The paintings never sold, so Cora hung them on the walls. Of course, she understood why they frightened people; peripherally, they seemed to move. If you glanced at them out of the corner of your eye, you might swear you saw the waters shimmer, a set of eyes blink, or the wave of a mermaid’s tail. They were unsettling, but she couldn’t stop painting them. She hoped the tribute might appease their subjects somehow.
These days, the only money she made was from the art she inked into skin. Tattooing served another purpose for her, as well. She enjoyed the intimacy. Reveled in situating herself close enough to her clients that she could inhale their weedy, seedy scents and almost taste their sins. They offered blood and cash for weeping ink and a little piece of her psyche.
She liked the permanence. That she could leave her mark.
The man who appeared on her doorstep that morning didn’t look like her usual clientele. He wasn’t another witchy-hippie-junkie-indie superstar grumbling about how far she lived from the city. No, he was tall and clean, with a bit of red hair tucked under a newsboy cap.
“Girls, I think you should play inside today,” Cora called to her twin daughters, sitting under their cushioned canopy across the room. Meri played with her dolls and Adrie scribbled with crayons and paints. Meri’s lip curled in frustration. She swung her left foot forward, kicking off one of her green rubber boots. Adrie winced as the boot hit the wall, but did not glance up from her sketchpad.
“Reckon it’ll rain?” the man asked as he slid into her chair.
Cora looked out the window as she gathered her things. Nothing but clear skies, dark forested mountains crowding all around. Still, she shivered a bit.
“Feels like it might,” Cora answered.
She found the sketch he’d sent her two weeks before, asked about the money, and checked with him to make sure she had the orange just right. Next came the stretch and snap of black latex gloves. She sat across from him at her kitchen table and began to work, first cleaning his arm, then transferring the octopus image to his skin.
His skin was delicate, translucent. He bled easily, but his face remained placid. Handsome. Familiar. She studied his crinkled blue eyes, the curvy bow of his upper lip. Had she seen him elsewhere before?
“Left you a little couplet, huh?” The man nodded at the twins.
“They’re not his, if that’s what you’re asking.” Everyone asked, in one way or another, despite the fact that her children looked nothing like him. “They’re only five. He’s been dead eight.”
“Ah.” He took the pain well. He smiled at her. “But what about you? Is it true?”
“Nothing,” she said, “is ever as good as it seems.”
And how wonderful it had seemed at seventeen, to be swept off the streets and into the arms of a sweet, soulful poet. She met him outside a record store in the city, but the slow, playful cadence of his voice suggested he hailed from somewhere beyond concrete and locked iron gates. He had a way about him, all charm and grins. Luck. If they were down to their last dollar, the gutter water would wash a twenty dollar bill up on his boots. Lucky, or he just knew where to look. That’s what she thought for a while, anyway.
She went with him to the docks sometimes. She’d watch from a distance as her Poet swapped the Ferryman a folded stack of bills for a bucket of oyster shells. The Ferryman could always spot her somehow, gazing between ships and shanties to give her a quick nod. She never acknowledged him; that man gave her the chills.
Back at his apartment, Cora would steam the shells and pick them apart, searching for pearls, while her Poet sifted through the ice water after his own crackerjack prize. The oysters themselves were discarded, uneaten. She had a habit of tossing them off the balcony while the Poet sorted his lines. The back alley was littered with shards and abalone swirls.
When she had enough, the Poet strung the pearls for her. He gave her the necklace in a tiny shell-shaped box, along with a key to his childhood home on the island. He took her there that weekend. A celebration: one year together, and his first published chapbook. The Ferryman took them across the sound and gave them a bucket, on the house. Late that evening, with nothing to eat in that bare little cottage, they gorged themselves on oysters. The Poet nearly choked on a pearl.
At first, she loved the island, that secret world all her own. Soon long stretches of time passed between her lover’s visits; his fame as a musician grew and grew faster than his fame as a poet. Eventually she came to realize that the Ferryman dealt in darker things than drugs and oyster shells. Glory, too, had its price, and she paid for it with loneliness.
Cora kept herself sane by walking the shoreline, swimming in the sea, sketching the shells and seaweed that washed up on the shore. And the mermaids. Not legends after all. She got to know each and every one of them well. Years passed, the Poet slipping in and out of her bed. She promised him daughters, but they never conceived.
“You are mine. My ocean in a bottle. My mermaid in a cup,” he sang. In her absence, her Poet had become a rockstar, but she couldn’t think of him as such. She never once saw him sing. Not in person, anyway. The Ferryman came once a month with a boatload of groceries and a black-toothed grin. He sometimes brought yellow padded envelopes stuffed with magazine clippings or grainy VHS tapes. The Poet sang to her, but Cora never watched the tapes while he was alive. And she wondered if he had ever fully grasped the cruelty of his words.
She did try to leave. Pacing along the shoreline, she scanned the horizon for sailboats and ships, but never saw another soul. She swam out until her arms ached with the effort, until her senses dulled and her will collapsed. The tide, or the mermaids always guided her back to his land.
They whispered to her, voices skimming across the waves like skipping stones. She asked her Poet about what the mermaids had said, but he lied and lied. Ten years in and he just stopped showing up. What kind of man swims with his boots on? Just another name on that infamous list, the Twenty-Seven Club. She should have known.
