The Collector

by Tara Campbell


This story previously appeared in Latchkey Tales, Elementals: Children of Water in July, 2014

Content note: This story contains consumption of alcohol, consumption of live animals, and a child in peril.

The mermaid wriggled up toward the surface of her lake, eyes fixed on the shiny cylinder floating above her. She plucked it down from its perch between water and air. It was a beer can, dented but still closed. She put it in her plastic shopping bag and dove all the way down to the bottom of the lake.

A change in current caught her attention. She listened to the water, picking up tiny vibrations from the far shore. Lake weed floated and bowed while young carp chased each other around her waist. She waved the fish away and went to investigate, the can of beer bumping against her flank as she swam.

Triton had chosen this lake for her, making sure it was big enough for her to swim, play and receive his visits without being discovered—his way of keeping her away from all of his Mrs. Tritons. It would have been easier to marry her, she’d told him, but he said he’d already hit his wife limit at 5,000. She’d never known of a god with a wife limit, or any other limits for that matter.

The water shuddered again. She stopped behind a clutch of reeds and put a hand to the bottom of the lake. Humans, heavy, probably men. The thumping stopped. Then came the worm, impaled on a hook.

Breakfast.

The mermaid slid the worm off the hook and popped it into her mouth, then gave the line a good tug, yanking her hand away when the metal barb shot upward.

She scanned the water for a second hook. There was always a second one, and a third, and a fourth. She shared the worms with the carp when they caught up with her. The fish were the closest thing she had to company.

Muffled talking and laughter filtered through the water. With a rush of adrenaline, the mermaid flirted with the surface, letting the tip of her tail flash above water for seconds at a time. Triton had warned her against this. But with all the thought he had put into the shape of her lake and its places to hide, she wondered how he could have forgotten the most important variable: curiosity. That “What-Would-Happen-If?” impulse that neither humankind nor mermankind could resist. It was something she and Triton shared—and it had eventually landed her in this lake.

A few worms later, the fishermen gave up, thumping to their vehicle and driving away. The tingle of imminent danger faded. The mermaid swam to her secluded spot on the other side of the lake. She glided past a curtain of weeping willow branches that drooped to the water’s surface, and pulled herself up onto her favorite rock. 

The shopping bag crinkled as she pulled out her can of beer. Carp circled her rock. She alternated sipping from the can and pouring beer shots into the lake. She couldn’t tell what the fish were thinking, really, but she hoped they could share in her sunny, happy stupor.

Downing the rest of the beer, she slipped back into the lake and headed toward her stash of cigarettes. She wriggled partway out of the water near a small cave-cache and held the grass overhang aside, revealing the pile of crumpled butts she’d skimmed off the lake and left to dry. Sticking one into her mouth, she flipped open a mangled matchbook she’d found on the shore. Empty! She ripped the cigarette out of her mouth and threw it into the cache, flopping onto her back and crossing her arms. 

Her brooding was interrupted by a click. Then another one.

She slid into the water and glided closer to the curtain of willow branches shielding her from the light. A boy crouched by the shore, his back to her. Children often caught her by surprise. Unless they were running, she never felt them coming.

Click. Click.

She inched out from behind the willow, eyes just above the surface, angling to observe him from the side.

Click. Click.

Her heartbeat quickened when she saw what he was playing with. It was one of those little rockets, the kind children put in a bottle and light and run. She never tired of these tiny fireworks, with their sense of danger in miniature. She stared at the rocket, holding her breath, anticipating the crackle of the fuse, the whoosh of flight, the pop! in the air.

She wouldn’t mind having the lighter either. But it didn’t seem to work—she heard click and click and click, but the fuse wouldn’t light. Then the clicking stopped. She looked up from the rocket—and met the boy’s eyes.

She twisted and dove, but knew it was too late. The boy’s face peered over the edge of the lake, looming above her through the stream of bubbles she had created. She kept telling Triton this lake was too small; that too many children came here to play. That this was all his fault. 

The shadow of the boy’s head undulated above her. She imagined him on his hands and knees, leaning out over the water, craning his neck to catch another glimpse of her, teetering uncertainly at the edge of the lake. 

~

That evening the mermaid sat on her favorite rock, smoking a stubby cigarette. She watched the carp slide past one another in the water, knowing she had only one or two more days of peace before the men would come to look for the boy. 

One of the carp jumped out of the water onto her rock. It lay still, its mouth opening and closing, gaping again and again as it watched her.

“I know, I’m sorry,” she said, and nudged the fish back into the water with the tip of her tail. Soon the men would come to search the shore, then dredge the lake—and now she had one more carp to keep out of harm’s way when they arrived.

© Copyright Tara Campbell

Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University. Previous publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT Literary. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and three collections: Circe’s Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, and Political AF: A Rage Collection. Her fourth collection, Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection, is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press in 2021.



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