Congratulations on the acquisition of your new mermaid wife! To ensure that you and your mermaid bond successfully, these first few weeks will be crucial. Remember she traveled a great distance to be with you, so have a little patience as you adjust to her strange ways.
We sing no song to draw them near.
They find us anyway.
In the ocean depths, where the water is blacker than squid ink, we’ve never seen nets, so we don’t know how to hide from them. We don’t know how to hide from men either.
They yank us from the water in their burlap spider webs, and they clamp rusted manacles on our wrists. They would probably cuff our fins too, if only they possessed shackles wide enough.
Most of us are pulled from our home without incident, but no makeshift prison will stop my sister Galene. With eyes phosphorescent bright, she rips through the net and gnashes her teeth at the nearest brawny arm. She comes away, lips dripping red. Among the men, there is torn flesh and salt and panic, and they shout and flail, their voices gruff and hands calloused and cruel. They aren’t expecting resistance. Men never expect resistance.
When at last they pry my sister off their compatriot, they each strike her face before tossing us both into the hull. Galene wraps her hand around mine and tethers us together as we plummet into the darkness.
“Hold on, Eleniora,” she whispers to me, and I obey.
A thousand other mermaids are already stuffed inside the ship, sprawled atop one another like grains of sand in an open palm. Our skins gray out of water, and the brackish air burns our lungs. We can breathe away from the ocean, though barely, and this place does not make it easy. The stench of rotting fish, both from cod and herring hauls past and from the withering mermaids who didn’t survive the fall, permeates the cavernous sepulcher.
Outside, the ocean rushes past us. We’re leaving it behind, but it feels as though it’s the other way around. We howl a collective cry as mournful as a dying whale’s, but the men do not relent. Perhaps they do not hear us. Perhaps they do not care.
Our own men, if you can call them men at all, do not follow. We never learn what becomes of them. Our abductors might have turned them to chum and fed the blood and brine back to the fishes. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe our men make a trade. Their lives for ours. Maybe we’re not worth the fight.
Galene grunts and beats her knotted fists against every wall. “Men,” she says, “must be the same all over.”
I close my eyes and steady the wheeze in my chest. I’m not like my sister. I won’t fight. If these men want to steal us from the sea, I will not argue. Besides, there are far too many to fight.
I will accept this, no matter where they take us.
Good hygiene is key for your new mermaid wife. Scrub the salt from her skin, and rinse the seaweed from her hair. Soon, she’ll gleam under your proper care.
At a crowded harbor, the men dump us off like common cargo, selling us to pasty-faced researchers who grip clipboards and scribble endlessly about our “odd” behavior.
They condemn us to small, square rooms with one-way glass. There are twenty mermaids to each six-by-six space, and the only thing that makes it bearable is that Galene is here with me. I bury my face against her chest, and she coos to me in a language of our own.
“It will be okay,” she says. “I’ll get us out of here.”
This should be the worst of it, being watched and cataloged, but in this facility where the air is squalid and dry, we must adapt or perish, and somehow, our bodies know that, the same bodies that soon betray us. Days after our arrival, we sense the change stirring beneath our skins. We try to focus, try to remain as we’ve always been, but it does us no good. Our scales slough off, and our fins split in two.
“Interesting,” the researchers say without inflection, and make another note.
But these legs, neophyte as they are, give us an advantage. In the evening, when most of the researchers have gone home and security is lax, a few mermaids dismantle their shackles and escape. Galene wants to flee with them, but my knees are too weak to run.
“Please,” I say. “Don’t go.”
She lurches forward, perhaps ready to leave without me, but I grip her arm and part my lips to wail—a wail she knows will condemn us all—so she grits her teeth and stays behind with me.
The escaped mermaids don’t make it far. Officials have cordoned off all the nearby beaches. The saltwater and sand call to us, and if we could only get close enough, we’ll wade home. And they can’t allow that.
“Let this be a lesson,” the researchers say, as the shrouded bodies of our battered kin are wheeled to the labs for dissection.
We don’t argue as each day, beneath fluorescent lights, the researchers prod us with scalpels and needles. They measure our arms, our legs, our breasts. They sell dozens of us to science labs in DC and New Jersey. I’ve never been to those places, but they must be terrible, because those mermaids never return, unless you count hearts sent back in labeled jars as a round-trip.
