Desperate for answers after his girlfriend’s death, he looked for a way to bring her back via the supernatural. His search leads him to Sirendale on the trail of rumours of a mermaid whose tears can grant wishes. But the mermaid does not give her tears easily, and every wish comes with a cost.
Since this story is a long one, you can download a MOBI file of the story to your eReader device for easier reading if you’d like.
Trigger Warning: Suicide
“Do you know if she was depressed?”
Red and blue lights strobed through the front doorway and lit the living room. Patrol cars both attracted attention and turned it back. I could see neighbours making excuses to pass by. Rubberneckers, straining to get a glimpse inside to find out what was going on at this time of night in our quiet little neighbourhood. Most of those who shared this street were old people or young married couples without kids who largely kept to themselves. Starter homes or homes winding down to an end, the neighbourhood not big enough or close enough to schools to raise families.
“Isn’t everyone?” I said.
The hefty uniformed detective had pushed me to the back of the living room by the kitchen door. A notepad almost disappeared in one beefy fist, pen like a toothpick in the other. His eyes narrowed at the comment. I felt like I was constantly on the edge of having to catch my breath. Corners of my eyes burning. Keep it under control, I told myself. Over and over again.
“What was that?”
“I mean, it’s the-, modern condition, the new pandemic, everyone’s depressed and always talking about how depressed they are,” I said. “Yes, she said she was depressed sometimes, anxious, scared. I didn’t think she would do-, this.”
“Scared?” The cop zeroed in on my wording. “Of what?”
“Not of anything, anxious, she was anxious. I tried to get her help, I couldn’t find anyone suitable.”
The detective didn’t like me, I could feel it. Maybe I looked too much like a skinny, privileged college kid for him, even at thirty-one. He was grizzled, a lot of bulk, soft around the middle, maybe an ex-sports star turned embittered alcoholic. Maybe he thought any man who missed the signs as badly as I apparently had done, and who came home to his fiance like I had, was a failure of a man and beneath contempt. I was definitely feeling like a failure myself. Wondering how I could have so badly misjudged Astrid’s state of mind.
I’d come home late and called for Astrid but there had been no answer. It wasn’t a big house. Wandering into the hallway, I saw candlelight flickering from the bathroom. A note was pinned under one of the candles on the lid of the toilet. Concise, meaningless in its cliche, scrawled on a piece of notepaper ripped from a book as if she’d been in a great hurry, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore’. The bathtub, pink and still steaming. Under the sheen of water, her face, her slashed wrists, a tattoo on her upper arm that she’d never gotten shaded and coloured like she intended. A tattoo of a mermaid, an old school sailor type of skin art. I hadn’t liked the idea of her getting a tattoo in the first place but somehow she had talked me into it. Now it would be unfinished forever. Shimmering under the water’s surface where I suppose it belonged.
“Was she on any kind of medication or recreational drugs?”
“No, no meds, no drugs.”
Gurney creaking, a couple of paramedics rolled into the living room now that the police techs were done. A black body bag crinkled on top, like a sack of trash. The bag and the stretcher were wet. Breath caught in my throat. The paramedics negotiated their way out the front door like moving men with a lightweight but awkwardly shaped piece of furniture. The detective was asking questions and I was answering them but I didn’t really hear him or myself.
As soon as the gurney was loaded into the ambulance it was show’s over for the rubberneckers, nothing more to see here. I was going to have to call Astrid’s family. I was going to have to tell her friends. My mind was already making lists, checking them twice, some analytical part of my brain a million miles away from my emotional core. My raw and throbbing pain. My sense of betrayal.
“We’ll be in touch if we have any more questions,” the detective said.
Astrid’s funeral was a small affair and I stayed apart from everyone there. I’d always felt like her parents didn’t like me, although Astrid had insisted it wasn’t true. None of us were in the mood for clearing the air. Astrid and I met in university. I’d never much liked her friends and thankfully, with some prodding, she’d grown apart from them. I didn’t have any close friends or family. Plus, suicide had a stigma all of its own. People wanted an explanation of how something like this could have taken the life of a beautiful young woman like Astrid. They worried such an affliction could be catching or looked for someone to blame and I was the most likely carrier in their eyes.
After the funeral, I stood over her graveside for hours. Part of me had never accepted what Astrid had done. To disappear on me like that. Leave her mortal body behind for me to find. I was haunted by visions of her still face. The mermaid tattoo swimming below water stained with her blood.
Was it possible to bring someone back from the dead?
It was insane, it made no sense. But the crazy thought took hold as I stood by the grave. Astrid leaving me made no sense either. I couldn’t accept reality as it was so I had to change reality. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t accept it. She was mine. She was my one and only, and she had left me behind. If I was a moody Victorian medical student, or scientist, or a dabbler in the black arts, I might have become obsessed with the rejuvenating power of lightning. With building a time machine, or uncovering the secrets of the Necronomicon. But I was none of those things. I was, at best, a normal guy who liked to Google weird stuff and binge on Wikipedia in my spare time. So that’s what I started with.
Work was good enough to give me as much time off as I needed. I had over a month of personal leave saved up and plenty in my savings account, so money wasn’t going to be a pressing issue. Day by day necessities and handling friends and family I did as if on automatic. All I cared about was bringing my Astrid back to me.
Zombies, vampires, and all other members of the living dead. A few groups I uncovered all based within a couple of hours drive claimed to worship them but they were all dead ends. Overwrought Anne Rice fans. Mediums claimed they could contact the dead, not raise them. What voodoo practitioners I could get hold of emphasised they were a religion. If there was an easy answer though, anyone could do it. I started to think more laterally, and look into more localised and obscure legends. Leprechauns and wishing wells, gates to the underworld, water spirits, ghosts, late night radio messages from the other side.
A few hours drive down the coast was a small town called Sirendale. Its main industries were fishing and weekend tourism. A blowhole along the rocks off the central part of town was its main attraction. Not much to base a whole tourism industry around but it was experiencing a boom with the Instagram crowd. Buried underneath all of that, however, was the true reason behind the town’s name.
‘Legend of the Sirendale Mermaid!’
‘Tales date back to before the first tiny fishing shacks were built and the village that became Sirendale was founded of a half-woman half-fish creature who called the area home – a Mermaid! Fishermen paid tribute to her for 100s of years. Indigenous peoples of the area may have known about her for 100s of years before that. Largely she avoids the public eye but sometimes the mermaid can be seen at dawn or dusk, playing far out in the water and singing her song.
Though the Mermaid of Sirendale avoids people there are stories of her rescuing children swept out to sea by the unpredictable tides off Sirendale. Her tears are said to grant wishes, although she will not cry for any pain or any man’s tale of woe. One legend tells of a fisherman who accidentally caught the mermaid in his nets – the man had lost his son, another fisherman who was swept overboard in a storm and never found. Having heard of the mermaid’s ability to grant wishes, he begged and begged for her to return his son in exchange for her freedom but the Mermaid refused to cooperate. It was only when the man gave up and let her go because it was the right thing to do that the mermaid gave him one of her tears. The fisherman made his wish and poured the tear back into the ocean. The next day, his son returned to him with the tide.’
The website was practically ancient. It consisted of white Comic Sans on a black background, surrounded by rotating gifs of skulls and cartoon mermaids. But it also had some antique sketches and excerpts from old books I could download. There was no mention of the Mermaid of Sirendale on Wikipedia, not notable enough, but I was able to find references to those books of folklore and a few other websites that referenced the legend. Didn’t mean it was based in fact, of course, but it was based in more than just the imagination of one late nineties, anonymous internet user.
I was drawn to the story because of Astrid’s mermaid tattoo, the image of which haunted me. Maybe that was a sign from fate. Maybe I was meant to do this, it was just the kind of answer I’d been looking for. Crazy, obscure, but easy enough to track down and test. I searched for every scrap of information I could find. All the books that referenced the Mermaid of Sirendale were out of print but I tracked a couple to some secondhand book sites and ordered them express delivery. Most of the info didn’t tell me much more than that first website had. Not everything mentioned the wish granting ability of the mermaid’s tears. Some said, instead of being seen around dawn or dusk she could only be heard singing. She was the last of her kind, or at least the last in that part of the ocean, for thousands and thousands of miles.
“Find a mermaid, make her cry for Astrid,” I said. “How hard could that be? Not crazy at all.”
