As I mentioned earlier, the year
was 1841. Slave collars were considerably easier to find back then. My captor
found one easily even though
Shafe Mackenzie, smarter than he looks, knew it would be bad to keep me out of water for too long. I suppose it had something to do with him being a fisherman and me being a fish. Shortly after we reached the jagged rocky shore where his house and dock stood, he devised a way to keep me prisoner without denying me water.
After slapping the collar on me, he attached the chain to a large metal spike which he hammered into a boulder on shore. I had about fifty feet of chain to work with. I could swim around a bit and stay comfortably in the water, but getting away was impossible.
Never get captured by a fisherman. They have an unlimited supply of rope, anchor-chain, and nets.
I explored the small bit of ocean I could access. The deepest it got was only about 15 feet. Of course, there was an equal amount of land within my chain’s allowable area, but what was I going to do with that?
I was very hungry. I had gotten in to this mess by being very hungry, and I hadn’t eaten in the interim. There wasn’t much in the way of food. In water this shallow, you’re lucky to find clams, let alone anything that tastes good. I still couldn’t catch fish, and I wasn’t likely to have any breakthroughs in that area while dragging fifty feet of chain by my neck.
I lay on the seafloor, pondering my situation when I felt a jerk on the chain. I surfaced to see Shafe on the shore with a basket.
“Come here! Come to the shore!” He commanded, gesturing me toward him.
I understood the general idea from the hand gesture, but I had no intention of going near that bastard if I could help it.
He scowled at me. “I said come here, gel!” He groused, giving a hard tug on the chain. “I’ll reel ya in if I have ta!”
That tug pissed me off. Have someone jerk you around by the neck and you’ll see what I mean. But I was powerless to do anything about it. I glared at him for a second, then obeyed.
A large, flat rock squatted among the craggy boulders that comprised the shore. It seemed as good a place as any to beach myself. Shafe made his way to where I lay.
“Here,” he said, pulling out a girl’s dress. “You’ve got no legs, but ya don’t need ‘em fer a dress.”
I looked at him quizzically. I guessed this was somehow similar to when he forced me to keep a blanket over my midsection, but that’s about all I could figure out. I made no move toward the garment.
Frustrated, he put the basket down and draped the open dress over my shoulders. I didn’t want another jerk of the chain, so I didn’t resist as he pulled my arms through the sleeves and buttoned up the ridiculous thing. I still didn’t understand the reason for this nonsense, but it was considerably more comfortable than the scratchy wool blanket he’d made me wear last time.
He upended the basket in front of me.
Fish! Oh my god! Fish! Already caught, already killed, and ready to eat!
I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed the nearest one and took a huge bite. I curled into a ball as I ravaged the food. He might be able to take the fish out of my hand, but he wouldn’t get the part I already ate. I chewed as fast as I could and swallowed.
I took another bite. I wasn’t sure how much I’d get away with, but I was going to eat as much as I possibly could. Around the third bite, it dawned on me that Shafe wasn’t doing anything to stop me.
I glanced back at him, still chewing. He merely stood, watching me.
I reached out for the other fish in the pile and scooped them all toward me, guarding them. I glared daggers back at him, almost challenging him to try anything.
“Atta gel,” he said. “Protect what’s yers.” He left me to my feast and made his way back toward his house.
The urgency of my eating having been removed, I slowed the pace somewhat. After devouring six entire fish (more than I’ve ever eaten in a single sitting, even as an adult), I was sated. In fact, I was ill. But I wasn’t about to let a meal like that come back up on me. I lay face up and groaned occasionally. I lacked motivation to return to the water. I didn’t even take off the idiotic dress.
After a half-hour of uncomfortable bloated digestion, I heard the footsteps along the rocks. I sat up to see Shafe returning with a woman. Once she caught sight of me, she stared with an expression of utter disbelief.
She wasn’t a pretty woman by any means, but not exactly an ugly one either. She was hearty and a little weathered. A fisherman’s wife. She could use tiny scraps of food and tinier scraps of money to maintain a household. A nineteenth century woman’s life was a hard one and she was no exception.
“By God, Shafe, I didn’t believe it till ya showed me. A mermaid! A god damned mermaid!”
“Aye, I tol’ ya!” He replied gruffly. “Now the question is: How do we make money out o’ this?”
“What have ya done?” she said accusingly. “You’ve put her in a collar!?”
“Don’t be daft, woman,” he said back. “She’d get away if not fer the collar!”
“She’s just a gel!”
“How do we keep her here, then?” He demanded.
“Why not bring her in the house? Lock her in the back room?”
“She’s a fish, woman! She’d die fer sure! She needs the sea.”
