Lily padded softly through the cool mud to the river. It was a glowing day; the sun filtered through the trees turning them a thousand shades of green and the scent of moss was thick in her nose. She loosed her blonde hair from its ribbon prison and shook it out vigorously, the sudden movement disturbing the birds in the bushes by her toes. She smiled happily and removed her jacket, thick petticoat, stockings, dress and shoes until she stood in a short, frilly cotton shift. Lily stretched her arms out wide, the sun illuminating her pale, freckled skin and moved carefully towards the water. There was a thick layer of pine needles covering the mud and made the journey all the more hazardous, but she eventually felt the gentle coolness of the river against her bare feet. Not hesitating, she ran out into deeper waters and plunged head first under the blue reflection of the sky. Under the water were smooth, worn rocks and spinning galaxies of earth thrown about by her movement. Tiny fish moved in schools beneath her, darting for cover and long strands of weed brushed her calves and toes. Once, they scared her, imaginary monsters threatening to drag her down to the murky depths, but now they came as a reassuring touch. No-one could find her down here. This was her place; her paradise. She resurfaced and looked at the surrounding banks: thick moss covered most of the stones turning them a rich green that remained until her dying day her favourite colour; tall pine, oak and ash sentinels guarded her sanctuary in snug lines near the wide stream, with a single willow marking her preferred swimming place – they were her silent ancient angels, always watching and guarding; bushy clans of baby tears grew where moss did not and bees, butterflies and birds often made an appearance among the wildflowers in summer, as it was now. Lily lay on her back, nose and chest tickled by the breeze and she laughed at the clouds, for the feeling of freedom was such she felt giddy beyond words. Here, in her place, there was no-one to stare at her strangely for giggling, no-one o scold her for impropriety; there was no-one to care about anything she did.
And to Lily Blackwood, that was the best feeling of all.
The girl-fish moved through the water with lightning speed. Her long brown tail flashed through the water with precision and anger. In her mind jumbled words formed, but she pushed them away. She could not listen to her humanity right now. She must be a fish, quick, stealthy and silent. Humans were stupid, she knew that much from watching them when she swam near their dwellings. Fish were intelligent. Fish thinking would get her out. She slammed her body against the large pile of stone blocking her entrance, yelping in pain at the roughness of the rock. These stones had not yet been smoothed by the river’s patient waters and left deep gashes in her soft, mud-covered flesh. She let out a gush of air in frustration. Her gills, situated just above her hips, just below the water, let out a spray of mist and bubbles as she moved agitatedly around the cave. In little clefts along the nearest wall, trinkets sat: a small disc of unbreakable silver stone, a stick that had a big ball on the end and a thick, fragile square filled with smaller squares. It was made of some sort of leaf, the girl-fish thought, but she knew not to get it wet, because the markings within began to fade. It wasn’t all human things, however. Some were seashells from down the river, where the water stung her eyes, and some were sparkly pebbles she had found while swimming in the cold streams up the large, white covered hills. She didn’t like that place too much, so she kept to the lower rivers and lakes. She tried digging through the tough rubble, but it only made her fingers bleed so she stopped and thumped it with her long muddy tail, scales flying. Eventually she was hurt everywhere and she retreated to the warm pond that sat at the back of the cave. The hot bubbles rose up and popped, sending a tiny splash and an earthy smell in her direction. She climbed over the rocks blocking it off from the rest of the water and sank down, covering her wounds with steaming liquid. She let out a long breath once her head was under and fell asleep, promising to try again later. Bubbles stroked her skin like a loving parent, and she dreamt, lulled by the low rumble of the water.
Lily climbed out of the water, shivering. The sun had gone behind the mountains now, and while everything had turned a stunning gold and the stars had begun to sparkle like jewels, the night chill was setting in and she quickly covered herself with an old cloak she brought for drying purposes. She watched the birds returning to their nests, carrying straw and food for their young and sighed. What she wouldn’t give to grow feathers and impose on their insubstantial feast. But this was a foolish dream, and she quickly shook it from her mind. She gathered up her things and began to pull items of clothing onto her still damp body. She piled her hair up artfully so as to disguise the fact it had been wet and fastened it with a length of ribbon. She slipped her boots on and roughly retied the laces and sighed as she straightened her back. The small cave across the river caught her eye. Hadn’t there been a gaping hole there last week? She dismissed the difference, chalking it up to a small landslide or some other erosion. Such things were common in these untouched woods. Slowly she hiked the few miles back to the house, a large old structure poorly in need of repair. The only way it stayed presentable was with paint and nails these days, and they rarely had visitors. From within the creaking boards she could hear shouting, a thundering voice crushing the feeble opposition. She crept around the side door and moved silently past the kitchen, where her mother bellowed savagely at her father. She was a thickset woman with once-blonde curls spitting out in jagged angles, saliva flying as she screeched about a pan that had not been washed properly. Her father, an underfed simpleton who was always impeccably dressed, cowered in the corner, though he stood six-foot-seven without shoes. The beginnings of tears were dribbling down his cheeks and Lily knew if she did not keep moving she would be caught in the cross-fire. All the same she wanted to scream.
Get up. Get up and fight, damn you.
