Mermaid eggs are not like most. Larger, and rounder, they resemble pearls more than anything avian, the outer shell tough as marble, and opaque. The mermaid had hidden her egg well. Between the deep rock formations and large columns of algae, the egg had been firmly attached to the stone by a web of silver mer-silk. She had been so very careful to attach it with the greatest care. The cocoon would remain soft for only a few days once spun. Exposed to the salt water, it would harden quickly as the web of threads turned into a tough calcified frame, a second skin designed to both protect it and hold it safely against the rock until the small mer-child inside had grown strong enough to break free.
As her mother had done before, and her grandmother before that, she had woven the mer-silk around the egg, stayed a while and left once she saw the silk begin to harden. As she swam away she took one final look at the egg, nervous but hopeful. There was no reason to worry. All she had to do now was wait and dream of the small mer-child who would soon be hers to hold in her arms. She had already felt its small heartbeat patter lightly on the other side of the shell while she attached it to the rock face. The idea that the tiny hum could stop was so completely unimaginable to her that when she swam back a few days later she thought for a moment she must be lost. The rock face was bare. Sure that she simply had the wrong place, she swam on. After a while her calm certainty turned to confusion, fast becoming panic. She swam back and for several moments she floated like a ghost in front of the place she had trusted to hide her egg, her long copper hair tangled in the tall algae strands around her. It was not possible, she told her self. Her egg had been safe. It had been hidden! What had happened?
She looked down and a gasp of water burst from her mouth.
On the floor of the ocean, thousands of iridescent shards lay scatted on the sand. The mer-silk was gone, along with the tiny mer-child she had dreamed about for so long. Her heart jumped, faltered and crumpled. Her child was gone.
They could not help her. As they continued their migration along the coast, the pod tried their best to distract her from the dull ache in her heart, but nothing they did could shake the dazed expression from her face. Eventually, they stopped trying, and day by day she floated further behind the pod, until one day, she had vanished.
The mermaid had nothing on her mind as she swam upstream. The water tasted strange, empty, colder. The further she swam, the higher the river bed rose, until her opal dorsal fins would occasionally graze the surface of the water. Soon the water had changed again. Before, the difference had been the absence of salt. Now bitter and sweet smells and a strange black fog infused and clouded the water.
After several days she settled under the shadow of a bridge and curled up on the riverbed below it, exhausted. River water was so cold! She reached for some of the water weeds which grew nearby and forced her red, numb fingers to weave them together. She wondered how the land folk could survive up in the air, so exposed to the wind and sun. Her whole life, she had rarely needed to weave another skin. Her thick oily coat sufficed to keep her warm in all but the coldest currents. But here, everything was so much harsher. She pulled the weed coat over her and pressed her hands tight into her chest. It was so cold.
Elwyn Morgen crashed into the water, screaming. Lowri Firth smirked down at him as he fell, his hand still outstretched for the edge of the bridge. From below, his impact on the surface of the water sounded like an explosion. The mermaid shrieked and looked up at the frantic, flailing little body, with its face hidden by a thick mane of golden-red curls. Elwyn Morgen could not swim. He had never been able to swim. Lowri knew this. She stared over the edge of the bridge, her smirk gone. She could not swim either, and the river below the bridge was deep and dark. So she ran. He should not have fought her back, stupid boy!
“Help! Help!” Elwyn tore at the water and tried his best to swim. He had seen his older brother swim before. It looked so easy. But nobody had told him how heavy his shoes would become once filled with water. He tried to kick them off, but the laces held firm.
The shoes were so heavy now and dragged like lead weights. His mouth filled with water, and his screams became gurgled shrieks. As the water rose and swallowed him, he fought on. He churned and frothed the water with both arms, as though he could claw his way back up towards the light.
Suddenly, a warm hand gripped his leg. Elwyn looked down and the mermaid stared back up at him. The boy looked strange to her. His skin was so pale and the absence of iridescent flecks made it blank as chalk. But his eyes were so large! Like hers, they were black as a seal’s.
