The figurehead’s eyes were dead, empty of her magical soul like her sea-sisters in the graves that the ship sailed upon. The privateer ship had no regard for their sanctity. It continued, cutting through the blue of the seas with a sinner’s vigor. The ship was a tidal wave but one of the best on the high seas. USS Adventure had only one purpose like so many of her harpy sisters, one mission of demonic-inspired paranoia of the unknown, one that allowed the sailors aboard to look beyond the color of their skin: to kill mermaids.
Witches were hunted first. Beavers and buffalo were treated better in their murder, for their bodies were used. Witches, however, were killed for fear and rumor. Their power was a threat, and their death was said to bring fortune and luck to the murderer. When the witches became less than a memory, sailors turned to the witches of the seas. Mermaids were hunted because of the myths told by man. According to the tales, they will siren you into the ocean and drown you. They will eat you alive and use your bones for necklaces. They will create whirlpools for tits and giggles. They will kill you without care for your wife and children. They must be killed. Force them to the surface. Stab them in the heart or through their heads with a harpoon. Poison their waters with rat poison, the bodies of the sick, soiled water, or whatever is onboard. Plus, the scales fetch quite the doubloon at market. They call them miraculous, wish-granting for some. A mermaids’ scales are her pride and joy. Their wild, unnatural colors and patterns are one-of-a-kind masterpieces shining with a bioluminescence as radiant as the life within her. That’s how the sailors see mermaids during their hunts. They admire their beauty before they harpoon them with the fierce satisfaction of one less sea-witch. As they exhume her body, they relish the final flashes of her scales, her blood inking down into the milky sea.
James scrunched up his face, bile at the back of his throat. Although he had too many years behind him to even remember what life was like before he was a sailor, James still had the same reaction. His mother taught him to love all of God’s creatures, no matter what. As the mermaid was reeled up, the sailors draining her blood into her home before they placed her onto deck, James didn’t hear the lewdness of the white sailors around him. He didn’t know their fear. He didn’t see their reason. He did see them spit onto her body, squeeze her breasts, leer at her tail, and guess how much they would get from her ruin. He saw the way they looked at the mermaid’s corpse with desperate hunger. He saw a being created by his God. He saw her body hanging from the rope of the harpoon, swaying around in circles. Just as the body of the runaway slave did from the tree branch when he was a child, peeking through the light-skinned arms of his mother and the crowd of fellow slaves. His master shook his head. Such a waste, he said. Yes, he knew the white man’s ways, knew to respect them, but he only believed their actions.
As James watched, dark hands clenched tight enough around the rigging to sting, a shimmer below caught his eye. He turned his eyes to the water. He was bewitched the moment he saw her. He only saw the curves of her form that existed above her waist as she bobbed in the water. The black waves of her hair were voluminous despite the weight of the water in them. Her skin was a rusty brown, her lips full, and her black eyes doe-like. She had round, soft features. James saw the glowing light beneath her. She was a mermaid. Even though he found her stunning, he also supposed that she was not wise to be this close to a privateer ship. He focused more on her face. Her lips were a downward crescent, her eyes distant and empty. She stared where the dead mermaid hung and swung. James felt a stab of guilt. She must have known her. Still, this wasn’t wise —
“Another tail down ‘low!”
Sailors scrambled around James. She was about to be strung up like the countless ones James had seen before her, like the runaway even young James knew wasn’t a waste. He would die before he saw another mermaid or man swinging in circles before him, especially this mermaid and especially now.
The sailors grabbed a steel harpoon from the barrel beside the gun. James took off his leather boots. The harpoon clicked into the gun. The gunner rotated the barrel, shouting that he was taking aim. James took off his shirt. The gunner’s mate primed the fuse box. James ran to the railing. The captain yelled, “Fire!”
James dove in.
Arihi would always remember feeling it all at once.
In one moment, she was frozen in the warm bobbing water. She had never seen human hatred before, had never seen anything revel in the kill like these men were celebrating the blood draining from her friend. The sight of a fellow mermaid’s stilled body paling and scales dulling. Such cruelty was unfathomable to her. Her mind flooded with questions, and her heart was a boulder that made her want to sink to the bottom of the sea. In the distance, she heard cries from her sister. You aren’t safe. You have to get away. You are going to end up just like Solosolo. She heard it, but the only movement from her tailfin was the twitch of it keeping her afloat.
A sharp chill went up her night-blue scales and down her spine. A being broke the surface of the water beside Arihi and embraced her waist, pulling her away from the ship. A long, pointed pole dove in through her tailfin, causing a stabbing pain. Arihi heard Lalago, her sister, cry out in the distance. Her voice trembled like Arihi’s chest, spreading out in waves through her body. There was so much fear. If a mermaid could drown, Arihi thought she would do so from the whirlpool of sensations and feelings within her.
But, the moment passed. In its wake, there was just her, the pain, her savior, and the water. Through her savior’s strong swimming, they managed to escape the clutches of the ship. Relief washed over her, but it drained through the hole in her tailfin. Her tailfin pained her, making her unable to swim along with this stranger. Yet, like water lapping quietly on a beach, Arihi felt her chest and body relax with safety. She wasn’t Solosolo, swinging and about to lose her scales for petty human profit. She was alive.
