By Amanda Downum, illustration by Matt Hughes
6 February 2006
Wind keened out of the north as they hauled in the last catch, whipping white froth on wave caps and whistling past the rigging. The sky was green, air tangy with the coming storm; verdigris waves slip-slapped against the Calliope's hull. The winch groaned, reeling in heavy nets.
Not heavy enough, Jess thought, as the net slopped against the deck, spraying water and scales. A quarter of what his father had caught on a good day. The off season would be lean. He glanced away with a frown, rubbing his hands together against the bite of the wind.
"Jesus!" Colin hissed.
Jess turned back to the net, followed his mate's wide-eyed stare. A pale line amid the glistening-dark mass of cod. He took a step closer.
Smooth flesh, marbled blue-green. The curve of a thigh, the angle of a knee. A woman's leg.
"Christ," Jess seconded, crouching beside the net. He knotted a fist in wet nylon and tugged. Writhing fish slid away from a face smooth as ivory. Dark tendrils of hair clung to her cheeks, tangled with net and fins. Stormlight lent an unreal cast to her skin.
He reached out one scarred hand—
And she stirred, opening wide green eyes. Jess's heart jerked, and he nearly lost his balance.
She hissed, baring a mouthful of needle teeth, and he fell hard on his ass on the wet deck, boots slipping as he scrambled back. Colin cursed and jumped away.
Jess could only stare, his tongue gone numb. The woman stared back, eyes huge, pupils crescent-shaped. She pressed a hand against the net, splaying clawed, webbed fingers.
"Mother of God," Colin muttered, moving behind Jess. He crossed himself, then reached for the knife at his belt. The woman hissed again.
"Put that away," Jess said. He found his balance, crawled closer. The deck pitched—the storm was coming. He showed her his open hands, careful as he might with any wild animal. The net had scraped her arms raw and the abrasions wept watery blood.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he murmured, reaching for his own knife. Her eyes flickered, but she didn't move. Nylon parted under the blade; there'd be hours of mending later. Fish slithered through the gaps, slapping his hands and boots. When the hole was big enough, he stepped away to give her room.
Her eyes flitted from Jess to Colin and back again as she slipped out of the net, landing on her hands and knees amid flopping cod. No mermaid tail, just lean-muscled legs and wide webbed feet. Her hair clung like sea wrack, scales glittering amid its tangled dark length. Something gleamed yellow in her left hand.
She tried to stand, but her feet tripped her up and her legs gave way. Jess sheathed his knife and knelt beside her. "Are you hurt? Do you need anything?"
It took a second to recognize the low sound she made as laughter. "I need the sea." Her voice was rough, sibilant; the sound made Jess shiver.
"Don't we all?" The calm of his voice surprised him a little, like he cut mermaids out of trawl nets every day. He slipped one arm under her shoulders, the other under her knees, and lifted. He nearly expected her to be spun sugar and fairy wings, but she was real and solid as any woman. He grunted a little as he stood, and she caught his shoulder.
"We'd get more for her than for any load of fish," Colin said. His face was pale, sickly in the dimming light, and he still clutched the hilt of his knife.
The woman stiffened. Jess just stared at the other man until Colin flushed and looked aside.
He carried her to the rail, moving carefully on the tilting deck. The sea roiled, whitecaps rocking the ship, scattering spray against his face. The sky to the northeast was nearly black. Jess paused, hip propped against the rail, and stared at the fairy-tale creature in his arms. "Do you grant wishes?" he asked softly.
She smiled, a pretty, close-lipped smile. Her face was a pale diamond amid coils of hair. One wet hand brushed his cheek. "Sometimes."
And she rolled out of his arms and vanished into the waves.
His hand closed around something cold and hard. Gold winked between his fingers, a glittering chain, dark flecks of seaweed caught in the links. Jess studied it for a moment, then tucked it inside his coat and steered his ship back to Galilee.
The storm that chased them back to shore lasted two days, keeping boats in the harbor and Jess in his house. More time than he'd spent there in a while; strange to stand so long on solid ground, to lie in a bed without the sea to sway him to sleep.
He lay in the dark as rain lashed the windows and ran the golden chain through his fingers like a rosary. The links didn't warm to his flesh, but stayed cold as the wind outside. His father's stories about sea monsters in the Atlantic no longer seemed quite so outrageous.
He fell asleep to stormsong and dreamed of mermaids.
Jess worried that Colin would go to the papers, despite their agreement not to. Colin went to church instead. A week later he came to collect the last of his pay and told Jess he'd found a job in Providence. They parted amiable enough, but the boy wouldn't meet his eyes as they shook hands in farewell.
He knew he should find a new mate, but he delayed. He took the Calliope out alone, but haddock and tuna were only an excuse.
For weeks he found nothing but fish, and not many of them. His father had suffered under harsh regulations and empty seas, and things hadn't gotten better since Jess inherited the ship.
The sea had always been hard, but at least it had given him one moment of magic.
She came back one evening as the sun melted like butter behind the coast. Jess leaned against the rail, nets long since pulled in, and stared at the waves rippling gold and marmalade around him.
