“The Mermaid Rib,” by Sarah Diemer
A swordmaker’s daughter is given the task to retrieve a mermaid’s rib from a nighttime beach–but things don’t go exactly as planned when a stranger rises from the depths to challenge her taking the bone.
(photo by Frankie Corrado)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays 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.].)
“The Mermaid Rib”
by Sarah Diemer
“Every part of a sword must be willingly given, or the blade will not live.” My father told me that when I was the tiniest child, as I watched him work the bellows, smashing the hammer down against the molten metal that somehow, impossibly, became a sword after days—if not weeks—of blood, sweat and magic.
My father was the best swordmaker.
And being the best came with a price.
“Always do what they ask of you,” he’d tell me, over and over, as he cast a perfect ruby in the pommel, or smoothed the silken hair from a unicorn’s tail against the hilt. Every aspect of the sword was steeped in the intricate customs of the noble or knight who’d commissioned it. Each sword was meant for a specific purpose. Slaying great beasts required silver in the edges of the blade, and a witch’s sword needed to have specific herbs gathered beneath the full moon and braided about the hilt before being thrust beneath the shushing waves of an outgoing tide. “Always do what they ask of you,” said my father, over and over, as more and more people came to bid him to make their swords: beautiful, intricate weapons that destroyed or blessed, that made peace or war.
And my father always did what they asked of him.
Until that night.
I’d had an ill omen brewing in my belly for about a week. Partially, this was because both Terrence and Olivia had asked my father for my hand in marriage, and that had left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I’d been asked for in marriage, but because of why they had asked. Terrence hadn’t known that I preferred girls and was after me for my inheritance (he’d told me so himself), and Olivia—while lovely and sweet and kind—had been goaded into asking my father for my hand because of the legacy my father would leave me, and because Olivia’s greedy father had prodded her to ask.
I was sixteen. It was high time that I was married, if I was going to be able to create a child that I, in turn, could leave the family legacy to. It was all so constricting. I knew what I wanted, and marriage wasn’t very high on my list.
So the ill omen had been brewing, and then the night came when the stranger slipped into the village, just as the gates were about to be closed. The stranger’s horse spooked repeatedly at the children milling by the market stalls and stamped his massive hooves against the cobblestones, eliciting sparks to dance around his coal-black legs. I was out buying the last of the bread from Mrs. Higgins, and I watched the stallion stirring up trouble. The stranger was fully cloaked and slid down from the horse with no trouble, leading the stallion after.
Headed to my father’s shop.
I sighed, bit my lip and paid Mrs. Higgins for the bread, practically racing after the horse. Father had been filling a particularly large sword order for a band of brigands, and he’d been exhausted for days getting the last blade honed. Father repeated over and over that you must do what they ask of you, but if the stranger asked me to make the sword, and I told the stranger no, that wouldn’t disrupt my father’s large-hearted–but unsustainable and almost dangerous–constant swordmaking.
I wasn’t fast enough, though. The horse was tied to our hitching post, and the stranger was already inside when I reached the door. The horse and I stared at one another as if sizing each other up, and then I let myself into the shop, letting the heavy door shut with a boom behind me.
The stranger and my father had their heads bent together, my father smoothing the hair on his mustache as his eyes narrowed, as he watched the depths of the stranger’s hood without a blink.
“Can you do it?” came the whisper of the stranger’s voice, then, soft and sibilant but insistent. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman as I set the loaf of brown bread down upon the table, crossed my arms and watched my father with a sigh. But it made me think of a woman, though I don’t know why–her voice soft as a snake’s.
“I don’t know,” said my father. His words were heavy, and my eyes grew round with surprise. My father never uttered that phrase. “Ella, can you come here?” he asked me, then, holding out an earth-dark hand to me. I crossed the space between us, stood defiant and bristling next to my father, staring at the stranger as I placed my hands on my hips. The ill omen in my belly seethed.
“Ella, this sword would require a very…special ingredient,” said my father quietly. “But I would need to begin the blade now. The ingredient is for the hilt. Would you be willing to fetch it?”