She had no immediate answer to that, and Shafe stood a tad taller once he realized he’d gotten the last word. It didn’t happen very often.
She approached me slowly, as one might address a timid dog. “Hey, there, gel. I’m Lotti Mackenzie.”
I stared blankly.
“She don’t understand English,” Shafe said. “I already tol’ ya.”
She glared back at him, then gently looked back at me. “Lotti,” she said clearly, pointing to herself.
I continued to stare blankly.
“Lotti,” she said again, pointing to herself with more emphasis.
“Lotti,” I repeated. It was the first time I ever spoke to a human.
“There we go then,” she smiled. “Now what’s yer name?” She pointed to me.
The hand gestures did the trick. She was “Lotti,” and wanted to know my name.
So I said my name. I could try to write it out for you in letters, but trust me: you have no chance of pronouncing it.
Her soft expression froze on her face. “Right, then. We’ll call ya Bonnie. ‘Cause yer a bonnie lass.” She pointed to me. “Bonnie,” she said.
“Bonnie,” I said back. “Bonnie,” I repeated, pointing to myself. “Lotti,” I said, pointing to her.
“There ya go,” she nodded.
“Lotti,” I said again, giggling. It was fun! For the first time since my mother left me, I interacted with someone. I had been desperately lonely for such a long time, this was sheer delight.
She stood back up, dusting the dirt off her dress. “Get the gel a blanket if she’s to sleep out here.”
“She lives in the sea,” he protested. “She don’t need a blanket.”
“Shafe Mackenzie, ya get that gel a blanket! If she don’t want it, that’s her decision to make!”
“Bah!” He snorted, and began back toward the house.
She looked back to me with a conspiratorial smirk. “Best ya learn early how a woman wrangles her husband. Ya just keep an eye on me.”
A few minutes later, Shafe returned with a blanket. I had no need of it and didn’t use it. Also, I took the dress off as soon as the Mackenzies were out of sight and watched it gently drift away.
The interaction between Shafe and Lotti Mackenzie intrigued me. I couldn’t understand anything they said, but it was clear she held as much influence over my fate as he did, and with considerably more friendliness.
The following morning, a soft tug on my chain awakened me from my seafloor slumber. I surfaced to see Shafe on the shore with the familiar basket. No longer needing any encouragement to head toward that bountiful harvest, I immediately swam to my breakfast.
Seeing me again naked he shook his head with mild annoyance. Wordlessly placing the basket in front of me, he headed off toward his boat. The basket contained a plate with prepared food on it. This morning’s meal featured fried fish, fried eggs, and a few pieces of bread. It was Lotti’s doing.
Shafe sailed away. He always fished alone. It was a dangerous way of life, but necessary for subsistence fishermen. He wasn’t just a lobsterman. He would also throw out nets for cod or anything else he could catch. I would later learn he was breaking unwritten rules left and right. But that was Shafe Mackenzie for you.
Having nothing better to do, I watched his ship recede toward the horizon as I tried the various foods. I’d never had cooked food, and I liked it! The rich, smoky fish melted in my mouth and tasted so good it made my flukes flutter. The eggs were hard to pick up, but I soon got the hang of it. The dry, scratchy bread hurt my mouth. But once I soaked it in seawater, it was a delectable treat.
Around the time I finished, I saw Lotti approaching. I perked up and smiled at her.
“Yer looking well,” she said.
“Lotti!” I said. “Lotti!”
“Aye, I’m Lotti. And yer Bonnie,” she confirmed, seating herself on my favorite flat rock.
“Aye!” I blurted.
“I figured you’d lose the dress, so I brought another,” she said, producing the garment from behind her back.
I groaned. How many of those things did they have? I resisted a bit, but she was firm on the issue and soon had me clothed. I still didn’t understand the point of it all, but I accepted it as the price for adult attention.
She opened a book in front of her. “My mam used to read me this book when I was a gel. She give it to me when I married Shafe, so I could read it to me own children. But we never had any. Just not God’s will. At least it’ll get some use now.”
She cleared her throat, and pointed to the first page. I looked at the pictures on it with great interest. “A is for Apple, from tree so tall; in Adam’s temptation, we’re sinners all,” she turned the page. “B is for Bible, the Lord’s good word. All are saved, whose verses they’ve heard…”
Yup. Things were different in 1841. You probably grew up with “C is for Cat” and “D is for Dog”. I got “C is for Christ” and “D is for Devil.”
She read to me for over an hour,
simply restarting the book whenever she got to “Z is for
Eventually, she closed the book and stood up to return to the house. She had cooking to begin and an ungodly amount of chores to do. Before leaving, she patted me on the head and said “Swim off and play now, there’s a good gel.”
