Sarah Kokernot is a writer and educator in Walla Walla, Washington. Her fiction has previously appeared in PANK
My wife has a mermaid tattooed on her sacrum. Something about it troubles me. Perhaps it’s the tail, drawn in miniscule detail with shimmering ink the color of moonstone. Each time I put my finger on it, I expect to feel real scales with their biting little ridges. The torso, the woman’s half, is the shape of a cello with apple
breasts and dainty little arms that look like they couldn’t carry a suitcase up the stairs.
My wife couldn’t decide what sort of face she wanted on her mermaid, so the tattoo artist decided to draw my wife’s face. It’s like one of those cheap boardwalk portraits, a possible long-lost twin of my wife—eyebrows slightly more arched, nose a bit slimmer, upper lip a tad more plump. The neck more goose-like than swan-like, the hair coarse as seaweed. She has all the awkward yet charming imperfections of a real person, yet they are not my wife’s imperfections.
She says she was drunk when she got the tattoo, a liability these days but she suspects the tattoo artist felt sorry for her. “A real artist,” she tells me wistfully, “one of those that really suffer.” I don’t believe she was really drunk. My wife likes to glance at her herself in mirrors. She can’t walk past one without pouting her lips and sucking in her cheeks. When she takes a shower in the morning, she wipes an oval in the mirror’s condensation and traces the outline of her face.
Sometimes I turn my wife on her stomach and make love to her with my thumb blotting out the mermaid’s head, and I keep my eyes on that bejeweled tail, and those cello hips and hard apple breasts, and I wonder, how do mermaids have sex anyway? Do they lay their eggs like carp? Or is there a place moist and hidden, tucked behind that jagged curtain?
I can never hold it after that. Almost immediately my wife falls asleep.
One night after a beach party, our bellies are full of rum and oysters and we make love back home with sand buried under our fingernails and falling from our hair. Afterwards I rest my head on the small of my wife’s back. Then I hear a muffled sound. Mmmrr. I shift my weight, thinking that I might be crushing her. Mmmrr. Mmmrr. Like the sigh of a cat.
“That was nice,” says the mermaid, “but the way you cover my face—that’s hot but I want to hold your eyes in mine. I want to tell you dirty things. Pretty things.” She stretches her mouth and pops her jaw, then brings her arms over her head, her fingers grazing my wife’s lumbar spine and I can hardly believe those delicate fingers, thick as grasshopper’s legs and pulsing with life.
The pad of my index finger touches her hand. Her palm is about the diameter of the mole beneath my wife’s shoulder, and it feels like touching the raised bump of scar tissue. “So tiny,” I say.
“Look at me,” she demands. Her mouth is slightly open, revealing pointy white teeth that protrude slightly over her lower lip, like a shark’s. They are the only feature which is ugly and inconsistent with her human half. I feel certain she would bite me if only her mouth was bigger.
“Do you like being a mermaid on my wife’s back?”
“It has its moments,” she replies. “But generally, the answer is no. They thought it would be great fun to put me here. A real sicko, that tattoo guy—one of those people who really likes to see others suffer. It’s boring most of the time. Most of the time, I’m under the waistband of your wife’s jeans and my eyes are covered by one of her shirts. It’s only when she goes swimming or takes a shower that I get to see the world. And then there is that dress she sometimes wears.” She looks up at me, the whites under her irises enormous and glowing, “Then of course, there is you.” And my heart swells.
I usually walk behind my wife now. Through the supermarket I push the shopping cart and fix my eyes on the place right above the belt of her low-slung jeans. I expect to see the outline of a small fist emerge through the cotton of my wife’s T-shirt, but the mermaid doesn’t even rustle.
At night my wife looks at me with her deep, calm eyes, traces a finger around my lips, and then rolls over onto her stomach. When she falls asleep I prop myself on to a pillow and lift my wife’s nightgown above her hips. The mermaid stretches her neck and I can hear the tiny bones crack when she pops her knuckles. “Hello big man.” She smiles without showing her teeth because I told her they bother me.
