My brother and I have always lived near the sea, but our grandfather came from a faraway place of misty mountains and lakes. When we were younger, he used to tell us to stay far away from the water. For him, it was a place where monsters lurked beneath the lapping waves. There were horses made of kelp and sinew who’d drag their riders into the briny depths, or great serpents that would use their mighty tails to lash out and destroy ships with a single swing. Beady-eyed sirens would lure the foolish to their deaths with enchanting voices, and flames that flickered just above the surface would guide sailors to the middle of nowhere.
But then, there were also kind spirits in the water. Shimmering men and women would entertain with ethereal songs, and ornery sprites would guide the lost and lonely back to shore. However, his favourite spirits, the ones that made his eyes glaze over in fondness, were the seal-women. They looked just like seals when they swam and frolicked in the waves, but sometimes they would come onto land and shed their skins, revealing the semblance of a beautiful woman. In the stories he told us a man could take one as his wife were he to take her skin, but to him such an act was unthinkable. No matter how beautiful they were, they did not belong on the shore, which is why he only spied on them from a distance.
“Only a glance,” he’d say, liquor dulling his words, “Only a glance and never more.” I understood him, wanting to keep that peace, but whenever he said that my brother would grow restless and sullen. At first it was simply impatience with the story, dissatisfaction with the ending, but the older we got the more furious he became at what he believed was weakness. It didn’t make sense to him that our grandfather had found a wife anyways, a good woman whose son was our own father. It didn’t make sense that he would not be bold, when faced with opportunity. But our grandfather would simply sigh and shake his head, restless at the folly of youth.
As the years passed and my brother and I grew older, he demanded to see the world. It was too slow here, he’d said, too far behind the times and without the opportunities he’d needed to excel. There was a sharpness beneath his words, a perpetual malice which made it quite clear what he thought of our life. My grandfather and I watched him head off into the world with a single bag stuffed with well-washed shirts, wishing him well in our hearts. So instead we lived on, catching and selling fish during days that seemed to stretch on forever. My grandfather was a good man, who taught me the craft so I could carry on in his stead. Showed me the patience I needed to reel in the catch, to feel the ripples in my soul of my catch biting the bait, the swift and careful skill I needed to gut and clean a fish.
It was a clear day when my grandfather passed on, watching his last sunset from our front steps. I remember because I found him sitting upright, a peaceful smile on his lips even as he had ceased to be. He hadn’t had much to his name beyond the boat he’d carved himself from a fallen cedar, the creaky hut we lived in, and just enough money for a rainy day. Nevertheless my brother had somehow smelled blood in the water and returned for his inheritance. By this point it was hard to recognize the young and chubby-cheeked boy I’d once played with. The years had decided to curse him with a perpetually red face and sunken eyes, his once lanky body now hunched over and filled out with warm beer and poor choices. I called out his name but he barely reacted to it, only sneering his contempt at my slow and careful life.
In the will grandpa had decreed that the boat would be mine, the hut my brother’s, and the money split evenly between us. There was the devil’s smile on my brother’s lips as he damn near gloated about the house being his, but I didn’t want to cause a fuss. Grandpa had always had a reason for all of his choices, so I could only trust in his wisdom. At least I had the boat, and a roof over my head, because as it turned out my brother had returned home with not a penny to his name. The city life that he had yearned for, with all its ambitions and opportunities, had swallowed him up and spat him out. I pitied him, but only because it hurt my pride that someone who was also the product of grandpa’s upbringing had learned nothing. For the sake of the one who had cared for and taught me, I resolved to try and fix him by whatever means necessary.
For the first few months after my grandpa died there was relative, if unstable, peace in the house. Without a wife or income of his own my brother was reliant on the money I made from my cycle of fishing, preparing, and selling the catch of the day. In the meantime he made attempts at applying for jobs or getting some kind of gainful employment. Occasionally he’d get it, lifting boxes or doing calculations or passing out flyers, but none of these things ever stuck for long. A week or even a few days into a job and he would be back again, flipping through channels on the little box I’d bought, claiming that the good work he’d been doing was beneath his capabilities.
It was the fifth month that brought restlessness and dissatisfaction. He argued with me more, demanded more of my time and my pay. Heading into town I was met with looks of sympathy, sorrowful glances and small tokens of support. An extra bread bun, a hot drink to keep me warm when my home was often too cool to be comfortable, an assurance that everything would be alright. I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different if I’d taken those as a sign I could leave. That if people needed to comfort me, something was deeply wrong. But regardless of anything, my brother was my brother, raised by my grandpa, and I wanted to believe in him.
I’d left in the hours before the dawn that day, in order to head farther out for my catch. The water was calm, but there was a storm brewing in the distance, rolling thunder and flashes of lightning that forced me to retreat with a pittance of a haul. When I returned, to that damp little hut that no longer felt like home, my brother was no longer alone. She was radiant, a sliver of the moon illuminating a house that was starting to feel suffocatingly cramped, even though in her eyes there was a great wounding that threatened to rend my soul in two. My brother told me that they had met when he’d rescued her from drowning, but when she sneered at his accusation his grip on her arm tightened. Hard enough to make her wince, hard enough for me to take a step forward. He relented, dropping her arm, but instead of gratitude she retreated into the bathroom and locked the door. A few seconds later, a great wailing followed, one that burrowed its way deep into my soul.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” replied my brother. “I’ll give her a new one.”
