"Dois-je vous raconter l'histoire de Mélusine, plus de chair et de sang que reine serpent?"
The sisters cannot refuse the youth who has presently washed up on the steps of their abbey, pleading with his soft brown eyes for their charity. So soft, so young, such a lovely boy, and lord knows the only man they so much as tip their wimples to is the old arthritic groundskeeper who tends the gardens and goes to market for them, and mends the wall that divides the abbey and the sea.
They wrap him up and set him down and circle him like a court of virgins. They bid him tell his tale.
He was, he tells them, the son of a shipping tycoon, given command of a fine leviathan he'd lovingly named for his mother. Business carried him between the continents, en route a storm struck, sending his mother vessel to the bottom of the sea and all of his crew to their graves. (Or mer folk, depending on what you believe; it is said they often rescue the wretched in exchange for indefinite servitude—not as grim a prospect as one might imagine.)
The young man, as he recounts to the sisters all but burning under their heavy skirts at the sight of him, was seized by one who posed no such proposition, only took him in her arms and propelled him to shore, where she sucked the water from his lungs and dried his body with her net of silver hair. And when at last he stirred and thanked his angel of mercy, he bid her ask him anything—anything—and it shall be hers.
She was a remarkable creature. Full breasted and wide hipped, even her tail mimicked the roundness of a woman's thighs. Her skin was all but translucent, he was mesmerized by the reef of blue veins, phosphorescent organs, bones so fine you could pick your teeth with them. Her eyes were the color of rum, and looking into them he knew he could refuse her nothing.
She laid a tentative hand on his leg, pleading with amber eyes for the thing he recognized instantly. And though he hadn't the faintest idea how to go about doing it with a mer creature, he unbuttoned his trousers and more or less assumed the position.
(Here the sisters gasp and cross themselves, but urge him to go on—but of course they do.)
He watched in wonder and only a little repulsion as her tail unfurled and became two. From within a pearly conch shell peeked out, pink and girlish, unmistakable. He made love to her, gentle at first then vigorously. As soon as he released himself inside her she was gone, leaving only a dusting of scales where he'd moments ago held her.
He buttoned himself up and thought nothing of her for a long time.
The young man took up residence on the island, sent for another crew, and carried on much as he had before. In time he met a woman he would take as his bride, and her name he bestowed upon the new ship he piloted.
He'd seen her at a musicale in town, a fine cellist. She was older than he by a handful of years, though the softness of girlhood still tucked itself shyly into folds and creases here and there—a slight lisp and fondness for sweets and secrets, an openness without edges. He was instantly charmed, then stirred to arousal when she took her cello between her legs, brandishing the bow like a triton, and attacked the instrument, the notes as sharp as she was soft. He courted and wed her, and built her a great house by the sea. She played her cello for him, for the servants, for herself. She did what she could to make him happy. This, she would come to learn, was no easy task.
The young man had appetites, only some of which she could appease. He grew rough with her, rougher than any chord she'd ever struck. She began to suspect he was seeking a sensation she could not fulfill, and this grieved her horribly.
The young man began to look for the mermaid. He dropped many bottles into the sea, each stuffed with a note begging her to find him again. He made a second home of a fisherman's cottage on the beach, a secret hovel with little more than a hearth and bed, a dented washtub. His wife knew nothing of it. And under pretense of business he spent many a night there, waiting.
At last came a knock at the door one evening, and there she was, her great tail coiled and draped about her like an opera gown, clutching an armful of bottles he'd mailed into the sea.
He took her to his bed and made love with her long into the night, until her tail(s) began to dry up and she complained that he was hurting her. He then took her to the water where they made love in the waves. He suckled and bit at her breasts till she bled blood the color of octopus ink. And in the morning she left him once again, left only her scattering of scales and the memory of an ecstasy he frantically sought to duplicate.
The young man became a little mad. He took to his wife's bed, made violent love to her until she cried out in pain. He grew ill-tempered and spent more and more time away from her, till she scarcely saw the man she'd married. She soon lost her appetite, did not rise from her bed, and eventually forgot how to walk altogether. Her curls began to sport silver, subtle threads that betrayed her age and added years. Her beloved cello collected dust in the corner, she had no interest in playing the thing. The sea air began to assault the instrument, splintering the wood and drying up the strings till one by one they snapped into silence.
The young man neglected his business, spent his days by the water where he pleasured himself in the surf, praying his seed would find its way to his mer lover. He sent more bottles, brimming with tears and parchment pleas.
