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Church is boring.
When you’re a six year old kid, sitting still for an hour and a half while some guy rambles on about boring crap is quite a challenge.
But in 1842, there was a lot more to church than just listening to the preacher. It was the main social event of the week. I bet you grew up with idle weekends and Saturday morning cartoons; when workdays were just for adults and even they stopped at 5:00. It wasn’t like that back when I was a lass.
Shafe and Lotti lived just outside
the small town of
With the story of my imaginary parents’ demise firmly planted over the past few weeks, and the whole “don’t tell people you’re a mermaid” concept strongly drilled in to my head, Shafe and Lotti decided it was time to introduce me to the town. And the best way to do that was to take me to church.
Throughout the sermon, the townsfolk kept sneaking glances back at me. I was the “new girl,” and one with a tragic story to boot. In a town where the annual highlight is a Cod Festival, a paralyzed girl was just about the most exciting thing imaginable.
After the seemingly interminable sermon, Shafe and Lotti took up station near the preacher as everyone left. Nobody specifically arranged it; this was just what you did when introducing people.
“Bonnie,” Lotti said, “This is Hilda Hess, and her boys Andrew and Jackson.”
Hilda Hess was a very tall woman.
Towering over most of the men and all of the women in town, she perpetually
looked apologetic for being so huge. Andrew looked to be around eight years
“Very nice to meet you,” she said in her thick German accent. “Deze are my boys. Boys, say hello to Bonnie,” she pushed them forward.
Andrew shrugged. “’lo.” Speaking to a lowly six year old like me was an insult to the elder boy.
Unlike their mother, neither of them had any hint of an accent.
“Hi,” I said back.
“I like trains,”
“I like boats,” I said.
“Trains’r better n’ boats.”
“Bonnie! be nice!” Lotti
admonished. “I’m sorry, Hilda,” she quickly added. “People are a bit more
direct up in
“Is not a problem,” Hilda said with a wave. “Is children being the children. Come, boys. We going home. Nice to be meeting you, Bonnie.”
Next to drop by was Doctor Henderson. “You must be young Bonnie! Glad to make your acquaintance!”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” I said.
He was young for a doctor, only
having recently graduated from medical school. A town as small and remote as
“Shafe, Lotti,” the doctor reprimanded, “You’ve been keeping her from me. Naughty, naughty.”
“Well, Doctor-” Lotti began.
“She may be ok now, but after that much smoke inhalation, she should have regular check-ups.”
“Aye, we know, but-“ Lotti tried again.
“And her legs need looking after, as well. You never know when a bone chip might come loose. From what I hear it was a particularly nasty set of fractures.”
“What’s a fracture?” I asked.
The doctor smiled magnanimously at me. “It’s when a bone breaks. Nothing for you to worry about, sweetheart. I just want to make sure you stay in good shape.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“Oh you’re so cute!” he gushed. “Anyway, I expect you to bring her in this week, no arguments.”
“Oh I don’t think we can manage it this week, can we, Shafe?”
“Definit’ly not,” Shafe agreed.
“If it’s a matter of money,” Doctor Henderson said, “I’ll gladly see to her for free.”
“That’s generous of ya, Doctor, but we’re so busy of late, ya see and we don’t have time to come to town much-“
“How about right now? My office is just down the street. We’ll be done in half an hour.”
Lotti looked pleadingly to Shafe. Only his lies could save them now.
“Can’t,” Shafe said bluntly, “Bonnie’s afraid o’ doctors somethin’ fierce. From all the pain she had when they were settin’ her legs. We jus’ wanna give her a bit more time ta get over that first.”
“But surely her health is more important than-“
“We’ll not do it, Doctor. We’ll have her in ta see you in time. Just not right away.”
Shafe’s stubbornness was well known throughout the town. Doctor Henderson knew better than the belabor the point further. “Well,” he said with a disappointed sigh, “when you feel she’s ready, come on by.”
I fidgeted in my wheelchair, eagerly awaiting whoever came next. And here she came.
“Bonnie!” the fat woman said. “So nice to meet
you at last! I’ve heard a lot about you! I’m
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” I said very politely.
“And how do you like
“Very well, ma’am,” I said.
“Oh she’s simply lovely, Lotti!”
“Isn’t she, though?” Lotti agreed.
“Will you be putting her in school?”
