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She Dances on Knives

by Keffy R. M. Kehrli

3828 words

The littlest mermaid has no mother. She lives far under the sea, so deep that the fish have gone strange for want of light. Her eyes are large and round and black. She had sisters once, but now it is only herself and her grandmother, her father’s mother.

Grandmother remembers the old days. The little mermaid’s father was a king, she says. If he had not been netted and brought to shore, then he would still be King. The little mermaid doesn’t think it matters much. Remembering doesn’t make the cold waters warmer or shine light upon the depths.

Grandmother never has a story to tell about the little mermaid’s mother. She sits tall and proud on a throne of ancient lava pillows, surrounded by drifting marine snow. Twelve dead oysters still cling to her fish’s tail, their meat rotted away from between crushed shells. She wears bone-hook earrings and a tiara of smooth, polished coral.

The little mermaid sits just below the throne, where the luminous inhabitants of the desert sea flit near and away, hunting in the ocean’s refuse. She listens to her grandmother’s stories of crystal waters and brilliant blue skies. She tries to imagine so much light, but all her mind conjures is the faint green glow of her gnarled and hungry neighbors.

The mermaid sleeps curled in the curve of an abandoned ship’s anchor. She dreams of hot sunlight and foam flecked waves. She dreams of the cries of gulls and the creatures that cling tight to dry land like her grandmother does to the ocean floor.

The years drag by and she keeps her grandmother company through the creeping madness of age, until the old woman howls curses into the vastness of the sea. Perhaps Grandmother’s three hundred years end there in the abyss, and the little mermaid is alone.

• • •

On Saturday morning she always wakes earlier than you do. She kicks her feet under the table and eats sugary breakfast cereal. It doesn’t matter how careful she is, little orange and green O’s always end up on the fifty states placemat.

“Mommy, why did the mermaid dance on knives?” She has been reading the book of fairy tales you gave her for her fifth birthday, and only now do you think that perhaps you should have waited until she was a bit older.

You cannot think of an answer even though you know you should. Finally you say, “Because she loved the Prince.” It’s true in a way. Love is so often a function of how much you are willing to give up.

Later, she plays in the yard and you watch out the window while you clean. The neighborhood children are not home and you wonder if you ought to call her friends’ mothers. It isn’t good for her to be alone so much.

She is dancing on the gravel, even though she stops every few steps and jumps into the cool grass of the front yard. You notice that it needs mowing. She steps back into the gravel and turns a pirouette, even though the rocks dig into the skin of her pretty little feet.

“Christina, what are you doing?”

She puts her hands over her head and says, “I’m the little mermaid, mommy. I’m dancing so I can be a princess.”

• • •

Perhaps the littlest mermaid is not so obedient as her grandmother wishes and one day she leaves. Some of her grandmother’s subjects accompany her, lighting her way. The sea glows lighter as she leaves the depths behind. Before she can see her fingers, her grandmother’s subjects turn back. They have no desire to leave the abyss. They were meant to stay there just as the mermaid was never meant to hide.

She comes to the collapsed hulk of a ship. Those who owned it are long since eaten, and all that is left is porcelain, creaking wood and iron. The current still plays with tattered remnants of rope, with rusting bulkheads that fall in on themselves.

She swims to a door that is broken and stuck ajar. Her hands come away covered in rust like swirling blood. Half-covered in sand, she finds a porcelain doll’s head, skull-like. She floats through staterooms and half-collapsed engines, turning over pieces of iron and broken shards of ceramic. The sea tastes bitter, thickly laden with metals.

Grandmother told her stories about ships, of course, but she never said how big they were. The mermaid is frightened. Perhaps she swims back home to tell her grandmother what she has found, back over a fortnight of ocean, echoing with the far away sounds of life.

• • •

Monday marks the return of Christina’s father, a man you refuse to call husband, lover, or darling, even though you think that maybe you are being unfair. He has been on another business trip, and you pretend that you don’t know about the girls who live on the other coast, all of them tanned and lovely.

You haven’t wanted to wear a bathing suit since Christina was born, so can you really blame him for wanting someone he can go to the beach with? He is so often away because you are too much for him. You cling, like free-floating kelp.

He is tired when he comes in the door. His suitcase is a black wheeled thing with a red ribbon tied around the handle, an attempt to differentiate it from the others.

