Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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The Monster of Triton Bay


by Mark Searle




When Christian had been a young man and his father an old one, Christian's father had warned him not to fish in Triton Bay. You'll be tempted, he'd said. Watch that bay on a calm day with clear sea, and you'll see crabs the size o' your head packed thick as fleas on a mongrel's leg, and fish the size o' your arm schooling like starlings. But the tides in that bay are bad and dangerous. No matter how bad things get, no matter how tempted ya are, stay away from Triton Bay .

But now Christian was the old man. Christian's father hadn't foreseen the rise of diesel engines, or industrial trawlers, or muck rakes the size of houses. The "no matter what" his father had warned about didn't include multinational corporations or the collapse of the cod fisheries. Every year there were fewer bluefish and cod and pollock, and every year they fetched less money in the marketplace, and every year Christian's endurance faded and his eyesight worsened. So, in desperation, he went to Triton Bay.

Now that he was trundling his boat through the bay's choppy waters, Christian could see why his father had warned him away from the little bay. The tides were unpredictable, and rip currents kept dragging The Chariot in unexpected and unwanted directions. More than once he struggled to avoid jagged rocks rising improbably from the middle of what should have been open water. More than once The Chariot kissed those rocks, leaving behind paint he couldn't afford to replace. Perhaps Christian's father had been right to warn him away.

Then again, Christian's father hadn't had a motor boat. Navigating Triton Bay by sail and rudder and oars would have been suicidal, but The Chariot had a four hundred horsepower diesel engine, and though it struggled in the bay's rip currents, it was enough for Christian to inch his way where he wanted to go.

Once Christian had The Chariot in a safe spot, he dropped anchor. Switching off the engine—every minute of idling engine was another fifty cents' loss—he took a net and spear from storage and sat on the edge of the boat, staring down into the choppy waters. The smell of burned diesel dissipated, replaced by salty tang. Christian set the spear nearby, in case anything passed nearby, and gave the net a couple of exploratory casts. It came back empty aside from a couple of strange red fish.

The boat lurched. Christian grabbed the hull tight. The tide had changed yet again, and The Chariot was moving inland. It was a strong current, but the anchor ought to hold. Just as Christian was standing to haul in the anchor, the boat seized to a halt, anchor line caught somewhere below the waterline, and Christian stumbled and knocked his head against the cabin door. He swore and checked his forehead—bloody. Just a small cut, but it bled profusely. Cursing steadily, Christian retrieved a first aid kit from the cabin and taped some gauze to his head. He considered cleaning the wound with rubbing alcohol, but there wasn't much left in the kit and he didn't dare burden his budget buying another one.

He stopped. The boat was moving. Christian ran to the anchor line and pulled it up. No anchor. Only a frayed end of rope where the anchor should have been tied. Just his luck.

"Already tempted fate today," Christian said to nobody in particular. "Why not go all in?" What do I have to lose?

Christian drove The Chariot to the least lethal-looking outcropping he could find and lashed the boat to the serrated obsidian rock. Again he sat on the side of the boat with a net and spear. Anemones and seaweed and a host of gently-undulating crustaceans Christian couldn't identify through the chop coated the rocky pillar holding The Chariot fast. Schools of rainbow-colored fish flickered to and fro. Just like the old man said.

Christian flicked his net into the water. This time it entangled a score of little blue and emerald fish that smelled of sulfur. They were too small to eat, but the uptown market had buyers who paid extra for variety, so Christian stuck what he could into an ice chest and cast again.

This time the net was barely into the water before something slammed into it. The net was out of Christian's hands before he had a chance to react. His palms burned. Christian yelled wordlessly and looked about desperately for any sign of the net.

There.

He saw it.

Just a bit, floating on the chop.

The rest was underwater, wrapped around the nose of a shark.

Christian grabbed his spear.

Just before he hit the water, Christian considered that jumping into the ocean to wrestle a net off of a shark was, perhaps, not the best decision for a man of his age. But then brine filled his eyes and mouth and nostrils, and some primal instinct told him that the only way out was forward. He thrust his spear in the general direction of the shark. The spear bit into something fleshy and pulled away, threatening to tear from his hands.

Not the spear, too. Not today .

Christian wrenched the spear free. Something big and white flashed through the water, and he stabbed at it. Again his spear sunk into flesh. This time the flesh pushed back and slammed Christian against something hard and slimy and sharp. Air bubbled from Christian's mouth as tried to pull the spear lose from the shark, but it just drew the shark closer.

Something was watching him, just close enough to see through the ocean's murk. Something with a face, not quite human and not quite alien. Detached curiosity seemed to mingle playfulness on the creature's face, as though it were idly watching a horse race. Will you survive?

Then the shark thrashed, and Christian could spare no more attention. The spear came out of Christian's hands, so he grabbed the shark's head and bashed it against the rocks behind him. The smell of blood filled his nose, and Christian felt a desperate burn in his chest. He was going to drown. He grabbed the nearest rock and hauled himself, hoping he was pulling himself up and not down. Fingers scrabbled over rock and shells and kelp flesh. An anemone squished under one hand. He nearly lost his purchase when he accidentally pulled a dinner-plate-sized crab loose from the rock. His leg caught on a jagged rock and something tore.

Just as Christian was sure he was going to die, his hand breached the surface. One last haul and his head was above water. He inhaled just as a wave crested his face and got a lungful of salt for his trouble. He pulled himself a bit higher on the rock and coughed for a few minutes while he regained his bearing.

He was alive. He was going to live. The Chariot was nearby. The shark ... was there too, floating limply against the rock near Christian, spear stuck in its head.

Christian hauled himself back into The Chariot. Arms burning from exertion, back burning from little scrapes, and ankles beginning to burn from old aggravations brought to the surface, he managed to nudge the boat over to the shark's carcass. He wondered how he could possibly haul the shark in, and even considered leaving the shark be, until he calculated how much it would cost to replace his spear and his net and the fuel he'd burned getting into Triton Bay. As it turned out, his sailor's body, old as it was, had strength enough to drag the shark onboard. It was about five and a half feet long, and eggshell white. Together with the little feeder fish he'd caught earlier, it would pay for the expedition. Barely. The spear was even intact. The net was ripped through, though.

Christian looked dumbly back into the water, hoping to spot the rest of the net somehow. Not that he'd be able to—

He jumped back and stumbled to the deck.

The creature was back. He hadn't imagined it. A human watched him hungrily.

No, not human. Definitely not human, now that he had seen it more clearly. It was human the way a gibbon's face was human. It was stretched too tight, features too flat, and it had too many colors. And it was big. Besides, human faces didn't have gills. There had been arms, too, arms as thick as Christian's legs, with webbed hands like fan coral. The body was long and pale green, and smooth as a seal. It had none of a seal's blubber, though. This creature's body was tight and flat and muscular.

Like a shark.

Christian edged himself to the edge of the boat. The creature was gone.

#

The shark sold well, after a full day's scouring the uptown markets for a buyer. The small fry didn't. All in all, the haul payed for the trip's fuel, food, bills for the two days, a new net, a cooler full of ice for the next expedition, and a fresh first aid kit. The anchor would have to wait.

Christian tried not to think of the creature he'd seen.

#

On Friday, Christian went back to Triton Bay. This time he caught four red-striped fish, something the size of a small dog that looked like a sturgeon but for its deep purple color. He tried to catch some crabs with his net and spear, but they always scuttled away before he could bring one aboard.

He spent most of Saturday in his cottage, reworking old scrap fence into a crude crab trap, while rain pattered onto the roof and through the roof and into the buckets he set to collect the drippings. With the sun low in the sky, he set the trap with bits of mutton and took it out to Triton Bay. He attached one of his two remaining buoys and let it loose in a calm spot, hopefully away from whatever had sliced through the anchor rope. That night he tried cooking up the red-striped fish, but it was bitter and tough and reminded him of mothballed cloth. He threw the fillets onto ice and forced down some stove-top-heated canned beans instead.

