Obviously, I didn’t die. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I had. Though I did come pretty close to that great aquarium in the sky.
As I tell you this next part, remember I was unconscious for most of it. I didn’t personally see any of this play out. I only heard about it after the fact.
I was too busy getting the crap beaten out of me to notice, but Shafe saw my frantic swim to shore and Old Milky chasing after me. Thank god he knew what a dolphin on the hunt looked like. He immediately knew I was in trouble.
As Old Milky gleefully snapped my ribs and prepared for a meal of mermaid sushi, Shafe ran along the shore and then in to the water toward us. Just as Old Milky was about to chow down, Shafe bodily lifted him out of the water and threw him to the side. Dolphins weigh up to 300 pounds, by the way.
As Old Milky spun around to see who dared interrupt his dinner, Shafe lunged with a fishing knife, gashing him across the side. This was all Old Milky needed to identify Shafe as “seriously dangerous”. He swam away at top speed.
Lifting me out of the water, Shafe could tell I was in serious trouble. I was unconscious with blood trickling out of my mouth. The bruising from my shattered ribs swelled rapidly. Shafe had seen accidents and injuries many times in his dangerous profession, and he knew internal bleeding when he saw it.
“Lotti!” He screamed toward the house. “Lotti!”
Right away, she knew something was wrong. Shafe rarely raised his voice, let alone bellowed like a banshee. Rushing out, she saw the scene and gasped.
“Bonnie!” She yelled.
“Haskell’s!” Shafe called up to her, carrying me up the shore toward the road. “Run! I’ll get thar’ as fast n’ safe as I can!”
Lotti set off at a full run. After a few seconds, she tore her apron off and threw it to the side because it was tangling in her legs.
Troy Haskell lived “next door” in that rural Maine kind of way. Too old to fish any more, he lived on an Army pension. Having fought in the War of 1812, he got the bonus for wartime deployment, and could live comfortably. With his gimpy leg, he couldn’t simply walk in to town, so he had the luxury of a horse and cart. His house was visible from ours, though only just. It would take Lotti some time to get there at a full run. Shafe had to be more cautious, carrying my broken body.
Lotti was 53 years old, and ill-suited to a half-mile sprint. But she made it. With bile creeping up her throat, and on the verge of vomiting, she pounded on Troy Haskell’s door.
After a few moments, Haskell opened the door, still in his nightgown (retirees don’t wake up as early as fishermen). “Eh? Lotti Mackenzie? Is something wrong?”
“It’s Bonnie! She’s hurt bad!”
Haskell’s face became serious. “Is Shafe bringing her along, then?”
“Horse’s in the barn, cart’s ‘round back. Know how to drive a cart?”
“No, I never have done!”
“I’ll get dressed. Ready the horse.”
After dressing as fast as a man in his sixties can, Haskell came out front. Lotti had brought the horse around and hitched it up to the cart. She sat in the cart, fidgeting with worry. Haskell took the driver’s bench and reigns.
Chester Harbor was south of both Haskell’s and our houses. So what time Shafe had made on foot worked in our favor, as he was traveling generally toward town. The overall goal, of course, being Dr. Henderson’s clinic.
In short order, Haskell and Lotti reached Shafe on The Coast Road.
Hopping off the driver’s bench, Haskell said “There isn’t room for all of us. I’ll walk back home.”
“Aye,” Shafe said. No time for “Are you sure?” or “Is it really all right?” or other social niceties. Laying me in the cart, he took the reigns.
Shafe had earlier covered me with his coat. In the heat of the moment, Haskell wasn’t taking particular notice of the details. My flukes were sticking out and plainly visible, but his vision was fading with age. So I guess we dodged a bullet there. Not that it mattered. My secret wasn’t going to remain in the family much longer anyway.
With a whip of the reigns, Shafe set us racing to town, leaving old Haskell to walk home.
“What happened!?” Lotti yelled over the sound of hoofs and squeaky wheels.
“Dolphin got at ‘er!” Shafe answered, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Can the Doc help!?” Lotti asked. “Can he even do anythin’ with a mermaid!?”
“She’s hurt in her chest! Her human half! Mebbe that means he’ll be able to fix ‘er!”
Lotti clutched at her dress and prayed.
Chester Harbor was preparing to face the day. Fishermen went out at first light, and the town’s schedule was driven by that simple fact. The shops along Main Street were either open or about to be; the sidewalks already busy with people heading toward their daily grind.
