“Marin?” Jarl popped in, scaring the hell out of me and making the creature in the tub hiss. “Oh, it can make noise, neat. Are you having coffee or am I drinking your share?”
“I’m sort of stuck in your bathtub with a mermaid, Jarl. And it has hold of my shoulder. It could put the smith’s fist to shame, which is scaring the hell out of me. What do you think?” I demanded.
“I’m drinking your coffee then. Get out sometime tonight. Don’t need to repeat bath night like back home, kid. We could never get you out of the thing.” Jarl turned back to his room.
“What do you mean ‘all night’? I didn’t stay in it all night. I got out when the fire ran low,” I justified.
“You realize that the rest of us had a separate bath night because you wouldn’t get out of the tub, right, mouse turd?” Jarl dumped coffee from one container into another. Probably my coffee into his mug.
“It was nice. I’m not sure about sharing it with a slither-man thing. This isn’t like those fairy-tales, Jarl. I thought they were supposed to be, you know, like pretty ethereal women or something?”
“Pretty women, dog breath? Really? You’re horrible at this act.” Jarl blew on his coffee. The creature holding onto me was still carrying on its melody and tracing patterns around the bite mark and the bruise on my other shoulder. This was not a conversation I needed to be having with my brother. Wait.
“What do you mean by act?” I demanded. Probably a bit too loudly.
“You. Guys. You and that kid back during school. It was as obvious as when we’d bring a bull in for Omah.” Jarl’s cup made that grating sound on the wood again.
“Nope. Not having this conversation right -” The creatures prodding digits found my rising memories of Gideon. “What the? No, don’t touch that!” I demanded, pushed its fingers away from me, and tried to get out of the tub.
“Touch what?” Jarl returned to the bathroom doorframe as I slid out of the tub and ended up upside down with my butt in the air.
“Nothing. Not the conversation, and not whatever curiosity that seamonkey has going for it. I’d rather go sleep in the storm!” I dragged myself out of the nest of its coiled tail and tripped out of the bathroom.
“Deny it all you want, idiot. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.” He handed me the half-filled cup of coffee in his hands. “Cooled it down for you, twinkle toes.”
I snatched the cup and downed the slog of brown burnt bean water. “I’d like my dignity back, thanks.”
“You were the one just sitting in a tub with a merman.” He raised an amused eyebrow.
“Mer -” I swivelled from the rain running down the windows in rivers back to the tiled bathroom where the distance was enough for my conscious to not be swamped by the sheer size of the creature, but instead to see its anatomical lines and the bulge against a segmentation of the tail not fitting within the tub. That, and the fact the thing had started flashing a myriad of reds and oranges as it tried to fold itself over to reach that section and cover it. “Man?” I quipped indignantly.
“Not like having it all hang out would make for good evolution. Would not be ideal to have it chomped by a curious fish looking for a worm.”
I lunged into the apartment, found a hand towel in the kitchen, and tossed it through the door at the creature. It – he stared at the material for a moment, the whirling colours flashing in blues and greens before it shook the material out and settled it on the area all three of us were now immodestly fixated on. “Fish. It is a fish, Jarl.”
“Now. About you and Gabriel.” Jarl returned to the topic I did not want to play party too.
“Let’s not talk Gideon,” I requested.
“Wanna talk why the thing in the tub has the same problem you have?” he cornered me.
“Mom said it was a disfigurement from birth and there’s nothing wrong with me!” I hissed.
“Yeah, and Anna and Victor and I never bled blue.” Jarl handed me back the rag I had dropped when I had gone into the bathroom.
“Mom said that was because people are just different.” Heat rose in my face. I hated being different. “She said it was a Gentile thing and why I should avoid dating within the village. Better to avoid the matchmaker.”
“However deep in the Nile do you swim, boy? You’re in your twenties, think! That’s not a Gentile or a Jew thing. That’s a you’re part whatever that thing is thing” Jarl laughed, startling the creature into a series of clicked notes.
“Clearly not deep enough.” I did not like being stuffed into a bell jar. “I am not a mer-mer-merman. Not that thing! I don’t have webbed hands or feet, see.” I wiggled my fingers in my brother’s face.