When Christian came to collect his crab trap on Sunday, the creature was waiting for him on a nearby rock. There was no denying its human-like features. Its face had eyes and a mouth and a nose in just about the right places, and its arms were humanoid aside from the hands. Its torso, too, mirrored that of a man. It even had nipples on its hard, muscled chest, absurdly enough. But the creature also bore undeniable features of a monster. The human-like torso was easily half again as wide as that of the most muscular sailor Christian had ever seen. Where there should have been legs, the creature's body tapered into a disturbingly long tail, ribboned like an eel's. When he passed close enough to start to make out the creature's facial features, it slipped into the water with barely a splash.

Christian forced himself to ease The Chariot into the bay, checking the water as he did. The crab trap was full of smooth, fist-sized crabs. He reset the trap and left without casting a net.

On Monday, Christian stopped in Triton Bay just long enough to check the crab trap—this time, there was just a single crab whose improbably long spines had tangled in the trap's entrance, blocking it. Christian had to snap several of the spines to get the crab free. That evening he brought the week's catch to the downtown market. The crabs sold well enough, but his usual buyers refused to touch the strange-smelling striped fish or the oddly-colored sturgeon, and he had to spend a good hour haggling with a merchant named Long Wu in broken English to get any money for them.

On Tuesday, something big and sleek swam alongside The Chariot as Christian drove it to Triton Bay. He tried to tell himself that it was a dolphin, but he saw enough flashes of arms and teeth to convince himself otherwise. He lost sight of it deeper into the bay, but he did spot another shark. This time, he was prepared, and had his spear lashed to The Chariot's port-side cleat like a harpoon. He speared the shark from safely inside the boat and waited for it to float to the surface. Between that and a full crab trap, Christian brought in more than enough to pay for the day's expenses. That night, he counted every dollar he owned and silently tabulated how long he could keep his boat running and his bills paid.

If he kept making money as well as he had the last week, he had just over a year left.

#

Wednesday was bar night in Colton, so when the sun went down, Christian dutifully drove out to Fresh Fry's Fish and seated himself with the usual crowd. The oldest of them was his junior by a full two decades, but they'd all known his late wife, Annabelle, before the cancer, and that made him family, at least on bar night. As usual, he refused to let them buy him a dinner, but, also as usual, they all shared fried appetizers with him, and somehow he found a dark ale in his hands.

The crew shared their stories from the last week while they waited for fish and crabcakes, as they always did. Bill had a rowdy tale of a competition gone awry between his shipmates and a rival tug's. Willem's son had gone to a regional spelling bee. Dylan gave a hard pass on his turn, claiming nothing of note had happened.

It came Christian's time to speak. He drank a mouthful of ale and noticed it was halfway gone.

"Saw a ..." his voice caught. He coughed and started again. "Saw a merman this week."

"No shit," said Bill. "Those divers out in your neck of the woods? They're somethin' else, 'specially with those ..."

"Shut yer trap, Bill. I saw a merman. A real live merman."

The other men glanced between each other awkwardly. Bill looked like he wanted to chuckle, but wasn't sure if he should. Christian heard, for the first time that night, the rock tune playing from the bar radio. Then Red Joe said "So ... can I get what fish you been eatin'?" and the men laughed. Christian thought it sounded a little forced.

"It was big, and long, like an anaconda or somethin'. And it's hands, they weren't right ..." but nobody was listening to him anymore, and Red Joe launched into his own tale of the week. Christian settled back into his chair and let it go.

#

Three more weeks passed this way. Christian started regularly catching jellyfish, which Long Wu paid decently for. He would never put away money on jellyfish alone, but they were a steady source of cash that at least made every day feel like it had not been a waste. Other prey were less reliable. Sometimes he brought back more strangely-colored fish, and occasionally hard, jointed things with no eyes and too many arms. More often he came home with nothing but jellyfish and a couple of crabs. It was better money than he'd been making on cod, and Christian thought it might become enough to keep him afloat once he learned the ways of the creatures of Triton Bay.

He saw the merman again, more than once, though never closely. Mostly it kept its distance, watching him from the natural cover of rippling sea-foam. Once, it darted right under The Chariot, bumping it with a knock just hard enough that Christian couldn't fool himself into thinking it was just ocean chop.

The next bar night, Christian told the other men about the merman again. The others nodded and smiled. Late in the night, when they were walking back to their respective trucks, Dylan stopped Christian and asked if, perhaps, he might have considered moving out of the cottage and into town, just in case he needed looking in on one of these days. Christian put a stop to that nonsense notion and drove back home, his head a wordless roil.

#

For a solid week, Christian fished Triton Bay without sighting the man-fish.

#

One day, while sailing home with a meager catch of jellyfish and some kind of flat, long-spined flounder, Christian spotted somebody lying on the beach beneath his cottage. That was unusual enough—beach and cottage alike were far from any tourist hotspots, and the pebbly beach was uncomfortable and cold enough that visitors rarely made repeat visits. Whoever this was didn't look like a typical beachgoer, either—they looked completely naked, and sprawled at an awkward angle just inside the wave line.

Christian brought The Chariot as near as he dared to the shore, dropped a freshly-acquired anchor in the shallow surf—it ought to find purchase somewhere in those pebbles—and jumped out to see if the intruder needed help.

As he neared the body, Christian's perspective flipped with a lurch. Whoever was on his beach was farther up-beach than he'd thought, and was much bigger than he'd thought. He felt the bottom drop out of his stomach as his head filled with a notion he dared not put to words.

There was no denying it up close. The man was completely hairless, smooth as a porpoise, and eerily tall, maybe seven feet from head to toe—truly toe, as the thing's body had legs and feet not unlike Christian's own, aside from the little black claws where it should have had toenails. But hadn't it had a tail before? Surely no swimmer's legs could propel it as quickly or gracefully as Christian had seen. Yet there he lay, with legs. Its hands, too, belied Christian's memory. They certainly were not normal—they were tipped with reptilian claws, and the fingers were webbed. But that webbing was gossamer, almost clear, not the distinct thick-veined net Christian remembered.

But Christian needed only look at the merman's face to know it was the same that had stalked his boat ever since he'd dared enter Triton Bay. Its eyes were too far apart, and the shape of the pupil was subtly wrong, and its iris practically glowed sea-green. Where it should have had ears, the merman had only two pairs of backwards-facing fleshy folds; where he should have had teeth, he had fangs.

Just as Christian was looking about for some way to move the creature back into the water, it screamed. At least, it tried. Its voice was feeble and thin, like a hoarse child's. It rolled its head towards Christian and gaped. Weakly, it held its hand in front of its face, then threw its arm toward Christian, palm open. Christian couldn't read the merman's piscine facial expression, but there was no mistaking its body language—help me.

Christian lost it. He grabbed his own hair in double handfulls and laughed erratically. He paced the beach and caught his breath, but the creature remained, stubbornly existing, weak and possibly dying and definitely asking for his help.

Before he really knew what he was doing, Christian found himself back at his cottage, rummaging through his little attached shed for anything that could be used to move a seven-foot-tall man-fish from the beach up to dry land. He settled on a roll of chain-link fencing and a bundle of sturdy rope. It wouldn't be comfortable, but it would get the creature to where he could do more good for it.

Christian lay the fencing out beside the creature. Touching it, he discovered its skin wasn't just wet, it was slimy, like a slug. His hand came away with a slightly sticky film that quickly dried in the sea breeze. He expected a fishy smell, but it only smelled vaguely of seaweed. Bracing himself, Christian rolled him onto the fence—no, no, rolled her onto the fence. Though it's nipples lay flat on a flat chest, it was decidedly more woman than man. Unless it was more fish than either? But no, the creature had the labia of a maid, or Christian wasn't a sailor.

It took the better part of an hour, but Christian hauled the mermaid back to his cottage. It—she—did not resist, only curling up and screaming silently. When the pebbles turned to stones, she panted quick, darting breaths and shut her eyes tightly. Christian tried not to think about her eyelids.

Getting the mermaid into the house took almost as long as the entire trip from the beach, but he was able to half-haul, half-drag her inside and into his bathtub. Blessedly, it was a large tub, but the mermaid's head and feet still dangled off the ends until she curled into a fetal mass.

