“Surfacing,” by Sarah Diemer
When Alice’s brother John takes a mermaid out of the sea and drags her into the woods to die, Alice must find the courage to stand up to the worst bully she’s ever known in order to save a life.
(photo by cambiodefractal)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Fridays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Sarah Diemer
Sometimes, John drags the mermaids into the woods to die.
There are so many of them here, at Port Luca, swimming around the hulls of the ships, sunning themselves on the rocks in the harbor, begging the throw aways of the day’s catch. I know that out-of-towners seem to think they’re magic, but they’re as frequently spotted as a dolphin, or a seagull, and they’re not magic. Sometimes, they’re caught in nets, and it’s the ones in Dad’s nets, the ones on the rocks, that John targets.
He has to be in a particular mood. Angry, yes, but he’s always angry, my brother. But it takes a certain amount of planning, to catch a mermaid on the rocks, unaware, to grasp her by the hair or the flukes of her tail, then use your cronies to lift her up while she’s shrieking, screaming, because my brother has a reputation among the mermaids, just like he does at school: bully.
He brags about it. He always brags about it, that he took another one into the woods, saying the only way to get rid of their rat-like presence along the boats is to make them fear Port Luca. John’s learning to be a fisherman, Dad’s teaching him. John hates the mermaids and wants them gone.
Dad tries to talk to him about it, but Dad’s gentle, quiet. Mom’s gone, and Mom could never curb him either, but at least John listened to Mom. Sometimes.
I never know about the mermaids until hours later. And it never matters how much later, my heart always goes up into my throat, and I find a way—any way—to leave, to run down to the woods, between the cool, dark pines, find the path I know he took, the easiest path, the only path he’d seek, and then deep and deeper into the woods, until I find them. I always find them, laying still, where they’d crawled back along the path, a shimmer of fish bones and scales and long, green hair the only thing left of them.
Like fish, mermaids can’t survive without the sea.
I hate him so much, in those moments, picking up the handfuls of beautiful, pearlescent scales, holding them in my hands so the moon shines over them, flashing in the dark.
The next day, at school, always the same. Like today:
“Got another one,” he says, tipping us his nose, smirking at the boys, seated around his chair, the desks creaking under them as they perch on the tops, the old wood groaning. “She gave me this,” he says, and he holds up his wrist, shows the scratch across it, red and angry.
I sit at the desk furthest away from John, hiding my face behind my hair. I wish she’d bitten his wrist, instead of scratching, wish she’d thrashed enough to fall back into the cold water, safe from him. Alive. But she didn’t.
Last night, I tucked one of the scales into my skirt pocket. I’ve never done that before. I don’t know why I did it. I always hate him, when I find them, I always pick up the scales and the bones, so light and soft, wrap them in the long, curling hair, and take it all back to the sea. It seems right to do this, but I don’t know why, and I always whisper “I’m sorry.”
Last night, I cried. I tried to tell myself, “they’re like fish, like dolphins, like seagulls,” but I cry over them, too, when they’re caught in nets, when I find their bodies broken along the harbor, cast-offs from the boats, so wouldn’t I cry over a girl who’d looked a little like me?
No. They don’t look like me. But they have hair and eyes and pretty, curling mouths, and long fingers, and they look human, though even the babies here know they’re not human. I know they’re not human.
After school, we walk home, but never together. I walk alone, ahead of him, walking quickly, because as long as I’m out of sight, I’m out of mind. He’s walking with his “guys,” his cronies. We sweep through town, and then up along the harbor, toward home, but John’s stopped, up ahead, staring at something down among the rocks, and my stomach clenches, because he’s motioned to the boys to be quiet, finger to his lips, mouth arched in a grin.
All the time’s he’s done it, I’ve never seen, I’ve been too far ahead. I was delayed, today, because I dared to pick an apple from the church’s yard. And I wouldn’t have noticed that they stopped, if I hadn’t been so far behind, if I hadn’t heard their loud laughter…stop.
My stomach turns, and I turn with it, looking back down the path.
They’re moving down and onto the harbor’s beach, skulking quietly, out of sight of the mermaid on the far rocks, the mermaid with her back to them, plaiting her hair, combing it with a fish’s ribs.
