a thought in the past, but today she negotiated the frond carefully, helping her father stoop beneath it, watching him ease his weight from foot to foot and emerge, victorious, on the other side.

On the right were some sticky vines. Just the thing for her son to get tangled in – his fur would be sticky and itchy all day if he blundered into that, and she and Oryx would have to spend the entire evening picking the sap out with their fingers. She let go of her father for an instant to grab her son under his arms and move him to the center of the path.

And so it went. The trip took half an hour, a tiny trek, a miniature expedition playing out in the shade of the palm trees.

The roar of the ocean grew closer. Zlinka could hardly wait. She came rarely to the Echo Isles these days, being too busy with her own life in Orgrimmar. But a part of her always missed the sea, the sound of the surf crashing and hissing up the sand, the warm salt breeze, the clear water. She kept its memory deep in her heart, the vibrant colors and fresh smells and warm, clear waves, and the memory gave her strength, no matter where she was in the world. She would wrap the memory around herself, like a cloak, and it would keep her warm and safe and strong.

They emerged from the line of trees onto the soft, white sand. Zlinka’s breath came more quickly. Here she was – she was in her own memory now, at the very source of her strength. The sand pressed up between her toes, warm and gritty, a living memory.

She ached to run across the beach. She could reach the water in five seconds. One dash, sand spraying up at each footstep, one mad dash and she’d be in the foam, her feet in the wet sand, water dragging at her knees, and she would dive, an exuberant dive, into the advancing glassy wall of a curling wave, a wave with white foam on top, arching just over her head. The wave would roll over her back, an old friend, and she’d emerge behind it with her hair slicked down like a seal, rubbing the salt water from her eyes, ready to face the next curling wave, until she swam out beyond the breakpoint to bob gently in the sea swells, perhaps floating on her back, perhaps diving to hang suspended in the warm clear azure, the closest she would ever get to flight, to watch the bright fish flitting in the reef below.

“I’m tired, I have to sit down,” said her father. Zlinka tore her eyes from the surf and helped her father to sit, a hand behind his elbow, supporting his weight, easing him down onto the sand. He was so light, these days. It was as though his bones had become a bird’s bones, hollow on the inside.

Beside her, her son stood in awe. He had not seen the sea before, at least not to remember it. His little mouth gaped open. He clutched her hand, squeezing her fingers. She plopped down on the sand next to her father then pulled her son into her lap. Reaching back, she picked up a little sun-dried branch and gave it to her son to play with. He grabbed it and waved it around. She watched carefully in case he got it too close to his own face, or her father’s.

She looked across the beach again. The water was only a few dozen yards away, but she knew, with a sudden sinking of her heart, that it might as well be twenty miles away. The sea was beyond her reach. She could not go in. These two generations, the very old and the very young, needed her too much. She could not leave them.

A stab of anger, anger so hot it blurred her vision. When had her life become so full of people pressing in, crowding in, needing, pulling, asking, wanting, taking, that there was no more room for herself?

When would she ever be free enough to run down the beach and jump into the surf?

It would be years.

Her heart stilled. Freedom would come again, yes, but it would come with death. She cast a sideways glance at her father, at his wispy white hair floating in the breeze, his eyes half-closed, enjoying the sun. His death would bring her freedom, but she did not want him to die.

And it would come with maturity. She looked down at the little weight in her lap, the little black and white furry bundle that was still playing happily with the stick. He would grow up, grow away, grow big and tall and strong until he stood a head taller than she did, and probably weighed three times as much. And one day he would sit tall in his stirrups, his sword on his back and his shield at his side, and he would bid her goodbye. And her heart would overflow with both gladness and grief, for she did not want to lose him.

Then freedom would come, freedom from responsibility, freedom from people. That freedom would be sweet, for it would be well-earned, freedom after a lifetime of caring for other people, but it would be freedom tinged with the sadness of loss.

And one day, further still in the future, she would lean on the arm of this little Pandaren grown so tall, and he would watch the path for her, to make sure she did not fall. And she would sit on the beach herself, too old to go in to the water now, her long white hair cascading around her shoulders.

She would lean her head against his furry shoulder, so strong, so sure, and she would feel safe, and loved. And she would look back on these years when her parents were alive, and her three children were small and playing at her feet. She would remember when she was at the center of her family, at the core of their lives, when all of her loved ones, young and old, had taken shelter in her strength.

She would look back, and know that today, she had been happy.

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