Fiction by Kelly Kiehl Davis
The townspeople became aware that all was not as it should be when the Merfolk of Riverchapel began to wash up on their shores in earnest. The first wave was an anomaly – a spectacle for the children down on the shores of the Sea of Songs. The town gathered there as the sun set and looked over the scaly bodies of the dozen Merfolk who had washed up there, covered in tarry oil and bound in netting and plastics. It was early winter, and the sea had just begun to freeze in the shallow pockets along the shoreline where the Merfolk bodies lay. The scales of the Merfolk were crusted with frost and their hair had frozen into brittle icicles. The children danced around the bodies while the wind howled and the sea wailed. They looked into the large, glassy eyes of the Merfolk and saw only their own reflections, their own breath blooming before them. As the parents watched their children seeing themselves in the eyes of the dead, one of them turned to their Mayor and said, “Can’t we do something about this?” The Mayor watched the children silently for a time and then informed the parents that they could not.
“They don’t have eyelids,” he said. “They’re sea creatures, after all.” It was only when one of the Park twins accidentally stepped on one of the Merfolk and it emitted a raspy, gurgling screech that the children finally retreated, for they had not known that the dead could make such a sound of agony.
The townspeople burned the first wave of Merfolk. They brushed the ash from their coats with mittened hands and then headed to Watcher’s Tavern to discuss their visitors over mugs of Aleshine. In the firelight of the old tavern, their talk conjured speculative scenes of exile: Merfolk fleeing homes made uninhabitable by the fiercely growing rubble of the sea; an unknown force overtaking their ancient city of Riverchapel and forcing them out. As the night wore on and the fire burned to embers in the tavern’s hearth, the townsfolk followed the frozen cobblestone streets home where they dreamt of frost-covered bodies, wild with seaweed hair and large glassy eyes that would not close.
* * *
The second day Merfolk were found on the peninsula’s shores, school was cancelled and hardly any of the townspeople showed up to work. Instead, they congregated on the shores of the peninsula as though called there to worship. Together they stared out at the wailing sea and mourned the death of creatures they had never known. There were twenty of them in all on the second day, and the townspeople carried them together to great pyres where they set them aflame as the moon rose. They wondered what the morning would bring and returned to Watcher’s that night to herald its arrival together.
As the rest of the town sat in the candlelight of Watcher’s tavern, the Mayor walked on the shore of the Sea of Songs, looking out across the waves. It was true that the sea was restless, but this was nothing new. The cries of the sea were legend in the town, they were the reason the sea had earned its name. All the same, the Mayor sensed that there was a force on the move across the sea, there was a new restlessness whose nature he could not name.
* * *
On the morning of the third day, more than thirty Merfolk washed ashore on the peninsula, and the Merfolks’ bodies were beginning to exceed the ability of the townsfolk to dispose of them. The fourth day saw forty more – all of them covered in ice and frost and black oil. Their scaly bodies covered the shores of the Sea of Songs and the smell of rotting fish wafted through the town on the winter air. Hannath, the town baker, stayed hard at work all through the day, attempting to combat the smell with batches upon batches of corncakes which she pulled from her ovens faster than the townsfolk could eat them. But Hannath’s corncakes were not enough to dispel the smell of rotting fish throughout the town. There were too many Merfolk bodies to bury and too many to burn and the townspeople could not dispose of them quickly enough. The smell clung to their skin and bedsheets, their hair and the fabric of their clothes. Though the townspeople told themselves that they would grow used to the stink and cease to notice it, this never happened.
On the evening of the fourth day, the Mayor decided he would sit on the shores through the night to watch the sea for more Merfolk coming in. He thought that perhaps he would find some of them still alive. He could take them back to his tower, place them in a warm saltwater bath. Clean the oil from their scales and melt the frost from their brows, brush the tangled seaweed from their hair. He could ask them what it was that had caused their mass exodus from Riverchapel, their seeming extinction-level event. He bundled himself in furs and he said to a pile of driftwood, “I’ll plant a tree if you can keep me warm,” and the driftwood obliged in sparks of green and blue.