Christian sat heavily next to the tub to catch his breath. He hadn't carried that much weight at once since before his hair had turned grey. Vaguely, he realized that his shirt was soaked through with the mermaid's mucus, so he stripped it off. The mermaid's eyes tracked the movement.

"Don't worry, I'm not gonna hurt ya'. It's just a shirt." He held the shirt close to the mermaid for its inspection. Could it smell him on it? Could it smell at all? "See? Just a shirt. I'm not skinning anyone tonight." The mermaid looked at the shirt blankly, then back at his chest.

"I guess you'll be needing to be wet," Christian mumbled. He stood and turned on the shower, but the mermaid twisted uncomfortably under the water. Christian turned it off. "Goddamned seafolk, of course you need salt water ..."

Christian hosed down his fish-cleaning washbasin, dragged it down to the ocean, and dragged it back up to the cottage filled with seawater. The sky was deep maroon by the time he got back, and he had to turn on a lamp inside to keep from stumbling in the dark. The mermaid was still there, curled up in the bathtub. She relaxed slightly when Christian poured seawater over it, still watching Christian's every move. The water was only a few inches deep, and the mermaid struggled weakly to roll herself through the water, but Christian was too exhausted to consider dragging the tub back to the beach. Instead, he made an unceremonious sandwich of sliced ham and American cheese, and ate it while he pondered the mermaid. When she noticed him watching, she met his eyes and froze. When he offered her some of the sandwich, she wriggled away and flapped her mouth wordlessly, so he finished the meaty sandwich himself, flipped off the cottage's lights, and went to bed.

Just short of sleep, he rose with a start and closed all of the cottage windows' shutters. Later, he dreamed of monsters tearing at his arms.

#

In the morning, Christian awoke with a start, fumbled on shoes, and ran to the sea without bothering to put on a shirt. Luckily, The Chariot hadn't drifted too far out, and he'd moored it to the beach at low tide, so it hadn't beached either. He guided it back to his dock and shuffled back to the cottage for breakfast.

The mermaid was still in Christian's bathtub. It—she—was curled up tightly on her side, sleeping soundly. Christian fetched a can of soup from the cupboard, cut it open, and took it to his little kitchen table with a spoon. He hadn't really noticed before, but his arms ached, his back hurt dully, and his ankles insisted he sit still for a while. He hoped he wouldn't have to carry a mermaid again for a while.

Normally Christian would have showered after his morning meal. He sat watching the surf instead. He realized he didn't know why he'd brought the mermaid to his house. There was nothing in his cottage that could help an ill or injured mermaid. He didn't even know what she ate, if she ate. It had just seemed the right thing to do.

He stood too quickly and regretted it. He massaged some life into his limbs and walked the kitchen a few times, just to remind his bones how to walk. Then he stuffed as many different foods into a pot as he could fit and took them to the bathroom, along with his spare towel.

The mermaid must have heard him rummaging around. She was awake, and halfway through a slow roll to turn herself towards him. When he walked in, she looked in his eyes and froze, unblinking. He set the toilet lid down and sat next to her, eyes locked uncomfortably long. He looked away. Mumbling his pardon, he covered as much of the mermaid's body as he could with the towel. It was only just big enough to cover both her loins and breasts—such as they were—and she made no motion to help preserve her modesty, so Christian settled for covering her lower torso.

He offered her bread, which she ignored. Cheese fared no better. Raw mutton, she at least looked at, and sniffed at vaguely, but she showed no intent to eat it, or even grab it. When offered a handful of cereal, the mermaid took a few pieces and rolled them around in her hand before crushing them softly between two fingers and watching the crumbs fall with wide eyes. She took a cup of water when offered, and poured it gently over her smoothly muscled body. She did the same with orange juice. Christian demonstrated how to drink from a cup; the mermaid took the next cup of water, opened her mouth, and poured the water all over her face before looking back at him and handing back the cup.

Christian had another sinking feeling. He took back the cup and the pot of foodstuffs and lugged them back to the kitchen. Reluctantly, he went to the ice chest and selected the smallest fish he had.

When she saw them, the mermaid's eyes widened, her mouth opened, and she reached vaguely toward him. Christian handed her the fish and she tore it apart sweetly with her fangs, swallowing flesh, guts, and bones in turn. When she was done, she gaped wide to him and made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. Was it pleasure? Amusement? Hunger?

Christian noticed for the first time that she had no tongue.

"Well," he said, "there's more like that out there. If I can bring 'em in."

He started to reach to pat the mermaid on the shoulder. She tracked the movement with eyes and teeth. He thought better of it, and stood.

Christian relieved himself by the tree line, bathed himself in the sea, and, still feeling vaguely unwashed, set sail for Triton Bay. His arms and legs were sore and weak, but slowly he brought in a good haul of phosphorescent jellyfish and a trap full of impressively green crabs. He wondered if Long Wu would buy the mermaid, and at what price. He thought of the dried creatures Long Wu kept behind the counter, of the jars of sharks' eyes and urchin spines and coiled, brined intestines, and of the scent of scales and old herbs that didn't quite mask ethanol and formaldehyde. Yes, Long Wu would certainly buy the mermaid.

That night was bar night. When it came time to tell his week's tale, Christian told the younger men that he'd found a mermaid on the beach and brought her home.

"Ooooh, it's a mermaid, now?" said Red Joe. "Life's lookin' up, sounds like!"

"I don't know," said Bill, "if you couldn't tell if it was a he or a she, it wasn't a she. Sounds like you've had one too many mouthfulls 'a seawater." he leaned back with a beer and spun his finger around his temple.

"Eh, knock it off, Bill," Red Joe replied. "Let a man have his, uh, mermaid. So what'd she call herself?"

"I, uh, she doesn't have one. Doesn't talk. Got no tongue."

Willem leaned forward. "Well, what'd you name her, then?"

Christian felt his face go red behind his beard. "Didn't think to."

"Well, that ain't right. What should we call her?"

"How 'bout Annabelle?" said Raphael from down the table. Bill slapped him in the chest with the back of his hand and shut him up with a scowl. The other men grimaced and looked away from Raphael.

"Maybe Mary?" Suggested Dylan.

"Nah, tha's a barmaid's name, not a mermaid's name," said Red Joe. "Mermaid's a special thing, oughta have a special name. Josalynda, or Esperantamindy or somethin' else fancy-like."

"Maybe Anastasia? That's a special name."

"Ruby, like a jewel!"

"Stupid, if she's a jewel she gotta be Emerald, like the sea."

"Sea's Sapphire, Red Joe, everyone knows that."

"You ever seen a sea'd look like sapphires, boy?"

"Hey Bill, you been awful quiet. Whadya think we name Christian's mermaid?"

Bill took a serious swig from his mug and nodded thoughtfully.

"Dariel."

Willem snorted beer.

"What?" asked Bill, righteously. "Christian here couldn't even tell 'er from a merman, kept tellin' us all 'bout the 'Merman of Triton Bay'. I was practically callin' it Dariel already."

"How 'bout 'Ariel'?" suggested Dylan. "Ariel's a good name."

Bill shrugged. "Close enough."

Christian smiled faintly. "Ariel it is."

"A toast then, to Ariel! Merman of Triton Bay!"

#

After dinner, Christian drove to the cheapest discount market he could find with a clothing department. They didn't have any dresses that looked like they wouldn't split if Ariel tried to put them on, or large enough pants that Christian could afford. So he bought a secondhand (or perhaps thirdhand) cloth trench-coat and a the largest pair of cotton boxers he could find.

"Sorry, Ariel," he muttered as the cashier checked him out.

He half expected the mermaid to be gone when he returned home, but she was still in the tub, stroking her arms gently, claws leaving barely-visible trails in her skin-slime. The towel he'd given her earlier was heaped carelessly beside the tub. It was slightly damp with mucus and smelled of fish bones. Sighing, Christian filled his wash basin with clean water and left the towel to soak.

Putting on the boxers was difficult. Ariel didn't shy from his touch, but she squirmed with obvious discomfort and made no move to help him. The coat was even more difficult. Again, she didn't exactly fight him—it occurred dully to Christian that even weakened, the mermaid could probably rip the face from his flesh with her claws and crack his skull between her forearms and biceps—but he had to guide her every movement to get the sleeves on her arms and had to lift her torso bodily to get the trench-coat inside the tub. All in all, the coat hung more like a long vest than a coat. He tried to button it closed, but Ariel pushed him away gently, but firmly.

