A PRESENT FOR SEBASTIAN

Sebastian cleared his throat importantly and pointed to Ariel with his baton. "Okay, child. Let's have your scales."

The girl grinned and twirled round and round; showing off her tail.

The crab was not amused. "Dat joke is older than I am, girl. Your scales, please."

Ariel began to sing, "La. la la la la la la la!"

Sebastian nodded approvingly at her lovely voice. "Very good, child. Dat voice is coming along nicely. Of course, my teaching is what's got it dat way,..."

The other Princesses giggled, until the crab shot them a frown.

"Okay. I want to hear THE SIREN'S SONG."

"That one's too hard!", pleaded Ariel. The crab nodded. "I want you to try it, anyway."

The girl took a hesitant breath and started singing. She had almost finished, when her voice broke on a high note.

Her sisters giggled and plugged their ears, while Ariel blushed with embarrassment.

The crab turned angrily to the other Princesses. "Arista, can you sing dat note?"

The girl's grin vanished and she shook her head.

"What about you, Aquata? No? Any of you? Well; Ariel's gonna hit dat note one of dese days."

Ariel tried not to let her sisters see, but she appreciated Sebastian's words.

"Okay", continued the crab, "I want all of you to sing EVENING TIDE." Together, the girls began to sing.

After the practice, Ariel went looking for Flounder and found him waiting for her, close to the music room.

The little fish was happy to see his best friend. "That was pretty singing, Ariel", encouraged Flounder.

"Thanks, Flounder. Sebastian sure does push me hard, but I guess he just wants me to be the best I can be."

"Yeah! I bet that one note broke every shell mirror in the palace!"

Ariel laughed. "Anyway; that reminds me: it's going to be Sebastian's birthday next week and I've got a really neat birthday present in mind! You know how he's always talking about getting a "flame auger shell" for a baton; how beautiful they are and all that. Well; that's what I'm going to get him this year!"

Flounder's smile dropped. "But didn't he say he saw those shells near Jamaica?"

"Uh huh!", said the girl, grinning.

Flounder groaned. "You don't mean we're going to,..."

"Of course, silly! It's not far."

The little fish shuddered. "But it's full of ships! And lot's and lot's of humans! And it's not close either!"

"We can swim there and back in a day!,..or two. Ahh, come on, Flounder! Just think how happy we'll make Sebastian!"

"Yeah. He might even smile", grumbled the fish. Ariel grinned and looked hopefully at her best friend. "Oh,...all right. I can't believe I'm doing this", moaned Flounder.

The next morning, Ariel and Flounder sneaked out of the palace as soon as the sun broke over the waters with it's rosy light. The little mermaid had no chores or lessons for the day, so she hoped that she wouldn't be missed. In case of difficulties, Alana had promised to cover for her. As soon as they were clear of the city, Ariel began to ask around for directions to Jamaica.

"Pardon me, Mr. Mackerel, but do you know the way to Jamaica?", asked the girl to a long sleek fish.

With a flash of silver, the swift fish flipped around to the girl and smiled. "Of course, my child! It is North-West of here. Why, a pod of dolphins was going that way this morning. If you're quick, you might be able to join them!"

Ariel grinned. "Thank you, kind sir!" The mackerel nodded, with a smile, and then sped off. "Come-on Flounder! Let's try to catch them!"

The fish could barely keep up with the girl, so Ariel soon took him into her arms as she swam close to the brightening surface. Just as the sky broke into a beautiful blue, the two friends caught up to the dolphins. They were swimming leisurely near the surface.

Ariel took her empty sack and held it open. "Hop in, Flounder!"

The fish looked at the girl nervously. "Ummm,...what do I need to do that for?"

"Cause I can't hold you and a dolphin too! Come-on; it'll be so much fun!"

"Well, I guess I can try it. But if they get too fast, you let go; okay?"

Ariel nodded, and the little fish backed into her sack. After putting the strap over her shoulder, Flounder was riding comfortably on her back.

