In the shadow of a bearded mangrove, the scuba diver tips backwards into black water silvered with coins of moonlight, making no noise, though he doubts if he did, the guard would notice. Since the two weeks, after the town of Sunny Beach had flooded, the guard rarely left the booth they erected
John turns, righting himself, waiting for the bubbles of his entry to clear. The drowned town shimmers like a view through a wavy window with streams of moonlight striking its edges in silvery chalk outlines. His hand light illuminates little: a startled eyed snapper, the murky motes drifting in a constant powder-fall, a wink of reflecting glass. Pushing with rubber fins, he vaulted downward, swimming toward rooftops, and came hovering above a backyard. Currents’ play ghost with a swing-set and lace curtains billow from a neighboring window. Eerie unsettling illusions in a snow globe world. He pulls himself along, grabbing a corner of the house, turning his head when he glides over the front yard. Down there, confused candytuft, turning mushy and discolored, still line the walkway to a swallowed street.
He floats over Palm Avenue allowing this midnight world to imbibe him. Waterlogged rose bushes splinter in slow motion at his wake. And undulating toward town, he spies the glitter of coins flashing on a sidewalk, hanks of slimy vegetable flesh float from the open door of a market like dead minnows. On toward Crocker street, he kicks, with its prize, the widow Matherson’s house. The water clear of shapes leading up to her drive cast the house in a luminescent hue, indigo edged, lighting the way. But up close the gabled relic grew dark, foreboding, causing John to hesitate. He wasn’t a person that scared easily, and the childlike fear of haunted houses, was drowned by the need for money.
Turning the doorhandle, he drifts in, hovering a moment in the Victorian fossil. Not quite as creepy inside, as out he thought. Which place to search first? John slipping sideways into a drawing room, ran his fingers over piano keys, the notes struck him as currents, not as sound, bringing to mind childhood days, sunk in a bathtub repeatedly striking his finger against the porcelain to hear the dull ping as aquatic echo. A soggy poster under a fridge magnet shed it’s paint creating a misty swirl of colors to hang before it like clouds stained at sunset, dusty pink, mauve and blue. John drags his finger through the ribbons causing them to turn about and kite-tail.
He floats up a staircase and into a bedroom.
It’s as untouched as a dollhouse expecting its owner to return. The chenille bedspread pulled tight over sodden pillows, flickers as the pile twitches in the movement of water. The fringed canopy sways lazily, while some curtain bubbles and flutters at an open window.
An awkward turn. He jerks in fright, catching movement out of the corner of his eye - there!
He sends up a flurry of exhaust bubbles to roll along the ceiling and nearly laughs. It’s his reflection in the vanity mirror. But what’s this? A murky haze of lilac dusting power drew his curiosity, for it swirled above the vanity like a conjurer’s trick. Something has set it off and recently. He pokes the soaked powder puff releasing a lackluster surge of motes.
His mouth lunges open to scream. His hose falls out.
A corpse? No! Black, demonic eyes, tilted like distended teardrops, glittered at him from within a corpse white face, whether with curiosity or malice, he can’t tell. Now, a slash of red mouth gapes showing shards of teeth, overlapping, broken, razor edged teeth, with a moving tongue as blood-red as a wound. A skee sound hits him like a shove, tilting him. It came out of this, this... thing like a roar. Sinewy arms reach out. It had arms, not tentacles, and hands! Hands that snatch his arm, digging in nails sharp as broken sea shell, but glowing like pearly undersides pink, dusky gold and deadly. The head of the creature darts down, as cutting a move as a shark.
The teeth sank, ripping into his arm. He howls, gulping in water. He pulls trying to escape. Feathery wisps of his blood thread the water. Need air. Got to surface. He yanks a handful of swirling black hair, kicking out with his flippers.
The thing lets go , turning so quickly, the current sends him reeling. He catches the glitter of blue-black scales and a caudal fin, transparent as a wedding veil, disappearing through the window spiraling off into the dark depths.
Kicking and clawing, he fought for the surface.
Breaking into air.
Choking, til he was sick, he paws toward the bank, pulling himself ashore by the root of a cypress tree. Whatever it was, it had torn through his wet suit. His arm’s bleeding, bad. He heads for home.