Dinner was roasted mutton for Christian. He brought Ariel a can of sardines, which she scooped into her mouth without particular haste or passion. When she scraped the empty bottom of the can with her claws and licked what scraps she could pry out, Christian gave her another can. This, too, she ate methodically.

When the lights were out and Christian lay in bed, he thought he heard a whistling, raspy sound from the bathroom. He chose to believe it was song and fell asleep. He dreamed of Long Wu. The merchant leafed through a stack of bills, counting aloud, so Christian removed his finger and handed it over. More bills were counted, and so went an ear, his teeth, one after another, a shoulder bone, a liver, his shriveled cock. Finally, when the merchant was satisfied and grinning, Christian took his money out of the market and counted it.

#

The next morning, Christian found Ariel still in her tub, naked and very much awake, eyes and mouth wide. Her clothes lay rumpled on the tile floor. Christian gave her his last can of sardines and fed her bait fish until she stopped scratching the empty can.

This time, before heading out to fish, Christian tried speaking with her. He introduced himself and offered a hand to shake. Ariel leaned forward to smell it, then tried to lean out of the tub toward him, but she still could not hold her body's weight up for more than a few seconds.

"I'm Christian," said Christian. He pointed at himself vigorously. Ariel mimicked the gesture. "No, I'm Christian. Me Christian! You're Ariel. Ariel. Can you say Ariel? No, of course not. Damn it to hell in a handbasket." Ariel took this all in with a blank gaze.

"Can you even understand me?" asked Christian. "Nod if you can understand me. Christ, do mermaids even nod?" Ariel did not.

Christian brought Ariel a pen and a retail magazine, along with a cutting board to write on. He pointed to himself and said his name, then wrote it down on the magazine and handed it to Ariel. She picked up the pen, and his heart leaped. But she just looked at the pen, turning it in her hands. He guided her hand—and she let him—to hold the pen correctly. She bit off the back of the pen with a crack, and startled at the resulting spray of ink. Her face and neck were spattered black before he could wrest the pen away. She took the magazine and flipped it about with some apparent fascination, though she showed no awareness that it had contents. It didn't take long for her skin oils to glue the magazine's pages into sticky masses, but Ariel seemed undeterred.

After an hour or more of attempted communication, Christian gave up. He didn't know how to talk to an alien, and she didn't seem interested in meeting him halfway.

When he collected his crab trap that day, he found it empty and smashed open, the front ripped away.

#

Christian settled into something of a routine. First thing in the morning, he would clothe Ariel in her trench-coat vest and boxers. Then he would haul fresh seawater up from the shore to moisten Ariel's skin, then bathe in his corrugated washtub. Breakfast was as many sardines as Christian could afford, and even then Ariel sucked down an alarming portion of his catch. Before leaving to fish or go to market, Christian would clean up after Ariel's messes and would give her a magazine or flashlight or some other thing to play with. In the evening, he would re-clothe her again, fix them both dinner, and sleep. The next morning, Ariel's clothes would be all over the floor and the routine began again.

Ariel's health improved day after day. At first, she could barely roll over or sit upright. After a few days, she did both with ease. Soon, she could stand, first fleetingly, then for a minutes at a time. A day after that, she crawled out of her tub, with great difficulty, and crawled about the cottage. It took several days to master walking, but soon she was walking about on her own, if tentatively. Always she returned to the bathtub, though whether for the familiarity or the support or the salt water, Christian couldn't tell.

It wasn't long before Ariel found the fish cooler, and one day Christian came home to find her gaping at the kitchen table and half of his catch gone. In a rage, he pushed her into the bathroom and closed the door, then stormed out of the house and bought a lock for the cooler. Only later did he realize how foolish he had been to manhandle a seven-foot-tall sea monster.

With time, Ariel spent more time in the cottage's tiny kitchen and the main room where Christian kept his bed. When Christian sat down for breakfast, Ariel came lumbering out to join him, head almost scraping the ceiling. The first time, she tried awkwardly to use a chair, but ended up sprawled on the floor. Christian finished his breakfast, cleaned up the chair, and went out to fish; when he came back, he found both of his chairs covered in Ariel's musky residue. The next morning, she sat across the table from him for breakfast as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

One day, Christian came home to a splashing commotion coming from the bathroom. He rushed in and found Ariel in her tub, naked, as usual, with one hand sloshing between her legs and the other gripping the edge of her tub. She startled when she saw him, and quickly rolled away, curled up, and lay still. Christian closed the door and decided to take a walk on the beach. Ariel didn't come out that evening.

Christian spent most of the next day at the uptown markets. His stranger catches sold well, but Long Wu was starting to refuse his jellyfish. When he got home, he counted his money again and tallied out his earnings from the last week. It wasn't good. With the extra fish Ariel was eating, he was spending money faster than he could fish it out of the sea. He stopped using hot water, and started burning driftwood for light after dark.

The next day, Christian tried leaving the door of the cottage open. She could see the sea from anywhere in the kitchen, no doubt about it. When he came home, the door was still open and Ariel was still in her bathtub.

#

Christian woke in the middle of that night, clammy with cold sweat. All he could see was the wooden wall of the cabin, and all he could hear was surf and crickets, but his instincts told him to be still as possible, and he had not become an old sailor by ignoring his instincts. So he lay unmoving, breathing shallowly, listening to the night, waiting for his heart to slow ...

What was that sound? Christian stiffened involuntarily and heard his pulse pound. What was the sound? There it was again! A hiss! Gentle and quiet, but close, like ...

Christian flipped around and screamed quietly—Ariel was there, right there, kneeling beside his bed, face full of fangs and glinting pupils no more than a foot from his own. Her shoulders filled his view. Every muscle in his body wanted to run away, and he stupidly gripped his blankets tightly against himself.

But Ariel backed away at Christian's scream, and she unfolded herself smoothly from the floor and backed away towards the bathroom, watching him over her shoulder as she left.

Christian lay still for a long time. Had it been a dream? No, surely not. If so, then he would wake if he tried to get up, right? He stood and paced the room once and made himself a cup of cold tea in the moonlight. It was quiet. Ariel was silent. He considered trying to sleep again, but the thought made him shiver. Instead he went outside, and spent the time until sunrise stripping apart and straightening wire fencing for the crab trap.

#

Emboldened by sunlight, Christian took Ariel to The Chariot after clothing her. He did it delicately, a few steps at a time at first, until she understood that he was taking her somewhere and followed of her own accord. Christian made her lay down in the boat, out of sight. That was difficult. He had to push her, gently, onto the deck. It took several attempts for her to figure out what he wanted, but then she didn't resist. When he went to switch on the engine, Ariel started to sit back up again, so Christian put a hand on her partially-covered chest and pushed her down into the deck until she stayed there. He noticed her breath quickening under his touch and flinched away.

When she finally stayed down, Christian fired up The Chariot and steered her out towards Triton Bay. After a while, Ariel grew bored and sat up. By that time, Christian figured they were well out of sight of the shore, so he let her stretch.

Then they were in the Bay, rocking in the light, choppy way typical of the Bay's waves. Christian idled the engine and stood over Ariel. Sometime between leaving the dock and arriving in the Bay, she'd shed her coat. Again.

"Stand up," he said. "Get up. C'mon."

Ariel gaped up at him. Not much up, though—even sitting, she was barely shorter than he. He grabbed her shoulder and pulled gently. By some miracle, she understood and rose to her feet.

"Well?" he said. He gestured vaguely at the Bay's waters. She followed his gaze, looked around, and looked back at Christian, mouth still open in that toothy gape.

Christian folded his arms. "You have to go back home now. I can't keep you. I can't keep feedin' you. I need my bathtub back. I need my home back." She made no move to leave. "Well? Go!" he yelled, pointing vigorously away from the boat.

Ariel mimicked the gesture, wheezing as loudly as she could.

