Riparian

by Seanan McGuire

Content Note: This story contains descriptions of drowning, fat shaming, bullying, and abusive family environments.

Molly begged her mother to let her start mermaid lessons for five years before she finally received her starter tail, a glorious confection of silicon and spandex, designed to envelop her legs before being pulled over her butt and what her mother continued to optimistically refer to as her waist.  Molly wasn’t sure it counted as a waist when you were as perfectly egg-shaped as she was, a feeling that was shared by most of the girls she went to school with, who seemed to find the overall roundness of her a personal affront, like they thought fat might be catching.  Like she would brush against them in the hall one day and they’d wake up the next morning with thighs that rubbed together when they walked and bellies that didn’t go quietly into their designer skinny jeans.

Five years of pleading, of wishing, of begging, all because she wanted to be a mermaid, she wanted to work her core and splash around with the other mermaids, and she’d heard it was great exercise (it was) and wasn’t she supposed to exercise more if she wanted to lose weight (she didn’t)?  Being a fat teenager seemed to be a surprise to everyone else in her family, even though she’d been a fat preteen and a fat child, which meant that waking up on her thirteenth birthday as a fat teenager had felt like the sort of thing that should be absolutely understandable to everyone around her.

“What if they laugh at you?” her mother had asked.

“Being a mermaid is for everyone,” she’d replied, over and over again, always trying to sound calm, always trying to sound like the reasonable, rational one, and not like this was what she wanted more than anything.  “Besides, swimming when you can’t move your legs is a great core workout.  It’ll be like I’m swimming and doing crunches at the same time.”

And because no one wanted her to magically become skinny more than her mother did, and because she rarely asked for the same thing for five years, finally, her mermaid tail had arrived, and Molly had gone straight down to the swim center to sign up for her first mermaid lessons.  She would be graceful and buoyant in the water, a glorious reminder that gravity, not size, was the enemy, and she would be as beautiful and ethereal as any other mermaid…

Or she would have been, anyway.  There was nothing in the class description about weight limits, no reason to believe that anyone who had a properly sized and fitted mermaid tail would be turned away, but as she’d been filling out the paperwork and showing her parental permission form, the instructor had come out of the back and looked at her with the mingled expression of alarm and dismay that adults so often seemed to wear when confronted with the reminder that heavy teens existed as more than just faceless bodies on posters about childhood obesity.

Molly pedaled her bike away from the swim center, words still ringing in her ears.  “Safety risk” and “unfair” and “exposure to liability.”  Adults liked to talk about how her body was a disease, how she was an error that needed to be corrected, but they put barriers between her and exercise constantly, even though her doctor said her joints were good and her heart was strong and she could do anything she wanted to try.  Can’t do that, they don’t make workout clothes in your size.  Can’t do this, what if you make one of the other students uncomfortable?  Can’t do anything, can’t be allowed to upset the normal people, can’t make a spectacle of yourself, can’t, can’t, can’t.

She pedaled hard, heading, not toward home, but for the bike trail through the park.  It wasn’t a popular place with anyone over the age of twelve or under the age of sixty.  Kids went there to run feral along the dirt trails they’d blazed through the blackberry brambles, or to wade at the edges of the river and scare each other with tales of monster salmon lurking in the depths.  Seniors went to stroll on the walking paths and look at birds.

Most people Molly’s age went to more interesting parks, more interesting places.  Molly rode as fast as she dared, the weight of her beloved mermaid tail—so prized only an hour before, such a sign of victory—heavy against her shoulder.  Yet again, her body had been too essentially wrong to allow her something normal, no matter how much she wanted it, no matter how safe it was, and yet again, the unfairness of it all burned.  Even if she had chosen to be fat, she would have had a right to live a happy and fulfilling life, filled with interesting things that made her happy!  Size was not a crime!

