The Mermaid – Christina Henry

Once there was a fisherman, a lonely man who lived on a cold and rocky coast and was never able to convince any woman to come away and live in that forbidding place with him. He loved the sea more than any person and so was never able to take a wife, for women see what is in men’s hearts more clearly than men would wish. But though he loved the freezing spray on his face and the sight of the rolling clouds on the horizon, he still wished for somebody to love. One evening after a long day, he pulled up his net and found a woman in it—something like a woman, anyway, with black hair and eyes as grey as a stormy sea and a gleaming fish’s tail. He was sorry that she was caught and told her so, though the storm in her eyes rolled into his heart. She stopped her thrashing and crashing at his voice, though she did not understand his words. The fisherman loosed her, and she dove back into the water the way a wild thing returns to a wild place, and he watched her go. But her eyes had seen inside him the way that women’s eyes do, and his loneliness snaked into her, and she was sorry for it, for that loneliness caught her more surely than the net. She swam away from his boat as fast as she could, and she felt his loneliness trailing between them like a cord. She did not want his feelings to bind her, to pull her back to him, so her tail flashed silver in the water and her eyes looked straight before her and never behind. But though she didn’t look back, she felt him watching, and she remembered the shape of his boat and the rocky curve of the land not too far off and the lines around his eyes, eyes that were as dark as the deep sea under the moon. She remembered, and so she returned again to watch him. She was called a name that meant, in her own tongue, Breaking the Surface of the Sea. When she was born, she’d come in a great hurry, much sooner than all of her six older sisters and brothers. The attendant who’d aided her mother had been astonished when she tried to swim away before the cord that bound her to her mother was cut.

Her mother and father and siblings spent most of her childhood trying to find her, for she was never where she ought to be. She was warned repeatedly of the dangers of the surface and of the men who cast nets there, and of their cruelty to the denizens of the ocean. They should never have told her, for in the telling she wanted to know more, and wanting to know more led her farther and farther afield. Her home was deep in the ocean, far away from the land that pushed up against the water on either side, and this was because her people feared the men with their hooks and their nets and the boats that floated on the surface of the waves as if by magic. The storytellers told of silver fins caught by cruel metal and dragged to the decks of ships, where blood ran red and spilled back into the water, calling things that swam the ocean in search of dying creatures. Sometimes there was a storm, and that storm would batter a ship to pieces and the men would fall into the water and sink, sink, sink to the bottom—the lucky ones, that is. The unlucky ones were devoured by roaming hunters with their silver-grey bodies and black eyes and white, white teeth. When the ships were sunk, the mermaid would go to the wreckage and explore, and pick up odd things that humans used, and wonder about them. And then one of her brothers or her parents would find her, and she would be chided for her foolishness and dragged home by her wrist, staring with longing over her shoulder all the while. One day she was swimming near the surface—far too near the surface, her family would have said —and saw a large, large ship of a sort she had never seen before.

On the prow of the ship she saw a strange thing. It looked like her—like a mermaid, but frozen and sealed to the ship. She swam alongside the ship for a long time, trying to see how the sailors had bound this mermaid to their craft. It was not easy, for the proximity of the ship necessitated keeping out of sight of the sailors. She would break the surface to catch a glimpse of the other mermaid and then would be forced to plunge below the water again before she was spotted. There was a fine wind and all the sails were full, and so the ship clipped along the surface, and after a time the mermaid grew tired. But she wanted to see, she wanted to know, and so she followed and followed even when she could no longer stay alongside. Her tail started to drag, and her swimming slowed, and then suddenly the ship was far ahead of her, disappearing over the flat line of the horizon. And the mermaid was alone, and far from home, and did not know how to find her way back again. This ought to have made her sad, or frightened, or any number of other distressed feelings.