The stranger crossed its arms. Its face was completely shadowed by the hood—I couldn’t make out the features at all.
“What’s the ingredient?” I asked, cocking my head.
My father looked from me to the stranger, lowering his eyes with a sigh.
My stomach turned as he whispered into my ear and told me.
My mare, Sophia, was in as foul a temper as I was as I saddled her in the dimly lit barn, muttering curses under my breath.
“Nothing good can come of this,” I told Sophia as she stomped her back right leg, snorting into the cool air. I bit my lip and tightened the girth, leaning against her for a long moment as I watched a moth bump lazily into the glass of the lantern.
I made certain my cloak’s clasp was still done, and then I led Sophia quietly out of the barn, shutting the door behind me. I mounted her in one quick motion, and then we trotted across the cobbles, angling through the now-quiet market, moving toward the front gates.
“Hello, Joshua,” I told the gatekeeper, grinning up at him in the light. Josh stood on the walkway over the gate, holding a lantern and shaking his head with a smile as he stared down at me and Sophia.
“You’re keeping odd hours,” he told me, but he opened the gate without further comment. Once through, I urged Sophia into a canter, directing her head toward the rolling dunes in the distance and the dull, muted shush of the ocean.
I could hardly breathe with the moonlight spilling down, illuminating the meadow that spread before us and the forest that rose up to the left—tall, dark pines like sentinels that watched us move. I tuned everything out but the sound of Sophia’s hooves hitting the packed dirt of the road, the rush and intake of her breath, and the sound of my own heartbeat, in rhythm with her hooves.
My father needed a mermaid’s rib. And I had to fetch it for him. It sounded so easy in my head when I put it like that. The stranger had promised us that a fresh mermaid carcass had washed up along the shore right outside of the village. Easy. Cut into the mermaid, which had already been picked apart by fish, anyway, take the rib and go. My father needed to stay home and begin the blade; he couldn’t do this. Only I could.
But my father had never made a sword with a mermaid’s rib for a hilt. And it had never been asked of him, or his mother, or his grandfather. The stranger’s sibilant hiss of a voice promised us that it was all on the up and up; after all, the mermaid was already dead. But my inner grumblings kept returning to a strange thought. If the stranger had already seen a mermaid’s carcass on the beach, why hadn’t he or she simply acquired the rib in that moment?
There was something odd about all of this.
The ill omen stirred again in my belly, insistent.
Sophia could feel it, too: she was uneasy as we traversed the road to the shore. As we loped up the final cresting hill of dunes and the ocean spread before us, dark and brooding with a slash of moonlight across it, borne by a slight sickle, Sophia began to shy away from a clump of sea grasses. She spooked slowly on a normal day, but this time, she was under me and then she wasn’t, and I was so surprised that I didn’t sit it.
I thumped down onto the helpful sand as Sophia thundered away from me, tossing her head up beneath the moonlight, then veering back the way we’d come and galloping flat out past me, back toward the village.
I sighed for a very long moment, watching her receding form and listening to her decreasing hoofbeats.
I felt for my dagger’s sheath against my belly. All right—I still had that. And it’s all I’d need to gut the maid. I shivered a little, turned my face toward the sea.
It was just a body. I’d had to gut many creatures for my father before. This would be no different.
But I’d never gutted anything human-like.
Even if a mermaid wasn’t really human.
I’d have to walk all the way back to the village, and the carcass could be anywhere on the beach. I knew I had to start now, that going back for Sophia would be quite foolish. So I slid the rest of the way down the dunes, onto the shore proper, the sand crunching in protest beneath my boots. I muttered a few curses under my breath, just for good measure.
The shore at night is both intensely beautiful and disturbing. Anything can come from the ocean, any variety of monsters, things understood and catalogued and things we have not yet dreamed of. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I looked down to the edge of the shore, where the ocean met the land, and I saw several shapes that I didn’t recognize along this stretch.
Ignoring my instincts, my instincts screaming at me to leave, to go back to the village, to be anywhere but there, I walked across the sand, toward the sea.
As I got closer to the hulking shadows, I heard murmuring, saw them begin to waddle back into the water. I couldn’t quite make out the shape of them, but I shuddered and kept moving along. They were not for me to know—and they weren’t the mermaid carcass.
Out in the sea, something large rose out of the water and splashed down against the surface. It might have been a whale, but it also might have been a monster. I drew my cloak tighter about me and continued on my way, keeping the roaring water to my left and the land to my right.
And there, ahead, was an unmoving shadow. Smallish. Fish-shaped. But as I got closer, I saw the hair streaming away from it on the sand. I walked up to it, stared down at it in the raw moonshine that made everything play tricks on my eyes.
It was a mermaid, yes. Her scales glittered in the moonlight, at once iridescent and shining, and her too-pale skin glistened wetly, along with her hair. I couldn’t exactly make out the color in the monochrome night, but it was probably a shade of green or blue or green-blue that mermaids’ hair often was.
And, yes, she was dead. Her eyes were open, and she stared milkily up at the sky. And her chest was torn open by uncaring seabirds, possibly even by fish: the contents of her stomach and organs gleamed wetly at me from the open cavity.
I stared for a long moment, holding my dagger’s hilt in tight, sweating fingers. I didn’t want to do this. But what choice did I have? My father needed the material, and you always do what they ask you, and I knelt down gingerly beside her, unsheathing the dagger as I tried very, very hard not to notice the smell.
There was a hiss, to my left—an incongruent hiss interrupting the constant roar of the ocean. I turned and fell on my backside, because crawling toward me, across the wet sand, was a mermaid.
A living mermaid.
Her hair streamed behind her like a tangled, badly knit cloak, and that’s almost the first thing I noticed—but not really. Her eyes flashed in the darkness, and that’s what claimed my attention. They were glittering, dangerous things, her eyes. She parted her full lips and hissed again, digging her claws into the sand and pulling herself forward with her fishtail that half-flopped against the sand but also propelled her forward, a bit like a snake. I scrambled backwards and stood as the mermaid kept coming, hissing, snapping her sharp teeth.
“Leave us,” she said then, voice soft but insistent and sharp-edged. She lunged next to the mermaid, flopping her tail angrily against the sand, crouching uneasily there and watching me. “Leave us,” she repeated, dragging out the us so that it did sound like a snake’s voice.
I breathed out, tightening my grip on the dagger. “I need something from her,” I said, pointing behind the mermaid to the carcass. “She’s dead. I…need something.” I was babbling, and I took a great gulp of breath, crouched down a little. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I told her clearly, “but I need a rib from the mermaid.”
Her jaw fell open, the moonlight reflecting off of her sharp teeth. “You would desecrate a body?” she murmured, and then she did something I could never have expected. She put her sandy hands against her face, and she wept into her palms.
I didn’t know what to do. This was supposed to be simple. My stomach churned as I knelt down next to her—but not too close. Her tail flopped agitatedly against the ground, and her shoulders wracked with the unexpected sobs.
It’s then that I realized how young she was. She looked to be my age.
At last, the mermaid took her hands from her face, glanced up at me with tear-filled eyes.
“She was my sister,” she said, licking her lips with a small, darting tongue. “She was my sister, and now she’s gone. And I’ve been searching for her body, and the Sea Mother brought me here to her. And you’d take her from me?” She gazed up at me, and I was pinned in place by those eyes, by the sadness in her face.
“I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t be taking her,” I told the mermaid, miserable. “Just a…just a rib.”
“All of her is ocean. She’s meant to be in the ocean. If any of her is taken from it, her spirit will not rest,” said the mermaid around her sharp teeth, folding her hands together, imploring. “Please let her spirit rest.”
I knew very little about mermaid culture or beliefs. I breathed out, sheathed my dagger. I couldn’t fathom using it on her. I crouched down, worrying at my lip with a sigh.
The mermaid glanced at me, then, her head to the side, and a slyness slid across her face before it was replaced by the sadness once more. “Will you help me take her back into the ocean? It is so far.” She waved her hand at the outgoing tide, already far removed from the carcass.
I blanched. Journey out for a sword component and not return with it? I’d never done that before. What would it do to the magic of the blademaking? I ran my hands through my short hair, shook my head, but the mermaid crawled forward a little, head cocked to the other side now, smiling through her tears.
“I’ll give you a kiss if you help me,” she whispered.
I reddened, felt shame race through me. To take something from her was unfathomable.
“No, no,” I whispered, standing. I knew what I had to do. “I’ll just help you. Nothing required in return.”
Her smile widened. I glanced down at the mermaid carcass and sighed for a long moment, my hands on my hips, before I took off my cloak and laid it down beside the body, which was already decomposing. Trying to drag her across the sand was probably not going to be pretty.
I gently pushed the mermaid’s body onto the cloak, gagging at how my fingers sunk into the slimy flesh. The living mermaid tried to help, but it was difficult to move the corpse, as caked as she was against the sand. But then she was fully on the cloak, and I began to drag her down toward the ocean, the mermaid crawling along beside us, nervously trying to peer over the edge of the cloak to keep an eye on her sister.
The dead mermaid was surprisingly light, and when the first shock of cold water hit my boots and legs, I began to drag in earnest. She floated in the water for a moment beneath the cloak, and then the living mermaid grabbed her, hooking her claws into the flesh, dragging her further in, and then drawing the body close to her for an embrace. In the salt of the water, the carcass didn’t look ugly anymore.
I stood in the sea, the water sloshing over the edges of my boots, the salt and cold clinging to me, and I wrapped my arms about myself as my cloak and the corpse disappeared from view, sinking in a hiss of bubbles beneath the waves.
But the living mermaid remained, with only her head peeking over the surface of the sea, a few arm lengths away from me. She watched me for a long moment, considering me, and beneath her languid gaze, I stood pinned in place. She moved through the water, sluicing the darkness of it, and she was suddenly floating by my knees on her back, gazing up at me with a small, sad smile.
She used her tail like a snake, used it to propel herself upward, and then she was almost standing beside me, her wet body slick and glistening in the moonshine.
“Now she can rest,” said the mermaid.
And she leaned forward, and then her wet mouth was against mine, and she tasted of salt and brine and warmth.
I stood very still, surprised, but then my arms moved of their own accord, and they were wrapped about her middle: I held the mermaid, and I kissed her.
She moved away from me, then, with a nod and a flick of her tail, and a shadow, a shadow I hadn’t noticed before, detached itself from the bluff of land to my right and came lumbering toward the waves. It was a massive black stallion that changed, as I watched it, becoming scaly, growing spines along its back as it dove into the sea, too, pushing past me. I stared after it in surprise… I knew it from somewhere.
The mermaid drifted back, drawing the cloak after her, rising up and giving me one sweet, chaste kiss against my cheek, her lips cold now.
“You could have taken the rib, but you did not,” she whispered into my ear. “For your kindness, if you ever have need of me…” There was a smooth, curving thing that she pressed into my palm. I stared down at it, bewitched.
It was a rib.
“Have your father make the sword. It is yours,” she told me with a smile. “For your kindness, if you ever have need of me, put it back into the sea. I’m going to watch you,” she said, “as I have been.” And she kissed me again, but not against the cheek this time. With my heart thrilling and racing and humming, she laughed a little, pressed away from me, dove down beneath the sea.
I walked back to the village in a trance. Bewitched. When I asked Joshua to open the gates, when Sophia loped past me into the village, I still stumbled to my father’s shop. And when I got there, he stood by the bellows, pumping them insistently, sweat rolling down his dark skin.
I handed him the rib without a word. He watched me in silence.
“The stranger said it was for you,” he said then, his voice a rumble. “The sword.”
Was it the living mermaid’s rib? Was she connected to me now…forever?
I shivered by the fire, warming my salt-kissed fingers against the flame.
I would go down to the sea again.
I knew it in my bones.
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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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