When we pull the nets in the next morning, they are so heavy that we have to recruit the cook to help us haul them onto the ship. There are a few tuna, bass, and even a small shark, but the bulk of it is squirming, howling mermaids. As we yank the nets onto the deck, bobbins clattering over the planks, I realize that we’ve caught something strange.
Most of the mermaids tangled in the nets are pale, with silvery tails and lithe bodies. This one is dark brown, its lower body thick, blobby, and inelegant, tapering to a blunt point instead of a single fin. Its entire body is glazed with a slimy coating, covered in spines and frondlike appendages. Rounded, skeletal pods hang from its waist, each about the size of an infant.
Worse, this fish has an uncannily human face, with a real chin and defined neck. While all of the mermaids I’d seen before had wide-set eyes on either side of their heads, this one’s eyes — huge and white, like sand dollars — are positioned on the front of its head. And unlike the other mermaids, gasping and thrashing and shrieking on the deck — there are few things worse than a mermaid’s scream — this one lies still, gills slowly pulsing.
“We got a deep-sea one,” breathes Sunan.
Ahbe crouches over the net, mouth agape. When he reaches his hand out, my father barks, “Don’t touch it!” and yanks Ahbe’s arm away. His body is tense, and when the mermaid smiles — it smiles, like a person — its jaws unhinge to reveal several rows of long, needlelike teeth.
I can’t stop staring. The mermaid has a stunted torso with short, thin arms and slight curvature where a human woman would have breasts, but no nipples. This shocks me more than it should; why would a fish have nipples? Heat rises in my face. I feel exposed, somehow, fully clothed though I am.
“Wow,” Ahbe says. His eyes are shining like he’s never seen a deep-sea mermaid before. Maybe he hasn’t. I haven’t either. “We’re gonna make a lot of money off of this one, huh?”
“If you don’t lose a hand to it,” my father replies. The other mermaids are wailing still, the last of the seawater trickling from their gills in short, sharp gasps. “Let’s bring them below. Do your best not to damage them; we need as much of the meat intact for the buyers as we can get.”
We descend on the net with ropes and hooks. The brown mermaid’s eyes are blind windows, like an anglerfish’s, but her face follows me as we move around the deck, securing the mermaids, pinning their delicate arms to their torsos so they won’t shatter their wrists in their panicked flailing. Once they’re bound, Dad and Sunan lift them and carry them down to the hold. With Ahbe packing the other fish into coolers, I draw close to the deep-sea mermaid, rope in hand.
That mouth opens, and I swear — I swear to god, or gods, or whatever is out there — a word hisses out: “L¯uk¯s¯aw.”
I drop the rope and stumble away. Ahbe’s at my side in an instant. “Shit! Lily, did it hurt you?” He grabs my hands, turning my arms over. “Did you get bitten?”
The pods at her waist clatter and air whistles between her teeth. She is laughing at me as they bind her and drag her down to the hold. “L¯uk¯s¯aw. L¯uk¯s¯aw. L¯uk¯s¯aw.”
My belly burns. I can’t stop shaking.