But while she was sorry she might never see her family again, she wasn’t as upset as she should have been. Rather, she felt the freedom to go where she chose and do what she chose. Yes, there would be consequences (she was not so silly as to think there wouldn’t be), but they would be her choices and her consequences and not the ones laid out for her by someone else. Freedom was far more intoxicating than safety could ever be. She wanted to see and know more than she ever could at the bottom of the ocean. So she swam after the ship, because the ship would go to land, and the mermaid had never seen land before. And so she crossed the ocean and came to the place where there was land. The mermaid spent many days watching the people on shore and the ones who came out to the sea on boats. Always, always she was careful to avoid the hooks and lines and cages and nets, because she had found her freedom and she loved it, and she would not be bound to someone else’s will again. Until the day she was busy trying to loose a fish caught on a hook, and it was shaking and fighting and she was trying to help, but it was too panicked to let her.

She didn’t see the net come down from above, and then she was caught. She panicked then too, just like the fish she’d been trying to aid; she thrashed her tail, pulled with all her might, but all her thrashing entangled her more securely than before until she was hauled, furious and weeping, to the surface. His eyes were dark and full of surprise when they saw what was in his net. Surprise, and wonder, and then a little sadness that she almost missed. When he raised the knife, she was sure he would fillet her then, but he only spoke some words she did not understand and cut away that which bound her. She swam away and wondered about the man who’d let her go. That night, the fisherman watched the sea from his cottage, which was perched on the rocks above a small cove where he tied up his boat at night. It was cold, for it was coming on winter and it never really was warm in the North Atlantic anyhow. He buried his hands in the pockets of his coat and stared out at the churning mass of water and looked for her under the moon. But though he turned his head at the sound of every faint splash, he did not see that which his heart most longed for—the sight of her fin silhouetted against the moonlight.

He’d likely been a fool to let her go. Nobody would believe the story if he told it, and he wasn’t about to make a fool of himself down at the tavern in the village. He was old enough to be past the bragging flush of youth, though not so old that he would have minded seeing the light of wonder in their eyes had he brought a mermaid home. He could never have done it. That he knew for certain. He could not have taken that wild thing that looked on him with such wild eyes and forced her to stay with him, to make her a prisoner, to profit by her hurt. She hadn’t looked as he expected her to, the way he’d been told since he was a boy listening to tales that a mermaid should look. Those stories spoke of pale bare-breasted women with long flowing hair, human women in every way except for their tail fin. What he’d caught in his net had been far more alien, a creature covered in silver scales all over, with webbing between its fingers and teeth much sharper than any human’s. But her eyes had been a woman’s, and they’d looked into his heart as a woman’s eyes do and seen all the loneliness there.

He’d felt in that moment that his heart was visible outside his chest, that if she’d wanted, she could have grasped it in those long scaly fingers and taken it away with her. Then he’d come to his senses and loosed her because he knew he should and the state of his heart was no concern of the mermaid’s. But still he watched the water in hope, for the dearest wish of all fishermen is to see a mermaid, to brush up against something magical and hope some of that magic would stay with him for always. He watched and watched, but he did not see her. When finally the moon was past its zenith, he put away his dreams and went inside to sleep. He knew he would never see her again and in his own practical way thought at least he’d seen her one time. That was more than most fishermen. He’d touched magic, and he should not want for more. He did not see her, but she watched him from beneath the water near his cottage, and she knew he was looking for her. She couldn’t say how she knew this except that his eyes had been a little sad when he let her go.

His loneliness had burrowed into her heart, and the ache of it burned inside her. The mermaid had heard stories, spoken-under-the-breath-in-secret-places stories, about those of her kind who had left the deep and walked upon land. There was no special magic about this unless you considered that mermaids were magical in and of themselves; the mermaid did not consider herself anything special because she had always known her own kind. In those stories, those secret stories, the mermaid only had to touch dry land and her fin would be transformed into legs to walk about. If she touched the water of the sea again, her fin would return. The mermaid had never wished to walk upon land before, but suddenly she found she wanted this with all her heart. She could think only of all the things she’d never seen that were hidden past the shore: all the people and all the things for which she had no name and wanted to name so she could place them in her memory and keep them there. It was dark, even with the moon, and there was a stretch of sandy beach hidden in the rocks, a little cove where the fisherman tied up his boat at night. The mermaid thought she would swim to that place and touch the dry shore and see if the stories were true. Her heart was bursting with anticipation—how wonderful, how free, how perfect it would be if she could pass between the shore and the sea.