I wanted her to stay. Kids always want adults to play longer. But at least there was one benefit to solitude: I took the dress off, wadded it up, and hurled it as far as I could.
In the evening, nearly at dark, Shafe returned and moored his boat at the dock. While he was out, he’d fished, checked lobster traps, laid out new traps, sailed into town to sell his haul, bought what supplies Lotti had instructed him to get, and returned home a tired man. Before heading to the house, he came along the shore. I swam forward to meet him.
No basket. Hmph.
“Still here I see,” he said. “She may like ya, but she won’t turn ya loose.” He lit his pipe. “Int’restin.”
“A is for apple!” I informed him, having no idea what I was saying.
“Aye,” he nodded. “That it is.”
He puffed on his pipe a few more times, then headed up to the house. About an hour later he returned with a plate of food.
The next day, tiring of our struggle about whether or not I wear a dress, Lotti tried a different tack. Perhaps she was interested in compromise, or perhaps she ran out of children’s dresses (where was she getting them, anyway?)
“Right. Let’s try this, then,” she said, showing me a bizarre piece of leather. “My Da’ was a tanner, so I know a bit about leatherworkin’.”
Lotti had invented a leather miniskirt over a hundred years before they became popular among nightclub tramps. Though this was no sexy garment. Made of thick leather she had salvaged from an old jacket of Shafe’s, it featured two straps with buckles. She looped it around my flukes and slid it up my tail, fastening it in place around my hips. It hugged to my scales, but didn’t chafe. She had also taken the lining of the old jacket and ensured the skirt was a comfortable fit.
“There ya go. Hides all the bits that need hidin’. And it’ll def’nately last longer than a little dress will in seawater. Of course, yer topless fer now. But we’ll just have ta deal with that later as things… develop.”
I looked down at my new clothing. This wasn’t so bad. It still seemed pointless, but Lotti was nice to me. So I decided not to press the issue. To this day, when I’m on land, I wear underwear much like Lotti invented for me. Though nowadays it’s made of comfortable cotton instead of leather and uses elastic instead of bulky straps.
“Ok, then,” Lotti said, opening a book. “Today yer gonna hear stories by Mother Goose…”
We fell in to a routine. You might not think being chained to a rock by your neck could become routine, but it can. Every morning, before sailing out, Shafe would bring me breakfast. Lotti would come to me a few times per day, sometimes with snacks, but usually to read to me from a variety of children’s books. Near nightfall, Shafe would return from fishing. Then, after eating his own supper, he would bring me mine.
Kids learn languages very quickly, and I was no exception. At first, I simply repeated things. Then I moved on to pointing and identifying pictures in the books, with encouragement or correction from Lotti. I soon learned enough English to understand what she was reading and have basic conversations.
On Sundays, they would go to church instead of fishing or doing household chores, but it had little effect on me. I still got fed, and Lotti would just read the Bible instead of a children’s story. I liked the Bible. It had lots of murder and war. It’s interesting stuff to a kid. As an ideology, it fell short. None of my tribe’s shamans had ever mentioned Jesus. If he was important, they would have brought him up. I concluded Jesus was a Land God, overseeing land people. There’s no mention of sea people in the Bible, so we must be out of His jurisdiction.
I was a kid like any other; curious and easily bored. That was the biggest problem for me. I had a fifty-foot radius of available space, half of which was on rocky impassable land. Well, impassable to a flopping floundering mermaid, anyway.
Fortunately, I had the stories to draw from. I conjured adventures and excitement. I was a princess of a lost kingdom! I was a mighty Arabian thief stealing jewels and riches! I suppose other girls my age were pretending to be mermaids. I pretended to be queen of the mermaids. It’s a title I could fairly claim, if you think about it. Whatever I did, I would make props out of available items where possible.
“Good lord, gel. What have ya got there?” Lotti asked as she brought me lunch.
I looked up at the driftwood I was balancing on my head. “Wood!”
“Why?” Lotti laughed.
“I’m a termite!” I explained.
“Are ya now?”
“I eat wood. We termites eat wood.”
“Do ya like the taste of it?” She asked.
“Aye, termites love wood.”
She set a plate of food on the flat rock. “And how do termites feel about potatoes, green beans, and bread?”
“Termites eat that, too,” I said, ditching the driftwood and digging in to my lunch.
“I wouldn’t have known that,” Lotti smirked, “About the termites and their love o’ potatoes.”
“Termites love potatoes,” I said between mouthfuls.
She stroked my hair as I ate. “I should take a brush to ya, gel. Yer hair needs a bit o’ work. When yer older I’ll teach ya how to braid it.”
