The boat was staggeringly white, floating untouched as it was against its backdrop of old cypress and rich swamp loam. Even the heat seemed to glance right off it, leaving the rest of the slowly decaying landscape to soak up that much more of the punishing sun. The first word that popped into my head was pristine, which seemed absurd given its purpose. Medicinal, I suppose was what they were going for. There were VD clinics back home that had a certain feel; everybody wanted to be healed, but nobody wanted to admit they needed it. The vessel’s proprietor could hardly paint ‘Sin-Eaters Incorporated’ in big black letters on the side and expect anyone to board in broad daylight and full view of the hotel’s shaded veranda. Scrub it bright as clean linen and pitch it like a pleasure cruise, on the other hand, and people in need of its revolutionary advances in moral hygiene queued up just so on the crushed shell walk leading to the dock, eager and ready to pay for passage.
We were almost first in line for tickets, just behind an elderly woman with her two grown children supporting her, her high collar and tight-buttoned cuffs already damp with sweat. Once they unhooked the chain and let us onto the dock, the heels of her boots clicked unsteadily against the wooden planks under her thick skirts. The daughter’s cloche was wilting in the damp heat. The son’s shirt was going limp and rumpled under his waistcoat, sticking to his skin wherever his mother had clutched at his arm.
I wondered which of the trio had initiated this trip. Mother commanding her offspring? The two women trying to protect the treasured only son from his misdeeds? Mother and son locked in a pact to protect the only daughter’s honor? The vice of which I was fondest was my habit of inventing scandalous intrigues for perfect strangers. The vice of which I was here to be rid was...
I supposed it would depend on whom you asked. My mother would say it was coveting my neighbor’s goods, that commandment I always seemed to be breaking. My father had less use for priests. A practical man, if superstitious enough to think this might work—the sort of man who wasn’t sure what good lighting a candle did the dead but would throw salt over his shoulder if he spilled any. It helped that he seemed to think of it as modern-day leechcraft, something that science hadn’t quite caught up to yet but for which there was still a rational explanation. He wanted me to stop stealing. Hard to say whether his greater dread was the law’s arm or the neighbors’ tongues, but either way, here we were, travelling all the way down to Florida to lay low and fix things.
In a way, we were on the lam. It was funny, thinking about it like that. My parents and I in our Sunday best, all hiding out in the half-settled reaches of the tropical swamp until the more metaphorical heat died down. We’d even waited until nightfall to board the train southbound to St. Augustine . All this over a few things pilfered here and there. When a racketeer left town ahead of the Ness gang, it was just him and a suitcase; I’d managed to drag the whole family along.
I picked at the cuffs of my lace gloves—purloined from a Woolworth’s before we’d left New York—and tried not to imagine alligators lurking in the water under the dock.
There had been a stuffed one at the last train station before we’d hit the end of the line, big enough to fascinate and fill with dread all at once. I’d closed my eyes on a world lit up by Mr. Tesla’s miracle filaments and opened them a day later in one filled with gape-mouthed monsters and sideshow magic. My mother had flipped her lid at the sight of it, huge and hideous and right there on the platform, only to be assured by one of the locals that she could see one twice as big and alive to boot for a nickel just down the road. It got a lot harder to dismiss the promises of backwoods hokum with dragons lurking on either side of the road, hissing at the horses and bellowing from the marsh.
The springs seemed too clear for an alligator to hide in, but I couldn’t see any mermaids either, and we’d been assured they were there. My father was staring into the water, dark brows beetled as if doubt was beginning to creep in under hope’s threshold after all. His cousin had sworn to him that this company could do what it promised. His cousin had always been a reliable man, but reliable was hardly infallible.
The slap of scales on water brought everyone on the dock up on point, looking for the source, but the ship’s captain shook his head.
“Just the black bass,” he assured us. “The springs are full of them—they’re why we have the merfolk here.”
“They eat, then?” I asked, curious. For some reason, I’d pictured pretty maids who sat on rocks and sang all day, magical creatures with no baser needs like food or sleep. It seemed foolish now, with the captain watching me, right up there with the time I’d suddenly realized that the saints in the cathedral windows had been real people once and weren’t just figures out of a story. Of course the mermaids had to eat something.
The captain nodded slowly, weighing his words. “Fish, mostly. If they smile at you, you’ll be able to see it in their teeth—they’re pointed like a cat’s.”
