by Alex Graffeo
Art by Arizone Smith
We found her on the shoreline, sitting in the sand where the waves gave up their climb out of the sea. The water was moving up and down over her body, buried slightly in the sand. Her face was upturned towards the moonlight, and I could see her eyes closed, a serene smile on her face that made her look like a statue of some benevolent goddess from the old world. It was incredible, really, that she could be so similar to the people who had probably sat in this very spot worshiping the sun just hours earlier. To think that this creature could mirror us so effortlessly, that she was able to imitate humanity with such proficiency, made me uneasy.
The moon was full, and its reflection on the water made it difficult to see at first that her perfect torso wasn’t attached to two equally perfect legs. But as we watched, we could see the glimmer of her tale twinkling through the water as the waves crashed around her. She was beautiful, really. Beautiful in a way that a tiger is beautiful, soft fur and amber eyes punctuated by sharp teeth and claws that could disembowel you in a single swipe. Beautiful like a thunderstorm or the bluish gray of a stormy sea.
The sounds that came from her mouth as we netted her and dragged her away from the water made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in protest. A screech that was high-pitched but muffled, as if she was still underwater, made the air around us ripple. Ian tried to stop her screaming by covering her mouth, but her sharp teeth dug into his hands and soon his screams joined hers, a symphony of pain and fear that had us all on edge. He bled freely onto the sand, the red drops stark in the moonlight on the white beach. Her long tail was thrashing everywhere, striking our bodies with such devastating force that we would have lost our grip if it wasn’t for Craig, who remembered the old stories and knew that to tame one such as her, it was imperative to pull her from the water completely.
“Don’t drag her! Lift!” he shouted over the unearthly cacophony of screams.
We shifted a bit and hoisted her upwards. As soon as her tale left the safety of the water it wrenched itself apart, slimming down and becoming a pair of human legs with a sickening sound of crushing bones. Whatever magic the water possessed was quick to draw back, like the ebbing tide. The skin that had been covering her powerful tale peeled off as her legs formed and dropped into the water with a splash. I bent down and picked up the slick, black mass. I slipped it into my rucksack carefully, always keeping one hand on her. She was much easier to handle without her tail, although she still fought as if her life depended on it.
“Calm down, beautiful! We don’t want to hurt you,” Craig cooed at her. The stare this elicited could have frozen oceans. We didn’t speak directly to her after that.
Robbie’s house was closest, so we smuggled her there as quickly as we could, thankful for the deserted streets. She was still making that unholy noise, but it had gotten softer, the fight leaving her the further from the beach we traveled. By the time we reached Robbie’s rotting wooden door, she was barely whimpering. We tossed her onto the small couch in the corner of the room, where she curled up in a ball, shaking. I went into Robbie’s bedroom and took a blanket from his cot. I tossed it to her as I rejoined the group, and she grabbed it greedily, covering her body and turning away to face the wall. The only movement she made was the rise and fall of her chest, her breath short and quick like a trapped animal.
For a while, we stood there in Robbie’s dimly lit front room, staring at each other, unsure what to do next. What did a creature like her eat? Did she sleep? Would she die if she was away from the water for too long? In the end, we decided to keep her for a week, and then return her. It seemed like the right thing to do. After all, we all had sweethearts to go home to and jobs to work. Childish fancies such as her had no place in our lives. But we would indulge for a time. After all, we caught her. It was our right. For now, she was ours.
We would keep her here, at Robbie’s, so when the time came, it would be an easy trip back to the beach. He was gracious enough to let us each have our time with her, alone. But that first night, we studied and explored her together. The fighting spirit she showed on the beach had vanished, and although her teeth were still sharp, we avoided them easily enough.
Seven days, we planned on keeping her. Seven days to live out a dream that we had only heard about in the folktales our grandfathers used to tell us over thunderstorms and roaring fires. The old stories spoke of beautiful sea maidens, who spent most of their time in their seal form, except on nights of the full moon, when they shed their slick skin to bask in the light and worship their lunar goddess. If you could catch one, they would stay with you in human form, bearing children and dutifully fulfilling their wifely duties. The children of these marriages were blessed, and were never in danger of drowning at sea. It was certainly a convenient blessing for someone who lived in a town like ours. The coastal village relied on fishing and crabbing for survival, and many of our men had lost their lives to the wild winter seas. Seven was always the magic number in the stories. If the creatures didn’t return to the sea on the seventh day they were tied to the land forever. None of us wanted to be shackled to this strange creature beyond a few days of fun, so we vowed to throw her back to the sea before we were cursed with her presence forever. Ian lasted three of those days, and then the fever took him.
The bite that Ian had received during our initial struggle with the creature had turned red and hot the following day. A strange substance was oozing out of it by high tide. It was greenish brown and smelled briny, like the scent of our crab traps at the end of a long day. The substance began creeping upwards under his skin in wavy lines, looking like he had wrapped his arms in long, slimy seaweed. By the second day, the wound had fully festered, and the greenish brown lines had crawled up to his shoulders. We called the doctor, but couldn’t explain to him where Ian had gotten the bite. We flushed and shuffled our feet when he asked, feeling shame for the first time for the creature we were hiding at Robbie’s shack.
