BY IRIS MOULTON
The younger sister had expected the sting in her scalp to abate, but it never did. Even as she slept she would dream the sting of the sea was really the pull of the older sister’s hair braided into hers, but of course the older sister had chosen the surface. The younger sister slept a mile from the mermaid who had brought her here, but the two only ever waved as they passed. Years buckled and swayed.
The younger sister never broke her habit of swatting the tickling blindfish into the wall of the cave, sending some floating belly-up to form a constellation on the ceiling. The younger sister hated from the moment she entered the water this exaggerated feeling of weightlessness, the unencumbered movement demanded of her.
Her whale child was somewhere, lowing a sad song into the empty theatres of the deep.
The raft moved as a helpless shadow over an entire world. On board, the woman left her sunburned gaze undone over the waves. Below, the whale child was turning and let the shadow just for a moment frame his heart.
The younger sister saw the raft’s shadow. She heard the sigh of her child. The younger sister moved in the direction of this, and unpracticed at effectively aiming her body through this murk, spent hours losing the shadow and then gaining on it.
The woman had no one to say goodbye to on the island. She had buried poorly the ship’s first mate until there was nothing left to do but shuffle a dusting of sand over his cresting bones, and upon revisiting the grave to see if she’d dropped anything saw he’d already been dragged into the jungle by some hungry, unpicky thing.
As the whale child exhaled, the force of the water raining down startled the raft but did not topple it. It sailed on, steady with the black screen of the whale child’s eye, the woman all the while blinking only when he did, swallowing a smile until she was sure she would not have to kill it.
The whale child populated the path of the raft with bubbles and waves to overcome, and returned to the deep bored as ever.
The ironworker had been the only one to watch the older sister crawl from the ocean, alone and years ago. He told no one of the younger sister’s fate beneath the waves, mindful of the eyes that already trailed him for having to live with dashing a ship to bits against an invisible mountain.
The older sister went to the shore each day, but today was the last. He let the sonnet writer find her. She was bent over the rocks, but the sonnet writer had been too ready to see the face of a new love when he watched a series of isopods crawling from her blackened lips and across her open eyes and to her half-bare scalp.
The younger sister pressed up onto the raft, having invented the older sister there. The woman hadn’t startled, had seemed to expect any disaster or miracle. The woman placed the callus of her heel against the younger sister’s face and pushed.
Some loss had taken with it the air the ocean had once been, and the younger sister screamed into an indifferent churning wall. The sound prompted a cursory glance from a crouched octopus, snuck into the dream of the mermaid, and registered as a sonar peak on a nearby navy vessel whose commander was wrist deep into a jar of pickles, concentrating on the sea-creature pincers he’d fashioned of his fingers for the task.
The sonnet writer brought the body of the older sister into town, weeping, and chanting,
From… uh…whence the chilly souls did drift
by which I mean the sea
the sister went and… uh…
What light went out or just fell deep within
I saw with my own eyes…uh… the milk white stare
Of a sister… uh… not so thin!
until he reached the office of the doctor, a peg-legged man with an unmatched sense of duty. Much of the town had begun to follow, calling out suggestions for rhymes or requests that he please quickly compose something for a wife whose birthday had been forgotten.
The sonnet writer deposited the heavy body on the doctor’s table, knocking aside a cup of wine and plate of olives. The doctor nodded, thanking the sonnet writer for his continued display of passion, and dismissed him to join the crowd.
As he labored over the body, mainly verifying again and again its chill and lack of movement, he fed with one hand the sparrow that had long ago taken up residence in his wooden leg.
The woman had spotted the village days ago, and did not rely on the waves to take her there. She tugged this way and that at the fronds, she paddled and finally struck a sandy bottom and pulled herself to shore.
She was naked but the place seemed empty, so she moved calmly through the streets. She stepped into an unmanned bakery and popped a palmier into her mouth, fashioning a poor covering from a nearby napkin as she chewed.
The ironworker had followed the crowd to its edge around the doctor’s office, and then quietly slipped away. He had seen the blackened lips and ocean visitors upon her, and he thought of the shape she had made lumbering into the waves each day but especially today, how he had watched, stretching a corner of taffy into a thin long rope until it broke of its own weight, until he had nothing to bind him to anyone, until she had disappeared.
As the woman emerged from the bakery she was met by this man, and he held out his blistered hands to stop from running right into her.
They would not redeem each other, but they would live together in his hut, speaking only in whispers so as not to startle the other away.
The mermaid first heard it in the black night, shielded in a cave from the moon. Her sheet of blindfish, less a source of warmth than companionship, began to tremble and soon scattered, mothers from sons and lovers from lovers in the indifferent fear of Actinopterygii and most living things.
She may have imagined the quiver of water around her, or it may have been her own trembling body, but she emerged into the thin moonlight as if maybe it were a sound she could see.
But she knew it wasn’t. She knew the sound was at least a great distance off, if it had a source at all. She thought a lot about sources: she hadn’t seen another mermaid for as long as she’d lived. She wasn’t sure, really, if she’d ever been born or if she’d always been here.
Any portrayal of a lone creature is bound to arouse sympathy, to conjure the hope that it was a mistake, this loneliness, that one is only ever a delayed pair. This is not that kind of story. She is right: of her kind she is entirely alone. Mourning should be withheld with regard to the truth of this sentence and its applicability to all of us.
She had heard all manner of things: whales in the clutch of birthing, the crack as one crab bites into another. Even the distant highway lurking at the surface, noisiest when the nearby town crowded with celebration, or when a fiery accident summoned a cacophony of bells and screams.
But she’d never heard anything like this.
Some small part of her wondered if the sound had been another mermaid, the only thing she could never remember hearing, but of course we know this is not that kind of story. Only she did not. She traced her memory of the sound, now part hallucination, through the black prairie of invisible creatures, imagining what one face might look like as it stared back at her, what she might look like staring at anything at all.
She had surfaced a few times before and seen the delicate wheel with its children riders, the streamers attached to a pole. She had surfaced before and seen fire on the highway. She had surfaced before and been caught in the stream of a pissing pirate too drunk to be believed when he returned with a story of the bright-haired mermaid with tits out to here.
She swam through a wave of phosphorescent whale treats, passed the creaking body of a scuba diver long snagged on the reef. She angled around a cliff of ancient-cooled lava and eel heads that bloomed along its surface like hungry roses. Through the thin row of silhouetted sharks she barely made out the pulsing body of a starfish looking for a pasture. All these creatures let her pass, all these creatures reached longingly toward her, or it was just her imagination.
Had she made them? She couldn’t remember being born. Could she remember an empty sea, a soundless one? Did she remember filling it? As she picked up speed a rush of sea grass parted from her hair.
There were others of other things: fish had other fish, sharks ate in clusters. On the surface she saw many trees black and stiff along the horizon, matching but not reaching for each other.
She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do next. The sound was without location, it seemed, bodiless and without center, maybe gone.
There had been one other time like this, though not just like this. She had heard a series of clicks and then a blast of warning bells and heat. It had been easy to find: bright and boiling the water just at its edges. The dainty fish in its path fainted, dead, and she watched for all the hours it took the big ship to sink into a black that disguises itself as bottom, shedding all the while flames of passengers and other shapeless treasures.
How long ago had that been? It could have been yesterday or one hundred years ago. It changed nothing: the ship passed through her lonely world lighting it only for a moment.