The sun bears down hot and twisted against the nape of Ellen’s neck. She wades into the muddy waters, slick yellow-brown silt clinging to her worn rubber boots. The rotten scent of fish hangs heavy in the air, which is loud with the buzz of iridescent flies and the shrieks of cicadas.
Summer here is an oppressive season, sick with humidity. The river floods, then washes back sewage and garbage. As the water recedes, the muddy pools evaporate. Any fish able to survive the reek of dank, infested waters die by suffocation on dry land. Then the gulls, the crows, the carrion-feeders pick at the corpses until they’re nothing but bones bleaching in the sun.
The fans Ellen keep running in her house-on-stilts do nothing to calm the heat or drive out the stink. The most they do is add a low, humming drone that keeps the whine and buzz of insects at bay. Still, Ellen never begrudges the flood season. She knows where the cleaner waters are, where, with her hands covered by thick gloves and holding a pail full of bait and a net, she can seed the shallow waters and catch fish without even needing a line. The fish are enough to keep her fed. The work leaves a sheen of sweat on her that traps every sour, marshy scent of the river to her skin.
Ellen drops a catfish into her bucket, where it thrashes for a few moments before going still and playing dead, the only movement the whisper of its gills opening and closing like butterfly wings. Before she can turn and trudge back to the shore, something catches Ellen’s eye.
There, beyond the leaves, half-hidden by the thickets of mangroves rooting the path of the river, lies a shining, smooth fish tail—a massive fish, larger even than the sharks sold at the wet market. And, as she watches, the tail twitches once, twice, before beating against the muddy bank, a wetslop-slop sound, the earth doing nothing but slither and squelch.
Something must have gotten caught in the mangrove roots during the flood. Ellen sets her bucket on the banks beside her, tugs her boots higher, and wades out toward the thing, her movements steady and her expression calm despite the ever-quickening beating of her heart and the sensation of her throat closing.
Another thrash. The silvery fish scales give way to flashes of skin not white enough to be the belly of a fish. Instead, it’s the rich yellow-brown of her own skin. She’s never seen mermaids in her time living here, but her grandmother had told her the stories, and Ellen recognizes the form as it emerges.
With every step Ellen takes, her body drags through the water, leaving chevrons in her wake. The surface dimples as water skippers skim away from her, and little bubbles break the surface as fish dart up to eat the algae and insects floating on the surface like gasoline.
When she comes around the last bend, Ellen stops. The tail of a fish flows seamlessly into the torso of a young woman, her arms threaded through mangrove roots. Her long, black hair, slimy with algae and the waste of birds that had roosted above her, is tangled in the branches.
“Hello?” Ellen says, her voice hoarse. When she reaches out, her fingers tremble. “Do you need help?”
The stench of the river mixes with the iron of blood as Ellen takes another step. The mermaid’s back is to her. She’s caught in the mangrove roots as if they were stocks, her face locked face-down as she struggles. Up close, what Ellen thought was a shadow turns out to be dark smears of blood slicking the silt on the banks.
Another thrash of the mermaid’s tail reveals the source of the blood: a gash runs along her abdomen, piercing where a navel would be on a human. The wound is deep enough to reveal the glisten of her intestines. It’s a wonder she survived, never mind that she still has the energy to struggle as she does.
“It’s okay. You’re safe now,” Ellen says. She unsheathes her machete and hacks away at the roots, getting one arm loose, and then another, always conscious of where the blade is so she doesn’t add to the mermaid’s injury. She works more carefully around the mermaid’s head, aware of the way the mermaid is breathing too quickly and the way her shoulders are stiff with tension.
When Ellen whittles away the last of the roots shackling the mermaid, the mermaid whips free, riled up with adrenaline and panic, and tries to take off back into the water. But as she twists toward the water, she cries out and clutches her abdomen, her palms slick with blood.
“You’ll die if you go back in there,” Ellen says. She’s speaking in the most widely spoken tongue, but the mermaid isn’t responding. Whether she doesn’t know the language or is simply too shocked to speak is unclear. Ellen steps toward the mermaid, her boots squelching in the mud, and pushes aside dripping locks of matted hair to take a better look at the mermaid’s face.
She freezes. Her mouth goes dry. The furious eyes that glare back at her are eerily familiar.
The mermaid has her face.
Ellen splashes back to the shore and returns with her boat, her chest heaving with her labored breaths. She ties a few knots with old hemp rope around the mermaid, who yells at her, her teeth bared, the gills under her jaw flaring open and closed. The language sounds familiar and strums through her heart, but Ellen doesn’t understand what the mermaid’s saying.