Sylvia , his wife works wordlessly, sowing up his wound. She’s a nurse, recently laid off and the sight of his blood doesn’t frighten her, but her disgust sparks when he answers her question - “Did you get it?” with a very quiet, No.
He’s annoyed by her calmness, her disgust. He takes a sip from her beer.
“Hold still.” She complains.
Tying off the last stitch, she puts up her feet on his lap and takes back her beer.
“Okay, what happened? ...Don’t tell me Sunny Beach is now infested with sharks?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t get a clear look.” What could he say, it was a demonic mermaid?
“Gallagher stopped by today-”
“What? Am I starting, something? You’re the one who came back empty handed. Don’t think that scratch is going to keep you -”
He rises leaving the sunny, too bright kitchen with its fluorescent wallpaper, naked lights, as raw as Sylvie’s complaints and heads down the hall to his son’s room.
“Don’t you wake him up!” Sylvia’s threat fades like a shout into the wrong end of a cheerleader cone.
John opens a door, a shaft of light brightens his son’s face who sleeps rather like a fish with lips open, gasping breaths, over the chewed on cheek of a teddy bear.
He shuts the door and goes to bed. It was ridiculous. There had been no murderous mermaid. And nothing, no fantasy, no reality was going to stop him from finding Matherson’s jewels.
* * *
His wife had the same idea. Despite his loss of blood, and the threat of infection, she fingered a stack of bills in the morning and gave him a look that said, you’re the man, make them disappear. He sighs breaking off a piece of hush puppy, eating slowly, tasting nothing.
His arm throbs but the pain is muffled, not quite what he was expecting.
But the wound pulsed with heat, flaring up whenever he touched the bandage that Sylvia wrapped around it.
After finishing his coffee, and the last of his hush puppy, he gives his son a quick kiss goodby. Timmy is squalling under roving cotton, Sylvia is practically sanding his face with a washcloth and in protest he throws his paper lunch sack to the floor, and kicks off one sneaker. John smiles leaving Sylvia to handle it, and heads for the bathroom.
He locks the door before unraveling the gauze. A stomach lurching stench of pus hits him, not just pus but decomposing fish matter like scales under fingernails, days old. The wound is puffed up, bruise black, with yellow green pus burping out from between the stitches. He takes the end of his wife’s toothbrush and gives it a poke. The pain flares hot for a moment but the action rent only relief. He presses down until the wound heaves, squirting out a mess of pus till in runs clean. The wound mollified, simmers like a rotten tooth pulled. He douses the wound with antiseptic and winds on a clean bandage.
High noon, he returns to the lake, sneaking past a guard, who’s chewing his lunch of fried fish caught from the lake and cooked over a hotplate. He slips in and with the sun gleaming a path makes his way to Mrs. Matherson’s house. He flutters around it cautiously, peeking in through her upstairs window just to make sure. Fish or figment, he doesn’t want another run in. He slithers about - opening drawers, sheets of paper take flight, and like some crystal octopus an overturned bottle shoots an ink-cloud into the water but his ransacking of the den isn’t a total loss. He finds a small lockbox and smashes it open against a brass doorstop. Inside is a wad of bills, coming close to three hundred bucks. Twirling in victory, he returns to the second floor.
Opening a jewelry box, which tries in vain to tinkle forth a tune in this plethoric underworld, he scoops up a mass of dripping, tangled baubles; necklaces, earrings and bracelets like a jumble of pirate booty and crams it into a pillow case.
His tanks are running low. He would have to come back at night.
Sylvia paws through the jewelry with a critical eye - “You know this is mostly costume don’t you? Can’t you tell the difference?”
John sweeps the last bit of bread around his plate, soaking up dribbles of clam chowder and puts in his mouth, taking the time to chew. “I know that.” He says, finally. But she insists on holding up a tangled necklace, “You don’t think anyone would treat real jewels, emeralds like this, do you? Not even an old bag like Mrs. Matherson.” He wishes she wouldn’t sit like that. One leg propped up on her chair, with the crotch strip of her underwear for anyone to see. And would it kill her to run a brush through her hair? It was more tangled than the waterlogged roots of a mangrove tree. “I’m going back, later on tonight. I’ll try again.”
“Damn right you will.”
She hadn’t even asked about his arm.
