From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

Miss Carstairs and the Merman

Miss Carstairs and the Merman by Delia Sherman (art by Sandra Buskirk)

The night Miss Carstairs first saw the merman, there was a great storm along the Massachusetts coast. Down in the harbor town, old men sat in taverns drinking hot rum and cocking their ears at the wind whining and whistling in the chimneys. A proper nor’easter, they said, a real widow-maker, and huddled closer to the acrid fires while the storm ripped shingles from roofs and flung small boats against the piers, leaping across the dunes to set the tall white house on the bluffs above the town surging and creaking like a great ship.

In that house, Miss Carstairs sat by the uncurtained window of her study, peering through a long telescope. Her square hands steady upon the barrel, she watched the lightning dazzle on the water and the wind-blown sand and rain scour her garden. She saw a capsized dinghy scud past her beach in kinetoscopic bursts, and a gull beaten across the dunes. She saw a long, dark, seal-sleek figure cast upon the rocky beach, flounder for a moment in the retreating surf, and then lie still.

Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman

This story also appears in the new short story collection, YOUNG WOMAN IN A GARDEN by Delia Sherman, available now from Small Beer Press.

The shallow tidal pool where the figure lay was, Miss Carstairs calculated, not more than two hundred yards from her aerie. Putting aside the telescope, she reached for the bell pull.

The peculiarities of both ocean storms and seals had been familiar to Miss Carstairs since earliest childhood. Whenever she could slip away from her nurse, she would explore the beach or the salt marshes behind her father’s house, returning from these expeditions disheveled: her pinafore pockets stuffed with shells, her stockings torn and sodden, her whole small person reeking, her mother used to say, like the flats at low tide. On these occasions, Mrs. Carstairs would scold her daughter and send her supperless to bed. But her father usually contrived to slip into her room—bearing a bit of cranberry bread, perhaps—and would read to her from Linnaeus or Hans Andersen’s fairy tales or Lyell’s Natural History.

Mr. Carstairs, himself an amateur ichthyologist, delighted in his daughter’s intelligence. He kept the crabs and mussels she collected in the stone pond he had built in the conservatory for his exotic oriental fish. For her fifteenth birthday, he presented her with a copy of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. He would not hear of her attending the village school with the children of the local fishermen, but taught her mathematics and Latin and logic himself, telling her mother that he would have no prissy governess stuffing the head of his little scientist with a load of womanish nonsense.

By the time Mr. Carstairs died, his daughter had turned up her hair and let down her skirts, but she still loved to tramp all day along the beaches. In hopes of turning her daughter’s mind to more important matters, her mother drained the pond in the conservatory and lectured her daily on the joys of the married state. Miss Carstairs was sorry about the pond, but she knew she had only to endure and eventually, she would be able to please herself. For five years, endure she did, saying, “Yes, Mama” and “No, Mama” until the day when Mrs. Carstairs followed her husband to the grave, a disappointed woman.

On her return from her mother’s funeral, Miss Carstairs promptly ordered a proper collecting case, a set of scalpels, and an anatomy text from Codman and Shurtleff in Boston. From then on, she lived very much alone, despising the merchants’ and fish-brokers’ wives who formed the society of the town. They, in turn, despised her. It was a crying and a shame, they whispered over cups of Indian tea, that the finest house in town be wasted on a woman who would all too obviously never marry, being not only homely as a haddock, but a bluestocking as well.

A bluestocking Miss Carstairs may have been, but her looks were more primate than piscine. She had a broad, low brow, a long jaw, and her Scottish father’s high, flat cheekbones. Over the years, sun and wind and cold had creased and tanned her skin, and her thin hair was as silver-gray as the weathered shingles on the buildings along the wharf. She was tall and sturdy and fit as a man from long tramps in the marshes. She was patient, as a scientist must be, and had taught herself classification and embryology and enough about conventional scientific practices to write articles acceptable to The American Naturalist and the Boston Society of Natural History. By the time she was forty-nine, “E. Monroe Carstairs” had earned the reputation of being very sound on theMollusca of the New England coast.

In the course of preparing these articles, Miss Carstairs had collected hundreds of specimens, and little jars containing pickled Cephalopoda andGastropoda lined her study shelves in grim profusion. But she had living barnacles and sea slugs as well, housed in the conservatory pool, where they kept company with lobsters and crabs and feathery sea worms in a kind of miniature ocean. In shape the pond was a wide oval, built up at the sides with a mortared stone coping, nestled in an Eden of Boston ferns and sweet-smelling mint geraniums. Miss Carstairs had fitted it out with a series of pumps and filters to bring seawater up from the bay and keep it clean and fresh.

She was very proud of it, and of the collection of marine life it housed. Stocking it with healthy specimens was the chief pleasure of her life. Summer and winter she spent much of her time out stalking the tidal flats after a neap tide or exploring the small brackish pools of the salt marshes. But nothing was as productive of unusual specimens as a roaring gale, which, in beating the ocean to a froth, swept up rare fauna from its very floor.

As Miss Carstairs stood now with her hand upon the bell pull, her wide experience of such storms told her that she must either bring in the seal immediately, or watch it wash away with the tide. She pulled sharply, and when the maid Sarah sleepily answered it, ordered her to rouse Stephen and John without delay and have them meet her in the kitchen passage. “Tell them to bring the lantern, and the stretcher we used for the shark last spring,” she said. “And bring me my sou’wester and my boots.”

Soon two oil-clothed men, yawning behind their hands, awaited Miss Carstairs in the dark kitchen. They were proud of the forthright eccentricity of their mistress, who kept lobsters in a fancy pool instead of eating them, and traipsed manfully over the mud flats in all weather. If Miss Carstairs wanted to go out into the worst nor’easter in ten years to collect some rare grampus or other, they were perfectly willing to go with her. Besides, she paid them well.