I scream, but I’m too late. He has her. I stare in horror, sick, as he takes her hair and yanks it backwards, as the boys grab her slippery tail, flapping against the rock now, as they take her arms and hold them tight. They move as one unit, as if they’ve done this countless times, over the rocks and the sand and the beach, back up the path. Moving toward me.
They don’t know I’m here. I panic, heart crushing against my bones, but then I push back into the trees. I’m not going to run, run away. This plan forms instantly, like blood spilled: I’m going to save her.
I don’t know how. I’m trying not to think about the how, and anyway, here they are, walking past my hiding place. She’s struggling, kicking out with her tail, and when I look at my brother’s face, everything in me drains away, cold. He looks…evil, his eyes evil.
After they’ve gone, after a few heartbeats, I follow along under the shadows of the trees. I move quietly, avoiding branches, large piles of last year’s leaves. They don’t see me, they don’t hear me, and soon, soon, we reach the path that leads into the woods.
They take it. They take it farther than I’ve ever gone to find the mermaids, which means that they must crawl a very long way. As he goes along, John’s laughing, tossing back things I can’t hear to the boys, who also laugh.
I don’t think he’s ever going to stop, but he does, just then, startling me. He simply stops, and then they drop the mermaid onto the ground, drop her hard. She rolls away from them, hissing, spitting, tail coiled around herself protectively, and John grins, hands on his hips, before he turns, starts walking back down the path.
“Gotta wash the ‘fish’ off my hands,” I hear him say.
The sounds of the forest come back, the bird song, the rustle of branches, of leaves, in the wind. I stare, heart beating so fast, it’s pushing against my insides, demanding me to listen to its rhythm.
The mermaid stays, coiled, panting for a long moment. I know they can breathe a little air—they sit out on the rocks for a long while—but their tails are always in the sea when they do it. I don’t have time.
I step out of the woods, onto the path.
She sees me. She’s young, like me. Now that I can see her, clearly, somewhat up close, I know she’s maybe my age. Her hair is long and green, and her skin is the color of a dead, gray fish. She stares up at me, tail coiled around her, and then she lifts up her lips over her teeth, hissing long and low.
Her upper body may be like mine, but her tail is enormous. No wonder it takes four strong boys to carry one this far. I don’t know what to do, but I don’t want her upset. I put out my hands to her, palms up and open, fingers spread.
“Please don’t be afraid,” I murmur, quietly. “I’m so sorry. I want to help you. Easy, girl.”
I usually use that last one on my pony, a head-strong, ill-tempered monster, and it often works on her, but I didn’t even think to say it now—it just came. The mermaid stops, puts her lips down, over her teeth, cocking her head to the side, like a bird.
She crawls across the space between us, her arms pulling herself along, her tail coiling around and around as she moves, and she comes so quickly that she startles me, but then she’s seated before me, taking my hands in her own. She turns them over and over, and drops them, rising up a little, looking into my eyes.
“You’re not like him,” she murmurs, like the shushing of the water. “I thought you were like him. You’re not.”
I take a step back, breathing out, shaking.
She continues to watch me, mouth now closed, the end of her tail flopping against the pine needles restless, like a cat’s.
“I didn’t know… I mean, you can speak,” I’m saying, and I sound very stupid when I say it, but her face doesn’t change. She keeps watching me, eyes wide, wet.
You’re not like him.
I finally hear what she said. After the shock fades away, after all I thought I know of them, my lifelong knowledge of mermaids, as constant as a tide, has changed, I hear what she said.
I surprise myself. I cry. Two big, fat tears that squeeze past my eyes before I can think, sliding down my skin, and then my head is in my hands, and I wipe them away, and I feel strange, so strange, this turning in my heart, but the mermaid watches me, saying nothing.
“I wanted to help you…” I manage, pointing back down the path, toward the sea. She looks at my finger, pointing, at the path, back to me, but she says nothing, again. I look at her, at her body, wonder how I can possibly, possibly do this, save her, and I feel the clock moving, like the great big clock in the town square, the arms swinging ever on, and I throw down my bag, my schoolbooks spilling out of the side, and I turn, my back to her.
“Can you…climb on?” I ask, and I peer over my shoulder at her. A long time ago, when we were very small, John and I would take turns, carrying one another piggyback, and even though he was always so much bigger than me, I could still carry him that way, shrieking and laughing. It’s a distant memory, covered in a haze, but I still have it.
I think she doesn’t understand for a long moment, but then I brace myself, because she coils down, and pushes herself off, scrabbling onto my back, hooking her arms over my shoulders.
