“A Tacoma Fairy Tale” by Kenly George Durand

Cora’s father was a dragon, her mother an angel.

The two laid 100 eggs, but because he was from the sea and she from land, they divided them 50 each, and separated.

To not be seen nor heard, knowing he could breathe fire when upset, the dragon traveled some distance away from land and his shallow water clutch to grieve, but the wee-est of the eggs rolled close behind, so when he struck the water with his great tail in sad frustration, the wee egg tumbled down…

down into the deepest trench, with the tiniest beginnings of Cora tucked away inside the shell, to drift off into the coldest water, asleep in suspended animation for centuries…

until the missile tests upset the phosphorescent creatures who attended to and nurtured the egg, as if it was a sacred thing, as well as their own child. To protect the egg from falling debris, from fish to fish, deep water species to less deep water species, they volleyed the precious orb up and up…

then from gentle gray whale to friendly humpback, next to an orca nanny in a quick pass, as the egg had begun to hatch, and the passing orca pod was the best for speed and safety. Little Cora emerged near the San Juan Islands; a water-breather like her father, she could also breathe air like her mother.

There was fire in her that stayed just under her breastbone, never to fly from her lungs. She had the upper torso and almond-shaped eyes like her angel mother, and a scale-covered tail like her father, flanked on either side by scaly wing-shaped fins with which she quickly trained herself well enough to outswim the orcas…

but exhausted from her efforts and having traveled closer to shore than the pod could follow, baby Cora helplessly beached herself and cried, tiny cherub-like fingers dug into the sand. Upon contact with land, what was a tail moments ago transformed into flailing legs and kicking feet.

A lone widow was engaged in late-season clam digging nearby. She saw the child and took her to her house in Tacoma raise as her own, as she too was once an orphan, her own parents killed in the war in her homeland decades ago. She wondered if her aging almond-shaped eyes along with her memory of legends her parents told her were to blame for her imagining something like a tail on the child when she first approached.

Cora heard the lady’s name as Meh Newoi, and called her God Mother sometimes, but mostly referred to her affectionately as “Meh-ma.” Meh-ma would tell her ancient stories of her own homeland. The tale of an angel queen who once married a dragon lord stoked the fire under Cora’s breastbone.

One day Meh-ma carried a three-year-old Cora along with her to trap crabs off a nearby small boat dock. Cora pitched such a sudden and violent fit in Meh-ma’s arms that crab pots went flying; her legs alternately stiffened, then writhed, until she could no longer be held as the child hurled herself into the water.

“Meh-ma, no cry – I come back in three suns!” shouted Cora, the sea-child. In one stroke of her powerful tail that appeared where once were legs, she was gone. For three days, Meh-ma stood at the end of the dock and wept.

Cora returned on the third day with stories about glowing moonlit kelp forests, glimmering swarms of sunlit krill, sunken ships’ treasures, and adventures with distant cousins – relatives who lost the ability to transform for land existence. These were the healthiest ones. Many others were ill and also lost their ability to swim long distances.

Meh-ma scolded Cora, but her heart softened when Cora wept over her ailing cousins farther east, and she begged Meh-ma to send her to school so she could learn of ways to heal them. Meh-ma noticed that Cora returned with a small sea-leather pouch around her neck. Cora produced from it gifts for her Meh-ma; precious things she had picked up from the ships she’d explored.

Meh-ma and Cora worked out a schedule. Cora could spend summers with her sea family, but the other three seasons were for school. Meh-ma found that the strength in Cora’s aquatic tail was lost on her wobbly land legs, so she enrolled her in ballet class, paid for by the sea treasures Cora brought back with her in late August.

Summers spent in the sea found Cora sharing what she’d learned at school. She taught her cousins far and wide all she knew about identifying harmful pollutants, how to avoid and manage their risk around them, and how to use plastic waste to make useful items.

During the rest of the year, Cora loved her school studies, especially science, but she loved ballet more. It made her feel as though she was swimming through the air even though she could not jump anywhere near as well as her favorite dancer friend, Mario.

Cora’s first performance was at Tacoma’s Pantages Theater in their production of The Nutcracker. She was awestruck at the ornate elements of the house area, the stage backdrops and sets, and the large pine tree outside covered in colored lights – a lovely sight for tired dancers heading home after dark.

Meh-ma told Cora the story about another prince besides The Nutcracker prince for whom that tree was to honor or at least the memory of the peace for which this other prince stood. “He had only walked on the earth for 33 years, and then he had to go home.” Peace and home meant the world to Meh-ma.

As tiny beginner dancers, Cora and Mario’s first Nutcracker season cast them as the smallest party-goers pretending to sleep under the Christmas tree. They held hands as they lay there – one would squeeze the hand of the other good and hard if either of them started to giggle.

From one Nutcracker season to the next, Cora and Mario were cast in more challenging roles, but Mario always was one step ahead of Cora. As much as he encouraged and coached her, Cora did not win the role of Clara when he was cast as the Prince. Still, they were just happy to spend time together in class and rehearsal, and occasionally outside of class when Mario’s parents offered to save Cora the long bus ride between school and ballet, and made space for her at their dining table to do homework and join them for supper.