But he never did. Just sat there, quivering and sobbing, like a wounded rabbit. She frowned and moved on, making her way to her bedroom, a sad, mouldy thing. Her mother never considered it an important part of the house (“Who will see it, dear?”) so it never got much care or attention. Unlike Lily herself. Her mother wanted everyone to see her. She often wondered how high her mother had her standards now. When they began looking for a suitor, Mrs Ricarda Blackwood aimed for princes, dukes and lords. Now, the grocery boy seemed a likely option should he ever look at Lily, or accidentally brush her hand as she reached for the radishes. Beauty, it seems, was quickly overruled when they discovered she loathed their hands on her, even if it was only her forearm. She tried to relax, she tried to be calm and fall in love with these gentlemen. But their touch disgusted her and whenever she imagined … being … with one of them … She grimaced and turned to her bookshelf. On it sat three bound volumes: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, and an old flimsy thing she found in a box beneath the house, left by the previous owners. It was called Gunther’s Complete Guide to Baby Names and it was her favourite book. Not because she ever wanted children, or didn’t think she did, but because of the meanings behind the names. Lily, of course, simply meant the flower, but some were more exciting. Kerry, for instance means “son of the dark one”. Lily had many theories as to how that came about. She imagined a knight, dressed in sharp black armour atop a hellish mare, sword encased in fire and eyes glowing red. Marcia meant “of Mars”. She loved the thought of a being from another planet. She pictured a proud monarch, dressed in heavy gold chains and flowing crimson silk, with skin darkened by the sun and amber eyes. Her mother’s name was nothing if not apt, for its definition was, according to Gunther, “powerful ruler”. Her father’s was less marvellously appropriate – Lloyd: “meaning grey-haired”, although she had an inkling that would apply very soon. The man was constantly in an anxious state due to being attacked whenever he rounded a corner. She enjoyed flicking through the names and thinking up stories for their meanings. Until her mother crashed through the door.
“Lily. Get dressed. We’re going out. You need to impress. Now.”
With that, the broad women thumped the door closed and left Lily to prepare herself. She looked down at her clothes. Wasn’t she dressed already? As she looked at herself in the mirror and decided to change, as it was what her mother wanted, she heard a cry in the night. A long, wailing tune, like a wolf underwater. She ran to her window which looked out upon the woods where her beloved river lay. The noise seemed to shatter the quiet dusk that had settled over the trees like mist, and her stomach turned. Just a wild animal, poor thing, she thought uneasily, but Lily knew she was lying to herself. That wasn’t an animal… She only hoped she was wrong.
The girl-fish screamed in anguish. She wanted the river on her fins; she wanted currents coursing through her hair; she wanted to stretch out beneath the little waterfall by the big rock up the river. She wanted to swim. And, come to think of it, eat. She’d attempted to break out of her prison a dozen more times but all in vain. Something was blocking the pile of rubble she was slowly chipping away from the outside, something huge and heavy. She slumped back under the water and stared dejectedly at the sky. When the entrance caved in, so did the roof, so there was nought but open sky to shelter her from the wind and falling leaves. It helped that the weather was warm, at least. The night-sun was just peeking over the edge of the jagged curved walls, but was full and bright. The girl-fish stretched her arms and studied them in the silver light. Her skin was stained a light grey from mud and sediment in the rivers and streams, and patches of green mosses and algae made their home on her shoulders and stomach. Her fingers were webbed, with thin patches of skin joining the digits. She moved them powerfully through the water, creating a tiny whirlpool highlighted in white flashes by the night-sun. She thought about the girl she saw so often on the banks. The river was very wide, and the girl-fish mostly kept away from the human side. But she liked this girl with the bright sun-hair. She did not swim very well, but it was amusing to watch. Her favourite part of the sun girl’s visits were when she shed the frilled skins she wore and transformed from a fearful animal to an excited, free fish. Not really, the girl-fish giggled, emitting a chuckle of bubbles from her gills and looking down at her lengthy shimmering tail. The sun girl didn’t have one of these. Once she swam closer than usual to her, moving against the river’s bottom so she wouldn’t be seen, staring with curiosity and slight disgust at the long, clumsy limbs the sun girl had instead of a tail. The girl-fish knew from experience this is what humans normally looked like, but it was still strange. They had weird, thick fins at the end of their separate tails and even smaller fins at the ends of those. It confused the girl-fish to no end. The sun girl’s arms and chest looked like her own though, and that pleased her. She thought the sun girl was beautiful, so that meant she must look beautiful, yes? She’d never seen her face before, not properly. Only warped by water and ripples. Sometimes the sun girl would make noises, words from the human language. She only understood parts of what the girl said, from living around humans down river at something called a ‘port’.
“Po-rt,” she said out loud, and was pleased when it sounded passable.
She’d watch the sun girl’s lips move, her tongue wet them and her eyes blink with their single set of eyelids. They reminded her of a large green fish she had seen at the ‘port’ pulled from the water by the humans. Shining scales of all different colours: green, brown, sun, and white. “Po-rt.” The night-sun had come into full view now and she lay on her back, tail moving slowly to keep her afloat. She did need something to eat, but there was nothing in the cave, and she couldn’t get out. The simple truth was: she was trapped. She thought about her male parent, and how far away he was. She thought about her friend, another girl-fish and how last Cold she had been caught in a human ‘net’. She escaped, but now she couldn’t swim because her fins had been torn off. They weren’t going to save her. Her mind floated back to the sun girl. She came to the river almost every day, when the sun was low in the sky and the birds all went to rest. If she waited until then… maybe the sun girl would save her. For a desperate and hungry mind, this plan sufficed, and the girl-fish began her vigil, watching the stars dance across the sky the entire night, never sleeping, fuelled by hope in the shape of a human girl.
