At the first sign of storms on the horizon, not a day after leaving port, the sailors all started eyeing her.
"Bad luck to have a woman aboard," one muttered, and Mr. Hartstrom, the man charged with seeing Rosie across the sea to her new home, nodded in agreement.
She stayed in her room after that, never mind that it was cramped, and smelled stale, like tobacco smoke. She read her books (“Not right for a woman to read”) and took her meals and tried to imagine what her husband’s land was like. She spoke a little of the language, half-remembered from her mother, now long-dead. But the fashions would be different, and perhaps the expectations, too. She knew how to be a good wife in her own home, but maybe—maybe things were different, there.
She wished Mr. Harstrom would join her. He was a barrister of some sort, she thought, and he’d been very charming, very kind. If she hadn’t already been promised, he might have turned her head even more. As it was, she had enjoyed their time together, and couldn’t help—well. It might have been nice to have company, even if only for dinner.
The storms struck early the second morning, tossing the boat about. She heard shouting, and put her hand on the door, but in the end she stayed where she was. She couldn’t do anything, knew nothing of sailing, and the men already thought she was an ill-omen. Instead she tucked herself into a corner, pressed her feet against the floor and her hands against the walls, and she said her prayers.
It got worse.
Rosie thought she must have slept, or dozed. She lost track of time in the storm that would not cease, heard screams outside and knew a sailor had been lost. She closed her eyes tight and raised her voice, reciting all the prayers she knew, all the blessings, and even made some up. She couldn’t die like this. To drown would be a wretched thing, the most hideous of all the ways. Even consumption might be better, because then you were doomed, it wasn’t a twist of fate or bad luck. It was illness.
She had bruises from being tossed about, from the candles and the boxes and trunks in her room that slid about, crashing ominously, and at first she didn’t hear the door open, or the sound of staggering footsteps. It was so dark, she didn’t see them until they were almost upon her, two sailors.
"Come with us," the older one said, pulling her roughly to her feet, up the stairs to the deck. The wind whipped her hair about, and the rain and spray stung her face and hands. It was cold, and she didn’t understand what they wanted.
Until she saw the rope.
"No!" she screamed, or tried to, but her voice was hoarse from prayer, from the begging she had already done, pleading with God to show them mercy, to save those who had been lost. They tied her hands together before her, two men pressing bruises into her arms as they held her, and with the long remaining rope, they tied her legs. "Please, please, please," she sobbed, and fell as another wave crashed against the ship. There was a murmur of laughter, slick under the sound of the waves.
"Bad luck," one of them said, no pity in his voice, "to have a woman on board."
Another lifted her easily, laughing as she struggled, as though she was an amusing divergence. Her breath came fast and too shallow, her hair slapping wetly across her face like a prelude. He held her suspended over the rail for a moment, and in the brief moment when lightening flashed just before he let her go, she stared at Mr. Hartstrom,
"You would have been a good wife," he told her, as though it was a consolation she should take to her grave, and let her go.
It was a long way down, and Rosie thought they must have tied the rope to something, because it was too quick, she was being pulled too quickly, no moment to linger, to look, to breathe.
But the water closed over her head too quickly, and then crashed down like further insult to injury.
She lost sense of which way was up, thought she was spinning. Her lungs were on fire, and it was some instinct that made her kick, some primal urge to live.
Finally, though, she had to gasp for air—there was no way to stop.
And then she exhaled. She frowned, and cautiously inhaled. And then exhaled.
"Who tied you, amateurs?" a young woman, about Rosie’s age, asked. "Or did they want you to pray as you drowned?"
She had pale, silky hair, and a tail like a fish, though not any illustration Rosie had ever seen of a mermaid. She was too—wild, perhaps. Cut into her neck, behind her ears, were gills like a fish, and her tail was less fish-like than it was that of a whale.