“Hush. You’ll feel better soon.”
Ellen drags the mermaid onto the boat, the knots binding her tail neat and practiced, restraining but not cruel. Her muscles burn with the effort. The mermaid flops onto the boat with a thud rather than the slippery thwack Ellen expects. Her tail quivers in its readiness to thrash. The engine of Ellen’s boat sputters and throws clouds of black smoke into the air as she sets off for her house again.
As the boat skips over the waves, Ellen glances over at the mermaid again, who’s glaring at her with the fury of both suns. The edges of the wound are clean, too deliberate to have been a propellor accident or an animal attack, and the way the mermaid’s skin sags reminds Ellen of the stray cats who’ve given birth to litters and litters of kittens, their stomachs now hanging low and empty. A couple specks of bright orange linger against the red of the mermaid’s flesh.
As soon as she’s docked the boat, Ellen hauls the mermaid hand-over-fist into her home, leaving a slick trail of blood, grime, and slimy algae-water leading from the back sliding door to her only bathroom, where she dumps the mermaid into her bathtub and runs the water. She undoes the knots and sponges away at the mermaid.
She goes into the closet and pulls out a spool of her heavier thread and her sharpest needle. With an experienced hand, she stitches the edges of the mermaid’s flesh together, closing the wound. The point where her body transitions from human to fish is strange, firm in a way that feels uncanny on the fingers. Ellen’s hand hovers over the scales of the mermaid’s tale, her fingers quivering with longing and the desire to touch. But her heart holds her back, telling her that this isn’t an animal to examine, but a person to treat with at least the most basic of dignity.
“Can you speak Common?” she says after she ties off the last stitch, carefully avoiding eye contact with the mermaid. With her hair washed, detangled, and combed back, Ellen gets an even clearer look at the mermaid’s face. There’s no doubt about it—the face is decades younger, but unmistakably her own. Even though the water running over her hands is warm, goosebumps speckle Ellen’s arms as revulsion and fear run through her.
“Hui shuo Putonghua ma?” Ellen says, switching to her second tongue. When there’s no response, she switches to her third. “Ĉu vi parolas Komuna?”
Still no response, not even a grunt or a gesture that suggests she understands. Hesitantly, Ellen tries a phrase in another language:
“Si gisurembi Gisun?”
The creature takes a deep, rattling breath, then exhales. If Ellen hadn’t known what to listen for, she would have missed the mermaid’s reply.
The mermaid breathes out a few more words, but they’re beyond Ellen’s knowledge of Gisun, which she knows only through a few battered children’s books and the long-gone creaky voice of her grandmother. She does, however, know how to ask one more question.
“Sini gebu ai sembi?”
The mermaid relaxes a bit, as if finally sure Ellen is on her side. When her eyes meet Ellen’s again, the fight has gone out of them, leaving her looking tired and defeated.
“Kiru,” she says.
“Kiru,” Ellen says, tasting the name, and Kiru watches her wordlessly. Then, Ellen puts a hand over her heart and says, “Mini gebu Ellen sembi.”
Kiru offers her a small smile.
“Hojo na, Ellen.”
Ellen awakens the next day to the sound of propellors—a ship is making its way up the river toward her. But this one doesn’t sound like it’s from around here. Here, Ellen normally hears sputtering, dilapidated boats like her own, red-rusted and sun-faded.
She dons a shirt and a loose pair of pants before stepping outside. There are no government symbols on the ship, just neatly stenciled names. Ellen makes no move to greet the sailors, even after they dock. People don’t usually come to the wastetides on good terms.
A tall, slender woman leads the entourage off the ship. She’s the kind of lean that comes with years of practical experience, her bearing more tigress than human, her clothing pragmatic and efficient. Her belt holds a few sheathed knives of different sizes, and Ellen knows there are more knives hidden elsewhere on her person. The woman’s eyes shine golden-amber in the hazy morning light. As she steps off the boat, she toes aside seaweed clinging to the walkway and wrinkles her nose. The gesture is almost imperceptible, as if she’s trying to hide her disgust, but Ellen knows that face too well to miss the gesture.
“Can I help you?” Ellen says, her voice steely and cold. She’s a good head shorter than the woman.
“Ellen,” the woman replies. Her voice is husky, lower than what her features might suggest.
“Stella,” Ellen says, acknowledging her only that much before moving on despite her body’s memory: trembling, warm, sweat-drenched. Her eyes flick to Stella’s blades, then flick back to Stella’s face to find Stella watching her intently.
Ellen says again, “Can I help you?”
Stella sighs. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different.”
