She washed up on our beach just like any other dead thing or piece of flotsam. She was small and gray and cold, and looked like she might crumble like a sandcastle if you touched her. Her black hair was sort of matted, smashed under her head, and patches of it were missing. Her throat was slit with something jagged, but the wound was faded, a gash washed out by the saltwater. From a first glance, she looked like she’d been dead a week, but you could never tell with the sea. Sometimes the death it spat out was bloated like gray balloons, and sometimes it was perfectly preserved, beasts sleeping on sand with bruised eyes and a tendency of silence.
“I’ll be damned,” Martha mutters from next to me. She drops her cigarette and grinds it into the sand. The embers die instantly.
She’s not wearing a shirt. Not Martha, I mean, the thing at our feet. She’s not wearing anything, actually, but she’s covered waist down by faded gray scales. They reflect the clouds, shining dully, and some are missing or half torn off by God knows what. Pale burn marks slice across her bare stomach. They are the same color as the slash on her neck.
“I should…call someone,” Martha says from beside me. Who? I want to ask, but don’t, because I don’t like acknowledging the fact that we have nobody to call.
I cross my arms. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I say instead, softly.
She turns her leathery head and stares at me. “Iris, are you seeing what I am?”
“Yes.” For some reason it’s not scaring me, though.
“Then I don’t understand why I shouldn’t–this thing–it’s– a–a–” Her voice is breaking. She doesn’t want to say the word.
“She’s dead, is what she is,” I say quietly. I uncross my arms and pick up a pretty piece of driftwood by my foot. “See?” I poke her in the shoulder with it.
Martha and I are used to dead things. Seals. Fish. People. The occasional body part, wrapped up tight in a black trash bag. We give the body parts and people a burial. No use in calling the police. Around here, secrets are buried instead of gossipped about. Might not make sense, but that’s the way it’s always been for us, for the other islanders.
But this, this is something else. Martha obviously knows it, too.
Martha grabs the driftwood out of my hands, dropping her remaining pack of cigarettes and her bucket of jetsam. She prods at the creature’s waist, tracing the line between dead person and dead fish.
“I don’t understand…” she says to me, dropping the driftwood. I don’t pick it up. It feels contaminated.
“Mermaid,” I say for her.
“Mermaid,” she parrots back.
Mermaid, mermaid, mermaid. A carved mermaid sits on my windowsill back at the house, faced towards the ocean. She’s made of driftwood and has a blue tail. She’s wrapped in a tiny blanket I made as a child, when I thought warmth was essential for survival. (It’s not). She’s the oldest thing I remember, other than Martha.
“What do we do with…it, then, if we aren’t going to get help?” Martha asks me. She seems to have regained her voice.
I brush some hair out of my eyes. The wind has picked up. We don’t need help. We never have.
“Bury her,” I say, or something like that, I can’t tell over the sound of the suddenly wild air and sea.
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