At the Mouth of the Sea

by Tamara Jerée

Content Note: This story contains a brief mention of blood.

They do not call themselves mermaids, but that is what we call them. I hope the one I’ve fallen in love with will stay even though I know she won’t. None of them ever do. 

They arrive yearly on the way to their pilgrimage sites, and we know they’ve come by the way the sea beneath our small fishing boats vibrates with song. This is the first year I’ve been old enough to join the secretive courtship ritual. The village elders allow us girls to do this before we come of age, secure in the knowledge that mersong has never lured a girl away, that, ultimately, young mermaids visit our beach out of curiosity and owe devotion only to the spirit of the sea.

No mermaid has ever visited our shores twice, but that doesn’t dim the hope in the older girls’ eyes as we stand along the beach, waiting. Until they come of age, many will visit the beach hoping to see their beloved again, only to fall for the charm of another. We are all sick for their affection: the taste of the salt on their lips, their rainbow slicks of hair, the thrill of kissing someone with so many rows of sharp teeth. 

Our mothers understand the call to the sea because they have felt it themselves, never stop feeling it. Before we go to meet the mermaids for the first time, our mothers tell us stories of their lost beloveds and caress our hair and give us sad smiles even as they wish us happiness.

~

The first thing Aaeyeli does is teach me how to sing her name. I am shy about it. I have a poor singing voice. I tell her this. She kisses me and, until the sun sets, her enchantment holds. I find my voice is beautiful like hers, and we speak only in mersong. When the sun rises, Aaeyeli teaches me to swim. Despite being a seaside village, this is not something we teach each other. It is a gift to learn firsthand from someone who has lived in the sea their entire life and will continue to live in it even after our short lives have ended. Aaeyeli says to close my eyes and remember always that the sea spirit wants to embrace our bodies and lift them up, that as long as I remember this, I will not sink. 

The next day, I teach her to walk on the shifting sands. Mermaids are immortals and, within certain limits, can shift the forms of their bodies according to their will. Regardless of how long Aaeyeli frowns and studies my legs, however, the ones she forms are too long and jointless. She towers over me. I do not know how to advise on this, so I show her diagrams of human skeletons. I point at the bones, where they connect, how they bend. I bend my own knees to show her. “Ah,” she says and makes the middle of her new legs rubbery. I smile and say she’ll get the hang of it.

Aaeyeli is delighted by fire and trees and wind. Her eyes are bright and hungry as she watches me eat despite insisting that she doesn’t need physical nourishment. We go out on my family’s small boat and float along the coast, always in sight of the village. She sits with her fin in the water and rests her head on the side of the boat so that her hair trails through the water, a wave of lavender in the blue. Her skin is brown like ours, but in the noonday sun, it shimmers as if dotted with small gold disks.

Even on this peaceful day, my chest tightens as I look at her. The mermaids only ever stay for a moon, never longer. The easy days make me restless while Aaeyeli is content to float and stroll and drift.

“Do you not want to know me?” I snap one day.

Aaeyeli rolls over from sunning her back, the wet sand plastered to the flat, featureless plane of her chest. Her brow wrinkles. “I do know you. I have watched your body move through water and air. The tempo of your heart and the prints of your feet in the sand tell me you are eager for life. I like this about you.”

“But you’ve never told me anything about yourself, your family. You’ve never asked me about my family or my mother and the mermaid she loved and how my mother will miss her forever.”

“I see.” She relaxes back into the sand. “You know I must go. We all do.”

“Why?” I am not ready to go back to relaxing and flirting.

At my challenge, Aaeyeli sits up. “If I do not complete the pilgrimage, I will never be an adult among my people. If I stay, you will not live your life and have your own family.”

“I don’t want a family. I want you. Please, after the pilgrimage, won’t you come back?”

She begins to shake her head and I cannot bear it. I kiss her and suddenly we are in the sand and careless when I feel the sting of a cut and taste blood in my mouth. Aaeyeli untangles herself from me, full of apologies. The blood keeps filling my mouth. I see the red on her sharp teeth, smeared across her lips. She wipes it away, stands, and wanders into the cresting waves.

I try to enjoy our remaining days. Aaeyeli’s touch becomes lingering; her movements are slow as if time might favor her and do the same. I realize that we fought not because she wants to leave but because she too wants to stay. We do not talk about the blood or the fear blooming wild in my chest. When the day comes, I join the girls of my village on the beach and watch the glitter of mermaid scales as they swim away from us forever.

~

Our mothers treat us like fragile things when the absence of the mermaids is fresh. I spend so much time in the water that my skin seems always wrinkled and my hair becomes brittle from the salt.

I want to understand the devotion that took her away. I have feverish dreams of taking my family’s sailboat and embarking on some destinationless course. I swim until I think I imagine the voice of the sea. All us girls do. Our hope churns the shore of the village, girl limbs chopping up the sea like a storm. I want to understand devotion. I go home and find my mother in the kitchen, back turned to me as she bends over some old family recipe. I embrace her from behind. Into the fabric of her dress, I say, “Will you tell me about when you were seasick?”

She says it’s slightly different for everyone and invites me to tell her about my mermaid first. “My mermaid,” she says, and that’s when I realize how long I’ve been holding onto my tears, this growing ocean I’d kept secret. My mother’s hands smell of fresh-ground spices when she wipes my cheeks dry, and I speak Aaeyeli’s name with another human for the first time.

There is a scar on my lip from her, the only evidence that her body touched mine. Sometimes when the tide goes out, I lay on my back in the wet sand and imagine the inside of my mouth is sharp and dangerous like hers.

© Copyright Tamara Jerée

Tamara Jerée’s short stories appear or are forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, FIYAH, and others. Their poem “goddess in forced repose,” published in Uncanny Magazine, was a finalist for the Ignyte Award. You can find them on Twitter @TamaraJeree or visit their website tamarajeree.com.


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