Ellen lets the remark pass. Stella gauges her reaction. Then, she continues.
“Mermaids are returning to spawn,” she says. Ellen keeps her expression neutral. She’d closed the door behind her, blocking all lines of sight to the bathroom, and the house is quiet, but Ellen still has the uneasy feeling that Stella knows, somehow, about Kiru.
“Why should I be concerned?” Ellen says. She places her hands on her hips, taking a more open, offensive stance, but it’s a bluff—her heart pounds furiously against her chest, and her palms are slick with sweat. The briny green scent of algae growing on the river’s surface rises along with the wet stink of the whole place. Somewhere deep in the mangrove thickets, a bird cries out. Stella tilts her head and gives Ellen a simpering smile.
“I would have thought that you of all people would take an interest,” Stella says. Ellen flushes, heat rising to her cheeks and churning in her gut, indignation and shame together as one.
“Don’t play coy,” Ellen says. “It has to be something big for you to show your face again.”
Stella’s smile doesn’t falter, but her eyes narrow, giving her smile an edge of malice.
“They’re paying good money for mermaids caught alive,” Stella says. Ellen’s skin prickles, her stomach dropping in anticipation of what Stella might say next.
Stella considers Ellen for a moment, then buffs her nails and glances at them. Ellen doesn’t have to see them to know that they aren’t yellowed like her own, with dirt perpetually wedged under them. The lines of power return to Stella’s face and posture as she masks her familiarity with Ellen and resumes the stance of a merchant.
“Despite how you may feel, much of the rest of the world sees mermaids as a delicacy, and they fetch spectacular prices on the open market,” Stella says. She raises a hand to cut off Ellen’s protests. “The reality is that the demand is there, regardless of your personal sentiments. And my crew and I would like to try more humane ways to meet the demand. But we need more mermaids to start with. They only come back to spawn every twelve years, and then only for a few weeks at a time.”
“So let them be and leave me alone,” Ellen says, turning to go.
“A hundred thousand yi,” Stella says, stopping Ellen in her tracks.
“That’s how much a live one fetches at the market. More for certain qualities—brindled mermaids are said to be particularly delicious.” Stella smiles, and the opacity of the smile has Ellen uneasy with how she can’t be sure what emotions it represents. “But even if the pay is generous, I know your interest in them too, Ellen. We have the equipment you don’t have to get close enough to a school of mermaids and take them in alive and unharmed. The most you can do alone is get close enough to see a flash of scales before the mermaids scatter and disappear.”
Ellen thinks of Kiru and is about to retort that she doesn’t need Stella for that, but she catches herself in time. She doesn’t want Stella to know about Kiru—the very idea makes her tremble with a serpent’s nest of emotion, all knotted together into a twisted ball.
“They’re not killed,” Stella says, eyeing Ellen’s balled fists before meeting her eyes again. “That much has been outlawed. Their tails are just cropped, not unlike a dog’s, and they can adapt to that. The process has become quick and preserves as much of the mermaid’s range of motion as possible. They say the tail doesn’t feel pain anyway, like fish. And a hundred thousand yi is payment for just one mermaid. Hundreds come during a spawning season, and you know this river and their ways better than anyone else here, I’m sure of that.”
It’s an attractive offer. It wouldn’t be much to assist Stella, and she could think of a number of uses for such a salary. She could escape the stinking river once and for all, for instance. Really make something of her life and herself. All she’d have to do is something the rest of the world does anyway.
But then she thinks of Kiru and imagines the horror of having part of her body severed away. The mermaids may survive the whole thing, but, Ellen thinks, living things survive all kinds of pain and cruelty.
“I’m not interested,” Ellen says. Stella’s expression doesn’t change, but she looks Ellen in the eye longer than Ellen feels comfortable with.
“Well, it’s your loss,” Stella says at last. “If you do change your mind, though, we’ll be docking at Ermei Village. Come find me.”
With that, she turns on her heel and boards the ship again. Ellen crosses her arms and glares as the ship sails back to the fork in the river, then disappears.
Still, when Ellen goes inside and opens the bathroom door, watching as Kiru stares at the ceiling, gills only barely flaring open and closed, she can’t get Stella’s last words out of her mind.
Come find me.
She and Stella had had their time together. Their relationship had been explosive and passionate, barbed and toxic. Even after they’d gone their separate ways, she still thought of Stella at times. Healthy or not, happy or not, Stella had been a lot of Ellen’s firsts, and one of those that Ellen would never admit is her first love.