Lily looked around nervously at all the young men her mother had compiled in for a party. She had invited them all out, through her husband, by using the lure of cigars, heavy alcohol and the latest racing results. All men young and old had attended because, whimpering as he was around his wife, Lloyd Blackwood was quite a friendly and confident fellow around his peers and they enjoyed his company. However, upon realising all of this was a scam by his wife to find a suitable mate for their daughter, it seems his popularity took a turn for the worst.
“I say, Lloyd, did you really all bring us here so we could inspect your prize filly instead of the one that brought home another cup?” Laughter all around, echoing harshly in Lily’s ears. She blushed profusely and stared at her hands. Her mother was not present, as she would not be welcome in a gentleman’s club, but Lily heard her scolds nevertheless.
Back straight. Smile. Be a lady for God’s sake. Oh, what am I going to do with you? Fickle fool.
Her father chuckled along politely and directed his daughter towards the far corner. When they were out of earshot, he bent down to her normal-person height and grimaced apologetically.
“I’m sorry, Goldilocks,” he winced. “You’re mother… she insisted and…” Lily hated him for that. But like the lady she was, she didn’t show it.
“It’s not your fault, Father. I will acquaint myself with some of these young men and attempt to worm my way into their hearts with my looks and inherent charm. Who knows? I may be wed by the morning!” She threw her hands up sarcastically and Lloyd Blackwood grinned despite himself.
“Don’t ever speak like that around your mother, my dear,” he warned, and meandered off to his peerage, head dipping to avoid a polished chandelier. Lily inspected the room, finding the youngest faces. Most were handsome, others not so much, but they all had the same expression: snobby. The self-satisfaction practically dripped from the walls. They all wore suits, and held multi-faceted glasses of brandy, mooning about the recent win by freakish race horse Gushing Guinevere. Lily mentally flipped through Gunther’s Complete Guide to Guinevere: “fair phantom”. She liked that. She looked at some of the advertisements on the walls for whiskey and fine cigars, matching their names to their meanings. She did this for at least ten minutes before she was approached by Mr Keane Talbot. “Sharp-witted” “bloodhound” says Gunther. His jawline was strong and straight, his eyes smoky and amused, his hair dark and oiled. Lily knew he was handsome, but she didn’t feel anything that felt like attraction. Most girls would swoon under this boy’s gaze; Lily just felt tired and a little impressed by how well-pressed his dinner suit was. She wondered if his mother did it, or if they had a maid. He too leaked snobbery and he wore a gold ring embedded with diamonds.
She guessed maid.
“Oh, hello, Lily Blackwood. How goes the husband hunting? Shall I speak to you and kill your mother with over-excitement? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” he gesticulated mockingly, walking ever closer.
“No, good sir, I shall compare thee. Sweaty, ridden with flies and without respite from the beating sun above,” she replied, and the slick young man was thrown. Clearly no-one spoke to little Keane Talbot in such a manner. Lily thought he looked like he was drowning. It was hilarious. “Would you like to try again? Maybe you could call me a hussy or whore? I have a rather witty comeback that involves a cow, a duck and a large posterior,” she deadpanned, and he straightened his jacket indignantly.
“You truly are a miserable woman. I pity the man that marries you,” and he stormed away. Lily sighed as she imagined her mother beating her over the head with a worn hand. Another one that got away. A figure sidled up to her from the shadows. She spun, squeaking with fright, but a steady hand rested on her forearm.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to scare you, Miss.” The voice was young and soft, and a boy of seventeen or eighteen years moved into her line of vision. His half of his face tipped to one side, as if it had melted and begun to dribble downward. He moved with a limp and one of his shoulders came up near to his ear. He stood a good three inches shorter than her and looked up at her with watery blue eyes. She knew she ought to be disgusted, but she was merely curious. He looked at her with such fear and apology that Lily felt the need to comfort him rather than run screaming or turn in offense.
“No, that’s…that’s quite alright.” The hunchback relaxed his already-gentle grip on her arm and took a step back.
“No, I owe the apology. I should not have snuck up in such a manner, especially looking like this…”
“I assure you, Mr…?”
“Uh, Sweeney. Morgan Sweeney.”
“Mr Sweeney, I assure you, I do not hold it against you. I am easily spooked at night time. My name is Lily Blackwood. My father is over there, by the brandy, Lloyd Blackwood. We live out near Merritt’s Hill.” She held out a hand and Morgan Sweeney took it hesitantly.
“Charmed, I truly am. My father is not present tonight, I’m afraid. He is at home. My family resides in the southern port of Stafford.”
“Oh! I’ve been to Stafford! What a charming little village. I remember hearing a tale of mer-people living in your waters,” she whispered conspiratorially and Morgan smiled good-naturedly.
“Yes, well I have not yet seen one with my eyes, I’m afraid.” Lily pouted.
“What a pity. I suppose they’ve all been caught then, poor creatures.”
“I do hope Mr Talbot was not disturbing you? He seems to have little respect for anyone, let alone women.”
“Please,” she said dismissively, “I’ve been dealing with children like Talbot all my life. He means little. How long are you staying in this fine municipality, Mr Sweeney?” The young man seemed to continually be astounded that she continued the conversation willingly, and was not about to question the surprising turn of events.
“Uh, the summer, Miss Blackwood. My parents believed it would be for the best were I to leave the family home for a number of months in an attempt to “get out and explore” the world.” He chuckled nervously. “So here I am. Exploring. I suppose I’ve been at the very least a little successful, for never before have I seen a creature so fair as you, Miss Lily Blackwood.” Lily liked this Morgan Sweeney. She could get used to his presence.
