A Mixed Catch
by Jess Hyslop
Annie’s mother wept with joy when her daughter announced that she was marrying William Hensher.
“Oh my heart, my heart,” Annie’s mother cried, clutching her weathered knuckles to her chest, “Annie’s leaving us, leaving us! And we should all be thankful, for there’s someone else to feed her now!”
Annie did not resent her mother’s outburst, but only leant over the tired little woman and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. Hair brittle and salty; the taste of hardship on Annie’s lips. And Annie would taste the same to William Hensher as he bent to kiss his brown-faced bride on their wedding day. That taste kindled a fierce determination in the groom, making him feel manly and brave and obstinate. He vowed then that he would keep her well, his briny love; he’d make sure she no longer had to spend her days on the quayside, knotting nets that chafed her fingers raw and brought up calluses on her dry-chapped hands. He’d bring in catches so big they’d be spoken of in awe by generations of fishermen: great, glistening bundles of sturgeon and mackerel and butterfish. By gad, he’d be an island legend! And pretty Annie Hensher--who’d be still more pretty if her rascal father had made good his promises and done his duty by his family, instead of upping and leaving his poor little wife and his poor pretty Annie and his four other children besides--Annie Hensher would never, William vowed, have to shift for herself again.
But what William Hensher didn’t know was that Annie’s rascal father had breathed the same promises to Annie’s mother, thirty years before.
At first, everything went swell. William fished like a dervish--the scourge of the seas! he would laugh--and the catches were good (if not quite legendary). Annie’s cooking pot brimmed each evening with potent ocean scents, and the Henshers had round, satisfied stomachs. Better still, they made a tidy profit on the quayside each day, and when William returned home to the little cottage he shared with Annie, crouching above the bay, he would give the money to his wife as willing as you please. Annie would place it reverently aside in the neat, shiny tin that had pride of place on the mantle.
In these early days, Annie found that she had time to herself, which was a remarkable thing to her. To keep herself busy, she started sewing tiny embroidered cushions, which was something she’d always wanted to try. Delicate miniature haddocks, seahorses, starfish, whitebait, and flounder: a maritime menagerie wriggled from the point of her needle. And as Annie sewed, her hands lost their calluses, turning softer and whiter. When William arrived home in a spray of salt and wind he would pick up those pale hands, lift them to his lips with wonder and say: “Oh my Annie! You’re my Annie, you are!” At this, a tight knot of pleasure would twist inside of Annie, and she would shiver with the depth of her pride. That her husband should keep her so well!
But as tides change and seas prove inconstant allies, so this fortune could not last. William stumped home now with heavy brows and a mouth like a clam. No longer did he greet his wife with words of amazed love, but only grunted as though the treacherous waves had snatched away his voice as well as his fish. In these months their table was set more sparingly; the tin on the mantle grew lighter. Annie saw the way things were going, and accepted it with calm, grey eyes. They could but have been a dream, those first few months of wedded bliss--a dream they’d managed to weave out of promises and hope as whimsical as the sea breezes that tugged east one day and west the other. For a while the ocean had played along, an indulgent uncle, smiling as the gifts were snatched from his hands. Had they tried to take too much? Annie wondered, as the briny waters withdrew their benevolence.
The briny waters inside Annie, however, were benevolent indeed: she felt a tiny life coming into being, squirming and swimming in the depths of her body. “Like a little eel,” she said with joy, “My own little slippery thing.”
But there was the emptying tin to think of. So Annie began to sell her embroideries, which had made the cottage so homely and welcoming. “So clever you are, my Annie,” William had said when she’d arranged them round the living room. “What a clever wife I have got for myself!” Now, as she collected them up and put them in a wicker basket to take round the neighbours, he said it again: “So clever you are.” But this time his eyes were cast down and his voice hollow as an empty sail.
One day, soon after, William hurtled through the cottage door in a terrible rush, startling Annie so that she pricked her finger on her needle and got a bright spot of blood on the tiny cotton eel she was working on.
“Annie!” cried William in a voice of terror. “Annie, come quick--you must help me! Annie, I’ve caught a mermaid!” He stood panting before her, the fear dripping off him. And it became clear to Annie in that moment that her husband, well-meaning though he was, would never have been able to keep her, not like he wanted to, not like he’d promised to. For here he was--he’d caught a mermaid! the mere thought made her tremble--asking her for help. And she with her belly growing day by day!
