Merpeople are just like regular people, except that they’re hideous and alien and inscrutable. Okay, forget the regular people comparison. The point is, they sorta saved me from drowning after they sorta almost drown me and now we’re friends. Okay, acquaintances.
It was just a beautiful accident that caused them to swarm me that morning. But, don’t blame them. It was my own fault. I was fishing. They hate that. Or they hate rowboats. Or they hate the color orange. Or they love it. Or they were drawn by the smell of the sun-warmed Doritos I was eating. Anyway, no one is to blame for what happened.
Tuesday morning at sunup is the best time to fish. That’s just fact. The little gulf inlet that points a crooked finger at my sleepy Florida town is all but empty then. It’s often just me, a few retirees, and maybe a couple other kindred spirits with the dedication and strength of character to call off work in the name of the angler’s life.
See, it’s all about laying the groundwork. On Friday, I might start to have a cough. Maybe I run into a coworker over the weekend and maybe I’m not looking so hot. Monday, I heroically drag myself to work, though nobody thinks I should be there in my condition. Then, on Tuesday, I’m paddling out to my favorite spot and dropping the anchor before the sun has risen enough to burn off the fog. The moment I cast my line toward the shore and the sunrise, back toward the poor saps working there, and wedge a breakfast beer between my knees, I always know that I’m doing the right thing.
This last time was the best yet. The sky was cobalt, the breeze was warm, and I didn’t see another soul. Perfection. I was shooting for flounder, running my lure low against the seabed, and I figured I’d have a good buzz on and a flounder on the grill before I’d usually be pulling the squished PB&J outta my lunchbox.
Everything was going as planned until I noticed that I was drifting more than made sense. I reeled in my line, laid my rod in the boat, and turned to test the anchor rope. I figured, hoping the damn thing hadn’t come loose, that I had better reposition the anchor, but when I went to pull it up, I found the rope was taut. But, not just taut. It was vibrating with tension and seemed to be pulling me off to sea.
“That’s not good,” I said to nobody in particular.
I wiped Dorito-orange fingers on my safety-orange lifejacket and considered my options. I could cut the rope, but that seemed a little drastic. I could swim to shore. Even more drastic. I could wait a bit and see. Sounded reasonable.
I gave one more tug on the rope, just to be sure. It was tight as a steel cable. I looked off at the open water, which I was quickly approaching, and decided that I’d better “wait and see” with knife in hand. My little rowboat wasn’t really made for the open ocean.
I was just clicking open the latch on my tackle box to hunt up a knife when an unforeseen possibility forced me to alter my plan. The metal bracket to which the anchor line was attached creaked like an old screen door then it, along with the entire prow of the boat, was yanked underwater. A moment later, I felt the rest of my little boat disappear from under foot and I was left bobbing like a cork near the mouth of the inlet.
Turns out, I should have cut the rope. The water was unexpectedly cold, so it took me a moment to jumpstart my brain. I was back online and thinking, “huh, that was odd,” when I was quickly forced to rethink my whole understanding of “odd.”
Hands, maybe a dozen of them, started feeling me beneath the surface. I let out an involuntary squeal and tried to pull myself legs up out of the water, but there was nothing to pull against. Trembling, I forced myself to look down. Vague shapes. All around me.
I crossed shark off my terror checklist first. Sharks don’t gather round and gently paw their prey. As far as I know.
Something like hope rose up in me when I had the thought, “asshole divers,” but that possibility quickly faded. I could see arms and shoulders. Dark, slick heads. But, the bodies tapered and undulated off to an unseen distance, trailing strange, streamer-like appendages. They looked a bit like those stylized oriental paintings of dragons. With that observation, final horror knocked the wind out of me, just as I was jerked underwater so hard I thought my hips had come out of joint.
I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was going to die. And I’ll say this for myself: I kept my eyes open. I almost certainly pissed my pants (for all that matters underwater), but I kept my eyes open. I’m strangely proud of that. Though, I really didn’t see much.
I felt like I was being jerked in several directions at once and I was sure that I was about to come apart at the seams. My legs were on fire. Then, I remember a moment of calm, followed by the burn and pressure as one of them bit me just beneath my right ear. Then they left.
For just a second, I registered obsidian eyes staring into my own, then sharp claws parted my lips and fingers like ice were thrust down my throat. It hurt. Everything hurt.
Other hands must have been shredding my clothing, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I just felt the frozen fingers in my mouth and the white-hot agony of the bites on my neck as the skin split wider and wider.
When the seawater poured down into the expanding wounds and met the fingers in my throat, iron-hard arms wound around my torso and began compressions, forcing the last of the air from my body and from my life. The pain in my neck and throat shifted. It was like opening a window and finding new air, sweet with a thousand smells you couldn’t describe, and realizing that you’d been holding your breath.
Is it weird to say I didn’t even notice when I stopped having legs? Well, I didn’t. It was all about breath for me. Trading air for water. Invigorating is too small a word.
I seemed to get new eyes thrown into the bargain as well. After the change, I could see everything. My broken little boat lying on the seabed. The shreds of my old clothes. Everything. I could pick out every fish for a hundred yards. I could almost count the scales on the merpeople as they swam back out to into the vastness of the open water. Fast as torpedoes. Without a single word or sign. Nothing at all.
I like to think they’ll be back. I’ve even caught glimpses of them out at the edge of sight. But, whenever I swim out of the inlet, the vastness makes me dizzy and I feel like I’m falling in every direction. They’ll be back for me. I figure they can’t just abandon me without showing me the ropes. I figure this is the equivalent of merpeople hazing, and we’ll all be closer friends for it in the end.
We’ll probably all laugh about this someday.
It’s hard to say how much my mind has changed. I still love flounder, though it tastes sweeter than ever before. I remember all of my life on land, and I get a giddy little thrill every time I realize that I’ll never have to go back to work again. I don’t think I’d even fit in my cubicle anymore.
I watch the swimmers and the dolphins. I study the comings and goings of the boats overhead. I visit with manatees and I toy with the idea of scarring the hell out of divers, but I always think better of it. And, most of all, I wait for my people to return. I’m the king of this sunny little inlet, but I’m alone.
Maybe some day I’ll get up the courage to swim out into the wide world and look for them. Maybe, but not today. Today, I’m pretty sure it’s Tuesday. There are more flounder here than I could ever eat and I even have some beer left. All in all, things could be worse.
Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a day. Make a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Plus, he’ll get to see if a manatee can get drunk. What’s better than that?
Jarod K. Anderson formerly taught English at Ohio University. Currently he works at
the largest botanical gardens in Ohio. Jarod writes about plants by day and robots, ghosts, and magic by night. It’s a good arrangement. His work has appeared in Escape Pod, Ray Gun Revival, Eclectica Magazine, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere.