The optometrist’s office manager, Gwyn, made Skyla understand why men called phone sex hotlines. Gwyn whisper-spoke, as though trying to keep her voice down so she wouldn’t get in trouble. It was the same voice Skyla’s massage therapist used to make her relax on the table. Gwyn’s voice achieved the same effect but without the incense, oils, and inflated tip. Skyla’s tension headache softened as Gwyn told her that she didn’t actually need to come in for an appointment to refill her contacts prescription.
Outside, Skyla’s two boys jumped and screamed on a trampoline, shoving each other into the protective netting. When Skyla was a kid, there was no netting. The microwave timer beeped, announcing that her pot of sugar wax for at-home bikini hair removal had finished melting and was ready for ripping.
“I want to know if I’m a candidate for Lasik,” Skyla said to Gwyn, cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she took the wax bowl from the microwave. It sloshed over the side and burned her finger. Skyla cussed to herself and slammed the microwave door. Gwyn spoke again and Skyla inhaled, relaxing like she did in yoga. “Yes,” Skyla said, “I’m having trouble seeing up close. I think I need bifocals. I want to fix the whole situation.”
Skyla’s husband had suggested she be assessed for Lasik surgery years ago, when Skyla couldn’t wear contacts because they dried out her eyes, yet she refused to wear glasses except when she drove. She forgot them on her nightstand one day and rear ended an Uber driver on her way to work. She’d put up with the soft lenses ever since. The idea of Lasik scared her, but bifocals scared her more. Plus, she wanted to see what Gwyn looked like behind the kitten-soft voice on the phone. Skyla wished her husband could relax her a fraction as much.
“I can schedule you tomorrow,” Gwyn said, drawing out her words. Skyla tried to picture Gwyn scanning the calendar on the computer for open dates as she spoke. She’d be wearing glasses—thin wire frames—her hair swept back into a ponytail as she leaned forward to read the small text better. Keys clicked in the background as Gwyn typed in dates. Skyla wished she could pay Gwyn to come over at night and talk in a library voice while typing nonsense onto a keyboard as Skyla fell asleep. Skyla couldn’t sleep on her own anymore; instead she lay on her back and thought of everything she did do, didn’t do, and needed to do that day and the next, her heart pounding harder as the lists stacked up.
Her fortieth birthday crouched just three weeks away. Her husband booked a cruise to the Caribbean for the occasion. He bought her a bikini. Skyla wasn’t sure who he thought she was, buying her a bikini. She hadn’t worn a swimsuit, let alone a two-piece, since before their first child was born eleven years ago. She’d eaten nothing but rice cakes and cottage cheese since he told her. She’d gone to Zumba in the afternoon before the kids came home from school and in the five minutes it took her to walk up the stairs she’d rip all of the hair out of the crepe-paper skin between her pelvis and legs. It’d be one thing if it were strangers who’d see her on the deck of the ship on the cruise, her body artfully draped in an overpriced caftan, but her husband had conspired with all of their couple friends, people they’d known since college, to come along, too.
Skyla could picture it, now. Everyone lifting a glass to toast her turning the big four-oh and having nothing to say about the life she had led. She’d left her career as a chemist to have her children. She’d become a woman who wore stretch pants and sweaters and Spanx. She put wrinkle cream that cost as much as their weekly food budget onto her skin every night, wondering if she’d look any different by this point if she hadn’t. The crow’s feet were still there.
Skyla agreed to the appointment time and hung up the phone. The wax box burned her hand as she set it onto the counter. She opened the kitchen window to yell at her boys to stop shoving each other on the trampoline.
“He’s a lion!” the eleven-year-old yelled. “I’m a lion tamer!” He made a hoop with his arms for his brother to jump through.
Even on the weekend, she had to do all the parenting. Her husband had left for the afternoon to check crab pots with a fisherman friend, which was really an excuse to sit on the deck of a boat and drink beer with no shirt on. Whenever he went, he came home sunburned and had to soak in tomatoes for an hour, always staining the tub red for Skyla to scrub the next day.
“Yuck,” she said, tearing a piece of paper towel and wiping the dead bees and flies off the tracks of the windowsill. The boys always left the screen door on the slider half open, and the bugs always found a way in but not out. Skyla crushed the curled bodies in the wadded towel and dropped them into the trash, noting that the flowers in the shrubs outside of the kitchen window looked wilted, and would need watering later. She had plant stakes in the garage; fertilizer always perked them up. She added the note to her mental to-do list. It was Sunday, and she never got much done on the weekend with the boys and her husband home in the house. Weekends always made her feel like a failure. The laundry didn’t get put away; the dishes stacked up in the sink. No one would leave her alone long enough to go for a walk or a jog. In a few hours her husband would be home with a box of live crabs he’d ask her to butter and steam the next day, the crabs staring and snapping from their entrapment until the water boiled. If her family would just leave her alone she could get everything done without falling behind. She counted the number of years till her youngest left for college as she went up the stairs.
Gwyn did not look how Skyla had pictured her.
Skyla stood at the desk as Gwyn passed a clipboard over the counter for Skyla to update her insurance information for herself and the boys. Gwyn didn’t wear glasses. She wore her hair loose. Strands of it fell into the gap of the oversized tank she wore beneath her V-neck blouse. Skyla tried not to stare. She’d always liked breasts. Breasts were far more interesting, to her, than no breasts at all, though she felt the same way about the presence of a penis versus a body without one. She sometimes wondered if she were bi and now, standing in front of Gwyn with the soothing voice and visible cleavage, Skyla wondered again. Skyla had girl friends who kissed each other at frat parties in college and at cheap bars in their twenties. They were married now, too, and still told stories about the “wild fun” they had in their heyday. Skyla had been there, but she hadn’t been wild. Too nervous. Too shy. Her evangelical upbringing still hanging over her like a diving bell only she could see or feel. These same girl friends would be on the cruise and Skyla would bet all of the money in their healthcare savings plan that she’d hear these stories again over bottomless glasses of wine and piña coladas. Skyla wasn’t sure why she was still friends with them; they’d been vapid in college, and were more so now, with their standing nail appointments and Barre-sculpted waists. All they ever talked about were their kids.
“All finished?” Gwyn asked, reaching for the clipboard.
Skyla signed her name and nodded. She handed it across the desk.
“It’ll just be a few minutes,” Gwyn said. She looked back at her computer.
Skyla rifled through the flyers for local businesses and events on the edge of the counter. She plucked one at random and pretended to read it to avoid sitting down.
“A circus,” Skyla said, focusing on the words. “I didn’t know those still existed.”
“Unfortunately,” Gwyn said, her voice lower than usual. She stopped her typing. “I mean.” She reddened. “It has to be a lot of work. A traveling show.”
“Especially this one,” Skyla said. “They have mermaids. Can’t imagine carting a saltwater tank across the country.”
“It’s not good for the mermaids,” Gwyn said. “They don’t live long in captivity.”
“Like whales?” Skyla wanted to keep Gwyn talking. Gwyn’s interest seemed piqued by the topic of circuses. Skyla wondered what else she was interested in. Bands? Art? Skyla had liked art once, though she couldn’t name a single living artist. Skyla scanned Gwyn’s hand for a ring.
“Any wild animal,” Gwyn said. “I don’t think they should be made to perform tricks for our entertainment.”
“My grandfather used to say animals were like tomatoes; they don’t feel anything if you pluck them from the vine. Weird, people used to think that way.”
“Plenty still do,” Gwyn said. Her shoulders tensed as she typed, but the pace of her entering slowed.
“You like animals?” Skyla asked.
Gwyn nodded. “I wanted to be a vet,” she said.
“Why didn’t you?”
Gwyn flushed again. “Didn’t get in.”
