by K. Garcia Ley
Content note: This story contains non-consensual kissing, body horror transformation, graphic violence, and cannibalism
From here at our fish house, where the downward curve of the mountain meets the shore of the lagoon, my little sister and I, huddled, starved, desperate, finally hear the mermaid splashing in the water and we know it’s time to kill it. A warm breeze wails in from the north of La Ensenada and the ash remnants of the nuclear war settles on the moonlit water like a deceptive fog. Shakily, I peek through my worn binoculars, hoping our food is not a hallucination. It splashes again, clear and strong as it ripples across the water like broken glass. My ears perk up. Please. For a lingering moment, my heart pounds and my stomach growls as I zoom the lens into the lagoon, currents of hunger flooding my body, and I think I must have hallucinated, like when I hear one of my dead sisters crying in the sea. But when I adjust the lens, it’s there.
The mermaid materializes from the mist. Even from the shore, I spot its giant lobster claws and blue muscled chest moving with the tide, in and out of the water. I lick my lips and yell at my sister Martina – the last of us – to ready the boat.
We hadn’t seen a matured mermaid in weeks. Its kind appeared after La Calamidad, the nuclear war, wiped out our lands and fishing farms, and left us starving for weeks at a time. We hadn’t meant to kill the first one in a boating accident, but then the kill turned into curiosity, and curiosity turned into our only source of food.
“Are you sure,” Martina’s forehead wrinkles and she pushes her matted black ringlets away from her face.
We’ve made the mistake before, hunting one before its time, nibbling its fat-less bones. There’s nothing worse than a skinny mermaid. “It’s strong and the perfect blue. It’s ready.” I pack the boat and point with my lips towards the lagoon. I would not make the same mistake again, not when we are the last ones on the shore dying for food. I refuse to let my sister die, too.
Martina’s amber eyes squint in the dark, but then gasps in delight. “Oh, you’re right, hermana. Let’s go, let’s go. Before it leaves.” We’re thin and our muscles convulse from not having eaten in weeks, but we manage to shove the rusty boat off the pebbled shore and into the lagoon’s night.
We cut the engine a few yards from the mermaid. It turns and tilts its head towards us.
“It doesn’t even know we’re hunting it,” I chuckle under my breath as I jig the casting spoon left and right in the water, luring it to come closer. From behind me, I wave at Martina to ready the spear. My fingers shake and I force them to keep the rhythm steady; not too desperate, not too lazy.
It swims to the boat’s ledge, crosses its claws, and grins all the way to its ears revealing its long sharp teeth.
“Are you sure about this,” Martina mutters, her voice fragile, and for a moment, I wonder if I hear nervousness or if it’s simply the lack of food forcing her to quiver.
“Coño,” I hiss at her. “Just concentrate and remember what I taught you. Don’t mess up like last time.” My voice is raspy and harsher than I intend on my baby sister. I want to pull her into a soft embrace, to calm her nerves, to pour into her the confidence that we will eat today because of her, and that I, the oldest, believe in her and us and the mermaid. But I hope my glare is enough to drive the importance of eating. I point curtly to my abdomen. “Pierce the left gill, pull to the boat’s right.” We’ve been out of practice and our experienced sisters like Juana who loved to spear the mermaids, are now dead. Our lives now depend on Martina. I’m good at luring but she’ll have to spear.
Water bubbles through the mermaid’s gills. Its onyx-colored eyes bulge out of its head, and its fins stretch into the water. My heart quickens but I force my shoulders to relax. Soon we will feast.
“Hola sirena,” I croon and reach my hand out. “Como estás, sirena?”
It gurgles, like a purr, and rubs its blue head in my palm. For a moment, I admire the shades of blue and purple reflecting off its scales, the shades of silence between the slippery waters, the moonlight reflecting off its eyes.
Suddenly, it leaps up and kisses me on the lips, its mouth salty and rough. I step back and bump into Martina. I spit and wipe my lips on my sleeve disgusted that the mermaid would attempt such an intimate display of emotion.
“Isa, your lips. They’re bleeding.” My sister backs away from me, her eyes wide and alert. “Your hands –“
Scales explode from my skin and my hands twist into claws. My legs thicken and contort into four large fins that slap and flap against the boat’s floor and long pink antennas rip holes through my cheeks. My clothes and long-matted hair lay in shreds around me like knotted ropes, and gills stretch and tremble across my abdomen, opening up like blossoms. I try to vomit over the boat’s side but fail to expel an already empty stomach. I breathe, but the air is thick like honey forced down my throat. The mermaid shrieks.
“What did you do,” I scream but my voice comes out like muddy babbles instead.
Instinct kicks in and I know I need water. I jump out and the rough taste of the lagoon’s water rushes into my gills and I can finally breathe. I flex and bend my new fins away from the shadowy depth, towards the surface and my boat.
I try to climb onto the boat’s side, but it sways, and I slide back into the water. Please Martina, hermana, por favor. I crawl back onto the ledge and muster all my strength to get her attention. If she could just look at me – the sister who raised her, protected her during the war, sang her to sleep so she wouldn’t think of food, loved her when the broken parts between us bled into one.
In an instant, she snatches the spear, and then I know: she can’t see me.
I don’t want to leave her, but I know the look of hunger. My muscles ache, weakness overtaking my new body, but I force myself to swim away. I pivot and frantically search for the mermaid. Could I follow it? It had to have found a haven, from us – from them – somewhere in the lagoon. The mermaid swims a loop nearby and I wave a claw to it. Help me. It shakes its head and swims away from the lagoon’s curves against the mountain, and into the sea.
The gut-wrenching truth of my reality sinks in. No longer human, tears don’t drip out of my eyes and since I have no eyelids, blinking them away is useless anyway. I bob in the water, waves of panic dulling my mind.
The spear comes quick through my left gill. I should be desperate to escape, mad at her even. My intuition tells me to crush her with my claw, to fight, to survive, to run away – to bite. But as my little sister hauls a net over my body and as she stumbles clumsily to retrieve me, pulling, reeling, tugging, breathing heavily against me, I can’t help but be proud of how well I taught her how to catch her food. How to kill it. And now, how to eat a mermaid. At least one of us will survive.
She laughs hysterically and claps as the velvet fog lifts slightly from the water. She hums to herself a familiar lullaby from when we were kids. I don’t fight the hunger or the battle or the sister. The human in front of me is hazy as a curtain of blood eases out of me, but I see her raise a dull blade and say, “Just a small piece.”
If she hurries, she could steer back to our fish house and eat in time for breakfast. I sigh a satisfied last gurgle and know that soon we will no longer be hungry.
© Copyright K. Garcia Ley
K(atherine) Garcia Ley is a speculative fiction author who lives and writes in Gaithersburg, MD. Her short fiction has been published in Daily Science Fiction. She is an alumna of VONA and the Hurston Wright Foundation. Find her at katherineley.com.
Read the Rest of the March Issue
- Mermaid by Nivedita Sekar
- Til Human Voices Wake Us by Jennifer Hudak
- Lament of the Love Struck Irish Fisherman by Grainne Quinlan
- Interview with Brigit Treux, David Bowles, and Grainne Quinlan by Julia Rios
- Cold Water by Karen Porter Sorensen
- Wake by Sara Eileen Hames
- Underwater Panther by Brigit Truex
- Siren Call by David Bowles
- How to Eat a Mermaid by K. Garcia Ley
- Flow by Baz Kanold
- Getting Our Sea Legs by Julia Rios
- Tracking Treasure by Meg Frank