Two weeks after his death, the scales started to grow.
“Mama!” Meri yanked on the hem of her skirt. “Tell her to stop. She’s breaking them.”
Cora put her tattoo gun down and let the man rest. He arched his back, stretching his arms and rotating his neck. She watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. She thought of tracing a single fingertip down the center of his throat.
Meri waved a fistful of broken crayons under her mother’s nose. “She’s pressing too hard. They’re all broken. See.”
“Adrie? What are you doing, sweetie?”
Adrie looked up from her pad of paper, startled. She lifted a page swirled with blues and greens. Scattered around her were other pieces colored just the same. “I’m painting the sea for your mermaids.” She tucked her chin against her chest and went back to work, turning her crayon to the side and swiping it across the page. Meri and her dolls went to sulk on the bed.
Cora’s head ached. She dragged her wrist across her forehead. Her bare fingers were stained with blood and ink. Her gloves sat before her, stretched and twisted. Why had she taken them off?
The man knelt beside Adrie and picked out a sheet of dark blue swirls. “They’re lovely. Which one is your favorite? I like this one.”
Adrie chose her favorite for him, cerulean with sea foam scribbles of white and stormy blue.
“They’re stupid. They don’t look like anything!” Meri cried, bouncing on the bed. Second-born. Always second best. Save for one hour. That one hour, just after they were born, when Cora held Meri against her breast and considered throwing the other one down the well.
“I have an idea. May I cut them?” the man asked, and Adrie smiled at him. He stood and took her hand. She led him to the drawer where Cora kept her shears.
Cora wiped her hands on her skirt and reached for another pair of gloves. “Should we finish your tattoo?”
“You already did.” The man took Adrie’s drawing and began slicing them into smaller squares. Cora squinted at the completed octopus on his arm, the twist of tentacles just beneath his flesh. She couldn’t remember filling it in. Was that the right shade? Shouldn’t it be orange?
Red. Like his hair. So much like Adrie’s.
She remembered then. Touching his throat, her whole palm flat against his neck as he swayed beneath her. His mouth feverish against hers. Had they? When?
Was his hair that short the last time he was there? She remembered twisting her fingers into his curls. No, that was the Poet. But had this man been there before?
Cora rested her elbows on the table, palms against her temples. Her head swam. Sifting through fragmented memories, she tried to ground herself. How did she even get here, to this drafty little shack in the woods? She wasn’t supposed to leave the island. That was part of the deal.
Cora’s head pounded. She watched the red-haired man and her older daughter arrange the squares of paper and paste them to the walls. The day lurched forward, a time-lapse film. Square after square. Until a mosaic of blue surrounded her mermaids. A painted sea.
How did she get here? The Poet neglected to tell her that once she was no longer his, she belonged to the deeps. Of course he didn’t tell her. What did her life matter to him after he was dead? Her tail was strong. She could swim for centuries, but never reach the land. All that was left for her was water. So, how did she get back on land?
The Ferryman. She’d made a deal with the Ferryman. The other mermaids told her that was the only way. None of them had even considered it. Skinned alive? And that’s only the first part, they said.
She’d signed anyway. The Ferryman hung her from the docks and stripped the scales from her skin. Splayed her open again. She cried the nine tears, nothing more, just like he’d asked. He caught them in a crystal bottle. It sparkled in the sunlight, blinding her, as he sucked it clean. The Ferryman licked his lips and took her to a cabin high in the mountains. Far from the sea, on both sides. Just as he’d promised.
She kept to herself after that. Lonely, but nothing at all like before. She waded through the knee-high grasses, blades twisting between her toes. She shimmied up trees, wedging splinters into her soles. From the top branches, she surveyed the landscape. A stone-bottomed brook trickled down the hillside. For nights she dreamt of dipping her feet in, wandering farther and deeper in. But she kept her distance. Even the faucets frightened her. She tightened them compulsively.
From her treetop, she sometimes watched life unfold in the valley below. She kept her distance from the townsfolk, assuring herself that the Ferryman would never collect the remainder of his dues.
And then the red-haired man came. Straight through the door and into her bed. Neither of them spoke a word until he crossed back over the threshold. He’d looked over his shoulder and said, “One to keep and one to give away.”
The whole house was blue now. All the way up the walls, pasted over the ancient floral wallpaper and cracked plaster. The sun dipped below the horizon. Meri and her dolls slept on the bed.
“Do you like it, Mama?” This time it was Adrie tugging at her hem. Blue, sticky fingers staining her dress.
“It’s lovely, honey. You know I love everything you make.” A briny scent filled her nostrils as the sea trickled down the walls. The red-haired man smiled.
Her legs wouldn’t move.
The water swirled around her ankles, up her shins, her thighs. Then the flood came, pouring out of every painted square. Meri woke screaming, but as always, Cora’s attention went to her firstborn. Adrie clung to her father’s chest, looking back at Cora as the man hoisted her up and out the kitchen window. Cora took one last deep breath as the water rose over her head.
Lucy Ledger is an optician and mixed media artist living in southeast Missouri. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first novel.