Behind a locked door, he removes the bandage and his stomach plummets - gangrene! Don’t panic. He tells himself, examining the wound. It isn’t gangrene it doesn’t even smell bad, and the flesh isn’t rotten, but the skin had gone hard. Right up to his elbow. Hard and slightly green and shiny. Also, it itched.
“Everything all right?” His wife asks, rattling the doorknob. How long had he been in here? Scratching, thinking.
“Yes.” He says quickly another desperate splash of antiseptic and the bandage mummifying his arm.
He goes down to Dan’s Dive shop and uses the three hundred dollars of the found money, spun dry, to refill his tanks. Chewing a Hot Rod, John is relieved of his obligation to chat, as Dan is busy with costumers. No, where have you been diving John? Haven’t seen you in the Keyes lately? He’d put two and two together, sure enough. Sunny Beach is off limits, every since two weeks ago when a shelf of limestone cracked, while construction workers were putting in new sewers and a chasm poured forth a new spring, flooding the town. Though the residents had managed to escape with only six casualties, the county commissioners had declared the new lagoon to be too treacherous for scavenging dives.
But for John, sinking under a mountain of debt, it was too great an opportunity.
That night, he returns diving through mirror to his inverted world, into a snow globe; invisible atmosphere to pervading waters, cirrus nimbus to floating patches of green algae, feathered wing to flashing scale, gravity to weightless womb.
He glides downwards following the corona of green light from his hand held, moving toward the Matherson estate. His fingers reach out and stroke the glittering sides of a Bass fish that bobs past. Overhead there’s a school of neon tetras, their luminescent streaks of turquoise and scarlet look like a cascading arch of fireworks falling over John who tilts his head to watch, following them as dart into the darkness of Main street. He keeps his distance from the chasm, even now feeling it’s suction, watches as newspapers drift past like seagulls and a shopping cart caught in the current rocks back and forth. How quiet a world. Cars that no longer pump out fumes, glitter like beach pebbles. No shouts, no music, no fires. A silky, sleek, cool world. Full of sliding, gliding creatures, defying gravity, they dart over rooftops, streaking this liquid abyss with fans of color. Skittering things roamed yards, crashing through the rotting heads of peonies, and crawled through carpets swaying like tubes of an anemone. Undulating on, he pulls himself to the Matherson home drawn again to the bedroom, even though
it’s picked clean. What does he expect to see, a creature that does not exist?
Only this time, when he pushes open the door - the creature is there.
Panicky, he draws up, pushing his hands up in an effort to stop and turn. But the creature takes no notice of him. She is sitting at the vanity with her tail bent like legs over the bench, admiring herself in the mirror. Her hair floats like flickering black flames. She is illuminated by a makeshift torch that catches John’s eye. It’s a hallow glass globe set upon an elaborately carved gold staff. But inside the globe two fluorescent eels churned, lighting up the whole bedroom. She’d set it on the vanity, to rummaged through a wooden box.
She pulls out a diamond tiara and after much examination, gingerly sets it upon her head. The effect brings forth a piercing sound that hits John like a current blast. He is suddenly sympathetic of aquarium fish abiding the tapping fingers of bratty children. Twisting round, she looks at John as if for approval. Her ghastly mouth peels back in what John thought was a smile. Her floating hair is a teasing fan dance, exposing very small breasts with nipples that gleamed like red sequins. But her skin is still, a pearly sickening white like a sweaty maggot. She is no Disney mermaid. No Ariel.
In a fluid move, she is bobbing before John, and unravels his bandage. The green hue of his flesh, pleases her, for she strokes it using her fingertips and not those deadly nails. Petrified John sucked down too much oxygen and a curtain of bubbles rises between them. Calm down. He warns himself. Up close, the tiara winks, no trinket. He can’t tell, he just knows. He peers around the mermaid at the jewelry box she left and dove, swimming for it.
Grabbing it, he snaps it shuts, shoves it under an arm and kicks for the window. A strong small hand, just one, grabs his ankle. Damn! He kicks, till he breaks loose and claws upward toward the shimmering Monet moon. Almost there. A tug yanks him downward, a hand reaching for the box. He fights, twisting. The box bursts open and the struggling pair stops. They hover over rooftops watching in the glow of her eel-staff and his light, as the glittering jewels fall in slow motion like bits of congealed rainbow falling from the sky. Gold winks, emeralds tease, rubies flicker all the way down until a puff of dirt rises, hiding them in its storm cloud.
He managed to grab one bracelet.
Evil shark eyes fix on him. Her arm flashes out, nails gouging a swipe across his wet suit, ripping straight through to flesh. Stung. Blood seeps; first globs, then misty red smoke. He turns to avoid her tail as she dives, just barely saving his face mask. How does she do it? He marvels. I slog through water while she darts like she was all fish. Freed he claws upward. Breaking surface, he holds the bracelet up to the moonlight. A red sparkle. Rubies. This ought to satisfy Sylvia.
* * *
“When you get the whole lot,” Sylvia muses on the back porch, eyeing the bracelet which had not left her hand once, since John brought it home. “We can leave this hick town, go down to the Keys, and start over in one of those nice, gated communities.”
He sips black coffee, wondering if he should explain to Sylvia, this could be it, one bracelet, enough to pay the bills, perhaps, but nothing more. No, buying back his boat as planned, he’d be borrowing Les’s launch forever, and on with those lousy company fishing trips that barely kept them. And fish every night. Not that he minded . . . about the fish. The green rash spread. The skin broke out in drupelets, bumpy shapes that were hardening, taking on a metallic sheen like trash bin flies. He scratches. No doctors, not now, it would only cost money. He held on for the jewels. Then everything would be all right.
Swallowing his unease, he makes his way back to the lagoon and slips into the water. He thinks about trying other houses, there were a few, that might’ve left some jewels behind in the scramble. But he was drawn back to Mrs. Matherson’s. He peers in through the upstairs window - the torn curtain is playing peek-a-boo and suddenly he spasms, startled at a line up of jewels glittering on the vanity . . . like bait. He can’t see the vicious mermaid, but she could be hiding in the closet, it was open a crack. Cautiously, he pulls himself in and sails over to the jewels. He snatches up a sapphire teardrop on a gold chain and dumps it into his sack, a ruby necklace, a match to the bracelet, two gold combs, an emerald ring, and a diamond crusted collar necklace, all went into the sack. Movement in the mirror. The mermaid slithers like an eel, out from under the bed. His blood thunder-drums. Closing up the sack, he dives for the door. She is already there barricading the way. The waves set off by her flurry send him reeling back against the dresser. He upsets a china figure that tumbles in slow motion to the floor.
He holds the sack tight to his chest, believing or hoping her look isn’t as menacing, tonight. In fact she has a bag of her own, pilfered from one of the flooded grocery stores and out of it, she pulls up a gold coin, baring her hideous teeth in shark-grin. She sets the coin on the floor and with a carefree dip, whirls into the hall.
John swims over picks up the coin, marveling, not just at her action but at the coin itself. It’s old, much older than the house, perhaps not even belonging to Mrs. Matherson. Where did the mermaid get it? He peeks into the hall and sees that every few feet the mermaid has left a teasing trail of jewels and gold pieces. What can he do but follow? His sack is bulging by the time she’s lead him to Main street. But even though the coins and jewels continue to mark a tantalizing path, John no longer follows seeing where they lead to - the gaping fissure. He can’t get near it. The current is already too strong. It sucks at John’s legs threatening to pull him into a vortex of spins and turns. Tuneless wind chimes hanging from a hardware store, spin recklessly, and small light items including a plastic trike whirl, sucked into the dark depth of its hungry mouth. He hovers, warily like a man observing a nearby tornado. But, despite the danger he’s still lured by those flashing gold trinkets. Really, I’ve got enough he tries. I don’t need any more. He tests the weight of the sack as proof. A gem flashes in hypnotic fervor. They’re beckoning him. You don’t have this one, they taunt, think of all you can buy with me. He edges closer. The mermaid appears, peeking out of the fissure, much like a naked swimmer, bobbing to pool’s edge. Her elbows rest on the torn asphalt, as she watches him. Her pose is cheeky, playful. She is obviously queen of the undertow; it has no effect on her.
