Saturday, 30 March 2013

There Goes the Fear by Ysabelle Cheung

Read by Ann-Marie Taaffe

As it turns out, the Men aren’t afraid of us anymore. Mischa swam up to the surface last week, hoping to tear off the white fat of a shoulder or knee ligament for the water babies, but the Men were prepared: they used the grey butts of their weapons to blind her and then dragged her onto their boat. They tortured her and shot her three times in the mouth and then dumped her body on the rocks. As a warning to the rest of us.

Our seaguards brought her back to the deep from the breakwaters where her fins had shredded to tissue on the rocks. Her lavender hair was sticky over her beautiful aquiline nose, which was broken in three places. This was the first time in our ten thousand year history that a mermaid had been murdered by Man.

The body went straight to the necropsy department. My friend Lexi got the call as she was picking anemone for surgical gauze. As a trainee she had only dealt with de-finned sharks and choked dolphins and fish necklaced with plastic rings. She asked me to go with her. Neither of us had seen a dead mermaid before. 

It was only meant to be two of us but suddenly the whole dorm caught wind of the situation and we all crowded into the cave. Some of the girls were chewing on the kelp balls Mischa had made before she left, eyes a triangular sadness as their teeth sank into the green. Someone's fat hump was on my tail and my dorsal muscles kept twitching like there were tiny electric shocks pulsing through them.

Lexi had splayed open poor Mischa’s breasts and tail. Her grey heart floated some few inches above the precise incision, attached in a shrivelled map of veins to her body.

“Why do you have to check?” I asked.

“They just wanted me to.” Lexi gently turned over the floating heart and settled it back into the flesh, pulling out a spongy lung. They. The seaguards. Mischa’s face popped with purple bulges. Nothing heals in this salt water. Huge fluid-filled sacs hung from her sockets: the bubble-eyed mermaid. The entire bottom half of her face was missing. Worst of all was her thick tail, now flaked like a splintered coral root, some parts so grated that bone was shining through. All the girls shivered and moaned and stroked their own flawless skin.

It’s all that slut Jeanine’s fault. Only Lexi and I know – and we aren’t meant to tell – that she was with that Man the morning before she disappeared. She swam back to us after, shiny wet legs morphing into tail again as she pulled us aside, whispering: “I did it”. Her eyes liquid with ecstasy. I wrenched myself out of her grasp, desperate to get away from the Man that was emanating from her pale body.

“It?” Lexi trembled.

Jeanine told us that she first saw the Man underwater. His ship had been burning. The Men flung themselves overboard as the water turned violent.

She hadn't dared to break the surface then. She was just a few metres below, watching in terror as thick oiled boots slammed their way into the water, hairy arms flailing. They dropped around her like rocks.

Jeanine didn't know why she chose that Man to save. His lip was torn and he had an ugly indent on his left cheek, a colourless scar. But she drew him up and out of the waters while the other Men sank further into the inky oblivion of the sea.

She piled up his limbs on the beach and left him there, salt drooling from his mouth. The next morning, she broke the surface again and stepped out of the sea for the first time. Her fins became legs and she fell. He was waiting for her on the beach.

Then he bedded her. Or she bedded him.

Jeanine told us that when she was with the Man, she kept feeling her legs wanting to slip back together and her calves would join to form the caudal fin, then it’d be back to being calves and feet, in a flash. His legs were covered in hot slime, she told us, and once he opened his eyes and saw her transform. That was when he stopped. She threw herself off the beach, hair like a trailing flame, and swam back to us.

Mermaids aren’t supposed to have sex. We aren’t like selkies who are both human and seal – we are predominantly fish creatures. We have inbuilt principal male and female sexual organs in order to reproduce asexually. We have slits to lay eggs in the seaweed forests.

“You have to kill him,” I said. “Or eat him whole. He’ll tell them all.”

Jeanine wasn’t stupid. The next morning, when she didn’t come back down to the deep I knew she had gone. If she had stayed everyone would have eventually figured out that she was a whore, that she had slept with a Man.

The Men had been easy enough to fool, they with their sprawling nets and wooden boats and modern science. They think they’ve seen it all at Weeki Wachi. Creatures of the sea can’t sing, save for the dolphins who harp in their rubbery squeals. We are silent, moving dark things in the water, voluptuous in our buttery white skin. The men tell themselves that what they hear in their strange dreams are the far away sky calls of gulls circling above.

We don’t take bodies as a rule of thumb. The Men return to the shore proudly rolling back a sleeve or hem to show off raw ‘shark’ lacerations while we drag the gnawed limbs back down to the deep.

They have trouble telling fin from fin, fish from fish. Surprise is their weakness. They are never prepared for it, the milk-skinned, indigo-eyed faces rising out of the water, flapping great wet tails, dipping in and out between sharks and dolphins and the white foam on the waves. They would tell the other Men of their fear – don’t go out too far – never realising that what to fear wasn’t the miles of open sea, but the mistake of a drunken wintry arm dangling off the side of the boat, knocking buoys in the water.

We hadn’t told anyone about Jean. But when Mischa came back with bullets in her face all the girls knew that the Men had gotten over their fear.

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