The dolphins had moved some distance from them, and Ariel had to really kick to reach the pod again. "Here we go!", she said with a grin. She swam up to a gentle-looking dolphin and took hold of it's dorsal fin. The dolphin smiled back at the girl; it was in a playful mood too, and didn't mind the little passengers.They traveled at a gentle pace; Ariel could see smooth gray forms all around them in the warm, green water; bubbles danced with every swish of a tail, and bright, cheery squeaks and chirps darted back and forth between friends. The world turned into foam and bubbles, as the dolphins broke into the sunlight; the mist was refreshing and cool, and Ariel sighed with pleasure as the surface shimmered into view. The sky was as blue as the girl's eyes; pearl-white clouds floated here and there, nestled high in the clear blue. Ariel turned her face forward, feeling the warm sea breeze blowing back her hair, and watched the delightful dolphins as they splashed up and down in their play. She could see a hundred glistening backs, and then the foam came up and she was back under the sea again. She had only noticed the warmth and bubbles of the water, when the light returned and she was in the air once more. Even Flounder seemed to enjoy the ride. He would "ooh!" and"ahh!" whenever they surfaced.

"This isn't so bad!", he admitted, as the mist tickled his nose. "It's like riding the whale-a-coaster at the carnival!"

"It's,...so beautiful",...sighed Ariel, as she watched the sparkling waves; sunlight danced on every crest.

They had been traveling for some time, and the little mermaid's arms were starting to tire, when Ariel saw land. "Look Flounder! Maybe that's Jamaica!" Off slightly to their right was a large dark bump of land, still a few miles distant. The girl let go of the dolphin's fin and waved goodbye to their friends. "Thank you for the ride!", she called, as the playful mammals went on their way.

Flounder wiggled out of the sack and looked toward the island. "It sure looks big and dark! Let's start looking for shells out here where it's safe."

"We better ask someone first if that is Jamaica", advised the the girl. She flipped under the waves and saw a small butterfly fish swimming towards them.

"Excuse me, Butter,...", she began, but the fish took one look at her and darted quickly away. Ariel looked at Flounder in puzzlement. "Now, why do you suppose he swam away?"

"I don't know. He looked like he was scared of you", answered the fish.

"I don't know why,...wait! There's a parrotfish,..." Ariel swam over to the parrotfish, but before she could speak, it had already fled in alarm. "I just don't understand", said the confused girl.

"What about that big sunfish. She can't be afraid of you", answered Flounder, as he pointed to an enormous saucer-shaped swimmer.

"Excuse me, Miss Sunfish, but could you tell me if we're close to Jamaica?", asked Ariel.

The sunfish did not stop to speak; she did not even look at the mermaid, as she swam lazily along.

"She just ignored you", said Flounder. "This is really weird!"

"It's as if,...they don't understand me", said the girl.

"That's right, little Princess", said a strange voice. Ariel and Flounder turned to see a giant sea bass, watching them with a glint of humor in his eyes. "You're a long way from home, little Princess", continued the huge brown fish.

"Do you know me?", asked the girl.

The bass chuckled. "Well,...not really. But I've heard much from a friend about a certain little mermaid who loves to go exploring. And,..." The fish grinned. "Has a head-full of red hair. Dere can't be too many little mermaids with hair like yours. You are Princess Ariel?"

The girl nodded.

"And you must be Flounder. My name is Layfette. I am pleased to meet you both. What brings you out to my waters anyway, hmmm?"

Ariel looked towards where they had seen the island. "We were looking for Jamaica, and I thought I'd ask someone if that big land was it."

"Dat it is, little Princess. But you must be tired and hungry after such a long swim. Let me take you to my home for some refreshment."

"Thank you, Mr. Layfette! That would be nice! Flounder and I didn't actually do much swimming; we rode on a dolphin, but I am hungry and I bet Flounder is too."

The little fish nodded his head, although he was still shy of the big bass.

"Come along, den!" Ariel and Flounder followed Layfette towards the land which the girl had seen. "Pardon me for asking, little Princess, but why would you want to visit Jamaica? It is a very dangerous place for fish,...and mermaids."

"See! I told you!", said Flounder.

"Well,...we weren't really going to Jamaica", explained Ariel. "You see, we have a friend at home who's having a birthday soon, and we wanted to get him a special shell for a baton; he's the conductor for my father."

"Dis wouldn't be Sebastian, would it?", chuckled the bass.

"How did you know?", blurted Flounder.

"We have a mutual friend. Sebastian and I grew up together; this is his "stomping ground", so-to-speak. Yeah; it took years for de band to get over Sebastian leaving. We were glad he went to such an important position, of course, but we sure did miss him."

"Yeah", agreed Ariel. "He can be crabby sometimes,...but he's a true friend."

"Crabby's the word", agreed Flounder.

Layfette chuckled.

The three swam to a small reefy area, still some distance from the island, but looming much too close for Flounder. They could even see sailing ships here and there; tiny and hardly moving. The reef looked a lot like home to Ariel, but the water was so shallow that most of the coral lived only a few feet from the surface. Close-by was a tiny island; Layfette told them that the humans called it Pedro Cay. The big bass soon brought them to a bright spot in the coral, filled with friendly fish, and only a dozen yards from the beach.