“They smile?” I was surprised at that. The way the barkers at the station had talked about them, a visit to the mermaids to wipe your slate clean was a solemn, vaguely mystical affair.
“They pick up a few things from watching people. They’re clever enough, where food and silver’s concerned.”
He climbed aboard before I could ask any more questions, and the old woman’s son cast a worried look at the water. My mother fanned herself and held my hand more tightly as we waited for our turn to be escorted to the white-painted wooden benches lining the interior of the boat. It was a floating box, from the outside. Flat bottom that was half glass, flat top that was half cloth, walls that were half window. It crouched there on the water, just waiting to sink once we were all aboard.
It was hard not to imagine a surge of cold water clawing at our ankles, soaking our clothes, dragging us down. Fish, mostly. Would a human being be a bit of welcome variety, if it helpfully made its way into the water of its own accord?
Back home we’d gone to a sideshow that had a diorama done up life-sized and automated, full of stuffed fish with teeth like knives posed in the middle of attacking a stuffed cow that was half skeleton. The fish had been outfitted with miniaturized motors to make their jaws open and close, and the little click every time their teeth snapped together had raised the hair on the back of my neck. My mother had dragged me away from it, scolding me for believing such absurd lies. A week ago, she’d have said the same thing about a stuffed alligator.
One of the dockhands must have seen me staring. “The glass is thick, miss. Heavy.” He tipped his hat as he imparted that bit of wisdom. “It won’t break for anything short of a sledgehammer, and the weight keeps it on an even keel, even with the negligible draft.”
The deck felt strange under my feet when he walked us aboard, and a thrill ran up my spine. If we fell through the glass, I thought that we might not drown at all but keep falling and falling through the clear water until we struck the bottom as surely as if we’d leapt from a rooftop. It made me think of the carriage they’d exhibited at the State Fair the month before last, all kitted out with magnets so that it floated on nothing at all when they turned on the juice.
The wave of the future, the inventor had said. Imagine a trolleycar that can deliver groceries right to your doorstep while the milk’s still cold and the bread’s still hot! Compatible with all existing streetcar lines!
The conductor joined us once the benches were full. He was dressed in bright white from top to toe, a perfect match for the boat and a sharp contrast to the rest of us. We passengers had dressed as gaily as we could afford, all done up in our finest and as united in our common goal of giving up sin as any revivalists or teetotalers. The conductor’s eyes glittered when he spoke, and he held a porcelain plate full of silver coins that he rattled softly as he passed from one person to the next, urging us to pick one.
“Whichever calls to you, there’s a coin for every ailment!”
He said that to me, with a wink and a smile. My father waved the plate away and my mother crossed herself against it. Already blameless, I supposed, with nothing to confess. The mermaids were like priests, weren’t they? Like priests, except the mermaids didn’t care if a person was sorry or not, so long as they were offering something the mermaids wanted in return. I took three pieces, my own plus the two my parents had refused. It seemed like a good idea to have something else up my sleeve in case I botched the first try, and of course it wasn’t like my light fingers were the only complaints against my character.
Would I give three mermaids one apiece, or would one mermaid take all three? I shucked my gloves and slipped them into my pocket, holding the silver against bare skin. It felt cool in the heat, as if it was drawing something from me already. The edge of the first coin bit into the side of my thumb, and I tried to picture the creature that would take it in exchange for the burden of whatever gangrenous rot of which I wished to be relieved. A girl like myself, I decided. A girl like myself, but with no heart of her own and a fishtail instead of legs. A girl who could do as she pleased.
“Now, folks.” The conductor waited to continue until our attention was on him, when he’d made a full circuit of the cabin and come to the front, alone. “What you have in your hands is not silver but a ticket to a better life. Whatever you took from the plate, hold it tight and think hard on what you want the mermaids to carry away with them. They are not, unfortunately, clever creatures. Their lack of human minds is what frees them from malice, from cruelty, from vice of all kinds. They will not suffer for the sin they subsume, because they have no capacity to suffer in the way a man might. The naturally clarified water fortifies their constitutions in the same way exposure to polluted, poisonous air weakens and corrupts ours.”
He cleared his throat and looked around, making sure we were all paying attention and that we seemed understand him. Directly behind his head, like a halo, was a hand-painted sign in looping gold letters: “No refunds.”
“For the same reason they can cleanse you, they can’t interpolate what you mean if you’re unclear. You must be forceful, and direct, when you imagine those qualities you want to give them along with the coin. You must be focused as the dot of sunlight concentrated by a magnifying glass. It must be perfect, or they’ll only take muddy intentions of change, a bit of regret, and a patina of guilt.” He went through the assembly, making eye contact with each of us in turn, his face stern. “Or worse yet, they may carry your aspirations of improvement with them to the cold silent depths, and then where will you be?”
At peace, I thought, then was immediately ashamed of myself.
I shielded my eyes. The sun was glittering off the water, off the boat, off my pretty dress. I hadn’t noticed the boat pulling away from the dock, but we were drifting on the open water of the springs now. I was bathed in light, in the brightness of the sky and its reflection. No magnifying glass in sight, only my scattered desires. I held one coin in my palm and imagined the overwhelming impulse that came right before I grabbed something that didn’t belong to me and stuffed it in my pockets. Clear as crystal, clear as the water under the boat. The other two I’d save for the cringing fear of discovery and the soft warmth at a pretty boy’s smile, two weaknesses I could do without if I wanted to make something of myself.
I took my cue from the young couple closer to the prow, kneeling on the bench and leaning halfway out of the window, one hand braced on the sill and the other clutching the coin. A cloud passing over the sun let me see again. Below us in the water, something that might have been either mermaid or alligator was circling lazily, getting closer with every loop of the spiral. It seemed fitting that the choice was between redemption and death, and we wouldn’t know which until it was probably too late to do anything about it.
Then it paused and twisted upright, and dark hair blossomed around it like a drop of ink in a glass of water. My heart thumped in my chest, each beat seeming to say, “Real, real, real.”
I hadn’t believed before, it seemed. Not truly. My mind skipped back to the nymph on the rocks, combing her hair with a shell and singing in the moonlight.
My mother quietly murmured a prayer behind me, and I could hear her rosary beads ticking against each other as they moved through her fingers. I’d given her the rosary as a birthday gift. I’d stolen it from a pawn shop on a dare. The other girls had thought I was brave, and their belief had made it real for a full week before the feeling wore off. I’d dreamed of learning to type, picking up shorthand, earning a secretary’s salary, moving into one of the ladies’ boarding houses where you could do as you pleased so long as it didn’t involve bringing men home, as though I could pilfer myself a whole new life.
Turns out that was the sort of thing a body had to pay silver for.
More shadows were circling now, sleek shapes dark against the sandy bottom. I focused on the one I thought of as mine. My mermaid, coming for my silver, cleansing my sins. She seemed to sense it, too, growing clearer and closer and homing in on me. I clenched the silver in my fist when I saw her features. Not precisely, not yet, but any moment now— Already I could make out a nose, eyes, a mouth.
Then she breached the surface and blinked at me with golden eyes. Her pupils weren’t quite perfectly round, and a milk-film caul snapped shut over them before her true eyelids fluttered. Her features were too sharp, like a woman’s but thrown into an unnatural relief. Her skin was scribbled all over with faint scalloped lines, row after row that gave her a dappled look like she was still waiting in shadow even now in the sunlight.
It was horrible, but I couldn’t stop looking. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t move.
She smiled when her eyes focused on my fist. Use would have taught her to expect silver; she didn’t need to see it to know it was there. She reached up the side of the boat with webbed, sharp-clawed hands.
Her skin was cold and wet when she touched mine. The pads of her fingers were tough, like an animal’s. She tugged at my fingers, trying to loosen them, and I came back to myself enough to let go. She plucked the silver from my hand delicately and looked pleased with her prize. No one seemed to know what the mermaids did with the silver or why they wanted it, only that they would happily take whatever came with it. After the space of a held breath, she looked back up at me and frowned, her sharp little fox-face crinkling up in confusion. She reached up again, tentatively, and this time her hand wrapped around my wrist.
Whatever she might have intended, my father was faster. Perhaps he’d expected some mischief or wrong turn on my part, or maybe some last spark of paternal instinct had warned him, but he yanked me back by my other arm before the mermaid had the chance to get a good hold on me. My hand bloomed hot and bright with pain.
My mother screaming, and the twist of my ankle when I came off the bench too hard and quick to keep my feet, barely registered. I found myself flat on my belly on the glass bottom of the boat, hand pressed against the cold pane as blood welled up from three scratches gouged deep into the back of it. My mermaid had followed and stared back at me from the other side of the glass, her eyes forlorn and her mouth working, cat’s teeth snapping soundlessly together. She pressed her hand to the glass in a mirror of mine, swam away with a flick of her tail, then returned to repeat the gesture.