He didn't startle as she surfaced along the starboard bow, but his heart beat faster. She floated there for a long moment, hair streaming like ink around her. Dying light gilded her face and the curve of her breasts.
"What are you looking for, fisherman?" she finally asked. Her voice was rough, unused.
He pulled the chain out of his pocket; it gleamed like sunlight against his callused palm. "You left this behind." His voice wasn't any smoother, scoured by wind and salt.
She glided closer. "It's yours. For your . . . chivalry." She smiled—a lovely smile, when he wasn't close enough to see her teeth. "And I hardly deserve it, since I was foolish enough to get caught in your net in the first place."
He ran a hand through salt-stiff curls and tried not to think about the impossibility of this conversation. His tongue felt thick and clumsy and he feared she'd vanish if he spoke again.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Jesse Finn. Jess."
She watched him for a silent moment. "You can call me Morgan."
"Will I see you again?"
"Do you want to?"
His stomach twisted as he remembered her weight in his arms. Maybe this was what seasickness felt like. "I do."
She slid closer to the hull, until he could see the green depths of her eyes. "Don't be so quick to answer, Jesse Finn. I'm of the sea. I'm always hungry. Whatever you give me, I'll take, and then more."
He swallowed hard. "I'm not afraid of the sea."
She sighed. "You should be." And then she was gone, not even a ripple to mark her passage.
Two weeks later he took the Calliope out late, past the shallower waters where he fished for cod and haddock and hake. He dropped anchor and sat on the deck, watching the stars flicker to life. The wind blew light and sweet against his face, and for a few hours he didn't worry about money, or the next catch.
She pulled herself over the rail, skin blazing white, hair a midnight river. A cold, wild thing made of salt and starlight. Jess couldn't move, could barely breathe. Then she took a halting, uncertain step forward and he rose to meet her.
Her skin was so soft he feared to touch her, but she pushed him down, surging and cresting in his arms, strong as the sea itself. Her teeth scathed both their mouths, and he tasted her blood and his—iron and copper and salt sweetness. The cold deck bruised his back, and salt water burned his eyes, but he didn't care. He drowned in her.
Afterward she lay beside him, warm and gentle. Splinters and stray scales poked him, but he ignored them. The stars wheeled overhead as they lay together, skin to sticky skin.
"I can't stay with you," she said at last, barely audible over the soft susurrus of the waves.
He ran a hand over her hairless arm, tracing the snake-soft pattern of scales. "I know." The thought of her on dry land, in his tidy little house, was obscene.
"You can't stay with me, either."
His hand paused, then continued its caress. "Why not? This is my home too."
"This, maybe—"her gesture took in the Calliope's deck, the rigging over their heads"—but not the rest. I can't give you breath with a kiss and take you to my palace below the sea."
He smiled, face half-buried in the seaweed tangle of her hair. "Do you have one? A palace?"
Cool fingers traced the curve of his lips. Salt stung the claw-wounds on his back. "My father does. It's not a place you'd care to visit."
He might have spoken, but she kissed him again, soft and sweet, and stole his voice away.
Three nights he sailed out and met her under the stars. Each time she told him not to stay, each time she was gone in the morning.
On the fourth night her face was grim, and she held back from his embrace.
"I can't meet you anymore." Her voice was cold, but she wouldn't meet his eyes. "My father is unhappy." She glanced toward the choppy black water. "He is . . . jealous."
"I don't care."
"You will." The ice cracked and she reached out to cup his cheek in one webbed hand. "Please, Jess. You knew how this would end."
He did know. There had been no other way. He should simply be grateful for the little time he was given. The thought was bitter.
"Stay close to the shore," she continued. "Catch your fish. Don't look for me again." She stepped into his arms, clumsy on flippered feet. "Let your nets down tonight, and I'll grant you a wish."
"Grant me two." He tilted her face up to his, and she let him.
When he hauled in his nets the next morning, they were heavy with fish and rotting wood and cloth. The fabric split under his touch, and yellow gold gleamed in the light.
For two weeks he did as Morgan had asked, trawling close to the shore and keeping his eyes away from the broad expanse of the Atlantic. The shipwreck treasure was enough that he didn't need to fish again for a long time, but he couldn't keep himself busy on land. He slept on the ship, but even the rhythm of the sea couldn't quell his restless longing dreams.
In the third week his resolve broke, and he turned the Calliope toward open water.
The storm thundered from the north with barely a gust of warning, turning the sky black as a bruise, and churning the waves to deadly walls of water. It tossed the ship like a toy, tossed it and cracked it and swallowed it down. Before darkness took him, Jess thought he heard Morgan's voice.
He woke battered and half-drowned on the beach, arms locked rigid around a life preserver. The Calliope's wreckage lay scattered around him on the rocky shore.
When his legs worked again and he stopped vomiting seawater, he staggered home. Home—that little house trapped on a rock. The only home he had, now. That night he cried for the first time in years, salt leaking from his eyes to stain the pillow.
