A long seashell rests on the mermaid’s breastbone, dangling from the rope of algae slime around her neck. The shell is delicately off-white and scuffed with brown, spiraling into a tapered end that points to the water’s surface.
Henrik stares; remembers last summer’s long days by the harbor collecting sharp auger shells like this one to have sword fights with his brother. Pretending they were knives.
The mermaid submerges the rest of her body in the freezing water of the little inlet: straight down, no splash, until all that remains are her black eyes, her pallid forehead, and her iridescent hair spreading like oil rainbows in water.
“So you can’t tell anyone, alright?” Bartram tells Henrik and Inga nervously, pulling his shirt on over his wet, goosebumped skin. Henrik had watched him swish around in the freezing shallows for nearly fifteen minutes. He’d dangled Mama’s whalebone bodkin needle into the water on a string until the mermaid recognized him by this strange sign and came to the surface. “Mama and Pa wouldn’t like it.”
“Why?” Henrik asks. “It’s just a mermaid. Mermaids aren’t bad.”
Bartram squints at him, a mixture of nearsightedness and big-brotherly frustration. “I don’t know,” he says, annoyed. “They just wouldn’t like it.” He sits down on the dock and rubs his arms.
“She’s beautiful,” Inga says wistfully, tucking disorganized curls behind her ears. Her bun is half-dismantled, allowing sea winds to tie her hair into knots. “I’m sure your parents wouldn’t mind, would they? Or mine, either. I mean, my mama used to tell stories—”
A splash from the mermaid draws their attention. She bobs along with the gentle waves coming off the Øresund into the narrow, cliff-lined inlet near the city’s harbor.
Her sparkling eyes are twice the size of a human’s and entirely made up of pupil. Her skin has a sickly tinge to it: thin and papery but spiking with fever beneath. In the open air her hair looks like the inside of an uncleaned seashell: pink-white and slimy. When she reaches up to grasp the edge of the dock, her hands are disproportionately long and spidery, culminating in harpoon-sharp nails. She wears seaweed tangled between her fingers.
“Oh! I brought blackcurrants,” Bartram tells her eagerly, reaching into his satchel. “I’ll toss ‘em to you again, if you want. Like a game.”
She pushes away from the dock. Her smile, warm and genuine, has many teeth.
The children toss the berries. She catches most of them in her mouth with uncanny accuracy, but Bartram laughs hardest when the berries smack her in the face.
Her giggle comes soundless except for a faint wheezing and the fluttering of her gills.
She shows off by performing a sort of backwards dolphin leap, her scaled legs framed in spray and glistening.
Henrik decides he likes being friends with a mermaid. He isn’t sure who wouldn’t.
(At night he dreams of a fish unfurling itself by the scales then falling to pieces, like a long potato peel split in half by a knife.)
“Bartram and Inga and me made friends with a mermaid over by the bastion fort,” he tells their parents during supper.
“Henrik,” Bartram hisses through his teeth.
“Oh,” Mama says. “Well fancy that!”
Pa frowns. “How do you know it’s not a siren?”
“She’s not a siren,” Bartram says, stabbing at his herring. “She’s definitely a mermaid.” He glances murderously at Henrik.
“How do you tell the difference?” Mama asks Pa. “One of your shipmates saw a siren once, didn’t he? Wasn’t it—I think it was Tall Anders.”
“It was Young Anders,” Pa grumbles, “and he thinks he saw one as he was bent over a crate losing his mead. We were becalmed for one day and he lost his wits.”
“Sirens are evil,” Bartram says stubbornly. “She’s not evil.”
“That’s right,” Henrik says, feeling he ought to give his input. “She’s nice and kind of shy.”
“Eat your fish, Henrik,” Mama says.
“The difference,” Pa says with aplomb, “is the singing.”
“I thought they both sang,” Mama says. “It’s just that mermaids sing about going to heaven, and sirens sing about—well, you know.”
“No,” Pa maintains. “No, sirens are the ones that sing. You be careful,” he says, shooting a look at Bartram. “If it starts singing, plug up your ears and scoot. Sirens know how unstoppable a red-blooded man can get with a pretty woman in front of him. Never get into the water with it.”
Bartram blushes. Mama says, “Olaf!”
“What? Cut me some slack, Hanne, you know it’s true! That’s just how boys are. It’s healthy, s’long as it’s not an evil fish you’re chasing after. Now if it was that Inga girl he was fishing for—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” he says, holding up a hand in Mama’s face. She sighs and spreads more butter on her potato.
