By Jessica Anderson
This story is the first place winner in the 2018 Mermaid Fiction Contest
“Benjamin, will you tell me the mermaid story?”
The old man looked at the golden-haired girl and chuckled. “What made you think of that?”
Digging her hand in her pocket, the girl pulled out a piece of sea glass. Its edges were chipped a little, but in the afternoon sun, it glowed a luminous bottle-green. “I found it on the beach this morning. Will you tell me, please?”
Benjamin’s lips twitched into a smile as he took the piece in his hand. “Winter tides do wash in the most interesting things,” he mused. “I found the mermaid in the morning, too, after a storm like last night’s. Same beach, you know.”
The girl’s eyes sparkled.
“Found her tangled up in the seaweed; prettiest little thing I’d ever seen. Skin as white as porcelain, eyes like emeralds.”
“What’d you do?” she gasped, as though hearing the story for the first time.
“The only respectable thing I could think of. Wrapped her up and took her home, stuck her in the bathtub.”
He sighed; scratched his beard. “Next morning, she was gone. Swam away, never to be seen again. But—” he held up the sea glass. “She left behind a piece of sea glass, green as the seaweed. Green as her eyes.”
“Like this one?”
The little girl sighed, happy with the story. Story—because it wasn’t true. It was as much a fairy tale as any other yarn about such sea creatures.
Benjamin closed his eyes and felt the memory wash over him so vividly that he could feel the damp chill of the air and smell the seaweed and brine.
The true story was slightly different.
He almost hadn’t gone down to the beach that morning. Last night’s storm whipped feebly though the air, but Benjamin told himself he wasn’t nearly old enough to let a touch of weather deter him.
He was glad, however, not to have been out in the squall. That was for men younger and more vigorous than he; men like Saul Fisher, whose boat he could see now on the horizon. The young fisherman must have weathered the storm on a streak of luck—good or bad was anyone’s guess.
Benjamin meandered along the waterline, traversing the thick piles of seaweed strewn across the beach like a colony of sleeping seals. His eyes scanned the limp, amber-brown tangles, but instead of a sea shell or long-lost trinket, his eyes fell on something altogether more horrifying.
Fingers—human fingers. A pale forearm with a blue vein running its length.
He fell heavily to his knees, his hands shaking as he brushed aside the weeds.
And within them, the face of a girl with skin as pale as death and dark hair plastered to her cheek in snaking strands.
Benjamin plunged both hands into the seaweed. His head told him it was too late, but his heart would not let him stop until he had freed the beautiful corpse from the kelp. He had nearly disentangled her arm when suddenly the small, delicate fingers curled around his hand.
He yelped a curse.
She was alive.
He dug faster now, unwrapping the kelp in heavy layers. Then he jerked back, his eyes wide. Something definitely was not right. The skin of her legs was speckled with iridescent fish scales that caught the dim morning light in a spectrum of blues. Carefully he slipped aside the last strands. Where the girl should have had feet, a translucent blue webbing, tattered and disintegrating, fanned out over the seaweed.
At least that much of his story had been true, as well as the part about the bathtub. He’d poured in an entire box of table salt, but by the time the tub was full her scales had melted away and he could almost believe she was just a girl, tossed overboard in the storm.
When he came downstairs later that morning Benjamin was surprised to find he wasn’t alone: Saul Fisher sat at the table, head in his hands.
He looked up at the old man in desperation. “Was I at the tavern last night?”
“Thought you’d given up the drink,” Ben huffed.
“Thought I had, too…” Saul mumbled, shaking his head. “Maybe it was a dream, then. But waking up in my net. In it. How does that—”
“What are you on about, Saul?”
“Something happened last night. Something I’m not sure I believe myself—” Saul stopped short at the soft creak of the stairs. Both men looked up at the pale figure, dressed in an overlarge nightshirt, descending with all the elegant timidity of an octopus.
The look in her emerald eyes struck Benjamin, though it wasn’t directed at him. The deep, sorrowful longing was for the young fisherman alone. And glancing back at his friend, Ben saw something disturbing and unreadable reflected in Saul’s eyes.
Saul’s jaw tensed, his eyes narrowed. Then he exploded. “It wasn’t a dream!” he roared. “It was real—it was her! Benjamin, she tried to drown me!”
“Really now, Saul—”
“She dragged me off the boat! She nearly killed me!”
But before Saul could utter another accusation the girl bolted for the door. Ben called after her but she was gone, already halfway down the bluff path. He watched as, far below, her small figure disappeared into the sea foam and did not surface.
Benjamin was drawn to the beach that night. The waves rushed against the sand, churning up questions. Everything had been so abrupt, so confusing—had it even been real? Perhaps his mind was slipping…
A splash, out of synch with the waves; a dark silhouette lifted from the sea and set itself upon the tidal rocks. The mermaid’s wet shoulders glistened, her iridescent scales flashed in the moonlight like diamonds. Tentatively he approached her.
“So, you were real,” he said. “I was starting to wonder.”
“I came back to thank you,” she said, startling him with the clarity of her voice. Somehow, he’d thought maybe she couldn’t speak.
“You showed me kindness.”
Benjamin couldn’t contain the curiosity. “What Saul said,” he began. “About last night…”
“His name is Saul?” Her voice rose with eagerness and then fell. “I’ve watched him for months. I couldn’t stay away, though they told me it was dangerous. I know what happened to him last winter—we all do. I’ve heard him curse the sea night after night. But last night, for the first time, he was singing.”
Benjamin’s brows furrowed. Saul, singing?
The mermaid went on. “I couldn’t help it. I came in closer to hear him, but already the storm was building. He was headed for the rock shoals.” Her voice crumbled. “I didn’t mean for him to see me, but he did, and it must have startled him because he… And then he went overboard. Hit his head on the transom. I kept him from sinking. Put him back on his boat when it was safe. But he thinks I…”
Ben nodded understandingly. A long pause flooded the space between them. “Will you come back?”
“I’m not sure,” she murmured. “I only wanted to thank you. And to give you this.” Her pale arm stretched out to him and placed a small object in his hand. In the moonlight, he saw it was sea glass, as green as her eyes. “It’s not much. Just something to remember me by.”
He wanted to say more but the next moment she was gone, slipped back into the water as though she were water herself.
And then, farther out, she resurfaced. “Benjamin?”
“Will you tell him…goodbye?”
He rolled the round, frosted gem in his fingers all the way up the bluff, then crossed not to his own door but to Saul’s. Last winter… The sea had been so cruel. It had left the young man devastated. Some thought he would never be the same. But the mermaid had said he’d been singing…
Benjamin let himself into the dark house, set the glass on the kitchen table, and scrawled a note alongside it. He read back what he’d written and nodded.
The ocean gave you a second chance. You might not get a third.
There was more to the memory, but the scene rippled away at the light voice of the girl’s mother. Across the grass, she called, hand on her hip, and the girl sprang up from Benjamin’s porch.
Benjamin glanced down at the chipped bottle-green glass in his hand, then back up at the woman. The wind pulled a dark tendril of hair from her haphazard bun; she brushed it away with a delicate white hand and waved to the old man. He grinned to himself, thinking that even from across the yard he could see the luminous emerald glow of her eyes.