I booked a hotel in Sirendale and packed some clothing, and my books and research into the car. Investigate first and then come up with a plan. The next morning I drove the three hours down the coast to Sirendale, telling no one where I was going or why. I arrived late in the morning, too early to check into my hotel. Out of some natural touristy impulse, I went and stopped by the Sirendale blowhole. A lookout fenced off a flat section of rock. Engraved panels around the lookout gave info on the local area but none of them mentioned legends of a mermaid. If I concentrated, I could feel tremors through my feet as waves smacked the shore. The blowhole bubbled. When a really solid wave hit, surf went throttling up a narrow passageway and exploded in a foamy spray through the blowhole into the open air. It was impressive, beautiful, but not quite five minutes of entertainment as I waited for the next one. Not something you’d think you could base a whole weekend around.
Sirendale had one main drag which looped around to a section of waterfront. Craft stores and op shops, touristy, artsy places, were scattered along the main street. Cafes and restaurants lined the waterfront including one fish and chips place with an enormous lobster looming down from the rooftop. Fishing boats and pleasure craft filled the bay. It was a small town, motels and suburbs fanning out until they bled into the suburbs for the next towns along the coastline.
My motel room had a double bed, a table and chairs by the window, and a kitchenette. All I’d need for however long this stay became. Unpacking the research, I spread it out on the table and then sat back to think. After a while, I returned to the reception desk to talk to the bored younger man who’d checked me in.
“Is there somewhere, like, a bar or something, where the local fisherman hang out?” I asked.
“I’m writing a book,” I said, coming up with the lie quickly. “I wanted to speak to some local people about fishing. Are there any bars where they’d hang out?”
“I don’t know, man,” the hotel receptionist said. “There’s a couple of places that the locals would go to, I guess, not tourists.”
I waited until later in the afternoon before trying any of the drinking holes that the receptionist begrudgingly recommended. Most of the day I stewed on Astrid, getting her back, the way I’d been doing for the last couple of weeks. I could walk to the main body of Sirendale from my motel. Just off the main street was the first bar I tried. A couple of men played pool near the entrance. Sport broadcast from TVs above the bar. I got a beer and sat at a table in the corner, playing on my phone. The bartender and all the customers were men, mostly in pairs. I waited for one who was alone and looked like he might want someone to talk to.
Eventually, two beers down, a man in his early sixties came in and sat at the bar alone. He fit my expectations of a salty old fisherman down to a tee, like he was answering a casting call I’d put out in my mind. His hair and beard, under a knitted cap, were silver and shot through with white. His skin was leathery from years drying out in the sun. Hands big and scarred clutching at the beer glass put in front of him. I made my way over to order another drink but lingered when it came, pretending to watch the same TV that he was watching. Nervously, I cleared my throat.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but do you work on one of the boats around here?” I asked.
The older man eyed me suspiciously, not unkindly but as if anticipating a cruel punchline to a so-far innocent joke. “Yup, that I do.”
“I’m a writer, I’m writing about some of the local-, sea life,” I said. “Do you mind if I join you?”
It took a little while for the fisherman, Phillip, to open up, but open up he did. Happy to talk wasn’t quite the word for it. Desperate to talk might have been more appropriate. He was a lonely guy with no wife, no family, approaching pensioner age and hungry for conversation. He’d been doing the same sort of work since he was a teenager. Things had changed, of course, in his business, but what business hadn’t changed? The oceans had less to give, big companies were taking over. Little guys hardly stood a chance, one small disaster away from total financial ruin. He talked to me about his ex-wife, she’d disappeared on him the way Astrid disappeared on me, although not by the same method. He had no children but talked about family and friends he hadn’t seen for years. About the town, about the tourists. Eventually, I felt like he was comfortable enough for me to sidle into the real reason for talking to him.
“It’s a little embarrassing but it’s not so much sea life that I’m writing about,” I said. “It’s more like local legends, supernatural things. Have you heard of the Mermaid of Sirendale?”
“Aye, that I have, old stories, old, old stories.”
“Have you ever-, have you ever heard her? They say she sings at dusk and dawn sometimes.”
The old fisherman hesitated for what seemed like a long time. “Maybe I have,” he said. “You think me a crazy old man if I tell you from time to time, out on those waters, I seen things and I’ve heard things that I can’t explain?”
“No, not at all, I mean, it’s exactly what I’m here for.”
“Any of the others who work the tubs around here would tell you the same, if they’d be willing to admit it. A creature, half-woman, half-fish, yup, and completely beautiful. And music, singing like nothing you ever heard in your life.”
“When did you see her?”
“I only ever seen her from a long way off, far enough that you could fool yourself into thinking it was just a dolphin or some such like that. But I heard her, last time a few years ago. Sound travels a long way on the water, hard to say where it comes from, but that singing-, I tell you, that singing, you’d know it was never nothing else.”
We talked a little while longer about stories Phillip had heard from other fishermen. Most of the tales were pretty much the same. Seeing or hearing something around dusk or dawn they were convinced was otherworldly but could never prove. Other stories, more fleshed out, Phillip told me but made clear he didn’t believe. One man he’d known, a compulsive liar, had sworn up and down for years that he’d spent one night of deeply unnatural love with the mermaid, and would rave about the things she could do with her tail. Nothing he could tell me about the places she’d been spotted helped me. Apparently though, submerged and partially submerged caves dotted the coastline and she was rumoured to make her home in one or several of them. I asked him if he had heard of the mermaid’s tears and how they could grant wishes. He had, but he’d never really thought of it as something to pursue. I supposed he’d never really had dreams big enough to require hunting something so impossible. He just appreciated the little bit of strangeness the mermaid’s presence brought into the world.
“If’n you want to know more, you should talk to old Jim at the psychic shop,”” Phillip said finally. “He knows all about those old legends.”
“Old Jim at the what?” I asked.
“Jim, he and I were in school together, not friends exactly but-,” Phillip trailed off for a moment. “The psychic shop, don’t know its proper name but you go back out to the main street and head a little way down toward the water, you’ll see it. It’s got a big hand in the window and a sign that says ‘Palm Reading’. He’s got all of that new age business, palm reading and cards, and-, candles and things.”
I felt my excitement rising at hearing that not only had I found someone who confirmed the mermaid’s existence but could point me in the direction of an expert. “But he knows about the mermaid?”
“I seem to remember he had some kind of interest in it when we were kids.”
Having secured this new lead, I stuck around only long enough to finish my drink so as not to seem impolite. Phillip seemed sorry to see me go but I had my mission. It felt almost like he’d been placed in my path to lead me to the next sign. Though I doubted it would be open, I went back to the main road and followed Phillip’s directions to find the store he’d described.
Sirendale didn’t have much of a nightlife. Light spilled out of a few restaurants and onto the sidewalk. A Chinese place, Thai, Italian. All the other stores and cafes were closed and dark. So was the psychic and new age store when I found it. On the plate glass window was a massive hand with an eye in the middle of its palm, surrounded by mystic-looking runes. The purple sign above the storefront read ‘PALM READING, TAROT, CLEANSING’. I knocked on the door and waited around for a couple of minutes just in case but no one came to answer.
Returning to my motel, I wrote down my thoughts from the conversation with Phillip. Not with any narrative, just anything I could remember that might provide a later clue. First thing tomorrow morning, I’d return to the store and speak with Jim.
That night, I dreamt about the mermaid. I called her to one of those caves along the coast that Phillip had mentioned. Unlike the others, she came to me willingly. It was Astrid. I recognised her first by the incomplete tattoo on her upper arm shimmering through a sheen of water. Dark hair draped across her upper body. Her lower half was finned and serpentine.Astrid gathered my clothing and drew me into the water. She pulled me under, held me there, and pasted her mouth onto mine. The mermaid’s tears could grant wishes but I’d read, in other legends, that a mermaid’s kiss could let a man breathe underwater. Certainly I felt no fear as she drew me deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Feeling refreshed, I woke up the next morning, ate a small breakfast in the kitchenette, dressed, and went out again. In the morning the town was still quiet. Holidaying couples occupied the cafes while the restaurants I’d noticed last night were closed instead. Most of the touristy stores were opening. Returning to the palm reading and tarot store, I found the door propped open and a sign on the sidewalk with the same icon of a hand with an eye in its palm. Incense wafted out of the open doorway. Inside was rain noise and new age music.