Christina is already in bed. You did not want her around when you spoke to him for the first time in weeks. “How was your trip?” You have nothing to tell him about your daughter, his daughter, except that he has missed her birthday. You are sure that he already knows that, and you are not in the mood for an argument.

“Good,” he says. He rummages in the fridge until he finds the leftovers from dinner. Cold steamed vegetables, salad and some rice pilaf that you made yourself. You could tell him exactly how many calories were in each and every cup of it.

“This is it?” He tosses the plastic container into the microwave. His metabolism is slowing and he is getting what he affectionately refers to as a beer belly. For an instant you see the prince you met on the beach in California, but only while he is turned away from you. You can almost imagine his back in a wetsuit instead of the pigeon-gray sport coat. He still eats like a prince.

You would apologize, but the words catch in your throat in the same way that, “I love you,” has been catching there for the past year.

He doesn’t ask about Christina. You wonder if he is still thinking about the girls on the other coast. You wonder how old they are. You slip into living room and turn the flat screen on. Christina was watching nature shows earlier. Something about the coral reefs is playing, and the screen fills with murky blue and dancing fish. You turn to a sitcom and pretend that the laugh tracks are your own.

“I was thinking we could have chicken tomorrow,” you say.

“Would you believe me if I told you that my department is still number one in sales for the company?” he asks. He sits next to you on the couch, balances his dinner on his knee, puts an arm around you, turns the channel to a dirt bike race.

“Yes,” you say. “I think that we should send Christina to a day camp next summer, where she can be around other kids.”

“Doesn’t matter how high they set the bar,” he says. “The department will always pass with flying colors.”

You don’t say anything else, but you watch the dirt bikes circle the track. You think of knives made of stone and realize then that you are going to leave him.

• • •

Perhaps the mermaid finds the surface instead of returning to the depths.

She bobs there, alone in the moonlight. She sees boats pass far away in the shipping lanes, and overhead she hears the thrum of motors. This confuses her, as she always thought that motors and ships existed only on the water’s surface. Grandmother never told her about planes or birds, because air was as foreign a concept as sunlight.

The mermaid submerges for a while, deciding to return when the sun has dawned and the shore will be more than a jagged silhouette of glowing lights.

When she comes to the surface at morning, she finds that she is not alone and for a single fleeting moment she thinks that she has found mermen. She ducks her head and sees legs, and that they are holding tight to floating boards.

Humans. Men.

They laugh and joke, their voices barely carrying over the sound of the waves crashing into sand. Dangerous, yes. She thinks of stories of men with nets and hooks and the will to capture her father. But she has come so many leagues since those stories, and men are far less scary to her eyes than sharks with their many rows of teeth or dolphins with their playful homicidal bent.

The mermaid smiles and swims near to them. She treads water with her arms, and her smile does not waver. These men are unarmed. These men are in her realm. She is very close before she can make out their words over the waves. She stays low in the water, and her black hair floats around her like weeds, obscuring what lies beneath.

“Did you swim all the way out here?” he asks. His eyes are blue like the sky overhead. Striking, oddly beautiful. Beaded water drips down his face from wet hair, and for a moment, the mermaid can imagine that he is fish beneath the water.

“Yes,” she says, and the mermaid laughs at the idea that she may have come from the shore.

He opens his mouth to say something else, but his friend punches him in the arm. “Hey, Brendan. You’ll miss the waves.”

And soon enough the moment breaks, as he heaves himself out of the water and onto the board. Instead of fins, he has two legs, and the mermaid is rolled in the turbulence of an early breaking wave. When she surfaces, he is gone to where she cannot follow.

She considers waiting when she sees him fall from the board. And what point would there be in that? She would only risk that he see her lack of legs.

The mermaid submerges, and swims down and away from shore. She could forget him, but she does not. Every time she closes her eyes, she sees his face, and every time she looks off into the distance, she thinks of the color of his eyes.

• • •

If you were prettier, would he stay with you? You brush out long black hair that is so dark that your mother in law accuses you of using hair dye. How deep, you wonder, do the currents of forgiveness go?

And when you leave, what will you have then?

You put the hairbrush down.

He comes in and wraps his arms around you from behind. “Sometimes when I’m gone, I miss you so much that I feel like I’m drowning,” he whispers. “And when we’re together, you lead me out to sea again.”

