Swimming with the He-Fish
“Cara mia, para minha,” he had murmured. “I am a merman. Watch.” Cara lay in her steamy bath, arms floating on foamy white bubbles silverspun by candlelight. Vivid snapshots of memories rose in her mind as she lay half-awake, half-drowsing in a lavender-scented miasma of tired acceptance, remembering it all.
# # #
The thin ray of August sun struck a tremulous momentary balance on the delicately curved pink edge of the shell tangled in the nylon rope trailing from the side of the boat to the fish trap below. The shell was tiny enough to fit into the palm of a woman’s hand. Apart from the gentle pink flutter at its outside edge it was the color of the lustrous 24-karat yellow-green fabled gold of the Aztecs.
Cara noticed the gleam in the flat water of the harbor as she walked up the dock from shore. As she got closer to her boat the shape became clearer.
Nobody was around, apart from a boatyard worker walking along a distant dock. The city people with their strained, excited faces would arrive later in the afternoon, hungry for the carnival atmosphere of the huge seafood palaces and thirsty for the smell of diesel-laced ocean air.
Cara had built the fish trap herself from steel wire bent into the shape of a heart with chicken wire stretched all around, a bit of broken mirror dangling inside as a lure. As she pulled the seeping trap up onto the dock, the golden conch shell fell free from the rope, glittering down into the water till it disappeared from sight. The trap bumped onto its side, knocking off a miniature crab who dropped then ran with an idiot gait from the wire frame, scuttling sideways in its new, widened, oxygenated world.
A large ugly fish was crushed inside. The beast was about five feet long. It lay there curled in a half-circle, its body almost doubled onto itself. Unhinging the door from the side of the trap, Cara reached in for the tail fin and pulled, grasping the tail where it met the fish’s body as gently as she could. The creature seemed to be trying to help. With a quick muscular twist of its body, it pushed out through the door and landed on the dock right near Cara’s feet. An odd aroma, a blend of dying roses and sweat, filled the air for a moment then disappeared, replaced by yet another aroma.
Is that chocolate? Cara breathed deeply.
The greenish-grey fish with turquoise stripes shuddered, then opened its barnacle-encrusted jaw. Bits of dank seaweed trailed from greenish-ivory teeth. Its shape was that of a fish, but its head looked almost human.
Cara thought it might be a lizard-fish. But she realized this freakfish was too big to be a lizard-fish. Its rubbery lips stretched out then a creaking noise emerged from its gullet. It sounded like words, like the fish was speaking a language as it sat there dripping on the dock.
The words were Portuguese, the sounds like little kisses.
“I don’t speak much Portuguese.” Cara spoke each word precisely, looking into the beast’s flat eyes, feeling as if she just might be crazy.
“Eh, I can speak anything,” it whistled back at her through its green teeth. “Just name it. Portuguese is my native tongue. I forgot. You like English?” The scent of bittersweet chocolate grew stronger as he spoke.
“English is best, yeah.” Cara stepped around him then quickly bent to grab his head between her hands. Pinning him to the dock, she sat on him right below his gills, sidesaddle, much like a Victorian lady riding a horse.
Bending over his seaweed-entangled head, she dug her fingers into his gills. “What on earth are you, you disgusting thing?”
“Bellisima, I am a merman, one of a very few left of my kind. I’m more than just a fish. I have certain powers,” he answered, rolling his body sideways as he spoke. “You’ll understand, with a little time. I’ve been hanging around your boat trying to get your attention. Could you please take your fingers out of my gills? I need to ask a favor.” He exhaled, coughing out three miniature silver fish that jumped with surprise as they landed.
“Oh, c’mon – you’re kidding, right?” Cara laughed. She’d actually caught a merman. A merman! That’s the last time anyone tells me it’s stupid to live out here on a boat, she thought.
“No, I’m serious,” the merman answered. “I’m dying, and I need a home. I need someone to take care of me till my time comes. I’ve chosen you. I want you to make me your pet. At least for a while.”
Cara released his head and moved to sit on the dock, wiping the thick slime from his scales off her wet hands onto her jeans. The thought ran through her mind that if he was dying, at least he couldn’t be dangerous.
“You want to be my pet? Tell me about it. So do all the other stray animals. And how does a person keep a merman as a pet, anyway?”
He wiggled a bit, edging his head onto her foot. His black eyes were flat, impassive. Cara looked closely at the tiny arms extending from his sides. They reminded her of a child’s doll, beach trash, half-dead plastic left behind at low tide.
“I can be a better pet than any other stray. And besides, I need you to cook me.” He pulled himself a little further up her leg, grasping her knee with his strange claw-like hands.
“Ugh. Enough already. Back off.” Cara was repulsed.
His eyes started to change, first shifting from flat cold-blooded black to soft deep pools of midnight blue. They started to look almost human, except for the color, which had now become a blended purple and green with sharp lightning-like gold flecks running through the irises.