He swims a bit closer, darts back, hovers. It’s cooler here. He reaches for an amethyst the size of his thumb and shoves it into his bulging bag. That’s it, done. He turns to flee but a violent current sweeps through, yanking him upside down, jerking him to the fissure. Helpless as a leaf caught in the wind, he panics sucking oxygen, bubbles spurt, the broken pavement rushes to greet him. Before he’s slammed against it, the mermaid grabs him, yanking him down into the mouth of the fissure like she’s towing a rag-doll. Her fingers are as strong as talons. She works with the undertow, swimming down, down. For John the chasm is ceaseless shadow, her fluorescent eel staff illuminates only the broken dolomite which, frosted over with white clay gave John the feeling that they are falling down an unending mountain.
The coldness of the water seeps into John’s flesh, the wetsuit unable to stop it. He isn’t prepared for this deep a dive and tries frantically to put this across to the mermaid. He signals. He points to gages, clawing at his face mask. She merely grins and continues to tug.
Can’t die like this.
He churns into a battering flurry of kicks, claws, lashes. She lets go. And he kicks powerfully surging upward. He pulls like a man whose been buried alive. Pushing water beneath him, ceaseless water beneath him , climbing for air. But at the lip of the fissure, he feels a yank and is spun. The mermaid? No, the undertow’s got him. It bashes him against the wall of the fissure. There’s a sinister hiss and bubbles sweep up from behind him. One of his tanks! He claws for the broken asphalt dropping the bag of jewels.
His breaths come in heaves. Calm down, don’t panic. Shallow breaths. He grips the edge of the fissure and pulls. Out! Feeling faint, he swims away from the fissure but is immediately caught and cartwheels. His eyelids droop. Don’t. He blacks out as a hand grabs him.
John wakes, feeling the sun, patchy-hot on his face, and chokes up some brackish liquid, coughing and spewing, till his lungs burn. A cocoon of wood surrounds him, adding to his confusion. He gazes out over the calm of the lake and realizes where he is, the mermaid had propped him up in the hallow of a giant mangrove tree whose roots shank the water alongside his dangling flippers. He moves his arms to stretch bumping something. A clink. The sound of marbles in a bag. Or jewels in a sack. His sack is there, wedged between his hip and the tree. The mermaid had returned it to him!
A smile bloomed, stretching till his cheeks hurt. It’s official John thought wanting to holler. I’m debt free. Free of everything. He could buy a bigger, better boat, he could . . . the sun sparkled off the lake, real gold. Free? Was he? The joy began to ebb. He would leave this place, Sylvia would rush them off to the Keys, he would have his boat but it wouldn’t be the same. The reefs were crawling with weekend divers, giddy over swimming with manta rays, snapping pictures till the tropical fish went spiral eyed. This was his own lagoon. His own domain, a sunken city - he was Neptune with his own Atlantis. He was tempted to pour the jewels back in the water and continue the search tomorrow. But he rose, sighed and headed for home. His wife was gone. He plucked her note from the fridge - out shopping. John left the sack of jewels on the kitchen table and peered into the fridge. He lifted a pitcher of cherry Kool-aid and drained the last of it. Gallagher must have dropped off some fish. John hadn’t noticed yesterday. He peeled back the plastic, a catfish. Mmm, deep-fried catfish. One of Sylvia’s specialties. He couldn’t wait. Bringing the fish up to his mouth, he tore off a chunk of sweet flesh, scales and all and chewed.
It was even better this way.
When he was finished, he went to bed.
John woke to a scream. Rocketing up, he fumbled, attempting to call out to Sylvia but his words came out as gurgles. Relief washed over him , the screams were of delight. Sylvia had found the sack of jewels. John hunted for a glass of water on his night stand, suddenly thirsty. A flash of scales, webbing. His heart seized up, a squelch of terror squeaked out of him. His entire hand, green with drupelets had turned into glittering scales and in between the fingers a membrane joined them together - webbing. He stumbled toward the mirror and gasped. The rash - no transformation had crept up over his body, over his face. Part of his lips has eroded, one side was thin green piping, the other side was still lush, pink flesh. The scales were tough, tougher than any fish, John had ever descaled. They had almost the hardness of a turtle shell like armor. He heard Sylvia approaching, shrieking her delight - “John how did you do it? Where did you find this stuff? It’s like treasure from a museum!”
He fled out the window.