Barreling up the street at a breakneck pace gave the whole town pause. Everyone knew Shafe and everyone knew Haskell’s cart. They knew something had to be very wrong.
Pulling up to Dr. Henderson’s office, Shafe called out “Doc! Doc!!”
After a few moments, Dr. Henderson, obviously just awakened, poked his head out of the second story window. “Mackenzie? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Bonnie! She’s hurt bad!”
“I’ll be right down,” Henderson said, withdrawing from the window.
Lotti cradled my head in her lap as I bled on to her dress. She had enough presence of mind to cover the rest of my flukes with Shafe’s jacket.
“Lotti! My god!” Came a gasp. It was David Meadows. He had been on his way to the dock with Andrew Hess.
“Bonnie?” Andrew said. “Bonnie!?” He lunged forward, only to be caught by David.
“Don’t get in the way,” David said.
“Oh my god!” Came another voice. “Is that Bonnie!?” Came another. The crowd gathered thicker with each passing moment.
Lotti didn’t answer anyone. She just stroked my hair and did her best to hold back the surging tide of panic welling inside her.
Joseph Wainwright stopped to survey the scene. Edgar followed closely behind.
“What is it, father?”
“The Mackenzie girl got hurt,” he said.
Edgar looked at the crowd. “Can you see her?”
“No,” Joseph said. “Nothing we can do. Come on.” He continued down the street.
Edgar stood still. “I’d like to stay, father.”
Joseph turned back to face him. “What?”
“I’d like to stay.”
“I said come along, boy!”
Edgar stood still. “I’d like to stay, father.”
Joseph took a sudden angry breath, but held it. Casting a glance over at the crowd, then back to his son, he thought for a moment. “Your mother would never forgive us if we didn’t find out what happened. When you’re done here, come home and tell her what you saw.”
“Yes, father,” Edgar said.
Dr. Henderson finally reached front door of his clinic from the inside. “Bring her in.”
Shafe carried me into the office. Lotti followed, and the rest of the town tried to follow with her.
“Just the Mackenzies,” Henderson said, closing the door.
The townsfolk crowded around the lobby window, watching as Shafe carried me into an exam room in back.
“Sorry, Doc,” Shafe said. “This’s gonna’ be a strange day fer ya’,”
“Put her on the table there,” Henderson said.
Shafe laid me on the table, removing his coat. “She’s a mermaid,” he said bluntly.
Henderson froze, staring at me in all my mermaid glory. “Wh-“ he stammered. Then he fell silent again.
“Ya got ta’ get past the shock,” Shafe said. “We’re in a rush.”
Henderson took a deep, uneven breath. “Ah- all right,” he said. “I- I- What happened?”
“She was attacked by a dolphin.”
Henderson felt my ribs and nodded. “Yeah, several broken ribs. Blood from the mouth.”
He winced. “Internal lung hemorrhage.”
He felt around some more. “Yeah, a rib punctured her left lung. I can get it back in to place, but the lung is in trouble.”
He put both hands to his head. “Lung hemorrhage, lung hemorrhage, God help me.”
Shafe and Lotti looked to him fearfully.
“This isn’t good. Look, I don’t know anything about … what she is. But presuming her lungs work like anyone else’s, we need to staunch that hemorrhage or she’ll die. She’ll drown on her own blood.”
“She can breathe water,” Shafe said. “You sure she’ll drown?”
“Uh-“ Henderson said. “Wh-“ He shook his head. “I’ve never encountered an actual mermaid before. But even if she can breathe water, she presumably pulls oxygen out of it. If her lungs are full of blood, oxygen can’t get in to her system from the outside. She’ll suffocate.
“The problem is, to fix the hemorrhage, I need to do surgery right here and now. And this is a major operation. There’s less than a one in ten chance she’ll survive it, and even if she does, there’s about a three in four chance she’ll die from infection afterward. But we have no choice.”
If you’re ever going to have a major operation, I recommend against having it in 1844.
Quickly gathering his equipment from all corners of the room, Dr. Henderson prepared for surgery. “Shafe,” he said, gathering a handful of scalpels, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to hold her down. There’s a good chance this’ll wake her up and it’s going to hurt like the fires of damnation.”
“Oh my God,” Lotti squeaked from the corner.
“Aye,” Shafe said, rolling up his sleeves. “Mind her tail, it’s as strong as ten men.”
He got a good grip on my arms while Henderson poured ethanol on the site he was going to cut.
