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Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt

JY Yang is a lapsed scientist, a former journalist, and a short story writer. She lives in Singapore, in a bubble populated by her imagination and an indeterminate number of succulent plants named Lars. A graduate of the 2013 class of Clarion West, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres. A list of her publications can be found at misshallelujah.net, and she can be found on Twitter as @halleluyang, making displeased noises about the state of the world.

Anja returns with the groceries to find her dead husband sitting by the white fence he'd built, pale hands uprooting grass blades and dispersing the shards into the wind through bony fingers. She doesn't know what he was wearing when he died, but the long thin figure by the gate is clad in the matching grey windbreaker and track pants she'd given away weeks ago.
When he embraces her, winding spindly arms around her like a vise, his hands are cold and his hair smells of salt. "The boat came in early," he says. "Are you surprised?"
In death, as in life, she doesn't know what to say in reply. "May I come in?" he asks.
"The gate isn't locked." There's a latch on the fence, but she never uses it. He should know this.
He tilts his head and the light catches his irises oddly, giving them a rainbow tint like a fish's. "May I come in?"
She nods.
In the kitchen she studies the form of his back as he bustles around, saying that he'll fix her something to eat. The white lines of his shoulders and neck are exactly how she remembered them, yet there's something forced about the way he moves, a bad facsimile. Maybe it's just her imagination.
He cooks her eggs and sausage and fish. She doesn't touch the plate when he sets it down in front of her. "Do you not like it?"
She lets silence chill in the space between them. "This isn't three hundred years ago," she finally says. "News from the sea doesn't take months to reach land anymore."
He blinks his clear eyes at her. "I knew the day you were washed overboard," she says. "It was weeks ago. We've had the funeral service."
He bows his head. "I wanted to visit you."
There's a longing in his voice, strange and elastic, that he'd never expressed in life. She doesn't know how to respond to that.
"May I stay the night?"
"I would rather you didn't."
He leaves without a word then. The place where he'd rested his hands on the counter is cold to the touch, and damp.
That night, in the desolate vastness of their marital bed, Anja dreams of the last time she had had sex with her husband, she straddled above him, their arms and legs ensnared like seaweeds. In her dream her husband has breasts and a sea of loose curls surrounding a face too familiar to bear, and when Anja wakes, disquiet drives her to check all the windows in their silent house. Nothing but the tangled silhouettes of trees. She lies back in the empty bed to wait for sunrise.
The next day she comes back from a delivery of more of their possessions to find her strange visitor waiting by the gate, a large Styrofoam box in his arms. "Your pantry is empty," he says. "I have brought you something."
The box is full of mackerel and squid and some exotic colorful fish she can't identify, flat eyes staring. Sea-smell wafts by her, strong but not overwhelming. "Thank you," she says hesitantly.
Anja is quite sure by now this is not truly her dead husband, who never brought anything back from work save for his ill temper. She should send this unknown apparition away, tell it to leave and never come back. But she does not. She has always been poor at making such decisions.
Anja takes the box and their hands touch for a moment, cold skin against warm. The apparition pulls away with the flicking motion of a startled fish.
"Your shelves are empty and your floor is full of boxes," the apparition says. "Why?"
"I'm selling the house," she says. "I need the money. I may move back to my parents' home in the city."
"Is that far from the sea? From here?"
Silence gathers between them again. It asks: "May I come in?"
"No," she says. And then adds: "Do not come into the house when I am not around."
Anja wakes the next morning unable to breathe, her throat and chest full and coppery. Bent over the bathroom sink she coughs and coughs, and that's when she feels the small solid object sliding down her gullet and into her mouth. She spits an old gold coin into the sink, crusted green with age and rust. Horrified, she retches and retches, coin after coin falling onto porcelain with sharp sounds. By the time she is empty, a dozen of them lie at the bottom of the sink. Old Roman coins, probably from a wreck somewhere. She feels irrationally angry.
When she straightens up the first thing she sees is her dead husband's face in the mirror. She hits her head when she jumps in shock, and half a scream makes it out of her exhausted lungs.
The apparition's flat eyes fill with concern. "I only wanted to help."
"Why are you here?"
"You were lonely. I felt it."
She takes two steps towards it before she manages to stop herself. "You felt my loneliness? Then where were you ten years ago? Fifteen years ago? Where were you when I was getting married to someone I didn't love?"
It remains silent, sad-eyed, and she turns away, leaning on the sink for support.
"Would this form please you better?"
In the mirror her dead husband's face has been replaced by a woman's, eyes the color of storm waves, surrounded by a cloud of sea-foam hair. A vision from childhood, from decades ago. Anja recoils.
"You keep her pictures in a box under your bed," the apparition says. "Who is she?"
Anja hurls a handful of the coins at it. "Leave," she gasps. "I've lived enough of my years a lie. I don't need any more."
She wakes that night to the sound of thunder, and a long narrow shape waiting among the trees in her window. Lit by lightning, the visitor's iridescent skin and kelp hair--hanging to its waist--glisten wet, while water runs over its small, scaly breasts. Gills flare under its jawline and its round lidless eyes fix on Anja as she opens the window.
"It's you," she says. "You came back."
It nods. "Do you now understand why I did not show you my true form?"
"Come closer," Anja whispers, and the creature creeps from the trees onto her windowsill. It has feet like a turtle's, sharp and webbed. She reaches out and touches its clammy hand, loosely curled and ending in black claws. The creature flinches slightly, but keeps its gaze hopefully on Anja. The rain which comes in smells of salt.
"What's it like, under the sea?" she asks it.
"Cold," the creature says, "and lonely."
How many nights had the creature dreamed of the warmth of the sun? As many nights as Anja had dreamed of the chilling, liberating embrace of the sea?
"May I come in?"
Anja nods.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Author Comments

In Swedish folklore the merman (havsmannen) is a creature that appears to a woman, in the form of her husband, while her husband is away at sea. Sometimes, this leads to the birth of a child with scales and flipper-like feet. When I first read about it, my immediate thought was, "Okay, but imagine this: her husband died at sea." And then, "What if it was not a merman, but a mermaid?" That was the genesis of this story. I decided to work on it for a flash fiction challenge on a forum. The challenge was to write in a genre unfamiliar to you, so I picked horror. I suspect it ended up less horror and more "sad, gloomy Scandinavian drama."

- JY Yang
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