“You never needed lessons at the watering hole. Anna and Victor had to be reminded almost every summer for years how to not drown themselves.”
“Anyone can get better at swimming if they just remember to float!”
“It’s not natural to everyone, fish fry.”
“You’re not going to turn me into a sideshow attraction, are you?” I growled.
“You’re far less interesting than mudkip here,” he deflected.
I regarded his ponderment of the merperson in his bathroom. The creature was still making the murmured song notes, flicking attention between my brother and me. “Do you not hear him doing that?” I asked.
Jarl frowned, staring off into the middle of nowhere before rolling his shoulder. “No? You hit your head?”
“I swear, the thing is singing.”
“He’s not a thing. He’s a merman, toadstool.”
“It’s a singing fish, and I am in no way related to that thing just because my junk doesn’t look like yours or Victors.”
“Trust me. It doesn’t look like anyone else’s either, kid.” Jarl sipped at his coffee.
“Like you’ve seen more than me to know.” I pulled over one of the kitchen table chairs to the doorframe and scootched the merman’s tail out of the way. Checking the bandaging, I adjusted the tightness around the swelling, relieving pressure. Jarl slid a glance my way before sliding it back to the merman watching us. “No. You’re not! You’ve had a woman up here before. I’ve seen her!”
“And you keep claiming you also like women.” Jarl returned.
“I’m not sure how I feel knowing you aren’t a virgin,” I lamented.
“I’m not sure how I feel knowing that you are.” He went and grabbed his own chair and pulled it up to the table.
“I never said I was,” I bluffed.
“Please, duck weed, by all means, explain, with that structure of yours, how that works?” Jarl leaned back, crossed his ankles, and tucked his arms behind his head to regard me in a superior way.
Heat blossomed up my face and across my ears as I struggled to not stutter. It was different from my brothers. Dad never talked about it. Not like we covered how any of this was supposed to work in school and my folks were fairly mum on the topic. All I know is Jarl and Victor’s hung outside of their bodies, penis and testies both. Mine was more like the other livestock on the farm. Withdrawn within my body, running up the lower abdominal muscles. Livestock, well the bulls and rams we kept for breeding at least kept their balls and those hung low enough to be obvious. I looked more like I got stuck on the wrong end of a castrating knife. Prodding, I could pinpoint long ovals running on either side of my personal shame. Outhouses and chamber pots were a source of eternal frustration that I had, over many years, figured out how to navigate.
Painful tears rimmed my eyes as I fought past the muteness wrangling my communication. I ducked at the luck, wrapping my hands over my stomach protectively. Turning back to our bathroom guest, I watched the myriad colours swirling across its skin as it continued musical notes. It held out one of the kindling sticks to me and made a sound. Several times he pointed at it and repeated the sound.
“Stick. It’s a stick.” I enunciated flatly.
“Sk,” he mimicked back.
“Stick,” I tried again numbly.
“Sk. Sk. Ssskkk.” He was growing frustrated at his inability to enunciate the ti sound. He ducked below the surface of the tub, sending water sloshing out and tried again. “Steek.” It attempted again, searching my face and then Jarl’s. I shrugged and nodded.
“I’m sorry, Marin. That – that wasn’t nice of me,” Jarl apologized.
“You had to bring it up. Do you know how hard it’s been growing up with this not being right? You got to be normal, apparently. You just had the one weird disfigured brother and the normal brother. I had two brothers that didn’t look like me and I didn’t know what to do with this thing. I can’t fix it. What more do you want from me?” My voice cracked. The merman in the tub elicited a series of curious notes. “You’re not helping, shark bait.”
Jarl pushed back his chair from the merman’s caudal fin and went to pace his apartment. Silence, awkward and damp, crept into the space, the only sound that of the merman’s gills flipping back and forth at the water tension and the constant melody that Jarl couldn’t hear. Time stretched on as the storm slammed the boarding house.