But there was nothing else to be done, for the mermaid had been caught, and a mermaid must be dealt with. Mermaids, as all island-folk know, are trouble of the worst kind.
Annie put her embroidery aside--the eel, at any rate, was quite spoilt; she wouldn’t be able to save it--and wiped her bloody finger on her handkerchief. “All right, William,” she said. “Where is the mermaid?”
Down in the bay, a crowd had gathered at a timid distance from William’s trawler, which bobbed uneasily alone at the end of the quay. Fishers and netters and gutters and crabbers stood by and whispered ominous conjectures about the Henshers’ catch. Above the mutterings of the crowd there came a high-pitched mewling, a screeching and a shrieking, a thrashing of ropes and the flumping and thumping of a scaly weight upon the trawler’s deck.
“Let me go, let me go, let me go!” the mermaid screamed as Annie stepped onto the boat, her husband fluttering and quaking behind her. “Let me out, let me out! You vermin, you crawlers, you dirt-eating beasties! Let me go, or you will suffer--you’ll suffer!”
Annie stood back from the heaving tangle of netting with her soft, white hands folded in front of her rounded belly. She looked at the mermaid--its squat torso, its limpet-laden breasts, its fleshy green tail that flopped obscenely to and fro--and she was afraid. She could see the fish that had shared the mermaid’s snare; their glassy eyes stared from mangled bodies, crushed by the mermaid’s flailing limbs.
The purple mouth opened again, showing rotting teeth and gums. “Don’t just stand there, you useless gawking hulk, you ugly land-rooted hag! Let me out!”
Annie remembered her mother--how her mother had been in those long, weary days after Annie’s father had left, singing to raise their spirits (they ignored the occasions when a tear cracked through the tune)--and she stepped forward and began to untangle the mermaid. The creature lay very still and silent while Annie fumbled with the sodden fibres (her fingers had forgotten this, had forgotten how to be strong). But when Annie had cleared the netting and reached for the mermaid, it let out a shriek like a whole flock of seagulls together: “Don’t touch me! Dirt-bag, dirt-hag! Don’t touch me! I’ll curse you! I’ll curse you!”
Annie’s fear brought tears to her eyes. She looked for William, but her husband was gaping and shaking like a beached carp. She thought: “Well, he’s no use. And it must be done. And that’s the same as I’ve ever done--what needs doing. Apart from those first months of dream, those few bright months. But they’re gone, Annie dear, and now here is something must be done.” But although Annie thought such brave thoughts, salt rivulets cut down her cheeks.
“Stop your fussing now,” she told the mermaid, “or are you too weed-addled to see when someone’s doing you a kindness?” With that, she bent and plucked the mermaid off the deck.
“Aaaiiieeee!” the mermaid squealed, flapping her tail back and forth and wriggling like a toddler in a tantrum. “Put me down, you earth-bound witch! Leave me alone, I tell you! Leave me alone! Get your muddy hands off me!”
There were scales and barnacles cutting into Annie’s cottage-soft flesh, but she braced herself and raised the caterwauling creature above her head. She didn’t have the breath to speak, for she was sobbing in her terror.
“I curse you!” the mermaid screamed. “I curse you, land woman! I curse your womb! I curse your womb!”
Annie let out a gasp and hurled the mermaid into the bay. The mermaid fell with a splash, and she might have bobbed up again for one final gibe, but if she did then Annie didn’t notice. She had already turned and pushed past her husband (who meant well, certainly, but he was no match for a mermaid, now was he?) and was stumbling back towards her cottage with her arms wrapped over her belly and the whole crowd watching in dreadful silence.
A month later, Annie’s own little slippery thing slid into the world far too early, too weak even to gasp for breath in this strange void of bitter air. Annie gazed down at the still creature cradled in her hands. Her eyes were dry and cold and implacable, eyes like the cliffs the sea flung itself against in incessant waves. She had known that this would happen, of course--had known it from the moment she’d seen the mermaid, before the curse had even been spoken. For that was the way of things, it seemed. Annie was a woman of the coast, an island woman through and through. No matter how she tried to play at warmth, at being cozied up in this cottage with William, at housekeeping and embroidery, the salt seeped in through the cracks in the windowpanes and water sloshed under the door. She was a woman of squalls and foam, of seaweed and planking and fish-guts. A woman exposed. She had known it all along, but the knowledge rose now, sharp and intense, like the stab of a needle. Before her was the proof: this half-formed being, this little fishy shape, this cruel memory of that other chimærean creature she’d held in the selfsame hands only a month before.