Ellen had taken in every detail of Stella. She looked youthful, her face hiding her age, even if her hands showed them. And her hands had been bare. No rings or bands. Just the familiar calluses where the handles of her blades have kissed skin so often it’s turned to stone.
Ellen closes her eyes and touches her forehead to a doorframe, grounding herself as she lets out a small sigh. They’re different people now. It would be foolish to expect something Stella’s never willing to give.
Kiru’s shallow, labored breaths punctuate the silence. A disquiet settles over Ellen as she takes in features that are indisputably hers—the uneven dip of the lips, the mole under one eyebrow, the upturned nose—yet completely foreign. She can’t help the uneasy fascination, like the first time she’d locked herself in a room with a mirror and truly taken a look at every part of her body. Strange topographies lie before her, uncharted to her own.
Even if Kiru didn’t have her face, Ellen would still have done all she could to save her. Her grandmother’s stories of their mermaid ancestors cultivated an allegiance in Ellen’s heart. Even though she may be only human, to take Stella’s offer feels like a betrayal.
Ellen leaves the bathroom door ajar behind her. Kiru’s breaths whisper through the night.
It takes three days for Ellen to gather the will and resolve to go to Ermei Village. She’d fought with herself for those three days: True, she’s the best to navigate the mangroves, but that only affords her more of a chance to actually find and catch mermaids. Could she mutilate one to satisfy such an unnecessary craving? It happens though, she knows that well enough, even with the very people around her—those who’d spent longer in the wastetides tend to respect the mermaids’ spawning season, but newcomers are more unscrupulous and had not only sold mermaid tail at the market, but had also begun to clear the mangroves for other profitable ventures.
Ellen doesn’t know if she can treat living beings as strictly business like that. But, at the same time, the stifling stagnation of the wastetides is slowly choking the life out of her. This could be her one chance, and Stella had mentioned being humane to the mermaids. Visions of a house in a city thick with the smells of rain and street food, or a cottage in the countryside where she could wake to clean dew and the sweet perfumes of flowers outside her window, grow stronger as they become more of a possibility.
She heads to the main part of town: the hawker center, where dozens and dozens of food stalls serve people late into the night. Even though there are still many people around at this hour, it’s far less crowded than usual. Ellen spots Stella finishing the last of a bowl of steaming noodles at a table.
“Changed your mind?” Stella says as soon as Ellen sits across from her. That had been one of the things she couldn’t stand about Stella: the way she held herself over you, as if she always knew more, or knew better.
Ellen doesn’t fall for Stella’s bait. First, she goes over to a stall and returns to the table with a cold drink, sweet and tangy, biding her time as she lets the steam over Stella’s tone vent from her. Then, she leans her elbows on the table. “I suppose,” she says.
“I’ve thought about you a lot,” Stella says. “I know we argued. But we always found a way to make up for it.”
Ellen flushes. She remembers the raised voices, the charged emotions, the way she would retreat and sulk for days, nursing her wounds. The way she’d go back into the room, ready to share a bed with Stella again, and how Stella knew as much as she did that that was the most of an apology either of them would get. And then Stella would touch a kiss to her neck, and that would be enough to mend her heart; and then Ellen would ask for Stella’s hand, one, two, three, and that would be enough to mend her soul.
Ellen is a hard woman, stoic and straightforward; the emotions she shows are earned. Stella is the opposite: The tracest emotion manifests itself in her expression, and she polishes that into brilliance with her charisma. But when it had been just the two of them, they could cross each other’s walls, reversing roles, reversing personas. Whether either was “the real Ellen” or “the real Stella” had often crossed Ellen’s mind, until she eventually settled that both parts of her were real, and neither part of her was real.
“I need strict boundaries if I’m going to work with you,” Ellen says as she sips her drink. Moths flutter against the lanterns hung throughout the hawker center, and the sound of sizzling starts and stops like a round. “One: You tell me up front if you want something out of me. Two: You tell me the entire truth.”
Stella looks taken aback for a moment. There’s a second when Ellen isn’t sure if it’s the flicker of the lights or if anger truly flashes over Stella’s face. But when she blinks again, Stella’s face is soft, and she nods.
She places a hand on Ellen’s. Ellen’s skin tingles, pinpricks of sensation blooming, and her breath catches.
All these years, and her body still reacts the same way to Stella’s faintest touch.
“We leave at first dawn. The mermaids usually spawn during forthlight, so we’ll need to be at a good fishing spot before then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She gives Ellen’s hand a squeeze, then pushes her chair back and stands. She downs the rest of her drink and sets the glass on the table.
“I’ll need to get some rest tonight. I’m glad you came to me, Ellen.”