At the researchers’ behest, we learn their language. They never bother to learn ours.
“That’s okay,” Galene says, as she cradles me softly at night. “Our words are for us alone.”
After weeks of examinations, and with the costs of our meals and care enough to bankrupt the facility, the researchers assemble us, their faces long and gaunt.
“We can’t keep all of you,” they say, as though we’re an unwanted litter of puppies.
They tell us they must rid themselves of their extraneous inventory. If we’re such trouble, I want to ask why they don’t return us to the ocean where we belong. But we’re their treasures, beautiful and gleaming, like sentient pearls, and no buccaneer ever relinquishes his found fortune back to the seafloor.
The researchers line us up against a blank wall and snap our photographs. They don’t think we notice how they laugh and whisper about us as if they’re concocting a most splendid scheme. How could we notice, us silly mermaids? They regard us as nothing creatures, as mindless and bland as barnacles.
“Smile, girls,” they say, and though Galene swats at the photographer and draws blood, I obey their command.
I smile. I will be a good mermaid. I will be what they want.
At first, others might find it difficult to imagine you with a mermaid wife. It might be difficult for you to imagine as well. After all, her strident keen is indeed grating, if not outright dangerous for delicate ears. However, once you overlook her voice and her legs, as gawky as a newborn fawn’s, and the way the ocean has yellowed the whites of her eyes, it will become clear she is a most acceptable partner.
We learn over a breakfast of pale, half-rotten shrimp what the researchers are planning.
“They’re auctioning us off to the highest bidders. Anyone can buy and marry us,” Galene says, and bites a passing orderly’s arm for good measure.
Her hurricane nature should be enough to keep her safe from the selection pool, but with skin the color of moonstone and hair as feral and free as a reef, she’s stunning, and within days, she’s the first to be chosen. When her husband-to-be arrives, I cling to her and wail, loud as I can muster through the wild current of my tears. The one-way glass shatters beneath the weight of my sorrow, and my otherworldly aria buckles the knees of every attendant in earshot, but it’s not enough. This man in a pressed gray suit with a black credit card in his wallet steals my sister from me.
“Eleniora,” Galene cries the whole length of the hallway, and even once she’s gone, the echo of her voice remains, chilling and comforting me down to my marrow.
I curl alone in our empty room, weeping how I should have let her flee with the others. She wouldn’t have made it far, but at least she might have tasted the brine of freedom before they cut her down.
My husband comes next. He selects me from a bundle of pictures online. A tall, well-muscled man, he brings a pixelated printout of my avatar as if to compare the JPEG facsimile with the real thing. He must be pleased, because halfway through our lunch in the cafeteria—him gobbling down an overflowing tray of creamed chicken, and me inspecting an untouched square of green gelatin, selected for its seaweed color—he stops looking at the picture altogether and only looks at me, his eyes far more lovesick than twenty minutes of acquaintance have earned him.
He pays the facility with a personal check, and takes me home with him.
“You cost less than a used car,” he says brightly, pleased with himself that he got a good deal.
I fold my hands in my lap and wonder if he haggled with the researchers, if their first price for me was too high, too new-car for his taste.
The next two days are a whirlwind of preparations. I’m fitted in a white lace dress that makes my skin itch, and a veil that hides my face, hides the tinges of ocean green around my hairline. I meet his extended family, a pink-faced mother and a soft-bellied father, an aunt who wears too much bitter orange perfume, and a gaggle of cousins who never stop cursing and carousing and clashing. They examine me from every angle and sniff at my arms and face, trying to smell the ocean on me.
“She’s passable enough,” they say, as if I’m not standing right next to them.
At a peeling white church in the country, they huddle in the pews, smiling their plastered smiles, the corners of their lips twitching. They pretend to see me as something other than a dirty fish with nice hair.
I have no family of my own to invite. I don’t know where Galene has gone. So I walk alone down the aisle on legs that are not my own, shedding fat tears beneath a pale chiffon veil.
My husband never notices my grief. In his rented tuxedo, he waits at the altar like a politician, a neatly folded speech in hand. His passion for me has inspired him to write his own vows.