In the days and weeks that followed there was an increasing tightness in that house, a claustrophobia that I took every excuse to escape. My brother’s rescue, now imaginatively called Ariel, would glower at him over the breakfast table as he attempted to wheedle and threaten her to do what he considered wifely duties. She would slam a knife onto the table, then stand up and lock herself in the bathroom again. In the evenings, when I returned home, she would always be waiting for me at the entrance, as if to welcome me home. I never asked her how she knew that I was arriving, whether she heard it on the waves or felt it on the wind. All I knew was that she would be there, and my brother would be just behind her, cursing up a storm. She would sit next to me, almost daring my brother to approach us, staying at my side until he drifted off to sleep.
There were precious moments that we spent together, Ariel and I, when my brother refused to wake after one of his booze-induced comas. I would explain to her, cautiously and carefully, about my grandfather. I would tell his stories and some of my own, both of the fantastical and of those things much closer to home. She would nod her head slightly, and occasionally I would see the faintest glimmer of a smile. But then my brother would awake and the light would die out, replaced with steel and the salt of the sea.
It continued in this way until another stormy day, when I came home early and saw Ariel rummaging through our drawers. Apparently, by some miracle, my brother had decided to leave the house, giving her the opportunity to look through every nook and cranny for her skin. She looked up at me, with eyes as grey as a storm, and I found myself drawn to helping her. After all, this poor woman deserved more than a life hiding from my brother. We turned every cupboard inside out, every drawer and every door, in order to find what Ariel needed. But it was a small house, and there were only so many places in which things could be hidden. So we looked again and again, in the darkest nooks and the deepest holes, trying desperately to return Ariel to the sea.
Our fruitless search turned up nothing. Not a scrap, not a hint, not even the smell of wet blubber anywhere. It wounded me, seeing those strong eyes being overwhelmed by the hint of tears. She had endured so long with that man, had followed the invisible laws that governed her people, and yet here she had been forced to a standstill. But not if I could help it.
We were so engrossed in the search that neither of us noticed when my brother barged in through the door, bringing with him the scent of ale and misery. She was the first to turn towards him, and I looked upon him with a disgust that made him physically recoil.
“Where is it?” I asked, trying my best not to betray the anger already creeping into my voice.
“Where’s what?” He burped, long and loud, not bothering to cover his mouth or attempt even a modicum of shame. I noticed new stains on his shirt, dark things that betrayed sloppiness and lack of care.
“You know what I’m talking about.” Ariel peered out from behind me, gently clinging onto me like a buoy. A harbour.
Ignoring her, my brother looked only towards me, the light in his eyes aflame with arrogance as he said, without any hesitation: “Oh, that. It’s gone now.”
There was a full silence, a deep silence, one stuffed to the brim with revelation. I could feel Ariel’s trembling hands on my back, gripping tightly onto my shirt as she clinged onto the faintest traces of hope that he was lying to her. But I can read the ripples of the sea, when there is movement on the line, and in the ripples within my brother’s eyes I saw only truth.
The first word I had ever heard Ariel speak, intoned in tinkling syllables that belonged to the waves. She said the word with the delicacy of someone who had never spoken it before, even though it didn’t deserve the blessing of her voice. Instead of feeling cowed or ashamed, my brother was only emboldened by what he must have seen as a moment of weakness.
“Yes, my little Ariel, gone. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers, the snap echoing throughout the little house. “Did you really think I was going to let you leave me so easily? Give you an opportunity to escape? Only an idiot would leave you a back door. And now there’s the three of us, although,” he said with a glimmer in his eye, “I don’t know how long it’ll be us three here in this house.”
My brother was frequently wrong about everything, but that was one thing he got right. There weren’t three of us in that house for very long. The important thing to remember, when you skin and scale an animal, is that you need to be very precise. There are all sorts of protruding parts, some larger and some smaller, and when you cut you must be careful that you do not allow the pelt to snag anywhere it might be torn. All the bone, the blood, the viscera – they may seem repulsive, at first, but over time you realise that all of it is the same. I remember my grandpa’s hands, so rough and worn, moulded by the sea, working with a delicate precision that I’ve always lacked. I tend to put too much of myself into it, to become too passionate about my kills. To see the value of each life. Thankfully, Ariel still had the instinct of the sea – the strength of the waves, the strength of the deep.
With gentle hands, worn away by only the slightest of callouses, she guided mine. Each cut, each carving, perfectly etching the outline of her new skin. It would have been nicer if the skin had been a little less worn, a little less sallow, but under the circumstances there wasn’t much we could do except accept the condition it was in. I had worried that it would drape over poorly, but when she donned her skin and dived back into the glittering waves, the pelt she and I made for her fit like a glove.
Sometimes, in my darkest hours, I wonder what it would have been like if I had chosen differently that night. If I’d taken the knife I’d turned on my brother, held it up to that beautiful little throat, kept my Ariel caged in that little house for two. Made her the obedient little wife she was supposed to be. But then I get up, put on my rainboots, and head to my boat. I fish, as I do every day, my rod sitting in the water as I wait to see a ripple. Most days I’m out there on my lonesome, but every so often I’ll see a shape in the distance, jumping in and out of the waves with a splotched pattern on her back. I watch the shape for a moment or two, waiting patiently for it to recede, giving it only a glance and never more.
Kyle Tam is a dreamer, writer, and full-time complainer from South East Asia. Her fiction has been featured in Idle Ink, Mineral Lit, and Analogies and Allegories among other publications. She believes that shadows would never hurt you if you don’t deserve it. You can find her on Twitter at @PercyPropa.