When William saw it, Annie thought he was going to faint. His face drained clammy-white and he clutched at a chair with a strangled, gulping sound.
“We must bury him in the garden,” said Annie to her husband. “Bury him under the apple tree, like a fruit that fell too soon.” Saying that made her sorrow deepen, but also brought a strange buoyancy. “An early fruit,” she repeated. “We must bury him in the garden.”
William sat down suddenly. “We can’t put that thing in the garden,” he said, passing a trembling hand across his forehead. “I won’t have it.”
Annie’s cheeks went pale, with two points of red. She clutched the poor cursed body to her breast.
“You must throw it out to sea,” William said. His eyes darted like frightened minnows. He wouldn’t look at his wife or the shape in her hands. “Throw it out to sea where it belongs. I can’t bear it!” he cried abruptly, lurching upright. “I’m getting out!” He grabbed his coat and rushed to the door. Annie did not move. “Get rid of it!” The door slammed.
A little while later Annie went out on the clifftops.
Years passed, and the Henshers’ dreams vanished behind them. Promises were forgotten, arguments were had, words were said that shouldn’t have been, crockery smashed. The tin on the mantle was raided every week when William took himself off to town. He went to savour the golden, yeasty liquids in which he could safely drown himself, and for a while forget the salty flowings of his life: of the sea and Annie’s tears and those other fluids that had rushed out too soon from his wife’s belly. William slept on the floor now, on a pile of blankets, because he could not forget the sight of that mangled creature that had been switched so cruelly for his son, and because whenever William touched Annie’s flesh he thought of barnacles, and shuddered.
Annie, meanwhile, dwindled slowly in the cottage, shrinking down until one could see quite clearly how she was taking after her mother, that peering little woman who wrung her hands as if she might someday conjure something into being between the palms. Annie knew very well that she was dwindling, and the knowledge made her eyes turn dark and clouded. She took to walking on the cliffs, gazing out across the sea, remembering how she’d stood there years before and released her tiny burden.
One afternoon, Annie suddenly thought that perhaps this should be the last time, the last walk she would ever take. She stepped to the cliff’s edge and stared down at the capricious waters. Perhaps...
But then a grizzled form emerged from the breakers below. A head, trailing seaweed, a head with a purple mouth that Annie recognized with a surge of confusion and fear.
“Do stop your gawping, you dirt-eating heifer. Don’t you ever learn?” The mermaid narrowed her eyes to squint up at Annie, frozen on the cliffs above.
“Leave me alone,” Annie managed to gasp, and as she said it her shoulders slumped and her body drooped with exhaustion. “Leave me alone, oh please leave me alone.”
“Well,” said the mermaid, with a curious wink, “I seem to recall that I asked you the same thing, last time we met. But I also recall that you ignored me. So I’ll do what I like, just as you did. And you might be more civil, after all, as I’ve brought you a gift, so I have.”
Something in Annie seemed to swell; it might have been her heart.
“Anyone would think that you didn’t know when someone was doing you a kindness,” leered the mermaid, “standing gawping like that. And after I’ve looked after him these past years, and nursed him and fed him, and got him ready for the air. And you not having to worry about a thing!”
The mermaid flicked her tail and Annie suddenly saw the child--the scrawny dark-haired shining wet child--scrambling uncertainly out of the shallows of the bay. She caught up her skirts and raced down the cliff-path (perhaps she hadn’t dwindled so much after all; perhaps she was young yet). She ran down the pebbled sand, ran into water that lapped around her ankles, ran to take her son, finally, her little slippery thing, in her arms.
“No need to thank me,” said the mermaid. “I realized I may have been a bit hard on you, and times are hard as it is, I know.” She scratched contentedly at a limpet clinging in her armpit. “Us salty folk, we have to do what we can.”
Jess Hyslop lives in Cambridge, UK, where she spends a good deal of time wandering between bookshops, cafes, and cinemas while pondering her next writing project. She studied English at the University of Cambridge, and was there awarded the Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing in 2010. Her winning story, ‘Augury’, has since been published by Shortfire Press. Her short fiction has also appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Interzone, among other venues. She tweets @JinxedJester.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I find that ideas spring from all manner of unexpected places, though often they go through many transformations and evolutions before I feel ready to put pen to paper. In most cases, there is an identifiable trigger that sets the cogs a-turning. An archaic word, a piece of fascinating local history, an unusual occupation, an old photograph... Some things just seem to resonate with narrative promise.