He finds the creature the morning after the storm.
He might not have seen it except for the birds. The sky and the sea are both the color of water left in the laundry tub; everything blends together, looks the same. But there are gulls below the cliff.
Jesse walks along the beach, the sand slowing his feet, until he reaches the jumble of boulders at the base of the cliff. The sea throws a lot of things against the cliff face. Nets get washed up and tangled on the rocks. Fragments of wrecked boats float in and get caught. Sometimes pieces of the cliff crumble off and fall onto the rock field.
The gulls don’t take flight until he’s nearly stepped on them. They scream accusingly as they wheel above him.
There’s a dead mer washed up on the rocks, lying on its back. It’s tangled up in a heavy drift net. It must have been thrown by a storm surge powerful enough to shift the boulders, because some of the rocks surrounding the mer are pinning the net under them.
Jesse feels something swoop sickeningly in his stomach. He’s not afraid of dead things, but he doesn’t like to see them. Not things that look like this. Once a whale beached itself on the sand, and he came down to look at it before they cut it up into pieces. Its open, staring eye was like a man’s. It was worse than seeing his grandmother dead. She looked like a shape made out of candle wax. Less real than the whale.
Jesse looks down at the mer. It’s twice his own height, at least twelve feet from head to the tip of its tail. It’s nearly the same color as the rocks, the scarred gray tail turning into brown skin where it merges with the upper body.
Jesse knows it.
It’s the one they call Reaper.
It came to their waters seven years ago, and his father hates it. Everyone does. It’s clever. It steals from their nets, drives schools of fish away from their boats. Pulls their buoys into different positions. When they bring out weapons to hunt it, it can’t be found. They call it a man-killer, a man-eater. Jesse doesn’t know who it’s eaten. But that’s what they say.
If it were a person, it’d be a man. It has a broad, flat chest, a wide jaw. Even hair on its face. The birds have already begun to pick at it. There’s blood around a dozen small wounds along its body.
Then the mer opens its eyes and peels back its lips to snarl at him. Its gill flaps, which had been lying so tightly shut they were nearly invisible along its neck, flare open and then seal down tight again.
Jesse stumbles back, nearly tripping over the rock behind him. He'd begun to lower himself to get a closer look.
As the mer snarls, it begins to thrash. Its heavy tail lifts once and slaps down again, and its upper body twists. But after a moment it goes still again, making a guttural noise. It can't move its arms more than a few inches in any direction. It's tried to fight its way out of the net but only made a few holes.
Jesse waits for awhile, then carefully lowers himself to a knee. The mer had closed its eyes, but they reopen slowly and rove around before fixing on him. It makes another noise, lips curled. Its teeth are almost like a human's, but sharper, and some are notched along the edges like a carving knife.
Jesse's never seen a mer this close, not even dead. Reaper’s head and chest are the same size as a person's, but it seems huge. It could kill him, he knows that. But right now there’s nothing it can do.
Suddenly, Jesse notices the tokens sewn along the net. It’s theirs. Their tokens. His father’s net.
Jesse stands up.
“Serves you right,” he says, and kicks the creature. His foot strikes its side. It makes a hurt noise but only moves a little.
Jesse stands on the rocks and looks down at it. It’s been taking their fish. It’s sabotaged their boats. Maybe it has eaten people. Or it will, if it gets the chance. Maybe it’d eat him right now if it could move.
But it’ll die on the rocks like this. The birds will pick it apart. He tries to imagine what the bones would look like with all the skin and meat gone. Some of them would probably look just like a human’s.
Jesse takes his knife from his belt and crouches beside the end of the long tail. Even wrapped in the net, it could move enough to strike him. A direct blow could probably send him tumbling head over heels all the way into the water. But he’d rather risk the tail than start near its arms. If it knocks him over with its tail, he can just walk away and leave it lying there. But if it grabs him, it could tear his throat out.
Jesse lifts some of the net away from Reaper’s tail and slides the knife blade underneath, slicing upward through the mesh from below. The mer hisses loudly, and Jesse glances up to see it looking straight down at him. It starts to move, and Jesse presses a hand down on its tail. He expected it to feel rough, like a shark’s skin, but the tiny scales are sleek.
“I’m helpin’ you,” he says. “Do you know how to talk? You understand what I’m sayin’? I’m cuttin’ you out. Don’t move. Keep still.”
Reaper doesn’t speak, but it does stop hissing.
Jesse keeps cutting the net, working higher up the tail. This part of it isn’t as badly tangled, and he only has to cut one direct, straight line as he goes. He hates to destroy a net like this. They could have salvaged this one, even with the few holes it already had. Now it’s ruined beyond repair.