Miss Carstairs leading the way with the lantern, the little company groped its way down the slippery wooden stairs to the beach. The lantern illuminated glimpses of scattered flotsam: gouts of seaweed and beached fish, broken seagulls and strange shells. But Miss Carstairs, untempted, ran straight before the wind to the tidal pool where lay her quarry.

Whatever the creature was, it was not a seal. The dim yellow lantern gave only the most imperfect outline of its shape, but Miss Carstairs could see that it was more slender than a seal, and lacked a pelt. Its front flippers were peculiarly long and flexible, and it seemed to have a crest of bony spines down its back. There was something familiar about its shape, about the configuration of its upper body and head.

Miss Carstairs was just bending to take a closer look when Stephen’s impatient “Well, Miss?” drew her guiltily upright. The wind was picking up; it was more than time to be getting back to the house. She stood out of the way while the men unfolded a bundle of canvas and sticks into a stretcher like a sailor’s hammock suspended between two long poles. They bundled their find into this contrivance and, in case it might still be alive, covered it with a blanket soaked in seawater. Clumsily, because of the wind and the swaying weight of their burden, the men crossed the beach and labored up the wooden stairs, wound through the garden and up two shallow stone steps to a large glass conservatory built daringly onto the sea side of the house.

When Miss Carstairs opened the door, the wind extinguished most of the gaslights Sarah had thoughtfully lit in the conservatory. So it was in a poor half-light that the men hoisted their burden to the edge of the pool and tipped the creature out onto the long boulder that had once served as a sunning place for Mr. Carstairs’s terrapins. The lax body rolled heavily onto the rock; Miss Carstairs eyed it doubtfully while the men panted and wiped at their streaming faces.

“I don’t think we should submerge it entirely,” she said. “If it’s still alive, being out of the water a little longer shouldn’t hurt it, and if it is not, I don’t want the lobsters getting it before I do.”

The men went off to their beds, and Miss Carstairs stood for some while, biting thoughtfully at her forefinger as she contemplated her new specimen. Spiky and naked, it did not look like anything she had ever seen or read about in Allen, Grey, or von Haast. She dismissed the temptation to turn up the gas and examine it more closely with the reflection that the night was far advanced and she herself wet and tired. The specimen would still be there in the morning, and she in a better state to attend to it. But when she ascended the stairs, her footsteps led her not to her bedroom but to her study, where she spent the rest of the night in restless perusal of True’s Catalogue of Aquatic Mammals.

At six o’clock, Miss Carstairs rang for Sarah to bring her rolls and coffee. By 6:30 she had eaten, bathed, and dressed herself, and was on her way to the conservatory. Her find lay as she had left it, half in and half out of the water. By the light of day, she could see that its muscular tail grew into a powerful torso, scaleless and furless and furnished with what looked like arms, jointed like a human’s and roped with long, smooth muscles under a protective layer of fat. Its head was spherical, and flanked by a pair of ears shaped and webbed like fins.

At first, Miss Carstairs refused to believe the evidence of her eyes. Perhaps, she thought, she was overtired from reading all night. The creature, whatever it was, would soon yield its secrets to her scalpel and prove to be nothing more wonderful than a deformed porpoise or a freak manatee.

She took its head in her hands. Its skin was cool and pliant and slimy, very unpleasant to touch, as though a fish had sloughed its scales but not its protective mucus. She lifted its thick, lashless lids to reveal pearly eyes, rolled upward. She had never touched nor seen the like. A new species, perhaps? A new genus?

With a rising excitement, Miss Carstairs palpated its skull, which was hairless and smooth except for the spiny ridge bisecting it, and fingered the slight protrusion between its eyes and lipless mouth. The protrusion was both fleshy and cartilaginous, like a human nose, and as Miss Carstairs acknowledged the similarity, the specimen’s features resolved into an unmistakably anthropoid arrangement of eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. The creature was, in fact, neither deformed nor freakish but, in its own way, harmonious. A certain engraving in a long-forgotten book of fairy tales came to her mind, of a wistful child with a human body and a fish’s tail.

Miss Carstairs plumped heavily into her wicker chair. Here, lying on a rock in her father’s goldfish pond, was a species never examined by Mr. Darwin or classified by Linnaeus. Here was a biological anomaly, a scientific impossibility. Here, in short, was a mermaid, and she, Edith Carstairs, had collected it.

Shyly, almost reverently, Miss Carstairs approached the creature anew. She turned the lax head toward her, then prodded at its wide, lipless mouth to get a look at its teeth. A faint, cool air fanned her fingers, and she snatched them back as though the creature had bitten her. Could it be alive? Miss Carstairs laid her hand flat against its chest and felt nothing; hesitated, laid her ear where her hand had been, and heard a faint thumping, slower than a human heartbeat.

In terror lest the creature awake before she could examine it properly, Miss Carstairs snatched up her calipers and her sketchbook and began to make detailed notes of its anatomy. She measured its cranium, which she found to be as commodious as most men’s, and traced its webbed, four-fingered hands. She sketched it full-length from all angles, then made piecemeal studies of its head and finny ears, its curiously muscled torso and its horny claws. From the absence of external genitalia and the sleek roundness of its limbs and body, she thought her specimen to be female, even though it lacked the melon breasts and streaming golden hair of legend. But breasts and streaming hair would drag terribly, Miss Carstairs thought: a real mermaid would be better off without them. By the same token, a real merman would be better off without the drag of external genitals. On the question of the creature’s sex, Miss Carstairs decided to reserve judgment.

Promptly at one o’clock, Sarah brought her luncheon—a cutlet and a glass of barley water—and still the creature lay unconscious. Miss Carstairs swallowed the cutlet hastily between taking wax impressions of its claws and scraping slime from its skin to examine under her microscope. She drew a small measure of its thin scarlet blood and poked curiously at the complexity of tissue fringing the apparent opening of its ears, which had no parallel in any lunged aquatic animal she knew. It might, she thought, be gills.

