by Liz Argall
Content note: This story depicts slavery and humans dying in bondage during transatlantic crossing
She caught treasures from the ship with her sisters; dangerous, exotic objects that plummeted through the water. Metal not yet rusted; fractured glass and timbers not yet smoothed by the sea; woven filaments as delicate as jellyfish, and as treacherous. Curiosities from the world above to be dared, caught, examined and discarded.
She found him falling. He fell fast, tangled in chains, his shirt billowing up around him, shedding bubbles in all directions as his body tore through the water. She surged towards him, caught him in her arms, then paused. Here was no special prize. Normally they would let humans sink to the bottom and serve as bait for delicious crabs and tastier morsels, but this one still struggled. His urgent desire to live evoking something almost forgotten; an electric hum on the back of her tongue of land-life never known, but bone-remembered. She hummed low and chirruped in surprise, “Who are you? Why are you in my arms?”
He spasmed for a moment, his convulsions almost knocking him out of her grasp, the whites of his eyes flickering through half opened slits.
Her sisters hummed, “Why are you playing with the land-thing? Wait for the crabs to come.”
“I think it’s alive.”
“Don’t be silly, they can’t live down here.”
“Then I shall put it back.”
She cradled him in her arms and swam to the surface with strong swift strokes of her tail.
“You’re not god, you know!” shouted her sisters. She smiled to herself and did not look back.
She burst from the crashing sea, a plume of water reaching high up into the air, the force of her arrival rocking the man violently. Her gills flexed from the side of her neck, fanning out on strong muscles. The breathing felt so thin up here, sounds crashed against her skin chaotically, without the measured gravity of water to modulate the sounds. Her back slapped against the surface hard, and she flicked her tail to keep herself and the man above water. The ocean crashed around them, grey churning salt water, fierce winds and a sleet filled sky. A wave grew next to them, undulating and white flecked, broken planks in its maw. She leapt again, pushing hard against the now towering wave, leaping for the sky. She crashed through the crest, an explosion of sound and force, and into the next wave. She swam up and over mountain range after mountain range, trying to keep the creature in the air and find some place to return him to. The gritty wind bit at her gills, drying and scratching them, making her gasp for breath. She folded her gills close to her neck when she could, only flaring them out to grab quick moments of breath between tearing waves.
The man was slippery and difficult to carry, even after she untangled the chain around his legs. Sometimes she held the man by an arm, sometimes by the shoulder, but he was slippery, limp and awkward. The man was smooth in both directions, like a whale, and did not have the bite of scales to get purchase. Her own torso, shark skin silky in one direction, shark skin teeth in the other, tore his wrappings. She did not hear him cry out over the clamour of the ocean, but she felt him writhe as she cut into his flesh despite her best efforts.
She threw him, belly first, over her shoulder where her scales were broader round plates and less punishing, and there he bounced like a rag doll. She battled the waves and kept as much of him out of the water as possible. She wasn’t sure where his blow hole was placed and hoped it was somewhere sensible in the upper half of his body. The man’s ribs and diaphragm clanged forcibly against her shoulders and she winced, worried that the impacts would break such a delicate animal.
She feared she had broken him entirely when he made an awful gargling sound and warm water fell from his mouth and down her back.
“Don’t die!” she chirruped against the storm, her voice reedy and insubstantial. The man made strange gasping sounds and thrashed against her, slipping from her shoulder into the sea. He made the frenzied motions of a dying creature and she pulled his face out of the water. His breath was hot and laboured, coming from his mouth in a large O. He made keening sounds, too many sounds, and without them resonating in her body she could not begin to comprehend them. A curious creature, all flat face, blunt teeth chewing at the air and strange eyes surrounded by white circles like a dying humpback whale.
He churned the water and pushed up and away from her, trying to swim up the waves by himself. She followed close, ready to catch him if he fell into drowning again. He made sounds like Mer in mourning and frightened birds. He turned every now and then to see if she was still close, like an anxious sea pup, and when he saw that she was close and ready to catch he would turn and labour against the waves with renewed confidence and energy. His swimming was worse than any creature that wasn’t strangled by a net and he made little progress. He swam for only a few minutes before his open mouth was wave-crash filled with water and he started to sink again.