Her savior, James as he introduced himself later, swam for miles to the shore of his mother’s home in New Orleans. Once ashore, Arihi’s consciousness came in waves. She saw James’s mother, Lily, storm from the small wooden shack she called home with work-worn ashy feet and a fierceness that made Arihi flinch. Arihi caught words like “fugitive” and “mean hanging.” She felt herself being carried. Then, sweet water. A glimpse of Lily’s head shaking, her hair wrapped in a fabric as colorful as a mermaid’s tail. Darkness. Sparks of light. Pain in her tail. Lily’s hot, calloused hands quickly moving with a small pointy object attached to string and a bottle of clear liquid. Strong hands holding her down. She didn’t know she was thrashing, trying to get away from the hurt. Sleep again, this one longer than before. Sunlight. A dull ache coursed through Arihi’s tail. Lily’s warm hand resting on her tail. It was the color of wet sand. Arihi’s mind easing. The days swirled together. Shouts of people in the city. Numbers, bargains, curses, greetings, and rumors. Heels and hooves clacked on the cobblestone and brick streets. Whips cracked. Chains rattled. Bells rung. An ocean of people and activity. But, Arihi only cared for the waters she heard that were just as close. Weeks went by. Finally, her return to the waters. A different tailfin but the familiar feel of home. The sun streaming through the water. Her hair floating. The open expanse around her. But then, a squeeze of her heart. The sight of the small wooden shack on the shore. No matter how far she swam, she could still see it in the distance. A resolve never to go back. A promise never to talk to humans again. Then, James sitting in a cave one night on the edge of the beach. A decision against her better judgement. A sharp shake of her head as she swam toward him. His surprise. Her shrug. They talked. They kept on talking. The conversations in those caves. Some sweet. Some angry. Some forgiving. Some funny. A connection, a spark. Words turning into kisses. Kisses turning into caresses. Caresses turning into… more. The after talks. The ones about his dreams. He wanted to be free like his mother, who had gotten papers when her master passed. Arihi understood that. Freedom to him was like wanting to float in the ocean but having to worry about a chain. She wanted his freedom to. Wanted him to know that the ocean was a place without chains or masters. More kisses then. More caresses. More everything. Love, James called it.
In her memory, Arihi would always remember it as a moment. The pair lay on the beach. They stared at the stars, winking at them. The moon seemed brighter and larger. The cool, dark water lapped at their intertwined bodies. In his arms, she felt blessed by the night. Her sister had once called the night the mother of all mermaids. How merciful of her to show Arihi how loving and pure the world can be when the ocean isn’t red.
Their daughter, Emere, was unexpected to say the least. Her features were a mixture of her mother’s and father’s, her skin a combination of her father’s and mother’s odd blacknesses. Her eyes were the color of her mother’s tail. Her grandmother laughed at the sight of her long legs, saying she was built like a “land-mermaid.” Her parents were more than proud. Much like baby Moses fighting the streams of the Nile to face his fate, Emere’s arrival changed things. For the sake of the baby, freedom for James was do or die. James’s mother managed to get freedom papers for Emere. His daughter was free and would never call a white man master. James turned to his own freedom.
In the cloak of the night, James was ready and saying goodbye for the time being. Off the coast, Arihi’s large fin splashed with energy. James smiled, buzzing with excitement himself as he kissed his daughter one last time before he —
“Mermaid! Mermaid offshore!” Someone called far off on the docks.
It couldn’t possibly be about Arihi. Not now. Not when he got a boat that would take him to the North to get his papers. Not when Emere had just gotten her papers declaring her free. Not when they were so close to freedom he could taste the parchment and ink. No. Not now.
But, a crowd began to form. White men with pitchforks, javelins, and guns lined the beach. Arihi’s fin disappeared below the surface, her ebony tail still twinkling like the stars above. The creature of the moon was not protected from man.
Urgently, to his mother, James gave his love and thanks for her sacrifices. She nodded, understanding what he had to do but filled with the passion of a mother to protect her own. In the moonlight, the few wrinkles her still youthful and beautiful face had deepened to show her weary age. She looked smaller. But, the intensity in her eyes and sternness of her mouth was enough to show her might. She understood what her son had to do to protect his kin. The choice still haunted her, when the bed creaked in too fine a rhythm, the fire dancing just so, and when her mind began to stray to moonlit nights where she auctioned her son’s life for the master’s pleasure. Yes, she knew what her son was going to do. She just prayed that the memories he would have to live with weren’t as harsh.
James kissed his daughter one last time. Her midnight blue eyes looked up at him. He prayed for her.
The crowd grew and began to attack the water. No time to ask for one more moment from his God.
Lily watched as he dove into the sea of men to save his mermaid. She watched the whole scene until it was over. As the baby began to cry, she wondered if she was watching, too. Their tears mingled together as it all unfolded. The violence soon stopped. People left. The waves licked at the blood. The fires from the mob were put out, sticks left abandoned on the sand. When the sky brightened as the night packed her things, James’s mother left her hiding place in the same cave where her sleeping bundle had been created. Arihi’s human half was discarded into an old barrel. She was pale and far too blue. Harsh marks ravished her breasts and neck. In the water lay James. His face was down, legs closed together. In a way, he looked like a mermaid. His dark skin was bruised and lacerated. He laid too still. She knew before she touched his cold body.
Guided by something greater than her, she wrapped the swaddled babe around her and then grabbed Arihi’s chilled body — or rather what was left. She brought it under the docks, placing it into the seas. The ocean took her, glad to have her child returned home.
“You let my baby boy see God’s face. So, welcome home,” The grandmother said.
A mermaid that resembled Arihi gripped her remains. The grandmother called out, and the young mermaid looked up.
“If you need anything,” she said, “You are welcome in the sea.”
Emere started, and, by the time the grandmother looked back up, the mermaid and Arihi were gone.
The grandmother held her baby close, closer than she held any other treasure or truth in her life. She kissed her and soothed her, “It’s going to be okay, little one. Shh, now. We will be all right, dearie. We’re the granddaughters of the witches they couldn’t burn. We’ve survived worse alone, but we’ve always been better off together.”