By seven o’clock, Miss Carstairs had abandoned hope. She leaned over her mermaid, pinched the verdigris forearm between her nails, and looked closely at the face for some sign of pain. The wide mouth remained slack; the webbed ears lay flat and unmoving against the skull. It must be dead after all. It seemed that she would have to content herself with dissecting the creature’s cadaver, and now was not too early to begin. So she laid out her scalpels and her bone saw and rang for the men to hoist the specimen out of the pool and onto the potting table.

“Carefully, carefully, now.” Miss Carstairs hovered anxiously as Stephen and John struggled with the slippery bulk and sighed as it slipped out of their hands. As it landed belly-down across the stone coping, the creature gave a great huff and twitched as though it had been electrified. Then it flopped backward, twisted eel-quick under the water, and peered up at Miss Carstairs from the bottom of the pool, fanning its webbed ears and gaping.

The men fled, stumbling and slipping in their haste.

Fairly trembling with excitement, Miss Carstairs leaned over the water and stared at her acquisition. The mer-creature, mouthing the water, stared back. The tissue in front of its ears fluttered rhythmically, and Miss Carstairs knew a moment of pure scientific gratification. Her hypothesis was proved correct; it did indeed have gills as well as lungs.

The mer undulated gently from crest to tail-tip, then darted from one extremity of the pool to the other, sending water slopping into Miss Carstairs’s lap. She recoiled, shook out her skirts, and looked up to see the mer peering over the coping, its eyes deep-set, milk-blue, and as intelligently mournful as a whipped dog’s.

Miss Carstairs grinned, then hastily schooled her lips into a solemn line. Had not Mr. Darwin suggested that to most lower animals, a smile is a sign of challenge? If the creature was the oceanic ape it appeared to be, then might it not, as apes do, find her involuntary smile as terrifying as a shark’s grinning maw? Was a mer a mammal at all, or was it an amphibian? Did it properly belong to a genus, or was it, like the platypus, sui generis? She resolved to reread Mr. Gunther’s The Study of Fishes and J.E. Grey on seals.

While Miss Carstairs was pondering its origins, the mer seemed to be pondering Miss Carstairs. It held her eyes steadily with its pearly gaze, and Miss Carstairs began to fancy that she heard—no, it was rather that she sensed—a reverberant, rhythmic hushing like a swift tide withdrawing over the sand of a sea cave.

The light shimmered before her eyes. She shook her head and recalled that she had not eaten since lunch. A glance at the watch pinned to her breast told her that it was now past nine o’clock. Little wonder she was giddy, what with having had no sleep the night before and working over the mer-creature all day. Her eyes turned again to her specimen. She had intended ringing for fish and feeding it from her own hand, but now thought she would retire to her own belated supper and leave its feeding to the servants.

• • • •

The next morning, much refreshed by her slumbers, Miss Carstairs returned to the conservatory armored with a bibbed denim apron and rubber boots. The mer was sitting perched on the highest point of the rock with its long fish’s tail curled around it, looking out over the rose beds to the sea.

It never moved when Miss Carstairs entered the conservatory, but gazed steadily out at the bright vista of water and rocky beach. It sat extremely upright, as if disdaining the unaccustomed weight of gravity on its spine, and its spiky crest was fully erect. One clawed hand maintained its balance on the rock; the other was poised on what Miss Carstairs was obliged to call its thigh. The wide flukes of its yellow-bronze tail draped behind and around it like a train and trailed on one side down to the water. This attitude was to become exceedingly familiar to Miss Carstairs in the weeks that followed; but on this first morning, it struck her as being at once human and alien, pathetic and comic, like a trousered chimpanzee riding a bicycle in a circus.

Having already sketched it from all angles, what Miss Carstairs chiefly wanted was for the mer to do something. Now that it was awake, she was hesitant to touch it, for its naked skin and high forehead made it look oddly human and its attitude forbade familiarity. Would it hear her, she wondered, if she tried to get its attention? Or were those earlike fans merely appendages to its gills?

Standing near the edge of the pool, Miss Carstairs clapped her hands sharply. One fluke stirred in the water, but that might have been coincidence. She cleared her throat. Nothing. She climbed upon a low stool, stood squarely in the creature’s field of vision, and said quite firmly, “How d’ye do?” Again, nothing, if she excepted an infinitesimal shivering of its skin that she might have imagined. “Boo!” cried Miss Carstairs then, waving her arms in the air and feeling more than a little foolish. “Boo! Boo!”

Without haste, the mer brought its eyes to her face and seemed to study her with a grave, incurious attention. Miss Carstairs climbed down and clasped her hands behind her back. Now that she had its attention, what would she do with it?

Conquering a most unscientific shrinking, Miss Carstairs unclasped her hands and reached one of them out to the creature, palm upward, as if it had been a strange dog. The mer immediately dropped from its upright seat to a sprawling crouch, and to Miss Carstairs’s horrified fascination, the movement released from a pouch beneath its belly a boneless, fleshy ocher member that could only be its—unmistakably male—genitalia.

Miss Carstairs hid her confusion in a Boston fern, praying that the merman would withdraw his nakedness, or at least hide it in the water. But when she turned back, he was still stretched at full length along the stone, his outsized privates boldly—Miss Carstairs could only think defiantly—displayed.

He was smiling.

There was nothing pleasant, welcoming, friendly, or even tangentially human about the merman’s smile. His gaping mouth was full of needle teeth. Behind them, his gorge was pale rose and palpitating. He had no tongue.

Although she might be fifty years old and a virgin, Miss Carstairs was no delicate maiden lady. Before she was a spinster or even a woman, she was a naturalist, and she immediately forgot the merman’s formidable sexual display in wonder at his formidable dentition. Orally, at least, the merman was all fish. His grin displayed to advantage the tooth plate lining his lower jaw, the respiratory lamellae flanking his pharynx, the inner gill septa. Miss Carstairs seized her notebook, licked the point of her pencil, and began to sketch diligently. Once she glanced up to verify the double row of teeth in the lower jaw. The merman was still grinning at her. A moment later she looked again; he had disappeared. Hurriedly, Miss Carstairs laid aside her book and searched the pool. Yes, there he was at the deep end, belly-down against the pebbled bottom.