I went inside to find a small, dimly lit store, cluttered with crystals, statues, candles, and other esoteria. I made my way to a desk at the back. Incense sticks burned at some kind of altar. The rain sound came from a miniature fountain to one side. Behind the desk was an older man, roughly the same age as Phillip. Not really the person you expected to be running this kind of store although he did look like an aging hippy. Mid-sixties, tall, gaunt, and bald on top but with steel grey hair pulled back into a ponytail. He peered over the top of a wireframed pair of glasses.
“Hello, can I help you?”
“Jimmy? Jim, was it?” I asked. “We have a mutual friend, Phillip.”
“Phillip? Uh, Phillip Wiseman?” Jim struggled with his memory.
“He told me you might be able to tell me more about the Sirendale Mermaid.”
Jim looked surprised. I introduced myself and gave him the same story about writing a book on local legends. I told him about the things that Phillip had opened up about, seeing and hearing the mermaid, rumours about caves along the coast. He listened without interruption, face not giving much away.
“You really believe in all that?” Jim asked.
“He said you knew all about this kind of thing.” I gestured around the room at the new age paraphernalia. “And yes, I do believe in it, do you know anything?”
“I do,” Jim said. “I might.”
“I’m really trying to find out everything I can, to maybe even track her down, do you think it would be possible? Have you ever seen her?”
The older man hesitated but he looked more excited than nervous. Licking his lips, his eyes darted around the store as if checking we were alone. Like Phillip last night, Jim seemed glad for someone to talk to who might actually listen.
“I haven’t just seen her, she saved my life,” Jim said.
“Really?” I asked.
“When I was just a small boy.”
Jim shut the shop and led me to the back of the store, behind the counter. I understood then why the store was so small and cramped, it had been sectioned off into a front and back room. In the centre of the backroom was a round table covered in an ornate tablecloth with a crystal ball in the middle. This must have been where Jim did his readings, tarot or seances or whatever. Dusty curtains let some sunlight filter through the rear window. A few tapestries and mystic posters covered the walls but it was clearly just a converted storeroom.
“This is where I keep the good stuff, not the tourist crystals and books out there,” Jim said.
Jim gestured to a heavy bookcase tucked into one corner. It was much more ornate and solid than any of the shelving in the store. Books, old and new, pristine, leather bound tomes and dogeared paperbacks, were crammed across the shelves with no sense of organisation. A malformed skull, something like a baboon but perhaps too big and not quite right, was tucked into one of the corners of the upper shelf. Various boxes, newspapers and magazines were crammed among the books.
“I’d love to have a look,” I said. “But you’ve actually been saved by the mermaid?”
“When I was a boy,” Jim repeated. “It was-, I must have been only five or six years old and wanted to go swimming. It wasn’t like what it is today, back then. Children, even as young as that, we could run free and as long as we were home by dinner our parents wouldn’t worry. It was winter or autumn, not too cold but not tourist season so the beach was abandoned.”
The old hippy gestured at me to sit at the table. He sat across from me, staring intently over his small glasses with the crystal ball between us.
“I was swimming and I got caught in a rip current. I was too young to know what kind of danger I was in. It pulled me so far out, so fast, all I remember is turning around and the beach seemed like it was a mile away. No one was in sight. My mother and father didn’t know where I was. I tried to swim against it, I didn’t know any better, but I wasn’t strong enough. I kept getting dragged out until land looked very, very far away.”
“What about the mermaid?” I urged him.
“I’m getting to her,” Jim said. “This would be one of my earliest memories but I was so frightened it’s all burned into my brain. I was so far out, all I could do was paddle and try to keep my head above water, and hope for a boat to come along or something. But I was already so tired from trying to swim against the current I couldn’t keep it up for long. Soon I was swallowing water. With all the breath I had left, I cried for help.”
“I didn’t even see her at first, something just came up from below and hit me. I might have thought a shark had gotten me, but I don’t think I was thinking anything at all. She picked me up but then dragged me under again, and I saw her. Beautiful, she was so beautiful. Dark hair, floating in a halo around her head. Her face was-, unearthly. I looked down and realised she had scales on her collar, her breasts, her hands, human hands but with webbing between the fingers. Her lower body, however, was that of a fish, long and slippery with fins, sweeping from side to side in the water below us. And then she pressed her mouth onto mine. It was the kiss of life, she breathed air deep into my lungs. I vomited up the water I had already swallowed and then found I could breathe even though the surface was above my head. Every time I sucked in water it was like I was sucking in air.”
“Amazing, so the mermaid’s kiss really can keep you from drowning.”
Jim nodded. “There wasn’t much more to it, the mermaid grabbed me and we went racing through the water. I was too shocked to do anything but hold on. She was so fast, we were back at the beach in a minute. She said nothing, just pushed me back into the surf so it would wash me back in. The last thing I saw was her smiling, dark lips, the most wonderful smile, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I washed up on the shore, no one had known I’d been gone, no one had known where I’d been, but it happened, she had saved me.”
Jim seemed satisfied by the telling of his story. He leaned back with almost a smug smile, letting me absorb it. Whether it was true or not, Jim certainly seemed to believe it. I thought about Phillip and the stories of the other fishermen about meeting the mermaid. Apart from the guy who claimed to have made love to her for one solid night the stories were all about mere brushes with the strange creature. Jim could have made it all one grand adventure but it too was just a small encounter that happened to save his life.
“How do you know it wasn’t just a dream? Maybe you were on the verge of drowning and dreamed it all? And somehow you got lucky and washed up anyway.”
“You would have to take my word for it, but for years after, I couldn’t drown. It was like a party trick, I could sit on the bottom of a pool for as long as I liked, breathing in the water. Phillip might remember, I don’t know, we went to school together. I lost the power sometime around the time I turned twelve but it was there, for years, just we were kids and never realised how amazing proof of something like that would be to the adults around us.”
Jim got up from the table but gestured for me to keep sitting. He retrieved the largest of the cardboard boxes from his bookcase, marked on the side with the word ‘MERMAID’. As he flipped open the lid I could see it was full of books and magazines as well as other bits and pieces. A couple of the books I’m sure I came across in my own research, plus printed sheafs of paper or handwritten notepads, CDs, floppy discs, and a couple of figurines that looked like driftwood, mermaid figurines.
“I’ve been researching her for years now, years and years, as well as other-, phenomena,” Jim said. “If even half of it is as real as she is, then the world is a far stranger place than we give it credit for. More in Heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”
“What about her tears?” I asked. “I read that her tears can grant wishes. Can even-, can even bring back the dead.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the same stories, I can’t really confirm or deny it. The stories are all-, stories. Mostly, she refuses to give her tears away to anyone she considers unworthy, which is pretty well everyone, if they even manage to capture her. And she always gets away.”
“If you don’t want her tears, why all the research?”
Jim considered the question, wondering whether he trusted me enough to open up with the answer. “I just want to see her one more time. I’m getting to be an old man, I mean, not so old I’m ready to hang it up but when I am someday, I want to try and call her to me and see her one more time. Thank her for the life I wouldn’t have had without her.”
“You could call her to you?”
“Well, maybe, nothing is for certain.”
Jim was cagey again with me now. He wanted to share the secret, he’d had no one else to talk to about this, but we’d reached the need for another level of trust. I didn’t want to push him too hard. I didn’t think he’d keep talking to me if he realised I was primarily interested in the mermaid so I could harvest one of her tears for its wish granting abilities.
“I should really check on the shop but you’re free to stick around,” Jim said. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
I ended up going to one of the cafes on the main street to grab us two takeaway coffees, and then I hung out with Jim while he ran the store. Not that there was much to run. A few tourists browsed the crowded shelves, buying nothing. I pressed on with Jim. Instead of pushing him on how to trap the mermaid, like I really wanted, I circled around it. I talked to him about other stories about the mermaid he’d collected. Other children who’d been saved, he enjoyed talking about those, and sailors who’d heard her song. When we ran out of steam on that topic, I asked him about some of the other legends from up and down the coast, and about other items on his bookshelf in the back. He didn’t question my cover story about writing a book. Becoming easier with me, he remained grateful for the company.
I was hanging around as another bored couple came in. They browsed for almost twenty minutes, rejecting Jim’s offers of help, and I could hear them quietly making fun of some of the stock. Eventually, out of obligation, they bought a single candle. The old hippy winced through the sale, gave them their change, and they left. I weighed up his desperation. His store wasn’t doing a roaring trade and, as he himself had said, he wasn’t old enough to give it all up yet.