The time for doctors was past. He was not going to be a specimen to poke and examine, a case study. He headed back to Sunny Beach.
The first day John slept in the hallow of the mangrove where he believed the mermaid had left him. The next day, he was quite hungry but could not risk going into town or even home. He’d peeled off his wet suit and flippers and watched the scales overtake his flesh. He sneezed and a handful of his teeth flew out into his cupped hands. Shakily, He ran his tongue over his gums to assess the damage and was sliced among the sharp shards that had pushed out his human teeth. There were no tears, though he felt a burning ache of disappointment etching his insides through to his soul, an ache that would never dissolve or heal knowing
he would never see his son again. That evening the mermaid came to him.
A ripple in the water out near the middle of the lagoon, caught his eye. A head appeared hesitantly, black hair lashed over a white forehead that glowed under the bath of moonlight. Those awful black alligator
eyes blinked on the surface, scanning till they locked on John. Could she see that far? He wondered. She could. Submerging with a splash, she propelled over to where he sat offering him a gift. A wriggling grouper.
He took it and ripped into it’s struggling flesh. Great, gorgeous gobs of flesh, sweet and cool filled his mouth. Bones he used to choke over were now swallowed down through a throat lined in gravel, that pressed, gnashed, and smashed everything into a digestible pulp. Pleased, the mermaid preened. But did not last out
John’s meal for she turned into a playful dive and was gone for the night, without so much as a farewell
The next morning John assumed the transformation was complete, his webbed hands felt up over his face in a sweep to brush back his hair, more a gesture of habit, but there was no hair left, fallen hanks of it decorated his scaly shoulders. On top of his head however, sprouted a fin, that nearly brought forth a hysterical laugh. It was like a mohawk. Always wanted to try one of those, John thought fingering it. His feet had lengthened taking on the look, shape and feel of his rubber flippers. He dangled his fins in the water and flexed, flapping them, admiring their strength.
He was relatively calm about his transformation, like a terminal patient he’d made peace with the inevitable. Besides, he recalled one childhood wish, of becoming the action diver bobbing endlessly in his aquarium tank a glowing world of fluorescent pebbles and a teasing treasure chest whose lid opened and closed like a clam. Wish full filled, sans bubbles, tanks, and cumbersome mask.
As his body grew anxious, he slid into the lake stained red by sunset, it would be like diving under a satin sheet. His river bed for always. He held his breath and dove.
Still wearing the mask, he attempted to stay skimming along in a shallow dive, but the water was enticing, calling him deeper, when he could no longer hold his breath, he clawed powerfully to the surface but a sip of air didn’t satisfy him. Ducking beneath the surface, he opened his mouth and breathed in. Water surged, flooding him and he waited for the choking, burning panic of water filling his lungs but instead flaps at the side of his neck gaped, despite being filled he no longer needed air. The sensation was incredible, all of him filled up like a bottle, yet he was still buoyant, still alive. He ripped off the mask. He could see, through murk and haze, he could see into shadows. And the sensation of sounds came to him , lighting along his scales like wind. Unlike the mermaid he would not need an eel torch to light his way.
The water no longer dragged on him. It was seductive and sluiced over his scales as he cut through with power kicks and a sweep of his webbed hands. Exhilarating! He darted like a cunning fish, turning with barely a kick, he could reel and spin in half a second. Marveling at his abilities, he swam deeper testing them right down to street level rolling in joy. He waited for a sign, an urgency that he must surface now and then like a manatee, but nothing. The mermaid appeared an hour later, lit in the glow of her eel torch and wearing her diamond tiara. He touched his chest in an it’s-me gesture. But she knew. This time when she tugged on his wrist and lead him to the fissure, he followed needing no bribe. The undertow, held no sway over him , he was steadfast, a fish who could not be tossed. They dove down into the black chasm, swimming as though falling. He learned by breaking free of the mermaid that he was a stronger swimmer than her and could shoot himself a powerful six feet down and spin about waiting for her to catch up. Her hands were not webbed. The pressure change was unusual to John, but there was no strain, it was as though he were held between tongue and rooftop in Neptune’s briney mouth, a mere minnow sliding between the two with slippery ease.
They raced into the darkness that at last changed, a glow emitted from a crevice of rock, leading to a lit cavern and John’s new world.
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