It’s easy going until he gets to the pelvic fins. The net’s caught tight around the base of one of the fins, digging into the skin, and Jesse has to cut another section to create slack before he can work the tip of the knife close to the fin to split the mesh.
There’s a gap wider than his hand between the pelvic fins, with a slight groove running between them. A closely sealed slit in the mer’s body.
Jesse looks up. Reaper is still watching him, but its eyes look strange and dull. Then something slides across the surface of its eyes, and Jesse realizes that it has an inner eyelid, like cats do, but almost completely clear.
Jesse looks away again. Its face makes him feel odd and nervous. He looks down and runs his fingertips lightly over the groove between the pelvic fins. His heart starts to beat faster.
He presses a little harder.
The mer’s body jerks, and it lets out another hiss. Jesse glances up, but doesn’t look for long.
“Hold still. Just hold still.”
There’s slight give to the firm skin, but the slit doesn’t part easily. Jesse tries to hook his thumb on it, then sets his knife aside on the rocks so he can use both thumbs, pressing in and pulling from both sides, like separating a peeled orange. A narrow split opens up under his fingers, pink on the inside.
Jesse’s mouth feels dry. His prick jumps in his trousers. He can’t see far into the opening, but the insides look smooth.
He probes a finger into it, and the mer makes a noise that’s almost like a shout. Its whole tail surges up, and the tip snaps violently, but he’s at the upper part of the tail where there isn’t enough motion to throw him back. It just jars his arm and bumps his knee.
Jesse glances around, looking up the beach and back at the sea, but there’s no one in eyesight. Not even any of the boats against the horizon.
But still he lowers his voice, like he’s trying not to let his father hear him from the other room.
“Quiet, you. Be quiet. Quit movin’. I ain’t gonna hurt you. Quit movin’.”
He wiggles his finger deeper, feeling around the soft hole. It’s hot inside, and closes snugly around his finger. There’s a slippery wetness to it that reminds him of handling fresh offal. He nudges his finger back and forth. He’s able to push a little, but then the opening narrows around his finger and won’t let him go any deeper. He shifts around and tries again, and finds another part of the passage that’s not as tight. When he bends his finger slightly he can push it in all the way to the knuckle.
He stares at the space where his finger has gone, buried inside the tight slit, gripped. Then he looks at the beach again. Then the sea again. The mer is snarling, and he feels it rolling its tail and rocking side to side. But it’s cradled tightly in the spot where it’d come to rest, and the rocks keep it from rolling out of position. Jesse tucks his middle finger close to the first and pushes it inside, too. Both fit, but it feels tight. He moves his hand, sliding his fingers half out and then back in again. There’s a faintly wet sound as he keeps moving them together, out and in. Out and in. His body feels very hot.
He takes his fingers out and puts his hand down on the wide tail as he moves a leg over to straddle it. Then he opens his trousers and pulls out his prick.
“Quit movin’. You owe me.”
It’s hard to get inside. He rubs the head of his cock against the slit a few times, but it’s too tightly sealed when it’s not being held open. He has to grind his thumb inside and pull on the edge before there’s enough space for him to push his prick into it. It clamps up around him as soon as he takes his thumb away, and he has to shove his hips to get deeper.
The mer makes a loud, sharp, horrible noise and starts to thrash its whole body. Its tail lifts and falls over and over, and its back arches up. It moves its arms, fingers flexing, muscles shifting. Every time it moves he can feel how strong it is.
But it can’t do anything for itself like this.
Jesse says, “Stop. Be quiet.”
He moves his hips a little. He’s never felt anything so hot and good before. But Reaper keeps making noise, so Jesse picks up his knife from the rock and holds the point above its body at the spot where the tail merges into its waist. He can tell from the wounds left by the the birds that the skin is thinner along its upper body than over the thick tail. Jesse digs the knife’s point a quarter of an inch in, until blood wells to the surface and starts to slide down the mer’s side in a single wet red line.
“Quiet, quiet. You owe - you owe me. I’m cuttin’ you free. I’m gonna cut you out. I’m gonna put you back in the water. So you owe me, okay? Be quiet. Quit movin’.”
Reaper stills for a second, and it looks at him. It has expressions like a person’s, with staring eyes and a curled mouth and its nose flared. It’s a look Jesse recognizes as hatred, and he feels it in his stomach, like a kick.
But then it continues what it was doing. Writhing, snarling.
Jesse thinks about stabbing it. He imagines sinking the knife deep and dragging up, toward the ribs, splitting whatever organs lay in the knife’s path. He could kill this thing so easily instead of trying to help it.
But he sets the knife aside again and picks up the smallest rock he sees, the size of his fist.