Bartram’s lips twist downwards. “She’s not a siren. May I be excused? I’m not hungry anymore.”
“For pity’s sake, boy, you’re fourteen,” Pa says, a storm gathering on his features. “You’ll need to eat more than that if you’re going to come with me on the ship next year.”
Bartram twirls his fork, eyes glued to his plate.
The grove of cherry trees by the bastion fort is maintained by the Crown, though Henrik has never seen the Crown do any gardening. On a chill morning, heavy mists cling to the grass between the trees, low and furtive like hiding ghosts.
Henrik spends hours by the dock watching the mermaid chase petals in the water when they drop down the rocky cliff into the inlet. Sometimes, with an odd shyness, she reaches up to hold his hand.
Inga grabs a fistful of the mermaid’s hair.
The mermaid rears back with a terrible animal noise: a fleeing cat or a diving hawk. Her body jerks violently as she yanks at her own locks—as though she’d rather tear them to pieces in a tug-of-war with Inga than let her keep hold.
Inga lets go, shocked, and the mermaid tumbles into the water.
Henrik sees a flash of scales beneath the water, then nothing. The three children stand in silence on the dock. The sea roars from a distance.
“I’m sorry,” Inga finally says, tears in her voice. She’s barefoot, smock hanging loosely around her calves. “I just—I’ve wanted all day to tell her how pretty her hair is, and she wears it down like I’ve always wanted to, so I couldn’t help myself, and just today Bartram said he pulls on mine because it’s always coming loose and he can’t help it—”
Bartram pats her back awkwardly.
“I couldn’t help it,” Inga says.
She pulls away from Bartram—and for a strange moment, she faces resistance. He grabs at the crook of her elbow.
Bartram’s arms are slender and girlish. Pa says he’ll look ridiculous holding a woman until he starts eating more red meat.
Bartram may look ridiculous, but he doesn’t look powerless. His Adam’s apple, increasingly prominent, bobs when he swallows. Henrik’s caught him poking at it in the mirror, a wary expression on his face.
Inga and Bartram watch each other like they’re not sure what should happen next. Then Inga wrenches harder until she’s free.
“Don’t you understand? I have to say I’m sorry, somehow.”
Henrik watches the eddies slide back from the shore, cannibalizing the arriving swell.
“I couldn’t help it,” Inga says.
Angry nail marks dot her arm like pitted wood.
That night, Bartram wakes his little brother up with a choked-off scream. He bites down on his pillow until he calms down. It wouldn’t do to let Pa hear him thrashing off a nightmare.
Henrik sits in the darkness for a long time, hardly daring to move. His brother’s arm goes limp against his.
Bartram whispers his dream aloud: his own fingers but strong, stronger than a thousand heaving sailors—his own hands crushing sand into pearls.
Four days later, the mermaid retches like a cat. She spits up a piece of amber.
Bartram looks askance at the lopsided rock as it rolls down the dock, but Henrik understands the peace offering right away: Inga wears an amber necklace. She never takes it off.
The mermaid’s amber is unpolished, its clouded edges worn down by the sea. Inga doesn’t seem to care. She beams as she pockets it. Rather than crowd the mermaid, she hugs Bartram so tightly he turns red.
The amber keeps a bug trapped inside: a many-legged smudge, dark and broken.
“I can’t stay for long,” Bartram says, rubbing his arms against the evening chill. “Pa wants me to come with him on deck tomorrow—learn about lines.”
“What about them?” Henrik asks. He leans back against the church wall, eyes on the path to the mermaid-dock.
“What? I dunno,” Bartram says, kicking at an unbloomed daffodil. “It’s—you know, lines. For heaving. Trimming sails. Cabin boy stuff.”
“Maybe Inga would like you more if you knew about lines.”
“Shut up,” Bartram scowls. “Really, shut up.”
Then Bartram is quiet for awhile. The gloom casts shadows beneath his sunken eyes as the church tolls out the quarter-hour. He hasn’t been sleeping much. When he does, he talks to ghosts.
“I told Inga how I feel about her,” Bartram says. The wind picks up, tossing through his hair. His dark irises look nearly black.
“You asked her to marry you?”
“No! I mean, not yet. But…I knew she won’t give me a proper chance.” He rubs his arms rhythmically, self-soothingly. “And—and it’s not fair, because she should like me. We have so much—we have everything in common! And it’s not like I can’t do all that other stuff. The sailing stuff, and the wood chopping and the eating eggs to get strong, and the—with girls—”
“She’s ready!” Inga says, marching up the path. Her moonlit forehead sparkles with sweat from the brief hike down to the inlet. Henrik hears Bartram swallow down a lump in his throat.