I stagger under her weight, the weight of the tail, resting against my back, over my hips, shifting restlessly there. She’s as heavy as pails of water, but I can sort-of, almost manage. I don’t have any part of her to hold onto, and she’s managing to cling to my shoulders without breaking my neck, so I start to move.
She says nothing, but her breath is against my neck, her skin against my skin, and I don’t quite understand the shiver that moves over my shoulders, but it’s there, and then I feel other things, softer things, pressing against me, and I’ve often looked at the mermaids, absently, and I always thought they were beautiful, and here’s the truth, the fish tail is odd, and the green hair is unusual, but I thought she was beautiful, too.
She chuckles a little. I don’t know why she’s laughing, but it’s a strange, little thing, like the clinking of the tiny bells on the bottom of a dress. I redden. I didn’t say anything. Mermaids can’t possibly tell what you’re thinking.
The path goes on forever. She says nothing, and I sweat beneath her, doing my best to avoid the bigger branches, poking up and out of the greenery like broken ribs—I don’t know how delicate her tail is. The birds overhead have gone silent, and normally, I would have noticed that, but I didn’t, and I was concentrating so hard on the path before me, that I didn’t notice there’s a shadow…
“What are you doing?” John. He’s angry, staring in disbelief at me, carrying the mermaid. She drops off me, hissing, backing up and down the path, and the sudden relief from the weight makes me stagger.
His boys are gone.
It’s just me and John and the mermaid.
“I’m saving her,” I tell him wearily, angrily. I can be just as angry as him. My hands are balled into fists, and I watch him at the head of the path. I hadn’t realized exactly how close we are to the path, to the beach, to the rocks, to the sea. I shiver, my fingernails pressing against my palms.
No matter what, it’s close enough.
“She’s just a fish, Alice.” He’s laughing. Of course he’s laughing. He puts his hands over his stomach, comically, heaving with laughter. “What did you think…that if you saved her, she’d give you a kiss? No girl, not even a fish girl, is ever going to want you,” he mutters, suddenly dark, suddenly stalking toward me. “Why would they?”
I stand there. Normally, I shrink back, I agree, yes, why would they? But I don’t, today. I don’t know why, I don’t know, maybe it’s the ocean, so close, maybe it’s the mermaid, cowering behind me, but whatever it is, suddenly I am not shrinking, I am not stepping back, I’m standing nose to nose with my brother, and for the first time, I realize that he’s not so much bigger than me.
We’re just as tall as each other, now.
“Because, John,” I hear, as if from far away. And then I know that I’m saying it: “I’m not like you.”
He stares at me, eyes wide. He works his mouth, like he’s going to say something, and then I take a step forward.
“I put her in the woods…” he says, then, childishly. “I put her there…”
“Go,” I tell him, and the word is so low, it growls out of my throat.
For a single moment, I know that he’s not going to. But then he looks over his shoulder, at the sea, and then he’s moving back down the rest of the path, ducking out of the woods, walking quickly. Gone.
I don’t think about it. I know I will, later, often, turning it over and over in my hands like a treasure drawn up from the deep. But I don’t, now. I offer my back to the mermaid, and again she climbs on, and I stagger the rest of the way, out of the woods, across the shifting sand, and out onto the rocks, into the water.
When I’m up to my knees in the waves, that’s when she lets me go, that’s when she falls to the side, into the water. She stays under, just floating there for a long moment, and I’m so worried, I sink down, reaching out to her, but then she’s reaching up, and I’m down and in the waves, tasting the salt of them, choking, for she’s embracing me, and pulling me under the water.
She comes up, out of the waves, upon her tail, and helps me stand. “Thank you,” she whispers, and as the water runs out of my nose and mouth, as I cough a little, wiping away the salt water, she reaches up, putting her cold hands against my cheeks, angling my head down, and she kisses me.
She’s soft and cold and strange, but her mouth is in a smile, when she does it. It lasts a heartbeat, and she’s diving beneath the water, swimming away and gone.
I stand there, feeling the waves crash against my thighs, feeling my heart beat against my bones, feeling my world shift.
I turn, rising out of the sea, transformed.
If you liked “Surfacing,” you can now enjoy the entire month of “The Monstrous Sea” Project Unicorn stories on your eReader, and support the project at the same time!
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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