The first time it had happened, and he’d really seen her, he’d been trawling the pools, tracing his knuckles over crusted rocks, trailing his fingers in the water. Something crested against his hand, and he jerked it back, angled his head to look for the flick of it. It had eyes as round as marbles, he watched it skim the surface, then surf back down again, his skin was tingling where it had been touched. There were other shapes in the pool too, he could see them now as the water pulled back around the edges. He’d never seen anything like it before, and later, Google could provide no answers. We don’t know everything that lives in the waters. A creature like that belonged in a story, he was sure of that.
He visited again, eyes teasing the tideline, searching for treasures to salvage, he wanted to bring it a gift from the busy leftovers of the sea. He thought about trying to catch it, but what then? What if it stopped everything else from coming to him? He didn’t have a plan, not really. Nothing.
He was caught, tiptoeing again along the red spit of the sand, barefoot, as if that was a message in itself, magpie eyes, searching for signs. The dark clouds shifted and he knew the creature was there, waiting. He had even dressed for it, all black, splendid, a shining specimen. The same place, a glance of the fingers, a thin shock of electricity, he reached, open mouthed, with both hands to search the brightening water, but it was gone.
The next time he was in town, he was ready to start making the marks for it. Stood calmly in the shop in front of the mirror, looking at the uniformity of images waiting to be inked, and the strangeness of himself. It would be so easy to choose one already made, but his were sea findings, a memory given forwards, and he knew without it, he was going nowhere. He sat alone, waiting, looking. I want to get a tattoo, he said, today, of this, a sea creature, he showed the sketch, his eyes darting from side to side. The price was high, but it had to be right. The other man spoke, custom work, an art form, his face settled, he understood. When they were done, it was sealed beneath plastic. He liked the sturdy lines, the way it rode his forearm, like punctuation.
It began soon afterwards, the skin like dried paper, the scales a fine translucence. In the shower, beneath the sloshing of water, a breathing consciousness. It was good. He visited daily, sleeve hitched up, leaning at the water, eating his lunch one handed, waiting until the sky darkened before reeling back up the rocky path towards home. Sometimes the creature crested topside as it had done when he first saw it, back flipping, rising again, provoking him to get in and swim, low, then gone again.
He understood little by little, walking circles on the beach, thinking of the history the creature might have lived and dreamed. He wondered where it had spawned, if it had to travel rivers and shallows before a long slide downstream had washed it into the waves. It waited for him, hanging on slick rocks, half out of the water. Most days, he stripped off his clothes, shivering for moments in the cold air, before filling his lungs and submerging. Some days the creature did not show, and he thought the worst, of it netted or snared, eyes searching the water for the long dark shape. He had no idea where it went in the hours without him, but he was starting to understand that he and the creature were the same.
He got used to the cold of the sea, and salt crusted in his hair. Others started to notice, even though he kept it well covered. A tall boy, with bony shoulders and a one of the popular girls blocked his way. We’ve heard you have a thing about mermaids, give us a look. The mark leant out of his sleeve, they stared, Oh. Thanks, he said, covering up again quickly, knowing that it was too lifelike. The girl made a high sound and the boy beat a first against his chest, they withdrew. He stood looking after them, until they had gone.
When the tide turned, he headed to the beach, watched the smeared bodies of tourists and children moving around in oblivion. He didn’t undress, but waded into the foam, feeling the creature swimming towards him, a dog skittering along the sand startled for a second. He felt the earth spooling away as he waded deeper and deeper, looking back towards the shore only once, seeing the shapes of home receding, waist deep in waiting water. He swam down, breath powerful in his chest, losing light and sound, only feeling something, brushing, between his legs.
Ali Jones is a teacher, music lover, and mother of three. Her work has appeared in Proletarian Poetry, Ink Sweat and Tears, Snakeskin Poetry, Atrium, Mother’s Milk Books, Breastfeeding Matters, Green Parent magazine and The Guardian. Her pamphlets Heartwood and Omega are forthcoming with Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2018.