Miss Carstairs seated herself upon the coping to think. Had the merman acted from instinct or intelligence? If he had noted her shock at the sight of his genitals, then his flourishing them might be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to discomfit her. On the other hand, the entire display could have been a simple example of instinctive aggression, like a male mandrill presenting his crimson posterior to an intruder.

Miss Carstairs mounted to her study and picked up her pen to record her observations. As she inscribed the incident, she became increasingly convinced that the merman’s action must be the result of deliberate intention. No predator—and the merman’s teeth left no doubt that he was a predator—would instinctively bare rather than protect the most vulnerable portion of his anatomy. He must, therefore, have exposed himself in a gesture of defiance and contempt. But such a line of reasoning, however theoretically sound, did not go far in proving that her merman was capable of reasoned behavior. She must find a way to test his intelligence empirically.

Miss Carstairs looked blindly out over the autumn-bright ocean glittering below her. The duke of Argyll had written that Man was unique among animals in being a tool-user. Yet Mr. Darwin had argued persuasively that chimpanzees and orangutans commonly use sticks and stones to open hard nuts or knock down fruit. Surely no animal lower than an ape would think to procure his food using anything beyond his own well-adapted natural equipment.

Since he was immured in a kind of free-swimming larder, Miss Carstairs could not count upon the merman’s being hungry enough to spring her trap for the bait alone. The test must engage his interest as well. Trap: now there was an idea. What if she were to use one of the patent wire rattraps stacked in the garden shed? She could put a fish in a rattrap—a live fish, she thought, would prove more attractive than a dressed one—and offer the merman an array of tools with which to open it—a crowbar, perhaps a pair of wire snips. Yes, thought Miss Carstairs, she would put the fish in a rattrap and throw it into the pool to see what the merman would make of it.

Next morning the merman had resumed his station on the rock looking, if anything, more woebegone than he had the day before. Somewhat nervously, Miss Carstairs entered the conservatory carrying a bucket of water with a live mackerel in it. She was followed by Stephen, who was laden with the rattrap, a crowbar, a pair of wire snips, and a small hacksaw. With his help, Miss Carstairs introduced the mackerel into the trap and lowered it into the deep end of the pool. Then she dismissed Stephen, positioned herself in the wicker chair, pulledDescent of Man from her pocket, and pretended to read.

The tableau held for a quarter of an hour or so. Miss Carstairs sat, the merman sat, the rattrap with its mackerel rested on the bottom of the pool, and the tools lay on the coping as on a workbench, with the handles neatly turned toward their projected user. Finally, Miss Carstairs slapped over the page and humphed disgustedly; the merman slithered off the rock into the pool.

A great rolling and slopping of briny water ensued. When the tumult ceased, the merman’s head popped up, grinning ferociously. He was clearly incensed, and although his attitude was comic, Miss Carstairs was not tempted to laugh.

With an audible snap, the merman shut his gaping mouth, lifted the rattrap onto the rock, hauled himself up beside it, and carefully examined the tools set out before him. The wire snips he passed over without hesitation. The hacksaw he felt with one finger, which he hastily withdrew when he caught it upon the ragged teeth; Miss Carstairs was interested to observe that he carried the injured member to his mouth to suck just as a man or a monkey would. Then he grasped the crowbar and brought it whistling down upon the trap, distorting it enough for him to see that one end was not made all of a piece with the rest. He steadied the trap with one hand and, thrusting the crowbar through the flap, pried it free with a single mighty heave. Swiftly, he reached inside and grabbed the wildly flapping mackerel.

For a time the merman held the fish before him as if debating what to do with it. He looked from the fish to Miss Carstairs and from Miss Carstairs to the fish, and she heard a sound like a sigh, accompanied by a slight fluttering of his gill flaps. This sigh, combined with his habitual expression of settled melancholy, made his attitude so like that of an elderly gentleman confronted with unfamiliar provender that Miss Carstairs smiled a little in spite of herself. The merman stiffened and gazed at her intently. A long moment passed, and Miss Carstairs heard—or thought she heard—a noise of water rushing over sand; saw—or thought she saw—a glimmer as of sun filtered through clear water.

Now, Miss Carstairs was not a woman given either to the vapors or to lurid imaginings. Thunderstorms that set more delicate nerves quivering merely stimulated her; bones and entrails left her unmoved. Furthermore, she was never ill and had never been subject to sick headaches. So, when her head began to throb and her eyes to dazzle with sourceless pinwheels of light, Miss Carstairs simply closed her eyes to discover whether the effect would disappear. The sound of rushing waters receded; the throb subsided to a dull ache. She opened her eyes to the merman’s pearly stare, and sound and pain and glitter returned.

At this point she thought it would be only sensible to avert her eyes. But being sensible would not teach her why the merman sought to mesmerize her or why his stare caused her head to ache so. Deliberately, she abandoned herself to his gaze.

All at once, Miss Carstairs found herself at sea. Chilly green-gray depths extended above and below her, fishy shadows darted past the edges of her vision. She was swimming in a strong and unfamiliar current. The ocean around her tasted of storm and rocks and fear. She knew beyond doubt that she was being swept ever closer to a strange shore, and although she was strong, she was afraid. Her tail scraped sand; the current crossed with windblown waves and conspired to toss her ashore. Bruised, torn, gasping for breath in the thin air, Miss Carstairs fainted.

She came to herself some little time later, her eyes throbbing viciously and her ears ringing. The merman was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, Miss Carstairs dragged herself to her chair and rang for Sarah. She would need tea, perhaps even a small brandy, before she could think of mounting the stairs. She felt slightly seasick.