She sped towards him and pulled his double-purposed mouth from the ocean. She marvelled that the poor creature was still alive with one mouth to serve for sound and breathing, but at least his head was easy to keep above water. The man, in his confusion, beat his hands raw on her chest, and came perilously close to harming her face and ripping her gills. She lashed out at him, claw sharp and instinctual. The man cried out and held his hand against his bleeding skull. She flattened her precious gills tight against her neck, holding her breath and ready to fight.
She wanted to let him drown, hold him under and tear him apart, but she could not. He was her responsibility now, she had played god and had to see it through. God did not build things and stop half way through; only sorcerers made the incomplete and misshapen – the egg half made, the deformed child. Though she longed to drop him in the water, to start and not finish would make her less than Mer. As god was in makings, so true Mer must be in action; she was no sorcerer. She gritted her teeth and held him tightly, his arms crushed to his sides. He was confused, he was swimming badly and his dangerous movements would stop.
In time he stopped thrashing and threw up several times. Her gills unfolded in relief and she loosened her grip.
“Thank you for the gesture,” she hummed, uncertain of human customs, but imagining it was a gesture of apology and kin. “I am not hungry or injured, you should save it for yourself.”
The man seemed to understand and stopped regurgitating. As the man grew quiet, the storm, as if in harmony, eased and grew gentle. She cradled him in her arms like she might her own sisters, as if he were a Mer hatched incomplete and delicately forming first-scale. His head rested against her chest, his eyes closed. She could feel the soft waves of his breath grow easy and she carried him. She gazed at his sleeping face, so similar to hers and yet so different, brown skin instead of blue scale, cords of twisted hair instead of kelpy green filament.
His face was symmetrical and pleasing to look at in an alien kind of way. She saw in his sleeping face a kind of intelligence. She hummed softly to herself, happy with her decision; humans were made for more than crab-bait.
The lull in the storm was almost over and she could feel the turbulence building. She scanned the horizon for land, for somewhere to put the man, and as she searched her body heard the chorus of her sisters, slurred by the competing sounds of above-water. She strained to hear their lament: “Come home, our sister, come home. Where have the currents taken you? Strong and swift, where have you gone? Coral light, where are you now? Where have you gone with your land-thing? Where have you gone with your crab-bait?”
She felt the comfort of her sisters’ presence, not too far away, although deep below. She saw in the far distance the white and brown shape of a ship, the humans’ moving land of wood and sail. The storm started to pick up and she ducked her head to sing in her far reaching voice. Her ripples passed over the ripples of her kin and she hoped her voice could be heard from so far above: “I am here, I am safe, do not fear. I am finishing the work, I will finish the work. I will meet you below the boat when I am done.”
The storm returned with sharp-toothed gale and precipice wave. She pushed through the water towards the boat that now floundered heavily in the water, ramming into each wave and landing heavily without grace. She saw one of the ship’s magnificent white dorsal fins rip and snap off, torn high into the air. She winced in sympathy for the wooden bone left behind.
She was so slow above water and it was infuriating to take the long way when only a few spans down a world of peace reigned. She ached from the riotous sound of above-water, knives of chaos on her ears. She would draw close to the boat, only to be pulled away. Eventually she stopped trying to reach the ship and simply held them above the water. She would return the man when the storm was over.
As she waited, she felt her sisters’ voice in her body: “Come home, dearest sister, come away. The moon is cresting, the sharks still dazzled by the storm. Come hunt with us and day-long feast on crabs. We wait under the ship, but we do not trust it. Too many fall from it, chained together like close links of bait, one man after another. We will not stay for the hook. We are leaving, we are leaving. What in the place of land and air hunts with lines of men? Be careful, dear sister, be careful. We will not wait for net like the fish, we will not tempt harpoons like the whale. Your sport is over. Come home, come home to the depths.”