My father hauled me up by the shoulder and held me upright against his chest. The conductor stared at me, his face as pale now as his suit. The elderly woman with her two grown children reached into her clutch and offered me a handkerchief. It didn’t occur to me what for until I glanced down and saw my hand still bleeding.
I mumbled my thanks and bound the torn skin as best I could, awkwardly tying the cloth tight. The ship lurched under us as the captain turned back toward the dock, trading unreadable glances with the conductor as we went. I sat down on the bench and listened to him quietly assuring the other passengers that this was the first time anything of this nature had ever occurred in his long tenure as conductor, that mermaids were perfectly safe but of course still wild, that he was sure this was simply an accident, a bit of exuberance or innocent imitation on the mermaid’s part or perhaps clumsiness on mine.
It wasn’t as loud in my ears as my mother’s frightened weeping or my father’s tight-jawed entreaties for her to be quiet and not make a scene. If we’d been alone I might have asked them if it was the blood, the public failure of my redemption, or the simple shock of mermaids being real. As it was, I imagined my mother’s horror at seeing her beloved daughter set upon by a monstrous animal, and I wrapped the idea around myself like another sort of bandage.
We were last off the boat when it docked, everyone else rushing ahead as soon as the conductor seemed disinclined to stop them. Once the cabin was cleared, I got to my feet, my father steadying me and me steadying my mother. The conductor was staring at the bloody handprint I’d left on the glass, then turned away from the gruesome mark when he caught me watching him. He handed my mother and me over to the dockhand—the kind one who’d assured me the boat wouldn’t sink—and kept my father back to issue a sweat-mopping promise that the mermaid had meant me no harm. The company would happily arrange for a doctor to see to my hand in return for our agreement to overlook this little mishap in any future conversations we might have about our time at the springs. My father agreed immediately; he was in no mood to confess the purpose of our visit to anyone, eager to have my wounds tended, and without the cash to pay for a doctor himself.
The doctor they produced before the hour was up daubed my hand with a tincture of mandrake, declared me a brave girl, and promised my mother that it was barely more than a few scratches. The ankle was less bothersome, and for that he prescribed rest, elevation of the limb whenever possible, and that I confine myself to slippers for the next few days. He then pulled my father aside and issued strict instructions on changing the wound’s dressing and who to contact if any further symptoms developed. He was confident, but of course any scratches from a wild animal were to be treated with caution.
I sat by the window with my foot on an ottoman, gnawing on my thumbnail and glowering out at the water. I couldn’t help wondering how wild the mermaid had really been. Were they in the habit of looking up through the bottom of the boat? Mimicking motion from the other side of the glass? The locals would surely have noticed them slithering onto the muddy banks and singing, but there were a thousand other things that might have been missed over the years. There was no margin in being over-careful about warning tourists about local dangers, if it came down to it—some there-and-gone-again phantom of a traveler might not weigh as heavy on the scale as money in their pockets.
My mother waited until my father was showing the doctor out to descend on me, her face chalky and her fist white-knuckled around the rosary and her demand for my attention absolute.
“What did you do?” It came out as a low, keening growl, the kind I’d have expected from a fear-angered cat. She’d never spoken to me that way before, not even when she’d found that first bit of evidence against me tucked away in the back of my dresser, and it shocked me as sure as if I’d grabbed a live wire.
I stared at her, slack-tongued. I’d gotten quicker with lies and righteous indignation, quicker with a good bluff and a sleight of hand, as they’d grown more suspicious. Up until her question, though, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I might have something to answer for; that it had been anything other than what the conductor said: a freak occurrence.
Some instinct had simply accepted that the mermaids sometimes bit and scratched, and part of the conductor’s job was to keep it from happening when he could and pretend horror at it when he couldn’t. Even feeding peanuts to the squirrels in the park had its risks; plump, tame things that they were, they still occasionally ran up a sleeve or bit through a glove. A few scratches from something sharing the water with alligators that could swallow a deer whole was a negligible battle wound, wasn’t it? People came out of speakeasies with worse, and that was from other humans.
I felt around in my mouth for an answer, the tip of my tongue coming to rest against the back of my teeth. Had I done something? Been a trifle slow with the silver, maybe, but she hadn’t seemed to mind. It had been one of the coins the conductor had given me, too; the two left in my pocket were were a testament to my uncharacteristic bout of rule-following, with the third doubtless already added to the mermaid’s hoard. I’d held onto my thoughts of stealing firm and tight until the mermaid had surfaced and looked at me with those golden fish-eyes of hers.
I tested the edge of that thought the way I’d tested the edge of the coin. I’d seen the mermaid, and I’d thought of mermaids. Storybook mermaids who frolicked in the waves and lolled about being pretty all day. Which had been foolish, certainly, but then again so was handing over our life savings to a floating carnival barker promising we could wish away our worst impulses. I certainly hadn’t given the mermaid the idea that she was a mermaid along with the silver coin; she’d got either my predilection for things that weren’t mine or nothing more than a shiny metal disk.
I pressed my injured hand to my breast and used the sudden throb to give my mother a few fat tears and a good sniffle. “What you asked me to do, and what the conductor told me to do, and that’s it.”
That took the wind out of her sails a bit, and she retreated to their bedroom to weep and pray in earnest. My father took the opportunity to disappear completely, and I wondered what rotgut liquor a person could get in this hotel. The temperance patrols had made it difficult to find good hooch up in New York without knowing somebody, but down here it seemed not even the Revenuers were liable to get very far before they got stuck in the mud. If a place couldn’t be bothered to pave their roads or fence their cattle, it likely couldn’t be bothered to smash up its stills. If he couldn’t have a law-abiding daughter, he could at least forget his troubles for a few hours.
I lingered by the window until the sun started to set. The fact that it was later here than it was at home added to my sense that we’d found a place where time behaved strangely. My sister would be drawing the curtains on a full-dark sky now, and here I was, sitting in the thick amber light of a sun only just beginning its descent.
I dragged the chair closer to the window for a better view once the sunset began in earnest. The water was glorious, just as one of the hotel’s maids had promised. It took the dying sun’s colors and threw them back at it, warped and bent but not the least bit muddled. Where the surface rippled or curdled, the current butting up against some unseen obstacle, the light formed something close to a path.
I watched it all with my chin resting on the heel of my good hand, dreaming of what it would be like to stay. Would I even want the thrill that coursed through me when I laid hands on someone else’s treasures if I knew a predator the size of an automobile could be right under me any time I stepped onto a dock? Would I tremble at the thought of being caught red-handed with this wicked heat surrounding me? Would I even be that remarkable here, in this place operated by and for the barely respectable? Half the people in Miami were supposedly on the run from something; I’d hardly raise an eyebrow.
I watched until the light gave way to dark, spinning out my idle dreams of a different life. No mother throwing a priest’s words in my face at the dinner table, no father raising a hand in disappointment more than anger, no treacherous impulses breaking the surface at the worst of times. When the singing started, I thought I might have slipped, finally, into a full sleep and begun dreaming in earnest.
A careless bump against my injured hand cured me of that illusion; I was awake, and very much so. The singing was real.
Or rather, the sound was real. There was no true melody to it, no words or refrains—I had imagined that part of it. A mournful, rhythmic call carried across the water and hung heavily over it like the curtains of moss draped from the trees’ branches.
I got to my feet and padded softly onto the veranda in the little cloth slippers a maid had brought on the doctor’s orders. A few of the dockhands were gathered farther down the bank, a worried-looking knot of young men casting about for the source of the music. From their expressions and the nervous wave of their hands as they talked, I could guess this wasn’t an everyday occurrence. I headed away from them, up the path and onto the boardwalk. The way the sound undulated and echoed made it hard to track, but I thought it rang stronger in that direction.
My footsteps sounded hollow on the boards, my attempts at treading lightly made ungainly by the twinge in my ankle and the unsure fit of the slippers. The music grew louder, then cut off abruptly with the sound, familiar by now, of scales striking water—the black bass again. The sudden, laughable thought that it was the fish singing had me clutching my hand to my mouth to stifle a giggle. Whales sang, didn’t they? Why not fish?
I sat down on the walk and let my feet dangle over the edge, above the water and cool in the breeze. I was relieved and disappointed at once, my nerves frayed as broken bowstrings. What mystery had I imagined I’d be solving by coming out here? What had I even thought I’d find? A beautiful sunset in a strange land full of strange things, and that was all. If there’d been more to see, there’d have been someone at the crossroads offering a better look at it for a dime a gander. I was convinced of that until a cold, wet hand wrapped around my ankle and pulled, hard.
I tried to jerk my foot free. I wound up on my hands and knees in the mud, face to face with— My mermaid. She blinked at me, those golden eyes doleful, then took me by the hand and tried to coax me into the water. When I hesitated, she opened her mouth full of sharp little teeth and wailed, the same fluting dirge that had drawn me down the boardwalk in the first place.
“You can sing,” I said, dumbly. Worry stole over me like a shadow on the water that my mother had been right, that I’d done something. “Could you always sing?”
It was a foolish question; she tugged at my wrist and wriggled her way deeper into the water, her cries taking on a distinctly petulant edge. I gently pried her off and pushed myself up into a crouch.
I was passably confident when it came to swimming, and that was in the ocean with its strange and hungry currents. But I wasn’t dressed for it, and I certainly wasn’t going anywhere with an animal that seemed less and less an animal with each passing moment. I tried to collect myself, and I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief the elderly woman had given me, stained with blood but still clean enough to wipe the mud off my hands.
My fingers brushed against one of the coins I hadn’t had the chance to give instead, and I paused. If this was something I’d done, then it was something I could fix.
I clenched my fist around the silver and thought hard of mermaids who could speak with human tongues, willing that idea into the metal. I stretched out my hand and held my breath, loosening my fingers just like I had last time, when she’d taken the bait. This time, she took it and held it up in the fading light to examine it before she turned and bolted back into the water. The short, spiny fins where her thighs would have been fanned out and dug into the soft shore, driving her forward even as she used her arms to launch herself back into the shadows of the deeper water.
I clambered gracelessly onto the boardwalk. It was almost but not quite too high for me to make it by myself from a squelching, muddy start, and by the time I was done, my dress was a ruin and I was a wreck. Fair enough price to pay for the certainty that the conductor’s promise of a painless moral cleansing had been as much a sham as my desire to be cleansed. I limped back to the hotel, the idea of redemption so much silt on my skin and muck under my nails.
My mother’s hysterics were dismissed with the simple explanation: “I fell.”
My father’s drunken taciturnness made a simple answer to my mother’s appeal: “See to her, then.”
Not that I needed seeing to. It was a simple thing to wash off a bit of mud, reapply the tincture and fresh bandages, and pull on a clean nightdress. I tasked my mother with getting a warm poultice from the maids, then fell asleep before it arrived.
I don’t know if the mermaids sang all night, or if exhaustion and mandrake combined to make my dreams echo with their chorus, but when I woke at dawn it was to nothing more sinister or esoteric than the chattering of resident birds greeting the sun. The ache running from head to toe, with special attention to the fiery heat limning the back of my hand, told me the previous day hadn’t all been one long feverous vision. My father called the doctor back, who scolded me about not resting but said I was otherwise no worse for the wear.
I was too warm, but I was no warmer than anything I touched, than the blood-hot air itself. Once the sun was up, the only thing cool in the whole damned place was the water, and so that’s where I went.
My mother fussed over the lack of bathing costumes, but I figured that if my dress was already ruined, what was the harm? The boat hadn’t gone out this morning and was tied up at the dock like a floating coffin waiting for a corpse; she could hardly complain that I’d have an audience.
The section of the spring that the hotel had fenced off with thick-roped nets—topped with buoys and terminating with stone weights, proof against alligators provided they didn’t get out of the water and walk around it—was barely big enough to swim in, and I was tired and irritable enough that wading was all I could manage anyway. A frantic flap of too-large wings across the spring made me look up. In among the cypress knees, in the deep shade of the trees, a mermaid stared at me. The egret she’d killed was dangling from her mouth by its throat, too-red blood staining its snow-white feathers. She dove suddenly, smoothly, her tail flicking once at the surface, then disappearing.
I shivered and thought of how likely the fence was to present any serious obstacle to a mermaid’s clever hands and powerful tail.