When the fever hit, the creeping lines of the wound were inches from Ian’s heart and spreading quickly. Ian could no longer speak, instead making sounds that sounded eerily like the creature’s screeches. His eyes were wide with fear in those last hours, seeing monsters none of us could help him battle. He died as the sun dipped below the horizon, a trickle of seafoam dripping out of the corners of his mouth.
It was my turn for a few hours with the creature, but I didn’t have the heart to see her that night. Although it was her bite that killed Ian, I didn’t carry any blame. She was a wild animal, and wild animals fight when they’re cornered. It was their nature. I went home and drowned my sorrow in whisky, the brown liquid burning my throat on the way down and pushing the tears I held in my eyes over the brim. The salty tears tasted of the ocean, and I gagged as I remembered the foam spilling from Ian’s mouth. I slept fitfully that night, dreaming of bloated corpses and slick, black skin.
When I returned to Robbie’s the next day, the creature was in a sorry state. Her hair was tangled and matted, her delicate hands dirty, and her cheek and eye were bruised.
“That bitch killed Ian,” Robbie screamed when I confronted him. He always had a temper. When we were younger, one of the local girls complained about his rough hands, but we quickly forgot it. He said he was sorry, and that it wouldn’t happen again. When another girl came forward a few years later, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. “She liked it!” he promised us. She was just embarrassed now that her friends knew about them.
The creature was curled in a ball in the corner, trying to make herself as small as possible. Her eyes darted quickly around the room, trying to figure out an escape route but never willing to take her eyes off Robbie for too long. I convinced Robbie to leave me with her for a bit. He left, but not before taking her by the hair and slamming her against the floor.
After he left, I cleaned her up the best I could. I let her soak in the tub to try and ease her aching muscles, and gave her a comb to try and tame her wild hair. It was the color of mud, like the bottom of the bay where we dig for crabs and learned how to sail out boats. Her eyes were filmy, as if an outer layer had formed over them to keep them safe in the sea air. She was naked, and her body was pale and soft. Her nipples were a tantalizing shade of dark green. I reached into the bathtub to touch them, expecting them to be slick and soft like seaweed. The creature tensed and moved away, throwing herself from the tub and curling back into her corner, shaking. I threw her a new blanket. The old one had gotten dirty and torn over the past few days. Perhaps it would have been wise to take her away from Robbie’s place, but her rejection of my touch had angered me, so I left her to Robbie’s mercy.
“I think we should let her go early,” Craig said as I stepped into Robbie’s the next morning. It was the fifth day, and by the looks of the creature, it was unclear whether she would last until the end of the week. She hadn’t eaten, and her skin had taken on a papery texture, like shriveled fruit left in the sun too long. Her soft curves had turned sharp, and she was all elbows and shoulder blades now. Her face was gaunt, making her look even more inhuman than she had before.
“Has she had any water?” I asked. Robbie just shrugged and turned away. I noticed deep cuts across his cheek and felt a grim satisfaction in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who’s advances she rejected last night.
“More trouble than it’s worth, really,” Robbie said, avoiding the gaze of the creature, who had been watching us with interest while we spoke.
“Should we give her something? To say thank you?” Craig asked. It seemed like an odd thing to say, thank you, especially to a creature who had not given herself freely. Still, perhaps a gift would work in relieving some of the guilt that had begun to creep into my heart. The creature looked so pathetic, wrapped in a thin blanket and desperately trying to find a shadowy corner to hide in, perhaps hoping that if we couldn’t see her, we would forget she was there.
What could we possibly give her that she could use in her home deep in the cold depths of the sea? We decided that if she was to understand the gift, it would have to be something familiar to her. Something that could survive her saltwater home, and something she could easily take with her wherever she went. Craig’s mother had died a few years back, following his father down the bottle and into an early grave. She had left behind various items that would have delighted any young girl, and Craig had kept them all in the hopes of attracting a sweetheart. There was one thing that perhaps the creature would appreciate- something she would recognize. A pearl necklace, beaded together with a thin gold chain that his mother had worn every day. It had been strong enough to stay latched around a neck that was constantly doing battle, between babies tugging and a husbands’ hard, callused hands pulling a little too strongly for comfort, and we hoped it would stay strong against violent currents and crashing waves. We thought she might like it, seeing as she and the pearls had come from the same place. It was nice, in a way, to let them both return back to the sea.
We had planned to give her the necklace and return her on the sixth day, but the gods had other plans. A storm blew in, so strong that our houses all shook and several windows shattered. The beach was too tumultuous to walk on, the sand blowing through the air so fast they felt like small, sharp daggers when it hit your face. The town was busy tying down boats and securing buildings, leaving guards to watch over the important structures and fix anything that began to break as quickly as possible, and the streets were never deserted enough to sneak out, even if we had wanted to.