“I like animals,” Skyla said. A half-truth. It was only true in the way that she didn’t like to think about how animals were killed before she ate them. In her past life, she’d formulated cosmetics for a luxury brand and oversaw their testing on animals. Mostly rabbits. Some dogs. “I’m trying to teach my boys to be more compassionate toward other creatures. You know, stop stepping on bugs and throwing toys at the squirrels. Early toxic-masculinity stuff.”
Gwyn’s eyes darted side to side, but the doctor was in an exam room with another patient. She leaned forward. “There’s a protest against the circus and its animal shows next weekend. If you wanted to expose your boys to activism, or animal rights groups, or something.”
“Yeah,” Skyla said. Full lie. “I’d love that.”
Gwyn took out a notepad with the optometrist’s logo on it and scribbled a number. She handed it to Skyla. “There’s a planning meeting on Wednesday, if you can come. Text me and I’ll send you the address. Sorry, I don’t have it on me right now.”
Skyla took the slip of paper with Gwyn’s phone number. “I’ll text you so you’ve got my number right now,” she said.
The House of Cards, a boutique traveling circus, had set up on the county carnival grounds, a paved parking lot adjacent to a sliver of rocky beach and a pier that stretched over the ocean and ended in a bench-lined rotunda. Skyla had received one real text from Gwyn after the appointment. It stated the location and time of an organizing meeting for a local animal rights group, one made briefly famous for demonstrations against a casino that kept dolphins in an aquarium adjacent to the building’s restaurant. Skyla’s parents had taken her to eat at the restaurant when she was a kid. Her dad would play blackjack in the casino while Skyla pressed her nose to the glass of the dolphin pen and stuffed her belly with breadsticks ’till their meals arrived. She’d always meant to take her sons, but the dolphins had been released to a wildlife rescue group following the national attention drawn by the animal rights organization, and the aquarium filled instead with twenty-somethings in bikini tops and pull-on mermaid tails. Skyla hadn’t heard how that venture was going since the discovery of real merpeople in the seas, but the humans in costume were probably better behaved than their authentic counterparts.
Skyla had tried to engage Gwyn in conversation through text, asking open-ended questions about the group and her involvement in it, but Gwyn had only responded with “yes,” “no,” and “maybe,” until she went dark. She’d waved to Skyla from across the living room in a house that smelled like apple, cinnamon, and patchouli, but hadn’t looked her way until Skyla raised her hand to volunteer for a job.
Skyla’s husband had stayed late at work and the babysitter she’d hired to come to the evening meeting had cost almost as much per hour as Skyla made when she last worked in the lab. With Gwyn not even paying attention to her, the whole endeavor seemed like a bust. Not that Skyla was sure what the meeting would have looked like if it were successful. She’d heard of women who left their husbands for other women. Skyla wasn’t sure why, but she imagined those women’s new lives as freer than their old ones. No more designations of “his” and “hers.” No more dirty socks balled up under the couch. No more pelvic pain when her uterus sat low in her body during sex. Once a woman cast off her husband for a female lover, what couldn’t she do? People would wonder if she ever really loved her husband. They’d question everything they ever thought about her. Skyla liked the thought of everyone she knew wondering if they’d ever really known her; known even the most mundane details about who she really was. But then, Gwyn didn’t say more than a cursory “Hello” until Skyla raised her hand.
Because she’d volunteered, Skyla now stood in front of the House of Cards ticket booth with her two sons. The group wanted observers to witness the animal shows before writing up an exposé of their treatment, to be followed by a protest in front of the circus gates the next day. The group leader had called it a “crab-pot strategy,” gathering information to use against the circus so the employees would turn on each other when presented with evidence of animal abuse.
Skyla would take in the mermaid show, housed in a tent led by a ringmaster dubbed the “Queen of Cups.” The circus had four primary tents, one for each queen and her suit in the tarot. A mole from the group would visit each. Skyla had hoped the position would be a team effort and that Gwyn might be her partner, but it was not and she was not.
“I want to see the lizards!”
“I want to see the birds!”
