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Someone had been dancing the cancan on my chest, or that’s what it felt like when I woke up. I could smell the sea somewhere nearby. That, and I was pretty sure there was sand in my shoes — always a giveaway. I opened my eyes — and found out two things: one, no one was immediately trying to kill me (always a plus), and two, mermaids have really pretty smiles.
Admittedly, my sample size was limited, but just at that moment, I was prepared to take the risk of being wrong. Incidentally, that thing about the clam-shell bikini is hogwash. My mermaid (I was making wedding plans already, apparently, although I wasn’t quite sure why exactly) was sensibly dressed in a shirt, sea-breeches, and honking great sea-boots, and had the most glorious head of golden-green hair I have ever seen. How did I know she was a mermaid then, absent the long finny tail? Ah, you learn to notice these things, after you’ve been around for a while. You develop a fine-tuned sense of judgement and expertise. Plus, about seven of her sisters were sitting round in the shallows with tridents and fish tails, and stormy expressions on their faces — as if to say, look what the tide washed in. Gulp. Out of the frying pan, into the deep fat fryer …
I sat up, bruised ribs aching, to introduce myself gallantly and impressively. After I’d finished coughing up about half the ocean, with a sympathetic mermaid making sure I didn’t aspirate, I managed, ‘Fischwazl.’
Excuse me? her look of disappointment seemed to say, Okay, girls, you were right, throw this one back.
‘No, wait!’ I sputtered, ‘Don’t throw me back!’
She looked at me, head on one side, as if wondering just how long I’d been under. Then her expression changed again as if to say, This had better be good. I was beginning to reconsider the wedding plans. For one thing, how would I propose when she apparently didn’t understand that much English.
… And, now that I thought about it, why was I so suddenly smitten, anyway …
‘You’re a siren,’ I said, without thinking. I get these instincts sometimes. The only pity is that my brain doesn’t step in the way of my mouth from time to time to stop me blurting them out.
Now, sirens, as everyone knows, used to lure sailors to their deaths with their beauty and their magical voices. What sirens were like here, I didn’t know, but I just had this feeling she was one.
What she did next surprised me: She smiled. And not in the “let’s get the fire ready, dinner is served” kind of way that I’d encountered all too often in this magical Wild West that I was apparently stuck in. It was more a complicated mix of emotions, thoughts, and feelings, not wholly directed at me. Part of it seemed to be, ‘See, I told you this one would be interesting’, and, “I think I might like you”.
How I got all that from one smile, don’t ask me. I’ve always been … what would you say (and no, not “cracked” — I get no respect) … sensitive? I tend to have a feeling for what other people are feeling or thinking? That or I really had gone loopy this time. Question was, how would I tell?
While all this interplay was going on, our gazes not seeming to move from each other, one of her sister mermaids had gotten impatient. There was a shimmering in the water, and a tall woman with deep red hair emerged from the waves, also now in breeches and shirt, except wearing a long red velvet cloak for some reason. How she wasn’t drenched was beyond me. ‘Nessa,’ she growled, ‘enough of this. This minnow,’ she said looking at me meaningfully (told you), ‘is not our concern.’
‘I just bet you were a cheerleader in knight school,’ some idiot muttered under his breath. I looked around accusingly for the culprit and realized he was me. Oops.
Nessa, the golden-green blonde, and mermaid of my eye again, flashed me a look nine parts apprehension, three parts worry, and six parts “how could you be such an idiot — you don’t look that dumb” (it was a very expressive look. Also, I get the feeling was the only one who caught even half its full significance. Also-also, apparently they hadn’t gone metric here yet).
Her redheaded sister siren/mermaid, meanwhile, was eyeing me with another look altogether. One of the deep distaste mixed with burning anger. Ruh-roh … And, naturally enough, that was when my processing started shutting down. Just great.
That’s the downside of all the one-too-many-stressful-days, snake-tongued-sorceress-trying-to-kill-you stuff — eventually, it all catches up with you — and you find yourself getting overwhelmed, yours senses unable to take everything in. It just really chooses its moments sometimes, is all.
Suddenly, I found a very sharp trident pricking the edge of my throat. ‘Do you really want to test me, little man?’ I found myself looking into the eyes of an altogether different kind of fish — heh, no pun intended. (What, don’t look at me like that.) A much colder one, or maybe not.
The trident withdrew slightly, and a hand grasped my collar, drawing me in close. Deep, deep smoldering eyes, glimmering with an array of rainbow-edged colors looked into mine, drawing me in. Oh, right, I thought, siren. It was like looking into a whirlpool and, for a moment, like you could feel yourself being pulled into it and … then I was just standing in front a very puzzled-looking red-headed girl who despite what she projected was actually shorter than me. She turned agitatedly on her heel, almost as if trying to hide that she’d just had the shock of her life, and walked off. Which surprised me. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was unnerved by whatever magic she was trying to pull not working. ‘Come on, Nessa,’ she said as she passed. ‘We’re leaving.’
Nessa made no move to go with her. She was just stood there looking at me slightly wide-eyed and open-mouthed. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Look, I’m sorry—‘
Apparently, the redhead had just been getting a good run-up. The butt end of a trident thwacked me upside the forehead, and I went down like a sack of lemons. A furious Lyra, with tears practically in her eyes, stood over me raising the trident for a second whack. Fortunately, Nessa got hold of the other end and wrestled her away to where she stood panting at the other end of the beach, eyeing me with a look of extreme dislike.
‘Wzzl?’ I asked the world in general.
‘Now look what you did!’ cried Nessa. ‘He’s regressing.’
‘We’re leaving,’ the Lyra told Nessa again, the look of fury in her eyes almost unspeakable. Personally I didn’t quite get it. ‘If you want to stay here with this, this … freak, don’t expect to come back.’
‘Don’t you “Lyra” me! You’re a precious little freak too! You’ve never fitted in here — I don’t know why we ever even put up with you,’ she said, pushing Nessa so that she went sprawling into the sand.
Nessa looked shocked. As if she’d known something like this was coming someday but she’d never actually expected it to happen. And hurt. ‘All right, then. Go! Get away!’ she said, getting up. ‘You’ve never liked me anyway! I expect you’re glad to have the excuse. Just because he’s not like all the other idiots who—‘
Lyra came striding forward again and slapped her so hard she fell back down. I was on my feet without realizing it just as she raised her trident point-first overhead as if to bring it down on Nessa. Imagine her surprise — and mine — when she found me standing in the way instead.
Lyra eyed me with hatred written all over her features, distorting a face that could have been pretty, even stunningly beautiful (if you never looked past the surface), into something much uglier. It could have gone either way at that point, Lyra, her hair and cloak flowing in the wind, trident poised to stab down at me. Eventually, she seemed to get herself under control and lowered the trident. She seemed to debate hitting me one more time for luck, but instead just scooped up a second trident that had been lying on the ground – Nessa’s presumably – and turned and shimmered back into the sea.
One or two of the others looked back at Nessa with pangs of either regret or concern — I could see from here that her eyes were filled with tears — but they followed Lyra out to sea, where they disappeared under the waves.
I was kind of groggy at this point, and still feeling bruised and the worse for wear, not to mention sick from all the seawater I’d inhaled — and also unable to shake the feeling that I’d missed something. And I must have passed out for a few minutes. When I came round, Nessa was gone too.
To be continued … ?
Once Upon a Spinning-Wheel: