I don’t remember much of my early childhood. You can hardly blame me; it was over 170 years ago. All I remember are snippets and flashes. But I do remember one thing clearly: My mother and I fleeing from our tribe in a desperate bid to save my life. Hers was already forfeit.
We were a primitive culture by your standards. Our most advanced technology was woven baskets; our most advanced weapons were spears. We lived a nomadic existence as hunter-gatherers, traveling far and wide to keep up with fresh game. Our tribe was one of hundreds that roamed the Atlantic seafloor.
Oh yeah. I’m a mermaid. I probably should have mentioned that earlier.
I was four years old when the first of our tribe started to get sick. The disease quickly spread. Children seemed to be more resilient at first, but soon they, too, succumbed.
We weren’t doctors or scientists. We didn’t understand contagions. Epidemics were unknown to merfolk. Our shamans declared the sickness a punishment from the gods to those who were unworthy. But once the shamans themselves died, that theory seemed suspect. By the time I was five, most of our tribe had died. We heard tales from travelers that all the tribes were suffering the same fate.
Maybe my mother was an early scientist and figured out that being near infected people got you sick. Maybe she was just desperate and doing anything she could think of. Maybe she panicked. But one way or another, she did save my life.
She filled a basket with food, gathered me up quietly and we fled. She took me on a longer trip than I could ever remember going on. And for a child who grew up in a nomadic tribe, that’s really saying something. I could see her getting sicker and sicker as the days wore on. She took me all the way to the Shallows.
I can still remember when we parted. She was in great pain, and occasionally exhaling blood. But a look of satisfaction was on her face. It’s the clearest memory I have of my mother; so much wrong with her body, but so much finally right in her soul. She had gotten her daughter away from danger. Her task was complete. Nothing beyond that point mattered any more.
She swam away and I tried to follow. She shook her head and told me to stay. She gave me the basket of food; I was to await her return. I remember her swimming off into the murk, leaving me alone in those shallow, unfamiliar waters.
I never saw her again. I never saw any merfolk again. And I’ve been searching for them ever since.
I later learned it was a bacterium called Bacillus Icthyophilus that wiped out my civilization. It swept through all the oceans of the world, leaving devastation in its wake. Oceanography and marine biology were in their infancy back then, so data is sparse, but it’s believed Icthyophilus killed nearly a quarter of all sea life and was responsible for the extinction of several species. So I’m probably the last mermaid on earth.
All in all, 1841 was not a good year for me.
I stayed put, like I was told to. That shallow water scared me. I was used to living at the sea floor. Anywhere within a hundred feet of the surface terrified me.
Only the strongest of our men dared venture close to the surface. You humans think sharks are the most dangerous thing in the water, but you’ve never been on a dolphin’s bad side. Believe me when I tell you they’re the most dangerous things in the sea. Oh sure, they’re pleasant to you. You aren’t competition for their food, nor do you hunt them. You aren’t part of the sea. They look at you with bemused interest as you flail around in the water. They look at me and think “edible” or “enemy” or “edible enemy”.
And there I was. Five years old, in shallow water, and alone.
I stayed at the ocean floor, hoping I was deep enough to be out of dolphin range. Of course I was well below their ability to dive; my mother would never leave me somewhere dangerous. But when you’re five, there’re boogiemen around every corner.
The food ran out after a week or so and I had to fend for myself. I ate clams, crabs, and other easily caught bottom dwellers. I remember feeling guilty for doing so, because gathering food was “men’s work”. Women didn’t hunt or gather. They built things and prepared food and cared for kids. Fortunately, hunger took precedence over my social values and I gathered like a man.
I don’t know how long I lived this feral existence. It was a long time. Those months I spent scrounging around for food were the loneliest and most miserable time of my life. A child wants parents, and I had none. I had nothing and nobody. I descended into despair. Only hunger kept me going as it demanded I continue eating. I still have nightmares about those days.
I also remember becoming really sick of shellfish. I wanted real fish; the kind that swam fast and tasted good. But I had no idea how to catch one. I could swim pretty fast, even when I was small, but once I caught up with a fish I wasn’t sure what to do. Grab it with my hands? Fish can be very uncooperative when you’re trying to catch and eat them.
So yeah, I was a mermaid who couldn’t fish. Shut up. I was five.
I soon hunted out the immediate area. I had already devoured what creatures I could catch. Anything that crawled had either crawled away or become food. Anything that burrowed had either burrowed well or found itself dug up and eaten. Seaweed and other plants were of no use to me. I’m a carnivore. I don’t mean that as some sort of “I like meat, I’m not a vegetarian” thing. I’m actually a carnivore. Many plants taste great to me, but I need to eat meat or I’ll get malnourished and die. I didn’t know that as a child, of course, but nature has a way of ensuring you crave what you need. This forced me to wander in search of more prey.
One day, I came upon something truly strange. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a dome-like structure, smaller than me. The outer frame was an unfamiliar material and it was covered in a mesh of netting. A single rope ran directly up from the top of the dome, extending beyond the range of my vision. That was interesting, but what was inside really caught my attention.
Lobsters! Dozens of them! I’d hit the jackpot, or so I thought.
I had gone a while without eating, and I was too eager. I reached in to grab a lobster, but quickly got tangled in the netting. Concentrating more on the lobsters than on my predicament, I wrenched my arm to free it. This proved to be a critical mistake, as I was now more tangled than before. In frustration, I flailed wildly like the trapped animal I was and things got even worse. Had I taken the time to carefully un-knot the tangle, I could have easily escaped my situation. But I was too young to think clearly in a crisis.
I could pull the whole thing along the seafloor a little, but it hurt. The ropes tangled around my arm rubbed and chafed. I was stuck and nobody was going to save me.
That’s when it all hit me. Not just my entanglement, but all of it. It takes a while for a kid to really realize a catastrophe when it happens, but I finally did. I knew then that I would never see my mother again. I knew that I was entirely on my own and had no idea how to care for myself. And most of all, I knew that I was going to die if I didn’t escape.
I lay on the seafloor and cried like a little girl. I was a little girl, after all, so that’s not unreasonable. I choked out great heaving sobs as the world came crashing down around my shoulders. It was a wonderful release of everything I had penned up over the last several weeks. But, as with all crying jags, when it ended, I was in the same situation as when it began. They don’t actually solve anything.
I was still intractably stuck, and try as I might, I couldn’t escape. Adding insult to injury, the lobsters were all safely inside the dome. I could only reach them with my tangled arm, which I could not get to my mouth. I was hungrier than I’d ever been and two feet from a feast I could not have.
The hours dragged by. Eventually, I fell asleep. I dreamed of happier days, of swimming beside my mother and surrounded by my tribe, of the men returning from their hunt with fish and porpoise for all to eat. I dreamed of watching my mother chatting with the other women and wanting so much to be just like her. I dreamed of our great migrations, swimming thousands of miles at a slow and steady pace. I dreamed of a way of life that was gone, of a people that no longer existed, and of a time when hunger was unknown to me. I dreamed of the Good Old Days.
The Good Old Days were rudely interrupted by a sudden painful jolt. I awoke to realize I was being yanked off the seafloor! The dome was lurching upward with great force, dragging my tangled arm and the rest of me with it. Fear and blind panic welled within me. I struggled and fought as hard as I could!
My tail is incredibly strong by human standards. It’s made almost entirely of muscle and designed to propel me at great speed through an uncooperative medium. It’s also a weapon when needed. As an adult, I can lift over 500 pounds with it. So when I say I fought as hard as I could, it was a considerably stronger showing that you might imagine a small girl can put up.
At first, I overpowered the wretched dome, pulling it and myself back down toward safety. For a moment, I thought I might escape, but it redoubled its efforts. My arm screamed in pain as the ropes dug deeper and deeper with the combined force of this deadly tug-of-war. I weakened, partially from the sheer strength of my opponent, and partially from the pain.
Again, I was pulled upward. No amount of struggling on my part would have any effect this time. Terror gripped me as I saw green light from above. I was near the surface, being dragged inexorably higher. I could do nothing but stare at my impending doom.
I breached the surface. The bright sunlight burned my eyes and I had to squint while they adjusted. The pain in my arm increased tenfold as the ropes pulled me out of the water. No longer was I a graceful creature in her element. I was a clumsy, awkward, and heavy creature writhing in the air.
I felt myself lowered onto a hard surface, where I flopped helplessly. I glanced around the bright environment as best I could.
“For the love of Christ!” I heard. Or, rather, I heard the syllables. It was my first exposure to the English language.
I squinted up at the figure standing over me. He was a human!
I’d heard stories about humans; land people with legs instead of tails. But adults tell kids all sorts of implausible things. How was I supposed to know this one was true? They allegedly lived on land and roamed the countryside on their land-oriented legs. I was always dubious about the stories. If they lived on land, how would merfolk know about them?
The answer was, of course, “boats”. As it happens, I was on the deck of one. I’d never seen a boat before, or even heard of them. It was a day of many firsts for me.
“For the love of fookin’ Christ!” he said. It sounded like a minor variant on what he’d said before.
He was a tall man, wearing thick, heavy clothing to protect him from the harsh cold that felt perfectly comfortable to me. A wide-brimmed fisherman’s hat shielded his face from the mist.
He remembered to take the pipe out of his mouth before allowing his jaw to drop open. We stared at each other in disbelief for a few moments.
I broke the trance by making another go at freedom. Grunting and sobbing, I pulled on the ropes and tried one last desperate attempt to escape. If I could break free, I could flop over the side of the boat and back into the safety of the sea.
“Oh no, none o’ that,” he said, stepping forward. He picked up a fresh coil of rope and quickly tied it in to a leash. As he approached me, he said “Now, just relax, gel. I’ll get ya out o’ that netting in a tick. But I can’t have ya wanderin’ off”
I didn’t know what he had planned, but when he tried to put that rope around my neck, I vetoed it. Obviously this was his first encounter with a mermaid, so he didn’t know about the strength of my tail. I slammed him quite well, catching him squarely in the chest, and sent him sliding across the deck. He crashed into the wheelhouse with enough force to knock the wind out of him. For several moments, he sputtered as he tried to catch his breath.
I used the time to pull on the netting. I felt empowered by how easily I’d bested my foe, and the panic had subsided. I was thinking more clearly and able to actually make progress. I managed to get one of the many loops off my arm. I was elated. I was going to get out of this after all.
Around then is when he lassoed my neck. The rope tightened around my throat instantly and pulled me back. I jerked my head around to see him tying my new leash off to a mast. I squeaked in anger as I tried to pull it away from my neck with my good arm, but it was too tight.
He approached me slowly, keeping a wary eye on my tail. He put both hands out in front of him. He was trying to be non-threatening, I suppose, but he’d just tied a rope around my neck, so I wasn’t feeling particularly trustworthy.
He came closer, pointing to my ensnared arm. I looked over at it, then back at him.
He reached forward and began to untangle me from the netting. I twitched my tail tentatively and he quickly backed away. After a moment, he cautiously approached again. I eyed him suspiciously. He certainly seemed like he was helping, so I saw no reason to interrupt him.
In short order, he freed me from the netting. I curled up, rubbing my sore wrist and arm. The leash around my neck still prevented escape, and the small satisfaction of having my arm back was quickly lost to my mounting frustration.
He took a good look at me as he absently packed his pipe. Lighting it, he took several puffs. His eyes landed on my midsection and he looked a bit startled.
He stood and quickly went below deck. I seized the opportunity to flee. Or try to, anyway. The leash around my neck was still tight, too tight for me to pry off with my little hands. My tail was powerful, but my hands and arms were no stronger than any other five-year-old girl’s. Still, I gave it my best. I chewed on the rope tethering me to the mast. If he was gone long enough, I might be able to gnaw my way out of trouble.
“Oy!” I heard him cry as he returned.
He rushed to the rope and pulled it tight, dragging me backward by my neck. I choked out an angry protest and flopped wildly. After a few seconds, he released tension and I could breathe again.
“Now then, gel. Any more o’ that and you’ll get more of the leash. Ya hear?”
I didn’t understand him, but I got the general idea. I lay quietly on the deck, staring daggers at him.
He had a blanket under his arm which he had acquired from below. Unfolding it, he draped it over my waist. The rough, scratchy wool chafed my scales immediately. I tail-flicked it off with a sour look on my face.
He scowled at me and retrieved the blanket. Throwing it over my waist again, he said “Yer gonna to have to show a bit o’ modesty, lass. Can’t have yer girl bits out in the breeze, now can we?”
I didn’t understand the concept of clothing. People invent clothing to keep warm. Modesty only comes later as a side effect. When you’re perfectly comfortable in near-freezing water you simply don’t have any need for clothes.
So I flicked the damn blanket off again and stared him right in the eye.
“Yer tryin’ my patience, lass,” he groused as he again retrieved the blanket.
He grabbed my leash and shook it at me. “Yer gonna leave the blanket on, or yer gonna get the leash again. Ye savvy?” With that, he dropped the blanket over my waist one final time. He kept his leash hand up and firm and stared right back into my angry gaze.
I understood. My anger burned white hot as I lay still, allowing the wretched blanket to irritate my scales. Once a suitable amount of time had passed, he surmised he’d won that round and softened up a bit.
That was only the first of many battles of will I would have with Shafe Mackenzie. In time I would learn that stubbornness is a trait we share, and both have in abundance.
Taking the wheel, he piloted the
ship back toward land. Within half an hour, the rocky shores of