by Jenn Reese
Content Note: This story contains death of family members and an open casket funeral
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Analog
The day I told you I was leaving, you clutched a river stone in your tiny hand and threatened to throw it at my head. I knew you wouldn’t. You loved that stone. You loved the turtle I’d drawn on it with a Sharpie.
Hell, back then, you’d even loved me.
We’d grown up together, you and me. With dad gone and mom working, we’d faced everything from permission slips to burning the fake turkey for holiday meals. And we’d fought. Oh, yes. We’d fought. We were sisters, but not the kind you see in the movies. No, we were the kind you read about in books.
And then I told you I was leaving. That I’d been called to the sea. That’s the phrase I used: Called to the sea. As if it were my destiny and not simply a job with SAVE’s deep-sea research team. I was a scientist, my degrees still fragile and new and in need of constant reaffirmation, and this was my calling. My mission. My righteous cause. I might miss your eighth birthday, but I’d be helping to save the world. To give you a future so that when you made it to eighty, there’d be a habitable planet on which to live.
I was doing you a favor.
And besides, I didn’t know Mom was sick. No one did. She’d been coughing, sure, but everyone was. That’s what happens when you pollute the water and earth and air, while simultaneously killing all the trees and algae that might help to cleanse it. When you let corporations dump toxins into the water supplies and give them tax incentives to do it. Red eyes and a cough and hell of a lot of sleepless nights for everyone!
I didn’t know about Mom, I swear.
At the funeral, you were angry that I hadn’t visited her in the hospital. I tried to explain about saturation diving, about the dangers of frequent decompression when I’d been living so deep, so far away from the sun. We were doing good work. Important work. Mom would have understood, but you didn’t want to hear it. Screw your logic, and screw you.
You’d had your hands done a month earlier, and tried to hide them from me. But I saw the webbed membranes when you reached for a drink, saw the sharpened nails. I asked how much you were going to do. Accused you of falling in with one of those transhuman cults. I remember exactly what I said. You can’t just turn yourself into some creature and swim away from the world that needs you.
The way you stared at me, then. The way your pupils contracted as if you were purposefully shutting me out along with the light.
I wanted you to yell like you used to. To clutch that turtle stone and threaten to throw it. In my mind, you were always that little girl, always pouting, always equal parts rage and passion. But there, at Mom’s funeral, you took another swig of your beer and walked away.
You didn’t answer my vid calls after that. I knew what you were doing because of the alert I’d put on Mom’s trust. Ten thousand to a facility in Bangladesh, six to another in the Himalayas, twenty to some crackpot in Tulsa. I put a hold on the funds after that one, expecting you to call. Knowing you’d come to me with an apology, a joke, an anecdote as an olive branch.
I was a fool. You’d figured that out long ago, but despite my degrees — or maybe because of them — it took me longer.
Once I realized my mistake, I tried to find you. I emailed the cults, called all the shelters, tracked down anyone you’d ever mentioned was a friend. I even unfroze the accounts. But you never surfaced. Never took the bait. I was sure I’d never see you again.
And yet, here we are.
I smooth the gelatinous tendrils away from your face, adjust your arms so that your fins are not folded or crushed in the coffin. Your eyes, once squirrel-brown and angry, are now dull black orbs without lids. I cannot close them.
What did you see with those eyes? How far did you go?
They found you off the coast of Fiji. Hauled you in with a fishing net not far from where I worked, fathoms deeper, to find new ways to cleanse toxins from the water.
I should have worked harder. I wasn’t fast enough to save you.
But the world is healing, I tell you. Not quickly, but little by little. If you’d only waited. If you’d only followed in my path instead of growing gills and forging your own. You were supposed to make it to eighty.
Your reply echoes clearly. Screw you. The world wasn’t the only thing that needed saving.
I put a stone in your hand. The turtle I’ve drawn is more delicate this time, its shell the correct shape, its flippers in motion as it swims through the ocean. I wrap your strange fingers around it and wait for you to take aim.
© Copyright Jenn Reese
Jenn Reese (she/they) writes for readers of all ages. Her children’s books include A Game of Fox & Squirrels, a finalist for the Andre Norton Award and the Oregon Book Award, and an NPR Best Book of 2020. She also publishes short fiction at places like Uncanny, F&SF, and Analog. www.jennreese.com
Read the Rest of the September Issue
- wildgirls by Cislyn Smith
- Seaside Princess by Jordan E. McNeil and Kat Weaver
- The Mermaid Speaks by Jose Luis Pablo
- Send Feet Pics by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas
- A Stone’s Throw from You by Jenn Reese
- Mermaids of Alabama: An Environmental Assessment by Ellie Campbell
- What Do Merfolk Notice on Land? by Priya Chand
- Puffin Queen by Jordan E. McNeil and Kat Weaver
- Witnessing by Tiffany Morris
- Beyond the Blue by Yuan Changming
- Selkie’s Bones by Marisca Pichette
- Mermaid Galleon by Alex Nodopaka
- A Mermaid Reports from Okeanos by Pat Tompkins
- Water Bites Back by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
- Freshwater Life by Anne E.G. Nydam
- Mer Crowley Angel by Arrick Corble
- the hunter by Jasmine Arch
- I Swim Up From Below by Sarah Gailey
- The Siren’s Song by Angela Gabrielle Fabunan