“Mr Morgan, I do believe we will be good friends.”
Lily lay awake that night, blonde hair spilled out on her pillow. She could hear her mother downstairs, snoring loudly. No doubt her father was in the spare room, his regular hovel ever since her parents’ marriage commenced. She reflected on the events of the day and concluded that it had been a good one after all. Although she had been paraded through a crowd of men like a second-rate filly, accepting any offers that came forward, her mother finally realised no-one in this town would have her. It would take at least another month for her to build up the contacts out of the area to suggest marriage, leaving Lily a month free of behaving like a show pony. But she still felt lonely in her tiny bed, knowing there would be no-one to warm it. For while her mother knew that no man within this municipality would take her, she herself knew that the law applied to the entire gender.
No man would marry her. And although this was a relieving truth, it was a lonely one.
She looked out her window to the moon hanging precariously against the velvet sheet of night. Studs of stars were sown into the universe’s fabric and she sighed in longing, the movement rustling her worn, white sheet. If only she could become a bird, or a cat, or perhaps a fish. Then she would truly be free.
The sun hung low in the sky, and the girl-fish heard the tell-tale splashing of the sun girl’s clumsy strokes. She was singing today, a strange warbling tune. The girl-fish could only pick single fragile words from the quivering symphony. Bird, free, trees, love… She stopped listening to get back to the matter at hand. The girl-fish moved away from the hot spring and into the middle of cave, where there was the gaping open roof. She moved her tail into a coil beneath her and threw her head back. A single gush of air from her human mouth triggered her voice, so rarely used, and she let out a wail – a cry for help from across the river. She ceased after a few seconds and listened for the sun girl. She had stopped singing. The river was running quickly today, but the girl-fish was used to its song. She listened behind it and knew the human had stopped splashing around. She cried out again, longer this time and higher. The sun girl still wasn’t coming to her rescue. One more time.
The third scream was the worst. It felt like a fist to Lily’s stomach. She could stand it no longer, and began to swim quickly to the other side of the river. It was coarse and rough today – she shouldn’t be swimming in such conditions. But the cries were too much. Whatever poor creature, human or beast, was in trouble, she could not sit idly by while it wailed in pain. She vaguely knew it was coming from downstream, but she couldn’t tell exactly where. Her eyes searched frantically along the banks when they came above water, and her arms pushed feverishly against the current. Water filled her ears, eyes, nostrils, mouth, anywhere it could get, and she almost stopped halfway with the pure intention of clearing them; but Lily knew if she ceased swimming the river, the monster that was her only true friend, would take her down to his depths in his slipper clutches.
“Not today,” she gasped and lunged forward into the water.
Sun girl was coming. The girl-fish spun in a tight circle happily. She was about to be let out of this hole! She let out a final shout to lure her rescuer to where she was imprisoned. But… what if the sun girl didn’t want to let her go? She remembered her time at the ‘port’ and how angrily the fish-catchers protected their fish. She’d seen humans fighting over the corpses of shimmering fish, scrunched up faces and teeth bared. Suddenly she was afraid. What if the girl saw she was half a giant fish and decided not to save her? What if she kept her? The girl-fish became more agitated. She’d heard tales of humans who trapped her people and took them away. The beautiful girl who loved the river as much as she could not be capable of that. Could she? The girl-fish looked at the sky, splintered with golden rays and took a deep breath.
Lily panted as she tread tiredly through the churning water, her pale hair plastered against her cheeks. She felt the last of her strength wash away with the current. There was a large, heavy log not far away… if she could reach it… She stretched out a shaking arm and grasped the sagging wood, pulling herself close to hide from the relentless pull of the water. The creature had stopped crying, or at least she couldn’t hear it over the crash and rumble of the liquid that was, at the moment, her entire world. She could think of little more than staying away from its cold grip that so persistently demanded she join the sediment at its bottom. Now the voice had stopped, Lily regretted her decision. How would she reach the other side again? She was growing weaker. She had two choices. Make for one final push to the creature, or use her remaining energy to try to swim back home. Her arm slipped against the water-logged trunk and she was swallowed up by the thick wet monster. She reached blindly for a hold on anything, but soon gave up. A strange peace overcame her and she wondered what awaited her at home. A coward father; an abusive mother; a sagging bedroom roof. Perhaps the river was meant to take her. She’d thought of dying, but didn’t think she could do it herself. This was good. As she relaxed completely, ready for the air to escape her lungs and the river to take its place, she heard a piercing scream. It was like a whip, cracking through the water so clearly her ears hurt.
Curse this. She was not dying today. She pushed downwards with her near-limp arms and her toes found the smooth, pebbled bottom. Crouching against the push of the water, she thrust up towards the surface with all she had left and broke through the surface in a rush of foam.