"No, dammit, you can't stay." He put both hands on her naked chest, just below her collarbone, and pushed. He felt her ribcage flex inhumanly, and she stumbled back, blinking. "You have to go." Another shove. Ariel slipped and hit the rail with the small of her back, catching herself with both hands. "You have to leave."

One more shove, and Ariel pinwheeled ungracefully into the sea, eyes wide.

It was done. Christian realized he was breathing heavily. He steadied himself on the cockpit bulkhead, caught his breath, and wiped his brow. He felt a great tension slowly ease out of his chest. When he was ready, he made his way into the cockpit. That was enough of Triton Bay for one day; he had a crab trap to repair.

But just as he was revving up The Chariot's engines to leave, the boat lurched violently, and there was a thump from aft.

"The hell was ...?"

Christian turned to find Ariel, standing in the back of the boat, mouth even wider than usual. He stormed to the back of the boat. What was she yelling? No, she wasn't yelling, she was laughing. Quietly as a kitten's sneeze, she was laughing.

Christian stopped dead. There was a fish at Ariel's feet. It was deep purple, thick and muscular as a swordfish, and had more fins than Christian thought possible. And it was huge—a good three feet from beak to tail, and as tall as Ariel was wide. Ariel kicked the fish toward Christian and leaned back against the rail, laughing her alien hiss.

Christian crouched over the fish and held it down, with some difficulty. It felt thick and meaty, and smelled vaguely of cod. It wouldn't bring in quite as much as the sturgeon-thing he'd caught in his first days in the Bay ... but it had taken him hours to catch the sturgeon-thing. Ariel had found this fish, caught it, subdued it, and brought it into the boat in a matter of minutes.

He looked back at Ariel. She looked at him and leaned back out over the water.

He approached her cautiously. She'd hauled a fifty-kilo fish into his boat, straight out of the water, without a second thought. Was approaching her wise? Christian briefly considered grabbing his spear from the cockpit. But Ariel didn't move to attack. She just leaned back out over the water, torso arching.

Christian steadied his trembling hands, put them slowly but firmly between Ariel's nipples, and pushed. This time she helped, and her fall was more graceful than not.

#

Christian returned to his cottage with his ice chest more than full. When they landed, Ariel strode back to the cottage with an energy Christian had not seen from her before. Christian lugged his haul—Ariel's haul—behind her. For dinner, Christian roasted a mutton leg with mint. He pulled a tasty-looking fish from the ice chest (a lithe, red thing with more aroma than he liked) and offered it to her, but she pushed it back at him. For you. Instead, she fetched three sardine cans from the cabinet and cracked them open with her claws.

The next day Christian had to take the catch to market—he couldn't store any more fish. He spent a long while bargaining with Long Wu, eventually getting the merchant to agree to a price markup on the condition that he bring his wares to Long Wu first in the future.

There wasn't much sunlight left when he got back, but he took Ariel to Triton Bay anyway. Each dive she brought back some new, different fish. On her fourth, she spent a long time underwater, eventually returning with a brilliantly-colored, striped urchin the size of a watermelon. After that, he turned The Chariot back towards home, and Ariel lounged on the deck until they reached the cottage.

After sunset, Christian went downtown and bought a 7-foot basin tub. The interior was cold and rough compared to his bathtub, but when Ariel saw it she immediately jumped in and writhed with pleasure at the extra leg room. He moved ocean water from the bathtub to Ariel's new tub, one bucketful at a time, then went to bed.

He awoke the next morning to see Ariel staring at him from her new wash tub. She held his gaze for a while, then sank into her water and bubbled gently.

#

For a few more days, Ariel continued to bring in fish for Christian. In return, he bought her proper fish from the marketplace, and several different meats to try. With some insistence, he convinced her to try several, but she seemed displeased by all but veal. One day, on a whim, he bought some fermented cabbage while he was selling in the uptown markets. Ariel devoured the cabbage with relish.

Christian also bought more magazines for Ariel to play with. She had learned to lay them on a table or floor and could turn the pages by scraping them gently with a single claw. She would flip from picture to picture, ignoring pages with too many words, gawking unblinkingly at whatever she saw, especially the pictures of people. When she lay on the floor, she would run her fingers ceaselessly through the little shag rug Christian kept there to keep his feet warm, and soon she'd left a little cake of dried mucus in the carpet. When she grew bored of the magazines' pictures, she crunched, flopped, and tore at their pages. Sometimes she would shred them; sometimes she would run the pages between her needle-teeth.

Even after the expenses of moving Ariel out of his bathroom and reclaiming his bathtub, Christian found himself with more cash than he knew what to do with. He stashed enough under a floorboard for three months' fuel, electricity, and water. More went toward rope to replace the fraying anchor line. In a fit of luxury, he started buying his own dinners on bar night. He even bought lumber and shingling and took a day to repair the leaks in his roof.

Just as well—the very next day, it rained for the first time since Ariel's arrival. She plastered her face on the kitchen glass and watched the rain patter until Christian opened the front door to go out to the boat. She reveled in the rain all the way to the water. She rolled around the boat all the way to Triton Bay, and when they reached the Bay, Christian worried whether her dancing might capsize the boat. She wrestled a massive, double-sail-finned fish into The Chariot and spent the rest of the afternoon dancing her strange, arrhythmic dances. When she was tired, she lay on the deck and stretched her arms out to Christian. He smiled and thanked her and praised her for her good catch.

On the way back, Ariel surprised Christian by joining him in the cockpit. She had to hunch to not bang her head on the ceiling. He was even more surprised when he felt her clawed hand on his shoulder and her slightly sticky body press gently against his back. He smelled fresh fish. He pulled his arms against himself and focused on manning the ship's wheel. Her hand strayed down his arm, slicking against his working coat. Just stay calm, he thought. Don't encourage her. Ariel's other arm reached around his body and, before he could react, pulled him gently against her.

"No, Ariel, that's not right."

He squirmed, testing her grip, and a prickle of fear washed down his spine. She ran her other hand down to his waist. She whispered something alien and rasping, and smoothly ran her hand under Christian's working coat, under his trousers, against his skin, reaching down his stomach and between his legs. Christian recoiled from the touch of cold slime and sharp claw tips against his abdomen and pushed Ariel away. He retreated across the cockpit and looked for his spear—it was behind Ariel—but Ariel made no attempt to follow. Mouth sealed in a thin line, she backed away from Christian and retreated to the deck.

Christian locked the cockpit hatch as quickly as he could with his hands shaking, then checked himself for injury. Aside from a long, thin scratch where he'd cut himself on one of Ariel's claws, he was fine. He kept an eye on Ariel on the way home, and refused to leave the boat until she'd gone partway up to the cottage.

#

After that, Ariel's enthusiasm for fishing waned day by day, and her catches shrank. First it was less of the usual, fancifully ornate fish. Then she brought only ordinary fish, pollock and scup in abundance, with none of the unique prizes that drove Long Wu wild. One day, she simply snatched a baitfish from the sea from the back of The Chariot, and tossed it pointedly at Christian's aft cockpit window.

Between fueling The Chariot and feeding and entertaining Ariel it didn't take long for Christian's buffer of money to run dry, and he had to pry his savings back out from under the cottage's floorboard. He considered cutting off her supply of magazines, but he needed her predatory skills and didn't dare distress her, not if he was going to keep her around. Perhaps he could be rid of her and go back to fishing alone. But how? He considered cutting off her supply of food ... but then he remembered her nail-sharp little teeth and thought better of it. He considered the spear ... but then he remembered the leaks in his roof and the bar nights spent hungry, and thought better of that too.

Ariel grew despondent. One day, she refused to step out of her tub in the morning. Christian stubbornly went through his morning routine anyway. He made it as far as the deck of The Chariot before going back to Ariel with a weary sigh.

"Okay, Ariel," he said. "How do I get you happy?"

He knelt next to her tub. She glanced at him and turned away, but her mouth was slightly open, not set in a line—that was a good sign. He put a hand on her arm experimentally. It was rubbery, and slick with water and mucus. At first touch, it sucked the warmth from his flesh, but he felt heat deeper under the skin. He squeezed her gently, massaging a bit. Her muscles were taut as steel wire at first, but she relaxed as he rubbed. She relaxed into the tub and turned toward him slightly. He put both hands on her arm and massaged more forcefully. She turned more and slipped his hands onto her chest.