The ballet mistress noticed the stage chemistry between Cora and Mario, and she advised Cora to stay in Tacoma for summer intensive classes; that she could surely then catch up to Mario’s skill level. As each spring came to a close, it became more and more difficult to explain where she spent her summers, and how she was unreachable while staying with cousins.

In what would sadly be her last Nutcracker performance, Cora was allowed to dance the Snow Queen’s role in a pas de deux with Mario as her Snow King during the closing show of the season. The dancer who was originally cast was injured, and since Cora had helped Mario practice this dance outside of rehearsal so many times, she knew it by heart. The snowy trees painted on the glittery backdrop reminded her of the moonlit kelp forests, the fire-resistant paper flakes that floated through the deep blue-gelled stage floodlights resembled krill swarms though sunbeams. This would be the one moment she felt she was at home alongside her prince…

Mario had his own car that year, so they could take their sweet time leaving the theater. They lingered for congratulatory greetings from friends and hugs from family. Mario’s parents drove Meh-ma home as Mario had wanted to celebrate Cora’s performance with a late dinner. As the last security guard locked the theater doors and walked away, Cora and Mario paused outside the theater to look up at the tall Christmas tree. This is the spot where Mario first kissed her, at the tree of lights and so much joy and sorrow mixed.

One happy day flowed into another during the spring that followed, but each was accompanied by a slow undertow of sad realization that Cora would ultimately have to return to the sea for good. “Mario loves me so; it’s unfair for me to expect to keep my summer secret from him forever!” Cora cried into Meh-ma’s lap one mid-May evening. “If we married, would we someday have lovely little dancer children, or half-sea-creature freaks like me?” Meh-ma stroked her hair to try to comfort her, not knowing what to say, but she soon unwittingly ushered in a fateful answer.

Meh-ma took a short journey to one of the nearby small islands for the day to clear it of trash left by occasional careless campers, leaving Cora behind to study for final exams. When she didn’t return by supper time, Cora worried. Still gone after sunset, Cora feared the worst and swam out to the island. She found Meh-ma on a short stretch of beach where her rowboat had landed. She appeared to be sleeping peacefully, but Cora knew the spirit of Meh-ma had departed.

Sorrow and panic wove a conspiracy with the best intentions of Cora’s heart. She knew the ocean path back to the shores of Meh-ma’s birth country and decided to take her body to this homeland to rest there. From sea grass she wove a soft but sturdy burial pod for towing Meh-ma’s body and recruited a small procession of underwater family to assist her with the journey east. Cora set fire to the trash Meh-ma had gathered, weeping bitterly as it burned. Once the last ember faded, she slipped into the water, committing to live the rest of her days in the sea.

After delivering her Meh-ma to her homeland, Cora immersed herself in caring for the sick sea people of the Pacific, working rounds, assessing the health of underwater communities, advising some to relocate if the toxins were found at unhealthy concentrations. She observed a rapid decline in the number of elders – few were surviving much past Cora’s age. As hard as she tried to focus, her mind always wandered back to a stage in Tacoma and a tall, bright Christmas tree.

When she had initially made the decision, Cora truly believed she would never return to Tacoma, but she could not help herself from making the trip nearly every December to watch just one performance of The Nutcracker at the Pantages. She would slip into the theater in disguise –sometimes as a flower deliverer, others as a makeup artist. She would hide until the house lights went down, in hopes of finding a vacant seat left by a person who did not appreciate a ticket gifted to them enough to use it, or an unsold seat in the most expensive ticket zone which, although fortunate for Cora, was an unfortunate reality for the theater when Tacoma’s economy struggled.

As much as her heart ached, it gave Cora tremendous joy to see her old friends dancing, and note how much they’d advanced in grace and skill from year to year. Especially her dear Mario. During her first visit back, while delivering an anonymous bouquet to the dressing room, Cora overheard the ballet mistress saying that Mario had nearly quit dancing altogether after Cora vanished, but that he stuck with it, and she believed it saved him from utter despair.

On her third winter trip, a disguised Cora slipped in through the backstage door into the dressing room hallway, delivering juice and coffee to the cast members. She served everyone, wrote each cast person’s name on their own recyclable cup, while nearly melting her coat and the scarf that covered most of her face. The young woman assigned the Snow Queen’s role fetched Mario’s cup for him. Cora’s face flushed hard when she saw the ring on the woman’s finger; her saddest suspicion was confirmed when Mario kissed the woman when she delivered his beverage.

As the house lights dimmed, Cora slunk into an empty seat and seethed well into Act I. When she could sit still no longer, she sneaked down the hallway back toward the dressing rooms. The fire under her breastbone burned as she located Mario and the Snow Queen’s cups. When none of the remaining off-stage cast members was looking, surprising herself by her contemptuous act even as she committed it, she spat into both cups.

She was stunned to see sparks fly out of each cup upon impact, and then fizzle. The flame in her chest subsided and was replaced by a sense of shame.

