The Making of Mermaids
Standing at water’s edge, ankle deep into the serpentine sea, I soon cannot feel the bleary pulse of my toes. I know it is still there, but the crisp of the water hides it deep within its own locket and I lose my specifics in its glimmer. The waves, of gentle period and gentle rise, are perniciously gentle today. Even with the water’s crooning temperature, I can make it far enough out that coming back will not be a concern. I will be a spot on the waves a moment, arms and legs lazily windmilling the water, and then I will lapse recompensed beneath. I will transform.
Feet to fin, lungs to gills, skin to scale, commitment to capture.
It has been months since my husband was taken to sea by the mermaid. I do not think I will see him when I join the clan. By now, he has gone around the tip of our lands and to foreign coasts; or out into the deeper water where he can pride in the dark and slip caustically through the pressure made of the weight shouldered by an unattached ocean. His mermaid captor no doubt will be with him, a trail of unwanted oxygen, a sensuous fan of seaweed, an offer of crustacean delights.
Or he is drowned. And she has gone to another.
I do not think poorly of her. He would fish, suspended in the dull mechanism of his life, and tell me of what he had seen at only the edge of the eye, obscured as the sun dropped to drive the fishermen in. A presence; perhaps a protection. Later, he began to hear the song: the wail lifted barely at wave top, a rhythm that melded with his net, that melded with the oars, that melded at last with the unconscious patter of his salting heart.
He did not grow cold to me. I was his wife, the love he had when he was balanced, when he did not have to lean into ocean swell. I was four walls, the process of making his fish commercial, the everyday exasperation of respiration and unbroken gravity. I kept him while he was the automaton of his own upkeep.
But he had been raised a fisherman. The ocean would hold him. His catch was a gift of the sea. Into his existence there was placed the magical.
I was the practical end of his magical day. When I held the strength of his desires, there would always be the binary of the waves, the churning of the shallow. I would come up for air too often, and look to the dry as though it were a superior condition.
He believed in me less each day, and I could feel the hard edges of him growing briny.
When he finally saw the full license of her, he came to me to describe his opulent mermaid. Others believed, in silence; but he wanted to share, and he could only share his discovery with someone herself becoming a mythical woman. I was waxing, even then a commitment of the shadows. He talked of how at first there was but the back of her, driving the body down, racing below the waves and away from any man’s sight. And then, once, there was the fluke. An emblem: the mark of claiming separateness. Soon the dive became slower. He stopped trying to call to attention the other fishermen, and instead luxuriated alone in the sight. And one day she dove no more, but propped herself in the water and gazed over the whole of the boat, over all the men engaged in dragging sustenance from the sea – but fixed on him: he at the back of the boat, his fingers stilled in their working the greedy magic of the nets.
He began to see her nearly every trip, and nights he would describe her to me, listing her boldness and her features and the baitfish moves she could expose, as his fingers drew incautious circles on the flat of my stomach, or looped unthinking in my hair. He moved his hands as though his fingers hid webbing. His lovemaking, always smelling just short of the shore, now reeked more of deep oceans, of the devilfish and the kraken: a thing of coiling and liquefaction and drifting as the antidote to drift. I could not fear his beak, but neither could I understand it. I was drawn in to where the monsters of the deep break human bone and join worlds together.
And then he was gone. The crew of the boat heard nothing, saw nothing, perceived no distress. There was no noticeable man-weight dragging in the net, tipping the boat; no army of arms and legs thrashing; no cry of imbalance. The sailors looked back to see him in his useful work, and he was gone. Where his feet should be already the water had erased his presence from the bottom of the boat.
Gone. No more. An absence at the back of the fishing craft; an emptiness in the process of needed work; something more for another to do. A clumsiness of air drawn crossly into lungs no longer. A history drawn to the end of its paragraph, with a seraph of oars and nets and fish heads. A story better in construction than in conclusion. A wife unhusbanded.
There is magic in this water. A calling. If I were to wade out until I could walk no further, then swim until I could swim no further, then sing into the waves until my singing were the sound of a net scraping stone, I could then perhaps become like my sister: a legend better in the telling than in the doing, a desire better in the sight than in the holding. I could lure men to my possibilities, their imaginations filled with completing what they do not have the rudder for; with knowing what they do not have the imaginations for; with wanting what they would no longer want upon breathing the understanding of it.
With practice and guile and the learning of my new school, I could bring, like netted market fish, working men to me. Any man who would be long with the sea. I could take them willingly down to their dear drowning, their embrace of the cold heart of water, their final kiss of nothing beyond their own reflected desires. I could leave ever growing legions of others like me unhusbanded: for a while their unapologetic hands would form the rounds of husbands, the explorations of men, the edges of being unfilled. They would learn slowly the terms of their abandonment.
I can make of many women sinful shells to be filled with the sea. I can be the agent of being no longer alone. Come with me. I breech and skim and dive and create whirlpools of emotion. Men fall in feral love with me for no other reason than I am imagined. Men fall in love with me for no purpose beyond proving they might have a special sight and a special need. I feel myself a history of the fluke, of the scale. Fill your emptiness with the craft of making. Come. Breathe the cleansing waters of longing. Be sisters.
Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, Blue Collar Review, and many wonderful places. His latest book of short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his website, kenpoyner.com, and from Amazon. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. They are the parents of four rescue cats, and an energetic fish.