“I loved you from the first moment I saw your face,” he recites in a booming voice, but whether he means my face on the website or in person, I am not sure.
I write no vows. I simply repeat after the preacher, murmuring words I cannot fathom.
But there are words I do understand, and I repeat them to myself.
I will be a beautiful bride. I will be what he wants.
That night, I recline in our wedding bed. As the overhead lights dim, my heart thuds against the brittle cage of my bones, and I want to scream out. I want to shatter the flesh in my groom’s ears and deafen him forever, if only that could save me from what comes next. I curve my spindly, hideous legs into my chest, petrified of what his body will do to mine, of how I might bleed deep and never stop.
He climbs under the sheets and unravels my body. In the darkness, beneath the sweaty tangle of his limbs, all my fears evaporate like saltwater on sun-baked skin.
His love feels like nothing at all.
When it comes to domesticity, we promise you won’t be disappointed. Your mermaid wife will be so grateful you rescued her from the sea, she’ll do whatever you want.
My new home is bigger than the room I shared with Galene, but no more welcoming. It is a sterilized place with all the windows painted shut and a tall metal fence circumscribing the perimeter. When my husband leaves for work each morning, he locks the door behind him—locks me in, since I can’t be trusted not to run.
I spend the afternoon in a bathtub of cold water. It’s the closest thing to home, though I no longer breathe underwater. My lungs have adapted to the shore. Another betrayal, perhaps the most bitter of all.
Downstairs, a towel wrapped around my dripping hair, I creep into my husband’s study. Along the highest wall is a library stuffed with books he never reads.
“Too busy,” he says.
With a careful hand, I take the encyclopedia off the shelf and flip to an entry about the ocean. Breath heavy as tide winds in my chest, I run my fingertips across the glossy blue picture, and the taste of saltwater lingers on my tongue.
That night, using a cookbook from his library, I prepare him a vast supper of six courses, enough to dirty a whole cabinet of dishes. This provides me an excuse to droop over the sink, my arms dipped to the elbows in sudsy water. Water I pretend is the foam of the sea.
I will be a good wife. I will be what he needs.
At dusk, after the dishes are tucked back onto their shelves, my husband takes me for a walk around the neighborhood. Pairs of eyes peer out of every other window. Mermaid wives like me, concealed behind gingham curtains, in picket-fenced prisons.
We stroll further, past the houses and into the darkness of the woods and the marshes.
“I used to come here as a kid,” he says, and I think how I’ll never take him to the places I went as a child.
Among the bogs are hundreds of inlets of fresh water, mocking reminders of my home. We’re more than a hundred miles from the nearest ocean, but I swear I hear the waves lapping at the shore.
While you might think it wise to separate your new wife from other mermaids, this will only serve to estrange you from her. In general, she will be less tempestuous in the company of others like her.
“I have a surprise for you,” my husband says one Saturday morning.
Galene and her husband stand in our foyer. They apparently live only three blocks away, but my husband never told me.
I squeal and wrap my arms around my sister, but she is cold in my embrace. I lead her into the backyard for tea, and in the sunshine, I see her face, lined and gray. She has lost much of her moonstone luster, and the edges of her teeth have been filed down to blunt half-moons, but she’s mostly the same, mostly my sister.
“My husband isn’t so bad,” she says, her gaze set squarely on him as he loiters nearby with my husband. “That almost makes it worse. If he were cruel, I could slit his throat in his sleep.”
But the bluish bags beneath her eyes suggest her fighting days might be behind her.
Her husband cuts the visit short, but promises he’ll bring her back soon.
I thank them for coming, and wonder if by the time they return, there will be any of my sister left to visit.
Surprise your new wife with little gifts that remind her of her former home. A vial of sand. A puka shell necklace. Anything to placate her longings.
In early May, for our first anniversary, my husband hires a backhoe and digs a hole in the yard. Concrete is poured and sculpted into a six-foot-deep swimming pool, and he buys me the tiniest, pinkest bikini he can find and wraps it in matching tissue paper.
“Your very own ocean,” he says, as though this is an acceptable replacement.
I dive in headfirst, but this is not the same. The water burns my eyes, and the chlorine eats away the golden strands of my hair like acid.
