I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
- T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Her singing draws him in.
He can move swift through the water. Nearly silent. Years alone have made him feel invisible. Years in the deep, reaching up for the light, never quite grasping. What did he have to reach for? What was there? Dry air that chokes him, that he can hardly breathe - though he thinks once it wasn’t like that. Wasn’t always like that. Something happened in those intervening years and he forgot things. Something happened to him and he lost the world.
But he hears her in the deep and he comes to her, slipping through the currents, moving only as much as he has to in order to find her. To break the surface.
He hunts. He hunts the reefs and the wreckage, a bow in his hands, coral and kelp and the spines of rays. He built it from his own design, which felt like a memory, which he thinks might have been a dream - or perhaps it’s the other way round. When he carries it, when he tracks by scent and by marks in sand and on rocks and in forests of kelp, sometimes he feels close to that world he forgot, something very close, right beside him, and he thinks
there are others
This is not all there is.
But he forgot. He forgot many things. Lost them in shipwrecks of a broken past, shattered like ancient pottery and scattered across the ocean floor. He lost all of it and long ago he gave up the idea of piecing it together again.
But he hears her. So he comes. Breaks the surface at last, breaks a long string of moonlight into a hundred bright pearls. Sees her on the rocks, lit pale, hair flying. She must be human but he wonders. Because of her voice, you see.
You see how it is. You know this story.
So you know there was a witch. There’s always a witch.
And you know there was a deal. Something made on the edge of desperation, cut with the blade the world holds against your throat when you want something more than your own body can contain. And in deals you always give something up, and sea witches do not deal fairly.
Or is the deal still to come?
What would you trade? What would you give, for light?
He comes closer to her, closer than he’s dared in what remains of his memory. She’s near him, a few yards away and several more above. He moves with as little disturbance as he can manage but it’s not hard to hide himself; the waves aren’t violent but there are waves, and they’d hide any noise he’d make, with his hands, with fins, with his tail. Pulling himself over rocks, pulling alien air into his lungs, already scraping against his throat like sand. But he doesn’t care, because he can hear her singing and he knows that song. It’s a thread that winds through all the broken pieces, might pull them together again.
He drags himself up onto a rock, stares up at her. If she looked down now she would see him. What would she see? Half a man, he supposes. Something liminal. Something made of patchwork and crossed borders, something thrown together by someone with little regard for boundaries. He has hands, eyes, ears and nose and a mouth. He has arms, back, chest; he knows he’s strong. He has flesh that melts into cool scales, long rippling fins. These parts of him should fit together seamlessly, but they don’t. He has never felt like he fits himself.
In the broken memory he has. But he also has scars and he doesn’t know how he got them.
Her, there, legs dangling over the edge of the ledge. Jeans, boots, shirt; in the moonlight it looks gray-white, bleached, but he knows somehow that it’s yellow, sunlight, which makes sense because she’s glowing. Not moonlight now; she didn’t borrow this illumination. It’s fully and wholly hers.
He lowers himself to the rock, lays his head on his folded arms, and listens.
She has legs, and a voice like that. She gets to have both.
He wonders if she made some kind of deal.
When he lifts his head again the moon is setting. She’s gone.
It’s difficult to breathe.
He doesn’t have to swim. He sinks.
He looks at his hands. Rough hands, calloused. The things he’s done with them. The weight of the bow on his back. His scars. He kills swordfish and sharks, he’s tracked the giant squid, he’s dived deep enough to hunt things with lights on their heads and teeth like knives - monsters out of someone else’s nightmares. He has these things and does these things because some fundamental instinct compels him, but now he’s beginning to wonder why.
What he lost.
He drifts limp in the currents, slipping between hot and cold, and dreams.
In those days they had legs and they ran, ran from the dead and the living and always running, always fighting, falling with her and getting up and running again. There was fire and she gave it her light, she stood in such beautiful defiance, she dragged music from the bones of the world. She made beauty from death, spun it, beat it into shape like hot iron. She wound her radiance into a braid, wore tiny pretty things like amulets and talismans, and while he kept her at his side she protected him, no angel but instead little hedgerow witch child, every song a spell.
He knows this, and he knows they might have ruled a world of the dead in the only way such a world can be ruled: By refusing to be satisfied with survival. By being ravenous for life. Hunting it down, seizing it. Holding on. Gutting, skinning, carving up cuts of meat. Eyes, brain, tongue, sinew, bone. Heart. Take life down like a young deer, consume it all. Waste nothing.
He was teaching her and she was teaching him. Folding together. Clasped like hands, threaded like fingers.
He didn’t let her go. She was taken.
It was the beginning of losing the air. Falling into the deep. Letting go of the light. The beginning of forgetting.
Comes back to her, drawn. Made a picture, made real. Now he thinks he wants her to see him, a little, and that makes him crazy. Always used to watch her, he thinks. When she didn’t know, didn’t know he was looking. He watched and listened. He drowned himself in sensation. It was like a crashing wave. It didn’t stop. He chained himself down and took it.
She raked him with claws and didn’t know it. Ripped him open, didn’t see the blood on him. There were lessons, and things she put in his mind, convinced him.
You’re the one wanted to learn.
This is touching him now. Watching her and she doesn’t know. Looking at her hands moving over each other in her lap, toying with her own fingers. He doesn’t understand the words. Doesn’t know why she’s out here. Does she have a home in that light? Does she have a family? Is it a prison? Is she drawn to this place by the sea? They never saw the sea, or he didn’t; could have gotten to that in the game they played if he wasn’t such an asshole.