She rode her bike over the wooden bridge across the river, then pulled off, dismounting and wheeling it with her down one of the little feral kid trails into the blackberries.  She’d been coming here since she was a kid.  She was no longer an architect of the wild, but she knew where the trails tended to form, year after year built on the bones of the wild boys and lost girls who had come before.  It was easier to beat down new growth than established canes, and so they followed rules they didn’t understand were there, setting the paths of their own futures one muddy footprint at a time.  You think you’re making your own choices, kids, but really, you’re just coloring a little bit outside the lines!  Controlled rebellion if there had to be rebellion at all.

Molly scowled and walked until she reached the old fallen tree that had been providing a natural, gently decaying bridge across the river.  She leaned her bike up against the gnarled old knot of the roots as she turned to look at the water, which rushed onward as it had always done, as it would always do.  she knew the water was reasonably clean, fueled by snowmelt and natural springs; there would be pollution, of course, and it probably wasn’t a good idea to put her head under more than absolutely necessary, but no one was going to die from touching the river.  It was part of a protected salmon run, after all, without being so protected that it was off-limits to the public.

Molly moved her bike slowly and deliberately into the shade of a large bush and stripped off the outer layer of her clothing, revealing the plain, sensible one-piece black bathing suit she had worn to the pool in anticipation of being submerged for several hours.  Despite her current solitude, she cringed a little and looked around for her classmates, waiting for their laughter, before forcing herself to stand up straighter and stuff her clothing into her backpack, exchanging them for her neatly folded towel.  It shouldn’t have felt like bravery to stand here in her swimsuit, but it did.  One more gift from a world dedicated to making her feel bad about herself whenever possible.

Putting her shoes next to her bag, Molly sat down on a large rock and wiggled into her mermaid tail, exhaling as it settled snugly around her thighs and belly, compressing her usually soft flesh into a harder, sleeker shape.  She was a fat mermaid like she was a fat human, but the tightness of her mermaid skin made her feel less bulgy and more powerful.

She wasn’t supposed to swim alone while wearing her tail.  All the paperwork had included warnings of the increased drowning risk brought on by effectively binding her legs together.  But as she snuggled her legs down into the fabric and her feet into the monofin at the end, she felt like all those warnings had been meant for other people, not for her.  She was a strong swimmer.  She would be fine.

Molly scooted to the edge of the rock and leaned forward until she toppled into the river, kicking frantically as she tried to get her bearings.  She was not, in fact, fine.

The effort of kicking seemed impossibly difficult with her legs bound together, and she spun helplessly in the water, moved by the current, flailing her arms in an effort to keep her head above water.  What had seemed like such a fun and defiant gesture from the shore now felt like an act of hopeless hubris.  Either she was going to drown or someone was going to come along and pull her out, and then she’d get to enjoy the kids she went to school with finding something entirely new to mock her for.

“Did you hear about the fatty?” they’d say, voices bright with the joy of having something awful to discuss.  “She nearly drowned in the river trying to pretend she was a mermaid.”  Oh, they’d laugh and laugh, and if she drowned before someone found her, they’d laugh anyway, because what could be funnier than a dead fat girl with a fishtail?

One way or another, she was screwed.  She sucked in a sharp breath of air before going under for what felt like the final time, no longer even steady enough to thrash.  The water closed all around her like a dark fist, squeezing her in its fingers so that she barely noticed when something else wrapped its arms around her waist and pulled her back to the surface.

She blacked out somewhere between the middle of the river and the shore.  Molly regained consciousness with a mouthful of river water and the hard mud beneath her, a sharp stone digging into her hip.  She rolled onto her side and vomited water onto the riverbank, then froze as she realized she was not alone.  Her rescuer was still there, sitting next to her.  Feeling gross and horrible, Molly rolled over again, to face the person who had saved her.

They were about the same height as she was, with a very similar build.  That was where the resemblance stopped.  The person sitting next to her was also wearing a mermaid tail, but unlike Molly’s, which was rainbow-bright and would absolutely have aided in the locating of her body, this person’s tail was golden-brown speckled with black on the bottom, banded in pink along the sides, and white with more black speckles on the top, like they had chosen to become a rainbow trout from the waist down.  For whatever reason, the scales continued up along the skin of the person’s torso, arms, and bare breasts, spreading even onto their face.  Their hair was long and the same shade as the darker part of their tail, tangled around their arms like water weeds.  They had a lovely face, but there was something subtly off about it, the eyes just a little too round, the mouth just a little too long.  Molly looked quickly away.