• • •

Grandmother is still alive and all alone when the mermaid returns to her side. She does not speak, as though she knows that her grand-daughter has not returned to keep her company. She still sits on her throne of lava pillows, and in the green glow of the anglerfish that float inches above her shoulders, the mermaid can see that Grandmother’s lips are pinched closed in silent, seething anger.

“Grandmother,” the mermaid says. She curls in the sand and sea dust by her grandmother’s tail, the twelve dead oysters, and the ship’s anchor that once served her as a bed. “Grandmother, I wish a favor.”

Grandmother laughs. “A favor? Two legs and an eternity away from the sea is but a favor now? I shouldn’t be surprised, your sisters all made the same mistake. They never returned to the sea, and never will.”

The mermaid bows her head against the cold stone lava and waits. After some time, Grandmother’ s tail drifts over her, stiff fin and oyster shells alternating smooth and rough over the little mermaid’s back.

Grandmother says, “I cannot keep you from the land, child, as much as I wish I could. Pull yourself onto the earth when there is no light from sun or moon and you will have your wish and your prince.”

The mermaid does not look up for a long time, and when she does, Grandmother gives her a narrow, jagged stone knife. “But take this, for the day will come when he has broken your heart. On that day, you will die and become nothing, for nothing can live without a heart. You have but to pierce him as he has done to you. Let his blood fall over your feet, and when you return to the sea, you will once more be as you are now.”

At first, the mermaid can’t believe that Grandmother would let her go. She looks up at the stone knife and at Grandmother’s face. Joy numbs her and she trembles so much that she can barely take the knife. She knows that she will not need it.

The swim back to the shore where she met her prince feels short this time, as though there is no distance at all. A hook has been set into her heart, and she is pulled to land with no effort of her own.

Perhaps she loves him and he her loves back until they both die of old age in the home where they raised their children.

• • •

You give it a few days while you work up your courage. You try to make it seem as though there is nothing unusual about the way you live. He goes to the office. You clean the house. You think about getting a job. You wonder if, maybe, that would be enough of a change for you.

But all the same, when he comes home from the office, there are days when all you can think about is him in the arms of another woman.

You are loading clothes into washer when he comes home and stands between the laundry room and the kitchen. You would say, “Hello,” but you choose not to. Instead, you load the clothes more slowly, so that you can avoid looking up. He owns your words.

“Who is he?”

A sock has fallen, you bend a little further and pick it up before the words fully register. In it goes, reunited with the load of underwear and towels. Meanwhile, your mind races over what he could possibly think, standing there. That you have the same tendencies as he does. That it would be anything other than just and fair if you slept around on him as he sleeps around on you.

“He?” You stand and brush the wrinkles out of your capris without thinking. “He who?”

“He whoever,” he says. “The one you’re with. The reason you’re so distant. Don’t play dumb.”

You try to think of ways to tell him that the one you’re with, the reason you’re so distant, is him. But at the same time, you think that there probably isn’t a way to say that without sounding cute. You’re not trying to be clever, you’re trying to tell the truth. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

“I’m not with anybody else,” you say. And suddenly you think that you don’t have any concrete evidence that he’s sleeping around on you again. You only have the conviction that if he’s done it before, he’ll do it again. And what if you were being unfair? How would you tell Christina?

The future stretches in front of you in the silence between your words and his. You imagine looking for somewhere to stay. You imagine the prolonged divorce, the custody battle. You think about lying to Christina about why you left, because you will never stop wondering if this was a failure of your own ability to love more rather than his ability to love less.

“You can’t leave me,” he says. “I need you. We’re meant to be together.” He sounds so hurt when he says it that you feel for him.

You think of Christina, dancing on gravel as though she were stepping on knives.

“I’m sorry,” you say, but you’re not sure who you’re saying it to.

• • •

Perhaps the mermaid lives happily ever after with Brendan, her prince. They live in his house by the sea, and he spends his parents’ money. She is pregnant with their child, and they make plans for the future. The mermaid puts the stone knife in a velvet lined case and forgets it.

Until the day her prince does not come home, not that night or the next morning.

When he does, it is nearly dusk. He doesn’t smell of the salt sea. He smells of flowers, lavender. It is a flower that doesn’t grow in the garden in front of his home, and a scent that the mermaid has never worn. She knows where he has been, though she cannot say what it is exactly that is so damning.

The mermaid kisses her prince to welcome him home, and she asks, so innocent, what flower it is that he smells of.