He grabbed a sterile scalpel and leaned on me with his other arm (to prevent my writhing from affecting the incision).
Holding the scalpel in position, he paused. “Shafe,” he said.
“Aye?” Came the shaky reply.
“She can breathe water?”
“Seawater? You’re certain?”
“Aye. She sleeps in the sea ever’ night.”
Dr. Henderson fell silent for a moment.
“All right. New plan,” he said, gratefully putting the scalpel down. “I need a tub. Something big enough to fill with water and submerge her. And I need seawater. It can’t be from the well. Has to be seawater.”
“What are ya gonna’ do?”
“There’s a clotting agent medicine that might work. Normally it’d be no good, because there’d be no way to get it to the bleed site. But it can be dissolved in saltwater without losing potency. We can have her breathe it in. The cold temperature of the water would help slow the bleeding, too. Normally, you can’t do this with a patient; but we can safely fill her lungs with saltwater. It’s worth a try. The surgery’s just too risky.”
Lotti stood “So we’ll try that, then!”
Shafe said raced out of the office.
Charging through the lobby to the front door, he threw it open. The concerned crowd had doubled in size. “Doc needs to cool her down,” He announced with his usual ability to lie on the spot. “We need a basin big enough ta hold her and cold water from the sea!”
“Bucket brigade!” came a voice from the crowd. Shafe recognized it as Burl Townsend. A fairly influential man in town, Townsend owned one of the four fisheries that bought from the fishermen and drove the local economy. More importantly, he was the Volunteer Fire Brigade Chief.
“All right, folks!” Townsend called out, “Set up a brigade from the sea! Just like if the clinic was on fire!”
“Buckets at my store! Lots of ‘em!” called out Rich Silverman, who owned the hardware store. “Kate! Get all the buckets we have and throw ‘em out onto the street!”
“Right, dad!” My good friend Kate said, rushing to the store to carry out the order.
“Anything that’ll hold water!” Rich called after her. “Buckets, basins, pisspots, anything!”
The bulk of the crowd followed Kate en masse. The town had regular fire drill training. Everyone knew their place.
“Mackenzie, I have a bait tub that’ll be big enough,” said Roger Thorne. “It’s on my boat. We’ll need the cart to bring it back.”
“Mm,” Shafe said, mounting the cart.
In the clinic, Lotti cleaned blood off my face with the corner of her dress while Dr. Henderson sat in the corner, hands on his chin, regarding me.
“So,” he said, unsure how to start the conversation, “a mermaid.”
“Aye,” Lotti said.
“I just- I don’t-“ Dr. Henderson stammered. “How?”
“Shafe caught her one day.” Lotti said.
“This is just- This is incredible. I can’t- I don’t even know how to express-“ He fell silent.
“She just keeps bleedin!” Lotti said, “Isn’t there anythin’ we can do while we wait? Anythin’ at all!?”
Dr. Henderson came to the table. “Oh… Wait… Oh crap!”
Grabbing me, he pulled my top half off the table and crouched down, leaving my tail where it lay. He pulled my mouth open, and a nasty amount of blood silently poured out on to the floor.
“She breathes water,” he said, shaking me, “I’m guessing she doesn’t have a cough reflex for liquid in her lungs. We have to keep them clear. It’s ugly, but we have to let her bleed out like this for now.”
Lotti turned away and suppressed an urge to gag.
“I’m sorry, Lotti,” he said, now soaked in my blood. “I know this is awful for you. But there’s clots in this blood. That’s a really good sign. It’s scary, I know, but it’s a good sign.”
Edgar surveyed the scene. The bucket-brigade was coming along well. The ocean was far enough away that people had to run to and from it to get the buckets to the far end of the brigade, but it would still work out well. Jackson Hess had joined the fray as one of the runners.
Kate, her bucket distribution task complete, stood with the women of the town, clustered together and speculating on what had happened. Under normal circumstances, each of them would be in their respective homes, preparing for a day of backbreaking domestic labor. But an injured child might lead to a grieving mother, and they had to be on hand to console the inconsolable.
Shafe rode up to the clinic with Roger Thorne’s bait basin sticking out of the back of the cart at an odd angle. Roger stood, half-hanging-off the back of the cart, steadying the large basin for the journey.
On arriving, the two men leapt in to action, each grabbing half the basin and hoisting the heavy copper tub off the cart. The bucket brigade, seeing the receptacle almost in place, got to work moving water.