I climbed out of the water and went inside. My resolve lasted all of three hours before the heat drove me back out onto the veranda, where I dozed fitfully in a wicker chair. It was easy enough to blame the suffocating warmth for my restlessness, but every errant splash or murmur roused me with the inexplicable and frustrated conviction that my mermaid had returned. It was childish, expecting—wanting—her to be there when I opened my eyes and looked out at the springs. I’d paid her good coin to go away, hadn’t I? I’d paid good coin, and I didn’t regret it one little bit, which was why every twinge in my hand and drop of sweat beading on my skin made me want to cry angry tears as I drifted off again, waiting for the sun to stain the clouds with the color of blood and ripe fruit.
The song this time was something very close to words, and the melody had every local locked in worried conference with one another as far away from guests and visitors as they could manage. I half-woke, and it seemed that their faces were too much like the mermaids’, sharp and shadowed, and that they smiled with mouths full of small, wicked teeth as they whispered together and stared at me with strange eyes.
The illusion broke once I roused myself, almost. It felt like their gazes came back to me too often, and it made me wonder which of them had been charged with wiping my blood off the boat’s deck. It seemed impossible for them to know the specifics of why we’d come here, but it was equally impossible for them not to know the generalities. People didn’t give coins to the mermaids for no reason. People didn’t take three coins for fun. All the crew had seen it, and surely as they ate and drank and slept and breathed, they shared those lives with friends and lovers and enemies right here, present and knowing and watching me through narrowed eyes.
The general unease made it easy for me to slip away, back down the boardwalk. The guests didn’t notice me leaving, and the staff weren’t in a mood to stop me. Everyone had better things to worry about than a fresh-minted invalid taking an evening stroll.
It seemed silly to think the mermaid would be there again, in that same place, but between the sweat plastering my dress to my skin and the unbearable itching of the scratches on my hand, I couldn’t bear to sit still and listen to mermaids sing and the locals whisper. The last coin felt like it was burning a hole in my pocket, anyway. If she was there, I could give it to her and be done with the whole affair, let go of the curdling hopes my parents held out for me.
The song grew clearer as I grew closer, and I turned the gentle curve of the walk to find the mermaid on the shore, her beautiful, terrible tail curled around her and her eyes mournful. She let the music taper off and reached out her arms.
“Come,” she said, her voice smooth and slick and cool as her skin. “Come.”
“I can’t,” I lied. I wasn’t going to, because there were limits to my recklessness after all. “I can’t swim that well.”
She pushed out her bottom lip, trying to pout, and patted the bank next to her. “Come!”
I lowered myself down from the boardwalk carefully, going easy on my sore ankle, and stopped when I was just out of grabbing distance, in case she tried a repeat of yesterday.
“What do you want?” I asked. I had one coin left—I could do something for her.
She touched her hand to her chest, then reached out to me again. I came closer, slowly, ready to bolt if she lunged. Instead, she put her clammy hand on my chest, over my heart, and stared at it while she felt it beating. She licked her lips, then looked into my eyes, and I couldn’t read people on a good day but I’d never needed a choir of angels for it, either. She dropped her hand to my wrist and put my palm over her heart.
I reached into my pocket with my free hand. If I’d given her the power to talk, surely I could give her the power to love, too. I put everything I knew of it into an image of it, like I could stamp the blank face of the coin with an indelible stain of desire and thrill and want and need and tenderness. When I held it out to her, she pressed both of my hands to her heart before she took the coin.
Her return to the water was more dignified this time. My return to the boardwalk was less so, but I managed to brush enough of the muck off that I could slip back into the hotel with no one much the wiser. My father returned to the room later that night with a drawn face and troubled eyes to announce that he didn’t like how the staff and the dockhands were, as he put it, conspiring.
“This place,” he said, quietly enough they wouldn’t hear. “They believe things they shouldn’t. This isn’t science—it’s not medicine. It’s magic.”
He stopped short of witchcraft, knowing the effect that word would have on my mother. We were to leave at daybreak. We were to say nothing, except that we’d decided to cut the trip short. We couldn’t exactly cart our luggage the ten miles to the train station by hand; if we gave offense and no one deigned to take us before our appointed time, we’d be trapped here.
I wanted to tell him not to worry himself over it, that the locals would doubtless be thrilled to see the back of us. They’d been jumpy enough about my mermaid scratching me. They would probably put two and two together about the singing that had started up right after my attack, given half a chance, and put us on the wagon out of town whether we were keen on going or not.
I packed my things, and shutting the suitcase felt like putting the lid down on a casket. I closed my eyes and thought about the long, loud, uncomfortable train ride home. Back to the cold, back to the dark. Back to the accusing stares and wagging tongues without even the small cushion of superstition or fear to it. Whatever the people here might be saying about me, it at least didn’t start with, “I always knew she’d turn out like this.”