“Did the rains wash you in?” asked the stranger, voice sweet alto and soft as spring rain.  “I haven’t seen your colors or your kind here before.”

“No,” said Molly, throat raw from inhaling and then expelling river water.  “I live…I live nearby.”

“Ah,” said the stranger.  “I live here, in these waters.  No rains wash me anywhere.”

Molly glanced back at them, trying not to flinch away from the oddness of her rescuer’s face.  it seemed unkind not to look, when she could so easily have drowned.  “Thank you,” she said.  “I was going under the water, and I would have drowned soon.”

“Drowned?”  The stranger blinked.  For a moment, it looked like they had two sets of eyelids; the ordinary one, and then a thinner, transparent set that closed and opened a moment later, half a second out of synch with the first.  “What is drowned?”

“Drowned is when you swallow too much water and you die,” said Molly.  She finally sat all the way up, looking at the mermaid tail she had coveted so dearly for so long, that had almost killed her on its maiden voyage.  Could she ever swim again, after this?  She couldn’t take classes, she couldn’t swim on her own, she was useless.  Just a fat, useless lump of a teenage girl…

Hot tears burned the corners of her eyes.  she swiped them viciously away, muttering under her breath.

The stranger watched with obvious concern.  “Are you drowning again?” they asked.

“No,” said Molly.  “I’m crying.”

“Crying?”

Did mermaids not cry?  It seemed ridiculous.  But then, so did the fact that she was sitting here and talking to a mermaid in the first place.  Molly wiped her eyes again, forcing herself to smile.  “It just means I’m unhappy.”

“Why are you unhappy?”

“Drowning makes people unhappy.”

“Oh.” The mermaid thought for a moment. “Then you shouldn’t drown again.”

It sounded so sensible when it was said like that, and Molly barked a quick laugh.  “No, I shouldn’t,” she agreed, hooking her thumbs under the top of her tail.  “I should go home now.”

“You aren’t coming to join me in living here?” asked the mermaid, sounding disappointed.  “People wash in so rarely.”

“I can’t,” said Molly.  “I have to go home and dry off.”

The mermaid looked alarmed.  “Dry?”

“Dry,” said Molly, and began working her tail down, wiggling it over her hips the way she’d practiced.  Her mother had insisted that she be able to put the tail on and take it off, even when she was wet, before she’d been willing to agree to the lessons.  Molly had thought she was being silly at the time.  Now, she was endlessly grateful, even as her flesh bounced back to its usual shape in the absence of the constricting pressure of the tail.

The mermaid stared in obvious horror, but didn’t move or try to flee, not until Molly unhooked the monofin and stood, back on her own two legs.  Then the mermaid flinched away, before reaching beseechingly for Molly’s hand.

“Please,” they said.  “Please, please, show me how to do.  show me how to shift my scales and be on legs like the land people do.  Please.  I’ve been so alone.”

“Oh,” said Molly.  “I can’t show you how to do that.  I’m sorry.  But I’ve always been a land…”

Something rustled in the bushes.  With a plonk that Molly had heard before but always ascribed to the local frogs, the mermaid was gone, and Molly was alone.

Two of the feral children emerged from the bushes, stopping when they saw a dripping teenager in a place they thought of as their own.  They stared.  Molly smiled sunnily back, collecting her things and beginning to wheel her way out of the swamp.

Time to go home.

~

“How was your first lesson, honey?” asked her mother, smiling as she passed the mashed potatoes past Molly to her father.

She was on a “diet.”  Again.  Which might have been okay if it had been something her doctor had agreed to, or if it had involved actual nutrition, and not been primarily based around “if you can see Molly eat, she should be eating the most boring salad alive, and dressing is a gift for girls who lose a dress size.”  Her guidance counselor had already spoken to them about it, twice, telling them that they were only going to make things worse by restricting her calories so horrifically, but it never seemed to get through.