It only hits Ellen when she’s back home on the porch smoking that Stella had been the one to come to her.
“The whole truth,” she mutters, then pinches out the rest of her joint. Cicada screeches cut through the muggy air. She toes off her slippers at the back door and steps inside. Her bare feet pad down the hall to her bathroom, where she kneels beside the bathtub.
Kiru’s scales have lost some sheen, and her skin looks waxy. Ellen reaches around her tail and, with effort, pulls the plug. The hollow, whirling sound of the water draining away reverberates off the bathroom tile. The water that swirls away is yellow-brown, blood mixed with dust and silt mixed with the grime of the river.
Ellen fishes out the clumps of hair that slow the drain, tossing the wet, soap-globby tangles into the trash can. She rinses Kiru off. The edges of Kiru’s wounds have begun to stitch together, but it’s too early to see if she has any signs of infection, and Kiru is still too weak to help Ellen bathe her and tend to her wounds. She winces in pain sometimes, crying out words in Gisun that Ellen doesn’t know. She takes care to be as gentle with Kiru as possible while Kiru clenches her teeth.
Better than death, Ellen tells herself.
She puts the plug back in and draws another bath. Steam suffocates the room. As the water runs, Ellen goes to the pantry and rummages through the shelves. She returns to the bathroom with a few packets of dried herbs and powders. She places them under the faucet and also throws in a couple of handfuls of salt. She could choke on the smell of the bathroom: blood and waste and medicine.
She doesn’t open a window, though. With the steam trapped in the bathroom, Kiru does seem to regain some shine and vigor.
Kiru speaks again, her voice wetter this time, but Ellen still doesn’t understand a word other than a couple of the most basic ones.
A part of her gives way as tears come to her eyes. She reaches out and holds Kiru’s hand. She’d expected her palm to be clammy, but it’s warm like hers. Kiru’s fingers twitch as if to try to squeeze Ellen’s hand, but her breaths are still shallow, and her body is limp.
“I’m sorry,” Ellen says. “I don’t understand.”
Ellen’s grandmother had told her about mermaids. The harpies and the nagas are natural opposites: one has dominion over the sky, while the other has the earth. But the fox spirits and the mermaids are opposites, too. The fox spirit is a shapeshifter and can choose to never settle on one form, while the mermaid can change form in only one way, and only once: She can tear her tail in two to form legs, but in doing so, she gives up her home in the water, and her children are born without tails.
Ellen’s grandmother had told her, too, about the last time she’d seen her own father. Her mother had sat on a boulder by the shore, furious tears streaming down her face, as Ellen’s grandmother watched from the pebbly shore closer to her father. She had been too young to understand the details, but she knew that it had to do with the fear that smothered their home, the way they and the others around them had pared down their possessions to only what truly couldn’t be replaced and always had plans for how to leave somewhere quickly.
“I won’t stay here without you,” Ellen’s great-grandmother had said.
And Ellen’s great-grandfather had murmured a few words about the rest of their family and their friends needing his support—that he’d be there to join her once this passed, once this was safe. But for her to have a tail now, for her daughter to have a tail now, was certain death.
Others had hidden. She wouldn’t be the first.
Ellen’s grandmother never knew what made her mother change her mind in the end. But she could always recall what happened next: Her mother had gripped one side of her tail fin in either hand and, with her teeth clenched, she had ripped apart the silken membranes, hissing as they tore from each other. Blood had dripped down her fingers, fat red beads that clung to the boulder, forming rivulets.
Her father had done the rest of the bifurcation with a hunting knife, cutting away the tailbone, slashing away the thin sinew binding the two sides of muscle together. The fish skin would wither in a few days, and fresh skin would cover the rest of the wounds. Her mother had lain half-catatonic, and raw resentment had flashed across her face as she’d made eye contact with her daughter. Ellen’s grandmother had stared and stared into her mother’s cold glare, until her father came into her field of vision wearing the saddest smile that soon became all she remembered of him.
“I’m sorry,” he’d said.
And then he’d cut her tail in two.
Ellen’s grandmother had shown her the scars. They were slight, she’d said, because she’d been young. Her father never returned, and the other mermaids went into hiding. What knowledge of Common they had had dwindled as they isolated themselves more and more from the world. And when they did encounter other peoples, like when it came time to spawn, their Gisun words were unintelligible to them, leading many to believe that mermaids didn’t even have a real language.
And here Ellen is now. She’d been exiled from home because of events she’d had no say in. And, as Kiru lies before her—perhaps a sister or a cousin or a niece, or even some other version of herself—she finds herself unable to put together the words to ask about home. To gain the merest entry, a gate left ajar.