Sarah exclaimed in shock at her mistress’s appearance. “I’ve had a bit of a turn,” said Miss Carstairs shortly. “No doubt I stayed up too late last night reading. If you would bring me some brandy and turn down my bed, I think I should like to lie down. No,”—in answer to Sarah’s inquiring look—“”you must not call Dr. Bland. I have a slight headache; that is all.”

Some little time later, Miss Carstairs lay in her darkened bedroom with a handkerchief soaked in eau de cologne pressed to her aching forehead. She did not know whether to exult or to despair. If her recent vision had been caused by the feverish overexcitement of an unbridled imagination, she feared that excessive study, coupled with spinsterhood, had finally driven her mad as her mother had always warned her it would.

But if the vision had been caused by the merman’s deliberate attempt to “speak” to her, she had made a discovery of considerable scientific importance.

Miss Carstairs stirred impatiently against her pillows. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the experience was genuine. That would suggest that somewhere in the unexplored deeps of the ocean was a race of mermen who could cast images, emotion, even sounds, from mind to mind. Fantastic as the thing sounded, it could be so. In the first edition of the Origin, Mr. Darwin had written that over the ages a bear might develop baleen and flippers, evolving finally into a kind of furry whale, if living upon plankton had become necessary to the species’ survival. The general mechanism of evolution might, given the right circumstances, produce anthropoid creatures adapted for life in the sea. Why should not some ambitious prehistoric fish develop arms and a large, complex brain, or some island-dwelling ape take to the sea and evolve gills and a tail?

Evolution could also account for a telepathic method of communication, just as it accounted for a verbal one. To Miss Carstairs’s mind, the greater mystery was how she could have received and understood a psychic message. Presumably, some highly evolved organ or cerebral fold peculiar to mermen transmitted their thoughts; how could she, poor clawless, gill-less, forked creature that she was, share such an organ?

An exquisitely stabbing pain caused Miss Carstairs to clutch the handkerchief to her brow. She must rest, she thought. So she measured herself a small dose of laudanum, swallowed it, and slept.

Next morning, armed with smelling salts and a pair of smoked glasses that had belonged to her mother, Miss Carstairs approached the conservatory in no very confident mood. Her brain felt sore and bruised, almost stiff, like a long-immobilized limb that had been suddenly and violently exercised. Hesitantly, she peered through the French doors; the merman was back on his rock, staring out to sea. Determined that she would not allow him to overcome her with visions, she averted her gaze, then marched across the conservatory, seated herself, and perched the smoked glasses on her nose before daring to look up.

Whether it was the smoked glasses or Miss Carstairs’s inward shrinking that weakened the effect of the merman’s stare, this second communion was less intimate than the first. Miss Carstairs saw a coral reef and jewel-like fish darting and hovering over the sea floor like images painted on thin silk, accompanied by a distant chorus of squeaks, whistles, and random grunts. She did not, however, feel the press of the ocean upon her or any emotion other than her own curiosity and wonder.

“Is that your home?” she asked absurdly, and the images stopped. The merman’s face did not, apparently could not, change its expression, but he advanced his sloping chin and fluttered his webbed fingers helplessly in front of his chest. “You’re puzzled,” said Miss Carstairs softly. “I don’t wonder. But if you’re as intelligent as I hope, you will deduce that I am trying to speak to you in my way as you are trying to speak to me in yours.”

This speech was answered by a pause, then a strong burst of images: a long-faced grouper goggling through huge, smoky eyes; a merman neatly skewered on a harpoon; clouds of dark blood drifting down a swift current. Gasping in pain, Miss Carstairs reeled as she sat and, knocking off the useless smoked spectacles, pressed her hands to her eyes. The pain subsided to a dull ache.

“I see that I shall have to find a way of talking to you,” she said aloud. Fluttering claws signed the merman’s incomprehension. “When you shout at me, it is painful.” Her eye caught the hacksaw still lying by the pool. She retrieved it, offered it to the merman blade-first. He recoiled and sucked his finger reminiscently. Miss Carstairs touched her own finger to the blade, tore the skin, then gasped as she had when he had “shouted” at her and, clutching her bleeding finger dramatically, closed her eyes and lay back in her chair.

A moment passed. Miss Carstairs sat slowly upright as a sign that the performance was over. The merman covered his face with his fingers, webs spread wide to veil his eyes.

It was clearly a gesture of submission and apology, and Miss Carstairs was oddly moved by it. Cautiously, she leaned over the coping, and grasped him lightly by the wrist. He stiffened, but did not pull away. “I accept your apology, merman,” she said, keeping her face as impassive as his. “I think we’ve had enough for one day. Tomorrow we’ll talk again.”

• • • •

Over the course of the next few weeks, Miss Carstairs learned to communicate with her merman by working out a series of dumb shows signifying various simple commands: “Too loud!” and “Yes” and “No.” For more complex communications, she spoke to him as he spoke to her: by means of images.

The first day, she showed him an engraving of the Sirens that she had found in an illustrated edition of The Odyssey. It showed three fishtailed women, rather heavy about the breasts and belly, disposed gracefully on a rocky outcropping, combing their long falls of hair. The merman studied this engraving attentively. Then he fluttered his claws and sighed.

“I don’t blame you,” said Miss Carstairs. “They look too stupid to sit on the rocks and sing at the same time, much less swim.” She laid aside The Odysseyand took up a tinted engraving of a parrotfish. The merman advanced his head and sniffed, then snatched the sheet from Miss Carstairs’s fingers and turned it this way and that. Catching her eyes, he sent her a vision of that same fish, shining vermilion and electric blue through clear tropical waters, its hard beak patiently scraping polyps out of coral dotted with the waving fronds of sea worms. Suddenly one of the coral’s thornier parasites revealed itself as a merman’s hand by grabbing the parrotfish and sweeping it into the predator’s jaws. “Oh,” said Miss Carstairs involuntarily as she became aware of an exciting, coppery smell and an altogether unfamiliar taste in her mouth. “Oh my.”