Not like a man did, of course—men swimming in the water were awkward, flopping things with their limbs splashing out in all directions. No, she would be as lithe as a fish in water and graceful as a human on land and all the world would be open to her. All the world and its wonders, and she would see them, every one. She swam into the cove, and when her head rose above the water she saw the jagged rocks rising on either side and the boat nestled inside. Beside the boat was a small wooden pier and a short beach that connected to a set of steps leading up to the fisherman’s cottage. There were no lights in the cottage, and the mermaid was certain the fisherman was inside and asleep and would not look out and see her there. Even if he did, she reasoned, he would only see a shadow moving against another shadow—the light of the moon did not reach this place. The mermaid swam to the shore, until she could feel the wet sand dragging beneath her fin and she could no longer kick up and down for there wasn’t enough water. She reached for the dry land just beyond the lapping waves—reached, and then paused. What if it did not work? What if those stories, those always-whispered stories, were not true? What if her heart longed always for the land and for the man with the lonely dark eyes and she was to never, ever have what she wished for? For some the possibility of failure would be a check, would make them turn back to the familiar.

Not the mermaid. She had to know, and the only way to know was to reach out, to touch the shore. Her fingers brushed the dry sand, and she reveled in the wonder of it, of the feel of each grain as it passed through her hands free and unencumbered by water. It made her laugh out loud, to touch this thing she’d never touched before. And then she felt a horrible wrench deep in her gut, and a tearing in her fin, and she tried to cry out but it was caught in her throat. This was terrible, terrible, there was no wonder here at all—only pain and then cold, the most profound cold she had ever known. The waves lapped against her bare legs, and she could feel the chill of the ocean. She had never felt the ocean’s cold before. It seemed to sink into her blood and marrow and freeze her from her muscles and bones out to the delicate skin that covered her instead of scales. How do humans live with this cold? she thought.

Every part of her felt fragile, as if she would burst into pieces if someone put a fingertip on her. The sand, so wonderful only a moment before, scraped her raw wherever it touched, and her shoulders shook with cold. Her teeth clattered together in her mouth, and she reached up with sandy fingers to touch them because they felt different, somehow flatter. They were flatter, not pointed as they had been before, and more like a human’s teeth. Her scales were gone and her teeth were gone and in return she had these things, these legs, which felt not free and light like her fin but like heavy bonding weights pulling her into the earth. Had she thought it would be marvelous to be a human? Had she thought she would have all the world before her? The world was not open to her. Her legs were like a net, a net that caught her and kept her from swimming free. She almost let go then, to push back into the water and let her scales cover her body and swim back, all the way back to the deep, deep ocean where her family would be waiting for her. Then she shook her head hard, though she trembled all over with cold and fear. She would not return in shame so they could shake their heads and say she never should have left in the first place.

She wanted to know what it was like to be a human. Humans walked on their legs. So she must stand. But how? Nothing about her body seemed familiar. She did not know how things connected, how to push and pull all these alien parts to get what and where she wanted. The first thing, she felt, was to get clear of the ocean. Her human form was not meant for this place. The mermaid put her arms in the sand and pulled the rest of her body out of the water—slowly, so slowly, gritting her teeth as the sand scraped against her. Once she was out of the water she discovered the night air was nearly as cold and that it blew into the cove and swirled in eddies around her. It made the water that clung to her freeze, and her delicate human skin rose in bumps.

This is why humans put the skin of other creatures on their bodies, she thought. She’d seen them in wrapped in furs, or in sealskin boots, and thought them barbaric. But now she realized that they must have these coverings, or else they would die. She felt, at that moment, like she might die from the cold. Cold. She was so cold. She craned upward to see the fisherman’s cottage. Inside there it would not be cold. He would cover her with a fur and dry the water away and she would be warm, warm, warm. And then he would smile because she had come to him from out of the sea so he would not be lonely anymore.