Ellen turns off the tap as soon as Kiru is submerged. She squeezes Kiru’s hand, then stands—but as she does, Kiru closes her fingers around Ellen’s wrist, startling her.
“Baniha,” she says.
Ellen lowers her head and blinks a few times before she decides not to hold back her emotions. She looks back up, a smile on her face, and lets the tears fall.
“You’re welcome,” she says, closing the door behind her as she leaves.
The suns haven’t had a chance to heat up the day by the time Stella and her crew set out on the river. The last of the night insects’ chirps die down, to be replaced by the birdsong of early morning. With the horizon going gold against the dark silhouettes of mangroves and cat tails, Ellen could almost call the river beautiful.
She takes Stella south-southeast. They don’t find any mermaids there—their nets come up empty or tangled with algae and trash. By the third day of this, Stella starts to get frustrated and impatient, pacing the decks after they’ve docked and the rest of the crew has gone. Against the darkness of night, she questions Ellen.
“I know these aren’t the best waters you’re taking me to,” Stella says, her lip curling back in a sneer. “You’ve been wasting my time.”
“It’s hard to spot anything in the river,” Ellen replies, her voice level. “And they’ve learned to be stealthy. I’m doing my best.”
But the response isn’t enough for Stella. She’s worked up now, energy flashing through her. She sheathes and unsheathes one of her blades, making Ellen sweat. Stella notices and flashes Ellen a smirk. She comes close to Ellen, backing her up against the rails.
“I missed you,” she says, pulling Ellen into an embrace, their bodies fitting together in a way that could make Ellen weep. Stella leans her cheek against Ellen’s neck, then turns so that her lips almost touch Ellen’s skin.
Ellen lets out the tiniest of noises.
“Did you miss me?” Stella whispers. She trails one hand up Ellen’s chest to clutch at her throat, her thumb on one artery and two fingers against the vein, pressing like the point of a knife dimpling skin.
Ellen’s breath hitches.
“Yes,” she chokes out.
Stella plants a kiss against the crook between Ellen’s neck and shoulder, making Ellen’s knees go weak. Her breath is hot against the shell of Ellen’s ear when she speaks.
“Let me take you home.”
Stella hitches Ellen’s smaller boat to her own. Ellen can’t help but watch as Stella’s calloused fingers rough over the hemp rope, tying sturdy, neat knots. There’s a moment when the boats are hitched together and they’ve both straightened up when Ellen thinks, I could say no. I could tell her to stop. She respects that much.
But the rest of her says want and need, says give and crave.
Stella doesn’t do anything on the waters down to Ellen’s home except fiddle with her blades, glancing at Ellen every now and then and smiling when she sees Ellen shiver.
“I’ve never met anyone else like you,” Stella says. The river is clear as they sail downstream, nothing but mangroves and insects around them as Stella’s boat chops through the water.
“Nor have I,” Ellen says, quietly. Her skin feels electric, primed to respond. It’s been so long since she’s been caught breathless like this, thrown into a submissive head space where she can let power fall into someone else’s hands. It’s intoxicating and fills her with sensation and flighty impulses, makes her head spin with the richness of Stella’s scent and the brightness of her touch, tunnels her vision so that only things like feel andtaste and breathe remain.
They dock the boats together when they reach Ellen’s home. Ellen unlocks her door and fumbles for the light, but Stella knocks her hand away, laughing.
“You think I don’t remember everything about this place?” she says. Even in the dark, she can manhandle Ellen around her own home to her bedroom. Ellen goes soft in her hands, her words slipping from her, replaced by sensation and docility. It shocks Ellen, how quickly the change comes over her, how quickly she remembers and responds to it, even though it’s been decades since she’d last been with Stella. How much her whole being electrifies now, craving and remembering.
“Let me see them,” Stella says, her breath hot against Ellen’s skin. Ellen sits on the edge of the bed while Stella kneels, arms propped up beside her. Ellen hesitates, but only for a moment. She unzips her boots and sets them aside, then pulls down her pants and tosses those aside, too.
“They’re almost gone,” Stella says, coming closer to Ellen’s bare thighs. Her skin isn’t as youthful now, and the scars have mostly turned white, but a few browner marks remain: scales etched and woven by a blade, each as wide as a thumb, the whole lacework spanning the fronts of her thighs.
“I…” Ellen says, then takes a breath. “I miss them.”
I miss you, she wants to add, but doesn’t. Stella gives her a knowing look all the same, as if she hears the words anyway. She unsheathes her knife and presses the blade against Ellen’s skin. Ellen shudders—the blade is fine and cold, but Stella holds it so that it doesn’t break skin.