“Well… for a few hours a day, mebbe,” Lotti said. “She’s got to get fair rest, coz of her lungs.”
“When she’s old enough, she’ll be on the boat with me,” Shafe said.
Lotti shot Shafe a glare.
His sudden interjection was unexpected, to say the least. Shafe was a laconic man by anyone’s standards, and to make a proclamation on this was going over the line. It was women who made all decisions about children, including if and when they joined their fathers at work. However, women were also expected not to disagree with their husbands in public.
“Well, wouldn’t that be nice,”
“She’s got arms,” Shafe said. “She can steer the boat.”
Lotti smiled at
As they awaited the next well-wishers, Shafe puffed his pipe, trying hard to avoid the withering glare from Lotti.
Fishermen didn’t need immediate access to a town; they had boats capable of carrying plenty of supplies to wherever they lived. So their houses were built where the shore made a good location for a pier.
Shafe and Lotti’s house was about a half a mile from town along the shore road that connected the sparse network of fisherman homes. Shafe pushed my wheelchair along the bumpy dirt road as Lotti walked with a huff.
I looked at the ocean just 50 feet away. “Can I swim home?” I asked. I was better at being out of water than before, but it had been almost three hours and I was pretty dry.
“Nay,” Shafe said. “Someone might see ya.”
“I’ll stay under the whole way home, I promise.”
“Can’t risk it. You’ll just have ta wait.”
Now Shafe had two women angry at him.
“Well?” Lotti said. “Are ya goin’ ta explain yerself?”
“If yer ready to hear it, aye.”
“Go ahead, then,” she said.
“Explain how you could embarrass me in front o’
“I shouldn’ta’. I’m sorry. It slipped outa’ me.”
“Well,” Lotti said, clearly mollified, “I don’t know if a simple apology will be enough. But it’s a good start.”
Shafe stopped walking so he could load up his pipe. “I just don’ want ‘em feelin’ sorry fer her is all.”
“Well, Shafe, she’s a little crippled orphan gel so far as they know. Of course they’ll feel sorry fer her.”
“A little bit is fine. But I don’ want it bein’ all they see when they look at her.” He lit his pipe and took several puffs. “She’ll have ta live here. She’ll grow up. She’ll have ta care fer herself someday, or mebbe fer a husband. And when she’s a part o’ this town, I want them all ta respect her. And they won’ do that if they feel sorry fer her.”
Lotti stood in stunned silence. “I didn’t realize ya’d thought it through so much.”
“She can pilot the boat while I throw the nets and traps and whatnot,” he said. “Well,” he clarified, “that’s what we’ll tell ‘em she’s doin. O’ course, once we’re out at sea, she don’ need ta hide what she is.”
“Well, I think yer out o’ trouble, then, Shafe. It’s a good idea.”
“Aye. So when can I have her?”
“Can I really go fishin’ with Shafe?” I squealed, “Tha’ would be great!”
“Yer just a little gel, Bonnie,” Lotti said, “I don’t want ya getting’ hurt.”
“Ya afraid she might drown?” Shafe asked.
“Don’t you be smart with me, Shafe Mackenzie. There’s a lot more danger on a boat than the sea and you know it. And besides. Do ya really want her in the way when yer tryin’ ta work?”
“In the way?” Shafe said, incredulous. “Are ya mad, woman? I’ll get a full haul ever’ time I go out ta’ sea. I won’t have ta put lobster traps out. I’ll just send her to the bott’m with a sack. And she can scout around and tell me where the big schools o’ fish are.”
“Hmm, I suppose yer right,” Lotti said. “Fer a change,” she added, to make sure he didn’t get a swelled head.
The three of us strolled along, Lotti looking pensively to the sky while Shafe and I eagerly awaited her decision.
“I’d like her to be at least ten years old before ya start takin’ her out ta sea.”
“Aye, sounds fair,” Shafe said. “Only question remainin’ is how old she is now.”
Lotti appraised me. “I’d say she’s about six.”
“So how long do I hafta’ wait?” I asked.
“Four years,” Lotti said.
“Wha!?” I yelped. “Tha’s ferEVER!”
“Don’t argue, gel,” Shafe said.
After getting home and finally depositing me in the sea, Shafe and Lotti returned to the house. Much later on in life, Lotti related to me the conversation they had once they got in.