With a powerful flex of her long black tail, the mermaid burst through the surface of the river and landed heavily on the river bank. Elwyn spilled from her arms and landed heavily on the grass, coughing and spluttering. By the time he had managed to steady his breathing the mermaid was gone but had left a shimmering scale the size of a shilling stuck to the edge of his boot.
“Mama!” Elwyn scurried into the house, his hands tightly closed around the scale and a trail of muddy footprints on the slate floor behind him. “Look what I found!”
Mrs. Morgen looked at the pale transparent scale and scoffed. Her boredom transformed into anger when she saw the trail of muddy footprints behind her youngest son. “Elwyn! How many! How. Many. Times. Have. I. Told. You! Take your damn shoes off at the door!”
Stiff from the cold and with a tinge of blue on his lips, Elwyn shivered and kicked his shoes off. Water sloshed onto the floor.
“Why are you soaking wet?”
“I fell off the old bridge,” Elwyn shivered.
His mother rolled her eyes and continued to knead the dough into the table. “Why can’t you just watch where you’re going. Martyn was never so clumsy.”
“Yes, Mama,” Elwyn whispered and slid the scale into his pocket.
Elwyn walked back towards the door. His feet were so cold they had gone bright pink. From the open doorway, he looked up and saw Lowri staring at him from across the street by the schoolhouse. Elwyn slammed the door shut and rubbed at his eyes. There was nobody he could tell about the strange lady who had saved him, but he had decided it did not matter anymore, because he would go back tomorrow and see if he could find her again.
“Hello? Hello?” Elwyn hissed over the edge of the bridge. He hooked his hands tightly under a hollow space between the stones, afraid that he might lose his balance and fall in again. There was nothing but silence. He raised his hands over his eyes and squinted as hard as he could. “Hello?”
When nobody replied he walked back across the bridge and climbed down the muddy path to the riverside. He crept forward towards the edge and timidly whispered, “Hello? Lady? I just wanted to say thank you. Hello?”
The mermaid looked up at him curiously from the small cavity in the riverbed where she was curled. He was so small and the clothes he wore so large on him. Under the water, his words sounded muffled, but she understood them in the same way that merfolk had always understood the land dwellers. The mind of a land dweller was so relentlessly open it could be read by anyone. He was frightened, she sensed, but also curious and profoundly grateful. He had been so scared when Lowri had pushed him off the bridge, and although her strange appearance had frightened him, he was determined to overcome his fear to return his thanks. The mermaid found the sentiment endearing.
“I have a gift!” Elwyn whispered loudly and reached into his pocket. “It’s not very good, but I think you might like it.” He laid down a large smooth stone on the grass in front of him, the shape of something painted into it with chalk paint.
There was no reply.
So Elwyn waited, his knees tucked against his chest. The sun sank lower and lower until he was forced to admit defeat and make his way back up the muddy path to walk home. Just as soon as his back was turned he heard the water behind him ripple loudly. He turned back around, but she was already gone, and so was the stone.
Each day for two weeks, Elwyn returned to the bridge. Sometimes he brought food, sometimes small things he had made, once he even brought a broken horseshoe he had found on the road. Each time, as soon as his back was turned, the lady in the water would take them and vanish back into the river.
Today was no different. He sat at the foot of the bridge, his feet tucked under him and picked at the stale bread he had been given to eat. He tried to bite it, but the bread was so dry and tough it grated at his gums. He leaned forward, dipped it into the river to soften it, and grimaced as he chewed the wet pulp.
“What you doing?”
Elwyn jumped to his feet and dropped the wet bread onto the ground. Lowri Firth smirked at him. Her two brothers loomed behind her. All of them were taller than Elwyn.
“N-nothing,” Elwyn stuttered.
“O-o-oh r-r-really?” Lowri mocked. “Why’d you keep sneaking off here?”
Elwyn blinked back at her, with the back of his feet on the edge of the riverbank.