Beside her, the mermaid walks.
She wears an old dress belonging to Inga’s mother, patterned in tulips with a trim of lace around the collar. The cloth, tight in the arms but loose in the chest, seems to come together for the purpose of suffocating her at the neck.
She stands a head taller than even Inga, who guides her by the elbow. The mermaid’s toes curl into the grass like she’s putting down roots; her posture suggests clumsiness or even dizziness.
Her yellowed smile is confident and lovely.
The church chimes the half hour.
The mermaid turns to Henrik—reaches out for him, calls him. Each witch-sharp fingernail curves inwards, one by one in a gentle wave, coming to rest at the heel of her palm.
Henrik tells the mermaid: “You got something green in your teeth,” and takes her hand.
They walk with fingers interlaced. The mermaid is careful, and Henrik is not cut.
Dirty pink petals litter the grass of the cherry grove. The trees are nearly naked now. Soon green leaves will replace the burst of surreal color as the fallen petals are shredded and trampled into the earth.
The friends sprawl beneath the last tree in flower. Snatches of conversation drift above Henrik’s head as he slumps against the mermaid’s arm, struggling to keep his eyes open.
Bartram plays with Inga’s amber necklace, tangling his fingers through the chain. He tugs her forward; she laughs uncomfortably and pulls away. Henrik can make out red marks where the chain digs into her neck.
With one nail, the mermaid reaches up to the tight collar of her borrowed dress and slices it open through the threads of the clasp. With her other hand, she strokes Henrik’s hair.
She begins to sing.
Bartram falls silent, his face pale. Inga’s mouth drops open.
But the noises of nighttime—the bugs, the windy grass, the harbor—continue on. No sudden magical silence descends. No echo sounds.
The mermaid’s voice is pretty in the mid-ranges, but it rasps on the high notes and struggles to find the low notes. Henrik hears better singing at Sunday services, but he likes the tune: jumpy and curious, like a country dance. Instead of words there are empty vowels, like a baby’s cooing.
Her mouth hangs wide open like a fish on a line. She beams like a sailor singing for the sake of singing.
Bartram stands up, clinging to the tree behind him. “Let’s go home, Henrik,” he says, voice wavering. His expression is curled with disgust and his body is angled away from the group, ready to move.
“What? Why? I’m not tired.”
“Come on,” Bartram says, mouth a thin line. He pulls Inga to her feet so roughly she nearly falls over again. “You, too. Faster.”
The air feels suddenly hotter. The mermaid sits with her legs folded awkwardly beneath her, gazing up at Inga’s necklace with her wide black eyes.
When they leave the mermaid stares after them, mouth vast and unclosing, singing her rasping song.
“I’ll walk you both home,” Inga says quietly. She takes Henrik’s hand. The church rises up behind them, a dark spot against the stars. The mermaid’s song faded away some time ago, too unformed and juvenile to leave a melody stuck in Henrik’s head.
“Why’d we leave her?” Henrik asks. “Does she know her way back?”
“She’ll be fine,” Bartram says, voice sharp and brittle as a broken shell. He walks before the other two, thin shoulders stiff.
“Henrik,” he says, miserable. “Stop talking.”
“But we know she’s not a siren! She’s nice to me! She’s happy and nice!”
Bartram doesn’t answer.
Slowly, his walk manifests a twitch. He moves forward at a stumble, his torso pulling forward and his breathing growing heavy. Then he stops walking. He pats down his jacket, increasingly frantic.
“The—the bodkin. Mama’s bodkin. I must have dropped it.”
“She won’t be that mad.”
“Go home, Henrik,” he says, voice flat. “I’ll be back soon.” Then he brushes past the two of them, back towards the grove.
“Hey!” Inga says, grabbing for his wrist. “Where are you going?”
He shoves her—“Damn it all, go home!”—and breaks into a trot. His fists clench up when he runs. His stride is unathletic, unpracticed.
Inga and Henrik wait in silence together for what feels like a very long time. The church chimes the hour. Their shadows shorten, gibbous moon shining overhead.
Inga says, “Your brother used to be so nice to talk to.” Then she begins to run after him.
The two of them pad as ghosts down the darkened road, watching the outskirts of town again give way to the edges of the cherry grove.
Soon, a scream rips through the night air, coming from the mermaid-dock. The sound rises, stutters, and breaks, cutting off at the crescendo.
“That’s him!” Henrik gasps.