Skyla’s boys tugged the circus’s map back and forth between them. The Queen of Wands was a tent of reptiles, the Queen of Swords a tent of birds, the Queen of Pentacles a tent of mammals, and the Queen of Cups a tent of real, live mermaids. Carnival rides and games threaded between each tent, their blinking lights blurring as they competed for attention.
“You can each have twenty bucks,” Skyla said, doling out money between them. “Five gets you into a show. The rest is for games and rides.”
“Ice cream?” her nine-year-old asked.
“It’s your money,” she said. “Be back here in two hours.”
The boys took off into the circus, tugging each other’s shirts toward their preferred attractions before disappearing behind a funnel cake cart. Skyla checked the time on her phone. She’d called the circus two days before to request an interview with the showrunner of the mermaid tent and was referred to the Queen of Cups herself, a woman named Zania Peters. Skyla claimed to be from the local free weekly and hoped no one would call the editor to verify her employment. She was given a thirty-minute window with Zania in between showtimes; the next show started in ten minutes.
Skyla scanned her own copy of the House of Cards map to locate the Queen of Cups’s tent. Close to the cliffs and the pier, of course. She was almost as interested in how a portable water tank worked as she was in seeing a real mermaid up close. She’d seen pictures of them, as had everyone in the world since their discovery five-or-so years back. They were not the replicas of humans that movies depicted, nor were they the manatees that mermaid sightings throughout history had often been dismissed as. They had humanoid faces; small jaws, a mix of pointed and flat teeth. They were kelp eaters, primarily—some fish and crustaceans—and had spent their years of undiscovery hiding amongst the thick kelp forests that anchored the sand and the sea into place along coastlines. They ate brittle stars and rockfish, and had perhaps single-handedly been the saviors of acres of kelp forest by bashing sea urchins on rocks to eat their soft insides, urchins that would otherwise have chewed through the kelp stalks at the root if left unattended.
The merpeople needed sunlight. They didn’t tolerate temperatures that sharks, sport fish, or whales could. They clung to the shallows, relative for sea creatures, which explained so many sightings of mermaids on the rocks over the years. They lived in matrilineal colonies, with the females raising the young together and the males roaming and feeding alone. Their skin ranged from rust-red to green, perfect camouflage for the kelp forests they inhabited. Their hair, too, blended with the shades and shapes of the kelp so that if a merperson hid behind a giant stalk of kelp as a diver swam past, the diver would think only that the flick of a tail disappearing behind the stalk belonged to the fish, and the strands of hair and elongated limbs part of the kelp canopy’s leaves. The females dug burrows into the sand, creating colonies like prairie dogs where the young could be hidden and raised to maturity. Mermaid tunnels had been found dug as much as a half-mile long, using the kelp roots as structural support for their homes. They begged the question of what else was still out there, unexplored or undiscovered.
Merpeople had lived only in labs until just a year or two before, then they began appearing in zoos. It took the first several years after discovery to learn how to build a habitat that would keep them alive in captivity for more than a few weeks. Some enterprises weren’t interested in keeping them alive, though. Fashion houses wasted little time producing merskin purses, shoes, and belts. Even a sportscar had been made with merskin seats and an open top roof; the merleather was waterproof and ideal for all-weather travel. A few brave restaurants had put mermeat on the menu, though it was received about as well as grilling up a gorilla or endangered whale would be. Still, there were those with money who ate it. Skyla’s research in the past few days prior had revealed that the House of Cards was the only circus that held mermaids (no mermen, as they couldn’t be contained together) in captivity, successfully shuttling them from city to city to perform tricks like trained dolphins. Pictures and promotional videos weren’t enough, though. Skyla wanted to see what a real mermaid looked like, face to face.