“I like it here.”
“Awww…trying to learn to swim?” Lowri mocked.
Behind her, one of Lowri’s brothers picked up a stone from the floor and raised his arm. Elwyn darted to pick up a stone of his own, but before he could something whistled by his ear. Lowri’s brother fell back, a shocked expression on his face and his hand over his jaw. Blood oozed around his fingertips.
Elwyn could see the outline of a figure with a long serpentine tail curled beneath it, under the shadow of the bridge. The mermaid hissed and lightly touched the neat pile of gifts that Elwyn had given her. Another stone shot from the water. This time it hit the girl’s shin. Lowri dropped to the ground screaming. When she could not see who had thrown it she struggled to her feet and then charged at Elwyn like a bull, ready to knock him back into the river.
The mermaid’s tail uncoiled so fast it propelled her from the water like a crossbow bolt. Lowri screamed in horror at the creature which surged towards her in a spray of water, shimmering scales, wiry talon-like fingers, and bared teeth. The mermaid’s teeth were whiter and sharper than any human’s. The canines were so long and thin they looked like they could puncture leather.
Lowri fled. They all did, except for Elwyn. The mermaid landed heavily on the ground and dragged herself after them for a few paces, hissing and snarling. Her tail lashing towards them like a scorpion. Once she realised that she could not drag herself up the bank she slid back down, her hair and tail covered in mud. Elwyn stared fascinated. The mermaid stared back, cold and shivering.
“Hello,” Elwyn whispered. The mermaid raised her hand. It appeared to be some kind of greeting, so he mimicked her back. The mermaid smiled. Her eyes were less black than he remembered. They reminded him of his brother’s dog before it had died. Her large brown eyes seemed to get even bigger as she gazed at him.
“I’m Elwyn,” he pointed at himself. “Elwyn.”
“I know,” the mermaid whispered. Elwyn beamed at her reply. Her voice was so unusual, glass-like and watery.
“You can talk. How?”
The mermaid slid tail first back into the water.
“No, wait! Don’t go!”
“I won’t,” the mermaid replied, her arms folded over the riverbank, only half submerged.
They talked for hours. Elwyn told her of life on the land, and in turn, she told him of the world below the water. She told him about the forests of algae her pod would hunt in during the summer, the deep ravines they would take shelter in during the winter storms, the canyon illuminated by a plant there which glowed. Elwyn told her of his home, the mine that had killed his father and the navy his brother Martyn had joined, to escape the same fate as his father. He would come back one day, Elwyn insisted, but not before he had made his fortune for them all.
Once the sun began to set, Elwyn left, and the next morning he returned before the sun had risen to speak to the mermaid again. After a while, the mermaid began to notice that he would frequently have strange patches on his skin, small and large areas where his skin would be much darker, with flecks of red and black on them. When she asked about them the boy was silent, but she could sense the turmoil in his soul as he relived the moments his mother had struck him. The mermaid looked at the small mound of gifts that he had brought her, all of them worthless. There were no beautiful shells like the kind she could find in the ocean, but he had painted stones to look like faces. One stone was decorated with what was meant to be a painting of her, but instead looked more like a deformed wale. That one was her favourite.
When he returned the next day a small mound of fish waited on the edge of the riverbank on a mat of woven reeds. The mermaid took one of them and began to eat it, waiting for Elwyn to do the same. Afraid of offending her, Elwin took a bite. The cold clammy texture was utterly repulsive.
“Why is your skin green?” the mermaid asked. Elwyn’s thoughts replied before he did. She was shocked to find that humans required their fish to be bathed in flames before they ate it.
“You don’t eat this food,” the mermaid whispered.
He sounded afraid, and the mermaid remembered how often she had seen memories of his mother beat him with a wooden spoon if he took too long to eat the scraps she had given him. She reached for his hand and held it between her webbed fingers. Elwyn was surprised to find her skin was warm, not cold like he had imagined.