“Be quiet,” he says, and throws it.
It’s not a far throw. He could almost just have stretched out his arm and dropped it. The rock hits Reaper above the left eye socket. It makes a noise, quieter than the ugly thud the rock makes, and its head rolls back.
The tail ripples under him as redness blooms on the mer’s forehead and runs down its face. It clenches and relaxes its hands and makes a thin noise in its throat. Its gills fan open slowly but don’t close all the way back again.
Jesse moves his hips. He thinks, this must be what it’s like with a woman. In the slit they have been their legs. All hot and wet-feeling. A woman would make pretty noises for him, not like the mer’s rough animal snarls and hisses. He shuts his eyes and tries to imagine them. The pretty noises.
The heaving breasts, bouncing. Cute little mouths and round cheeks.
Not at all like Reaper’s heavy brows and broad jaw. Sharp teeth in its mouth. Arms that could pull him under water and not let go. A predator’s body that could hurt him, hurt him, kill him.
He opens his eyes just enough to look through his eyelashes. He watches his cock go in and out of the little slit. He looks higher up the creature’s body. Its stomach is quaking under its wide ribs and chest.
If it had a voice, he wonders what it’d sound like.
Jesse presses a hand over his mouth as he comes, closing his eyes. His cock throbs.
Then there’s intense pressure around his prick, and Jesse’s eyes fly all the way open. Reaper is thrashing again. But not like it was before. Now it’s just making small quick jerking motions up and down its body, its head craning back, a strange noise coming out of its throat.
Jesse’s cock is still twitching out little pulses of seed as he dismounts. He fastens up his trousers and grabs his knife, standing up over the mer’s tail. It twitches between his legs, and he sees that the clear eyelids have extended all the way across, but it’s looking right at him. Then the eyes drift slightly to the side and it suddenly stops moving. It makes a long, rasping sound, like a sigh.
Jesse waits for something to happen. He’s breathing loud and heavy.
Reaper still doesn't look at him.
Overhead, the gulls scream.
“Hey,” he says.
He looks at the beach. At the sea. At his knife.
“Hey, I’m gonna cut you out. I’m gonna put you back in the water.”
A gull lands higher on the rocks, between Reaper and the face of the cliff. Another lands beside it. Reaper doesn’t stir.
Jesse’s knees start to shake.
It’s dead it’s dead it’s dead.
Jesse swallows a strange little moan and sinks down until his knees are pressed up against his chest, arms over his head. It’s dead, it’s dead. It wasn’t supposed to die. Jesse tugs at his hair until his whole scalp feels prickly and hot.
When he looks up, there are four gulls standing on Reaper, and another dozen all around them. Jesse leaps to his feet and shouts, waving his arms. The gulls don’t fly away this time. They spread their wings as they hop over the rocks, getting out of his way but staying close. Their beaks open to scream at him.
Jesse looks at the mer. Reaper’s eyes are open. Its mouth is slightly open. The gills show slashes of red meat under the skin.
Everyone would be happy to know that Reaper was dead. Their fish and boats would be safer. Jesse thinks about telling them, telling his father, I killed it. His mouth and stomach feel sour.
Jesse cuts the net out from under the rocks. He looks only at his hands, and works as quickly as possible. He doesn’t pull the net away from Reaper, just severs the parts of the mesh that had gotten pinned down. Then he tries to push.
Reaper is heavy. Jesse barely manages to budge it with the strength of his arms. Its body just wallows slightly back and forth. He has to climb above it, brace on the upper rocks, and push with both of his legs to move it toward the water. Pain sears along his back, and the mer’s body turns heavily over once before coming to rest again. He climbs closer to keep pushing. Every push requires the full force of his whole body, leaving his back and legs burning with the strain of the effort. It feels like his muscles might pull away from the bone.
By the time he gets it to the edge of the water, half submerged, his back and underarms are wet with sweat and there are blazing lines of pain through his body from the waist down. He pants for breath as he crouches over the mer and takes up the loose, frayed ends of the net to tie rocks into the mesh. Then he pushes again. With the body already partly in the water, it’s easier to move. He rolls it until he’s waist deep in the water. Then he ducks all the way under and shifts a couple rocks until they’ve rolled over parts of the net trailing around the mer.
Jesse pops back to the surface and clambers out of the water. He climbs as quickly as he can over the rock field and back onto the sandy beach.
When he gets to the top of the beach, where clumps of tall grass grow through the sand, he looks back and sees a pair of gulls bobbing on the water, and a cloud of them winging overhead. One of them ducks its head and disappears under the water.
Jesse shivers and walks on and doesn’t look again.