Forcing diets on teenagers felt like a form of torture, and Molly’s friends agreed.  Even their parents considered it unfair and unreasonable, and most adults seemed to take Molly’s weight as a personal insult.

Her stomach rumbled.  She forked up another bite’s-worth of plain lettuce and paper-thin carrot.  “Fine,” she replied.

“I admit, I wasn’t sure about letting you go running around in front of people in something so…tight,” said her mother, oblivious to Molly’s discomfort.  “But if the teacher was willing to have you, it can’t be all that bad, and at least it’s exercise that won’t be too hard on your joints.”

“Yes,” agreed Molly, as placidly as she could.  It was safer.  She ate her bite of salad, all but choking it down, and took three more while her parents filled their own plates with food that smelled delicious and looked like freedom, washing them out of her mouth with gulps of plain water, then pushed her chair back, and rose.  “May I be excused?  I have a lot of homework.”

“Of course, dear,” said her mother.  “Remember, your grades slip, no more mermaid lessons.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Molly, and fled without another word, pausing only to collect her dishes and drop them in the kitchen.

The next day after school, she pulled her still-precious, still-beloved tail out of her backpack and rode straight back to the swamp, following the path she’d taken the day before, wiggling the tail over her hips without hesitation.  It came easier this time, way smoothed by practice, and when she pushed off into the water, she found herself swimming more confidently.  She wasn’t afraid of drowning anymore, and that made all the difference in the world.

Then a hand touched her shoulder, and she turned to see the mermaid watching her.  It was funny, almost, how she didn’t want to think of the mermaid as “she” until she knew for sure that it was the right pronoun, but could still think of them as a “mermaid” and not anything more general.

“Are you a girl?” she blurted.

“You came back,” said the mermaid.  Then: “Yes.  Can’t you tell?  I have my pretty scales on for summer.”  And she turned in the water, showing the pink stripes on her sides.

“I’m sorry,” said Molly.  “Land people don’t change colors with the seasons.  I’m Molly.”

“Oh.  I’m Ametrine.  I didn’t think you’d come back after all the drowning.  You seemed so unhappy.”

“I was.  I am.  I mean…I want to learn how to swim better.  Can you teach me?”

Ametrine looked surprised.  “I can teach you,” she said.  “If that’s what you want to learn, I can teach.”

“Please,” said Molly fervently.

“Then there will be teaching,” said Ametrine, and offered Molly her hands.  Laughing in relief and delight, Molly took them and let herself be pulled toward the middle of the river.

What began then were the best two months of Molly’s life to date.  Ametrine was surprisingly funny for someone who had almost no experience dealing with other people, and very clever; Molly rarely had to explain something more than once.  Molly wasn’t quite so gifted.  When Ametrine showed her how to dive, how to roll in the water, how to move like the tail was a part of her and not a tool purchased from a small company in Malibu, Molly often needed two or three tries to really get it down.  But Ametrine never judged, never treated Molly like she was somehow lesser for not being born to the water.

And they talked.  There was time for talking, after lessons, when they sat on the rock, Molly letting the water seep out of her tail, the two of them so close to together that their shoulders brushed.  Ametrine was the only mermaid in the river, it seemed; she didn’t even know if what she was could be called a mermaid, since she didn’t like the taste of the sea.  She’d been there once, had swum along with the current until her river opened up into the sound, and followed the currents from there to the sea.

“I could hear them singing in the distance,” she admitted, voice going soft.  “They were very far away, and their songs were no songs I knew, and I was afraid, and the water burned my throat.  If I went all the way out into the deep, I worried I would drown.”

“But you didn’t know what drowning was.”

Ametrine bumped her shoulder against Molly’s.  “I worried I would cease to be,” she said.  “My mother ceased to be, when I was very small, and left me here alone.”

Molly blinked, then slid an arm around Ametrine’s shoulders and gave her a half-hug.  “I’m sorry,” she said.