It hadn’t been all interest in Gwyn’s attention or curiosity about the appearance and behaviors of a new species that had driven Skyla to raise her hand at the meeting. She’d grown up on The Little Mermaid, Splash, and other depictions of mermaids as sexy sea vixens who sorcerers wanted to control and scientists wanted to cage. At least one of those things had come to pass. Everything Skyla had learned from movies as a child taught her that it was the good guy’s role to free them. Skyla wanted to be the good guy; she spent enough time being told by her children that she was the bad guy. She made them do homework, eat spinach, go to bed, pick up toys. And that was after she left her job squirting eyeliner into the tear ducts of rabbits. Her husband only came home for dinner and bedtime, he didn’t have to be the enforcer of rules. Her kids seemed to think she kept them in a cage of the house for her own amusement, but really, she just wanted to train them up as adults so she could free them and they wouldn’t return. She dreaded the thought of her boys coming back to live in her basement like her brother-in-law did with his parents. There was no freedom with kids in the house. There wasn’t much with a husband there, either, and maybe that’s why she couldn’t stop thinking of Gwyn. Gwyn, whose voice lowered her blood pressure, not raised it, like everyone else’s.
Each ride and booth of the circus played music-box chimes that reminded Skyla of the boys’ old exercise saucers from when they were babies. Whenever her husband wanted to have sex while the boys were awake—which was always—he’d set them in the bouncers and turn on their music so they’d stay quiet and contained on the other side of the room. Skyla still heard the toys’ five second looped tunes in her head during sex.
She turned right at a Ferris wheel, forcing her mind to focus on the sounds of gears turning, carts creaking as they rocked back and forth in their cradle. Rocks crunching underfoot. Unpopped corn kernels crushed between teeth. Beneath it all, the rush of water against rocks just past the fence of the fair grounds. Seagulls. Wind flipping tent flaps back and forth, making them strain against their weighted stakes. Banners proclaiming the Queen of Cups Mermaid Show with jumbo pictures of a woman encrusted in seashells let Skyla know she’d found the right tent. She waited in the crowded line, then handed over the admission fee and was shuttled inside to risers encircling a round, plexiglass tank. The back half of the tank was hidden by submerged doors and an overhead curtain. A catwalk extended over the tank in a giant “X” and deep, baritone-driven music that effectively called up the deep sea played over the crowd. Skyla checked her phone again. No messages from the boys, and she’d made it to the show with just two minutes to spare. The House of Cards website had noted that the Queen of Cups show filled up faster than any of the other presentations on offer and encouraged attendees to arrive at least thirty minutes before each show time to get in line. Skyla was lucky it was early in the day, otherwise she probably wouldn’t have made it in, and wouldn’t have had anything regarding the show to ask about when she interviewed Zania Peters. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. She felt like a spy. She was a spy, she supposed. That would be something to talk about on the cruise, for sure.
Skyla shoved her phone in her pocket. The circus had a strict no filming policy, and the waiver she’d signed at admission had threatened to confiscate the phones of patrons who violated the rules. The overhead lights dimmed, and the music lowered. Smoke rolled across the water of the tank. Skyla instinctively leaned forward in her seat, eager. The doors in the tank slid open, but the mermaids jumped over them as though they weren’t even there.
Skyla waited until the crowd had cleared and circus staff swept through the aisles with brooms, cleaning up spilled popcorn and lemonades before the next audience was ushered inside.
“You’ll have to exit, ma’am,” a staffer said.
“I have an interview with Zania Peters,” Skyla said, standing. “I’m from the Free Weekly. She’s expecting me now. Where do I find her?”
The teenager assessed her, leaning on the broom handle, before shrugging and jogging down the riser steps. He disappeared behind the tank, then reappeared minutes later, beckoning her with a single hand wave.
Skyla followed him around the tank and behind the curtain. Past the tank’s doors, the mermaids that had just performed swam languidly in a cluster on the other side of the tank. They were smaller than humans, but still larger up close than she had expected. They ignored the humans walking around their enclosure backstage as otters would in a zoo. The teen stopped in front of another curtain.
“Ms. Peters?” he called. “She’s here.” He nodded at Skyla and left.
The curtain swept open and the tent’s ringmaster, the Queen of Cups, stood from a folding metal chair. Up close, Skyla saw the fabric of the Queen’s pants were made from real merskin leather. The queen’s makeup had the off-putting largesse of stage makeup seen at too-close range, the eyeliner too black and the lipstick too red. The woman smiled and held out her hand.