“A thousand dollars,” I said.
“What?” Jim asked.
“A thousand dollars, just for info,” I said. “Anything you have on the mermaid that I could use to set up a meeting. That’s all I want, I’m not going to capture her and try to sell her to the world. I just want my proof, for myself, like you got when you were saved by her.”
It was hardly a life changing amount of money. I could have offered more but I felt like it would have made him more suspicious of my motives. He had to believe I was sincere. That all I wanted was to try and meet her. Clearly, he needed the cash though. I nodded.
“I can’t promise anything,” Jim said. “I don’t know if any of it would work, I’ve never tried it.”
“I’ll take my chances,” I said. “I’ve chased the supernatural my whole life and I’ve never felt so close to coming face to face to it as I do talking to you.”
We returned to Jim’s mermaid box. First, Jim pulled out a couple of maps printed on A4 paper with oversaturated colours. They were maps of Sirendale but not regular maps, some kind of survey maps. Locations were circled in red on both maps. Locations of caves, I realised, based on the odd little bites taken out of the coastline.
“The coast around Sirendale is riddled with small caves, most not even accessible from above the surface,” Jim said. “I selected a bunch which I think are the most likely places to find her.”
“Okay, so I should check these?”
“No, no, that’s not all.” Jim held up an old school cassette tape from the box, in a case that showed it was a recordable one.
“What is that?”
“Another mermaid’s dying song. It’s-, chilling, beautiful, an extraordinary artefact.”
“On an old tape?”
“It was recorded decades ago, and it won’t transfer onto any newer medium.”
“I don’t get it, so, maps and a tape of a dying song?”
Jim was excited. I might have had to bribe him to put him over the line but it was clear he badly wanted to show off what he had. This was his life’s work, after all.
“The mermaid is all alone, she sings for more members of her kind,” Jim said. “My plan was to go down to one of those caves and play that tape so that she could hear it. She hears the dying song of one of her people, she’ll come rushing to find them before they pass.”
I nodded, feigning amazement. Part of me thought the mermaid might be pretty upset to come racing to the aid of a dying member of her kind and find she’d been tricked but that didn’t really bother me. A plan was already starting to come together in my head.
“For a thousand dollars, I’ll make you a copy of the maps and you can borrow the tape. And you have to tell me if it works.”
Jim hadn’t seemed to think all the angles through. He was desperate to see this happen but too frightened to try it for himself. I wasn’t going to argue, however. Provided the mermaid was not some shared delusion, this was my only chance to bring Astrid back. Everything had led me here. I agreed and left to get money from an ATM.
With Jim’s maps, instructions, and a couple of days hiking and searching I found my staging area. Beneath one of the hills well outside of town was a perfect cave. A large crack in the headland was partially overgrown by brush, long but narrow. I shimmied down inside it. I was no experienced spelunker and had already given up on a number of caves because the only access was underwater or too tight, enough that I’d be afraid I’d get stuck if I went any further. Getting stuck when some of these caves were well out of the way and largely unknown was out of the question, I might scream and scream for days without anyone coming to find me. I had a good pair of boots, a backpack, a waterproof flashlight, but no ropes, no pistons, no special cave-diving equipment.
Rock squeezed my chest. Wriggling and writhing through, I felt a drop under my feet and my heart leapt in my chest. I fell and stumbled, loose rocks under the soles of my boots as I grabbed for the rough walls. They opened out so I was no longer being squished. Heart beating hard, I steadied myself until I was sure it was okay and reached for my flashlight. The beam swept around the inside of the cave. Cold and damp, the air was salty and stuck to my lungs.
A flat expanse of rock littered with more loose stones circled a pool of water fresh from the ocean. Crashing waves echoed through the cave like a giant seashell. I could see just enough of a gap above the waterline of the pool to see a lower entrance that led all the way outside, so water flowed in and out of the cave on the tide. Casting the light around, I could tell I wasn’t the only person to have discovered the cave. Crumpled beer cans and the scattered remains of a small campfire lay among the rocks. I found a shredded pair of panties and the dried up worm of a used condom as well, unfortunately. All the trash looked dusty and faded. Relics of a bygone age.
Soon as I’d taken it all in, a plan formed in my head. I spent a little while measuring and sketching it out. The pool stretched about five or six strides from the front wall of the cave and was narrow enough that I could have jumped across it with a running leap. At its deepest point, I could have stood straight and kept my head above water. Big enough for the mermaid to enter but not enough room to hide. The second cave entrance, where the water flowed in and out, was roughly half the size of an average doorway. A crack in the rock that would be easy enough to squeeze through, and easy enough to block.
I climbed back up the narrow passage, squeezed tightly around the shoulders. I kept the flashlight in hand until I could see sunlight. Prying myself out with my hands and elbows, I crawled back onto the spiny brush and grass.
Over the next few days I got together everything I would need to see my plan through. First stop was a massive hardware store where I did most of my shopping. Funnily enough, it took me the longest time to find something to play the tape with the mermaid song. I went to a department store, a couple of electronics places and even a couple of Sirendale’s op shops. Finally I figured out I could buy a tape player online and kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner. I bought a boombox, retro but brand new, made by a company that produced them for whatever reason. I had it express delivered to the motel. The bored receptionist who seemed to be there most of the time took the delivery, and seemed to be wondering why the hell I was staying with them so long I was now getting packages delivered.
Setting the boombox up in my room, I slotted in Jim’s tape. The medium was old and scratchy. Bent over the table, I listened intently. In the background of the recording was something bumping around and lowered voices speaking in Spanish or Italian. Then a voice cut through like nothing I had ever heard before. I grabbed the volume knob, twisting it down as if worried about someone overhearing something embarrassing. It was so alien, like some kind of strange instrument, and yet so alive it could only come from a living throat. Whale song was the closest analogue I could think of but in a woman’s voice that quavered up and down the register into notes I didn’t think any human being could sing. And it was in pain, so much pain that it was dying seemed self-evident. Nightmarish and yet so beautiful. It was what the moth felt as it got too close to the flame, engulfed in luminescence only to realise its wings were burning.
Images rose unbidden from my mind. Astrid first and foremost. The sight of her in the bloody tub, face still, unfinished mermaid tattoo on her arm. But memories from childhood as well, at the funeral for my grandmother. When my pet dog Smokey died. A pet fish I’d had when I was very young. I’d scooped it out of the bowl, watched it flop on the tabletop in a puddle, and when it stopped moving I was struck with the feeling I’d done something very, very wrong. Simultaneously, I wanted this grief to be over and yet to feel something so strong and so pure, I never wanted it to end. Touching my cheek, my hand came away wet and I realised I was crying as hard as I had ever cried for this strange creature dying away from its own kind, in pain, in some far removed place and time.
The tape ended. It hissed as it spooled through the player. Eventually, with a shaking hand, I managed to hit the stop button. I had my bait.
Transporting the equipment I needed into the cave was awkward and time-consuming. Setting up was also difficult. Luckily, the narrow entrance was big enough to angle the metal grate I had bought at the hardware store down into the cave. I needed several drill bits and batteries to bore holes into the rock above the second, underwater entrance, and the noise it made echoing through the cave was mind-numbingly loud. I’d started first thing in the morning and by the end of the afternoon I was exhausted, sweaty and drained, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I’d assembled my trap. On my last trip I brought down the tape player and the last of what I needed.
The cave was lit by three camping lanterns. I kept a flashlight clipped to my belt though and spare batteries in my pockets, I didn’t want to get left down there in the dark. Salt filled the air. Waves lapped constantly. Tides might rise and fall but down in the cave it didn’t matter if it was day or night, everything else was the same.
At the sea entrance to the cave I had built a gate, hinged to the uneven rock wall and weighed down by cinder blocks. It was propped open for the moment. Actually I really only had one shot when I dropped it, the weight and awkward spot it was in would make it difficult to reset. Directly across from the sea entrance I set up the boombox I’d bought online. The tape with the mermaid’s death song was already inside it.
Simple as it was, I went over the setup again and again. I was waiting until dusk before starting the song after all. Dusk and dawn were when the mermaid seemed to be most active based on everything I’d read and heard. When the fishermen saw her leaping or singing. After looking over my arrangement for the fiftieth time, I checked my phone impatiently.
