The Existential Crisis of a Merciless Siren
"Murder Mermaids Make Mistakes," flash fiction by Sandra Schmuhl Long
The Existential Crisis of a Merciless Siren
Murder Mermaids Make Mistakes
Some of the mermaids wanted to kill him, but their orders said to bring him alive. It wasn’t supposed to matter that they didn’t know what he had done—
I kind of might like to know.
Some of us are curious.
It helps me murder better if I know, just speaking for myself.
I thought we were supposed to keep him alive?
—because they didn’t know what most of the men had done, except for that all men had committed crimes.
They carried harpoons, they carried spears, their hair rippled behind him as they swam, bare breasted, scales flashing under moonlight. They arrived at the edge of the land in the middle of the night, three hundred feet out from the shore, the beach dark—
So do we just wait or
Nobody made a plan for this part?
A siren song.
Somebody’s going to have to swim back for Abby. She’s the one who can sing.
—and so the mermaids waited and became tired. Their bloodlust diminished. Some of them slept, like otters and pups, wrapped up with their harpoons in kelp.
When the siren arrived it was daybreak—
If you do it now, you’re going to attract every dick in a ten mile radius, guys out for their morning jog, getting a coffee.
What do you know about coffee?
I tasted it once.
—and the men came, they came to the water’s edge and they came into the water. The mermaids touched them, kissed them, fondled their beautiful dry hair, killed them, only some of them.
One of the men held a paper cup, and the mermaids took it and drank from it in turn. The mermaids became caffeinated. Abby’s signing got focused. The men who had been left alive wandered off.
Eventually, the man they were there for came. They tied him up with kelp. They carried him across the ocean on their backs. It was not a pleasant ride for the man.
The mermaids put him on a raft and took turns bringing him fish and seaweed and fresh water, which they traveled distances to collect. Some of the mermaids kissed him. They weren’t supposed to kiss the men, but it was an open secret that they did.
After they kissed him, they asked him what he’d done—
I heard one of the guys kept a mermaid in his bathtub.
You always cut up those plastic rings from a six pack, right?
Some of these girls will drown you on the spot if they find out you drive a speedboat.
—but the man didn’t answer because he didn’t know. Most of the men didn’t and never would.
The truth was, the men always died. Exposure, dehydration, battered by the waves, burned by the sun and salt, their skin cracking open. It always took longer to construct the prison than the mermaids thought it would. The mermaids grew bored of kissing. They tired of traveling long distances for water.
But to this man one mermaid returned and kept returning. It was less about him, about saving him, than it was about finding out.
The mermaid touched him, kissed him, fondled his beautiful dry hair, allowed herself to be held. The man caressed the mermaid’s tail, scales smooth in one direction, sharp in the other.
And the man spoke to her. About the perfect angle of his children’s shoulder blades in the bath, his wife’s crying in another room, the times he’d been late and they’d all already gone to bed. You couldn’t help but hurt the people you loved, not all the time, was what he said.
The mermaid slept there in the water next to him. And she woke to see him—hear him—snoring, the dark shape of his shoulder against the vast and starry sky, his arm reaching out for her. It was then she began to understand.
Because in being kept, the man suffered. The man developed a nutrient deficiency. His gums bled. The mermaid watched him weaken—
We do what we have to.
—but would not return him, could not remove him, could only wait alongside him.
You do the only thing you can, the man said. You won’t always get it right. Most of the time, you’ll probably get it wrong, even though you’ll try.
Days passed without clouds. The mermaid watched as the man’s fingernails fell off and did not grow back, as his muscles thinned and skin hung from his body. Watched as the sun baked him and the rain soaked him. Watched as he watched the sky. Eventually, the man died, as men always do.
And when the mermaid returned to her home, to her sisters, they wanted to know what it had been like—
Did he try to do it to you?
Did he show you how to make coffee?
Did he cry?
Was he guilty?
—because none of them had ever waited until the end. None of them had ever considered what it would feel like if they did.
The mermaid answered—
I think we all are.
—and did not tell them how she had assumed that you loved or you harmed, did not tell them what she now knew.
Reunited, the mermaids rested, tended their scaled bodies, combed their beautiful hair, and sang each other songs. They waited. And when the time came, they would go—go and do the only thing they could.