What would a mermaid want? Christian didn't know. But he remembered what a maid might want, and ran his hands up and down the middle of her chest, and a bit away from her nipples, where the edges of breasts might have been on a human body. Ariel's breath quickened. Watching closely, he moved one hand to her nipple and brushed against it. He was suddenly aware of the callouses on his hands and the grime of sea work underneath his fingernails. But Ariel wasn't watching his fingernails—her eyes were closed now, and her mouth was open, and her nipple responded to his touch. Christian gradually applied more pressure, and Ariel arched her back slightly against his touch. Her strange, complicated eyelids unfurled and she glanced at him before looking away. Her breath sped even more.

Bracing himself mentally, and physically against the tub, Christian slid a hand down Ariel's stomach. She arched more and more rapidly, sending ripples through the inches of saltwater in the wash tub. Her labia were slimy and hairless, like the rest of her. Otherwise, Christian found the feel of it surprisingly humanlike, disconcertingly familiar, like seeing the face of a loved one in a distorted mirror.

Ariel pressed once against his hand, then curled her legs and body around his wrist and reached for him with an embrace. Christian panicked and fell backwards, and Ariel retreated into the tub.

"Sorry," Christian mumbled. "I'm ... I'm sorry."

Christian went out to the ocean, where he scrubbed his hands in tidal brine against the rocks. She joined him after a while and stepped into The Chariot, laying in her usual position until Christian piloted them out of the beach. She caught him a few fish that day, spending much more time in the sea than Christian knew she needed to subdue her prey.

#

Christian gave Ariel two more days. She didn't improve.

After bringing his meager catch to market, Christian asked Long Wu if he knew an herbalist. Long Wu sent him downtown to a old, whiskered man with a shop full of glass bottles, some filled with leaves and grasses and mushrooms, others with gauze and dropper vials and pills. The old man—a pharmacist, according to his graying coat—greeted Christian in singsongy, practiced English, taking his hand and promising cures for all ailments. Perhaps something for his back? Or an ointment for sore joints? Inflamed ankles, maybe? Or a tea for forgetting old woes? Christian asked for something to please a lady, and the wrinkled herbalist fetched him a bottle of prescription sildenafil. Money changed hands, and the old man made Christian promise to come back before he let him leave.

Christian considered buying a beer on the way home. Or something stronger. Or perhaps a lot of beers. But alcohol would stunt his senses and make his task harder.

There was still some light left when Christian arrived home. Christian didn't want light, so he went down to The Chariot and scrubbed salt off the cockpit until sundown.

When there was no longer a plausible reason to stay outside, Christian wandered back up the beach to his cottage. He pulled the pharmacist's bottle from his jacket and tipped out a pink, triangular pill. He briefly considered washing it down with a handful of seawater, but swallowed it dry instead. He reached the door but couldn't find it in himself to open it, so he walked around the cottage, noting where it needed paint and where caulking had flaked from around window frames. It didn't take long to arrive back at the door.

He opened it and stepped inside.

It was dark inside. Christian pulled aside the ocean-side curtains, letting in enough meager moonlight to at least see the shape of the room. It was warm. That was good. That would help. It was quiet, too, but not silent—Christian could barely hear Ariel's steady, whistling snore above the noise of surf. He was grateful that she was asleep.

Christian unlaced his boots and set them at the foot of his bed as quietly as he could. His socks followed, and then he unlatched his suspenders and peeled off his pants. With the nakedness he felt the first stirrings of arousal. With it rose disgust, but he quashed that and tried to recall nights sleeping alongside Annabelle. He pulled down his boxers slowly and felt his penis rise in the dark. He let one hand slide along his shaft while he unbuttoned his shirt with the other.

Ariel was still snoring.

How did he think this was going to work? He was a man, and not a young one, and she was basically a fish with a face. She had no more hair than a lizard, less breast than most men, and where her skin should have been warm and reassuring it was sticky with mucus. But he reminded himself of the feel of Ariel's labia under his fingertips, and the arch of her back when he touched her chest. No, she was more woman than fish, and she was a woman who wanted him.

He had known that for some time, he realized. Saying it, even if only in his mind, to himself, changed the idea, from something shameful under the muck into something that, if still dirty, glimmered under the grime. Didhe want her? It didn't matter. He needed her. She wanted him, and he needed her. Maybe that would be enough.

The shirt slipped off. He pulled off his undershirt after it, taking his time, feeling his chest and arms as he did so. He was shocked by the looseness of his skin—when he'd last made love, he'd had the skin of a youth, though he hadn't thought of himself as one at the time, and somehow he still expected himself to have that body. The muscles were still strong and thick, taut under that skin, though. What would a creature like Ariel think of body hair? Would it irritate her? Scrape away her mucus? Perhaps he should shave himself first. But if he did everything he thought might be best, he would never touch her.

He stood and stretched and thought Ariel's desire for him, of that desire in her face, in her gaze. It was difficult, so he thought of Ariel with a pair of human eyes—with Annabelle's eyes—and full lips, parted just a little instead of in the ridiculous gape that she smiled with.

He went to her tub.

She was still asleep. He could see her outline now, glinting and shimmering slightly in the moonlight, even more than the seawater she rested in. There was a mineral beauty to her in that light, like moonstone in a coal mine. He put a hand on her shoulder. She woke gently and turned toward him, and he cupped her jaw in his other hand. It was sticky and yielding under his hand, and when he tried to slide it over her face, his hand skipped uncomfortably. Ariel dipped her head and arms down into the tub's water, slicking her skin smooth, and now Christian's hand glided from jaw to chin to neck. Ariel shivered. Christian tried to ignore the fish-smell of her breath.

Christian slid his other hand from her shoulder to her side—she obligingly lifted her arm out of the way—and he stepped into the wash tub with her. The water was surprisingly warm—Ariel slept hot. She was too wide to keep his legs wrapped around comfortably, so he let his hips rest on her torso, with his legs fully supported by her body. His erection slid across her skin, and he heard Ariel inhale deeply. He embraced her and she embraced back.

Acting on instinct now, Christian pushed himself forward and kissed Ariel. For a moment, she surprised him with a forceful response. Her mouth tasted of ferment and oceanic bile and rotten crab, and his tongue met something like a tongue in Ariel's mouth, something small and nub-like and tasting of snot. After no more than a second, Christian and Ariel mutually jerked away. Christian ran his mouth along his shoulder, trying to rid himself of the taste. For her part, Ariel turned aside and discretely swished a mouthful of seawater.

When they returned to each others' focus, they explored each others' bodies smoothly and gently. He wrapped his arms all the way around her, and couldn't quite touch his fingertips together until she exhaled. He let his head rest against her chest and pretended the slickness was massage oil.

She ran the tip of a tiny claw down his spine, from neck to nape to tailbone, pressing just enough to dimple the skin but not enough to hurt. The shivering sensation melded him to her, and he felt himself harden again. She moved her torso and he slid against her, arousing him further. His shin slipped between her legs and they wrapped around him. He slid his leg and felt a different kind of warmth and a different kind of slickness.

Emboldened, Christian pushed himself down Ariel's length until his cock slipped between her legs. The top of his skull barely came up to her mouth; his eyes, barely to her collarbone. Ariel curved her back subtly and grabbed Christian's ass and pulled him, and he was inside her. The sensation was unexpectedly familiar. Christian felt weak and warm and tingly and he didn't know whether he wanted it to stop or not. Ariel's legs wrapped around him easily, and they thrust against each other.

Without warning, Ariel flipped him around and rolled over him. Water covered his face and he almost choked, sputtering. He felt her lift him, up out of the tub, and then they were on the hard wooden floor. She straddled him and held down his chest and guided him into herself, and he let her envelop him.

#

When she'd had her fill of him, he made to stand, but she grabbed his arm and pulled him. He didn't know if she would let him go if he pushed it, but he settled down next to her on the floor and curled up and tried to find sleep.