“It was very long ago,” said Ametrine.  “There was no forever-tree across the river, then.”  She indicated the bridge.  “That came later.  I had to hide while it was being made.”

Molly wanted to ask why it had been necessary to hide, but only a moment’s thought gave her the answer.  People laughed at her and pointed their fingers and acted like she wasn’t human, all because she was heavier than they thought she should be.  Her body knew what shape it wanted.  Her body said that she was fine and healthy at the size that suited her, and didn’t make her feel like she was less when she wanted to swim, or climb, or play at being a mermaid.  And despite all that, she was still human.

Ametrine was a girl with scales on her skin and fins where her feet were meant to be.  Her hair was as close to green as it was to brown.  People would do more than point and laugh if they saw her.  They would pull her out of the river and lock her away somewhere for study, and she would never be free again. Molly tightened her arm around Ametrine’s shoulders.  That wasn’t going to happen to her friend, not ever.

That night, she pedaled home, tail wet and dripping over her shoulder, clothes damp and sticking to her skin, and barely managed to stop herself from recoiling when her mother slammed the door open and stormed out onto the porch.

“What kind of a joke is this?” she demanded, brandishing a copy of the park department newsletter at Molly as if it meant something.

“Um…” said Molly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, do you not attend your English classes, either?”  Her mother turned the newsletter around and read, shrilly, “‘Madison Walters’s mermaid class, a first-time offering for the district, has been canceled due to a lack of student signups.  Miss Walter will be remaining with the faculty to join our normal staff of swim coaches and instructors.’”  She lowered the paper, scowling.  “Where have you been every afternoon this week?”

“I…I just…I was so heartbroken when they canceled the class that I’ve been going down to the river to swim with a friend!”

“A ‘friend’?”

“Yes, my friend Amy.  She was in the class with me.  We keep each other safe in the water.”

Her mother scowled.  “Well, let this Amy know that if she wants to spend time with you, she can come over and do it in the living room like a civilized person.  We didn’t pay for those classes so you could splash around in a filthy river like a wild thing.  You need to be getting proper exercise.”  She surged forward, snatching the tail off of Molly’s shoulder.  “And you won’t be needing this anymore,” she added, before storming back inside.

Molly stared after her, speechless in her horror, before she put her hands over her face and began to cry.  The door remained closed.  She was alone.

After several minutes, she wiped her eyes and slung her leg back over her bike.  She couldn’t go in there.  Not now.  Maybe not ever again.

Slowly, Molly pedaled back down the street, heading for the park beside the river.

~

Molly stripped down to her swimsuit and flung herself into the water like a rock dropped from the bridge, hitting with an enormous splash that drove her halfway down to the riverbed before she bobbed back to the surface and began swimming with an angry, distance-eating breaststroke that carried her from one end of the area where she and Ametrine liked to swim to the other in minutes.  She was on her third lap when Ametrine popped up at the middle of the river, watching her silently.

She was on her fifth lap when Ametrine finally spoke, asking, “Are you well?”

“No,” snapped Molly.  Then she stopped, bobbing upright in the water, and pushed her sodden hair back from her face with both hands, kicking to keep herself afloat.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t yell at you for things you didn’t do.”

“What is wrong?”

“My mother…she found out that I haven’t been taking mermaid lessons.”  Molly lowered her hands.  “She took my tail away.”

“But you have been taking mermaid lessons,” said Ametrine.  “You’ve been taking them with me.  I’ve been teaching you how to be a better mermaid.  If she doesn’t like how I teach, tell her to come down here and say it to me directly, not to yell at my student.”

Molly blinked, momentarily transported by the image of her mother having a conversation with her mermaid.  The idea was almost funny enough to crack the shell of her despair.  Almost, but not quite.  “She thinks I’ve been lying to her so I could spend my tuition money on donuts and chocolate bars.”

“What are donuts and chocolate bars?  What is tuition money?”