Two seagulls flew off the rigging of a nearby sailboat, landing so close to Cara their wings touched her thigh.
He looked directly into Cara’s own blue-grey eyes and spoke. His voice had become deeper. An image came to her of rushes along a riverbank, seagulls crying from afar. She heard overtones of the crashing roar of an open sea. His voice warmed her, pulling her mind toward his, in an insinuating undertow.
“Cara,” he said, “I’ve come to you for a few reasons. One, you’re known as the best cook around. All the creatures of the sea say so. None of them intend to be caught in this little fish trap you’ve built here. But they tell each other if it does happen, their ending will be fit for royalty. They wouldn’t end up the pitiful way so many do, greasily batter-fried then gobbled down with fried potatoes and cheap beer. And by the way,” he sighed then let out a small belch. “Excuse me, it’s been a while since I’ve talked so much.”
“Oh, yeah, right, okay,” Cara replied, turning her head away from the preposterous sight.”The creatures of the sea say they like my cooking, and you need me to cook you after I keep you for a pet for a while? What other bizarre reason do you have for hanging around here then swimming right into my trap?”
“Well, do you want to be my girrrrrrrl?” He rolled out his rrrrr’s as he spoke, seemingly pleased at the sound they made, then settled himself more securely between her calves with his elbow on her knee, his head propped up on his hand.
Cara had to laugh. He looked so bizarre. That fish body narrowing up to a small human neck and head above his gills, and those little arms so oddly tucked in under his pectoral fins. His head resembled a ventriloquist’s dummy – pale, ancient yet ageless. Long thin hair flowed over his back and face. The seaweed between his teeth was now gone and he’d chipped the barnacles off his chin by rubbing his head against the dock like a cat, grooming himself with hurried fervor. She fell back onto her elbows. This monster wanted to be her boyfriend. How did he think he could accomplish that?
She started to get up, pulling her leg away from the merman, but he held her knee tightly between his little hands. He was stronger than he looked.
“Cara mia, para minha,” he murmured, his words somehow melting into the atmosphere, “I am a merman. Watch.”
The air around him became brightened, then hard, shiny. She blinked in disbelief and in that instant he was no longer a strange little creature – he was a man. And a very well-made man, too. If you’d taken every idea Cara had about the perfect-looking representation of ‘male’, he was right here, right now, laying on the dock, gripping her knee. And he wasn’t wearing any clothes.
Embarrassed, Cara looked over at the two seagulls still perched close by. They watched the merman intently, nodding their heads up and down. She blushed, not wanting to look at the man stretched out on the dock. He was gorgeous.
“Please don’t say you’ve never heard of the beauty of my sisters, the mermaids! They, of course, are famous! They like to show off a bit. Everyone knows them. You know Nessie? The Loch Ness Monster? She is also my family – the poor thing is fat and tired now, of course.” He let go of her knee, but then lay his head on her lower leg. His cheek was surprisingly soft, utterly unlike the sharp slimy scales he’d been covered with moments before.
Cara didn’t move, there wasn’t any time to react before it happened. The merman hadn’t moved either, or at least not as a human would. He’d flowed up her legs and over her, down her arms and over her face, eyes, hair. He covered her from head to toe, in every part of her body, moving into every inch of her deeply. He was a man but not a man. She was clothed but not clothed. She was tossed as if by large embraces of tender waves, foam tipped, licking her ear lobes, her shoulder, curling into the curve of her neck. She was disappearing into a beautiful dissolution. Then there was the warm touch of his mouth kissing hers, just as if he were human.
“Sorry,” he murmured, with a quick apologetic laugh.
“What, exactly, just happened?” Cara slowly sat up. “I feel so odd, like part of my brain’s been erased. And so tired . . .”
He rose then dove gracefully into the water. Cara thought he might have decided to swim away. She wondered if this whole thing had been some sort of weird daydream, if she’d had too much sun today, maybe a case of heatstroke? But then his head broke the surface of the water five feet away.
“I’m more comfortable here, do you mind?” he asked. “There are many things I need you to know.”
Cara tried to stand but stumbled sideways a bit.
“I’m so dizzy! What did you do to me?” She walked unsteadily to the prow of her boat. With the side of her foot she shifted the container garden with its pots of herbs and lettuces aside to make room to sit near him. She stretched out on the dock facing the water, propped her head on her hand and got ready to listen. The scent of a tomato plant she’d brushed against filled the air. The dusk was closing in on the edges of the sky as people emerged onto the deck of a nearby boat. The clinking of beer bottles put on ice carried over the water and flames of a charcoal grill sparked the darkness.
“I am Matsya,” he said. “Cara, I am so happy to meet you.”