Weighing a chain in my hand, I looked over how it led to the metal pipe I’d used to prop up the gate. One hard yank, the pipe would come free. The gate would come crashing down and seal the entrance. Anything in the pool bigger than a fish would be trapped. In my other hand was a smooth, cool shaft. A cattle prod I had bought from a farm supplies store, it had almost been too easy. It looked like a black baton almost three foot long which ended in a forked tip. Touched to skin, or a conductor like water or metal, and triggered, it could deliver a shock up to six thousand volts. Enough to stun a human and deliver an incredibly painful jolt. I didn’t want to use it, of course, but according to all the stories the mermaid didn’t give up her tears easily. I needed that tear, just one. Nothing else mattered. I would not leave this cave until I had it, and neither would the mermaid. I flicked my finger along the handle. It was heavy, inert, but full of potential.
An alarm chirped on my phone. Nothing in the cave had changed but outside the sun would be setting. Light filtering over the land and the sea going dark. My heart was leaping in my chest. Maybe this would all come to nothing. Maybe I’d be at it for days. Maybe something would happen as soon as I hit play. I paced over to the boombox and, with a trembling finger, pressed the play button. I turned the volume up as high as it would go. The buzz on the tape grew loud and those indistinct voices in Spanish or Greek or whatever were as loud as they would be if they’d been standing in the same room shouting at me.
“Show time,” I said.
The cave acted as an amplifier. The mermaid’s death song started echoing off the walls, haunting and alien. I retreated across the cave to sit near the sea entrance. It was still loud. A diamond drill boring into my skull with its dark beauty. I had a set of protective headphones I’d worn when using the electric drill, otherwise I’d have gone deaf, but even they didn’t seem to do much. Cusping my hands over my ears, I waited. So much pain, so many memories. By the time the sound died down and all that was left was the whirr of the empty reels of tape going through the machine I was sobbing. Tears rolled down my face. Water lapped the sides of the pool, no change. Wiping my tears, I crossed to the player, rewound, and pressed play again.
Over an hour later, I was empty of grief, of feeling, as if it had all been hollowed out of me. I’d lost sight, really, of what I was even doing. Tears dried on my cheeks, indistinguishable from the salt already in the air. Routine kept me going. Rewind, press play, wait by the trap until it was over, return to the player, rewind, play, wait by the trap. My head throbbed from the sheer wall of sound even with the headphones and I felt half-insane but clung to the routine and to hope. It would be fully dark outside by now but my camping lanterns lit the cave warmly.
Something missiled through the mouth of the underwater entrance, so fast water sprayed from the surface of the pool. I jumped as the splash hit me. I got a glimpse of pale flesh, arms, and long, dark fins. The arrival pulled up hard at the far end of the pool, splashing more water. I saw dark hair draped over ivory shoulders. It was real, the mermaid, brought here by the song! I was so stunned, I almost froze. Remembering the chain laying across my lap, I gave it a hard yank and pulled the pole out from under the gate.
With a rattling crash, the gate, anchored by chains and cinder blocks, fell and hit the water. It sploshed, sending up a small tidal wave. The reaction in the pool was electric. The creature whirled, sending another spray off the surface, and darted back toward the entry. They realised immediately it was a trap. Once it hit the water, the gate and cinder blocks slowed slightly, water billowing outward, but the gate sank into position just in time. Something hit the metal with a clang. The hinges shook. I stared in amazement for a few moments then scrambled to pick up the metal pole. There was a latch attached to the metal grid and the rock wall. I wedged the pole through it and padlocked it. The cinder blocks were too heavy to lift and the latch would hold the gate.
I could see movement under the water’s surface. It really did look like a creature with the upper body of a woman and a serpentine lower body graced with fins, but it was hard to fully make out. The gate shook with shocking strength. It was a good thing I’d drilled the holes for the bolts so deep, and chained on the cinder blocks, because the metal grate slammed back and forth as far as what little wiggle room there was would allow. The mermaid was strong but I guess it would have to be to swim inside as fast as it had.
“Stop that!” I said. “Get back from there!”
The tape with the other mermaid’s death song wailed with all its intense, agonising beauty, loud enough to cut through my head like a buzzsaw. I couldn’t think. Hurrying back to the tape player, I hammered the stop button. Silence loomed, filling the cave. At the entrance, the gate and chains attached to the wall clattered. Ripples flowed across the pool, violent and uneven, splattering the sides.
“Move away from there! Stop it!”
Seeing how strong the mermaid was, I was genuinely afraid the gate I’d built wouldn’t be enough. If I let her get away, I’d never see her again. To brush against this whole other world running alongside the one I knew and then to lose everything I’d worked towards would be devastating. The same bait would never work twice.
In my hand, the handle of the cattle prod was dense and smooth. Running across the cave, I jammed the forks of the baton into the metal grate where it stuck out of the water. Sparks crackled and zapped, filling the air with the smell of burnt ozone. In the water, the dark silhouette of the mermaid thrashed, sending up plumes of spray, and flung itself backward. I stopped triggering the prod and drew away, breathing hard. My heart was pounding in my chest and my mouth tasted like copper.
The mermaid shot back into the main body of the pool. It reminded me of a Siamese fighting fish, all swirling, dark and diaphanous fins as it tucked itself into a ball in the deepest corner. I pulled my headphones off and tossed them across the cave as I circled the pool.
“Hey, hey, come up here,” I said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you but you made me! I need you, I couldn’t let you leave!”
Pacing, I continued to talk to the mermaid, trying to apologise and cajole her. Beneath the water, in the low light, I could just barely see the creature. Any picture I might have taken would have been denounced as fake and impossible to make out. But the reality slowly settled on me. A mermaid, I’d really caught a mermaid. I’d always been convinced that there were other things out there, and the alien sound on the tape Jim had given me was proof of something inhuman. But a real, live, mythical creature, here, in front of me. And I was so close to what I needed from it, for Astrid. For over ten minutes, I tried talking but the mermaid didn’t move. It was as if the mermaid thought if it ignored me for long enough I would just go away. In frustration, I raised the cattle prod and shook it over the pool.
“Don’t make me hurt you! I don’t want to, but if you won’t come up here I’ll have to zap you.”
No reaction from beneath the pool. Waves swelled from under the surface, through the bars of the gate, and lapped the surrounding rocks. Eventually, I applied the forks of the cattle prod to the surface and triggered it. Sparks exploded backward with a nasty, sputtering bug zapper sound. It was hard to say if it did anything or if the water diffused the shock too fast. The mermaid didn’t move.
I couldn’t go in after her, I’d be in her element then. Behind me, at the back of the cave, was a big canvas bag. It rattled as I turned it and pulled the zipper open. Inside were tools that I didn’t want to use but had brought with me, just in case. From within, I removed a machete in a hard plastic sheath. A short pole with a hook attached to one end, meant for snaring fishing pots, and a brand new speargun. All things I’d bought at Sirendale’s biggest hardware store or various camping and fishing stores. The speargun was made of plastic with a long rubber hoop that had to be pulled back and latched to a trigger device. It came with several short harpoons, metal with barbed heads, that could be tied off at the end to a thin rope. Clumsily, I loaded one of the spears, pulling the rubber hoop back. I’d practiced loading and firing a bunch of times to get some idea of how to use it. I stood over the pool, speargun pointed down.
“Come up, you’re mine now!” I said. “I don’t want to hurt you but-, you’re going to make me if you don’t come up! I’ll shoot you with this and drag you out.”
The mermaid stirred. I saw what seemed to be her head lift, dark hair wafting through the tidal pool. I couldn’t be sure if she could really hear me or understand me. The pale flesh of her back became clearer, however. She curled and rose to the surface as I stepped away warily, not wanting to be within arm’s reach of the pool.
Dark hair pasted across her head and shoulders, the mermaid surfaced. Beautiful, she was beautiful, but in a dangerous way. Beautiful like a chemical fire. Beautiful like the pattern on a venomous snake or some kind of deadly sea creature. The hard, sharp face of a catwalk model with an expression almost alien in its severity. Her eyes were too large and the green of her irises and black of her pupils crowded out almost all the white. A small mouth, angular cheekbones, and pointed chin. Tangles of hair, black as ink, draped her collar but didn’t reach far enough to cover her breasts which were small and high and firm, tipped with dark nipples. Pale, her shoulders were broad and arms muscled for an otherwise small woman.