“Do you have flames in your home?” she asked.
Elwyn nodded. That night he returned home with a small reed basket filled to the brim with fish. He walked through the door of the cottage with a large smile on his face, sure that his mother would be proud of the food he had brought. He placed the basket on the table and waited, perched on one of the wooden stools for her to return. It was cold inside the cottage. The range stone was cold to the touch. He waited a little longer, then an idea occurred to him. Hopeful that he could make his mother smile for the first time since his brother had joined the navy, Elwyn walked outside and cut up some wood on the chopping block. He did not dare take any of the stacked dry wood from the store outside. His mother was so very particular about it, and became irate when anyone used it without replacing it by at least twice the amount.
He did his best to start the fire with the unseasoned wood. It had been a while since he had lit it on his own. The last time had been before Martyn had left. As the room filled with smoke, Elwyn became more and more panicked. Before he could pull the smouldering kindling from the range he heard the front door close.
“What are you doing!”
Elwyn jumped and tried to explain that he had brought food and he wanted to cook it for her, the words catching in his throat and stuttering. Before he could finish his explanation his mother grabbed hold of one of the wooden spoons on the table and struck. Elwyn ran from the room, his hand over his ear.
He did not return to the river the following morning. His ear was so swollen he knew there was no way to hide it. To make matters worse, the ringing in his head had not stopped. The mermaid waited, and waited, and waited. When he had not returned after four sunsets, the mermaid swam back to the sea, her mind firmly set on what she wanted.
She returned to her pod with no explanation and would only talk in private to one of the elders, an old merman with a beard so long it almost reached the end of his tail. He listened compassionately as she told her story of the little land child she had found. He was alone, she explained, his mother cruel and the other children equally so.
“I must walk on land to find him,” she begged. “I have heard of others who have done this. Do you know how it might be done?”
The merman took a moment before he replied. “When you find the child, what then?”
The mermaid looked down at the ocean floor. “I wish to bring him back with me to the sea. Can this be done?”
“Does the land-child wish to return with you?”
The mermaid was silent, afraid for the first time. “I do not know,” she whispered.
“Then you must ask. You cannot bring land-folk to the sea if they do not wish it. If you try they will drown. Slowly, but they drown.”
Before she returned the mermaid made one final visit to the algae hills. The shattered shards of the eggshell were still there, some exposed, most buried under the sand. One by one the mermaid collected them and laid them to rest under a small mound of white stones she had collected on her journey there. Finally, she placed one more stone on top of the mound. The salt water had almost completely erased Elwyn’s painting of her on it. The mermaid cried one last time, with pounding and fearful heart, and then left the algae forest behind.
When the mermaid returned to the river, she carried the merman’s stone knife with her. At each town that she passed, she would steal a morsel of human food from the docks and boats which lined the river. Each day for thirty-one days she ate only the repulsive human food. It was dry and coarse, the taste of it so deeply unpleasant to her that she would often retch while eating. Still, she ate it, and with each day that passed her scales grew thinner and thinner.
By the time she reached the bridge, her scales had fallen away so much, she had been forced to make clothes for herself from whatever was to hand. Without her scales, her skin was raw and exposed, and the more she picked and scraped at her legs the more the scales peeled away. She hid the knife at the bottom of the river and waited until darkness fell. It was so cold she could not imagine that she could move, but still, she did. She broke the surface of the river and took her first shaky step on the wet ground. The wind cut through her like shards of glass, despite the clothes she had made. From the bridge she could see Elwyn’s village in the distance. It was not far for a human, but for the mermaid, it might as well have been an ocean away.
Step by step, she stumbled forward, her hand reaching for anything she could use as support. With a stick she found by the roadside, she was able to hobble along faster, but it still took her several hours to reach the outer houses. The village was quiet. Light shone from no window except for those of a large building at the centre of the village. She could hear loud voices inside, and afraid, she did her best to avoid it. Elwyn had told her of his home, and in his thoughts, she had seen what it looked like, but in the dark everything looked quite different.
