Anatoly sluiced blood from the deck of his fishing boat. He took no joy in heaving the buckets of slush over the deck, but watching the pinked brine sweep through the scuppers to the sea alleviated a deep pressure in his chest. He didn’t like looking at all that blood.
But then again, he reminded himself, blood’s just blood, and a job’s a job. And his wasn’t as bad as some. Just two days at sea, and already the fish-hold was nearly full of herring. The skin-hold was nearly full, too; Anatoly was almost done for the day. He just needed one more good catch before he could sail on home. Marta would be waiting for him at the dock with Nadia strapped to her chest. She would bring him a thermos of hot, strong tea. They would stop at the fishmonger and the tannery on the way home, to sell the days’ catch. The money from the herring would go to the Tsar and the church. The money from the skins would have to go towards milk for the baby, now that Marta’s supply had inexplicably dried up. They would come home just before dark, and Marta would make Anatoly wash in the tiny yard; the next morning, the scales that had fallen from his arms would glint in the sun like treasure.
It was a good life, and she was a good woman. Anatoly should have been eager to get home to her — and yet he busied himself on the deck of his boat, coiling rope and untangling nets. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go home to Marta and Nadia and their one-room cottage. It wasn’t that per se. He adored Marta. Marta was the whole reason he spent days on the sea, letting his skin thicken under the constant sun and salt spray. If he could get enough herring on ice and enough skins to the tannery, then he would be able to buy her a real house, and hand-stitched shoes, and a fine new iron pot. He wanted to give her these things and so much more. He wanted to give her everything.
It was just that when he went home, she would make him use the hose in the yard to get the blood and scales off, and it was very cold outside. And then when he got inside the house there would be his clothes to wring out and hang, and the baby would fuss, and there would probably be some new leak in the roof that needed to be repaired. And the day was beautiful and clear, and the sea was calm for a change. So rather than casting out for one last catch, he killed time tidying the boat as the sun hoisted itself higher in the ice-bright sky.
He was rearranging his filet knives, this time in order from sharpest to dullest, when he heard an insistent rapping on the hull of the boat. He looked over the edge of the gunwale, eyes wide. They didn’t usually come right up to vessels, not without being lured in by chum over the course of an afternoon, but there she was. Lean, chap-lipped, hungry eyed. Her hair was black — no, blacker than that — and it fanned out in the water as she smiled up at him.
“Fish?” Her voice was like a woodwind. Fish — she must have picked the word up from spending too much time near people. Anatoly wondered if she’d been drawn to his vessel by the pink wash of blood that ran down the side of the boat. If she knew that even the faintest blood-smell could mean people, and food. “Fish for a pretty?”
Her smile was close-lipped. She’d probably scared off less experienced sailors before, men who had been too startled by her teeth to toss anything edible into the water. Anatoly was always impressed by the ones who had learned what would get rocks thrown at them, and what would get them food. They reminded him of the dog that danced for chicken bones down near the church.
He smiled down at her, then turned and fetched a herring from the fish-hold. He let her see it in his hand. “I do have a fish for a pretty. Would you like it? You just have to come up on deck and get it.” He spoke to her as he usually spoke to Nadia — knowing that she didn’t understand half of what he was saying, hoping that his tone would get the message across in a way she could comprehend.
A doubtful chitter sounded from the water’s surface; Anatoly lowered a knotted rope, and showed her a second herring. He could see the hunger and doubt warring in her eyes, but she was a creature of need, and the hunger won easily enough. She grabbed the rope and began pulling herself out of the water.
Anatoly scanned her with a practiced eye. Her deeply tanned skin was stretched taut over her ribs. No wonder the hunger had won. She was working hard to get herself up the rope, her slender arms straining, and she stopped to rest just as her tail cleared the surface of the water.
It was perfect. Not a scale missing. Not a single parasite burrowed into the fleshy base of her fluke. Her tail was a rich, pearlescent pink — but what was she doing so far north? That color belonged down in the Caribbean.
No wonder she was so thin: she couldn’t possibly compete with the sleek torpedoes that hunted in these waters. He wondered if she’d gotten caught up in the migration route of a pod of whales. Or perhaps she had been picked up by the Tsar’s circus and escaped en route to the capital. Sometimes the Tsar discarded creatures from his menagerie, if they could not hold his interest.
However she’d arrived in these cold waters, she must have stood out among the native schools, like a perfect pearl nestled into the mucosal grey meat of an oyster.
It was a miracle she had survived for so long.
Anatoly heard her scales scraping along the gunwale. She was laboring up the rope, alternately chirring in anticipation of the fish and grunting with effort. By the time she had hauled herself over the rail and onto the deck, her breathing was labored.