“They don’t have to be gone,” Stella says. She runs the point of the blade up Ellen’s thigh, spiraling to nip at the inner thigh. Ellen hisses, but her skin is only red with a pinch.
Ellen had never shared her wishes with anyone until she met Stella. She’d hardly been able to express them to herself, the way her body didn’t feel real, the way parts of her always felt alien and wrong. How she’d never managed to bring the blade to herself, but she knew that having the blade put against her, dragged against her skin, leaving smears of blood—that it would help, somehow, to see the scales carved into herself; that the pain of having her blood revealed to herself would bring her exhilaration and make her body quake and her heart race in ways that nothing else would.
And there had been all the times when, filled with fury and rage, her mind overwhelmed with voices, Ellen would stare into the distance, seeing only her internal vision: her skin flayed from her body, ribbon after ribbon pulled back to reveal what she was inside. She would stand still, unobservable to the outside world, her skin prickling and crawling with the need to be ripped off, with the base desire for destruction.
Only Stella had understood. She was criss-crossed with scarred sigils and seals herself, her skin readable in the dark. By whose blade, Ellen was never sure. She’d never asked.
It became ritual and release, inversions and subversions of power, a place where Ellen could be truly inside her own body with all its pain and pleasure and blood. She’d never seen it as mutilation, but sacrifice.
But the two of them were like fire and wind, each goading each other on, passion and fury, heat and explosions.
Twenty years and Ellen had tried her best to come to peace with herself, to learn her own topography and begin to see her own body as a home instead of a collection of unfitting parts, as true in itself, as a skin to inhabit and not to shed. To grieve for the places she could never go to, the doors shut long before she’d arrived.
Impulse pounds through Ellen. In the end, she’s still in the same place: facing a door and unable to read the sign. Familiar fire salts her skin, makes her want to tear everything away in her overwhelming, unarticulated grief and fury.
“Six,” Ellen says.
The blade runs quick over her. Ellen gasps as her skin pinches apart in the knife’s wake. Blood beads up big and wet. Stella’s hand is deliberate around the curves of the six scales. Ellen is alight with sensation, her body throbbing with it, exhilarated with the high. Tears well in her eyes, cathartic and hot, her body aglow in the ritual and feeling.
Stella strokes Ellen’s skin, her hair, the unbroken skin of her other thigh, and waits for Ellen’s breathing to steady.
“Let me clean you up,” Stella says. She stands and leaves the bedroom. Too late, Ellen snaps back to her senses, her head rushing with whiplash.
But Stella’s opened the bathroom door. The bed creaks as Ellen gets up, blood trickling down her skin as she dashes over, her stomach dropping as she sees Stella staring straight at Kiru.
“Well,” Stella says, her eyebrows raised as she turns back to look at Ellen. “I thought we were telling each other the whole truth.”
Ellen mumbles, trying to string together a sentence, but Stella waves her hand as she turns back to observe Kiru.
“Whatever. I don’t care about the how or the why. I care that this one got away. But, thankfully, it’s still alive.”
Words come back to Ellen as her throat opens up again.
“You can’t take her.”
Stella laughs. She squats down and looks at Kiru. Kiru sneers and spits in Stella’s face. Ellen’s eyes widen as she braces herself for a fight, but Stella calmly wipes the spit off her cheek. Kiru’s chest heaves and her nostrils flare as she stares down Stella, who turns back to Ellen and gestures at Kiru.
“And what will you do? Keep it here or in some miserable pen until it dies anyway? Might as well make the last of its days comfortable.”
Stella stands. She hooks her elbows under Kiru’s shoulders. Kiru thrashes, protesting Stella’s handling, but she runs out of energy quickly, her ribs heaving as she pants, her gills a bruised purple-red. Stella lugs Kiru out of the tub. Kiru slips and lands with a wet thud and a shout. She slides herself back, but Stella starts dragging her again by the arms and hair.
It’s uncanny, seeing Stella handle Kiru with such force. The rage on Kiru’s face is palpable as she claws back at Stella, who doesn’t flinch, and Ellen wonders if that’s what she looks like when she, too, is filled with rage. She wonders if Stella sees the resemblance, and whether it thrills or horrifies her if she does.
Ellen can’t tug Kiru back; she’d probably injure her further. She tries reasoning with Stella, then prying her grip off Kiru, but Stella is stronger than Ellen, her hands like stones. Stella drags Kiru across the dock and the foot bridge into her ship, where she unlocks a large door to the hold and throws Kiru in, doing nothing as Kiru tumbles and screams.
