by Bradley Sides
After his insistence in expanding the pod, again, Herman brought Alice over on Saturday night to the abode that he shared with Olga and Elaine. Their home was rather plain—a jaggedly obtuse rock that jutted out of the foamy sea. It was coated in bird dung. Flies buzzed along the surface. There was barely enough room for the four of them. But the sea was roomy. There wasn’t a mermaid or merman alive who could argue that. Plus, it was a warm rock and the perfect spot for dolphin watching.
Small talk circulated among the group. It was Herman who did most of the initial blabbing. Half of the things he said didn’t make any sense. When Olga told him as much, he quieted down. “Sorry, old lady number one,” he said, pinching her forearm. “Now, calm yourself.” She rolled her eyes and scooted away.
With Herman quiet for a change, Alice took the floor. Nothing she added—not the talk about the family of vegetarian pelicans, the increased seashell theft, or the rumored live-action remake of The Little Mermaid—sparked much discussion until she brought up her interest in food. When she mentioned she was good at preparing meals, the merwives’ tails nearly split their moonlit home into pebbles.
“You know food?!” Olga blurted.
“Oh, I haven’t had a good breakfast in years,” Elaine said. “Olga and I can barely clean seaweed.”
“Yes,” Olga spat. “That’s true.”
Herman rubbed his stomach. “I’m underfed,” he said, chuckling. “Too skinny.”
“If you’d raise a hand instead of relying on us to do all the work, you might have more to eat,” Olga said.
The rock went quiet except for the sound from a stray, nearby splash. Only Elaine seemed to notice, but she didn’t say anything.
Then, Elaine, being Elaine, thought it best to end the night on a good note. She took the lead and insisted that she and Olga say goodnight. Elaine pecked Herman on the cheek. Olga waited and turned her attention to the curious lobster that inched toward Herman’s tail.
After the two mermaids splashed into the warm, dingy water below, Elaine’s rose back above the surface and gave a thumbs-up to Herman.
Finally alone, Herman and Alice scooted closer together atop the rock. He inched his tail to hers, and the two finally touched. He was a little scaley, but, she figured, she could find a better time for a conversation about moisturizing techniques.
“Did you mean what you said earlier? About breakfast?” Herman asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I love to make breakfast.”
He didn’t hesitate when he asked her to marry the family.
Her answer came nearly as quickly as the question had been posed. “Yes,” she said. “I will.”
Herman and Alice wrapped tails and plunged into the moon-lit water.
When the sun rose, Alice was the first one to swim toward its light. Just as soon as she popped up above the water’s surface, she dived back down. Her eyes widened, and she threw her fists in the air. A wedding gift from the sea wobbled along her new home’s surface.
A fat Mottled Duck, perfect for Alice’s first attempt at breakfast with her new family, quacked as it chewed on the morning’s flies. The duck didn’t seem like it was very smart, which didn’t surprise Alice since the feathered visitor was about fifteen miles away from the closest marsh. Plus, when the water made a plopping sound from Alice’s quick plunge back under, the duck just thought it had passed gas, and it went back to hunting.
But another hunter—one with more experience—was on a mission. Alice circled the rock. She became a shark, stalking an unsuspecting diver. A manatee, madly eyeing ripe algae.
Her hands inched closer and closer to the duck. Her arms reached further out of the water. She had her prey in sight—and within reach. Finally, she went in for what she knew would be her only chance at a quick kill.
As her body rose from the sea, her hands flung straight toward the duck’s neck. When she had a good grip, she wrestled to the top of the rock. Unfortunately for Alice, her new home was much closer to the sun than her last one, so it took three attempts to land her entire body on the rock. She was huffing, but she had breakfast.
The duck quacked feverishly, with its wings spread and ready for flight. But Alice had other plans for the unfortunate waterfowl. She lifted its body to her mouth and plunged her teeth into its delicate neck. It was impossible to tell where the blood began as Alice’s crimson hair blew in the breeze.
When Olga and Elaine came to the surface, the duck was already plucked and ready for serving.
“Breakfast?” Olga asked.
“Yes,” Alice replied. “I wanted to do something special.”
“You are so thoughtful, Alice,” Elaine said.
Alice handed the merwives their serving and began ravaging hers.
Olga rolled her shoulders and bit into her portion. “So gooooood!” she cried, licking her fingers after each bite. “Where’s the rest of the breast? Seems mighty small for the rest of the lot to be this size.”
Elaine huffed. “Don’t you think we should wait for Herman and eat together? It’s our first morning as a new family. And what’s it matter to you, Olga? Alice prepared this for us as a treat. Just be appreciative.”
“It’s okay,” Alice said timidly. “There—um—was a little otter nearby. He looked so pitiful. I couldn’t say no.”
“Hmm,” Olga said.
Elaine looked over at Alice, but Alice looked away too quickly.