It was the thought of never seeing my mermaid again that brought tears—real ones this time, not the seized opportunity of a careless bump against my hand. I’d never imagined anything like her, and I knew in my guts that she was the sort of beautiful I’d never see again. I turned down the lamps and sneaked out. I only wanted one last look, and what my parents didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
I went down to the dock and waited in the moonlight, keeping as still as I could with the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears and the wind making me shiver in spite of the day’s warmth. The air held it longer here, sealing it into everything like a blanket, but it had to lose its grip sometime.
I tried not to start when a fish breached, followed by the mermaid pursuing it. She didn’t spare a glance for me, and I wondered if that was all I’d get; one distant glimpse. I looked down and found myself locking eyes with my mermaid, her angular face barely submerged, her body stretched out and receding into the shadows below the dock. She stretched out her arms and flicked her tail, righting herself and pushing her head and shoulders out of the water.
She slapped the surface gently, as if she could coax me into the spring. “Come here.”
“I have to go home,” I told her. Could she understand me? I didn’t know. She could speak, sure, but what would my words mean to something like her?
She cooed at me and slapped the water again. “Love me.”
I knelt down on the dock. “I do.”
I even meant it, as much as I could. I’d never forget her, as long as I lived.
“I still have to go home. I can’t stay here.”
Her eyes shifted to something over my shoulder as her lips slid back in a hissing snarl, just as I felt two big, solid hands on my back and heard a whispered, hoarse, “I’m sorry, miss” in my ear.
The push was hard, irresistible, and sudden. I managed to turn it into a clumsy dive, came up sputtering with the shock of the cold, and stared up at the dockhand. It was the one who’d assured me we wouldn’t sink, that the boat was safe. He did look sorry, at least, a fact I only had a moment to register before the mermaid’s arms were around my waist. I sucked in a lungful of air just before she dragged me under.
The water was so cold, and so dark, and my clothes clung and tangled and smothered any thought of saving myself. I hadn’t appreciated, from that brief scratch and those gentle tugs, how powerful the mermaid’s body really was. Her tail beat hard, driving us across the spring, and her arms were like iron around me. Her claws dug into my dress, punching through fabric easily and grazing over my skin. The ribbon binding my hair pulled loose in the drag, and it streamed behind me, a truncated version of hers.
My lungs were burning when we surfaced, and I gasped, ribs heaving. The mermaid held me above the waterline until I began to relax, my panicky need to pull in as much air as I could subsiding as minutes passed and she showed no sign of pulling me under again.
We were too far away from the hotel and the docks to see even the lights from the windows; far too far for me to call for help and expect anything to come of it. The mermaid loosened her grip, taking me by the wrist instead and swimming at a more sedate pace.
It was still cold, though, and by the time she guided me into water shallow enough to wade, my teeth were chattering with it. I staggered onto the shore and let my legs fold under me, grateful for the summer-warm mud under my knees.
The mermaid wriggled up to lie next to me, her tail flicking absently in the water. “Love me.”
“I do,” I assured her, chafing my arms. I still had to go home, though, and that was getting more complicated by the minute.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings. The moon was full, which helped a little, but the shadows that piled up thick as snowdrifts under the cypress trees gave things a strangeness that my eyes slid away from instinctively. A tall, broad pile of shells rose from the darkness less than a stone’s throw away, something about it tugging at my eyes as insistently as the mermaid had my hand.
It was too regular, I decided, a flat mound with evenly sloped edges and a clearly defined border. It looked almost like a cairn. I blinked again, realization landing like an unlooked-for shove between the shoulder blades.
Not shells. Silver coins.
The mermaid followed my eyes, her tail-flicks growing coy. She rolled back into the water, swam to the pile, pawed through it for a moment, then swam back to me. She held out a coin in her closed fist, smiling, and I reached out slowly, ready to duck in case I’d misunderstood the game. I pried her fingers open gently, just as she’d done mine, and took the coin.
“Love me,” she said happily, slapping the water with her tail.
I swallowed, my throat dry at the thought of what that much silver could buy. Forgiveness. Acceptance. A blind eye.
I didn’t have to go home. I didn’t have to do a damn thing.
“Oh, sweetheart,” I said, holding up the coin. “I do.”