She closed her eyes and the vision dispersed. Her mouth watering slightly and her hands trembling, she picked up her pen to describe the experience. Something of her confusion must have communicated itself to the merman, for when she next sought his eyes, he gave her a gossamer vision of a school of tiny fish flashing brilliant fins. Over time, she came to recognize that this image served him for a smile, and that other seemingly random pictures signified other common emotions: sunlight through clear water was laughter; a moray eel, heavy, hideous, and sharply toothed, was grief.

Autumn wore on to winter, and Miss Carstairs became increasingly adept at eliciting and reading the merman’s images. Every morning she would go to the conservatory bearing engravings or sepia photographs and, with their help, wrestle some part of the merman’s knowledge from him. Every afternoon, weather permitting, she would pace the marshes or the beach, sorting and digesting. Then, after an early dinner, she would settle herself at her desk and work on “A Preliminary Study of the Species Homo Oceanus Telepathicans,With Some Observations on His Society.”

This document, which she was confidant would assure E. Monroe Carstairs a chapter of his own in the annals of marine biology, began with a detailed description of the merman and the little she had been able to learn about his anatomy. The next section dealt with his psychic abilities; the next was headed “Communication and Society”:

As we have seen (Miss Carstairs wrote), quite a sophisticated level of communication can be achieved by an intelligent merman. Concrete as they necessarily are, his visions can, when properly read and interpreted, convey abstract ideas of some subtlety. But they can convey them only to one other mer. Chemical exudations (vide supra) signal only the simplest mer emotions: distress, lust, fear, anger, avoidance; booms and whistles attract a companion’s attention or guide cooperative hunting maneuvers. All fine shades of meaning, all philosophy, all poetry, can pass from one mer to another only by direct and lengthy mutual gazing.

This fact, coupled with an instinctive preference for solitude similar to that of the harlequin bass (S. tigrinus) and the reef shark (C. melanopterus), has prevented H. oceanus from evolving anything that H. sapiens would recognize as a civilized society. From the time they can safely fend for themselves at about the age of six, mer-children desert their parents to swim and hunt alone, often faring from one ocean to another in their wanderings. When one of these mer-children meets with another of approximately its own age, it will generally pair with that mer-child, whether it be of the same or of the opposite sex. Such a pairing, which seems to be instinctive, is the merman’s only means of social intercourse. It may last from a season or two to several years, but a couple with an infant commonly stays together until the child is ready to swim free. Legends exist of couples who swam faithfully together for decades, but as a rule, the enforced and extreme intimacy of telepathic communication comes to wear more and more heavily on one or both members of a pair until they are forced to part. Each mer then swims alone for whatever period of time fate and preference may dictate, until he meets with another receptive mer, when the cycle begins again.

Because of this peculiar behavioral pattern, the mer-folk can have no government, no religion, no community; in short, no possibility of developing a civilization even as primitive as that of a tribe of savages. Some legends they do have (vide Appendix A), some image-poems of transcendent beauty remembered and transmitted from pair to pair over the ages. But any new discovery made by a merman or a merwoman swimming alone may all too easily die with its maker or become garbled in transmission between pair and pair. For, except within the pair-bond, the mer’s instinct for cooperation is not strong.

• • • •

The more she learned about the customs of the mer-folk, the more conscious Miss Carstairs became of how fortunate she was that the merman had consented to speak to her at all. Mermen swimming solitary were a cantankerous lot, as likely to attack a chance-met pair or single mer as to flee it.

Though Miss Carstairs realized that the merman must look upon her as his companion for the duration of his cycle of sociability, she did not fully understand the implications such a companionship had for him. When she thought of his feelings at all, she imagined that he viewed her with the same benevolent curiosity with which she viewed him, never considering that their relationship might seem different from his side of the equation.

The crisis came in early December, when Miss Carstairs determined that it was time to tackle the subject of mer reproductive biology. She knew that an examination of the rituals of courtship and mating was central to the study of any new species, and no scientist, however embarrassing he might find the subject, was justified in shirking it. So Miss Carstairs gathered together her family album and a porcelain baby doll exhumed from a trunk in the attic, and used them, along with an anatomy text, to give the merman a basic lesson in human reproduction.

At first, it seemed to Miss Carstairs that the merman was being particularly inattentive. But close observation having taught her to recognize his moods, she realized at length that his tapping fingers, gently twitching crest, and reluctance to meet her eyes, all signaled acute embarrassment.

Miss Carstairs found this most interesting. She tapped on his wrist to get his attention, then shook her head and briefly covered her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she told him, then held out a sepia photograph of herself as a stout and solemn infant propped between her frowning parents on a horsehair sofa. “But you must tell me what I want to know.”

In response, the merman erected his crest, gaped fiercely, then dove into the deepest cranny of the pool, where he wantonly dismembered Miss Carstairs’s largest lobster. In disgust, she threw the baby doll into the pool after him and stalked from the room. She was furious. Without this section, her article must remain unfinished, and she was anxious to send it off. After having exposed himself on the occasion of their first meeting, after having allowed her to rummage almost at will through his memories and his mind, why would he so suddenly turn coy?

All that afternoon, Miss Carstairs pondered the merman’s reaction to her question, and by evening had concluded that mer-folk had some incomprehensible taboo concerning the facts of reproduction. Perhaps reflection would show him that there was no shame in revealing them to her, who could have only an objective and scientific interest in them. It never occurred to her that it might bewilder or upset the merman to speak of mating to a female to whom he was bonded, but with whom he could never hope to mate.

The next morning, Miss Carstairs entered the conservatory to see the merman sitting on his rock, his face turned sternly from the ocean and towards the door. Clearly, he was waiting for her, and when she took her seat and lifted her eyes to his, she felt absurdly like a girl caught out in some childish peccadillo and called into her mother’s sitting room to be chastised.