Olga turned back to her food and dangled the duck’s liver above her mouth before she dropped it down her throat.
Elaine shook her head and nibbled slowly at her food.
The sun was nearing the center of the sky when Elaine finally finished her breakfast.
Alice rested flat against the top of her new home, taking in some of the day’s hottest rays. “I can’t believe Herman hasn’t come up yet. The duck’s probably already turned crispy,” she said. She propped up and turned toward the other merwives. “Does he always sleep in like this?” she asked.
“Eh. I don’t know. I try not to pay him any attention—haven’t in decades,” Olga said. She was sitting on the edge of the surface refereeing a wrestling match involving a romp of adolescent otters.
Elaine washed her hands of the duck’s blood and sat beside Alice. “He’s like many of the other mermen, you know. He swims with the kings—wants to be one of them.” Elaine’s voice changed. Yes, it was still soft and friendly, but there was a firmness that didn’t come naturally to her.
Elaine took Alice’s hand and squeezed it. “We all have our secrets,” she said.
“Yeah” Alice said, nodding.
Elaine leaned into Alice’s hair, inching to her ear. “May I ask you a personal question?” she whispered.
“Anything,” Alice said.
“Why didn’t you stay with your pod after your husband died?”
“I didn’t have a pod to stay with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rich wasn’t like the kings, so he—we—didn’t obey their laws. We believed the ‘safety decree’ was just a lie to make the kings happy.”
“Oh. So why did you come here? Did Herman not tell you about us?”
“So why then?”
“He seemed like he might be more like my Rich than maybe he wanted people to think. You know, the whole victim of circumstance thing. And, then, last night felt so right. I felt like I belonged and that—well, I, I thought he—all of you—might could be a role model and family for—never mind. I’m not making any sense.”
“For whom, Alice? A family for whom?”
Alice turned her face toward the water. Her own secret wasn’t entirely hers any longer. “For Ezra,” she whispered. “My son.”
“Your son? He’s here. Out in the water. Isn’t he?”
“I knew I heard him last night. And that’s where the rest of the duck went, right?”
“Yes,” Alice said.
“Does Herman know?”
“No,” Alice replied. “Please don’t hate me for not mentioning it before.”
“I could never hate you.”
The two mermaids fell back onto the rock.
Elaine reached for Alice’s hand. “I don’t mean to scare you,” Elaine said. “But there is something you need to know about Herman. He’s been getting closer with the kings. A lot closer. And the kings don’t take kindly to merboys not of their own blood.”
Alice didn’t say a word. She couldn’t. Instead, she squeezed Elaine’s kind hand.
Thunder rattled Elaine from her sleep—well, that and Olga’s ecstatic moaning. Olga sat with the fourth portion of duck and was devouring it.
“What?” she asked, noticing Elaine’s eyes.
“That is for Herman.”
“Whatever. He can come when the food is ready if he wants to eat it.”
Elaine turned toward where Alice had been, but she was gone. “Where is Alice?” Elaine asked.
“She said she was going to find Herman before the storm comes in, but judging by that lightning over there, she doesn’t have long to get back.”
Just then, a screeching sound echoed across the sea.
“Eeeee! Eeeee! Eeeee!”
Elaine slithered to the edge and peered out at the sea. “What is that?”
“Eeeee! Eeeee! Eeeee!”
Olga licked her fingers. “It’s those idiot dolphins. They are probably in heat.”
“No. They. Are. Not,” Elaine said, recognizing the voice. Before she said another word, she plunged into the water.
The lightning moved closer to their home.
Olga washed her hands and moved to the side of rock that Elaine had just dived from. “Don’t electrocute yourself, you old fool!” Olga shouted.
Elaine’s orange head popped out of the dirty water, searching the rolling sea. A starfish stuck to the side of her face. The clouds lowered, and flashes of light shot around her. The water roared—covering her. She fought until she was breathing air again.
“Get back to this rock, Elaine! It’s not safe out there,” Olga said.
Elaine turned back. “It’s Alice!” she called, pointing toward the bobbing crimson dot on the horizon. “Something has her! Or her merchild!”
“A merchild! We have a merchild and nobody told me about it?!” Olga shouted, following Elaine into the sea.
Sand washed into their eyes, and the upset water spit them out over and over again. But, still, they swam.
“Eeeee! Eeeee! Eeeee!” Alice cried. “Eeeee! Eeeee! Eeeee!”
Elaine reached Alice first, but the youngest merwife only whispered something unintelligible. Elaine grabbed Alice’s arm and yanked her back toward home.
Alice resisted the pull, fighting to go back deeper into the water. Whispering again.
Olga reached Elaine and Alice as the young mermaid continued to pull into the angry sea. “She’s bleeding,” Olga said, grabbing Alice’s arm.
Elaine let go of Alice to try and inspect her better. Crimson stains covered her body. “Alice, where are you hurt?”