“Delicious things with a lot of calories.  If you eat too many of them, you can get sick to your stomach, and they can make you fat, like me,” said Molly bitterly.  She had always wished her fatness came from chocolate bars and donuts, from choices she had made for herself, and not from the choices made by her body without her input, by genetics and generation after generation of peasant girls working to survive hard seasons on the farm.  It would have been so easy to be the daughter her mother wanted her to be, if it had been a matter of making choices and not a matter of making war against her own body, which was a perfectly good body and only behaving as it had been bred to behave.

“Oh.”  Ametrine bobbed in the water, frowning.  Then, almost shyly, she said, “I could really teach you how to be a better mermaid, if you wanted me to.  If it would convince your mother to leave you alone.”

“What do you mean?  How?”

“I could make you so you could stay here, with me, for always.”

Molly splashed backward in the water, startled.  “You can…but why would you do that?  Why would you want me to stay with you?”  Why didn’t you offer to do this before?  Why did you have to wait until I wouldn’t really have a choice?

“You are my friend.  No one has been my friend in very long, and I want you to be safe and well and where you are happy.  If your home does not make you happy, this could be your home.”  Ametrine looked at her gravely, eyes wide and bright with hope.  “You could stay with me.”

Molly looked at her and swam slowly forward, toward her.  “I can’t live in the water,” she said.  “I’d get too cold.”

“I could keep you warm.”

“I’d get hungry.”

“I could bring you food.”

They were almost nose to nose now, eyes locked on each other, and the moment felt far more important than it had any reason to be, and Molly was still treading water, holding her head above the surface through sheer force of stubborn will.

“I’d—”

“If you don’t want to stay, you don’t have to stay, but I was lonely before you came, and I don’t want to be lonely again.  Anything you need for happiness, I will gladly find a way to provide you.  Anything you need for comfort, you can find it by my side.  If you want to go, you can go, and you can always come back again, but the only thing between you and staying with me is your own objections.  Please.  Stay with me.”

Molly only hesitated for a moment before she asked, “Will it hurt?”

And Ametrine smiled, and her teeth were small and white, and very, very sharp, like razors made of bone.

“Of course it will hurt,” she said.  “Glorious things always do.”

Molly thought for a long while, treading water as her limbs grew colder.  She thought of her mother, insisting that she loved Molly while her love destroyed her daughter by inches.  She thought of her father standing by, as if abuses perpetrated against a fat girl weren’t abuses at all, just manifestations of the world struggling to set itself right.  She thought of the other students at her school, who treated her like a toy to be broken for their own amusement, and like she didn’t really matter at all, like she never could.

And she thought about Ametrine, who looked at her like she was beautiful—who made her feel like maybe, somehow, the mermaid was seeing the truth and everyone else was seeing the lie.  Ametrine, who was her friend.

Ametrine, who was offering to be her home.

“All right,” she said, and closed her eyes, so she wouldn’t see the moment when her friend became her predator, and when the pain came, she let it carry her away, and the agony was everything. The agony was all.

~

They found Molly’s bike, but they never found her body.  She was reborn in memory, through one of the oldest alchemical rites known to the high school world, as the perfect golden girl she had never been in their presence, popular and perfect, even if they could never quite bring themselves to recast her as beautiful.  The bridge was renamed in her honor, and the feral children were cautioned against going too close to the water, a piece of advice they heeded not at all.  Time passed.  The edges of the loss were worn away.

And when the summer came, some of the feral children claimed they’d seen mermaids, two of them, with tails of silver and rose, tangled in each other’s arms like water weeds, forever laughing, lost in the mysteries of one another’s eyes.


© Copyright Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born in Martinez, California, and raised in a wide variety of locations, most of which boasted some sort of dangerous native wildlife. Despite her almost magnetic attraction to anything venomous, she somehow managed to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two. The fact that she wasn’t killed for using her typewriter at three o’clock in the morning is probably more impressive than her lack of death by spider-bite. Seanan has written over 40 books and novellas, including several stories about mermaids (“Rolling in the Deep” and Into the Drowning Deep), as well as dozens of short stories. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot. Her website is http://www.seananmcguire.com.


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