Without preamble, the merman sent a series of images breaking over her. Two mer—one male, one female—swam together, hunted, coupled. Soon they parted, one to the warm coral reefs, the other to arctic seas. The merwoman swam, hunted, explored. A time passed: not long, although Miss Carstairs could not have told how she knew. The merwoman met a merwoman, drove her away, met a merman, flung herself upon him amorously. This exchange was more complex than the earlier couplings; the merman resisted and fled when it was accomplished.

The merman began to eat prodigiously. He sought a companion and came upon a merman, with whom he mated, and who hunted for him when he could no longer easily hunt for himself. As the merman became heavier, he seemed to become greedier, stuffing his pouch with slivers of fish as if to hoard them. How ridiculous, thought Miss Carstairs. Then, all at once, the scales covering the pouch gave a writhing heave and a tiny crested head popped out. Tiny gills fluttered; tiny arms worked their way out of their confinement. Claiming its wandering gaze with iridescent eyes, the merman’s companion coaxed the infant from its living cradle and took it tenderly into his arms.

• • • •

Three days later, Miss Carstairs sent John to the village to mail the completed manuscript of her article, and then she put it out of her mind as firmly as she could. Brooding, she told herself, would not speed it any faster to the editor’s desk or influence him to look more kindly upon it once it got there. In the meanwhile, she must not waste time. There was much more the merman could tell her, much more for her to learn. Her stacks of notes and manuscript pages grew higher.

In late January, “Preliminary Study of the Species Homo Oceanus Telepathicans” was returned with a polite letter of thanks. As always, the editor ofThe American Naturalist admired Mr. Carstairs’s graceful prose style and clear exposition, but feared that this particular essay was more a work of imagination than of scientific observation. Perhaps it could find a more appropriate place in a literary journal.

Miss Carstairs tore the note into small pieces. Then she went down to the conservatory. The merman met her eyes when she entered, recoiled, and grinned angrily at her; Miss Carstairs grinned angrily back. She felt that her humiliation was his fault, that he had misled or lied to her. She wanted to dissect his brain and send it pickled to the editor of The American Naturalist; she wanted him to know exactly what had happened and how he had been the cause of it all. But since she had no way to tell him this, Miss Carstairs fled the house for the windy marshes, where she squelched through the matted beach grass until she was exhausted. Humanity had always bored her and now scholarship had betrayed her. She had nothing else.

Standing ankle-deep in a brackish pool, Miss Carstairs looked back across the marshes to her house. The sun rode low in a mackerel sky; its light danced on the calm water around her and glanced off the conservatory glazing. The merman would be sitting on his rock like the Little Mermaid in the tale her father had read her, gazing out over the ocean he could not reach. She had a sudden vision of a group of learned men standing around him, shaking their heads, stroking their whiskers, and debating whether or not this so-called merman had an immortal soul. Perhaps it was just as well the editor of The American Naturalist had rejected the article. Miss Carstairs could imagine sharing her knowledge of the merman with the world, but she could not share the merman himself. He had become necessary to her, her one comfort and her sole companion.

Next morning she was back in the conservatory, and on each morning succeeding. Day after day she gazed through the merman’s eyes as if he were a living bathysphere, watching damselfish and barracuda stitch silver through the greenish antlers of elkhorn coral, observing the languorous unfurling of the manta ray’s wings and the pale groping fingers of hungry anemones. As she opened herself to the merman’s visions, Miss Carstairs began not only to see and hear, but also to feel, to smell, even to taste, the merman’s homesick memories. She became familiar with the complex symphony of the ocean, the screeching scrape of parrotfish beaks over coral, the tiny, amatory grunts of frillfins. In the shape of palpable odors present everywhere in the water, she learned the distinct tastes of fear, of love, of blood, of anger. Sometimes, after a day of vicarious exploration, she would lie in her bed at night and weep for the thinness of the air around her, the silent flatness of terrestrial night.

The snow fell without Miss Carstairs’s noticing, melted and turned to rain, which froze again, then warmed and gentled toward spring. In her abandoned study, the ink dried in the well and the books and papers lay strewn around the desk like old wrecks. Swimming with the merman in the open sea, Miss Carstairs despised the land. When she walked abroad, she avoided the marshes and clambered over the weed-slick rocks to the end of the spit, where she would stand shivering in the wind and spray, staring into the waves breaking at her feet. Most days, however, she spent in the conservatory, gazing hungrily into the merman’s pearly eyes.

The merman’s visions were becoming delirious with the need for freedom as, in his own way, he pleaded with Miss Carstairs to release him. He showed her mermen caught in fishermen’s nets, torn beyond recognition by their struggles to escape the ropes. He showed her companions turning on each other, mate devouring mate when the social cycle of one had outlasted the patience of the other. Blinded by her own hunger, Miss Carstairs viewed these horrific images simply as dramatic incidents in his submarine narrative, like sharks feeding or grouper nibbling at the eyes of drowned sailors.

When at last the merman took to sulking under the rock, Miss Carstairs sat in her wicker chair like a squid lurking among the coral, waiting patiently for him to emerge. She knew the pond was small; she sensed that the ocean’s limitless freedom was more real to him when he shared his memories of it. She reasoned that no matter how distasteful the process had become, he must eventually rise and feed her the visions she craved. If, from time to time, she imagined that he might end her tyranny by tearing out her throat, she dismissed the fear. Was he not wholly in her power? When she knew the ocean as well as he, when she could name each fish with its own song, then she would let him swim free.

• • • •

One spring morning, Miss Carstairs came down to the conservatory to find the rock empty. At first she thought the merman was hiding; only when she moved toward the pool did she notice that the floor of the conservatory was awash with water and the door was ajar. Against all odds, her merman had found a way to escape her.

Miss Carstairs groped for her wicker chair and sat, bereaved and betrayed as she had not been since her father’s death. Her eye fell on the open door; she saw blood and water smeared over the steps. Rising hurriedly, she followed the trail through the garden to where the merman lay unconscious at the head of the beach stairs. With anxious, delicate fingers, she caressed his mouth and chest to feel the thin breath coming from his lips and the faint rhythmic beat under his ribs. His tail was scored and tattered where the gravel garden path had torn away the scales.