Stella takes the three steps down the hold. Bluish light casts up from the level below, mixing with the indigo-black of night. Ellen descends the three stairs in pursuit, but, just as she readies herself to confront Stella, she stops in her tracks.
A tank with a few lifeless mermaids, their expressions distant and listless, takes up most of the hold. But although her heart leaps to her throat upon seeing them, her gaze lingers longest on a smaller tank filled with orange masses. She flashes to Kiru’s wound and the orange dots that she saw before and pieces the memories together.
“You’re breeding them? Like animals?” Ellen says as she stares at the thousands and thousands of eggs, however many generations held in captivity.
Stella breaks her stride over to Kiru. She shakes a lock of hair out of her eyes and gives Ellen a cold smile.
“What, you want us to smoke them out of their own homes?” she says. “More reliable and humane this way, in the end.”
Kiru thrashes on the floor, the stitches along her abdomen glistening in the light. Stella heaves Kiru’s tail over her shoulder and starts dragging her toward the tank. Kiru scrabbles her nails against the floorboards as she resists. The jagged, raised edge of a loose plank catches on her and pries her open, tearing out several of her stitches. Kiru screams as her wound splits open and her blood smears across the wet floorboards.
Stella drops her grip on Kiru’s tail. Ellen’s hands ball into shaking fists as fury seizes her from head to toe. She runs over to Kiru and kneels, holding her as Kiru sobs.
“You don’t care about being ‘humane.’ You don’t care about anyone other than yourself,” she spits at Stella. She turns back to Kiru and wipes the grime, sweat, and blood from her face, doing all she can to at least give Kiru dignity if she can’t give her life. But when Kiru looks up, her eyes are dazed and unfocused, and she grimaces with pain.
“Mimbe wa,” Kiru says. Ellen’s mouth goes dry.
“What did it say?” Stella says, already squatting down and heaving up Kiru’s tail again. Her nonchalance, her continued brutal manhandling of Kiru, leads Ellen to believe that Stella asks not because she wants to know, but as a curiosity, like seeing a bird do a trick.
“She said,” Ellen says, “‘Kill me.’”
Ellen darts forward and grabs one of Stella’s knives from its sheath. She steps back before Stella can react, her arms still full with Kiru’s tail. Ellen doesn’t parse the words Stella’s shouting. She kneels by Kiru, mouths an apology to Kiru’s nod, then, in a swift movement, she cuts Kiru’s throat over Stella’s shouts. As Kiru sputters, blood flowing thick and hot, Ellen reaches a hand into the slick, gory insides of Kiru’s abdomen and finds a greenish, membrane-covered sac.
“Don’t you dare,” Stella says. She drops Kiru’s tail. But Ellen’s grip on the gallbladder is firm. She yanks it out with a slippery tear of sinew, then slashes it open with the knife and lets the bile spill over the gash in Kiru’s abdomen.
“You can’t take her,” Ellen hisses. She’s always careful to remove a fish’s gallbladder intact when she prepares a fish so that the bile won’t spoil the flesh, but, now, she counts on the bile to seep into Kiru and render her bitter and inedible.
Stella storms up to Ellen and throws her against the wall, a hand around her throat. Ellen gasps as she scrabbles against Stella, the back of her head aching from the slam.
“Useless,” Stella spits, watching as Ellen struggles for a few moments longer. She releases Ellen, who collapses, gasping, and heaves the lifeless body of the mermaid out of the hold, rolling it back into the muddy river. The mermaid floats face-up, eyes open. The river carries the body only as far as the next thicket of mangrove roots, where the body comes to a rest.
Stella takes Ellen by the wrist and hurls her down the gangway to the dock. She unhitches Ellen’s boat and tosses the line unceremoniously to Ellen, then makes her way back up to her boat. She pauses to look back at Ellen.
“You owe them no allegiance,” Stella says. “Get over your fantasies.”
She starts her boat and chokes the sky with smoke as she roars away up the river. Ellen gets in her boat, rides across the choppy wake, and propels herself over to Kiru. She pulls Kiru’s body up to the banks, where she kneels beside her and closes her eyelids.
“Mujilen be sindaki,” Ellen murmurs.
Put your heart at rest.
Ellen lets a hand fall onto Kiru’s tail. She lets her fingertips trace over the scales, lets herself observe their rapidly leaving iridescence, lets herself touch what never was. As Stella’s ship disappears over the horizon, Ellen takes the last of the gallbladder bile, and drips it into her six still-bleeding scales.
First published in Black Static #72, November/December 2019.