“ Look not too far in placid sky and sea,
For where the waves creep outward with the tide
There waits a mist, and strangeness— all the wide
Ocean of space, to sever you and me.”
— Ghosts, Robin Hyde.
Once in a faraway place where the winters are cold and the mothers knit sweaters to protect from the wind, there were two groups who each depended on the other to live and loathed to admit it. Every night, fishermen would travel to the southernmost edge of town with their lanterns and nets in hand and from the ocean take their dinner– and the ocean, too, would take one of them in return.
The people from the town who had not been embittered by this grim symbiosis complained over their meals— and the people underneath the waves, too, would trill their grief in the burbling sounds of sea creatures. For many years this continued until both groups could not bear to be near one another unless separated by great ships and didn’t dare speak of the other unless in stories and superstition.
Where Jay lived the meat was cold and waterlogged and the sun appeared a dull, milky orb that would shift and undulate above them with the rippling of the waves. But it was not without beauty. Where the ocean is deepest and the sun is missing, the merpeople see their kingdom with a strange, sad song that echoes against the absolute darkness and shows them things we can scarcely imagine. In the shallow waters they string up corals and anemone and long, shining garlands of polished pearl and bone. For these comforts, Jay was content for a long time.
But time works differently for their people, and a long one is not so different from a short one when spent underwater. Perhaps because of this or despite it, mermaids do not love in the same way as those on land do, with our courtship and jealousy and till-death-do-us-part . What could that mean to them, for whom death is so far away? They love the ebb and flow of the waves, and the song that binds them to the other creatures feeling their way through the gloom. They have no idea of romance. Their closest approximation would be the electric thrill of bloodlust.
For Jay, this was disagreeable. They had never been much for singing anyway, and they had little use for the bloated bodies of misbegotten fishermen when they could subsist pleasantly enough on vegetation alone. They didn’t like the way it felt to kill something, not even the lumpy, scuttling things from the deep, and didn’t see the sense in dashing a man’s head on the rocks before he had at least proven his guilt. They quickly grew irritable, then cranky, then nothing short of mutinous. They were soon widely considered to be the most ill-tempered nuisance out of all the creatures under the ocean and merparents warned their children to behave lest they turned out so unruly as Jay.
Another of their small deviations from the norm, Jay had watched the human town their whole life by swimming unseen in the harbor. They watched men trawl hideous, bulging nets of fish from their boats, saw the way they grunted to each other, tipped their hats in greeting, and trembled in fear whenever they set onto the ocean after dark. Each night, the townspeople placed lanterns on their windowsills and the shores of the peninsula to pray for the safe return of their fishermen, and the pinpricks of light cast a faint glitter on the water wherever Jay lay submerged. It was so different from the dull green glow they were accustomed to back home.
They were angry because they did not love like the rest of the sea animals. They heard stories of handsome princes and wealthy merchants, but Jay loved in their own way a sailor with broad shoulders and scarred hands who touched the spines of his books with an uncommon gentleness. They watched him take his small boat to the water every evening, and decided to eat him or cherish him or otherwise be very close to him, which one exactly they didn’t know.
They loved their sailor with all that they could not give the sea because they could tell that he, too, was unlike the rest of his people. He was a handsome and kind-hearted man— goodness has a tendency to show itself on one’s face in ways a mermaid can tell— but there was a weariness in his features as well. When he wasn’t reading or staring at the waves, his face would settle into an expression that was tired and quietly resigned, as though he longed for something else he hadn’t yet named.
Jay knew this expression well, because they had worn it before they laid eyes on their sailor.
Most importantly, he had never stolen from the ocean what didn’t belong to him and only picked up seashells along the beach. Jay would drift especially pretty ones ashore with long flaps of their tail, taking great care to direct them towards areas where he would be sure to look, pretending they were sending him small scraps of their heart.
For twelve long days and twelve long nights they kept up this practice until they couldn’t bear their heartache any longer, for they were an impatient thing, and on the final evening they revealed themself to him in the light of a full moon. When the little mermaid pushed themself out of the water, it was as if the very air shimmered and shifted around them like sunlight on the sea. Their beauty was of the fragile, unearthly, bewitching kind that one who has seen the thin, arching skeleton of a deep sea fish knows well— Jay had grown small and scrawny for their lack of human meat, but their skin seemed to glow a dim, phosphorescent green in the night.
Joseph, for that was the sailor’s name, was frightened. The mermaid carried around them the sharp, ancient scent of salt and violence and old meat that had been left out in the sun to spoil. It was something horrific and primordial and ugly and alive that would not leave them no matter how they abstained, and it painted them as a carnivore, as a predator. He had heard of such creatures in stories, but he had hoped never to see one himself. For the stories he heard were not pleasant ones— they told of mortal men driven half to insanity and compelled to pitch themselves overboard, corpses left to be picked apart near-surgically by tongue and hand and needle-teeth— and these had been told to him when he was still young and inclined to believe them.