Water lapped around the mermaid’s midsection. She regarded me with a cold fury in her alien eyes. Cradling the speargun in one hand, I backed up even further and fetched one of the camping lanterns. Beneath the surface, I could see her stomach and hips blend into a fishy lower body. From the waist down, a serpentine tail coiled under her, scaly and so dark green it was almost black. Billowy fins fanned off the sides like veils. My heart was pounding, mouth dry. The mermaid didn’t move as I observed her, only turning her face ever so slightly to watch me with those big, green eyes, like one of those paintings that faced you no matter where in the room you stood.
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry I had to trap you, but-, you’re real. You’re really, really real.”
I was so excited I could hardly speak. I had proof of something not of the known world. I could keep her chained up in here. I could sell tickets. I could drag her out and show the news. I could be rich and famous, all on the strength of my own belief and determination. But it wasn’t riches and fame I’d come here for. I’d come for my Astrid. With shaking hands, I pulled a tiny plastic cup out of my pocket, like a specimen jar.
“I need a tear, just one tear,” I said. “It’s for my girlfriend, you see. For her, I just need one tear from you.”
Sinuous, the mermaid swayed from side to side on her muscular tail. Her eyes were cold, and she made no reply. I wondered again if she actually understood me. Certainly the song on the tape had contained no human words in any language, it was possible she didn’t speak or understand any English.
“Can you understand me? I need a tear, just one, and I’ll let you go.”
I mimed the passage of a tear down one cheek, frowning exaggeratedly like a sad clown. The mermaid’s thin lips quirked in contempt. She turned, swimming back to the gate covering the cave’s sea entrance. Wrapping her hands around it, she rattled and yanked at the chains.
“Hey, no! No!” I shouted.
Crossing the cave again, I fumbled with the cattle prod. Ramming it into the gate, I hit the button to trigger it and the mermaid went rigid. She hissed with pain until I stopped. Nursing her hands, the mermaid shot back across the pool. They were webbed, I realised. Thin films of skin ran between each digit on her hands. She sank low in the water until waves lapped at her chin, glaring at me. I held the baton loosely as I considered my next move.
“I didn’t want to hurt you, I’m a good guy,” I said. “I just need one tear from you.”
The mermaid drew herself up on her powerful tail and spoke in a voice that barely rose above a rasp, as if it were rarely used. “I will never,” she said. “I will not cry for you.”
“You can talk, you can understand me,” I stammered.
“Yes.” The mermaid glared back.
“Please, be reasonable, I know we’ve gotten off on the wrong-, foot, but all I want is one tear! You’re trapped, you won’t be able to leave until you give me what I want. And I don’t want it for some evil reason, I’m not a bad guy! My girlfriend-, died. She took her own life. I searched and I searched for a way to bring her back. I won’t let her go, and I won’t let you go. Your tear is the only thing that can bring her back to me.”
The mermaid said nothing. Her eyes simmered with anger and contempt. As she sat above the water, steadying her breathing, I noticed her gills for the first time. Pinkish slits started behind her ears and curved down the sides of her throat like scimitars. They parted as she inhaled and exhaled, inescapably sexual and all the more disturbing for the connotation.
I pleaded with the mermaid, I begged. I cajoled and reasoned, and ultimately threatened. Waves flowed in and out of the barred gate, rising and falling. I kept her away from the entrance and she stayed low in the water as if taking a bath, still as a lizard, but beneath the water I could see her finned tail furling in agitation. The cold in the cave didn’t seem to bother her at all. Nothing made any kind of impression on her. She was as stubborn as granite. It seemed like the walls of the cave would erode under the battering of the sea before her resolve would erode from my pleading.
In the story of the fisherman and his dead son, the mermaid hadn’t given up her tear no matter how long he begged either. It was only once he let her go she rewarded him. But the fisherman only caught the mermaid by accident. I doubted the same tactic would work when I had trapped her deliberately. I considered the cattle prod, the speargun, and the other tools. Suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration. I crossed to the tape player, which had been ignored since I trapped the mermaid.
“Okay, okay, you don’t want to listen to me?” I said. “Listen to this.”
Rewinding the tape again to the beginning, I pressed play. Each time I had listened to the tape it had driven me to sobbing. The pain, the loneliness, the alien despair. Surely it would be worse for the mermaid because it was one of her kind. It was what had brought her zipping into the cave after all.
I held the blaring boombox dangling from one hand and pointed it at the pool. Pointed it at the mermaid herself. I had worn myself out on the song before, poured out all the pain that came with listening to it, but I’d had some time to recover and the sound shook me again. I managed to avoid crying but I started shaking, breathing hard, as the voice unloaded a lifetime through the speakers. A whole lifetime and a very, very long one, not all of it sad, not all of it lonely, but all of it lost now. Memories surfaced unbidden, bubbling to the front of my mind and popping open.
Unfortunately, the mermaid kept from crying as well. She had circled the pool to keep me right in front of her, staring. It was her first time listening, the sound must have been hitting her harder. Her angular model’s face had been totally stoic but it shook, bottom lip quivering, but she did not cry. I waited until the song ended and there was just the soft hiss of the unused portion of tape feeding through then I stopped it and rewound.
“I can see it’s getting to you,” I said. “I can do this over and over again. It’s sad, right? Well, just let it out. Let it out, okay?”
The mermaid gave no reaction but her jawline was quivering. I pressed play and the tape started. Setting it down, I kept watching the mermaid for a sign and covered my own ears. It did little to block the sound and the sorrow cut through me. The mermaid made no attempt to block it out. She bore it all. Staring at me, trying to set her jaw, she wouldn’t cry. I repeated the process several times. As I’d hoped, the first few times seemed to wear down her resistance but the mermaid didn’t cry and instead began to regain her composure. Her face returned to its stern expression, beautiful and stoic as a marble statue.
“Fuck me.” I hammered the boombox’s stop button. “Okay, so you’re a pretty tough cookie, huh?”
In spite of the fact I knew the mermaid spoke and understood English, she made no reply. I hugged my knees and we regarded one another. I’d told her over and over that she wouldn’t leave until I had a tear but she didn’t seem to care.
Looking over at the bag of tools, I considered my options. Alien as she seemed emotionally, I knew the mermaid could feel pain. She had backed off, nursing her hands, when I shocked the gate. Torture, I’d come prepared to go all the way if I had to but now I didn’t know if I had the stomach for it. I imagined carving bits off the beautiful creature, dark blood mingling with seawater. And something told me no amount of pain would make the mermaid cry or beg. There was too much wild animal in her even if half of her looked human. She might sing beautifully and rescue children but at the core of her was something as tough and cruel as the sea itself.
As much as I’d begged and bargained, I hadn’t really tried explaining just why I needed the tear in the first place. Maybe I just needed her to understand what had happened to me. If I just told her the truth, the whole truth, maybe that would be enough?
“Astrid, Astrid was my girlfriend, I met her when I was in university,” I started to explain.
I didn’t plan what I was going to say, it just flooded out of me. I told her everything about my relationship with Astrid. Our first meeting, pursuing her, how hard I’d had to work to convince her we had something special. Our first date, other dates I’d taken her on. Ups and downs, moving in together, almost breaking up and making up, convincing her to stay. On and on until I reached the night I’d come home to find her in the bathtub. I told her about the incomplete mermaid tattoo, the pinkish water. I told the mermaid everything I’d done in the belief I could bring her back. How hard I’d worked to track down a solution until I found her.
“So, here we are,” I said. “Please, you’re my only hope.”
My mouth was dry from talking. I had zoned out, staring into space and not thinking about anything except the words tumbling out of my mouth. Blinking, I refocused and looked down at the mermaid. She was standing straight, waves lapping around her breasts. Her face was stiff as ever. She had listened to my story intently, however, and I saw a glisten in one of her eyes that hadn’t been there before.
“Wait, are you-, is that?”
The mermaid didn’t reply but I could see her bottom lip quivering. My story had won her over. My love, my obvious dedication. Shooting upright, I scrambled for the small plastic container I’d stuffed into my pocket. It was round and clear with a screw top lid, like a specimen jar.
“Yes, yes, thank you,” I said. “Just one tear, just one tear for me and you can go.”