They talked till the gleaming half moon settled in its place in the sky, mirrored in the gently moving water. Matsya told Cara his story, including the reason he’d come to her in the first place: he needed her to perform an ancient ritual, one that would bring him back to life after his death.
# # #
“You know how I became a merman?” Matsya said one night. He took another bite of fennel, orange, cheese and red onion salad – his favorite food – before continuing. He chewed slowly. Cara thought of a fish. He reached over to touch Cara’s hair. “It was a woman, with hair the same color as yours.”
Cara lifted a hand to smooth her strawberry-blonde hair.
“It was . . . a terrible mistake. I loved her. One day we had a disagreement. I was young, strong, impetuous back then,” he continued.
Cara wondered how long ago he was talking about.
“I hit her. I’d never hit her before, but she said something that was unbearable to me. I won’t tell you what it was . . . but my one blow struck the side of her neck and broke it. I’ve relived that moment many times, wished I could take it back. The woman, my lover . . . she was human, but the daughter of a god. When her father discovered my terrible crime, he threw me into the sea and made me half-man, half-fish.” He still held her hair, caressing it, his voice filled with a beautiful music.
“Cara, I’ve wanted to give this to you. May I?” he said, standing and pulling something from the pocket of the jeans Cara had bought him.
It was a necklace. He walked behind her and lifted her hair up from her neck gently with one hand while placing a string of thick, knotted seaweed over her head. She gazed down at the trinket dangling from the emerald-colored strand. It was the golden conch shell she’d seen twisted in the line of the fish trap, that very first day. She’d thought it had disappeared forever.
He killed her, Cara thought, and he was thrown into the sea.
And that’s as far as her thoughts went.
# # #
Cara listened to the sounds of the waves and wind, watching as the light through the portholes shifted from dusk to dark. She didn’t like what was happening. Matsya would disappear for days on end, refusing to tell her where he was going or why. She had no idea whether he was dead or alive.
Tonight she was making bouillabaisse, another of his favorite foods. The aromas of fish stock, rich tomatoes, wine and garlic filled the close quarters of the cabin. The varnished wood gleamed in the dimly lit space above the embroidered quilts covering the bunks, their colors those of a faraway forest embroidered with intense bursts of color like the bright wings of tropical birds. Cara squinted down at her chopping board, remembering when he’d first asked her to make him a fish stew.
“How can you even think of that?” she’d responded. “Eating your own kind? How disgusting!”
And he’d looked up at her, a small smile reaching the corners of his mouth. He stretched as he reclined there on the bunk putting the novel he’d been reading aside and rising to move toward her. “Disgusting?” He laughed. “Gorgeous Cara, I am a fish! Fish eat fish. We are cold-blooded creatures, remember?”
The golden shell Cara now wore all the time between her breasts on its seaweed cord pulsed with a heat so sharp and sudden it burned. She pushed at it then held it tightly in her palm. Cold-blooded. No, you can’t be, she thought. She shook her head. No, I can see you right there, and you’re not cold-blooded at all.
# # #
In the months since Matsya had moved in, Cara had become so different than her usual self she wondered if she were a myth, and he the real person. There was a form of self-erasure going on, and worse, it seemed like destiny.
She had cut back on the hours she worked – it was too difficult to go into the city. She didn’t know when Matsya was going to die, and he might die without her there. She knew that each day that passed brought her closer to the day he would ask her to cook him, to make a feast of his corpse so he could return to life.
I hate to cook, she thought. Why did he choose me? I hate to cook. For she did. She now hated cooking as she had never hated anything before. The thought of cooking anything at all filled her with dread. The ingredients seemed so real to her, so alive. Each meal she made felt like attempted manslaughter.
“But Cara mia, dear one, my love, you do it so well,” she heard him whisper through the light waves off starboard port. And then he began to sing, and once again, his song could not be resisted.
Matsya had told Cara he could live forever in his form as mythical being, but his physical form was not completely ageless. It would last beyond normal human expectations, but every hundred years or so he had to renew it through a magical ritual – the feast of his own flesh cooked by one who loved him.
And when the time came, he died without pain or struggle. His heart stopped beating then his breath quit altogether as he lay next to her one night in form of a human man. He’d looked into her eyes then had taken her hand.
“It’s time. Close your eyes.” And she did, because the shape-shifting this time, of man to beast right there next to her in bed was nothing she wanted to see.
Matsya had told her he’d not wanted to die then be tossed back into the sea. He’d also insisted he not be cremated, and he didn’t want to be put in a wooden box placed in a field of plowed earth, memorialized by an etched gravestone: ‘Here Lies Matsya Merman – Rest In Peace – We Loved You Well.’
Cara must cook him after he died, and to make of his form – the strange-looking fish form – a wondrous feast. If she would do that, he promised he would be back, the magic would work, the spell would hold true, he’d return to life and rise from the depths of the sea as a merman.
