Coming to was like that morning after I was welcomed on board ship by Captain and the crew. Homegrown hooch with anchovies. Unstable, my stomach wanted to live outside of my body and my brain was wrapped around an anchor. The storm threw buckets at the windows of Jarl’s apartment. He had rolled towels and bed clothes at the seams to keep the seeping to a minimum. First time I had slept on a mattress in five months.
“Marin!” Jarl jumped from his little dining table and newspaper to lay his hand on my forehead.
“What happened? I was going to get water.” I blinked, the deep yellow of the kerosene lamp cathartic in a nostalgic way.
“Fell flat on your face is what you did. Just as bad as mudkip in there.” Jarl thumbed over his shoulder toward the bathroom where the creature’s fin was escaping the threshold.
“It wake up after that?” I pushed to have his hand off my head. I didn’t feel feverish. Maybe I did. An itch ran the length of my shoulder and down my sternum. Type you’d get dealing with sawdust in a wool sweater.
“Not yet. Got that tub filled to almost overflowing. Weird creature you found there, Marin. Where’d you come up with it?” Jarl left me to dig out a pair of coffee cups from his cupboard. Setting up a percolator to boil, he took down his beans and started grinding. Nervous ritual of his.
The rag on my shoulder fell off as I shifted to lean against the plaster wall. I grabbed for it before it could stain the sheets. A massive bite mark had left behind an off-coloured print on the cloth. Blue-black. I swallowed and pulled myself off the bed. The floor swayed beneath my feet as I fought my way to the bathroom to look in on our unexpected guest.
“What are you doing, idiot? Shouldn’t be up yet.” Jarl got his grounds and water put together and set the pot on the heater.
“I’ll lay back down in a minute, just checking something.” I waved him off. “Stephan Goodman’s house came down off the cliff. Know how I had that shack up on the face? Yeah, came down with me in it. Anyway, I wake up in a giant mud wallor and around a corner of rock I see this massive tail and heard this screech. Bad as when Omah’d cry about her calves when they’d be stillborn. Cliff came down a second time and figured it was time to skat.” I approached the creature, finally giving it a good once over. The fireworks had stopped, leaving it a pale grey colour dusted in dark red speckles of varying sizes. Poking it with a stick was an option.
It had sunk deeper into the tub, its head resting on the rim. I had taken the humanoid form for grant it, a massive swath of navy blue almost green hair swirled around it in a cascade, drifting in the water and across the body. Hands wrapped around its stomach. It looked like my little brother when he’d fall asleep curled up in mom’s arms. “It has ears, weird ears, but something like ears, Jarl,” I called back.
Papers rustled from the other room. “You just now noticed? Flip them a bit; there are gills behind them.”
The thing’s ears were larger than mine or Jarl’s by a long stretch. Rather pretty to be honest. A bit of a see-through grey, they were at least the size of my hand with little outbursts of spines, similar to the thin skin on fish fins. Like Jarl said, pulling the one I could get to up, there were deep red gills. The things I was calling ears didn’t have a canal though, like human ears. The gills ruffled at the disturbance, and the thing’s chest cavity enlarged. At least it was still breathing.
“Why would it need a nose?” I pointed out the protrusion so reminiscent of our own.
“To smell things?” Jarl’s papers flipped again. The pot was pinging from the other room.
“I thought that’s what the gills were for.” I traced what I could only qualify as a nose. The profile reminded me a bit of Gideon. The nostrils flared at my touch, opening and closing like some of the sharks I’d seen come up in our nets. I snatched my hand from the water, not keen on getting chomped.
“You look at its teeth?” I called over my shoulder.
“Looks like ours, just a might bit sharper.” Jarl’s chair slid back as a clap of thunder shook the building.
“Figured out what it is?” I asked, poking at the cheek. It was bony, not cartilaginous. Not sure what I was expecting there, but the skin was soft rather than the more scale-like feeling down its tail.
“There’s some fairy tale from a guy named Anson or Parkerson or something about some seafoam beast. Might be one of those?” He shuffled through his papers again.
“A mermaid? Seriously? Where’s the…the…you know?” I asked, bringing my hands up to my chest in emphasis, before realizing that was stupid and Jarl couldn’t see me anyways. I rubbed my hands on my trousers and stood up, slipping on the sopping-wet floor. A hand caught my wrist, keeping me from impaling myself on the chunk of wood still in the plasterboard near the basin mirror. Could it have let me impale myself? I could have dealt with death better rather than face it, I think. I swallowed, following the hand back to the creature in the tub.
Double eyelids. And they blinked in two different directions. I had brought a monster into my brother’s apartment. That realization wrapped around me like a wet flannel blanket. I was not going to scream. I did, however, squeak like a trapped rat. The pupils were massive as they travelled across my shoulders and back to my face. A sound emanated from it. Haunting, something like a smoothed-out note from a trumpet on the other side of the hills back home. If there was such a thing as heartstrings, it was playing mine like a well-tuned banjo. That was damn well uncomfortable and it made my skin prickle.
“The what?” Jarl asked, getting up to take the percolator off.
“Um, the maid part of the whole mermaid bit?” I gulped as it pulled me closer, the slash of its lips moving. Was Jarl not hearing the sound it was making? Not sure how it harmonized three pitches at once, but it ranged the baritone, bass, and tenor melody enough to overwhelm my senses.
“Maid part? What maid part? It’s a fish, not a housekeep.” Jarl’s tone was slashing on my nerves. Ceramic grated, and the sound of coffee pouring into the mugs slithered down my shoulders.
“Woman bits. Where’s the top?” I continued, both curious and petrified as it pulled me back toward the edge of the tub and touched the tender spot below the bite mark, its eyes flicking back to mine as it continued making noises. It was talking. It had to be. No, that was ridiculous. Dogs could do the concerned look too. Just because it looked humanish, didn’t mean it could have the same intelligence. Right?
It tugged gently. Don’t ask. I got in the tub. I was not keen on getting bit again, but it was either get in the tub or have the enamel-coated cast iron jam into the lower section of my thigh right above my knee, and no thanks, that hurts. The thing took up the whole space. That weird fixation with getting into a single tub with a woman that I heard whispered behind barn doors. That’s a sick joke. My kneecap rolled, and my other leg got pinned. Not comfortable, and this was the worst part of sitting on a horse walking in a flooded gorge wither high.
“Woman bits? Really? What are you, twelve? Have some class.” Jarl tugged his chair back out, wood on wood screeching. He set the mugs down with a clunk. “Fifteen and it should be drinkable. Probably should stop staring at it. Most likely won’t be happy with you if it wakes up.”
Wakes up? It was already awake and conducting an inspection of my shoulder in a close contact way I wasn’t sure how to handle.
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