Somewhere in her soul, Miss Carstairs felt dismay and tenderness and horror. But in the forefront of her brain, she was conscious only of anger. She had fed him, she thought; she had befriended him; she had opened her mind to his visions. How dare he abandon her? Grasping him by the shoulders, she shook him violently. “Wake up and look at me!” she shouted.

Obediently, the merman opened his opalescent eyes and conjured a vision: the face of a middle-aged human woman. It was a simian face, slope-jawed and snub-nosed, wrinkled and brown.

The ape-woman opened her mouth, showing large, flat teeth. Grimacing fearfully, she stooped toward Miss Carstairs and seized her shoulders with stubby fingers that stung and burned her like anemones. Harsh noises scraped over Miss Carstairs’s ears, bearing with them the taint of hunger and need and envy as sweat bears the taint of fear. Miss Carstairs tore herself from the ape-woman’s poisonous grasp and covered her face with her hands.

A claw gripped her wrist, shook it to get her attention. Reluctantly, Miss Carstairs removed her hands and saw the merman, immovably melancholy, peering up at her. How could he bear to look at her? she wondered miserably. He shook his head, a gesture he had learned from her, and answered her with a kind of child’s sketch: an angular impression of a woman’s face, inhumanly beautiful in its severity. Expressions of curiosity, wonder, joy, discovery darted across the woman’s features like a swarm of minnows, and she tasted as strongly of solitude as a free-swimming mer.

Through her grief and remorse, Miss Carstairs recognized the justice of each of these portraits. “Beast and angel,” she murmured, remembering old lessons, and again the merman nodded. “No, I’m not a mer, am I, however much I have longed for the sea. And it isn’t you I want, but what you know, what you have seen.”

The merman showed her a coral reef, bright and various, which seemed to grow as she watched, becoming more complex, more brilliant with each addition; then an image of herself standing knee-deep in the sea, watching the merman swim away from her. She smelled of acceptance, resignation, inwardness—the taste of a mer parting from a loved companion.

Wearily, Miss Carstairs rubbed her forehead, which throbbed with multiplying thoughts. Her notebooks, her scholarship, her long-neglected study, all called to her through the merman’s vision. At the same time, she noted that he was responding directly to her. Had she suddenly learned to speak visions? Had he learned to see words? Beyond these thoughts, Miss Carstairs was conscious of the fierce warmth of the spring sun, the rich smell of the damp soil, and the faint green rustle of growing leaves. She didn’t know if they were the merman’s perceptions or her own.

Miss Carstairs pulled herself heavily to her feet and brushed down her skirts with a shaking hand. “It’s high time for you to be off,” she said. “I’ll just ring for Stephen and John to fetch the sling.” Unconsciously, she sought the savor of disapproval and rum that was John’s signal odor; it lingered near the kitchen door. At the same time, she had a clear vision of Stephen, wrapped in a disreputable jacket, plodding with bucket and fishing pole across the garden to the seawall. She saw him from above, as she had seen him from her bedroom window early that morning. So it was her vision, not the merman’s. The scientist in her noted the fact, and also that the throbbing in her head had settled down to a gentle pulse, discernible, like the beating of her heart, only if she concentrated on it.

A laughing school of fish flashed through the ordered currents of her thoughts, and Miss Carstairs understood that the merman found her new consciousness amusing. Then a searing sense of heat and a tight, itching pain under her skin sent her running into the house shouting for John. When he appeared—from the kitchen, she noted—she said, “Get a bucket and a blanket and wet down the merman. You’ll find him in the garden, near the sundial. Then bring the stretcher.” He gaped at her uncomprehendingly. “Hurry!” she snapped, and strode off toward the seawall in search of Stephen.

Following his scent, she found him hunched over his fishing pole and his pipe. He tasted of wet wool, tobacco, and solitude. “Stephen, I have learned everything from the merman that he is able to tell me. I have decided to release him.”

Stephen began to pull in his line. “Yes, Miss,” he said. “About time.”

• • • •

The tide was going out, and the men had to carry their burden far past the tidal pool where the merman had first washed ashore. It was heavy going, for the wet sand was soft and the merman was heavy. When they came to water at last, Miss Carstairs stood by as they released the merman into the shallows, then waded out up to her knees to stand beside him. The sun splintered the water into blinding prisms; she turned her eyes inshore, away from the glare. Behind her, Stephen and John were trudging back toward the beach, the conservatory glittering above them like a crystal jewel box. Sharp tastes of old seaweed and salt-crusted rocks stung her nose. Squinting down, Miss Carstairs saw the merman floating quietly against the pull of the sea, one webbed hand grasping the sodden fabric of her skirt. His crest was erect, his mouth a little open. Miss Carstairs read joy in his pearly eyes, and something like regret.

“I shall not forget what you have shown me,” she said, although she knew the words to be superfluous. Mentally, she called up the ape-woman and the scientist and fused them into a composite portrait of a human woman, beast and angel, heart and mind, need and reason; and she offered that portrait to the merman as a gift, an explanation, a farewell. Then he was gone, and Miss Carstairs began to wade back to shore.

© 1989 by Delia Sherman.
Previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
and in the collection Young Woman in a Garden (Small Beer Press).
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Art © 2014 by Sandra Buskirk.

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Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman (photo by Laurence Tamaccio)Delia Sherman’s most recent short stories have appeared in the young adult anthology Steampunk! and in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City. Her novels for younger readers are Changeling, The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, and The Freedom Maze, a time-travel historical about ante-bellum Louisiana which recently won the Andre Norton Award. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching, editing, knitting, and cooking. She loves to travel, but when not on the road, she lives in a rambling apartment in New York City with partner Ellen Kushner and far too many pieces of paper.