The fisherman. She must reach him. To reach him she must walk. To walk she must stand, and it didn’t matter that she didn’t know how. Her legs had a bend in the middle. She could feel it, feel the place where the leg separated into two connected parts like her arms. She pushed up to the palms of her hands and bent her legs until her knees were in the sand, and she huffed out her breath in the cold air because everything seemed so much harder than she expected. How did humans simply stand up on these stiff fins at the ends of their legs and walk? The mermaid rolled her ankles experimentally, curled up her toes, and by slow and careful practice found herself standing (wobbling) on her new feet. She did not feel very certain about what to do next. She’d seen humans walking on their ships and knew that each foot took turns leaving the ground while the other stayed.

This seemed almost impossible as she stood there trembling all over and feeling that at any moment she might find her face in the sand. But the fisherman was at the top of the stairs. And so she must climb. The mermaid lifted one of her feet, and the wonder of being able to do it at all struck her then. She stared down at her legs, at the foot stuck in the sand and the other lifted in the air, and laughed out loud. And then she did fall forward, landing on her elbows and knees, and had to start it all over again. She struggled to stand. Once there, she shuffled one foot forward very carefully and then the other —one after another, scritch-scratch across the sand. All the while she clutched her body with her arms—they seemed so thin and frail, so incapable of protecting her from the frozen air that bit through her skin and into her blood. Then she reached the stairs and looked up, and had the horrible realization that she would not be able to shuffle here.

Each step was high and made of wood, and there was nothing to hold except the rock face. The mermaid felt very tired then and wanted to do anything but climb the steps. But climb them she did, and later she had no notion of how she’d done this, except that it took a very long time. When she reached the top, the moon had almost disappeared beneath the horizon of the sea. Her hands and legs were bloodied and covered with splinters from where she fell on the stairs, and her teeth chattered with such force that she felt they might break. The mermaid stumbled to the door of the cottage and reached for the handle, as she had seen the fisherman do when she watched him from the water. The door swung open, and she clung to the frame. Inside the cottage there were many things that were strange to her—things the fisherman would teach her the names for, things like a kettle and a pan and flour in a jar and tea in a wooden box and a table and a chair (soon he would need two chairs, one for each of them). Beyond the room full of strange things there was another doorway, this one without a door in it, and she heard the sleeping-breathing noise that humans made and knew the fisherman must be there. The doorway seemed a long way from the one she was in, and the rough wood of the floor would hurt if she tried to slide across it as she had done the sand—this she knew from climbing the stairs, where unpredictable splinters had jabbed into her tender new skin.

It took a long while for her to cross to his room. When she reached it, she saw him asleep in bed, the blankets pulled up tight past his chin. He lay on his side, and only the lids of his eyes and the black tufts of his hair were visible. The room seemed warmer than the others, heated by his sleeping breath, and she wanted so much to be where it was warm. She knelt beside his bed, stroked her fingers into his hair, and watched as his dark eyes opened. She saw the recognition in them, and she never wondered how he knew it was her, the same mermaid he’d caught in his net. A long time later he told her that it was her eyes, that her eyes were the same no matter what form she took, and when he saw them, he knew she’d returned to him. He lifted the blanket, and she saw that underneath was his man’s body with no coverings on it as humans usually wore. She went to him then, and his warmth covered her, and his love filled her heart and made her want to stay. He taught her how to speak his human-speak and told her his name was Jack.

Her name was not something they could say in human, so he told her many names for many days until he said the one she liked, and so she was called Amelia. Amelia loved Jack, but she could not leave the sea altogether, and at night she practiced transforming from a mermaid to a woman, until she could pass easily between one and the other without the pain that had struck her down the first time. So she stayed with him, and loved him, and lived as a woman on land and a mermaid in the sea for many years. At night, when there were no other fishermen about and her husband lay sleeping in their bed, she would go out to the rocks and leave her human dress there and dive into the black water, and there she would stay, at least until her heart remembered the eyes of the man she loved and she would return to him.

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