“How selfish am I?” Cora wondered. “I truly do want Mario to be happy.”

She returned to her seat and strove to find and embrace a kinder, more peaceful perspective within herself before heading back to the water.

The following year she was unable to make the trip. There was a crisis in the waters along the coast of Meh-ma’s homeland, a disastrous chemical spill. Many fish had washed ashore, and nearly the bodies of sea people who’d been killed. Sea people’s bodies typically disintegrate almost immediately upon aquatic death – they become food for krill and plankton. Sudden exposure to intense toxicity can interrupt this process, so those killed by this disaster needed have their bodies retrieved quickly, lest they be discovered by land people. Cora organized teams of sea soldiers who wore protective breathing gear that Cora had designed. She assigned them to work in shifts, limiting their exposure. They retrieved bodies and helped the sick get to a safer place to recover. Cora could not bear to leave while the sea community suffered so.

The following year, although Cora had become ill herself, she decide to make her annual December journey. Her illness slowed her pace, and she worried she wouldn’t reach her destination before the closing performance. She swam straight into the Tacoma waterfront in order to avoid as much land travel as possible. Arriving during daylight hours, Cora was grateful for the cover of fog so no one would see her getting dressed on the shore. As she climbed out onto the sidewalk, with thankful eyes she saw the light rail line had been extended to run along Ruston Way. She’d be at the theater in no time!

As Cora arrived at the Pantages, she noticed something wasn’t right. The marquee listed a different show playing. The Nutcracker she’d grown up with wasn’t there. She wouldn’t get to see her old friends dance, nor rejoice at the sight of her dear Prince Mario dancing. She sat and silently wept near the Christmas tree, her dark sorrow camouflaged her form in shadows between the branches, in contrast with the happy lights.

Mario drove home from the Federal Way Performing Arts Center in silent thought. His daughter Sacha smiled as she slept in the back seat. The toddler was exhausted from having been entertained by make-up crew members doubling as babysitters while her dad performed. Mario wondered why Sacha’s smile reminded him of Cora rather than his ex-wife who bore her. Maybe it was bitterness, because she abandoned him and Sacha to dance with a company in Europe. But didn’t Cora abandon him as well? He sighed. This was his first Nutcracker season performed at the Arts Center rather than Tacoma’s Pantages. It was also his first season cast as Uncle Drosselmeyer. If he could possess that character’s magic to bring either woman back, he’d choose his dear Cora.

Feeling nostalgic and wanting to show Sacha the big Christmas tree, Mario decided to take a freeway exit to downtown Tacoma and head to the Pantages. He parked near the quiet theater and lifted the now-wide-awake toddler from her car seat and walked toward the tree.

Cora had no idea how long she’d been sitting there. She felt weak, and as she stood up, she noticed her hands appeared translucent. Stepping forward on wobbly legs to head back to the water, she nearly collapsed.

“Mmmum!” Sacha chirped and pointed at the tree as Mario carried her closer. He looked to where she pointed and immediately recognized the silhouette near the tree. “Cora?”

Cora looked up. In her haste and fatigue, she’d forgotten a disguise. Her heart pounded at the sight of Mario and the beautiful babe in his arms. All the love she’d ever felt in both of her worlds combined, filling her entire being in that moment. But no, she was going to fall. Her legs had begun to fade into a tail. No… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Through her eyes she reached out to Mario with all the life left within her. She hoped he could hear the words she had no breath left to say.

Before Mario could take a first stride and sprint toward Cora as his heart desired, to catch her before her body might strike the cold earth, she vanished into a plume of something like snowflakes of mica and light; feathers that looked like soft bits of shimmering opalescent crystal. In disbelief, he carefully stepped into the place where he saw her. Or thought he saw her. It was the exact spot where he’d first kissed her years ago. As he paused there, still stunned, Sacha reached her tiny hand up into the night sky. She stretched her fingers toward one of the crystal-like feathers, still falling, it did not disintegrate like the others. Catching the feather, Sacha pulled it close to her chest and nestled her face into the collar of Mario’s coat. Everything Mario treasured the most in his life he held right here, under the lights of the tall Christmas tree. He breathed deeply of the night air and hugged little Sacha tightly, Cora’s gift nestled snugly between their hearts, and went home.

Kenley grew up in a quiet Midwestern town, but his intolerance of the long winters and incompetence at being a properly reverent local pro sports team fan drove him westward to Tacoma where he planned to reinvent himself as an idea man and immerse himself into the entrepreneurial scene. Sadly, the majority of his ideas were ahead of their time, and his journey was fraught with adversity, so much so that the only thing he found himself immersed in, or at least what was left of him, as a jar of formaldehyde. His transitional residence, for his pickled surviving right eye and left testicle, was on a shelf at the Tacoma Goodwill, until purchased for 87 cents by his copywriter, Anita Schwedder. Kenley currently resides in the Central Tacoma neighborhood on the well dusted desk of his faithful copywriter Anita, who diligently types his tales as they come to her.