She looked at the resting man in her arms, his eyes moving under the lids. “What are you bait for?” she hummed to him. She felt his warm mammal breath and tried to imagine why anyone would chain so many together. It seemed wasteful – while creatures from above hunted many beings of the sea, it made little sense to set so much bait at once. Her sisters’ fears did not ring true.
She gazed at the face that looked so intelligent and felt a small trill of excitement. What if the humans were becoming something else? What if they were not bait at all? Humans had been sinking to the depths in greater numbers…what if this were some greater evolution, taking the next step to the sea as her people once had? Perhaps they were chained together as egg purses, joined by threads so they would have kin on awakening, much like her sisters. The ocean was deep and always new. She carried these thoughts and chewed over them until the storm exhausted itself and sunset fell.
In the growing dark she trilled “Wake up. Have I saved your life or stopped you from hatching? Should I sink you with chains to join your kin? We were once of your land before wisdom prevailed, are you now wise and ready to hatch into a new kind of kin?”
The man’s eyes opened, small, salt crusted slits. She closed her gills and only opened them in brief puffs, ready to drown him if necessary.
“I can find your egg-mates and drag you down to them, if you are the host of something new,” she sang softly. The man’s eyes opened fully, startling pink-white framing brown pools. He looked at her and carefully did not move. He stared straight into her eyes and croaked something that seemed like language, impulses of sound carefully chosen. He paused and made the same sounds again. She had no idea what he was saying but was fascinated by their haunting familiarity. His sounds were easier to hear in this open air space than her own, and she wondered if it was because of how astonishingly mobile and flexible his mouth parts were – they seemed to move with every sound.
He seemed much calmer now and slowly she released her hold. He kept his hand on her shoulder and she felt a steady purr in the water from his kicking feet. She blinked with approval and gently tugged him towards the dusk-lit ship. At first the man seemed to be happy, he kicked along beside her and they made slow but steady progress towards the keel. As they drew closer he made a shrill sound and pointed upwards at tattered colours high up on the dorsal spine. He abruptly moved backwards, turning and kicking in a sudden spray. She turned and followed, keeping pace easily as he clawed his way into the empty ocean.
She flicked her tail with annoyance. “But that is the moving land of your kin,” she chirruped.
The man shook his head from side to side, like a leopard seal snapping the neck of a penguin.
She mimicked his motions trying to understand his gestures. He needed to hunt? He bobbed his head up and down as if he were swallowing a difficult fish and continued to swim further away from the ship at his painfully slow pace. Ah, he was the penguin.
“Other people are down at the bottom, do you want me to take you? I can join you to them on the bottom.” She pointed to the depths with her head in an undulating motion.
The man’s sides billowed in and out with great breaths, but he tried to move quietly, turning to look back at the boat every few strokes. She kept up with him easily, flicking her tail every now and then to shoot past him and wait. The man stopped swimming and thrashed the water with his feet to stay above it. He pointed to his chest with one hand and then pointed away from the setting sun and towards the place of sunrise. He did this several times and then continued to swim, though he was so tired he could scarcely keep his head above water.
She flicked her tail impatiently and wondered if her work was done, her action complete. She was tired and the man was obviously living and breathing above the water. She fluttered her inner eyelids. He was alive, but it was obvious it would not be for long without intervention. She opened her gills fully to gulp a deep breath and then placed his hand on her dorsal fin. He held tight and she pulled him through the waters, away from the sunset. Part way through the night he started to slip off her fin, and she had to return for him again and again as he splashed in the water. Eventually she carried him, as she had during the storm, though her sides ached with so much exhaustion that she wondered if she too could drown.