“Do other guys really not have this problem? Was what Mom said, about it being a Gentile thing, a lie?” I looked up in time for him to slip a mandolin and buffalo horn pick into my hands. The smooth texture of the lacquer pulled my heated anxiety from my fingers. I caressed the neck, running the frets below the double strings while I waited for him to answer me.
“Mom lied, Marin. She didn’t want you feeling hurt, because at the end of the day, you were still brilliant, talented, and going to go farther than the rest of us ever would. Between pissing in a bucket and being able to draw like Michelangelo and play like Bach, she thought to encourage you in what actually mattered. Your brain. What you’ve got, it’s not a Chinese thing, or an African thing, or a Jewish thing, or an Austro-Hungarian thing. Been around a bit since we got here.” He sipped at his coffee as he finally turned a shade of red. “I guess mom and dad aren’t from Austro-Hungary anymore huh? It changed recently to some new providence thing. I wish dad had taught us the language.” Jarl sighed in frustration.
“We were all born here. He wanted us to be American. To live the American dream. Whatever that is now.” I plucked a pair of strings and tightened the lugs to tune. The merman perked up, his colours going vibrant rainbows up and down his sides. “So, he never spoke it around us. He didn’t want us to be discriminated against after The Great War.”
“Could he have given me a common name?” Jarl bemoaned.
“I guess we all got saddled with something we didn’t want?” I goaded.
“The number of jobs I’ve been refused without even getting a chance to say more past my name,” he groaned, exasperated.
“I’m not dad’s son then, am I?” The realization was a cruel brick to the skull and I plucked a clear C. Jarl went silent at the question, his eyes going round. He stared fixedly at one of the tiles below the merman’s tail before looking up at its shifting. The creature’s fingers clung to the side of the tub, his wide grey eyes watching over knuckles while the rest of him was tucked below the water surface. “He seems keen on the music at least,” I pointed out the obvious.
“Try another note,” Jarl encouraged. I plucked a couple of notes up the scale and down and the colours on his skin changed with the vibration. It returned a couple of the notes, what I could only think of as a question.
“I know your mom’s son. I was there when you were born. Grant it, I was 5 and my memory of you fresh is pretty fuzzy. But you’ve been with the family since you were born. Dad always loved you, the way dad knew how to show. If you weren’t his son, and he knew, I don’t think he ever cared,” my brother offered.
I shifted at that knowledge. It was neither reassuring nor devastating. “Do you think they brought us here because mom knew? They knew I wouldn’t be able to find my own way and left you to babysit me?”
“Mom did say she always enjoyed visiting this beach. They never went back after you were born, but before that, I remember going to our neighbour Nana’s once when they took time for themselves to travel by train out to here.” He poured himself another cup of coffee and returned to lean against the doorframe while I mimicked the melody the merman was giving me. “What are you playing? It’s pretty, but it’s not consistent.”
“He’s making the noises. I’m just playing what I’m hearing,” I continued to pluck away at the strings, watching the creature’s colours continue to radiate across him.
“I’m still not hearing what you’re hearing. Wonder if you’ve got an organ in your head that can pick it up.”
The merman picked up the stick. “Skk.” It pronounced outside of the water and then hummed a series of low notes. I thought for a minute before turning to Jarl.
He raised an eyebrow at the question on my face. “What’d it say?” he asked.
“My guitar still here?” I asked.
“It’s under the bed. Probably way out of tune. You play your mandolin more often when you come over.” He went and rooted out the battered instrument and returned. I took it and switched him the mandolin. He set it on a side table outside the door to keep it from getting wet while I tuned the strings. The merman stared at my fingers. The rotating rose pink and lime green I pinpointed as his curious mood. Once my guitar was back to tune, I pointed at the stick in the merman’s hand and asked, “stick?” and waved my hand for the tune again.
“Skk,” followed by a set of low G and E flats. I corresponded, and the creature’s eyes went wider, the greens in its skin going large before it snuffed at the water, blowing bubbles and made the set of notes again.
“I think he just laughed at you,” Jarl pointed out.
“It doesn’t help that he’s harmonizing with himself, and I can’t span that full tone with one hand.” I quipped, trying to add a slide on a chord instead of individual plucked notes this time.
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