art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Your New Voice and You
by Rene Sears
You watch the mermaids swim. Sometimes you think of joining them. They're like parrotfish, bright and pretty. If you joined them, they would scatter like a school of fish when a predator comes along. So you do nothing but watch from the shadows. From there sometimes you see ships, and shipwrecks, and sailors. They, you are less tempted to join.
They only come to you when they want something. Mermaids looking for feet, sailors looking for a knotted rope to capture wind, it's all the same. They fear what you are as much as long for what you can do. If they see you outside of your lair, when they haven't come to you, they flee, or stuff their ears with wax. You are not meant to approach, only be approached.
Sometimes children come to you on a dare. Tails flashing in the sunlight, they come to the edge of the shadows and toss things into your lair: conch shells, bits of coral. Dead fish, sometimes. Anything to make themselves feel brave at defying the sea witch. You have only to show yourself, black hair streaming like squid ink, dark coiling tail in the mouth of your cave, and they flee.
Only once did one linger. She was bright as the shallows, a slip of a thing, and she watched you with some emotion you could not name plain on her face. It wasn't fear, and that made her different. She reached a hand to you, and before you could stop yourself, you reached a hand back. Her sisters called her name from the sunlit water, and she fled like the rest of them. You don't know what you would have done if she had touched you anyway.
Mermaid or sea witch, siren or hag. Two sides of the same fin: the allure of the unknown sea, and the fear of its power. Sailors floating in a fragile wooden shell on the vast, inimical ocean tell stories to humanize their surroundings. Someone has to be cast in the role of villain.
You have little sympathy for sailors.
When you speak, you call storms. If you swim to the surface and sit on a rock and sing to feel the sun on your scales, ships veer into the reef and founder. Your words are strong. They matter. So you are parsimonious with your speech, whispering on those occasions when they come to you asking favors. They need not know how your mouth aches from holding that power in. You give no more thought to your solitude than fish give to the water they swim through. Only sometimes do you remember a hand extended to you from sunlight.
It's nearly a decade later when you see her again. (Decades mean little when you've been in the shadows for centuries.) You recognize her immediately, though she has grown up since you saw her; it's something about the brightness of her eyes. Her tail is pinched with shells of rank, and pearls hang heavy from her neck.
Of course she wants something. They always do.