The girl-fish waited anxiously at the entrance to the cave, trying in vain to scrape away some of the rubble blocking her way. She felt hunger gnawing at her stomach now, and her arms were getting tired. She heard the sun girl stop splashing furiously towards her – she was outside the cave’s entrance. She let out a cry, trying to sound distressed instead of joyous so the human would not give up. She hear stones shifting and falling with thuds to the river’s floor. The human was weak – she could hear that. Her breathing was laboured and her movements slow. But she was not giving up, and this excited the girl-fish. She howled again and the sun girl quickened her digging. More and more dirt and stone was falling to the bottom of the gushing river and finally a crack of sunlight flickered through the entrance. The girl-fish splashed in happiness and began to claw at the hole to help the sun girl. She thrust her webbed hand through the chink, brown-green scales scratching against the rock and she heard a scream, followed by a splash. The sun girl was under the water once again, and this time she was too weak to save herself. The girl-fish hacked savagely at the rubble around her arm, crashing down to remove the obstacles. When the hole was large enough she broke through and slid quickly into the water. She saw the sun girl’s grasping hand bobbing haphazardly downriver and sped in her direction. After two days trapped, her tail stretched out to its magnificent length and she shot through the water like an eel, her long dark hair streaming out behind her like black seaweed. She dodged hidden tree trunks and huge boulders, slicing her way through them like an obstacle course and came up beside the human, her eyes closed and skin pale. The girl-fish wrapped a strong arm around her chest and pushed towards the willow tree where the sun girl’s frilly skins sat. She crossed the river in a short time and threw the human against the soft soil. If there was one thing she knew about humans, it was they couldn’t breathe underwater. Her female parent had saved many dying humans when she lived and had shown her child-fish how. The girl-fish hauled herself from the water and pressed hard on the sun girl’s chest. She did it again and again, panting. She was tired and soon going to run out of air. Normally she could stay above for much longer, but she’d been swimming feverishly. She slithered to the river and took a deep breath, returning to the human. She placed her pale pink lips to the sun girl’s blue ones and exhaled, then pushed on her chest again. Finally, after what seemed like a day and a night, the shivering girl opened her eyes and mouth, hacking up cold, muddy water. The girl-fish moved away quickly, stopping near the shore as the human sat up grabbing the soil and coughing up the river onto her legs. The girl-fish watched warily, remembering how their last encounter had proceeded. The sun girl began to breathe more easily and raised her moss green eyes to the figure sitting in front of her.
‘I’ve gone mad’ was the first comprehensible thought that rang through Lily’s mind. Her body felt like it had been dragged through a quarry and her lungs had been filled with cider. But that wasn’t what she was most aware of at the time. No, the thing she was most aware of happened to be a mermaid. Sitting smack-bang in front of her looking quite flushed and quite timid. It all came rushing through her head. The river; the swimming; almost dying; the creature; the webbed hand; almost dying again… She gasped and looked down at the mermaid’s hands. They were just like the ones that almost clawed her eyes out. She could feel her heart quickening and a scream building inside her throat. What is happening? There was a seemingly real half woman – half fish sitting in front of her. She feared for her sanity even more when the mermaid dipped her head touched her bare chest. Lily quickly raised her eyes from the girl’s indecency and let out in a shaky voice, “Are you what was stuck in the cave?” She heard no answer and had to tilt her head downwards to see the mermaid’s head. It was cocked to the right, and her pretty mouth was screwed up. Of course, she probably couldn’t understand English. Oh, of course, a snide voice in her head muttered, how did we not think of that. She frowned and pointed in the direction of the cave.
“Cave,’ she said and pointed to the fish-woman, “you,” then she made a motion as if trapped behind a wall, “stuck?”
The look of concentration on the mermaid’s face was so severe, Lily wondered if even that was too complex. But her saviour broke into a toothy grin and clapped her webbed hands. Her scales twinkled in the now setting sun and Lily gasped at their beauty. Her lower body was a rich array of browns, blacks, greens, blues and even a hint of burnt gold. Scales lined the tops of her arms from shoulder to fingertips, and her eyes had a strange, glazed look to them and overly large pupils. Lily realised with a start the maid had two pairs of eyelids; one clear and one like hers. The mermaid seemed as interested in her as she was of the fish-woman. She leaned forward tentatively to poke at one of Lily’s toes and she giggled against her will. The mermaid looked frightened, but as Lily was not running away, must have saw it was okay. She tickled her toes a few more times and stopped when Lily batted her hand away laughing. “I’m Lily,” she said, pointing at her face. “Lily,” she repeated and the mermaid nodded, and pointed at Lily’s chest. “L-lil…ee. Li-lee,” she stuttered. Lily laughed and clapped her hands like the fish-woman did to convey her understanding. What was she doing? She was laughing with a mermaid. This was not a normal occurrence. The mermaid suddenly frowned again, gasped a little and turned towards the water.
“No! Please don’t go!” Lily cried, stumbling to her feet weakly. Her rescuer slipped quietly into the water and looked once more at her. Her eyes were sad as she placed a thumb to her lips and kissed it, then swam quickly away. It must have been some sort of goodbye and Lily stood on the soil heartbroken. She had just met a creature she would never have the chance to meet again, or so she figured. The mermaid had headed downriver, towards Stafford and the sea. She sloshed into the shallows and watched as her mermaid’s tail sent up a spray of silvery mist against the purple sky, disappearing forever.