The Mayor did not doze. He sat looking out over the sea, each of its waves becoming the body of a Merman or Merlady. For hours, nothing happened. The Mayor sat with his muscles tensed; snow began to fall. He paced along the icy shore. He tested his weight on the ice coating the shallow waters of the sea. He walked out further onto the ice, each of his steps a promise to himself about the lengths he would go to find answers for his people. He stood at the end of the frozen portion of the sea for some time, feeling that he was standing at the edge of the known world, seeking answers from the deafening wind. Seeing no Merfolk, he retreated back to his small driftwood fire and settled into his blankets, eyes on the horizon.
* * *
They came in the hour before dawn: the first of them pushed beneath the ice by those who came behind them, so that when the Mayor walked out onto the ice among the bodies, he saw more floating just beneath his feet, their glassy eyes staring up at him. He walked from one body to the next, bending low over each one to listen for breathing, to feel for signs of life. Each time he bent over a body, he would feel a tug of excitement – he would swear that he saw in each pair of eyes some recognition, some wordless plea for help. He would place his ear to the puckered lips of the Merfolk, his hand on the scales above their hearts, and he would hold his breath and stop his own heart so as not to mistake his own life for another’s. Holding very still the Mayor would pray.
“Please let this one live,” he would say. “I will offer him new life in our peninsula. I will preserve this world for his protection.” But the Mayor’s god was a silent one. It did not answer the Mayor as he knelt, alone among the dead. On finding that each Merfolk had irrevocably crossed over, the Mayor would take a deep, shuddering breath. His heart would restart and he would crawl to the next body, only to hear his breath hitch once more in a hopeful recognition of life, to feel his heart stop within his chest, to grip the scales above the Merfolk’s heart, demanding to feel life there beneath it.
Life evaded him. He sat at the edge of the known world, too cold to clamber to his feet. More and more Merfolk washed up onto the ice around him, their bodies jostling against one another. Hundreds of them washed ashore on that fifth morning, but sometime in the night, crawling around on his hands and knees on the ice, the Mayor had lost the ability to feel awe or shock at their numbers. His hands were numb from gripping the frozen scales of the Merfolk. He was covered in oil and ice and sea and he was powerless – frozen twice over with frost and longing to join the unfeeling Merfolk, to be burned on a pyre, and to feel, for the first time, unwanting overtake him.
* * *
On the sixth morning after the first dozen Merfolk washed up onto the frozen shores of the Jamestown peninsula, there was silence on the Sea of Songs. There was no wailing wind, no crashing waves bringing in more bodies of Merfolk. The townspeople stood on the shores with their stretchers and shovels and waited for bodies that did not arrive. They felt oddly forlorn, as though the Merfolk had abandoned them once more to the banality of their daily lives. That great mystery that had filled their tavern with talk and their heads with thoughts of something greater and more mysterious than they could comprehend had left them to face the cold on their own. One by one, they turned away from the sea and headed back home to put away their shovels and return to their lives once more.
As the days slipped by, the lives that had once filled the townspeople with such purpose seemed no more than a façade – an empty husk from which the substance of life had been taken away with the tide. No longer on their shores could they find evidence of other life, of mystery they were not meant to understand. No longer were their daily lives interrupted by glittering scales and speculative conversations whispered over mugs of Aleshine in the warmth of Watcher’s. For a time, they tried to continue these conversations, to keep the sense of mystery in their lives alive, but as their conversations grew more and more repetitive, they began to dissolve altogether. The townspeople were left staring out over shores which brought them no tidings of sparkling sea monsters, no reflections on their own mortality. Their talk in the pub turned to the year’s crop yield, the new corncake recipe at Hannath’s bakery. They spoke of their poor Mayor, who had recently announced he was leaving his position. He had seemed ill lately, and although he claimed he was making the decision for his health, the townsfolk still saw the Mayor pacing along the shores of the Sea of Songs on misty mornings, looking out at the horizon for answers he had not been able to find. The townspeople pretended to one another that they, too, were not haunted by the memory of the Merfolk on their shores, that they, too, did not long for just one more glimpse at that which they did not know and could not understand. They pretended that they did not dream at night of growing gills and webbed feet, of abandoning their village to discover the stories of another.