An angelfish came swimming up to greet the strangers. "Layfette! Who have you brought to see us? A charming young lady and an energetic young lad!", spoke the thickly accented lady- fish.

"Molly! See here; dis is a Princess of Atlantica! Ariel is her name, and dis is her friend, Flounder."

The angelfish smiled and nodded to them. "Nice to be knowing ya both! I'll be fixin' you someting to eat, hmmm?"

"That would be wonderful! Thank you!", answered Ariel.

Layfette called to Molly as she swam off. "And go light on de spices, don't you know! Dese folks may not be used to such rich food."

"You leave me to be makin' de food", answered the angelfish.

Other animals soon came to meet the guests. Many of them had known Sebastian and all of them were very kind to Ariel and Flounder. Before long, they had all settled down among the soft sponges; swapping stories about the cantankerous crab or telling about their homes. Molly soon brought out some spicy sea-weed, and other Caribbean dishes. Ariel thought everything tasted delicious, but Flounder stuck to the less exotic offerings, which were very good too. For drink, they had mango and papaya juice; both of which could also be found in Atlantica, and which Ariel now enjoyed in refreshing sips.

The group talked the afternoon away, laughing at Sebastian's funny, endearing ways. Even Flounder began to fell at ease, despite the closeness of the land.

Remembering their earlier conversation, Ariel turned to the Sea Bass. "Layfette; earlier, you told me that I was right about the fish not understanding me. We all speak the same language,..." Ariel gestured to the animals sitting around her. "Why couldn't those other fish understand me?"

"Has your Father never told you about de animals of de wilderness?"

Ariel shook her head.

"Hmmm. Well,...it's like dis, little Princess. De sea, and de folks who live in it are not all de same. You and me, we can talk and understand each other. But de animals out dere,..." Layfette shook a fin towards the deep water, "are dumb. Dey can't speak. Dey can't understand. Dey don't have enough up here." The bass tapped his head with a fin. "It was de old merfolk who did it. Many, many years ago, little Princess, de merfolk came to live in de sea. No fish know where dey come from: some say dey came from de land; some say dey were born in de sea-foam. But they did come, and dey brought magic with dem when dey came."

"You mean, like Daddy's trident?"

The big bass nodded. "Yes. De trident was de mover of all dat happened. You may not know what power dat ting has, but your Daddy does. When de merfolk first settled down, dey built Atlantica. And de King (long before your Daddy, you understand) decided dat his people would be lonesome by demselves, so he used de trident to change de ocean around his city." Layfette pointed his fin at Flounder. "He say, "Fish! I give you knowledge", and de fish got smart. He point to crab and say, "Crab! You know what's what". He did dis to all de animals around his city."

"What about the Sharkadians and other seafolk?", asked the girl, in awe.

"Well; some animals took to the smarts better than others. De magic in de trident changed them til dey were almost just like merfolk. De King let dem go their own way and build cities of their own. Whenever merfolk took to colonizing around de world, dey took some of their animal friends with dem. Dat's why us smart fish are found all over de place."

"Gosh! I never knew any of this", whispered Flounder.

"Dat don't make you and me any less of equal to de merfolk, you understand. We just got a different beginning than dem. But we do owe them our knowledge, and should always be grateful to dem for it. Trouble is, not too many folk remember dat."

Ariel and Flounder were silent; pondering what Layfette had explained.

"Dat is why most of de animals of de ocean are dumb. You and me, Flounder, are de rare exceptions. You go out dere,... and you're in de wild."

Molly cleared her throat, and with a smile, interrupted. "Enough of dis serious talk! Who wants some more of de mango juice, hmmm?"

Ariel smiled and nodded, as she held out her shell cup. "Thank you!"

"You know", continued the angelfish, "it is getting on towards evening,...you're in for a special treat; eh, Layfette?"

"Oh yes!", answered the big bass. "De natives on de island,..." Layfette said no more about this, but turned to the girl. "So Sebastian's birthday is comin' up, hmmm? It's been so long I plum forgot when it was. You're gonna have trouble finding dat shell of yours, though. Those fellows moved out of dis neighborhood years ago; moved to de other side of Jamaica." Ariel's smile dropped in disappointment, but Layfette patted her shoulder. "But, I tink I know a present dat you can give him, just as good,..." The bass whispered in the mermaid's ear and her smile returned.