And there is anger, sudden and hot, like a crack in the bottom of the sea. How dare she accuse him? After everything--everything--how dare she hurt him like this?

“What have I done to you?” she asks. “How have I failed you? What have I done wrong?”

And at this opening, he tells her, in detail. With his words he paints a portrait so different than what the mermaid sees every day in her mirror that she at first cannot believe. But he is so vehement. He is so sure, and the mermaid begins to think that she must have been mistaken. She must be wrong about him, about her, about everything and so she apologizes once, twice, three times before he stops. He wraps his arms around her and promises-- never again--as long as she helps him.

When he has gone to sleep, so early, alone, she sits at the little white wire table on the pool deck. The last slanting rays of the setting sun paint the back garden shades of red and orange. She discovers that mermaids can cry.

She weeps until the light in the garden shifts from sun-red to the white-blue of the moon. It is never cold where they live, but she shivers in the darkness anyway, turning her reality over in her head. She thinks that her heart is breaking, and that, as her grandmother said, it will kill her. She stands and walks over the still-warm pool deck to the house, to plush aquamarine carpets and carefully placed furniture, cleaned meticulously by his hired maid.

The stone knife is cold and rough under her fingertips.

The mermaid takes the knife from its case. She holds it before her, pointing out and down as she crosses the hard linoleum of the kitchen, her feet making soft thuds. She creeps into his room, timing the creak of the door hinges with his snores.

He sleeps on his back and she thinks about tracing her fingers down his cheek and kissing his neck.

She stands over her prince for what feels like hours in the darkness, listening to him breathe. Every time she makes her decision, every time her fingers tighten on the handle of the stone knife, she finds herself unable to move. There is such a memory of her hair wet on the pillow. Of his hands, rough from the surfboard. Of the year’s thousand kisses, one each for morning, noon, and night. The baby kicks, and she wonders how a human child would fare if born to a woman remade half-fish.

The mermaid walks to the shore, even if every step feels as though she balances on the edges of blades. She throws the stone knife as far as she can, and she doesn’t see where it lands. Perhaps she can still live with a broken heart.

• • •

Some days, you leave Christina with a babysitter and go looking for another place to live, for a job. Every night when you return, he glowers at you, as though he hadn’t told you to get out of the house more. It was different before, but now he lives entirely within his suspicions. He showers you with gifts, he stays home from work. He does anything and everything he can think of to keep you. He tries vague threats. You wonder now if he understands how you have felt for the better part of five years. You suspect not. After all, he never did you the courtesy of leaving.

One evening, you come home to a dark house. The blinds are not drawn and the windows gape like the open mouths of undersea caves. You assume the house is empty until you draw near enough to hear the soft sounds of a little girl crying, and then your hands tremble with adrenaline as you flip through your keys, fingers slipping too often.

“Christina?” You leave the door open behind you, because you are not stupid and this situation has the same fear-sharp feeling that water gets when sharks circle near and hungry.

She cries louder, and you flick the entryway light on.

Christina stands in the kitchen, bare feet grass-stained on the white-and-blue tiles. The kitchen drawers are all pulled out and every knife in the house is scattered over the floor.

You go to her, your feet placed in all the spaces between. You pick her up and she grabs tight to the shoulders of your dark green blouse.

And Brendan?

You find your prince in the office room. He blinks and squints when the lights come on. He holds a knife to his neck. It is ridiculous in a way that would make you laugh if terror wasn’t flooding up your spine. You wonder how long he sat there, waiting. Five minutes? An hour?

“I can’t live without you,” he says. “Don’t do this to me.” As if he knows about the stone knife you threw away.

Christina has balled her hands into fists, and you balance her on one hip to reach for the door handle. She won’t stop crying. Your throat is tight and you can’t say a word as you pull the door closed and tiptoe backward down the hall.

The last you see of him are his eyes, blue and dark and unforgiving as the sea.

Keffy R. M. Kehrli is a science fiction and fantasy writer currently living in Seattle. Although his degrees are in physics and linguistics, he spends most of his time in a basement performing molecular biology experiments for fun and profit. In 2008, he attended Clarion UCSD where he learned that, unfortunately, rattlesnakes don’t always rattle. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Lightspeed, and Podcastle.

Issue 26

December 2014

3LBE 26

Front & Back cover art by Rew X