#

Ariel was languid the next day as Christian made them breakfast. He didn't bother clothing her. She followed Christian to The Chariot, rested peacefully as they traveled, and slipped into the seawater as soon as Christian stopped the boat. She was gone many minutes, and Christian feared, or perhaps hoped, that she'd decided to return permanently to the Bay. But he waited, and when she surfaced she was wrapped bodily around a gargantuan scallop as wide as a doorway. It took both of their efforts to bring the shellfish onto the boat. Ariel pried open a corner of the scallop and slashed something with her smallest claw, then did the same to the other side, and the two halves of the shell opened up. Christian gawked at the writhing ball of muscle inside the shell. Ariel calmly thrust her hand into the muscle and slashed confidently five, six, seven times. She brought out a fist-sized hunk of scallop flesh, ripped it half with a snap, and handed one to Christian. Gaping proudly, she devoured her half of the clump of scallop meat. Christian smelled it cautiously. It smelled fresh and savory and almost buttery. He gingerly took a taste and almost spat it out. The surface was covered with a coating of acrid-tasting slime. He scraped away the slime layer and tasted the flesh underneath. That meat was tender and unexpectedly warm. Tiny bubbles of fatty oil burst in his mouth. Ariel gaped at him.

Ariel brought in more fish, but Christian took them home early. He took the scallop flesh and one of its massive alabaster-lined shell-halves to the uptown market and sold them to Long Wu. With a bit of the money, he bought a half-dozen different kinds of common fish—he wanted to find something Ariel would like better than canned fish.

That night, Ariel dragged her wash bin next to Christian's bed, slopping sweaty seawater all over the floor. She held his arm as she settled down to sleep, pulling it into the water with her. Once she started to snore, he pulled back his arm and turned away, and finally relaxed enough and exhausted enough to sleep.

#

Over the next week, Christian made more money off of Ariel's hunting than he had made in the full month before he'd first gone to Triton Bay.

#

The other men noticed when Christian started buying his own drinks at bar night.

"Catch's been good," he said when they asked about it. "Stocks must be rebounding."

"No they 'aint," said Red Joe. "Stocks've been shit all season and everyone knows it 'cept you."

Christian smiled sheepishly. "Guess I know where to look."

"Yeah, and where's that? I got a boat of fishing folk who'd like to know."

Christian hesitated. "I, uh, I stopped fishin' the surface. Nothin' there but skinny pollock these days. Can't make money like that, y'know? Not without a real trawler, and I don't have a real trawler. So I started divin'."

"'Diving'?"

"S'right, divin'. There's things down there you'd never know just from what comes up in the nets. Alien things. Things the orientals'll pay five times the money for uptown."

"Oh, really? And how come you're so good at catching aliens all of a sudden?"

Christian tapped his forehead. "Masculine intuition."

Red Joe snorted. "Yeah, well, my masculine intuition's tellin' me we need more breadsticks. Anyone seen the waiter?"

#

Christian settled into a new routine. He and Ariel went hunting every morning, then Christian took the day's haul to Long Wu. Sometimes Christian would stop on the way home to buy groceries, or pills, or magazines and other amenities for Ariel. Eventually he started buying amenities for himself—a new pair of warm socks, extra thick; chocolate biscuits; $10 reading glasses; a sewing kit and sturdy cloth to mend his shirts; a handheld radio.

When the sun set, it was time for dinner. Christian tried teaching Ariel how to cook, but she had no interest in heated food and no understanding of what a properly cooked meal looked, smelled, or tasted like. She was quite adept at carving fish apart, so Christian showed her what bits he liked and what bits to throw away, and before long he was coming home to plates full of filleted fish and shelled crabs.

As a show of good faith, Christian started eating the creatures Ariel brought back. Many were repulsive—he wondered what Long Wu was doing with them after eagerly spending so much cash on them—but some he found edible, and he found he quite enjoyed urchin flesh. She seemed to learn what he liked, and Christian gradually found himself looking forward to seeing what colorful meats his mermaid decided to feed him each evening.

When she wasn't preparing mysterious sea creatures for Christian, Ariel started carving driftwood into fantastic caricatures of the creatures she hunted, with exaggerated fins and spines and mouths, always in dynamic poses of flight. She started out using only her nails and teeth to whittle down the wood; Christian showed her how to use a carving knife, which she started using to make the broad strokes of her sculptures (details were still always filled in using teeth). When they were finished, Ariel hung her sculptures on the wall like trophies.

Then there was the sex. Christian figured out that he could usually go two weeks before she started to pout and refuse to bring him fish. Her lust was worst when the moon waxed gibbous—if he timed their sex to that time, he could delay for an extra five or six days. She learned his pattern, too—if he held to it consistently, for long enough, she would excite when the day of copulation grew close, and Christian's income spiked with her mood.

He also learned that he could push the day even further by regularly masturbating her. She especially liked his touch when they were out at sea, but he refused any advances for outright sex on the boat, and she learned to respect that rule. Masturbation could not be left unfinished, though—the night after the first time he tried that, she jumped him in his bed while he slept and ended up disappointed and dejected. For the next several days, Christian slept nervously and lightly, and Ariel's tributes were lackluster until he assented to a bout of sex.

Christian was appalled at first by how much money he sunk into pills, but his newly expanded budget was more than adequate to cover the cost. His reliance on them troubled him somewhat, but he also took strange comfort knowing that any physical pleasure Ariel provided was not, on its own, enough to arouse him.

Christian decided to take one weekend off. It was the first time since he'd stopped going to church. At first he enjoyed not having to leave the cabin after breakfast, but after a few hours of listening to the radio while Ariel looked at her magazines, Christian began to itch to do something. So he took apart his grimy old kitchen sink, took stock of what parts came out, and drove to a hardware store to buy a drill, drilling and sanding bits, and a few plumbing adapters. Back at home, he drilled a hole through the giant alabaster scallop shell Ariel had brought him and installed it in place of the old sink. It leaked terribly, so the next day Christian bought a more properly-sized adapter and fresh caulk and fixed it. Ariel filled it with water at the first chance she got, stuck her face in it, and blew bubbles with delight.

#

Five months after their first sexual encounter, Ariel grew listless, then sick. She hardly ate for almost a week, and she started to spend all day floating nearly motionless in her tub, curling in on herself at the slightest touch. Christian stayed by her side, desperately trying to find some panacea.

At the end of the ordeal, Ariel gave birth to a dead, misshapen thing. It had a bulbous head but no neck, and long, gangly limbs tethered to its body by ribbons of diaphanous flesh shot through with bright red veins. Ariel tried to eat it, but Christian weaseled it away from her and buried it hastily by the tree line.

That very night, Christian drove to the local general store and bought five boxes of condoms. Dylan was manning the register; he gave Christian a shocked look when he saw the old sailor's purchase. Christian mumbled something about "his mermaid" and left Dylan to wonder.

Ariel recovered quickly. She didn't seem to understand the condoms—she tried to eat those, too, when she first found them—but she didn't seem to mind them either.

#

At the next bar night, Christian told the younger men about his child. He meant to say it just as a quick jab to get a laugh or an oath of disbelief, like most of his tales of Ariel, but words kept coming and with them a burning in his heart and then in his throat and then in his eyes, and then there were tears. Red Joe and Billy and Willem and the others listened first with laughs, then awkward silence, then somber silence. When Christian couldn't form a coherent sentence anymore, Billy took his hand in one of his own and clapped the other on Christian's shoulder until the crying stopped.

Christian couldn't help but notice the funny looks Dylan gave him after that.

#

Ariel returned to her hunting, though Christian found himself pleasantly surprised by how little he'd noticed the absence of revenue during her pregnancy. Still, to celebrate, he bought a space heater for the cottage. Ariel shied away from the thing when it was on, but Christian deeply enjoyed being able to warm his hands and thaw his feet after a long day without having to collect driftwood for a fire, and he spent many long hours sitting and watching the waves in the heater's hot shadow.

One day, while he was idly remembering his oceanic adventures with old friends and Ariel was putting the finishing touches on a wooden sea slug, Christian decided he needed a rocking chair. He took the next evening off to shop, and found one with a cushioned seat. He bought it along with a thick wool blanket to pad the back. It took longer to find one that would hold Ariel. The price tag made him nauseous, and besides, it didn't look very comfortable, so Christian didn't buy it.

