First published in Perfectly Normal Magazine, Vol. 1
A companion to “Mermaid Lake,” this short story explores the relationship between the man-eating mermaids and the women who love them.
The first thing I taught my daughter was not to fear the dark. Women like us ruled the darkness, were the darkness. So, tonight was not the first time she had followed me out to the lake when it was well past midnight; however, she had never done so on a new moon when the mermaids were cackling like storm clouds without the moonlight to soothe them, when I could barely lift my feet from the mud to bring them what they needed. The hunger—their hunger—was insatiable and I had become frail these past years, not quite the mergirl I used to be. Not quite as patient with the men when they needed to be convinced to go for a swim before we went inside, not quite fast enough to catch up to them easily when they saw claws and scales breaking water.
I couldn’t bear to let the mermaids down.
The wind ravaged my hair so that it floated around my head like I was already submerged, muffled my ears and blocked my eyes, but I knew the moment my daughter crept up behind me and out of the shadows.
“Darling,” I called to her, my voice catching on the wind. I lifted my hand, palm coated in mud, and held it out to her. She hesitated for only a moment before taking it and stepping next to where I was crouched beside the lake. She wore her cotton nightgown still, but I wore nothing but my underwear.
“Momma,” her voice hushed the mermaids, caught their attention enough to calm the frantic circles they swam in the water and their hunger that swam inside me. I could see my own blazing eyes reflected in hers. “Is this where my daddy is?”
I smiled with the wind. She was meant for this, already a mergirl in her blood.
“Yes.” I stood up so that I towered over her. The top of her curly hair, so much wilder than mine, did not yet reach my shoulders. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.” No, she was defiant. She dropped my hand and stared right into the darkness of the lake where their tails flicked the surface. She was the darkness.
“They protect us, Mari,” I reminded her. I looked up at the ghost of the moon, the pocket of sky where it hid itself away when their hunger became too much for even it to stomach. “They’ll protect you so nothing can hurt you.”
She nodded once, still staring at the lake, trying to catch a glimpse of them. But they knew how to hide. Mermaids had been hunted since the beginning of time by foolish men; they had grown defenses as well as offenses.
Goosebumps textured her skin, but she did not flinch against the wind.
I filled my lungs with the sweet summer air and exhaled, “Do you know what the best thing you can do in life is?”
She turned to me, her eyes holding not a hint of fear. She knew not to fear the dark and she knew how to be fearsome, I had made sure of both. She said, “Don’t be afraid of the dark.”
I shook my head. “That is the best thing you don’t do.”
Their cackles grew into an orchestra beneath the water and I knew she heard them too, like only mergirls could; she tilted her head ever so slightly and her eyes darted back to the lake.
She knew where all the boys lived on the street, the mermaids knew she could run faster than me now, I knew what they wanted. There was only one thing left to do for us all.
“Find what you love, Mari.” I held my arms out wide so the wind could wrap itself around me one last time. They were so close to the shore that water splashed onto my skin as they thrashed. I could smell the algae trapped inside a drop where it landed just above my lip as Mari waited for me to finish. “And let it kill you.”
Their cold, clammy hands shackled my ankles and their claws sank into my skin like anchors. I looked at my daughter one last time and, behind the alarm she would quickly learn to drown, her eyes began to blaze. She felt the hunger.
There was still a wind goddess smile on my mouth when my head hit the water. Giggles started to form between their cackles as blood was ripped free of my skin and found their tongues. This was how I was meant to end, with a new mergirl made.
Mari didn’t scream once.