Alice’s ignored Elaine’s question. She mumbled again, pointing to the waters below. The waves and thunder cancelled all of her sounds.
Olga dived below and checked Alice’s torso and tail. Finally, she found it. She came up to the surface and told Elaine they needed to unclench Alice’s fist. “She has a death grip on it. And whatever it is, it’s sharp. It cut me, and I just barely brushed the tip of it,” Olga said.
“Let’s get her home first,” Elaine said. “She needs to be home.”
Olga didn’t argue. She didn’t have time to. She picked up Alice and put her on Elaine’s back. “Go,” she said. “I’ll see if I can find the merchild.”
Elaine hugged Olga. “His name is Ezra,” she said. Then, she swam away.
“Ezra!” Olga called, holding her hands to her lips and yelling as loudly as she had ever yelled before.
She waited and listened, but, with the storm, she couldn’t make out anything. When Olga flicked her tail to propel her search, she immediately crashed into the merboy. Even in his unconscious state, he obeyed her. Olga liked him even without him having to try.
Although his body failed to penetrate the surface, his deep, bright eyes shone through the sea’s reflective glaze. He was half the size of Alice, and he, like Alice, possessed a wild crimson crown. “Up you go,” Olga whispered to the merboy, draping him over her shoulders.
“Can you carry him?” Elaine asked, calling back from up ahead.
“Don’t worry about me. Now swim on back home, and don’t make me pass you.
At home on the rock, the sea still raged.
Alice rolled atop the rock and saw Ezra. The lightning show didn’t even tempt her. Her eyes went directly to the merboy’s chest, and she watched as it rose and fell. She nearly cried, but, instead, a cough sputtered from her lips. Her voice was coming back—slowly. “Her-er-er,” she whispered. “Her-er-er-er,” she tried again.
“Hermit crab?” Olga guessed, holding Alice’s hand.
Alice shook her head. “Her-er-er,” she tried again.
“Herman?” Elaine asked. “Herman?”
“We don’t know where he is. Hardly ever do,” Olga added. “Wish I never did.”
Elaine swatted at Olga. “Now is not the time for your mess, Olga.”
“Herman,” Alice said, reverting the attention back to herself. She extended her clutched hand to her merwives. Elaine and Olga, so wrapped up in getting Alice and Ezra to safety, had forgotten about the sharp object that slit the soft skin of Alice’s hand.
When Alice opened her fist and dropped the item, Elaine and Olga gasped and leapt from Alice’s side as they both splashed into the water. Slowly, though, they came back to the rock—and to Alice.
They peeked at what the youngest mermaid’s hand had held, and, soon, they found themselves entranced.
“It’s his fluke,” Elaine whispered, poking it.
Perfectly turquoise. Glittering even under the clouds.
“Yeah, shriveled and all wrinkly. It’s his for sure,” Olga added.
“Please,” Elaine said, putting her hands in the air and breathing a deep sigh.
Alice drifted back off to sleep. Elaine swatted her tail from one side of the rock to the other, and she rubbed her hands together as if she were trying to start a fire.
Olga took Herman’s fluke and tossed it into the sea.
“What are you doing?” Elaine shouted.
“If the otters are going to compete in any serious wrestling matches, they need to put on some weight,” Olga said.
Elaine began to cry.
Olga went to her dearest friend in the world and wrapped her arms around Elaine’s neck. “We will be okay,” Olga said. “I promise, Elaine. We will be okay.”
Elaine and Olga, after a good rest, emerged from the nighttime waters to find, miraculously, that their latest two pod members were back to normal.
Alice, with a feathery bandage wrapped around her hand, was finishing the preparations on another duck, and Ezra was talking to the otters about a wrestling league for merboys.
“He found Ezra and tried to kill him, didn’t he?” Elaine asked, sitting beside Alice.
“He did,” Alice replied.
“And you killed him first?”
Elaine was quiet for a moment as she shook her head. “I tried to see the best even when there wasn’t a best to see. But Olga was right. He was a selfish, cruel merman. Always wanted to be a king and would get rid of anyone or anything in his way.”
Alice put down the duck and looked at Elaine. “We will leave if you’d like. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“Nonsense,” Olga said, plopping down between the two mermaids. “It would’ve been us in his way in a matter of time. All it would’ve taken is one king giving the order. Now hush up about him. We have a merboy to raise.”
Ezra came quickly from the edge and sat beside Alice. “Good morning, Miss Olga and Miss Elaine. I hope you like duck. I killed it this morning.”
“A merboy with manors and willing to work around this rock,” Olga said, reaching around and patting Ezra’s back. “Color me impressed.”
Elaine took a moment and looked among the members of her merpod. Everyone was smiling; everyone was laughing. There was love. For the first time since she was a mergirl, she felt like things were truly right. “Welcome to the pod,” she said.
Together, as a family, they devoured another stupid, stupid duck.
About the Author:
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His work appears at Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.