They never lived in a landlocked country but he might as well have done. Couldn’t conceive of something so immense, so endless, so churning and violent and still until her.
Telling him to hold on. He’s trying. He wants legs and running with her. He wants that home of light she must have, that family. Girl like this would never be alone.
Coral and kelp and sharp spines on his back. He stretches himself out like a sacrifice. Would have made himself one, to keep her. Keep himself together. He’s a loose shard. Looking to be whole.
Stick around her for a while. Stay in that light. Stay there surrounded by the dead, and it might be crazy, but maybe we’ll be alright.
Maybe. It might have been possible.
Elizabeth. God is my oath. Bethany. House of figs. Promises and plenty. It fits, both do, and he thinks both might be true, but maybe she’s also just Beth, only Beth, not short for anything but herself alone and self-contained. Not dependent on anything else to give her meaning. Making that meaning her own.
He says that name, silent in the water. Beating at it with his tail, fins swirling. He can drift here, effortless, and walking would take effort. It would be difficult. He would have to learn something all over again.
But it might be worth it. He’s almost sure it is.
He lets her see him.
He’s afraid. Afraid she’ll recoil. From who he is, what he is. Afraid this is showing her too much. But he needs to. She looks at him and she’ll make him real. Standing in the doorway, looking at her, eventually it was too much and he had to let her know he was there. She turned and smiled and it’s probably too much to hope she’ll smile now.
But here on one of the nearer rocks, pushing himself up. In the water his tail is strong but here it lends him very little support and he has to try. He has to try hard.
Light catches him and she stops singing.
She sits there, frozen, and looks down at him. He stares up. In the ocean he’s drifted in a dead world, all shipwrecks, even in the midst of places rioting with life.
He hasn’t felt alive since he lost her.
He reaches up, reaches for her. Beth, please.
He had wings but she made him fly.
He almost drops his hand. She wouldn’t want him. Wouldn’t want anything with him. He can’t come to her. He’s trapped down here. Clinging. She wouldn’t have lost what he did, and now she wouldn’t be remembering.
But slowly, she raises a hand and reaches back.
He would make a deal.
He would trade anything.
But actually I lied. There’s no witch in this story.
She comes down to him. His level. He circles, sliding through the water, hand over hand on the rocks. Stopping and staring at her again. She stares back, draws her legs up to her chest. Saw her in the light of a hundred campfires. Red-gold then, pristine cool white now. Color of the coral in his bow.
She asks him questions. Who are you? What do you want?
Aren’t you from a story?
Yes, he is. He drags himself toward her, tail heavy. He’s not made for this. Not for how things are now. Water sluicing off him. He wonders if he shines. Not with his own light like her. But reflects. It might be something.
He reaches. Holds out his hand. She takes it, hesitant, but she holds on when she does. Threads their fingers, folds. He feels her shudder; he’s cold. He shudders; she’s so warm.
This is always the way it goes. Every love is a desperate reach across a divide.
You know this. You know this story.
He would trade. He can trade with her. He can deal.
When she started bringing him out of the dark, it hurt. She had to break him. She had to carve pieces of him away and bring out something new. She had to take the ruined fragments of him and put them away, and he had to bear the pain. Being born hurts, that first breath of air. You spend nine months swimming. Then you have legs and it takes you so long to learn how to use them.
But he thinks he could. For her.
He lets the bow sink, coral and kelp and sharp spines, reaches up and takes both of her hands, watches reflected moonlight move across her face. It’s going to hurt, isn’t it? It’s going to take something away from him. In deals you always give something up.
There is magic, because love is magic, and she knows things he’ll never know - hedgerow witch child, running swift as a deer. Every song a spell so she sings it now, forehead against his, and he’s slick with salty wet but she’s breeze and sun and she can dry him. Turn scales to skin. He feels it happening and he gasps, shudders, and it’s like she’s inside him, because she always was - worked her way into him when he didn’t notice, didn’t feel until it was too late. Took him. Didn’t have to fight but that once. He wanted to give himself.
He had been waiting for so long. Loved her before she was born.
Now he feels himself breaking again, splitting open, bursting into guilt like broken bones cutting through his flesh, tail splitting down the middle; she has a knife, bright like her, and he had it, wore it, kept it for her until he saw her again, and here she is, cutting him in two, legs and feet raw and skinned. He writhes but she holds on, singing to him low and soft, her voice shaking. She drew him. Hooked him. Pulled him in.
It never could have gone any other way.
You already know it. You know this story.
She cradles him. Like she did after. Like when he was torn open and emptied out, face swollen with tears. She didn’t take the pain away but she made it something with which he could live, something more than survival. He wanted to get up. He wanted to walk with her, find out what they could make together.
Curled naked and shivering on the rocks. A new thing. Not dead and not ashes. Even if he wants her to burn him. Even if he wants to be consumed.
There are other worlds and he is aligning. It’s a process. He can’t be expected to do it all at once.
Soon she’ll lift him up and he’ll walk, and it’ll be like treading along the edge of a knife. But he’ll do it for her. He’ll make it work and she’ll help him. He doesn’t have to go back to the deep, the shipwrecks. He might never fully recover what came before, but now he has an after. He can breathe. Like her.
He was made for how things are now.
Her singing drew him in, and she made him.