“Who are you?” he called out, or maybe he said Hello, or A lovely evening, isn’t it?, or even something as simple as Please. But what he said was not so important as the way he did.
The sailor’s voice was heavy and thick with an accent, and the unfamiliar syllables tickled at Jay’s ears in a way that was harsh but not unpleasant. They understood him well enough, because Mermaids have long been able to understand our language, though we have never done them the courtesy of learning theirs— of course, not many humans have had the opportunity. But Jay had no experience in hunting and had not yet learned to contort their throat into the strange shapes necessary to speak human words, and those sounds could only have served to call their sailor to his doom.
So the mermaid swam to his small wooden boat as cautiously as they could and thrust into his hand their final shell, the last of their heart, identical to the ones they had left. It was a faint pink, they noticed, red and warm like the rosy blush at the tops of their sailor’s cheeks, the hue of his lips.
Joseph, not being a stupid man by any means, recognized at once the seashells he had collected over the last month and cherished privately in his home by the water. He kept them in a glass jar by the door and swore they had been delivered to him by some inexplicable good fortune. In this moment he knew it was not a higher power who had been looking after him at all, who always gave him the prettiest ones.
And so the two of them began to learn about the other as best they could for enough days and nights that they began to blend together as though Jay were back home. But it was never dull, with Joseph leaning over the edge of his boat and Jay floating in the shallow, it was more thrilling than anything they had done so far in their many endless years.
They learned that Joseph was discontent with the state of the human town nestled in its tiny peninsula, that he resented the monotonous cycle of eat-work-sleep that sedated his friends and workmates and wished dearly they would not spend so much of their short time waiting for the days to pass. This was dull and grey and hateful, he explained, and so he would spend his days contemplating the sea and would read passages from his many novels that told of so much beauty and suffering and spirit that Jay could not help but agree with him. He did not like that the people took from the water without asking, not when there was so much on land that could be harvested if they only planted it.
At first Jay’s voice was nothing more than a harsh, guttural rasp ripped from vocal chords that were not meant to make noises that weren’t siren-song. Jay sang to their sailor on cold nights when the moon waned with a high, warbling melody, and found that with it they said all they needed to.
But Joseph spoke to Jay with a great tenderness as he told about his day and attempted songs of his own, and his tenderness was of the sort which couldn’t help but inspire odd and wonderful things. Jay repeated back to him stanzas of writing and spit up stories word by word until they stumbled upon a voice of their own, still harsh, still rasping, but unmistakably human.
Their first sentence was a plea that came out hoarse and shrill:
“A thimble,” they begged, “bring me a thimble. ”
The sailor had many questions he did not dare to ask, for how could he? To repay them for the shells he would have easily walked to the end of the earth, sought jewels and silks and impossible riches beyond the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-ninth kingdom if only to please them. A thimble, then, was nothing.
For just as his mermaid had loved him, Joseph loved them in return more than he had known he was capable of. He loved them in a way that felt foreign— as though to love them wasn’t something meant for a creature like him, too wild, too desperate, as though he should sooner drown himself in the bath than reach out and touch their hand— but he was a man, and to care for them was in his nature.
He brought Jay their thimble, and in return received a kiss.
The next day, he knew what to say:
“What will you have?” he asked.
“Bring me lace,” said they.
And Joseph searched the markets up and down for the most beautiful bolts of lace he could find, though none matched the delicacy of the fine bones he could see underneath the translucent green skin of his lover when the sun shone on them just so. He settled on a small spool of ribbon patterned most gracefully, for he knew he shouldn’t keep his mermaid waiting for more than a night.
Another gift, another kiss.
On the third day, he waited patiently:
“Bring me your heart. ”
What was he to do? The sailor walked into the ocean until the water lapped at his ankles, then his knees— for this was an uncommonly warm summer night where the tide was gentle and there was nothing but quiet, the sway of seagrass, a sweet smelling breeze. When you are in love, there are nights like these. He was sure his mermaid was out there, disguised by the rolling waves, the dusk. Eyes glowing like lanterns underwater.
Up to his waist, now, the sailor didn’t take his eyes off the sea. He tipped his shells into the ocean and felt their small splashes against his chest, his arms, the empty glass jar slipping from his slack fingers. He watched the pale shapes of them sink all around him, chalkwhite and pink against the sand.
Jay, of course, had great use for the items which they requested and had been putting them to such while their sailor was off fretting over which scraps of fabric were appropriately delicate and the other silly things men like to pretend they don’t fuss about. With a thimble to protect them (swallowed, though that had not been a most pleasant experience), a ribbon to bind them (fastened tight around the ankle), and a human heart of their very own— Jay was his mermaid no longer. They stood to greet him on shaking legs and pressed a kiss to his mouth that was delivered with such ferocity it knocked him right over into the ocean.
And so they lived out the rest of their many days with their sailor in immeasurable bliss, removing their ribbon, undoing the enchantment, and creating a great sopping mess of puddles on the floor whenever they wanted to soak their tail in the bathtub.