I pressed the container against the mermaid’s cheek, her flesh pale and cold as a fish. Her right eye glistened. A single, perfect tear slid loose. It dribbled down her face and into the specimen cup. Fat and glistening, somehow ripe with potential.
“I’m not crying for you, I’m crying for that girl,” the mermaid said, her voice ethereal and watery and not of this world, like fracturing ice.
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said.
Whatever she needed to tell herself, I thought. Wild and tough as she may have been, the mermaid was a woman. My love had touched her and her emotions had gotten the best of her. I retracted the jar carefully, desperate not to spill it into the water. The mermaid made no move to stop me although her stare was as hateful as ever. Carefully, I threaded the lid back onto the cup.
Retreating across the cave, I stuffed the cup safely into my pocket. The mermaid watched with no sense of expectation. I had the tear, and I still had her. I suppose a lesser man might have gotten greedy. The thought did occur to me, to keep her trapped would mean the possibility of bargaining more wishes from her. But I had gotten what I came for, and got the sense I would never, ever get any more, even if it meant killing this beautiful and astonishingly rare creature. I even suspected there might be some form of karmic retribution in store if I was too tempted by greed, like a character in some kind of fairytale. Best to tell myself I’d won, and be gone.
Before I did anything else, I repackaged the tools into the canvas bag. I took the tape player and one of the camping lanterns as well. The other two lanterns I left behind. The mermaid had returned to her living painting act, watching me from the pool without really moving. One tear and her eyes had dried up, her lip had stopped shaking.
I fished a metal loop with several keys out of another pocket. “These are for the padlocks, you can unlock the bar attached to the wall, and chains around the cinder blocks, and you’ll be able to lift the gate and leave easily.”
I lobbed the keys gently toward the mermaid but she made no attempt to catch them and they fell into the water in front of her. Clearly the mermaid could find them for herself after I left. Those big eyes were made for much deeper, darker water than in this cave. I spent a few more moments taking her in, as if painting a picture in my memory. The wet hair, the beautiful and indifferent face. Broad shoulders, high breasts, dark tail coiled beneath her. I might never see a thing like her ever again. My mind, however, was already on another miracle. The thought of my Astrid returning to me.
“And thank you, again,” I said. “That may not mean anything to you but you’ve given me a second chance. I’ll never forget about you, until the day I die.”
I was at the graveyard where Astrid was buried the next morning as soon as dawn broke. I’d driven home without stopping in Sirendale. There was nothing I’d left at the hotel worth returning for. I would mail the tape of the mermaid’s death song back to Jim when things had settled. Nothing was as urgent as getting back and completing my wish. Elated and invigorated as I’d felt, it had been a long day and my eyes did start to get heavy once the adrenaline sapped out of me. I’d figured there’d be no sense trying to get into the graveyard at three in the morning either so I’d pulled into a rest area and went to sleep in the car for a few hours. As soon as I woke up, feeling refreshed, I got back on the road.
Mist clung to grass and gravestones. Buttery light filtered through the copse of trees to the east. Decayed flowers littered Astrid’s grave along with some water stained photos and other mementos suffering from exposure. I seemed to be the only person in the graveyard, which wasn’t surprising at that time of morning. Apart from the muted sound of traffic in the distance, I felt like I could be the only person around for miles.
“Okay, we’re doing this,” I said. “We’re really doing this.”
Pulling the jar containing the tear out of my pocket, I rolled it uneasily between my fingers. You would expect the tear to evaporate or to have smeared itself to pieces on the side of the jar, in which case I would have buried the whole specimen cup in the dirt, but it was still in one piece. There was no ritual I was aware of. The story about the fisherman who’d lost his son just involved him pouring the mermaid’s tear back into the ocean. I unscrewed the lid of the container.
“Astrid, I wish my Astrid would come back to me.”
Tipping the container upside down, I poured the tear out. Hitting the surface of Astrid’s grave, it soaked into the dirt and disappeared. I repeated the wish just in case it made a difference. There was no external sign of something magical happening. No swirling vortex of clouds gathering overhead. No whispering voices at the edge of hearing slowly gained strength on the verge of an orchestral swell.
I waited for a little while as the sun kept rising and the mist burned off throughout the graveyard. Nothing happened, but I was not discouraged. I could feel it inside myself, even if nothing seemed to change. But a watched kettle never boiled as the saying went. I screwed the lid back onto the specimen cup, stuck it back in my pocket, and retreated to my car.
“I’ll see you soon, Astrid.”
That night I sat in my living room and waited. I’d spent the rest of the day doing chores that had been ignored, making the house ready as if for guests. Far from becoming discouraged as hours passed I became more and more excited. The certainty I felt couldn’t really be explained logically but I guess after capturing a real live mermaid and being given one of her wish granting tears, very little seemed impossible.
Wind picked up as it got dark, like a storm coming. It howled against the windows and sides of the house. Loud enough that I almost didn’t hear the knocks. I sat up straighter in my armchair. I had switched the lamps on around the room but the TV was off and apart from the wind the room was silent. The knocking came again, light, slow and hesitant. I stood up and hurried to the front door.
“Oh, my God,” I said, throwing open the front door.
Astrid stood on the front stoop wearing the dress she’d been buried in, hair hanging over her face. Her shoulders slumped, arms at her sides. She was caked in dirt, gravedirt. Though it wasn’t raining yet she looked wet, turning the dirt to mud.
I leapt forward and hugged her without hesitation. I didn’t care that the filth covering her rubbed off on the nice shirt and jeans I’d put on in anticipation of our reunion. Or that her flesh felt icy cold. She didn’t really react, arms staying at her sides. All of this must have been quite a shock. I didn’t care, she was home.
“I’ve got you back, I brought you back, Astrid.”
I guided Astrid inside and looked around, seeing no one and nothing else outside before closing the door behind us. Astrid shuffled forward. She’d lost one of her shoes and left dirty footprints on the carpet behind her. Her face hung down, unreadable behind a curtain of dirty hair. Every movement was stiff and she felt so, so cold.
“Astrid? Astrid, I’m so glad you’re home! I know this must be strange, so strange, but I did this. I brought you back to me, back to us. I’ve got so much to tell you.”
Astrid went where I steered her. I saw her eyes moving when I spoke, her face almost flinching as if everything was too loud, too bright, too new. All the same, I felt like my grin was so wide it would split my face in two.
I had to get some of this grave filth off of her. And to warm her up, she was so cold and muddy. Steering her into the bathroom, I started to fill the bathtub. It was the same tub where she’d killed herself, of course, but that didn’t matter now that she was back. Steam rose from the water. Astrid stood by the bathroom door, head down, dirt dribbling off her, like a robot waiting for its next instruction. Or a zombie, of the old school Haitian type.
“Astrid, it’s going to be okay now,” I said. “Let’s get you clean and warm.”
Eventually, I had to get a pair of kitchen shears to hack Astrid out of her funeral dress. It had been beautiful, white and lacy, her graduation dress, but it was ruined now with ingrained dirt and what might have been stains from rot. She didn’t help but didn’t resist either. Under her dress she was all in one piece, not rotting but pale with root systems of black veins where she wasn’t covered in dirt.
I guided her into the tub. Despite the heat, Astrid didn’t react. Dirt immediately started to slough off her and turn the water a murky brown. Picking up a bar of soap, I ran it over her legs, her arms and shoulders. I hadn’t made much of an impact before the water was soupy and black. I drained the tub and refilled it. Astrid’s hair was practically one big lump of mud.
“There was a mermaid, Astrid. A real mermaid, I tracked her down and trapped her, and let her go in exchange for a tear.”
I talked and talked as I cleaned her, explaining everything I’d been through since she died. It was all a shock, but I would clean her up and soon she would be back to normal. Under the dirt she was paler than she’d been before and veins stood out under her skin as if the blood had frozen into black ice. Sutures lined both of her forearms. The wounds she’d killed herself with hadn’t healed but were bloodless flaps of skin held closed with surgical staples. I was careful as I cleaned around them. They reminded me of the mermaid’s gills.