Instead, he took the next several weekends off, along with many of his evenings, to build one himself. Halfway through making the first one, Christian realized that Ariel probably had no interest in a rocking chair—she spent as much time on the ground as on chairs. She rarely wore clothes, and would probably find rough wood uncomfortable to sit on. She much preferred water to dry air, anyway. So he scrapped the rocking chair, bought some sheet metal, and started crafting a long tub on a hanging frame (tall enough that she could see out the window while in the tub) that she could swing from inside. When it was almost done, he mail-ordered a sample pack of cloth squares from one of Ariel's magazines. Ariel spent the most time with velvet, so Christian ordered a half-bolt of navy-blue velvet. He lined the bottom of the rocking-tub with shag carpeting and the sides with velvet. Finally, he screwed on a coarse swinging table so Ariel could enjoy her magazines while she lounged. He took the new furniture outside for its first fill with water, and wasn't surprised when it sprang a few leaks. He caulked the leaks shut and presented it to Ariel. She accepted it with a loving scratch down his arm that made him shiver.

#

After that, Christian decided to take off every weekend. At first he spent his time repairing the cottage, maintaining The Chariot, and otherwise making their lives just a little nicer. In the evenings, he settled into his rocking chair, pulled the wool blanket over his body, and watched the ocean while the radio played. Week by week, month by month, these quiet musings took over more and more of the day, until his weekend working day was down to a couple of hours checking for leaks in the roof and piping, and sometimes just collecting driftwood for Ariel.

One afternoon, while Christian was watching the surf with Ariel, he decided to switch off the radio and tell Ariel a story. It was a nonsense story, a silly Jack tale that Christian hadn't thought about in decades. It was a dull retelling, full of halting and backtracking and poorly-delivered dialogue. Ariel didn't care. She listened to him, he was sure, with the same fascinated non-understanding she gave her magazines. So he told his tale, making up details when he couldn't remember. Christian's thoughts drifted to Annabelle ... but he'd never told her this story. Had he been saving it for their children, in case they'd had children? But they'd shared so much more of their lives, their histories, why hadn't he shared this part of himself? Had he not felt that was something for an adult to share? He had no doubt she would have listened to this story with all of her attention, if he'd bothered to try to tell her. But he hadn't.

After that, Christian turned off the radio at sunset every Saturday evening and Sunday evening and told her tales. He told her other Jack tales he'd been passed down in his youth. He told her plots of the black-and-white sitcoms he'd watched at his grandmother's house when he was a bit older, and recounted what he could remember of the Shakespearean plays he'd been fond of in his twenties. He told her about the stupid things he and his shipmates had done on Bruce Merristein's old crabbing boat, and about their nightly poker games over wagered dimes, and how they'd snuck candles on the ship once to dry their socks and ended up with hole-ridden socks for their troubles. He told her how he liked his food salted, and how he'd once discovered and later abandoned the joy of gardening. He told her about how he met Annabelle, and the little ways they'd sunk hooks deep into each other's' hearts—somehow he thought that might upset Ariel, but of course she took in those stories with childlike interest just like the others. He told her about the headaches he used to have before he quit drinking sodas, and the first time he'd had a gallstone; he told her about how he had twisted his foot at sea and how it had never truly recovered. He told her about the pain of an infected molar, and how he'd had to remove it with boiling water and a knife and a lot of vodka. He told her about bar night and told her everything he knew about Willem and Red Joe and Bill and Dylan and all the others. He told her about how he'd considered going to a University to get an education, but never found the time between fishing seasons, and how he'd never really regretted it, but how he'd always wondered what he had missed. He told her about all the little stinging pains in his shoulder when he hauled ropes too hard, and about the little sores in his mouth that had grown more frequent over the years, and about the pain in his gut when his shits came too infrequently, and about the arthritis starting to worm its way into his knuckles. He told her about the first time he'd seen her, Ariel; he told her about the strategies he'd used to budget his money, about how he'd let the water bills go unpaid during particularly rainy seasons to save that extra little bit. He told her about his father's stroke and subsequent slide into senility, and about his mother's quiet death, full of dignity and surrounded by family, and about Annabelle's cancer and the years of uncertainty and relief and terror and eventual finality. He told her his earliest memories of eating applesauce at the kitchen table while his brother complained about having to go to school in the morning. He told her all of the questions he wished he'd asked his parents, and what he hoped their answers would have been.

Ariel sloshed gently and listened.

#

There eventually came a day when his pill and Ariel's touch weren't enough to rouse Christian's cock. Ariel stroked him gently but insistently. He thought she seemed confused. When he was sure they would get no further, he stripped the condom off of himself, took Ariel by the hand, and led her through the moon-drenched night to the ocean.

They frolicked together in the waves. At least, she frolicked, and he tried to keep up with her. Her skin truly was delightful to watch in the moonlight, though Christian could only enjoy those flickering patterns up close without his glasses. She slithered through the surf with ... youth. Christian splashed beside her until his ankles complained. Christian knelt in the surf to give his legs a rest. Ariel swam effortlessly to his side and wrapped herself around him, somehow staying moored in place, just barely touching him skin-to-skin despite the waves pulling around her. When she rolled face-up with her thighs in front of him, he took her waist in both arms and deeply massaged her labia and clitoris with fingers and tongue. She arched back into the surf, apparently not caring whether waves covered her face, and scratched his back and sides lovingly. When, after a long time, they mutually agreed that they were finished, the pair made their way back to the cottage, where Christian stripped down, toweled off, and rocked, dozing, in front of the heater, naked under his wool blanket, while Ariel rested in her rocking tub.

#

Christian didn't rise from his chair the next morning. Ariel stretched and lounged for a while, then got up and fetched a side of sardines for breakfast. She snacked on it while she whittled down the edge of a ray.

When Christian still didn't awake, Ariel went over to check on him. His eyes were open, but they were glassy and unfocused. Ariel waved her hands in front of him, but he didn't respond. She put a hand on his shoulder, and shook. The blanket slipped off of his arms, but Christian was stiff and unresponsive.

Ariel leaned close and smelled Christian. She smelled death.

She sat on the floor in shock, mouth closed tight, and waited for Christian to get up.

He did not.

When she could no longer deny Christian's death, Ariel picked up his body and lay him in her tub. He would last longer there. After a full cycle of mourning, she ate his body, bit by bit, tenderly and lovingly, remembering each piece as it had lived, and she memorized the inside pieces that had always before been hidden to her.

When she was done, she returned the bones and other inedible bits to the sea.

Later, when Ariel was sitting in her rocking tub, watching the trees for once instead of the waves, a human knocked on the front door and spoke. She had never heard anybody knock on a door before. There had never been a need. But she was not frightened. She stood and got out of the tub to move to the window.

The human opened the door. It was short, a bit rounder than hers, and its head-fur was round and black. Its face was smooth and hairless, like hers, except for a pair of lines above its eyes. Those eyes went wide when it saw her, and Ariel felt a predatory pressure to pounce when the human took an involuntary step back.

"Christ," the human said. "I knew it, the old man wasn't shittin' us. Where is he?"

Ariel responded as she always had, with curious attention. The human spoke more words, and began to bore her. She stepped toward him, and he stepped back.

"No, no, it's ok. I, uh, I understand. I'll ... I won't tell the others."

The human closed the door, and Ariel listened to him leave.

Ariel considered her situation. The man she loved was gone. That was done and final. Surely she had nothing else to tie her to this place? But it was his place, and hers. She knew even as she asked that she could not leave.

Ariel walked to the beach and into the water, half-submerged. Christian would not have wanted her outside like that, in broad daylight. But Christian was gone. She felt the smooth caress of the waves below her waist, and the harsh sting of salty air on her skin above.

She watched the waves pull and push for a long, long time.

THE END


Copyright 2020, Samuel Clamons

Bio: Samuel Clamons is a graduate student in Pasadena, California. When not writing or working toward a thesis, he can be found taking care of his many and varied invertebrates.

E-mail: Samuel Clamons

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