“Zania. First time seeing live mermaids?” she asked.
Skyla nodded. “I’m here to talk about you, though.” A lie.
“Have a seat.” Zania gestured at a folded chair leaning against the collapsible table. Skyla opened it and sat. She turned on her phone’s recorder.
“You’re nervous,” Zania said. “New on the beat?”
“No.” Another lie. “Sort of. I’ve mostly dealt with industry.”
“I’m an empath,” Zania said, crossing her legs. “I can read your emotions. It used to be part of my act, but audiences just wanted mermaids. Subtlety is a lost art, don’t you think?”
“I suppose,” Skyla said. Her mind spun and she opened the notes app on her phone to review the questions she’d prepared. The animal rights groups had instructed her to ask about the training and treatment of the mermaids, without being too direct. She was normally good at not being direct; she’d become a master at it in marriage.
“So, how does being an empath work? Is that like being a psychic?” Skyla asked.
Zania shook her head. “I can’t tell the future,” she said, smiling. “I just know what you’re feeling right now, even if you don’t.”
“Interesting,” Skyla said. Half-truth. She found it interesting a woman believed she could read emotions rather than the idea that someone actually could, which she couldn’t. “Does that work by observation? Touch?” She wiggled her fingers in the air. “Auras?”
“Little of A, little of B,” Zania said. “There’s no exact science. I just get a sense from all interactions. Face time, touch. General air. How do our eyes interpret text?”
“I’m not a neuroscientist,” Skyla said.
“You feel underappreciated in your work,” Zania said. “Others don’t see its value.”
Skyla shrugged. “Journalism is tough, these days. When did you discover you had these… powers?”
Zania considered. “Since I was little. I touched my mother’s skirt and knew she was going to leave my father. I could feel her unhappiness. She left him when I was eight.”
“Do you feel what animals feel? Like when you wear leather?” Skyla pointed at the queen’s merskin pants. “Does that help you connect to the mermaids you’re training?”
Zania laughed. “I don’t feel anything from animals,” she said. “I don’t believe we should anthropomorphize them. They act on instinct. Maternal instinct. Survival instinct. They don’t feel sad or unappreciated and then scheme to run away from their den mates. That’s one of the problems with mermaids; they were assigned human characteristics, feelings, and complexities long before their existence was even discovered. They came out of the water with all these expectations already heaped upon them. They’re smart enough. Not dolphin-smart. But smarter than fish. Crabs. I wouldn’t want one as a pet. They aren’t cuddly. They’re wild. They perform for food. As long as we feed them, they’re happy.”
“How did you acquire the mermaids in your show? It still surprises me that they evaded fishermen and divers for so many years.”
Zania checked the time on a phone set face down on her table. “I caught them myself,” she said. “They have a hierarchical system, much like whales or wolves. Any pack animal. It’s part of why I wear their leather. I’ve trained them to see me as their alpha. It’s why they do as I say. In addition to the food.”
“How did you catch them?”
Zania smiled. “My grandfather dealt in skins. Dirty business, I know. But, that was the times. We lived down the coast near the wetlands. He used to catch nutria on the shore with large traps. Looked like oversized crab pots. He’d set them out during low tide and the rodents would go in for the bait and get caught. Water would rise and they’d drown in the cages. Kept the fur pristine. He died years ago, but my mother, she kept all his old traps in the garage. I was working down in Florida at a mermaid cove—the fake kind, with women in tails—people came from all over to see us swim around in pools with flowers and shells on. When real mermaids were found, business dropped and a bunch of girls were laid off. I knew I’d seen a real mermaid when I was a girl, but no one ever believed me. I got a few of my grandfather’s traps and snapped them together to make a big one, wove kelp through the rungs and put some urchins inside, then set it out at low tide and waited for the water to come back in. Sure enough, a mermaid swum in, got herself stuck, and was stranded when the tide went back out. She died and I sold her skin for enough money to pay off my car. Once other people figured out how to catch them, though, prices went down. The real trick was catching one and keeping it alive. The females are easier to keep alive; they’re heartier. I missed performing, too, so when I saw an add for an animal trainer with performance experience, I applied. Offered to catch and train my own mermaids, and here I am.” Zania opened her arms wide.