“Could we fill it with saltwater instead?” I ask.
My husband shakes his head. “Nobody puts saltwater in a backyard pool.”
I blink up at him, the rims of my eyes tinged red with chemicals. “Why not?”
“Because,” he says, “that’s just not how it’s done.”
I nod. I will not complain.
Galene’s husband proffers her no swimming pool, but she convinces him to purchase her a membership to the local country club where she uses the diving pool. The chlorine burns away her hair, same as mine, same as all mermaids. Her scalp is a constellation of angry red bald patches, but she doesn’t care.
“That water is the nearest I can get to freedom,” she says, her voice thin and trembling.
But she’s wrong. There is no nearest when it comes to freedom. Either you’re free or you’re not. Either we’re in the ocean, or we’re here.
I squeeze my eyes closed and listen carefully for the sound of waves. But I hear nothing.
I’m forgetting the melody of my home.
Allow us to clear up a common misconception: Your mermaid wife is capable of bearing you a child, every bit as well as any human wife. Furthermore, all research indicates these children will be just as lovely and healthy as any conventionally-born baby.
The first flutters of life inside my belly convince me I’m dying. Even a blurry sonogram and my husband’s bleats of joy do not persuade me otherwise.
Each morning, my stomach roils and contorts, and these invaders swim inside me like sea anemones. Two of them. Twins. A boy and a girl. As if one wouldn’t be enough.
I’m in the bath when I go into labor. Trickles of blood fill the tub, and I don’t move. Perhaps if my children are born in water like I was born in water, they will emerge with scales, and wade around me like fish, umbilical cord attached like a nylon line.
This would be a better fate for them than becoming human. But before I test my theory, my husband, who doesn’t believe in locked doors, finds me in the bathtub and rushes me across town. The hospital is as sterile and garish as the research facility, and the metal operating table chills the length of my bones.
The birth isn’t what I expect. A drop of blood, a twinge of pain, and my children slip out of me like a whisper. Dark-haired and crystal-eyed, they’re perfect duplicates of my husband. I shouldn’t be surprised. All infants born to mermaids and men look like their fathers. Even our children are blotting us from the memory of the world.
The doctors let my husband cut the cord before they pass me my babies. Two tiny, pink bodies squirm in my arms.
“So small,” I say, and they wail in strange voices, displaced somewhere between the shore and the saltwater. This call, almost as familiar as the sea, should make me love them.
I tip my head back against the bleached hospital pillow, my heart empty as a shattered shell.
Mermaids make wonderful mothers. Just like human mothers, their maternal instincts kick in, and they’ll adore your child more than you do.
The twins blossom, bright and eager as coral. Their legs stretch out beneath them, and their faces look more like their father’s every day. They no longer wail like creatures of the sea. They wail like normal children now, chattering about spelling lessons and their beautiful human teacher and their friends at school, some born from mermaids, most born from regular couples.
They know I’m different somehow, and when a cartoon about a trouser-wearing ocean critter comes on the television, my children point to the screen. “Is that what it was like, Mommy?”
“No,” is all I say.
The children add volumes of literature and films to our home library. Picture books with green-tailed mermaids. Maudlin cartoons with idiot mermaids. Mermaids with perpetual smiles. Mermaids turned into sea foam. Mermaids who never make a choice on their own.
At bedtime, the children squawk, so I read the book about the heartbroken mermaid for the third time this week, the churning in my belly as wild as a whirlpool.
This is the life I should want. A handsome husband, two healthy kids, and a nice home with a swimming pool in the backyard.
I should feel complete. I should feel happy. I should feel something, but I don’t.
My husband permits me use of the station wagon to take the kids back and forth to school. He lets me do lots of things now, everything except go to the beach. And even if he wanted to do that, he doesn’t have the authority. Hawk-faced men with whistles and government suits monitor the shores daily.
It almost wouldn’t matter. If I could escape—if all the mermaids could flee this domestic imprisonment—we could never return to our home. Those waters in the bluest recess of the ocean would be the first place the human men would search for us. Besides, our own men might still be there, and I’d rather not chip a front tooth tearing the sinews from their throats, or choke on their blood as I spit into their eyes, black as flotsam. Because if I ever returned, I’d make them remember how they abandoned us.