"Would you!? That's very kind of you, Layfette!"

"What are those?", blurted Flounder, and the friends looked up to see wavering yellow lights on the beach.

Layfette grinned. "It time to party!"

Ariel saw dark-skinned humans on the sand, gathering together, and she even peeked above the surface to get a better look.

"Be careful now", warned Molly. "Dey be mighty close; dey be seeing you."

"Let de girl look", answered Layfette.

The natives brought out drums and flutes; Ariel was fascinated by these graceful new humans. With torches kindled, and food roasting over fires, the natives struck up a lively tune and began to dance. Ariel grinned with delight as she watched the energetic pairs jumping and twirling to the music. The drums pounded out a calypso beat, while flutes whistled, and seated natives clapped their hands. Under the water, Layfette and his friends brought out their instruments and joined in the music. Soon, Ariel was dancing too, trying to imitate the natives' style, and pulling Flounder into the fun as her partner. The natives began to chant a song; Ariel couldn't understand the words, but they reminded her of Sebastian's accent.

Layfette sighed. "Dese folks have had many hardships, but they still keep their joy of life."

Ariel and her friends danced into the evening; the girl was moved by these happy people who laughed and sang under the flickering torches, and she wanted to share in their joy, too.

As the night wore on, sleep crept up on the girl, until she was yawning with half-closed eyes. Molly took her by the hand and led her to a soft sponge bed. The soft seaweed cover was hardly laid over, when the little mermaid was asleep.

The angelfish showed Flounder to a similar bed, then returned to Layfette. "Dey are a sweet pair", said Molly.

"Yes", answered the bass. "Sebastian has some good friends."

Ariel slept peacefully through the night, the sounds and sights of the dancing natives filling her dreams.

In the morning, Ariel and Flounder had to say goodbye to their new friends and head for home.

"I hope Alana could satisfy Daddy about where we've been", said the girl, nervously.

"I think I'll stay away from the palace for a few days", mumbled Flounder.

Ariel smirked at the little fish, took him in her arms, and swam faster. "You're not very reassuring."

As they made their way home, Flounder spotted the bottom of a fishing vessel; Ariel made a wide path around it. "You know Flounder,...that explains why humans still catch fish."

"Whatdaya mean?"

"Well,...Layfette said that most animals in the sea can't speak. That means that when the humans catch them, they're treated like how we treat,...well,...seaweed or kelp. the humans don't know that some of us are smart!"

"Yeah. But they still eat fish, and that makes them scary in my book!", shuddered Flounder.

"That's true. But they're not as bad as they seemed. They just don't know. They don't know about us."

Ariel got back in time for supper. As she sat at the table, the girl tried not to notice her father's stare. Alana looked as guilty as sin.

"Ariel", asked Triton, gently.

The girl looked up at her father, quickly lost control, and looked back at her plate. "Yes,...Daddy?"

"How was your visit?"

"My visit?"

"Yes. Your visit to your distant,...friend's house."

Alana coughed on her dolphin-milk and Andrina had to pound on her back a couple of times.

"Are you alright, dear?", asked her father.

"Fine! Fine, Father", answered Alana.

Triton turned back to Ariel.

"It was,...nice."

Triton smiled. "That's nice." The group ate in silence for a moment. "I'd like to hear about it, sometime", said the King.

Ariel looked at him and saw that he was still smiling. The girl blushed and grinned. "Okay, Daddy."

Sebastian's birthday soon arrived, and his friends all gathered in the crab's music room to surprise him. The King had some new instruments and supplies brought out to the grateful crab. Urchin gave him some ear-plugs. "Hmmm,...I tink I'll take dis as a joke", warned Sebastian. Flounder gave his friend some footwarmers. "And it wasn't cheap buying for so many feet", whispered the fish to Ariel. Each friend gave a gift, until only Ariel was left.

"Don't you have a gift for Sebastian?", asked the King.

"Well Daddy,...my gift,..."

"Ho! I am late, I see!", shouted a voice. All turned to see Layfette swim through the door. Molly and all of their friends followed behind.

"Layfette! Oh Mon! Am I glad to see you!", answered the crab, and he swam over to hug the big bass.

"Yes! De little Princess there got word to me dat your birthday was comin' up, and I just had to stop by to see you!"

Sebastian smiled back at Ariel, gratefully. Triton smiled too; a knowing smile.

The friends all gathered together to wish Sebastian a happy birthday.

Flounder looked up at Ariel. "You know. You gave him a pretty good present, after-all."