“Two Salt Feet,” by Sarah Diemer
You can buy anything at the meat market…even a mermaid. Sam’s errand for her mom takes a turn for the strange when she accidentally rescues a mermaid who would rather not end up on someone’s plate.
(photo by Elena Kalis)
(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.].)
“Two Salt Feet”
by Sarah Diemer
You can buy anything at the city’s meat market.
Even a mermaid.
Mom wanted me to pick up salmon. I’m a vegetarian, I tell her. She says that it doesn’t matter and to be a good girl and go get the fish. I tell her I’ll spend the money on candy cigarettes and pistols, and she just waves me away which proves she wasn’t listening in the first place. Whatever. She knows I’m going to get her the salmon because she’s my mom, and for whatever reason, I love her, even though she makes food that is completely incompatible with my morals, ethics and awesomeness.
So I’m trudging through the meat market with a really deep frown on my face, throwing judgey looks at every single meat seller until I end up throwing my judgiest look at the mermaid seller.
“What?” he asks, crossing his arms, glaring down at me. I have spiked green hair, a lot of people give me his look, so I stick my tongue out at him and blow a bubble with my gum. I stop and I look at his tanks, though, because the mermaids are always so beautiful they make my bones ache.
The tanks are big and round and gross. The mermaid seller is set up at a corner of the market, because it’s the only place that would hold the three gigantic vats of water. Two of the vats are empty today—it’s late on a Saturday afternoon, which means that two were already spoken for and taken. It makes me a little sick, and I stop chewing my gum. But the third tank, with its brackish green water and slimy sides, still has its occupant.
She watches me through the thick glass, webbed fingers pressed against the sides, eyes wide in the murky sort-of-depth in the vat. Her hair—I can’t possibly tell what color it is through the water, probably green though–floats around her like a halo. Her tail is long and sinuous and flops half-heartedly against the bottom of the tank. Her little pointed teeth stick out over her full, green lips, and her bare boobs rise and fall as she turns this way and that, looking through the crowd of people. But she stops moving when she looks at me.
We stare at one another. They never usually do that, look at me, and it makes me feel weird, like my skin is burning. I turn away from her as I hear a man step up to the vendor, ask “how much?” The vendor’s voice drops to a hushed whisper, and I stop, look back at the mermaid again.
She mouths something behind the glass. I stop, my heart thundering.
Words. She’s mouthing words.
That’s totally ridiculous, Sam, get yourself together. Mermaids don’t speak. They’re fish. Really weird, pretty fish that strange people cook like really expensive lobster, but that’s it. You know that. Everyone knows that.
But as I watch her, my blood thundering through my veins, everything moving slow and crystal and perfect, her mouth moves again: Help me, she mouths, her forehead crinkled, both hands pressed against the glass. Staring at me with an expression of pure and complete fear. Even as the vendor and the man move toward the vat of water. Even as I see the guy take out his wallet.
“Hey,” I say, shoving my hands in my pockets. The vendor ignores me until I say it again: “hey.” He rolls the little ladder over to the tank, pauses with one elbow leaning on a rung, staring down at me with a frown.
“I got no time for deadbeats today, chick, run along,” he mutters with a growl, which means that—normally—I would say something about misogyny that he’d later have to look up in a dictionary, but I don’t have time for that shit today.
“How much is the mermaid?” I say, swallowing my feminist rage.
He stares at me, and then laughs a little. The man who was obviously purchasing her glances down at his watch, taps his tailored toe frowning at me.
“No, seriously,” I say, swallowing, stepping forward, jutting my chin out.
“Seriously too much for you,” says the vendor, placing the ladder against the tank. The mermaid looks up at the surface of the water, cringing and backing up until she’s at the opposite corner of the vat from the vendor who begins to climb up the little metal rungs that squeak in protest beneath him. I’ve never seen a mermaid get fished out, but watching this, I’m speechless.
She’s afraid. I’ve never seen a fish afraid.
There’s a small crowd gathered now, because—like me—they’ve probably never seen this happen. The vendor has a pair of tongs as long as his forearm that are rusted, dripping. He reaches down into the water with them, and quick as a shark, pincers the mermaid’s tail in the tongs. She thrashes, the water getting murkier and muddier as he heaves against the side of the tank.
The mermaid clears the water, gasping as she flies through the air into the vendor’s arms.
He carries her down, thrashing, squirming, and he stands beside the tank, waiting a moment. Her movements become softer, slower, and then she simply lies in his arms like a movie starlet from the 50s, all heaving bosom and panting and eyes half-closed.
“They can’t breathe the air that well,” the vendor tells the man. “She’ll be dead before you get home. Easy.”
I’m gonna be sick. The man gives the vendor a stack of bills, and the vendor gives the man the still-as-death mermaid, her lashes fluttering, but just a little, her fingertips dripping salt water with a steady plink, plink on the pavement.
There’s no warning. If I hadn’t been staring, eyes wide, at the mermaid, I never would have seen it happen. It was instant, a heartbeat, and where the shining, opalescent scales of her tail had lain, there was only bare skin, now. Human skin.
I don’t understand as my breath catches, as I almost trip taking a step forward. But the mermaid girl opens her eyes, no longer a mermaid, just a girl now, a girl, completely naked, resting in the man’s arms against his tailored suit.
She looks up at him, and she screams.
I would laugh if it wasn’t so weird. His mouth gets that round “o” of supreme confusion, and he drops her like she’s poisonous. She falls against the pavement, still screaming, and there’s the dense press of bodies around all of us that precludes a riot or a panic-driven crowd, and I don’t even know I’m doing it, but I guess that raw instincts take over or something, because I scoop up that mermaid, I don’t even think about it, and I’m pushing back through the crowd so quickly that even if I wanted to stop, I don’t think I could.
I don’t want to stop.
We duck into an alley and around a Dumpster. I don’t think the vendor or the man saw it happen, and…even if they had…what could they possibly do? Because this isn’t a mermaid. We stop behind the Dumpster, and I help her to her feet. She wobbles a little, pressing a hand against the slimy bricks behind her, and I can’t help staring, then internally yelling a lot at myself for staring. I peel off my jacket, hand it to her, which she looks at with big, green eyes like she’s never seen one before.
“Put it on,” I say, clearing my throat, but the girl looks from the jacket in her hand to me. She’s shaking a little, and I notice her hands aren’t webbed anymore, her teeth aren’t pointed. She’s blonde-haired, not green-haired now, and her skin’s as pale as mine.
Shouts are coming from the market behind us. I hear a whistle blow.
“Here,” I mutter, taking the jacket from her, holding it out with the shoulders in hand. She sort of shrugs one arm into one sleeve, and then into the other, and I pull it over her back, grabbing her hand. “We’ve gotta go,” I say, glancing over my shoulder at the milling crowd behind us.
She doesn’t take a step. She stares down at her feet as if hypnotized or something, as if she can’t move, and then I hear “there she is!” and I just pick her up again, my heart hammering. I turn down the alley and run, carrying her.
She isn’t light. I’m not strong. But I dash through alley after street after alley, and I stop eventually by another dumpster and set her down as gently as I can, my whole body shaking, my stomach heaving from running eleventy billion miles while carrying someone close to my weight and size. I press my hands against my legs, but I can’t make it stop, so I finally just go and vomit up my Starbucks no-water, non-fat soy chai against the wall. She stares at me, eyebrows furrowed, and eventually she puts a hand on my arm when I stop retching.
“I’m sorry,” she says, voice soft and small and sweet. She stands up on tiptoe and kisses my cheek.
I rub the back of my hand over my lips, swallowing. “What the hell,” is what I say then. “What. The. Hell.”
She stares at me, cocking her head.
“Are you a mermaid?” I ask her. She nods, smiling a little, drawing the coat closer around her.
“Yes.” She looks down at her toes, peering at them as if mystified. “I know I don’t look like one right now. But I am. Too many of my kind have been eaten by yours. We’ve been evolving. ‘It’ just had never happened to me before.” She gestures to her feet. We both stare at them.
“But you talk…and you look human now…” I trail off, watching her, reaching up to touch my cheek where she’d kissed me. I feel warm and light.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she whispers, smiling secretly. “You were all once fish, too.”
“Yeah, well.” I shove my hands into the pockets of my jeans, shiver a little. “It was a while ago when we got legs.”
She laughs at this, tips up her nose and laughs loudly and clearly and she’s so pretty when she laughs that I kind of have to shake myself to stop staring at her neck thrown back, the curve of her chin, her mouth. I bite my lip, look away.
“So, uh. I guess I have to…take you back to the ocean?” I ask her. I don’t know what else to do. She’s a mermaid. She belongs in the sea, not in the green vats of putrid water she came from, not about to be sold to be eaten. She stares at me, though, eyes wide, as if she’d rather be back there.
“I’m actually…hungry…” she says, glancing up at me sidelong. Hopefully.
“Hungry.” I have no idea how to respond to this. This isn’t really how I thought my day was going to go. “What do mermaids eat?” I ask her. It’s the only thing I can think to say.
“Anything!” she answers blithely, smile wide.
I glance down at her long legs, how my jacket is just enough to cover the special parts, but really…just long enough. “You can’t really be seen like this.” I run my hands through my hair, stare up at the slash of sky I can see between the buildings towering above us. “We’re close to the McKay Thrift Store,” I tell her, then. “Just…just wait here.” I eye her up and down, totally not for any other reason that an ogling of measurements, and I’m there and back in a tiny amount of time, because while I’m running to the thrift store, dashing through the aisles, paying the clerk with shaking hands and running all the way back to the alley, I keep thinking that this must be a dream. It has to be.
But no. Mermaid-girl is still there, leaning against the wall, her hands in my jacket pockets like she’s done this before.
“Here…” I mutter, handing her a knee-length paisley skirt and some flip-flops. She stares at them like she’s never seen such things…and she probably hasn’t. So I pantomime putting a skirt on, and help her put the flip-flops on not totally unlike Prince Charming when he’s fitting Cinderella’s shoe.
“There,” I say, buttoning the jacket. It works. Just.
“I’m so excited!” says mermaid-girl, grabbing my hand when I’m done and squeezing it tightly. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before!”
“Yeah,” I manage, swallowing. “Me either.” We walk out of the alley, taking small steps, which she over exaggerates—but not enough for anyone to notice, really.
The meat market is close…we could go back, buy food from one of the vendors, but what if the mermaid vendor sees us, recognizes me? I don’t think he’d recognize her, but I know he could see me. We stand on the sidewalk, out of the alley, and it starts to drizzle while I contemplate if I should take her to McDonald’s for her first human food experience, and realize that would kind of suck, and then I hear someone calling my name, and it breaks me out of my reverie with cold dread.
“Sammie!” she calls, paper bag in hand, and she’s sort of staring at me from across the street, mouth open. She’s staring not at me, though. She’s staring at the girl clinging to my arm.
Mom looks both ways, then darts across the street to stand beside us, eyeing the mermaid-girl up and down, and down and up.
“Sammie…” Mom murmurs beatifically, then looks at me, grinning hugely. “Who’s this?”
“Uh,” I mutter, breathing out, but that’s enough for my mom, apparently, because she steps forward, shifting the bag to her other hip, and envelopes mermaid-girl in a tight squeeze.
“It’s so nice to meet you! Sammie didn’t tell me she was dating anyone right now!” She rolls her eyes and chuckles the conspiratory chuckle of “oh, you know how girls are.” Mermaid-girl obviously doesn’t know how girls are, doesn’t have any clue what my mother is talking about, but laughs because Mom is laughing.
“My name’s Eveline,” my mom gushes. “I’m Sammie’s mom! And you are?”
“Mom, we’ve gotta be going…” I mutter, tugging on mermaid-girl to start walking down the sidewalk, away from my mother, but she’s not budging.
“My name’s Mer…”
“…na,” I finish for her, gulping. “Merna. This is Merna, Mom.” Mom stares at me, eyes narrowed, but grins fetchingly at newly-named mermaid-girl when “Merna” grins hopefully at my mom.
“So nice to meet you, Merna,” says my mother, not even skipping a beat. “Sammie, why haven’t you told me about her?”
“Because it’s just so gosh darn new!” I say, grinning widely, too, but pretty much dying on the inside. “Anywho, we were on our way to get Merna something, because she’s famished…”
“Oh no. I know I’m probably embarrassing the irony out of you, my darling girl, but I’ve never even met one of your girlfriends, and I’m just so tickled pink to meet this one! I insist on taking you both out to lunch—my treat!” My mother is grinning so widely, she almost looks shark-like. Merna glances from me to my mother, back to me again, smiling too.
“That sounds nice,” says Merna.
This couldn’t possibly go terribly, terribly awry.
“Mooooooom,” I manage, as she ushers the two of us down the sidewalk.
“Yes, darling?” she practically coos, hooking her arm around my shoulders.
“Mom, why do you have to be so invested in your child’s business? Why can’t you be aloof and disinterested,” I groan. “You know, like all my friends’ parents.”
“You’re just lucky,” my mom coos, squeezing me. “And a brat that you don’t tell me when you’re dating someone so sweet! She’s just darling, honey. Seriously, next time tell me.”
“Oh, I will,” I breathe out, watching Merna out of the corner of my eye. She’s trying to take in window displays and cars and people walking by us. Her eyes are wide, her mouth open in astonishment for most of it. She looks so happy.
We eat at “Mike’s Crab House,” because nothing says “classy” like a restaurant with a dancing crab as its logo.
Mom slides into the booth across from us, putting her chin in her hands, staring at us all doe-eyed.
“So, tell me you two…how did you meet?” she asks what I was praying and hoping she wouldn’t ask. I swallow, glance sidelong at Merna. Does she understand what my mom assumes yet?
No clue. Merna is staring down at the fork and spoon and knife on her napkin. I say a quick prayer to any god listening that she doesn’t pull an Ariel and test the utensils on her hair.
“We’ve…not known each other very long.” I try, desperate to keep from lying.
“Just this morning!” Merna pipes up, reaching for the fork. I snatch her hand, cradling it in what I hope is a loving manner in mine.
“Yes! It was…fate…” I try. My mother’s brows are quirked that way she gets when things aren’t adding up for her. “She just moved here?” I try, and that seems to mollify her. For the moment.
I really don’t need to explain that the girl clinging to my arm happens to be a mermaid. And that—surprise, Mom!—they’re evolving creatures! And they can totally grow legs, now, when in crisis-saturated situations! And get rid of their webbed fingers! And green skin!
Yeah, I mean, I don’t even believe it, and I saw it happen.
“I think you should get something with fish in it,” I tell Merna when she opens her menu. She stares at all of the choices with wide eyes, then shakes her head at me, mouth quirking sideways in a truly adorable grin.
(Get yourself together, Sam, she’s a mermaid who’s going back to the ocean right after lunch. This is not going to end well if your stomach gets all knotty and tied up over some girl you can’t possibly have.)
“Gosh, Sam, I eat fish all the time.” She stares at me with dancing eyes, holding back a laugh. “I think I want something that I don’t have to eat all day every day.”
“Oh, you live in a coastal town?” my mother asks, all-at-once super interested. Of course.
“Something like that,” says Merna, grinning at me.
Under the table, she squeezes my hand.
And just like that, I’m not thinking about anything other than the fact that her fingers are threaded through mine. And she’s not letting go.
It’s the nicest thing.
After a lunch consisting in three salads, three fries, three cokes and a brownie sundae (for Merna), we’re out on the sidewalk again, and Mom’s cradling the brown paper bag in front of her, and grinning so widely, her face is in danger of staying like that.
“We’ve really gotta go,” I tell Mom. “We’re going to…the ocean now.” Merna glances at me quickly, frowning, but Mom’s shaking her head.
“That’s a long walk! Ten blocks, at least,” she says, hitching her thumb in the direction of the water. “I’m parked super close—I can drive you two!”
“You don’t have to,” I mutter, but she’s already saying what my mother always says:
“Don’t worry about it! My pleasure!”
I really think she likes Merna, is the thing. She’s not usually this pushy, and never this pushy when relating to my friends. Or my girlfriends. All of two that I’ve had before this she’s-not-my-girlfriend day.
So we pile into the back of the car and sit in silence when Mom drives the really-not-that-far distance to the “people beach.” Which is next to the dog beach, where a Labrador Retriever is currently giving hell to a piece of driftwood.
“I’ll pick you up in an hour, Sammie,” says Mom, gushing out of her window at the two of us, once we get out. “And don’t even worry about the salmon, honey, I got it covered.” And then she winks at me. Actually winks at me. And drives off.
My mom. She’s weird. And I love her.
“Your mother’s really nice,” says Merna distractedly, staring over her shoulder at the water.
“Look…it was really…” I stare down at her, gulping, and then I can’t actually believe this, but there are tears in my eyes that I absolutely, positively, refuse to let spill.
One runs down my cheek past my nose.
Sam. You knew this would happen. I mean, you helped her. This isn’t like the ending to Old Yeller or anything. It’s happy. She’s going to go back to the sea, and she’ll be safe and not in someone’s stupid stomach. It’s good. It’s good.
But she stares up at me with those bright, green eyes, and I breathe in, and I breathe out, and I feel hollow.
“What’s the matter?” she asks me, distraught. I shake my head, sniffle a little.
“I liked you,” I manage, then. “Do you…do you know what that means?”
Her smile is instant. Surprising. Beautiful. “Yes. I know what that means.” And then, before I can do anything, she’s standing up on tiptoe in her flip flops that are two sizes two big, and she’s kissing me.
She tastes sweet. Like a brownie sundae.
“Look,” I manage, when she stops, when I wake up from my shock, when we stand facing one another, her hands in mine. “I know that this can’t work out, but…”
She wrinkles her nose, blinks. “What are you talking about?”
“Sam,” she says, mouth quirked up on one side, grinning at me. “I can grow legs now. I think that I could manage seeing you again.”
I continue to stare.
“That is…if you’d like that,” she says, leaning forward breathless. Her eyes are wide, her smile is electric, and when she kisses me again, it moves through me like a wave. Like a tide.
We have no idea how it’s going to work. But we’re going to try it.
Weirder things have happened.
If you enjoyed “Two Salt Feet,” 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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