Exhausted, she reached a house that she believed was his and crept around to the small woodshed at the back and curled up in the small space between the woodpile and the slanted roof. There she stayed until morning, afraid but determined.
The men of the village rose first and they left their homes, one by one. Most of the men were young and the few older men walked with a tired hunch. All were dressed in clothes covered with patches of black, and had what looked like white sticks attached to their hats.
Next to the woodshed the house door opened and Elwyn stepped out, his own hat on his head and the nearly burnt out stub of a candle in his hand.
Elwyn froze and turned around. His skinny little frame was so much frailer than she remembered. The little boy ran to her and threw his arms around her, his skin so warm it felt as though it could burn her frozen hands.
Afraid they would be seen, Elwyn helped her back away from the village and ducked into a small ditch nearby. The mermaid happily buried her legs in the muddy water at the bottom and held Elwyn’s hands tightly in hers.
“Hello,” the mermaid beamed as she tried to wipe the coal dust from Elwyn’s face.
“Hello,” Elwyn replied and hugged her again. “I’m sorry I didn’t come back,” Elwyn whispered, “I thought you would be angry.”
Elwyn explained what had happened with the fish, and the mermaid did her best not to show her anger. The mark on his ear still showed where he had been hit. Once she had reassured him that she was in no way angry with him she asked, her heart in her throat, if he would return with her to the sea.
“Go back with you?”
“Yes!” the mermaid smiled. “I can take you with me, I’ll give you a tail like mine.” She paused and took a deep breath. “But if you come with me you can never come back here.”
She waited for Elwyn to reply, her hands shaking more from fear than from the cold for the first time since she had crawled from the river. Elwyn looked back at the village and at the mine in the distance. He hated it here, and now that he spent the days in the mines he hated it even more. They were hot and dirty. The large carts of coal that he had to pull crawling through the tunnels were so heavy at times he felt like his back would break. Martyn had left for the sea to escape the mines, and in his letters home to his mother Martyn always seemed so happy with his choice.
“Will you stay with me? If I go back with you?”
“Yes! Always, for as long as I can.”
Elwin nodded, his mouth pressed firmly into a thin line, helped her stand and walked back towards the bridge. Once at the riverside the mermaid told him to go back to the village and return to the bridge that night.
“You must be sure,” the mermaid reiterated one last time. “If you wish to stay on land, you may. I will return here each day if you choose to stay.”
Elwyn nodded and ran back to the village. That final day in the mines seemed to last forever. Hour after hour he pushed the heavy coal filled carts along the tracks. Black phlegm specked his sleeve each time he coughed. He hated it down here. It was hot, cramped and dark. Every rumble in the distance filling him with fear that there would be a rockfall, and that he would be left here, crushed under the rubble to die alone, just as his father and grandfather had done. He knew his brother Martyn had hated it too. But his mother had missed Martyn when he left. She would not miss him, he was sure of that.
In the river, the mermaid lay on the riverbed, hidden in the shadow from the bridge above. Afraid, she reached for the knife and pressed it against her thigh. The merman had warned her that Elwyn’s tail would come at a price, but never had she dreamed that she would need to make it from her own. Still, she clenched her jaw shut and pressed down firmly. If this was the price, she was willing to pay it.
Scrape by scrape she sliced under the scales and peeled back sheets of bloodied fresh merskin away from her tail. The merman had warned her that this would be the easier way: to remove her skin quickly once it had grown back from walking on land. If left any longer, it would be too painful to remove; mermaid skin was naturally very tough. Her mouth agape in a silent scream, the mermaid continued to peel away her skin and the water clouded with her blood, until exactly one half of the skin on her tail had been removed. Exhausted, the mermaid sat huddled at the bottom of the river and began to weave mersilk as quickly as she could to sew her skin into a tail, while her exposed bloodied flesh streamed thin rivulets of crimson. The sun had already risen and soon it would be midday. She only had a few hours.