I shampooed Astrid’s hair repeatedly. She almost resembled the mermaid, I thought, once the dirt was cleaned off of her and her hair draped back from her face. The pale skin brought out her resemblance. They both had dark hair and the same slender frame, small, high breasts, although Astrid wasn’t broadened and muscular from swimming. Nor did she have webbed hands. Their faces were different shapes, and Astrid was nowhere near as angular as the mermaid. Actually, I wasn’t sure why I’d thought they were so similar for a moment. There was something new about Astrid, something stern and alien the same as the mermaid. I washed the dirt off her upper arm where the tattoo of the mermaid she’d never gotten coloured in was inked. Well, there was time to do that now. Time for so many more things.
Stroking the last strands of hair back from Astrid’s face, I beamed. Naked, she was sitting upright, knees tucked up against her chest. Her nudity and vulnerability stirred me but I could tell that would be too much, too soon. Besides, the water had failed to warm her up.
“You wouldn’t let me go,” Astrid said.
I almost didn’t hear her, but I saw her lips move and just barely caught what she said. I almost jumped. Soon as I’d run it through my head though I grinned broadly. She was starting to come around and understand.
“No, no, I wouldn’t let you go, I would never let you go,” I said.
Astrid hesitated, not meeting my eyes for almost a minute. “You wouldn’t let me go.”
“No, I’ll never let you go, I love you so much. I’d go to the ends of the earth to bring you back if I had to.”
“You-, love me?”
“That’s right, that’s right, I love you.”
“You said you-, loved me, every day, you loved me,” Astrid’s words were stiff and stumbling, like her movements. “That no one would ever love me like you do. You said you would kill yourself if I left you.”
I laughed, reached across the tub and hugged her. My shirt was still dirty and she left a wet patch down the front as well. Nodules of spine stuck out against the pale flesh down her back.
“I just said that to stop you from leaving, I didn’t mean it,” I said. “Come on, baby, I don’t know why you did what you did but it doesn’t matter now, we’re together again.”
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’ve got you now, and I’m never letting go. I told you I would never, ever, ever let you go, no matter what you said, what your parents said, your friends. You’re always going to be mine.”
Astrid’s body shook but she made no real reply. Clearly her mind was mixed up but her talking was a good sign. I got her out of the tub and dried her off. She stood there and let me, again not resisting and not cooperating either. Even if she didn’t come back, I could get used to her in this unthinking and obedient way. I couldn’t dry away the chill and somehow she stayed damp. It was almost like she kept sweating ice cold water, and she smelled vaguely like a hospital corridor no matter what I did.
“Let’s get to bed, okay? It will all look better in the morning.”
Dressing Astrid seemed too difficult in her current state so I put her to bed naked and piled on some blankets. She lay unmoving, facing the hall. I dressed warmly and climbed in behind her, pressing myself to her naked form. Astrid was cold and unmoving, I don’t think she even breathed. I hoped my body heat would warm her up but it didn’t seem to work. Eventually, I started shivering and felt the damp of her body soaking through my pyjamas.
“God, baby, you’re like a slab of ice,” I said. “Don’t worry, our love can conquer anything. My love for you can conquer anything.”
I hadn’t slept much last night nor napped during the day in anticipation, and maneuvering Astrid around to wash and dry her had been surprisingly physical. In spite of everything, I quickly fell asleep. A hole deep and black and dreamless but filled with satisfaction.
I awoke again feeling hot and sweaty. It was impossible to say how long I’d been asleep without looking at my phone but it was pitch black, sometime in the middle of the night. The blankets had been carelessly tossed over me and I had gotten so overheated I’d eventually woken up. Groping, I found the other side of the bed empty but soaked with cold water. It was almost as if Astrid had melted into a puddle, like an ice sculpture left in the sun
A sliver of light came from the hallway. I rolled upright and stumbled to the door. From down the hall, I could hear water, a soft, dull roar as if of the distant ocean. It reminded me so suddenly of the mermaid’s cave I wondered if I was really dreaming. If when I pulled the bedroom door open I’d find myself back there, the sliver of light coming from the camping lanterns and the sound from the waves gushing in and out of the cave mouth, the smell of salt in the air.
When I pulled the door open, however, it was only my hallway. The light came from the bathroom door, ajar. So did the sound of running water. Blinking myself awake, I stumbled toward it. Not the mermaid but Astrid.
“Oh, what the heck?”
Water trickled onto the hallway’s wooden flooring and completely covered the bathroom floor. The two bath mats looked like grey sponges. Astrid stood over the tub, staring at it. Her buttocks were pursed, her shoulders and spine tense as guitar strings. In the fluorescents of the bathroom she looked as pale as ever, with branch systems of black veins under the skin. She had clearly turned the bathtub on and was now watching it overflow, water pouring down the side and onto the floor.
“What are you doing?” I said. “No, no! Not time for a bath now, bedtime, you’re meant to be in bed.”
I guess I’d quickly adjusted to talking to Astrid like a child. Astrid had always needed me to make decisions for her anyway. The water was warm between my toes as I crossed the bathroom. Astrid didn’t react as I reached over the tub and turned off both taps. The last of the overflow waterfalled over the lip of the tub and splattered the tiles at my feet. I straightened and tried to look her in the eyes, although her face was hanging down again.
“What are you thinking? You’ve made a mess, we’re going to have to clean this up in the morning. Come back to bed.”
Astrid didn’t react for several long moments, hair in her face, shoulders tensed. “You wouldn’t let me go.”
“No, I wouldn’t let you go.” I felt a hard stab of annoyance in spite of myself. “Do you know everything I’ve been through with you gone? I brought you back because you belong with me.”
Astrid surprised me by shoving me, hard. Harder than I would have thought her capable of. Her hands shot out like pistons and caught me in the chest. I tripped over the overful tub, bounced off the wall and fell so I was sitting up in the water with a splash. I jarred my elbow and my head in the fall, leaving me dizzy and not sure what hurt the most.
“Ow! Astrid, that hurt!” I said. “What do you think-,”
I was soaking wet. Bathwater had splattered the walls and ran over the sides again. Astrid seized me by the shoulders and yanked me around so my legs were pulled into the tub and my head was now facing one end of the bath. She had strength I’d never known her to have. Strength she couldn’t have possibly had when she was alive. Before I could control what was happening, she slammed my face under the water.
“You made me feel worthless!” Astrid hissed like some kind of wild animal. “You made me feel unlovable! You made me feel that I could have no one but you!”
I struggled my way to the surface for a moment. “Astrid, stop!”
Astrid shoved me back down. Bubbles streamed from my mouth. I grabbed her arms and tried to push her away. Slender and lovely as they still were, there were muscles like corded steel under her pale skin. It was my Astrid though, I was sure, somewhere in there, it was my Astrid.
“Worthless, you made me feel, picking, picking, picking in a thousand ways when I trusted you!” Astrid snarled. “You separated me from everyone! You said you would hurt yourself if I ever left you! You made me feel so guilty, so alone!”
Astrid let up for just long enough that I struggled to the surface again, knowing that if I didn’t get her to stop she would drown me. “Astrid, I love you!”
“You don’t know what love is!” Astrid screamed.
Back down, she slammed me into the water. Air exploded from my mouth as she gripped me by the collar and drove her fists into my chest. I couldn’t understand why she was doing this, or the things she was saying. Everything I’d done, I’d done for us. Yes, sometimes I’d focused on her negatives to make her stay. I’d lured her from her friends and family so we’d only have each other, and told her things like I’d hurt myself if she left, but it was all for her own good! It was for the good of us. I would always be enough for her, hadn’t I proven that by now?
Through the film of water filling my eyes, Astrid’s features were contorted in animal hate. Dark hair hung in tangles around her face. In desperation, I dug my fingers into the gashes down the insides of her forearms, sutured closed with surgical staples. My fingernails sunk inside the flaps of skin. A couple of staples popped loose, and I could feel cold flesh, bloodless veins and tendons, but it made no difference. Astrid seemed to feel no pain.
“You wouldn’t let me go!” Astrid said with another snarl. “I didn’t see another way out, I couldn’t see another way! But now I do.”
My lungs burned for another breath, turning molten in my chest. My body struggled and thrashed of its own accord. Drowning took longer than you might expect. Pleading, I opened my mouth and sucked water in my lungs. Astrid pinned me to the bottom of the tub until it was over. Through the water, my eyes slid from her contorted face to the tattoo on her upper arm. The half-completed portrait of the mermaid. The last thing I saw as the pain anchored in my chest dragged me down into deep, dark blackness.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the journey. Any feedback, ratings or shares would be greatly appreciated!