Lily sat beside the fire warming her hands. Her mother had sworn and cussed at her lighting it due to it being the summer months, but upon seeing she was close to contracting pneumonia had helped light it herself and brought thick, scratchy blankets for her. Anything for her beautiful daughter who would bring them out of financial destitution. She stared into the flames and thought about the mermaid. The dark gold in her tale looked like the cracking embers in the hearth, the deep brown resembled the muted wood of the mantelpiece, the black the iron of the grate and the deep greens… she looked down at her leather chair which was almost the same colour. But it wasn’t enough. These things were not as… alive as her saviour’s tail. Lily’s hair sat in a damp plait across her shoulder and she shivered, moving closer to the fire. She stopped to look at her toes. What would it be like to have a tail? She wriggled the digits and frowned, trying to imagine a fish’s lower body, fins where she had feet. What colour would her tail be? Where would she live? Well, obviously the river was her favourite place, even though it had tried to kill her today, but she’d always wanted to visit the ocean. Maybe she’d see the mermaid again… they could be friends. She scoffed at herself. What was the point of all this? Imagining something that would never happen. The mermaid probably didn’t even exist – was just a concoction brewed by her oxygen-deprived mind. It was pitiful. This is what Lily Blackwood told herself.
It was not what she believed.
‘What now?’ thought the girl-fish, rushing downriver. She stopped swimming and rested on a slime-ridden boulder, staring up at the stars blinking faintly through the rumbling water. A group of tiny, dark brown fish swam around her hair, looking for algae to eat. They nipped at her ears and she batted them away softly, her deep blue eyes straying in a memory. She thought of the sun girl’s… Lily’s…smile and how she’d clapped. She’d spoken to a human. Apart from her female parent she knew of no other fish-person who had made peaceful contact with the beings without tails. She watched the miniature fish wriggle out of her hair, full bellies, and struggle back upstream. She smiled and stretched her tail once more. The river felt cool and fresh against her tail and washed away the little blood left from the cuts she got bashing against the cave’s entrance. She liked that cave. She’d come across it one day when she came down from the high, cold rivers. Lily had been there that day, swimming about. She’d almost bumped into the human and had to quickly dart out of the way, hiding in the cave. She found the hot spring and its safe, quiet refuge. It was her favourite place since that day. And she liked watching Lily. She felt bad she had to leave so quickly, but she was running out of air and she heard someone in the land-weeds. It was as if they were already friends. Maybe they were. The girl-fish splashed toward the ‘port’ happily. She would return tomorrow to properly meet her friend.
Lily nervously picked at her hands waiting by the door. Keane Talbot had been invited over for luncheon by her demon of a mother. She hadn’t given the boy a chance to cool down from the other night when Lily bested him in conversation. He was sure to make a terrible mockery of her and snuggle up quite close to Mrs Blackwood, something she would greatly approve of.
“I don’t understand why you do not take to Lord Talbot’s son, ungrateful fool of a girl,” her mother muttered savagely, tugging at the ribbons of her dress, “He’s strong, handsome, rich…”
“And I’m sure he has a rather large reproduction organ, mother. He sounds like God’s gift to women.” Her mother had slapped her then, quite rightly she supposed.
“You shameless hussy. Along this path you shall ruin this family.”
“How do you ruin a family already in ruins?” Lily muttered.
“Be quiet, wench. This is an enormous opportunity today, and I will be damned to Hell if I will let you make a mockery of the next Lord Talbot.” With that, she left the room, absurd skirts swishing, and shouted something at her husband.
“You already are damned, mother. Me flinging peas at Keane Talbot’s face isn’t going to change that,” she muttered and looked out the window in the direction of the river. She wondered if her mermaid was at the sea yet, down near Stafford. Perhaps she was caught in a net. The thought distressed her awfully and she held a hand tightly against her bed rail. But sanity prevailed, and she scolded herself for thinking such nonsense.
At ten minutes to one, a soft, sharp knock resounded upon the door. Mrs Blackwood rushed towards it excitedly.
“Oh, young Mr Talbot is early. That’s a good thing in a man – punctuality,” she noted to Lily and directing a sneer at her husband. “Isn’t it, Lloyd?”
“Whatever you say, dear,” he chirruped nervously. Ricarda scoffed condescendingly.
“No backbone, that one,” she said to Lily and opened the door wide to reveal a young man.
But not the one they were expecting.
“Mr Sweeney!” Lily exclaimed happily, recognising the hunchback. “What are you doing here?” Her mother showed marked displeasure at her daughter’s enthusiasm, but moved towards Morgan with a broad smile.
The young man bowed slightly and blushed. “I do hope I’m not imposing upon you, my good lady,” he said humbly to Mrs Blackwood, who seemed caught off guard by being addressed ‘lady’, “But I was merely walking through your part of the town and I didn’t wonder if perhaps I could impose upon you for a visit. If it were to the lady’s predilection?” He again motioned to Lily’s mother, and again she seemed at a loss for words at his politeness. His mother had openly expressed disgust at her mention of the hunchback about his appearance, but now she seemed almost smitten.
Or as smitten as her mother could get…
“Well, we were just setting the table. I suppose we could lay you a place. Mr Keane Talbot, son of Lord Talbot will be present.” Mr Morgan Sweeney smiled courteously and moved across the threshold.
“It would be my enormous pleasure to share a table with any of you fine people,” he grinned, half of his mouth down near his chin struggling to lift. Smiling must be awfully painful for him. He gripped her father’s hand with a gracious nod and shuffled over to Lily. He was dressed in a dark navy suit, cut to fit his figure quite snugly. She held out her hand smiling brightly. This was a surprise, and a good one at that. Morgan’s company was far preferable to the half-wit Talbot. He arrived not long after Mr Sweeney, entering the house obviously expecting a more gracious reception than he received.
“Mr Talbot,” Lily had said by way of greeting, before leaving the door open for him to walk through and resuming her conversation with Morgan. They were speaking of Stafford and its local mythology.