They scramble and slide down the path to the water. Henrik trips and smashes his head into an exposed tree root. When he stands, his ears are ringing and his head pulses with pain.
Inga has left him behind. Henrik stumbles forward, feeling his way along a wide outcropping of rock.
“She’s a monster!”
Henrik rounds the corner. The path widens into the private little inlet. First he sees only loose rocks, fog, water, and foam. Then he raises his eyes to see his brother standing at the base of the mermaid-dock, clutching Inga’s shoulders. His eyes are wide, his face close to hers. His stance is off-kilter, favoring one leg.
Henrik notices the blood staining Bartram’s arm the same time he feels the warm tickle of it against his own eyelid. His forehead stings.
“She’s a monster!” Bartram says, spit flying at Inga’s face, slender hands crushing her shoulders. “She called me, she wanted me!”
“Bartram,” Inga says. The words seem to force their way out of her stomach like meat turned bad: “Did you try to hurt her?”
“What?” He looks startled, a stain of desperation in his eyes.
Her voice turns cold and unfamiliar when she says, “Your belt is unbuckled.”
Silence furls out between them with the fog.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he says, releasing her. He snaps his attention to Henrik. “You understand, right? You heard her singing.”
Henrik takes a step backwards.
He wants to see his brother’s eyes burn, or to see them turn grey as the sea in a storm. He wants to hear the voice of a demon sliding through the tremors of Bartram’s words, insidious. He wants to see his fingers bend backwards in impossible directions, see him shrink back from holy water. Then he wants to see him collapse, exhausted but emptied of all evil by exorcism; safe and pure and free.
Instead he sees his brother, as he has always known him: unenchanted, unpossessed, and afraid.
“It wasn’t my fault! You heard her sing. She calls men, tempts them, pulls them in and destroys them—why else would she sing, if she didn’t want me to come? Why else would she be so beautiful?” He reaches out with both hands open, level with Henrik’s shoulders; tries to call him into a manly embrace. “Henrik, you understand.”
Henrik can’t look away. He opens his mouth and closes it again, like a fish stranded on a deck.
Anger burns up in his belly.
“It wasn’t for you!” he shouts, wavering on his feet. “It wasn’t for you!”
His brother casts him such a betrayed look that Henrik nearly takes it back.
“Bartram,” Inga says, escaped hair tossing like chain lightning. “You bastard, she just likes to sing.”
“She wanted me!” Bartram screams, all wounded rage on a choppy sea.
“No!” Henrik screams louder.
All at once the water pulls away from the dock, running backwards over sand and glass and seaweed, pulling loose stones in its wake. Retreating.
Henrik feels his legs give out beneath him.
The sea returns in a black wave.
The dock and the inlet beach are swamped with it. Bartram is knocked off his feet; Inga stumbles back against the rockface. Henrik tumbles beneath the water; feels his back hit the sand.
Thunder sounds. The water drains away again.
The mermaid stands on the balls of her feet at the far edge of the dock. Her toes are curled against the wood; her heels jut out over the water.
She stands in perfect stillness. In her wide mouth there is fire.
The flame sits on her tongue like an egg, just behind her sharp teeth. Smoke drifts up from her lips. When she closes her mouth, the smoke escapes from her nostrils, wreathing her hair.
From her chest—her arms, her legs her forehead—burst auger shells, piercing and splitting her skin before their eyes, pushing to the surface. The skin resists, then tears: where there are no spiking shells, there are smooth stones clustered together in bulging patterns, like rocks slammed together and cemented down by the force of the sea.
She opens her mouth again. The fire pulses between her teeth. A burst of sparks showers to the dock.
Bartram is already running back up the path, away from the sea. The mermaid leaps like a whale, arcing impossibly over the entire inlet, over Henrik’s head. Sparks and water droplets fall together and sizzle against Henrik’s wet skin.
The mermaid pins Bartram to the ground. Bites down on his neck.
Bartram struggles, flails, sobs, crawls on his hands and knees. The two of them drag themselves up the path like a many-legged beast. Henrik still hears the screaming.
He retches into the shallow water still pooled around his knees.
A few rocks shift under his weight. A centipede crawls to the surface, shining wetly in the moonlight. It crawls over Henrik’s hand and disappears back into the damp crevice it came from.
Soon the mermaid returns to them, blood running down her chin. The smell of burning flesh hovers in Henrik’s senses.
Inga’s breathing is sharp and anguished. Her hands scrabble against the rock face behind her. Henrik thinks she’s building the courage to run.