Elwyn kept his eyes fixed on the bridge and did not look back as, covered in coal dust, he passed his mother’s house. From the doorway of the school village, Lowri scowled at him and reached for a stone to throw. She ran after him, hand raised to pelt him, but to her surprise, he turned and faced her down.
Lowri laughed. “Or what?” she teased, her hand still raised.
Angry, Elwyn shoved her away from him as hard as he could. She stumbled and fell, only to get up and charge after him. She chased him out of the village and towards the bridge. Elwyn ran fast enough to reach the bridge long before her. With a smile on his face he skidded down the bank, into the river, his arms outstretched to the water.
Lori reached the bridge panting heavily, the stone still in her hand.
Frightened, the looked down to the river from the bridge edge. She did not dare climb down the bank.
She looked over both sides of the bridge, but nobody was there. Step by step she slowly crept down the bank towards the riverside, the stone still in her hand.
Nobody was there.
Under the surface of the water, the mermaid’s face lit up as Elwyn took his first breath. He winced, alarmed at the sensation of water in his lungs. The mermaid held his hands tightly and breathed in and out in front of him. Elwyn mimicked her and the pain in his sides gradually subsided. With one last deep breath, he felt a sharp twinge, looked down, and saw gills had grown between his ribs. It was no longer painful to breathe. It was effortless. He smiled and unfurled his new tail and admired how the iridescent black skin had fused to his own. He flexed his toes, and the fins rippled. His new tail was almost twice the length of the rest of his body.
From above a stone fell through the water and struck Elwyn’s head. Cushioned by the water, the stone barely even hurt. Lowri had not intended to hit him. She had not even realised he was there and had cast the stone carelessly over her shoulder as she began to climb back up the muddy bank.
The mermaid leaped and struck. Lowri screamed and clawed at the grass, but the mermaid dragged her down into the water and pinned her to the bottom of the river. The precious air left Lowri’s lungs in a howled plume of bubbles. The mermaid’s murderous black eyes, large as coals, and rows of exposed sharp teeth, inches from her face, paralysed Lowri with fear. She did not doubt that the mermaid wanted to kill her, and would have if the other creature had not suddenly flung her up onto the bank with a flick of its tail.
Without a second thought, Elwyn raced down the river, excited and eager to reach the ocean. The bridge was soon far behind. He wanted to see the algae forests the mermaid had spoken of and the ravines illuminated by strange creatures that glowed like blue coals. He wanted to see this strange new world, but most of all, he wanted to leave the old one far behind him.
Martyn Morgen was not the first sailor to report having seen ghosts at sea. When his mother wrote to him, informing him of his brother’s disappearance and possible death, he assumed it was only grief that showed him Elwyn’s face peeping over the gunwale. Each time he dismissed it, and since the vision never followed him onto the deck, he took it as merely a product of his imagination.
The second time he saw Elwyn’s ghost, it smiled at him. He saw that Elwyn’s red hair had been soaked straight by the sea before another pair of hands reached up from below the water and took the apparition back down into the ocean.
The third time, at midnight, a hard object struck Martyn on the back of his neck. He turned, ready to beat the sailor he assumed had thrown it, only to stare into his younger brother’s eyes. Elwyn lowered his arm, grinning broadly. Only then did Martyn notice the tail which shimmered in the moonlight. Elwyn’s legs had been replaced by a long serpentine tail which had hooked itself through the gunport for support.
Elwyn opened his mouth to speak with an eery and unintelligible sound. Martyn stepped forward to reach for him, but Elwyn shook his head and began to uncurl his tail from the gunport.
With a gentle splash, Elwyn dived back beneath the water. Martyn started over the taffrail and called down at the water. For one last time, Elwyn rose from the water and smiled at his brother. Martyn stared down at him, oddly sure that this was the last time he would ever see him. He raised a shaky hand and waved. Elwyn did the same, smiled one last time, and disappeared back to his ocean home forever.