“Tell me about your life in the ocean,” I say.
She shakes her head no. Already she has told me about the shyness of the octopus and the greediness of the manatee, but she refuses to talk about herself. It’s still too painful to recall her life before captivity, she explains. I believe she’s hiding something. I am close to lowering back my wife’s nightgown when the mermaid begins to tell me a story.
“Of all the animals in the sea,” she says, “none is braver than the seal. In the mornings they will drive through the shoals against a line of great white sharks. And some family member or friend will disappear into the jaws of a shark or be flung out of their skins.”
I shudder. Although there is a part of me that would like to see it, that thinks it would be beautiful.
“It’s tragic,” says the mermaid, “but seals have no fear of death. I once asked a seal why they are so brave. She said it’s because they know what happens after they die.”
I frown. “Did she tell you what happens?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” The mermaid sighs. “Humans are funny about death.”
“No we’re not.”
The mermaid rolls her eyes.
“If we are it’s because we love each other,” I admit.
The mermaid seems to consider this. “The secret of loving someone is to imagine him dead. But I can’t imagine you gone.” She covers her eyes with her hands and laughs. “You’re so large.” Her laugh stirs my wife awake for a moment. My wife emits a deep groan and then rolls onto her back, concealing the mermaid.
I try and roll my wife onto her stomach but she’s so heavy. Compared with the mermaid, she has the mass of an island, a thing only years of wind and saltwater could erase. The mermaid, on the other hand, is so tiny that is easy to imagine her gone. The thought makes me frantic. I whisper to my wife that she had been snoring, and to please sleep on her side. My wife turns over and I see the mermaid peering out from under the sheet, her hair tangled and her pointy teeth bared.
When she sees me she closes her mouth and begins to cry. “I’m sorry,” I say. I feel ashamed of my own size, how I inch across the bed like a walrus.
“Don’t be sorry,” the mermaid dabs her eyes with her hair. I wonder if she would rescue me if I was drowning, or if she would drag me down to the bottom of the ocean. Either way I’d be happy. I touch her cheek—her face is wet with inky blue tears. I place my thumb at the thinnest section of her tail, the part before it forks into two thins, and I feel the raised edges of the scales that prick like the smallest thorns of a cactus. My thumb begins to bleed, but that doesn’t keep me moving against the grain. The mermaid bites her fist to stifle a cry and her eyes are half-hooded, in focus, in pleasure. I keep going up, up, up.
There’s no need for my wife and I to speak anymore. Each night I take her while she lies on her belly and when she sleeps I listen to the mermaid. The wonderful things she tells me—the oafish barbarity of the blue whale, who pummels through the deep the way a comet plows through a planet. They will nuzzle their calves and serenade each other with ballads, but when it comes to other creatures, they don’t care who they destroy. “True romantics,” the mermaid tells me, “are always barbarians.”
The mermaid swims on the tan sea of my wife’s back. She reminds me of one of those orcas, pacing back and forth in their tanks, banging against the glass walls. At times a fish-like essence glasses over her eyes. Like all caged animals she desires only one thing.
I trace my finger around the perimeter of my wife’s sacrum. If my nail were sharper I could serrate it. The mermaid watches the line my finger makes. I can almost see my wife’s new tattoo—an empty triangle. I cover the entirety of the mermaid with the palm of my hand. Gone. When I lift up my hand the mermaid is smiling with all her teeth. I realize they no longer scare me, that they look like beautiful pearl knives.
“It’s not true what people say,” says the mermaid. “I’ve never sung a sailor to his death. When we found their bodies, we would take them to the reef and bury them there.”
Very softly I take my pinky and lay it on the mermaid’s belly. Her flesh has risen up from my wife’s flesh like Braille. I glide my pinky over her torso, over her left breast, and wait there, anticipating a beating heart.