She lifted the knife. An image of a cathedral rose – staunch, forbidding, filled with numberless worshippers. The walls of stone tumbled sideways, cracking open as the sea flooded through them. Marble statuary punctured stained glass windows, burnished pews with silent people upended and a final crashing ring of a church bell dropped to a whispered delicate plea to spirits unseen.
The tip of her knife touched his gills, lightly.
Surely he was a fish, just a fish. But just as surely, he was a man – a human man. And one she knew very well. Her knife rose in the air. She breathed. The knife gleamed.
A wind rose over the boatyard. Rigging clanged viciously against the masts of the boats. Above the battering noise Cara thought she heard the sound of a conch shell being blown. First there was one, then there were more, the music of an orchestra of conch shells rose.
She opened the hatch and looked out over the water. It was filled with female heads bobbing up and down, their flowing long golden hair almost covering the surface where they swam.
“What are you doing here?” she screamed out through the fracas of the storm.
The music of the conch shells stopped. A voice spoke directly into Cara’s mind as she stared at the mermaids and they gazed impassively back at her.
“You will have a child,” the voice said, a light, gentle female voice. “The rest of it . . . the story about cooking him, the magic it would create to bring him back . . . it was all lies. He tells stories, just as he sings. To seduce. He is the Encantado.”
“You will have a child,” the voice said. “And then, the magic will start. It will not be as you expected, nothing will be as you expected, but in a way, yes, you will see him again.”
The golden heads of the mermaids then turned away, swimming together out over the cloud-tossed sea.
“By the way,” she heard in a delicate buzz at the back of her mind, “He was 3,568 years old. That is many years, even for our kind.”
Cara watched the wave of flowing jewel-tones, their fins flashing, steel-like tails beating against the harsh waves. Then the winds disappeared, the boat settled. They were gone. All was silent. Two seagulls flew to perch just a few feet away from Cara as she stared out over the sea, where there was nothing. She placed her hand on her lower stomach, and the gull’s black eyes snapped and their beaks opened. They were laughing.
Cara retreated down the ladder to the cabin, slamming the hatch shut with all her strength. Go ahead, laugh, you silly gulls, she thought.
Back in the tiny galley, Cara lifted her knife. With professional ease born of having cleaned many fish for many meals, she started to get to work. First she gutted him with a small sharp knife. Chocolate, she thought. I’ve never known fish innards to smell like chocolate before. The scent was almost overpowering. Then, there in the recess between his liver and intestines, she saw a gleam. Pushing the mess aside, she stopped in shock. It was another golden conch shell, matching the one still secured around her neck. She pulled it out and set it aside. It sat there enshrined in the blood red of liver and his inner body juices.
Changing knives, she then filleted the huge ugly fish – his eyes still open, yet unseeing.
She put down that knife then picked up another. With her heavy cleaver she removed his head from his frame with three strong whacks then set it off to the side. Lifting his backbone and frame off the table, she broke it into four pieces. The bones were as sharp as steel needles, pricking her hands, drawing blood. She threw his frame and bones onto the pile on top of his head. The two large fillets she cut in half. The meat of the fillets was opalescent, with a strong aroma of dying roses and sweat.
Pulling the messy pile of bones, meat and unseeing head toward her and into her arms she clumsily climbed the ladder to the hatch. She stopped then turned back to take the golden shell covered in blood from the table, piling it into the wet gathering of flesh threatening to escape her grasp, then she pushed the hatch open with one sticky hand, dropping some of the fish as she did. Moving quickly to the side of the boat, she tossed the pieces of Matsya out into the chilly blue-black water.
The two seagulls watched from the stern, fluffing their feathers and staring at her, their grim cake-batter faces unmoving.
“You hungry, guys?” Cara called out to them. “Here, have some sushi!”
She tore the golden conch shell on its seaweed chain off her neck and threw it into the water and watched as it disappeared, blending into the chunks of fish and bone, glinting as it danced slowly down into the impermeable darkness.
# # #
As she floated now in the heat of her bath, in her apartment on shore far away from the ocean, she placed the palms of both hands on her swelling stomach and thought of the child soon to arrive, and she remembered it all. “Cold-blooded,” she thought. “Yes. I don’t know why I didn’t see it.”
When the child was born she named her Maya, and she taught her to make the most delicious bouillabaisse the world had ever tasted, from every kind of fish in the sea, and as they sat together at the table to eat, she would always say, “This reminds me of your father.” And not a drop of the rich broth was ever left in the bowl.
Karen Resta is a writer who believes in fairy tales and in the power of food, not necessarily in that order. She lives in and writes from a small Appalachian town, but has always been a native New Yorker and apparently always will be.
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and aspiring photographer. Her work has appeared in various journals, online and print, as well as several anthologies. She blogs about the creative life at http://wwwonewriter.blogspot.com.