“That’s quite a story,” Skyla said.
“You’re jealous,” the queen said. “It’s more exciting than housework, that’s for sure.”
Skyla squirmed. “I like my life,” she said. A half-truth. “I like writing.” A lie.
“It’s alright,” the queen said. “Everyone secretly wishes they could join a circus. Want to see the mermaids? I have twenty minutes.” She stood.
Skyla followed the queen out of her dressing room into the backstage of the tent. The mermaids swam together in circles around the enclosure. They could have been penguins in an aquarium, or seals. They swam round and round, amused or trapped, Skyla wasn’t sure. She’d once heard goldfish had no memory, and each trip around their bowl a surprise. She wondered if that was true for the mermaids. Or, true enough. They could remember their routine. Backflips. Jump through hoops. Synchronized swimming. Lobbing volleyballs with their heads. Skyla had winced as their small breasts bounced up and down with each jump; she was surprised the circus hadn’t outfitted them with bikini tops, though the near-human nudity of it was probably an enticement for many.
Zania led Skyla up a flight of steps to the edge of the tank. She picked up a bucket of kelp strands and dangled one over the tank. A mermaid launched herself out of the water and took the kelp from Zania’s hand before splashing down again.
“Want to try?” Zania asked. She stuck her hand in the bucket of brown soup and brought out a rubbery strand.
Skyla nodded, taking it. She held the kelp with the tips of her fingers and tensed. Two mermaids jumped up, vying for the treat. One latched the kelp with her teeth and yanked it out of Skyla’s hand before disappearing back into the water and across the tank.
“You’re ready for showbusiness,” Zania said.
“As long as I wouldn’t have to scrub the tank,” Skyla said.
“I don’t do that,” Zania said. “Someone else hoses it down before we leave.”
“What do the mermaids travel in?”
“Glorified bathtubs,” Zania said. “We give them a mild sedative and keep them submerged until we get to the next city. It takes about a day to set up and fill the tanks, and then we wake them up, shake them up, and put them back in. They don’t even know they’ve traveled.”
Mermaids who hadn’t received treats began to congregate beneath the platform, crowding each other as they vied for space beneath the two women. They opened and closed their mouths expectantly. Their eyes were disconcertingly human, though rounder and farther apart, like a fish. They had tiny, barely formed noses that Skyla had read functioned solely for sniffing out food and predators rather than breathing. Their gills, like other fish, were slitted over their ribs. They were childlike, in that regard, with their wide, blank eyes and doll-sized noses. Their lips, though, were thick and banded like a fish, translucent and perpetually puckered. It hadn’t taken long for companies to make mermaid-mouthed sex toys. Skyla had browsed them online, for research. Just like on the real thing, the lips on the sex tubes were thick and slippery, forever open.
“Here, give them another,” Zania said, digging out another piece of kelp. “They’ve earned it.”
A mermaid launched into the air before Skyla had even fully extended her arm. She thought of the dog they used to have, when she and her husband were first married. It didn’t wait for fingers to clear the way before diving for treats.
The mermaid that jumped was a rainbow of red and brown, her nipples the exact shade of rust crusted on sunken submarines. When she opened her arms, tissue-thin fins opened like wings beneath her arms and between her fingers, or, the appendages that were placed in approximately the same location as arms and fingers would be, were she human. Skyla thought of flying squirrels. The mermaids seemed to be able to mirror any animal or person at any given time. They were human-like and ape-like at the same time. They had winged arms, like bats. They were children. They were sex objects. They were mostly mild-mannered vegetarians. Bottom feeders. They were savage ship wreckers. Skyla stared down into the water as a mermaid stared back up at her, both waiting.