“Well, as I was saying a number of sailors and ship-hands have come forward, claiming they were rescued from the deep by some maid with fins, but they were always half drowned and feverish. I highly doubt, no matter how appealing the notion might sound, that there are any…”
“But if someone whom you knew to be utterly sane came to you, speaking of mer-people, protesting furiously that she had seen one of these mythical beings with her own… their own eyes, would you believe them?” Morgan’s face screwed up in concentration, making his features seem, surprisingly, a little more normal.
“I suppose. But before completely investing my trust in their judgement, I would have to see this mer-person myself. One believes something because a satisfactory amount of evidence has been examined. No offense to this…source,” he said, glancing at her, “but I would need to physically be in the presence of such a creature to verify its existence.”
“In short: poppycock,” Lily replied sulkily. The hunchback held out a soft, twisted hand.
“No, no, no, my dear friend. Not at all. In short: my eyes. I must see it to believe it.” Lily’s eyes drifted to the window to the woods and frowned. Keane Talbot strut over, preening his feathers.
The overgrown peacock, thought Lily. He placed a hand on the mantle-piece above her head, smirking smugly. Apparently the lukewarm welcome had not dulled his intent on making the Blackwood’s daughter as uncomfortable as possible. She shied away from his intimacy and saw a flash of something dangerous in Morgan’s eyes. It felt as though thunder rumbled in the distance and the sky went dark, all in a split second. But when she looked again all she saw was timid calm in his expression.
“Mr Talbot,” he said nervously, “what an honour.” The tall man ignored him, his gaze focussed painfully on Lily’s chest.
“Hello, Miss Blackwood,” he purred to her neckline, “It’s a pleasure to meet you again.”
“Really? I thought one snick from my sharp persona would have sent you running for the bed-covers.”
“Something like that,” he breathe, raising his eyes to hers and moving horrifically close to her lips. She saw Morgan move out of the corner of her eye to push him away, but the man stopped short of her mouth. Talbot inhaled deeply.
“I love the smell of fear,” he smiled demurely, and walked away to speak with Lloyd Blackwood. Lily let out a shuddery gasp and Morgan held her hand.
“Are you alright?” he asked quietly and she nodded her head. Lily pursed her lips, squared her jaw and sent daggers flying in Keane Talbot’s direction with her mind. He was going to pay for that. She would not be made the fool nor the victim, and never the shaking subordinate her father had become. They sat down for luncheon and Keane moved his chair closer to hers. She promptly shoved a blunt heel down on his boot and she saw his chiselled jaw clench in pain.
“Is anything the matter, sir?” asked Ricarda Blackwood.
“Your cooking is simply too delicious for my inferior tastebuds, my dear woman,” he replied and Morgan smiled secretly at her from across the table.
Lily padded down through the bright green foliage. She was taking the path to the river quite a bit faster than usual, the thick branches scratching her arms. She hurried down the damp path, her boots slipping against the soft dirt and pine needles. Would the mermaid be there? Or would she have left? Lily knew one thing – if she did come back, she was going to see the fish-woman even if it meant coming down here every single day – even when the snow begins to fall or the leaves turn gold. Lily didn’t plan on missing her. She stumbled over mossy roots and twisting blackberry vines until she stood below her willow tree. Her eyes scanned the wide, twisting river for a sign of movement. The water was slower and clearer today, and she could see schools of little fish below the surface. They moved as one unit, dancing and snaking along the river’s bottom; she loved that about fish. All of them twinkled like tiny stars when the sun caught them and for a moment she was mesmerised by their spinning. It wasn’t until the mermaid was near the willow’s roots her eyes moved elsewhere. She gave a small cry and spun around to face the creature. Her heart pounded furiously as the mermaid stared at her with curious eyes. She was smiling with two lines of straight, slightly pointed teeth, half hidden by the gnarled limbs and drooping leaves of the trees above; peeking at her from behind the wood and green. Lily smiled and tip toed toward her.
“Hello,” she waved and the mermaid ducked her head shyly in reply.
She wasn’t sure what to do now. She looked more closely at the girl, taking in her shockingly black hair, tangled with algae and weeds, the tiny rippling fins on her arms and hips, the deep curious blue of her eyes that reminded Lily of bluestone. She had plump, pale lips and her ears were quite small and a little pointed. Lily blushed when she realised she was still without covering on her upper body, save her hair when the mood struck it to protect her decency. The fish-woman edged out from her cover and swam slowly away from the shore, never breaking eye contact with Lily. She was around ten feet out when she stopped and waited patiently. She made a gargling noise and frowned when Lily didn’t respond. She scrunched her face up in that sever concentration and broke out into a grin.
“C…coh….comm…come…” she said, startling Lily and splashing about happily. Lily stood on the dirt and wondered how she knew English.
It didn’t sound like she spoke it fluently.
Nevertheless, it was good not communicating in just hand gestures. The day was warmer than usual, and so Lily was quite glad to be rid of all her petticoat and skirts. The mermaid watched her with an intensity she found unsettling, but she continued to strip her layers of conservative cotton until she stood once again in a plain shift. She toed the water, and upon finding it pleasing hopped in promptly, swimming out to her mermaid.
Lily bobbed up and down hazardously in front of her, her human limbs only just touching the bottom. The girl-fish reached out her arms to balance her friend and Lily looked down at her tail. She took a depth breath in and made noises that bubbled fuzzily into words for the girl-fish.