“Aye. Braiding is when ya make yer hair pretty.”
“I wanna be pretty,” I confirmed.
“All gels wanna be pretty,” Lotti said, staring off at the ocean.
I ate in silence while Lotti contemplated something.
“Are ya happy, lass? I mean ta say, is there anything I can get ya?”
I thought for a long time. Well, several seconds, which is forever to a kid. I sensed an opportunity to get something cool. I tried to think about what I wanted more than anything else. No rules, can’t hurt to ask, worst she can do is say no.
“A longer chain?” I said, hopefully.
She hung her head. After a moment, she rubbed her eyes and turned away. “I have to go in now,” she croaked, “I’ll come back in a bit.”
I shrugged. It seemed like a reasonable request to me.
Usually, she stayed until I finished eating then took the dishes back with her. But this time, I ended up with a plate. I quickly became a fisherman. The plate became a pilot’s wheel to steer my mighty vessel. I patrolled up and down the magical shores, looking for fish and porks. (I liked the meat Lotti cooked for me, but I wasn’t clear on where it came from.)
“Arr, I need more fish,” I said in my best impersonation of Shafe. “And more porks!”
I caught a variety of fish and porks, and even did battle with a few giant sea serpents. I was just about to set sail for the moon when I was interrupted.
“Bonnie!” Lotti called out, “Come to the shore.” Shafe stood beside her.
I slithered just under the surface toward them, then breached with enough force to land on the flat rock. “Boo!” I screeched.
Shafe looked down and the hammer and screwdriver in his hands. “A hundred dollars, he said.”
“Shafe, we discussed and decided,” Lotti said. “Ya agreed with me.”
“Aye, I did. But that P.T. Barnum said one hundred dollars. I’ve still got the telegram. He’d probably offer a fair bit more once he found out she’s the real thing and not some hoax.”
“Aye, and it was good we contacted him. But we decided against takin’ the offer,” Lotti said firmly.
Shafe sighed and grabbed the collar. “Stay still now, gel.”
With a few taps of the hammer on the screwdriver, the lynchpin of the collar came out. The leather strap loosed from my neck and the chain pulled it to the ground.
My throat was bare for the first time in weeks. A cold sensation washed over the freshly exposed skin, and I felt the new freedom of movement of my head.
Lotti nodded. “Ok then, Bonnie. Yer free to go.”
I looked back at her. “Wha’?”
“Yer free! Go on now, get goin’.”
I looked to Shafe, then to her again. I began to tremble as tears welled up in my eyes. “Did I do somethin’ wrong?”
“What?” Lotti said, clearly confused.
“I’m sorry,” I whimpered. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”
Lotti hunched down to bring her head even with mine. “Ya didn’t do anything wrong. We’re settin’ ya free ‘cause it’s the right thing to do.”
“Please,” I choked. “Please don’t send me away!” I cried openly now. “I don’t wanna’ be alone again! I’m sorry! Whatever I did, I’m sorry! Please I’ll do anythin’ ya want!”
Lotti took me in to her arms, “Bonnie, Bonnie, shhh. There’s a good gel. Ya don’t have to go.”
“Please don’t send me away,” came my muffled cry.
“It’s all right, we won’t. Ya don’t have to go anywhere,”
“I don’t?” I muffled.
“Of course not, gel. We thought ya’d want to go! We thought ya wanted to be free. So now ya are. But ya don’t have to leave. Ya can stay right here so long as ya like.”
The panic started to recede. She ended the hug earlier than I would have liked and took me by the shoulders. “It’s all right, gel. I didn’t mean to scare ya.”
I hunched my head and shoulders and looked back up to her, unable to stop crying.
“Oh, there, there,” she said, taking me again in to her arms. “Everythin’ll be all right. Shhh, shhhhh. It’ll be all right. There’s my gel.”
She rocked me gently back and forth as my sobs subsided into sniffles.
Shafe packed and lit his pipe as he looked at the moment playing out between us. He remembered the first few years of his marriage. No matter how hard they tried, they remained childless. All the other couples got children as a natural consequence of being together, but the Mackenzies got nothing but disappointment. He remembered how devastating it was to Lotti after each monthly defeat, how the frustration mounted and how each new failure took its toll on her spirit. He remembered when she gave up. Always a loving wife, and still wanting Shafe’s physical attention, the purpose changed to simple desire rather than the pursuit of new life. He remembered how a part of her soul died back then.
Now he looked at how she held and consoled me, and how I trusted and relied on her completely.
“Well,” he said, taking a puff off his pipe. “That’s that, then.”