Shafe took up station in his chair
and started reading the newspaper he’d picked up in town. It would be decades
before the concept of newspaper delivery reached rural
Lotti started making dinner. “I suppose I should get Bonnie up here to help me out,” she said from the kitchen, “she’ll have ta learn.”
“It’s been a big day,” Shafe said without looking up. “Let the gel play a bit. They’ll be time for everythin’ later on.”
“I suppose,” Lotti said, distantly.
She worked in silence for a time.
“Shafe,” she said as she finished chopping the carrots.
“You said ‘husband’.”
“On the way home. You said she might have ta care fer a husband some day.”
“Aye, and what of it?”
“Do ya think that’s really possible?” She asked, drying her hands on her apron. “Do ya think she could net a husband?”
“I don’ see why not.”
“She’s mighty different.”
“All she needs is fer a boy ta take a shine ta her. She’s a pretty li’l gel and she’ll grow up into a pretty woman. Are ya worried about… physical considerations?”
“She don’t seem too far from normal in that respect,” Lotti said. “A bit different ta be sure, but she could be a wife to her man, I think.”
“Then wha’s the problem?”
Lotti stirred the stew. “Well… she ain’t human, is she?” She said. “I don’t mean ta say she’s an animal. But she ain’t a human being. I don’t know anythin’ about husbandry, but I think mebbe she couldn’t conceive with a man.”
“That’s a risk her beau would have ta take. Anyone marryin’ her would have ta be made clear on the facts o’ her body beforehand.”
“But to have no hope of children…” Lotti said, trailing off.
Shafe chose his next words carefully. “A man can have a good marriage, without childr’n, and have no regrets. None at all.”
That was that, so far as Shafe was concerned. He resumed reading his paper.
Lotti took a good long look at her man, then returned to her work with a faint smile.
The days of eating at the flat rock on the shore were long behind me. I would eat dinner at the table with them, like any other child. Sunday dinner was usually around 4pm and Shafe would come to the shore to get me. Until then, I could do as I liked.
The idea of fishing with Shafe was a dream come true. But four long years was simply unacceptable. So, with the careful logic of a six year old, I decided I’d prove that I could fish right now. Then they’d let me work with him right away!
And frankly, I didn’t like the idea of spending all day in a bone-dry classroom, far from the sea. With Jackson Hess.
Stupid Jackson Hess.
I pondered what to get. Always interested in anything Shafe did, I paid close attention to all his hauls, and knew that crab was the biggest moneymaker. But it wasn’t in season, and even Shafe wouldn’t break that law. Once you poached crab, you had to find a buyer, and that put you in league with some very shady characters. So crab was out. The next best thing was lobster. So off I went in search of lobster.
As I cut through the water, staying near the seafloor, it felt good to be in the deep again. The further from shore I swam, the darker and colder it got. It was a comforting reminder of the way things once were.
Any human this deep would be completely blind, while I was able to see just fine. Also, any human returning quickly to the surface from this depth, as I often did, would suffer a fatal case of decompression sickness. It made logical sense that I would be this way, but how did it work? I would find that all out later, from a man who dedicated a lot of time to studying me. That’s another story.
Lobsters are easy to find. They don’t move very fast, they have practically no ability to hide or blend in, and they’re not very smart. The only reason they’re hard for humans to catch is all that ocean in the way. I belatedly realized I should have brought a sack or something. Such is the planning ability of a child.
I figured I could only carry one lobster back, so I’d make it a big one. I was over a fairly dense area of them so I hugged the seafloor looking for the biggest one I could find.
I turned around to make another sweep. It was good timing on my part. If I’d waited another second, I would have died.
I don’t know how long he had been following me, but he had been very quiet while doing so. Once I turned around to face him, he abandoned all pretence of subtlety and rushed at me.
No, it wasn’t a shark. It was a much bigger threat. It was a dolphin.
A deep and primal fear rose within me as my natural enemy charged. He had scars across his face from some previous battle. One of his eyes was milky white and blind from the damage he’d sustained. This gave me no comfort. It just meant he was a seasoned veteran.
Experiencing true terror for the first time in my life, I fled directly away. I had never swum that fast before and didn’t even know I could. I could hear him behind me, swimming with all his might and clicking happily as he gave chase.
He was having fun. It was a game to him. Dolphins are the only race other than humans that kill for recreation.