She found land just after sunrise, the pink fingertips of dawn catching the sky and wrapping around the corners of the harbour. She felt the sting of sharp-toothed coral as she blundered over the reef, slicing her from gut to tail and clipping his foot. Their shouts of pain were so similar that they paused, looking at each other in surprise. They laughed, another impulse of surprising similarity, though she felt deafened by the constant rawness of above-water sound. She drew on the laughter, as ichor ran slowly from her deep cut and invisibly dissolved in the waves. She drew on all she had to carry him through the final spans.
Once he was beached thoroughly, his full body out of the water and kissing the sand, she lay in the shallows and felt herself mingle with the gritty water. No longer in motion, the savage pain of her cut bisected her; the pain of coral slice followed the rhythm of the ocean and in time became a noise like any other. She had no power to move her body, her eyes glazed and half open; too tired to worry about predators. She had completed her action, she was not a sorcerer, she was true Mer. She felt the waves pull and push her with their familiar rocking refrain, no longer fighting them. Her gills struggled to stay open, choked by sand, and only the waves brought fresh breathing. The tide was going out. Sound stopped and she slept without the cradle of the ocean to hold her.
She woke to feel hands, many hands under her. She shrieked and lashed with her tail, sharp scales biting into flesh. She heard the cry of a man and a splash. She raised her head, her top half ulcerated by the sun, as a horde of men, similar to the one she carried, but with hair like small knobs of blackened coral, gathered around her. She could scarcely see them, her eyes filmed over protectively, and dizzily starved of air. She readied her claws and flicked her tail backwards and forwards as the men approached again, making gestures and sounds at each other. She dug her hands into the sand, ready to propel herself backwards and throw grit in their faces and cloud the air.
And as she did the net came down around her. Thick cords were pulled over, around and under her, and she screamed her humiliation to the sky as they trapped her like any mundane fish. She reached her arms through the holes in the net and thrashed her tail, clawing and bucking as the net pulled her tight. She screamed her rage and cursed their eggs for a thousand generations.
She felt the shock of cool salt water, the electric zing of home and easy breathing. She felt the tug of the net pulling her deeper into the water, waves once again around her, the men keeping safe distance as they pulled her into the ocean. A limping man came towards her, she waited until he was close enough and lashed out at him. The limping man fell back, then rose and hobbled towards her again. She saw the rough grazes on his chest, legs and arms. It was her man, the man she saved. She watched him warily as he pulled the netting from her body and swished the water around her. His hands were light on her skin and, very carefully, only touched her in the right direction. When she was free of the netting he ducked his head under the water and they looked at each other, face to face, his soft mouth curved upwards.
She placed his hand on her gills, she touched her hand to his mouth, the place of their breathing, the sign of greatest trust.
She swam slow to the deep waters. Limping quiet to her sisters, fearful of shark as coral’s teeth throbbed in her wound. Cut deep, but whole of action. Cut deep, but true. The trace of lips on her fingers, a memory of touch on her gills.
© Copyright Liz Argall
Liz Argall’s work can be found in places like Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and frequently on the stage with Pulp Diction. She’s worked on roleplaying games like Geist 2nd Edition and 13th Age, and creates the webcomic thingswithout.com. She lives in Seattle, but her heart misses the big silly birds of Australia..
Read the Rest of the December Issue
- The Rime of the Midwinter Mermaids by Kelly Jarvis
- What to Do After Receiving a Starlit Pearl by Mari Ness
- Mermaid’s Hook by Liz Argall
- Which Inland Waterways Merfolk Are You? by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas and S.R. Mandel
- Mermaid Care by Jonathan Crowe
- Lotus Eater by Cameron Harvey
- The Catfish Sisters by Lisa M. Bradley
- The North American Wombats Guide to Random Sea Creatures: The Sea Hare by Ursula Vernon
- Merbraids by Amal El-Mohtar, Caitlyn Paxson and Jessica P. Wick
- Mermaid by Marla Faith
- Magdelena the Mermaid by Ana Merino, translation by Toshiya Kamei
- The Space Mermaid’s Garden by Beth Goder
- How to Spot A Mermaid by Emily Fox
- Deepwater Dance by Elaine Ho
- Into the Light by Elaine Ho