But he had his treasure, and he didn't starve. Not for food, at least. At night he stood on the cliff and watched the moon rise like yellow silver. He listened for a voice among the hissing waves, but it never came.
Three months after the storm, he met Jaime.
She tended bar in a little pub by the docks. Her hair was the color of pirate's gold, her eyes deep and rich as loam. When she smiled at him he could almost forget the sea.
For months she talked and smiled, touched him with freckled, work-callused hands. Then one night she took him home, and followed him inside, and he let her.
His heart broke the first time they made love, but afterward he fell asleep on her soft shoulder and for once he didn't dream. Steady as stone beneath the softness, and she gave as much as she took.
Weeks rolled into more months and Jaime stayed. She filled the house with laughter and the scent of her skin. When he came home at night after walking the cliffs she didn't ask questions, just held him warm and safe. Eventually Jess stopped listening to the call of the waves.
If he couldn't tell her everything, at least he could talk to her about how the loss of the Calliope ached inside him, how he'd inherited the ship from his father and always meant to pass it on to his own children.
"I can't have children." Her dark eyes were sad. "Does that—"
"It doesn't matter," he said, pulling her close, letting the peppery sunflower scent of her hair fill his nose.
They were married in a little church on the coast, six months after they met. Just maybe, Jess thought, looking into his wife's warm eyes, he could have a life without the sea.
That night a storm howled down, screaming and sobbing and tearing at the house. Jess sat in the dark long after Jaime slept, bitter tears tracking his cheeks. Finally he walked out into the raging night, tasted the salt-sweet rain.
"You knew how this would end," he whispered.
The storm stole his words and carried them away.
A month after their wedding, Jess and Jaime woke in the night to a high frightened wail coming from the front of the house.
Jaime only had eyes for the wriggling, squalling infant on the porch. She scooped the child up, rocking it against her breast and crooning until its crying stilled. Only Jess saw the wide, bloody footprints leading toward the cliff.
A girl, pale and pink, with a crown of wispy curls as red as Jess's hair had been before the wind scoured him dull and rough. Her blue eyes were very wide, the webbing between her tiny fingers thicker than it might have been, but she seemed a healthy human child.
Jaime cradled the baby as if she'd never let go, her eyes liquid. She turned those knowing eyes on Jess and his heart splintered a little more.
"Call her Morgan," he said, voice rough.
He still dreamed of the sea, when he wasn't up all night helping with the baby. She laughed at thunderstorms, reaching out for the window with chubby hands as if she could catch the lightning. Jaime loved her, and glowed as proud as any mother; Jess knew how lucky he was.
But he didn't feel lucky, no matter that he loved his wife and daughter. The little house was tidy and cozy and warm, but it wasn't his home, however hard he tried to make it.
He began to walk the cliffs again, but she didn't return. He couldn't lie to himself anymore as he stared at the wild grey sea. His hands were too soft lately, with no nets to mend. He still wore the gold chain round his neck; its links never warmed.
One morning he woke early and stood on the cliff watching the sun rise in a blaze of carnelian fire. A storm tonight.
He spent the morning with Jaime and little Morgan. He ran Jaime's golden hair through his fingers and kissed her so often that she looked at him oddly and asked if he was feeling all right. He only kissed her again. He caught a hint of sadness in her answering smile.
He gave the chain to his daughter, who cooed and gummed the cold metal happily.
That afternoon, as the sky darkened to tarnished pewter and the wind blew cold and wild along the shore, he went down to the docks and rented a little stern drive. It looked like a child's toy, so tiny, all shiny white fiberglass. The owner cautioned him about the weather, but took his money happily enough.
Waves slapped a warning against the flimsy hull, tossed the little boat until even Jess was hard-pressed to stay on his feet. But he kept going, away from Galilee, toward the wild verdigris water.
He shrugged off his wet coat, let the wind slice ice-razors through his flesh. His hands and feet numbed, but sea spray felt warm as wine against his lips.
She came to him on the worsening storm, breaking free of the surging waves. Her hair streamed in the surf, twining around her white arms as she pulled herself onto the deck.
"Go home, fisherman." The wind whipped at her words, tried to drown their voices.
"I am home," he called. He caught her and held her close.
"Go back to your stone and sand, go back to your mortal wife. Go back to our daughter."
"Our daughter is safe. She'll be loved, happy."
She shook her head. Salt water streamed down her face, though her wide, inhuman eyes couldn't cry. "I can never be all yours, Jesse, even if I wanted to be."
"But I'm yours, and I don't want to be anything else."
A wave smashed over the prow, knocking them into the wall of the cabin.
"Turn around," she begged. "I'll keep the storm at bay till you reach the harbor."
Water blinded him, filled his mouth, but he clung to her, the only harbor he'd ever need. He knew how fairy tales really ended.
The deck tilted and shook, tossed them off. For a heartbeat he was flying, falling free. Then the water closed over him, frigid and hungry. Morgan was there, arms and witchwrack hair wrapped around him, holding him fast. Her mouth closed over his, stole his breath.
He drowned in her.
She took him home.