And so it came to pass that one night he heard a knock at the cottage door and opened it to find her there, cradling the bottles, his passionate scrawl now inked on her flesh. And once more he made love to her long into the night, till the dryness of her tails discomforted her, and they took to the water. And when she made to bid him farewell the young man in a panic grasped her by her hair and dragged her ashore, demanding that she stay, stay. The mermaid wept and begged him to release her, promised to return, that she would die should she remain on land, that her people would miss her so.
But the young man, too crazed, too insatiable, locked her in the little cottage with only the tub of water to keep her quenched. He left her while he voyaged overseas once more, comforted and only a little distracted by thoughts of a most voluptuous homecoming.
At night she heard the wailing of her kin calling out for her, and though she tried to return their call her voice, like her great tail, had begun to dry up. So she huddled in the tub and with each passing day curled herself up tighter and tighter to fit the water's receding perimeters. Her breasts began to shrivel and droop like a crone's, her hair came out in great silvery clumps. She wept tears of octopus ink.
It was at this time that the bedridden wife began to hear the cries from out over the water, eerie as whale song; the mermaid's people searching, searching, for their girl.
She could not sleep, but tossed and turned under the sound of it, and dreamed terrible things. She was drying up in that bed, in that house, so thirsty for the love of a man for whom her weakness was consuming her, pulling her down like an anchor, her bruised and broken cello.
The cries grew louder and more persistent, till at once they stopped in a manner so sudden the wife snapped to. It was a night when the moon was high and full, and the sea was black as mermaid's blood. The wife rose from her bed on diminished legs and dragged herself to the window. All was quiet, the wailing having subsided to a funereal hush. In the distance, tucked within the crags of rock and flecked by tide pools, she spotted the little cottage. From within came a teasing glimmer, a fish darting through reeds. Pulling on her wrapper and taking up a lantern she made her way to the beach and up to the door where the light wavered, almost gone. She drew a pin from her whitened hair and picked the lock, entered.
There was the mermaid in her empty tub, parched as an autumn leaf, her magnificent tail now a withered cod. She was bald but for a patch of silver that circled her head like a halo. Her mouth opened and closed, slow and soundless. Her flesh still bore the young man's script, a lewd love letter of a tattoo.
The wife was not strong, not yet. But neither was the mermaid, and so neither demanded much strength from the other. She set her lantern down and lifted the mermaid in her arms, the last remaining scales fluttering to the floor. The wife waded into the water and released the mer girl, watched as the sea received her with so many unseen hands, pulling her under and out of sight.
She then set fire to the cottage.
From that dawn forward the young man was barred from the great house, and his wife—who was no more his wife—resumed her days of sweets and secrets. She would often bring her newly mended cello to the water's edge, where she played and played to no one in particular. The instrument was no longer perfect, the notes not always so dulcet; there was a dissonance between the chords like formerly sparring lovers. She didn't mind—in fact preferred this new and imperfect sound, so much stronger than innocence. They had earned their music.
The young man sent hundreds of bottles into the sea, begging the mermaid to return to him, but never saw her again. He resumed his position with his father's business, till a mutiny amongst the crew sent him overboard, where not a single mer soul bartered for his life.
Here he falls silent, and the sisters look on this young man and see that he is not so young after all, that the softness they'd fancied is more a sailor's bloat (just what had he drained from all those bottles anyway, hmmm?) and that his eyes are neither soft nor brown, but black as octopus ink. Still, he is a man, and much younger than the rheumatic gardener, and because they are not without mercy they give him a little shed with a window and washstand, and duties of his own to attend to.
Now he works alongside the old groundskeeper and tends the flower beds and patches up the wall between himself and the world.
He sends no more bottles out to sea.
is a NYC-based artist currently adventuring on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her writing and photography have been featured by/in Three Rooms Press
, Nailed Magazine
, The Literary Bohemian
, Misfit Magazine
and Yes, Poetry
, as October's featured poet. She is currently the first prize winner of Pulp Literature Press
's 2015 The Raven Short Story Contest
. Upcoming publications include Flapperhouse
and Homestead Review
. A burlesque & sideshow veteran, she has eaten fire and walked on glass for the likes of Cirque du Soleil, The Slipper Room, Brooklyn Circus Co., New York Fashion Week, The Bowery Poetry Club
, and various film installations and music videos.