"I’m Eylaug," the woman continued, completely unembarrassed by her nakedness. She had metal around her forearms, and a necklace of sorts, and beads and baubles braided into her hair, but no clothes, no corset. "Let’s get you untied. Aoife, come help me."
"I—" Rosie said, and was so startled to find she could speak that she stopped.
"You?" Eylaug prompted. "Are simple?"
"I am not," Rose snapped, and Eylaug grinned.
"Good. The last three were."
"Girls," another supplied, abruptly materializing next to them. "Last three girls, complete idiots, took weeks to train them."
The water was calmer here, and Rose thought it must be dark, and murky, but she saw fine. Her dress and its many underskirts felt rough, though. Confining.
The other girl—presumably Aoife—gripped hold of Rosie’s arm, and Rosie realized with a start she was still sinking, though the ropes seemed to be sliding down her hips, tearing the dress away from her.
"You’re mermaids," Rosie said. "I didn’t know—you were real."
"Oh yes," Eylaug said, smiling. "Very real."
"Not quite like the stories," said Aoife, untying Rosie’s legs—fin? she didn’t think she had legs anymore. "Or the stories from when I was a girl. Though what we heard was different from what Eylaug heard, which was different from—"
"Eylaug, Aoife, the storm is still raging," another called, her red hair floating long and calm around her face. Her smile was sharp, and in her hand was a net, woven in a way unfamiliar to Rosie. "It would be a terrible shame if the ship were to fall."
"Horrible," Eylaug agreed, and Rosie smiled, spreading her freed hands and turning, so that Aoife could cut away her corset, the remains of her dress. The water felt good on her skin, comforting.
"That’s Bess," Aoife said. "Will you come?"
Rosie nodded, running her fingers through her hair. It was easy to follow them, to cut through the water, to breathe deeply, and she thought it strange, perhaps, that she didn’t wonder at it more.
When they broke the surface, the ship was familiar, even from below.
"They blamed you," Aoife said.
"They drowned you," Bess said.
"Do they not deserve the same courtesy?" Eylaug asked, and Rosie, looked at her, at all of them. Drowned, all of them. Murdered as she was, blamed for something she hadn’t done, sacrificed to the fear of men.
"Show me," she said, and Bess grinned and lifted her head to the sky, and began to sing. The waves seemed to respond, to bear them up to where the sailors could see them. Bess reached out, the husky, low crooning of her voice gaining volume, rising over the sound of the sea, and two men leapt towards her, falling under the waves. None of the others seemed to notice, and Eylaug and Aoife sang as well. There were no words, though it felt familiar, and Rosie opened her mouth, and the song poured out.
It was funny, watching them fling themselves to their deaths. Bess and Aoife were playing a game, clearly, competing to see how many would kill themselves for them. Eylaug, though, focused on just one, and he came to her, fell into her arms, and when she sank with him beneath the waves she was smiling but stopped singing. Rosie saw realization hit him, when he began to struggle, but as soon as she let go he was swept up in the rough pull of the storm, the currents drowning him.
Rosie realized that she had the attention of just one, and he leaned over the rail, his gaze rapturous. He was so pretty, she thought, smoothing the back of her fingers down his cheek as she sang to him. “Rosie?” he asked, dazed, and she laughed. It was only polite, she thought, to afford him the same courtesy she had been shown.
"You might have made a good husband," she said, wrapping her arms around his biceps, and pulled him down.
He struggled against her, but she was strong, here, and could bear him to the bottom of the sea before granting mercy. She was strong, and the ocean raged with her, gave her breath and life even as she took his. His eyes bulged, fearful, and he fought not to breathe. Eventually, though, his body betrayed him. The air bubbled from his lungs, and he sucked in water, coughed, and she let go, watching him sputter and convulse. She bit her lip, a hand covering her mouth as she tried not to laugh—some distant idea that it wasn’t polite to mock the dead.
But then it was done, and he was just sinking down. Rosie sighed and turned towards the songs of her sisters. Why play with the dead when there was fun to be had with the living, after all?