The storm died down the following morning, and we made a plan to sneak the creature back down to the water. We left enough time to accommodate any problems that might have arisen on the way, and we made it to the shoreline well within our window of opportunity. As we got closer to the water, the creature started acting rather curious. She began to throw herself at me, screeching with her horrible voice, clawing at my body, trying to turn me around, her eyes wild and desperate.
“She doesn’t want to leave you!” Robbie chuckled. “You must have shown her a good time.” His sneer made my stomach churn a bit.
Before we tossed her into the water, Craig solemnly clasped the necklace of pearls around her neck. “Thank you,” he said, “For staying with us this week.” The creature was still trying to cling to me.
It was only after it was too late- just a moment too late- that I remembered: her skin. It was still in my rucksack, tucked under my bed for safe keeping. In the story, those who possessed their skins controlled the creatures, insinuating that they didn’t regrow the skin they shed with each transformation. I watched in horror as her body hit the surface of the water, my eyes wide and my stomach churning as she let out a horrific scream, and the water hissed beneath her. Her tail began to reform, surrounded by water once again. But without the skin to cover her, it was just muscle, tissue, and sinew. The water churned as she thrashed in pain, the salt water agony on her exposed body.
Tears were streaming down my face as I entered the water. I grabbed her, tried to lift her so that she was a little out of the water for some relief. I didn’t have the strength to speak loudly, and prayed she could hear my whispers over her screams. “The skin- it’s back in my house. I’ll never get it back here in time.”
Although she didn’t speak to us at all during the week, I could see in her eyes that she understood what I was saying, understood the terrible choice she would have to make. If she didn’t return to the water, she would be stuck on land forever. But her return meant doing so without her skin, a life of agony and grief. She stilled for a moment, and looked at me, her eyes searching mine as her hand grazed my cheek softly. And then she pivoted out of my grasp and swam deeper into the sea.
* * *
Three months to the day that we let the creature go, Robbie’s boat washed up on the shore empty, the wooden sides smashed into splinters, splatters of blood staining the sharp edges. It would be another week until Robbie’s body was found, bloated but obviously a victim of a violent death. The others assumed his boat had hit some rocks, and he had become a meal for a hungry shark. Judging from the way his eyelids had collapsed into his eye sockets, the fish had eaten his eyeballs before his body was able to find land. I went to see him, lying cold and blue on a metal table at the morgue. The scrapes and bite marks had started to take on a familiar green and brown hue. Hands shaking, I lifted his eyelids, and found a pearl where each of his eyes had been, shoved deep into the socket. I knew it hadn’t been sharks that saw to Robbie’s end.
* * *
Craig went missing a few weeks later. The people around town whispered that poor Craig just couldn’t handle so much loss in his life, and he had walked into the surf one night when no one was watching, to follow his parents and best friends into the afterlife. I hoped, for my friend’s sake, that this was how he met his end. A fool’s hope.
His body was found by one of the local boys, strewn across the rocks that appear at low tide. He was battered and bruised, but not as grotesque as Robbie had been. His eyes were still in their rightful place, but a string of pearls was tucked behind his teeth where his tongue should have been.
* * *
It’s been seven days since they found Craig, and my dreams have been haunted by the sound of the creature’s screams, and the image of the churning water where her skinless tale formed. Sometimes I can hear the skin, still tucked beneath my bed, shift and wiggle, as if it is trying to escape its current home and find the creature it belongs to. A horrible thought occurred to me a few nights ago: what if the creature could reattach her skin, even after all this time? Had I condemned her to a life of pain because of my own ignorance? What if she had spent the last few months waiting at the shoreline, desperate for relief, as I slept warm and safe in my bed, hoarding her skin as if it were my own?
* * *
I am beginning to see specters around every corner, and the sound of her screams have crossed over from my nightmares to my waking hours. Ghostly figures with glowing pearlescent eyes and mouths chase me around every corner. I cannot eat, every morsel turning to ash in my mouth. Yesterday, the water in my cup turned into a tumble of pearls as it hit my tongue. I am hungry, and so, so thirsty. My body is drying up like paper, my cheeks hollow and pale. And every night, the skin seems to shift more and more urgently underneath my bed.
* * *
I am standing on the cliffs overlooking the rough sea. Inside my rucksack, the skin vibrates, as if it knows that it is finally close to home. I breath in the air, cold and sharp, as I force myself to inch closer to the edge, where the rocks become jagged and so many unfortunate souls have fallen to a watery grave. I am weak, and my hands shake as I reach inside and pull out that black, slick skin. Down below, a pale figure dives in and out of the waves, waiting. She is still screeching, her face grotesque in its agony. She reaches her hands above her head, begging without words, for me to finally relieve her of her pain. On my right, Robbie places a pale hand on my shoulder, and looks at me with his empty eye sockets, the two pearls glowing like pinpricks in the moonlight. Craig is on my left, his mouth moving in silent affirmation, the string of pearls shaking and expelling a glittery light every time his lips open and close.
I undress, taking care to place my clothing carefully to the side, so that whoever finds me knows that this was my choice. The creature waits below, her shrilly call reaching me despite the howling winds. I take a step forward, still clutching the skin, and jump in to receive my pearls.