I have mentioned that I can outswim just about anything in the sea. Unfortunately, dolphins are the exception. They can keep up with me for short periods. And a short period is all he would need.
Now, as an adult, I feel sorry for any dolphin who tries to tangle with me. I know how to deal with them, even if I’m unarmed (which I never am). But as a child, I failed to use my main advantage over him: intelligence.
Acting solely on instinct, I continued to swim at top speed along the ocean floor, intuitively seeking out deeper and deeper water. Then I felt his teeth on my flukes.
Pain shot through my body unlike I’d ever experienced. But I was actually very lucky. He had bitten through the webbing, between two of the spines. It hurt like all hell, and my skin was torn, but he didn’t manage to get a grip on me.
Now, each powerful flap of my tail caused searing pain. I slowed down out of necessity. I knew it would only be a matter of time before he caught up. Once he did, he’d start bashing me in the ribs with his powerful nose, breaking them like twigs. I was done for.
Flight wasn’t working. My primal instincts changed to the other option. I spun to face him, tail at the ready, fists balled, mouth open and teeth bared.
And I screamed.
That’s another thing humans can’t do. I can actually yell pretty loud in water, louder than I can in air. And water is an absolutely merciless conductor of sound. If you were nearby and in the water when I yelled, it would be loud enough to hurt, but wouldn’t do any lasting damage.
To a dolphin, who makes his way through life with echolocation and superb hearing, it is a cacophony of pain. He paused and shuddered at the sound.
Caught in a moment of indecision, he weighed the new situation against the fire he felt in his lungs and decided to call the hunt off. It would take more time to kill this prey than he had air for. He sped toward the surface.
Finally, with the immediate danger gone, I came to my senses. I was very far below the surface. If he came back, it would be a long round trip for him, and he wouldn’t have much air to work with before having to go back up. I decided to maximize my advantage. Shaking and sobbing, I fled to yet deeper waters.
Eventually, a good five miles off shore, I was pretty sure I was deep enough to be safe. I stayed there, cowering in the darkness, for a good half hour. I would have to go back eventually. Would he be waiting? How would I get home?
I took a deep breath and calmed down.
“I’ll be on my guard,” I said to myself. “Last time he snuck up on me. He won’t be able to do tha’ again.”
Having long forgotten the lobster plan, I began my swim home. My tail hurt like it was on fire, so I limped; favoring one side of the tail over the other. I darted my eyes from spot to spot. Checking behind, above, left, and right randomly.
I was certain I’d see him bearing down on me at any second. Other children had the Boogieman. I had “Old Milky” to haunt my dreams for years to come.
As I came closer to shore, I heard a familiar “tink tink tink”. It was Shafe calling for me. We had worked out the system a little while back. Calling out my name in the air when I was under water was no good. So Shafe would grab a net-hook pole from his boat and tap it against a rock just under the water. The sound would travel far and wide, audible to me from quite a ways away.
I reached the familiar shallows. I felt a surge of relief and comfort once I swam under the keel of Shafe’s boat and toward the rocky shore. From here, I could beach myself if I had to. Let Old Milky try to follow me on to land and see what happens. Shafe would kill the bastard.
Breaching the surface near the shore, I was greeted by a dirty look from Shafe.
“Where the hell ya been, gel? I been callin’ fer ya.”
“I hurt my tail,” I said, realizing I needed an excuse.
“Oh? Let’s have a look,” he pulled me out of the water and carried me toward the house. “Aye, looks like you cut it. Is it hurtin’?”
“Aye,” I said, the tears starting to flow. Now that I was safe, the true danger of what had happened finally hit me all at once.
“There, there,” Shafe said. “It’s jus’ a coupla’ li’l cuts. They’ll heal.”
I nodded and continued sobbing, burying my face in his chest.
“How’d ya do it?”
“I cut it on a rock,” I said. I’d spent the last few weeks practicing how to lie to everyone in town about what I am and where I’m from. I was pretty good at it now.
“Well then, steer clear o’ rocks like tha’ in future, eh?”
“Yes, sir,” came my muffled response.
“Come on then. Let’s get some supper into ya.”
It was ham for dinner. And praise for my first day among the townsfolk. They were both so proud of me. I didn’t want to get in trouble by telling them about Old Milky, so I didn’t bring it up.
I really should have brought it up.