“Fish for a pretty.” Anatoly tossed her both herrings, and she caught them, one in each hand, and tore into them. He couldn’t look away from that tail. It was incredible — the sheen, the variation in color. No two scales were exactly the same shade of pink. She flipped her fluke up and down as she licked her fingers and preened the herring blood from her neck and chin.
Anatoly threw another fish her way, this one from his special scrod bucket. It glistened in the sun. He only kept back the very best scrod, the better to tempt the wary ones. She sniffed at it and then looked up at him with slitted eyes.
He nodded. “Yes, it’s a fish. A fish for a pretty.” He waved his hands at her. “Go on. Fish.”
She smelled the scrod again and scowled. “No. Poison.” She flung the scrod back across the deck at him, and it splashed back into the bucket alongside its dosed fellows.
Anatoly’s brows drew together of their own accord. She was definitely from somewhere else. None of the ones from this part of the sea had such a finely-tuned sense of smell. And where had she picked up the word ‘poison’?
But then he shook his head, smiling at himself. Every fisherman has a catch that he thinks is special. I’ll be telling Nadia stories about this one until I’m toothless, he thought. The day I caught a ‘maid that knew the word ‘poison’. She might be able to parrot a few human sounds, but she was still an animal. He should be thankful for that. If they were smart, they wouldn’t take bait, and Anatoly would be breaking stones at the quarry instead of casting nets from his own vessel.
He had been contemplating her for too long. She had decided that there was to be no more fish from this boat, and had started to draw herself back up along the deck railing. Anatoly opened his mouth, but didn’t know what to say. Those pink scales were going to flip over the gunwale and vanish into the ocean. Gone.
She would be gone.
“Wait!” he cried out in desperation. She paused and turned back to him. The corners of her mouth were still turned down, but she didn’t leave.
Anatoly’s pulse sounded in his ears as hot panic coiled around his throat. He cast his eyes around the deck, wondering how he could make her stay if she wouldn’t eat the scrod. Her tail drummed against the wood of the deck and he knew he had no time.
His eyes landed on the two metal rings embedded in the deck. Yes. Perfect.
Anatoly yanked on the left ring, and the door to the fish-hold yawned wide. He turned back to the mermaid.
Her eyes had gone very round.
She looked from the hold to Anatoly and back again. He stepped away from the pit of ice and herring, sat in his deck chair. He waved an arm toward the packed hold. “Go on. Fish. Fish for a pretty.”
Her tail caught the light as she moved toward the fish-hold. Anatoly thought of iron pots and hot water on tap.
He watched her gorge herself for a few minutes. Soon, her belly was distended, her movements sluggish. She looked around the deck as she ate, her eyes fixing on a coil of rope. She studied it, a strange thing to her, surely — not a creature, not a shell, not an eddy of silt caught in a current. Her hair had begun to dry into tangles. She studied the rope through narrowed eyes as she gnawed at a half-frozen herring.
Anatoly judged that he could safely turn his back on her. She would surely be sluggish from all that food, tired from her climb up the rope. The timing was perfect. This would work.
He selected a filet knife from the far end of the line. His, best, his sharpest. He tested the edge of the blade on his thumbnail and swore: it had dulled from the morning’s work. He reached for a strop on which he might hone the blade — but before he could settle into the work, there was a creak and a clatter behind him. He spun back toward her, but it was already too late.
She’d opened the skin-hold.
Her brows furrowed. She chirred softly at first, raising her volume when no response came from within the hold. She tugged at one of the grey-blue fins buried in the ice. Before Anatoly could think of how to stop her, the fin came free, and the entire tail slid out of the ice and across her lap.
The scales didn’t quite shimmer in the sunlight, not like hers did, but they shone enough for the tanner to buy. Enough for the cobbler to stretch across the toecaps of ladies’ boots. Enough for a leatherworker to stitch into a bag that would sell in the capital city for the cost of a whole loaf of good black bread.
“Now, pretty, put that down.” Anatoly couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice. At his words, she whipped her head around and bared her teeth. Anatoly flexed his fingers around the filet knife.
His mouth had gone very dry.
He had planned to sneak up behind her, reach around, slit her throat while she was eating — it wouldn’t have been so different from draining the unconscious ones that ate the drugged scrod. But now, he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
He’d heard stories of men being pulled under the waves when they’d tried to tangle with angry mermaids. Those teeth were not to be trifled with.
She slapped her powerful, perfect tail on the deck, and the wood bowed under the blow. She looked past him, toward the gunwale.
With slow, deliberate steps, Anatoly moved to one side. Out of the way, so she could slip off the gunwale if she wanted to.
Her eyes tracked him. She shifted her weight forward, her fingers gripping the wood of the deck. The corded muscles of her forearms were as taut as the tendons in her neck.
He looked for his net. If he could just immobilize her — but then he remembered that he had already folded and stowed all of his casting nets, back when he was wasting time. Back before this fortune was dropped into his lap. Damn.