“I feel like Narcissus,” Skyla said. “Except I can’t tell if they are a reflection of women or not.”
“They’re not,” Zania said. “No more than a rhino is your reflection.” She tossed a handful of kelp into the water and the mermaids scuffled to get it like seagulls fighting over crumbs.
“Do you think they’re as happy here as they would be in the ocean?” Skyla asked.
“They don’t know the difference.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” Skyla said. When she worked in the lab, she could tell the difference in behavior between the dogs in the cages and the dog she went home to pet. One was happy, the others were not. “Does that make me an animal empath?”
“If you want to believe that, sure,” Zania said.
“You enjoy a lot more freedom than the average person, in your line of work,” Skyla said. “Traveling, no Monday morning meetings. What’s that like?”
“Every life has its limitations,” Zania said. “I’m free in my own way. I’m not in others. When I’m ready to retire, I’d like to go back to Florida.”
“Will the mermaids be freed when they’re too old to perform?”
Zania shrugged. “These are the first generation of trained mermaids. We’ll see how they do.”
“You mean how long they last?” Skyla asked. She felt a pang of pity for the mermaids. It had to be boring, swimming circles over and over in that tank. Where was the sand for them to burrow? The kelp for them to hide in? Open water to be free in? Maybe she was crossing over to Gwyn’s side.
Skyla fished a piece of kelp out of the bucket and held it over the tank as the mermaids still squabbled for the shreds of what the queen had tossed in. A mermaid darted out of the water, biting Skyla’s hand as it wrenched the kelp free.
“Ow!” Skyla yanked her hand back. Blood beaded along the bite mark. She knew she’d get a bruise where the mermaid’s jaws clamped shut on her skin.
“Have to watch for that,” Zania said. “They’re all about food. Survival instinct.”
“Do you have disinfectant?”
Zania laughed. “Come here.”
Skyla followed Zania down the steps toward the back of the tent. She threw open a flap and they walked out onto the back lot of the circus. Trucks and trailers were packed in neat rows overlooking the sea.
“Is there a bathroom back here?” Skyla asked.
Zania opened the door to a trailer and went in, leaving the door open. She came back out with a large wire square, like a collapsed tomato cage.
“I’m going to sell a few of the trained mermaids to other zoos and aquariums,” Zania said. “Little side hustle. I need to catch some more. Let me show you.”
“Is that a trap?”
“My own design,” Zania said. “Come on.” She walked off the edge of the smooth asphalt, ambling her way over the rocks toward the water.
Skyla watched after her, unsure of her footwear and the algae-slick rocks and what the woman hobbling over boulders with a trap the size of a folded-up card table was doing. Skyla followed.
Zania got to the edge of the water and waited for Skyla to catch up.
“Low tide,” she said, handing the cage to Skyla. “Pop it open.”
Skyla pulled up the sides of the cage, the top popping into place with a series of hooks.
“We don’t have bait,” she said.
Zania plucked clams from a tide pool. “This isn’t their first choice. But, it’ll do. She set them inside and loosened the blue fisherman’s rope that had been twined around the back of the cage. “I like to anchor it with rocks. If you use anything else too man made, they’ll notice. Usually, I take the time to camouflage the cage with kelp, but this is for demonstrative purposes.” She rearranged rocks to prop up the cage, then buried the rope under the heaviest boulders she could lift. “Get those over there,” she instructed.
“You think you’ll catch one?” Skyla asked, heaving rocks on top of the rope.
“I think you might catch one,” Zania said, winking. “It’s a great arm workout, isn’t it?”
“How many more do you have to catch?” Skyla dropped a rock on the rope.
“Three? Four?” Zania stepped back and wiped her hands. “Not bad.”
“When will you check on it?”
“Low tide, early tomorrow,” she said. “You’ll be here?”
Skyla surveyed the white caps on the ocean miles from where she stood. Barges and fishing boats floated slowly back into the bay. Skyla had forgotten about the recording on her phone. Tomorrow was Sunday. Skyla flipped the trap door into place.