‘Tail’ was one. ‘Beauty’. ‘Can’t’…a word she didn’t know…‘fish’ was another. Human was a lot harder than she thought. Last night she had travelled to the ‘port’ to talk with one of the old fish. He’d been caught by humans so many times, no-one could remember how many anymore. He said he never got chopped up like the others because he was so little and sick, but had lived longer than any other fish she had known. She’d sat there for a long time, hearing human words and relaying them back to the old fish. Soon she had expanded her vocabulary vastly and bid the old fish a goodbye to meet her friend. She reached out to touch her now, softly on the shoulder. Her hand was cold and slippery against Lily’s warm skin and the human cringed, but after a moment relaxed. The mermaid moved her hand slowly across the girl’s neck and down to her chest. Lily’s breathing quickened and the girl-fish could feel a heavy thumping under her bones. One of her scales got caught on the skin the sun girl had left on, and she tugged gently to free it. Once that was done, her webbed hand rested over the place where Lily’s thumping was strongest.
“Th…an…c…you…” she stammered. The human looked confused.
“What for?” she asked, but the fish-girl didn’t understand this question. So she pointed at the cave, then herself, then Lily and said it again. “Thank…you.” Water welled in Lily’s eyes and the girl-fish panicked. What was happening? Did the river leak through her skin? Why didn’t humans have two blinkers? It would make things easier. She moved to push the water out of Lily’s eyes but the girl caught her wrists.
“No, it’s… okay,” she chuckled and let go. “You’re welcome.” The girl-fish knew these words. The old fish had told her that was how human’s normally responded and she swished her tail happily.
“Do you have a name?” her friend asked. ‘Name’… what had the old fish said? Humans had names. Like sun girl had ‘Lily’. The girl-fish couldn’t remember having a name. She frowned.
“N…n…no.” Lily cocked her head and smiled.
“We will find one for you.”
Lily opened her mouth wide, held a breath and fell below the water, swimming around the mermaid’s shining tail, touching the fins gently, feeling them flex against the water. She was amazed by its strength and how long it was. From the mermaid’s hip to fin was as long as she was herself. The translucent fins were a soft brown, and moved invisibly across the dirt of the river’s depths. As camouflage went, this mermaid was well equipped for the rivers and streams of Lily’s country. She saw the mermaid look down at her through the water’s surface and dive down to meet her face to face. Lily chased her tail and the mermaid jerked out of the way. She came up for air and her friend tickled her toes. She collapsed back into the water in a mess of giggles, her shift floating like a ghost around her. The mermaid swam closer to her until there were but a few inches between them and tugged at the cotton, revealing a bare shoulder. Lily returned to the surface quickly, pushing the shift back up her arm. The mermaid appeared above the water too and cocked her head.
“Now that was very inappropriate of you,” she scolded shakily. The mermaid frowned and moved to touch her again. Lily moved away swiftly and said, “Whatever are you doing?” The mermaid pointed to her own bare chest and then to Lily’s covered one, curiosity lighting those blue-black eyes. She wanted to see if they were the same. Lily looked down at herself, realising for the first time the shift hardly covered much anyway. She’d always been by herself and never really noticed. But she wasn’t about to let someone she just met look at her breasts just to assert their own confidence in their humanity. The mermaid looked hurt and apologetic.
“S…orr…y,” she mumbled and Lily moved back to where she had been.
“It’s okay,” she said, put a hand on her chest then her friend’s. “We are the same here.” The mermaid flounced happily at that. She must have understood at least the ‘same’ part. The next thing Lily knew was she was swimming wildly next to a thought-to-be mythical creature of the deep. Then she stopped and gasped. Her mind raced with meanings from her beloved Gunther, one after another, until finally she found the mermaid a name.
“Loreli.” The mermaid pulled up sharply, ears pricked and cocked her head to listen like a puppy. “Your new name.” Lily pointed at herself and said “Lily,” then gestured at the mermaid. “Loreli.”
Silence at both parties. The mermaid didn’t seem to understand, so Lily repeated the gesture.
“Yes, yes, that’s it!” Lily clapped, and Loreli smiled, repeating the name like a happy chant. Loreli meant, according to Gunther, ‘lurer to the river’. It was perfect.
Loreli liked her ‘name’. She kept saying it over and over. Loreli…Loreli…Loreli… She liked the way the ‘rel’ gargled off her tongue and came out in funny bubbles in the water. She couldn’t wait until tomorrow, when she and Lily could go swimming again. Her male-parent and was still out in the wide blue water, where she came from, but she preferred it up here. Beautiful as it was, it was far too lonely save for the fish and local wildlife. It was good to have a friend, one almost like her, one she could swim with and play and –
A sharp crack echoed through the water, like some slim tree had slapped against the surface. Except Loreli knew it wasn’t one of the wavering saplings along the banks. It was a sound she heard all too often in the ‘port’ downriver: a net. Her sharp eyes examined above the silt and rocks around her, searching for the crossing ropes she knew to avoid. Panic set in and her heart pounded fiercely in her chest. Her head swung from side to side, frantically backing away from where she thought the sound came from. Another whip-like sound rushed past her ears, closer now, and she swivelled around. The tip of her tail became snagged in the chaffing string and she knew she was trapped. Thrashing wildly, instinct overriding every sane thought she had, the girl-fish tried to escape the large lattice enveloping her body. Another net had joined the fray and the three drew together, encasing her entirely. She cried out, yelping for Lily, for the tiny fish, for anyone except the looming figures silhouetted by the rising moon standing above her. This was not fair. This was not fair.