The mermaid steps towards her, serene across the rocks, faster than the girl could escape. Her shadow falls over Inga, impossibly long.
When they meet, the mermaid towers over her as she never has before. Inga is trembling.
The mermaid reaches forward, hooking a finger around a length of Inga’s hair.
Inga closes her eyes and swallows. Her hands go slack in resignation.
But Henrik sees the mermaid’s expression soften in increments: her forehead wrinkles above her wide eyes, then her jaw unclenches. Smoke stops rising and dissipates.
She looks at Inga’s hair as though with pity, noting its well-tended shine.
She drops it, strand by strand, fingers uncurling. Then she reaches up to her own chest and, wincing, breaks off a shell from her body. She places it in Inga’s unresisting hand, closing her uncalloused fingers around it.
The shell is the size of a knife.
Three yards away, Henrik curls into himself, retching. He blinks frantically, trying to hold as much of himself inside as he still can.
The sound catches the mermaid’s attention. She turns and reaches out to him, then pulls her fingers back as though stung by some possible future. Unease flickers across her eyes.
Henrik forces himself to meet her gaze. He wipes his mouth. He reaches out an open palm.
Then he tastes blood on his lip, and the earth drags him down by the buzzing of his own skull.
The last thing he sees: Inga staring down at the shell in her hand.
He falls asleep, there on the rocks and sand. He dreams of a fish sliding out of its scales, naked and glistening. Tearing itself off of a hook, ripping its wide mouth apart and sliding back into the free sea.
Inga lost her amber necklace by the dock that night. She and Henrik go down to search for it sometimes, though by now they both know it’s gone: swept out to the ocean or stolen by a seabird.
The cherry trees lose their leaves as winter creeps in.
“It’s alright, you know,” she says quietly one day, toeing a bit of ice forming between the loose rocks on the shore. She breaks it down with her boot, rubbing it into water. From there the droplets run back into the sea where they can stay warm.
“What’s alright?” Henrik asks.
“If we can’t find it.” She pats her chest through her thick woolen coat. “I have another one now.”
“Didn’t your mama give you the lost one, though?”
Inga frowns. She lets her hair down at the dock nowadays, so she has to reach up to rake it out of her eyes when the wind blows. “It’s hard to explain,” she says. “But my mama gave me…a lot of things. Losing this is alright. Oh—oh, Henrik, it’s okay—”
Henrik swallows around the lump in his throat. This happens all the time now—when he thinks too hard about things, or when he isn’t thinking of anything at all.
Crying’s not so bad, even though he knows Pa wouldn’t like it. Sometimes it feels like the entire sea is rising upside of him, saltwater escaping down his cheeks, rivulets staining his lips and soaking there like groundwater.
The bed feels so big now. Years later, the bed will still feel big.
“It’s okay,” Henrik tells Inga in a watery voice.
She kneels to hug him around the waist.
The mermaid doesn’t come back to the inlet off the Øresund, even as the years ebb by.
Henrik eats his fish and grows tall—taller and broader than Bartram had. He apprentices himself to a scrimshander, making intricate engravings out of bone and ivory.
“Your hands are too big for that,” Mama frets. “You have such big, manly hands. Wouldn’t you rather go out to sea with your father?”
“The Birkholm sails tomorrow,” Pa says, drinking deep from his cup. “Come to the harbor with me and we’ll get it all sorted.”
Henrik hasn’t seen Pa much since Bartram died. He spends more time in town than ever and talks less besides. Sometimes he seems to lose his sight, staring forward into the middle of the room like a blind man. When Mama points this out, he snaps. She cries.
Pa doesn’t talk about a lot of things Henrik wishes they could share.
“I’m not coming to the harbor,” Henrik says gently. “But I wish you good fortune.”
Pa shakes his head and takes a swig. “Then you’ll cling to the dirt like Bartram did.” His voice breaks on his son’s name. “What’s happening to this world? No men left in it.”
“I wish you good fortune,” Henrik says—again, many times, alone.
No matter how big, his fingers remain gentle, shaping his handiwork out of somber, lovely things that were once living. Things taken from the darkened sea.
The practice feels cruel if he thinks too hard about where it all came from. But the sweet, hollow sadness makes him wistful: like mist between blossoms on the edge of the harbor.
Sometimes he asks girls to dance—but only sometimes. Other times he asks them to share their favorite poems with him, or asks them to talk about their dreams. Sometimes he asks of them nothing at all.
He lovingly shapes the bones and feels the sea running backwards inside of him like a wave in the distance.
Pulling back the waters; biding time.