Evenings, after closing, we would sit in front of their fireplace and drink hot cider. The flames would snap and crackle and throw flickering shadows on the walls, and we would talk, mostly about the restaurant at first, but then I'd get them to open up a little.
One night, we were telling stories.
"Your turn now," Julie said. "you promised."
I put my mug down. I love the smell of a good fire. Maybe that was what put me in the mood.
"Okay," I said, "Well… Once upon a time, a very, very long time ago, when the earth was not so old, or so worn, as it is now, there were a group of—hmm. I guess you'd call them overseers—on the planet. They took care of it."
"They were the dolphins."
She puzzled over that for a moment.
"Where were the humans, then?"
"Don't be impatient. I'm coming to that. The planet got on pretty well by itself, back then, so these dolphins, the overseers, they had lots of time on their—their fins. They soared through the thick green ocean spaces, played games, told stories—explored every inch of the planet…"
Julie interrupted again.
"You mean of the sea."
"Did I say of the sea? The whole planet."
"So it was all sea then."
"It had about as much land as it does now. Who's telling this story?"
"How did dolphins explore the land?"
"Very clever. They had one shape for the sea, and another shape for the land."
Julie had completely forgotten about her cider.
"They could change back and forth, any time they wanted. Some of them even liked the land so well that they chose to live there."
"And not go back to the sea at all?"
"Exactly. That was the beginning of the virus."
"Well, they called it a virus. They really don't know what it is."
I sneaked a look at Ann. She had stopped her knitting. I continued.
"The way it is with dolphins, they draw their life from the sea. The sea is the source of a dolphin's soul. Dolphins touch the creator through the sea.
"And the ones on the land couldn't?"
"Well, if you're a dolphin, you never completely lose touch with the sea. You carry the sea inside you. It's the deepest part of you. It gives you your dreams."
"Not sleep dreams. The dreams you live by, the ones you follow, your deepest desires, that tell you who you really are."
Julie's eyes sparkled from the fire. I took a sip of my cider.
"Well," I said, "these dolphins…"
"The ones on the land."
"…they stopped listening. Not all at once, understand. It took—oh, generations. But in the end they became afraid of the sea."
Julie considered this.
"The one inside them, or the real sea?"
"Both. They forgot they were dolphins. They lost their dreams, and they stopped taking care of the world."
"But what about the dolphins in the sea?"
"Oh, they did what they could. They would come to the land, try to help the land dolphins…"
"You mean the humans."
I have to admit, that impressed me.
"Very good! …try to help the humans listen to the sea again. But it was dangerous. The humans didn't listen to themselves, so it was hard for them to listen to anyone else."
I leaned forward.
"They began to be afraid, especially of strangers. So when the dolphins came to help, they weren't always welcome. But that wasn't the worst."
"After a long time, the problem became contagious. That's when they started calling it the virus."
"The dolphins who came to shore to help—well, they stopped coming back."
"They lost their dreams, too?"
"When the sea dolphins realized what was happening, they stopped sending the helpers."
"They just gave up?"
"Well, almost. There was one very young dolphin who still really wanted to try. He thought if he went ashore knowing there was a virus, he might get back alive."
"They let him, didn't they?"
"Not at first. But he was very persistent. So, years and years after any dolphin had managed to return, this young pup got to give it one last try."
"And he figured it out?"
"No one knows."
"He hasn't come back yet."
She digested that for a moment, then her eyes became mere slits.
"That's it? That's the end?"
"It's the way it happened."
She flounced back against the couch, almost spilling her mug.
Ann gave her a warning look, then smiled at me.
"What's your dream, Clarence?"
I thought about lying, but for some reason I didn't.
"Just to go home."
She picked up her knitting again.
"And what's stopping you?"
"Oh, mostly a—a transportation problem."
Julie stopped pouting just long enough to comment.
"It's a rotten story," she said.