The only comfort we have is each other. All the mermaid wives have memberships to the local country club now. Something to pacify us, so our husbands won’t worry. In the chandelier-arrayed dining room, we sit in one corner where the staff has relegated us, since the human women will not mingle with mermaids.
We sip afternoon mimosas as tinny Muzak lilts over the speakers. A Mozart symphony. Number 40, I believe. Over our seven years of marriage, my husband has taught me about music, about art, about the finer things in this desiccated world. He’s also done his best to teach me about love, not realizing some things can never be taught.
Lunch is served to our table, and the order is wrong—no dressing for the salads, no sides of soup, and a few of us aren’t provided with silverware—but we’re tired, too tired to argue. Even Galene, with her once dazzling and devious eyes, has turned sour and taciturn.
“No point,” she says, and shoves field greens around her plate with her finger. “No one would listen.”
It happens in this small moment, a nothing moment really. It’s over a watercress sandwich prepared with stale bread—the kitchen staff reserves all the fresh bread for the human wives. Something cracks within me, and I realize it. That I’ll never adjust. That I’ll never be a good wife and mother, because this isn’t my life. This isn’t my body. I don’t belong here, we don’t belong here, and we never will.
The next morning after my husband kisses me goodbye, I wedge a chair beneath the library door, so my children won’t see me yanking every book from the shelves and studying all the pages on underwater ecology. Entries about water temperatures and ecosystems and thousand-mile reefs. About places where we might belong. Where we might escape.
If my husband learns what I’m doing, he’ll burn every book to cinders. If he could see inside my heart, he might burn me the same way.
“I don’t know why you bother,” Galene says as we sneak away from our children’s soccer practice on Sunday and stop at a gas station to buy another disposable travel map. I hide them inside cookbooks where my husband won’t look.
I pay the clerk in cash. “Would you rather stay here?” I ask Galene.
She shrugs and says nothing else. Her face and her life have lost its shine. For the first time, I’m the braver sister.
“Even if you find us a home,” she says later over tea, “there’s no way for us to get there. The oceans are cordoned off, remember?”
“I’ll figure out a way,” I say. “I’ll get us out of here.”
At night after dinner, my husband and I take the children for long walks as a family, past the edge of the neighborhood and into the bogs. While he teaches the twins to fly a kite in a clearing, I stand along the border of an inlet. If I could uncover a cavern beneath the surface of the water, the path might lead into a river. And the river might lead into the sea.
“Not too close, darling,” my husband says and yanks me back from the rim.
With a solemn face, I oblige, but at midnight, as he sleeps, I sneak into the library and inspect the dozens of maps I’ve hidden there—Rand McNally, National Geographic, it doesn’t matter what kind. They’re all the same anyhow. In spite of their wisdom and rank, men never could get the hang of charting the ocean. It’s a religion far too arcane for them to understand.
At last, in the crease of a cheap off-brand atlas, I discover it. A small uncharted square at the correct latitude and longitude, and from what I now know of ecology, the right temperature and level of dissolved oxygen. It’s remote and beautiful and so like our home, but different too. Different enough they won’t find us again.
Without a word, I tuck the textbooks back in their rightful places on the forgotten shelves where they’ll collect dust, and the bindings will turn soft as a fallen wedding cake. These books might never be read again, but they served me well. As the children nap, I rip up my road maps and shove the pieces down the garbage disposal. The sour pulp clogs the pipes three times as I feed it through, but I twist the faucets to full blast and let the water gush out, enough water to fill a lake, enough to drown the evidence of what I’m planning.
That night, I cook an extra course for dinner. An elegant chocolate soufflé that pillows out like a languid cloud on a summer afternoon.
“That was wonderful, darling.” My husband tosses his cloth napkin on the table and wraps one arm around my waist. “What’s the special occasion?”
After many years, your mermaid wife will fully integrate in your community. She’ll organize bake sales. She’ll attend soccer games. To an undiscerning eye, she might even pass for a human wife. But always remember, no matter how happy she is, water will always be too great a temptation. Keeping her on land is the key to your matrimonial bliss.