Everything was moving smoothly and according to plan until Shafe and Roger tried to get the basin through the doorway. They tried angling it this way, then that. It was just too big.
“Damn it!” Shafe groused.
“What’s the hold-up?” Dr. Henderson said from inside, coming out of the exam room.
“Doorway’s too small,” Roger explained.
“Set it up out here!” Someone yelled.
“No good,” the doctor shook his head. “We need a sterile environment. We have to get it in here!” He pointed to the large window leading to the waiting area. “Break the damn window!”
David Meadows gestured for Andrew to follow. Together they went to the rain barrel in the alley beside the clinic.
Together, they tipped it over, draining it.
The two of them then lifted the barrel and carried it around to the front of the clinic. Before the assembled crowd even knew what was happening, they threw it.
The barrel flew through the large window without even slowing down. The crack of shattering glass resounded down Main Street, followed shortly by the smaller tinkling of townsfolk using jackets and boots to clear away the remaining jagged edges.
Shafe and Roger carried the tub through the devastation and were able to get it into the hall just outside the exam room.
“Good enough,” Dr. Henderson said. “Fill it!”
The bucket brigade had so many people, and operated with such efficiency, they filled the basin before completing a full cycle. They were actually holding more water in buckets at one time than the basin could contain.
If Dr. Henderson had demanded a camel and a crate of oranges for my treatment, I’m pretty sure Chester Harbor would have found a way to make it happen.
Having done all they could, the townsfolk waited outside the clinic, silently hoping for the best. Most of them prayed.
“ I just hope it doesn’t dilute too much,” the doctor said, adding all the clotting medicine he had to the water.
It was pure luck that the tub was out of view. Had the hall been a bit narrower, they would have had to leave the tub in the waiting area. Then the assembled masses of Chester Harbor would have seen not only my lovely tail, but also me breathing under water (which would have eliminated any lingering doubt on the matter).
Carefully, Dr. Henderson moved me from the exam table to the basin.
Shafe and Lotti watched intently as he lowered me into the water.
As I began breathing water, the blood cleared out of my lungs much better. The sudden crimson in the tub startled Lotti, but Shafe put a reassuring arm around her shoulders.
Dr. Henderson shook his head with awe as he watched something he considered a medical impossibility. “Amazing,” he whispered.
The blood in the water quickly settled to the bottom of the tank. The clotting agent was forcing it to particulate and sink. This allowed Henderson to watch my breathing closely and note how much new blood I was adding to the system.
After a few minutes, during which he progressively relaxed more and more, he finally announced “It’s working.”
Lotti buried her face in Shafe’s chest and cried openly. Up till now, there had been no convenient time to lose it. Now, she could afford herself the luxury. Shafe closed his eyes and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Much to Dr. Henderson’s satisfaction, I breathed evenly. The blood had all settled at the bottom of the tub and I was no longer adding more. The hemorrhage had been staunched.
You could say I was lucky to be a mermaid. Dr. Henderson’s inventive treatment required the patient’s lungs to be filled with saltwater. However, you could also say being a mermaid is what got me into that mess. Not a lot of people on land get spontaneously attacked by dolphins.
God I hate dolphins.
And that was the primary danger of my childhood. We never thought about it before, but a town is protected from nature. If a bear wandered in to Chester Harbor, any number of people would shoot it. But there was no civilization in the sea. I was on my own.
So yeah, as you already knew, I survived. The only thing remaining was the explanation. The main question on everyone’s mind was “what happened?” Naturally, Shafe came up with the official party line. While rolling along in my wheelchair near our house, I had lost control and tumbled down the rocky embankment toward the sea, breaking several ribs and getting seriously hurt. The injuries led to a fever that the doctor had to treat by soaking me in cold water.
That afternoon, Edgar skipped school in favor of the library. Being a perfect student well ahead of his classmates, his teacher didn’t begrudge his absence, and his father had long established that the library was always acceptable.
Under normal circumstances, Edgar enjoyed books about engineering, sciences, and mathematics. But today was different. Today, his interest was in medicine.
Reading through text after text, researching at a level of concentration most children his age could never hope to achieve, he poured through the small library’s entire collection of medical texts.
Closing the last one and re-shelving it, Edgar had reached his conclusion: Fever was caused by infection. Infection from injury usually took days. Sometimes, very aggressive infections would cause fever within hours of the injury. But there was no situation under which an injury could cause a fever as quickly as mine had.
So why did they soak me in sea water?