She turned from him, fast, too fast, and began digging through the ice with both hands. A half-shredded herring still hung from her razor teeth. Fish blood dripped from her chin onto the ice in the skin-hold.
She pulled out one skin after another, all of them the same dull blue-grey.
They slid across the deck as she freed them from the ice. Some of them flapped open, exposing their bloodied undersides to the sun, strings of blubber still clinging to the flesh. Their ragged top edges, hewn from the brackish flesh where scales blended into skin, left red stripes across the wood of the deck. Seven skins in all.
It had been a very good catch, indeed.
When the hold was empty, she gathered three of the skins — an armful for her, and the fruits of hours of Anatoly’s sweat and labor. She hissed at him and slapped her tail on the deck again. This time, the wood splintered. The message was clear: Stay back.
Holding the skins under one arm, she began pulling herself toward the gunwale. Every few feet, she paused to hurl a string of high-pitched chirrups at Anatoly. Her face was rage-tight. The fury of her was enough to freeze him where he stood; she passed close enough that he could have reached out and grabbed her, but he couldn’t move to do it. For the first time since he’d started trapping, Anatoly felt that he did not have enough of an advantage over his prey. For the first time, he was afraid.
But there was fear, and then there was fear. She was leaving, and she was taking the skins with her. He was frightened of her sharp teeth and whipping tail and strong hands — but he was also frightened of what would happen if he came home with just herring in his hold. He would have to tell Marta that there would be no bread that night. There would be no milk for the baby.
That was the thing that moved him at last. The thought of Marta’s face when she realized that she would need to beg a neighbor for milk, for a loan, for help. Again.
Anatoly lunged. His feet slipped in the herring blood and melting ice on the deck. He reached the mermaid just as she hefted the skins up over the railing. They hung there, folded over the gunwale like bloody banners.
He tightened his grasp on the filet knife, his callouses creaking on the oiled wood of the grip. He swung his arm wildly, aiming for her throat, but the slender blade caught on one of the thick tangles in her hair. She turned from the rail and snapped at his forearm with a snarl, came so close to catching him that he felt rather than heard her teeth click together. He tried to jump out of reach of her bite, and his foot landed on one of the thawing skins she’d yanked out of the skin-hold. It slid under him like melting butter across the bottom of a hot skillet. The skin caught on the gunwale and flapped against the railing, but his foot kept going, slipped neatly through one of the drainage scuppers set into the side of the deck.
He yanked at his boot. It was stuck fast. He tried to sit up, but he’d landed wrong on his back and couldn’t pull himself upright. He slipped again, flailed, fell.
His head hit the wood with a crack.
When his vision cleared, she was there. Her hair fell around her face as she looked down at him. A piece of shell was caught in one of the tangles, and it glinted wildly in the sun.
She pushed ungently at the side of his face with one hand. She chirred to herself for a moment before delivering her verdict.
Anatoly wasn’t sure what she meant. No? She looked pointedly between him and the bucket of scrod. “No.” Her eyes were narrow, and her lips were pulled back to reveal the place where her teeth sank into her dark gums.
“No, pretty, no, I am not fish. Just like in the bucket. Not fish. Don’t eat.” He was babbling, pleading, staring at those teeth — but she shook her head. She spoke again in that fluting voice, a voice so close to being human.
“No. No fish for pretty. Poison.”
Then she turned her back to him, and he went cold with relief. She wasn’t going to eat him.
Anatoly could see, out of the corner of his eye, that perfect pink tail. If only he could cut off just a few scales, he could sell them for a small fortune — but no, he had dropped his filet knife when he fell, and it had slid across the deck, almost all the way to the fish-hold. He yanked at his boot again. A flash of pink disrupted the blue-white vista of sky above him. She was going to escape.
“Poison.” He couldn’t see her face, but he could hear her. “Poison.” He looked up from his struggle with the boot, and saw her tail hovering over his face. The pink of it was completely blotting out the blue of the sky.
There was no time for him to understand what was coming before the first strike.
There was no pain, not at first. Only shock and horror and blindness and the sound of the wooden deck cracking under his skull. After the second strike, he was briefly aware that his face felt full, strangely heavy with white bright awful heat — and there, yes, there was the pain.
Roaring filled his ears, but through it, he could just make out what she was saying —
“Poison. Poison. Poison.”
A single word flashed through Anatoly’s mind — Marta — and then the tail fell again, and Anatoly was gone.
The mermaid gathered the skins she had scattered across the deck. The deck was silent but for the slap of the water against the side of the boat and the faint splash of each skin falling into the sea. She braided a few herring into her hair for later. She pulled herself over the side of the rail and slipped silently into the water, startling the seabirds that had already come to investigate the things she’d pushed into the water.
From below, a pod of sleek, fat, dark-tailed mermaids rose up to gather the skins of their sisters into their arms.