It’s the first day of spring when we take another walk to the marshes. My children skip ahead and holler and twirl while my husband laughs and treads behind them.
But I don’t follow. I splinter from my family and wander to the largest inlet.
My husband surges toward me. “Stay away from there,” he says.
I dip my toes in the water. “It’s only an inlet,” I say. “No harm.”
Scowling, he nods and turns toward our daughter as she requests a piggyback ride. This is my chance. I slip quiet as a stone into the water and sink to the bottom as I search every crevice for an escape. The water is dark and hostile, but I shove my hands into the earth, thick and wet as blood.
Above me, my children are crying, and my husband calls out for me. Through the deep water, he splashes, flailing his arms, but I pull away from him and keep searching. I won’t give up, not yet.
And in the softest corner, there it is. The outlet where the stream flows in. This is the route to the river.
I swallow muddy water, and the deep taste fills my belly and fills my lungs, but still, I breathe. This body remembers. It betrayed me once before, but it won’t betray me again.
I could escape. I could dive for the depths and never turn back.
“Eleniora!” My husband’s voice is more desperate and distorted now. He might as well be a thousand miles away.
I shove my body through the opening. This might be my only chance. I could leave Galene behind, as she would have left me that long ago night in the research facility. In a way, all the mermaids have left me behind, their eyes dull and dreams surrendered like white flags on a grave.
Though it’s far away, I hear the ocean. I feel its embrace, cold and comforting. I could close my eyes, and my body would lead me home. But none of my kin will follow. Soon the men will come, and like the beaches, they’ll cordon off this area.
I will be free, but I will be alone.
I’ve waited this long. I’ll wait a little longer.
I stop struggling, and my body floats like a corpse to the surface.
My husband yanks me to shore with hands as brutal as a sailor’s. “Where were you?”
“I was skimming the bottom,” I say, and produce a handful of shells, broken pieces of pink and white I grabbed on my way back up.
The children squeal and scoop the sodden gifts from my palm.
But my husband is not convinced. “You were under a long time,” he says. “How did you not drown?”
The slick of freshwater drips off my skin, and I shrug. “I guess I’ve gotten good at holding my breath.”
We hope this brochure helped to answer some of your questions about your new mermaid wife. Feel free to call the research facility where you purchased your wife if you have further questions, but just remember the most important rule of marrying a mermaid: show her affection, and she’s sure to love you back.
The world turns on as before. It is summer now, and my children chortle in the backyard, darting through sprinklers and racing barefoot like rats to a piper when they hear the tinkling music of the ice cream truck. Husbands gather around barbeque altars, and baseball games blare over transistor radios.
And the mermaid wives smile more, their faces ardent and rosy. And when we’re sure no one is listening, we smile a little wider, and we whisper in our native tongue. We use words the men never bothered to learn.
We know we must be ready. We know our time is coming.
We won’t be able to save them all. Too many have been lost already. The ones further inland who no longer hear the call of the ocean. The ones sent to labs who hear nothing at all.
But a few of us have a chance. And we have to take it.
Over tea, Galene’s eyes glint with life and promise, and she wraps her hand tight around mine.
“This is madness, Eleniora,” she whispers, smiling, and she’s probably right. Maybe we won’t make it.
Or maybe we will.
Maybe we’ll wait for a normal evening. We’ll prepare a six-course dinner, soufflé and all. We’ll rinse the dishes, dry each one by hand, and return them to their rightful cabinets. We’ll read our children bedtime stories, perhaps even the ones we loathe, the ones about shackled mermaids resigned to their fates. Then we’ll kiss our progeny goodnight and tuck them into bed.
Our husbands will welcome us beneath the sheets, and perhaps we’ll make love to them, as best as you can with someone you do not love. It will be long past midnight when they awaken. Their hands will search the cold halves of the mattresses, and their skins will prickle because they’ll know. They’ll stumble into the sleepy suburban streets, and they’ll call our names until their throats are raw. But they’ll be too late.
All the mermaid wives will be gone.
And this time, no nets on earth will catch us.
© Copyright 2016 Gwendolyn Kiste
Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her stories have appeared in Nightmare, Shimmer, LampLight, and Interzone as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).