Northwords Now Issue 35

The FREE literary magazine of the North

A Fishy Tail

by Selina Hardisty

Beautiful day – lightest of breezes, sun, walking the beach is a pleasure. Tide’s just dropping, plenty of time, easy walking on the sand. A scatter of seaweed, a few shells – and, oho, a sea bean! Gleaming dark red, lovely unblemished rounded seed, a lucky find all the way from Central or South America. Nice feel to it, too.

On to the tidal island, just getting across to it and working round the rocky shore to the ocean side. Scrambling round a rocky outcrop, glimpse of a fish tail ahead – a BIG fish tail. Wasn’t a tuna washed up a few years ago? On round – and it is, a big fish tail – lovely scales, shining bluey-green, very fresh looking. No smell. Just beyond – looks like hair, too fine to be that seaweed – part of a bare back! Someone hugging the fish?

Hmm, let’s climb up a bit – someone lying starkers on the shore hugging a fish could be dangerous. View from higher up and - Oh, no, not someone hugging the fish – someone joined to the fish around the hips – skin and then the scales start.

Handy rock here to sit on. Is it asleep? Or pretending, hoping not to be noticed? Stuck here now until the tide comes in. But there’s no movement in the back that I can see. It’s not breathing. No gills visible, so it must breathe.

Back down again and make my way round a bit and peer from the side – not too close. The human part is female and looks full grown, though perhaps a little on the small side. Long dark hair, only on the head, but spread to cover quite a lot of the body.

How do they keep warm? No fur, doesn’t look as though there’s much fat on it – no insulation to speak of. Could they have a lower temperature than we do? The fish part must be cold blooded.  Two different systems like birds’legs and feet?

Anyhow, not breathing.

I move closer, touch an arm, tentatively. Cold, no movement.

Is it a hallucination? I’ve never had one before - can one touch a hallucination?

So, here we are. Dead mermaid, apparently, in an unfrequented nook on a tidal island. Not so easy to get to, can’t get word to anyone before the tide comes in.

So, who do I tell? The marine animal people in Inverness? But is this an animal? The front half – er, the top half? is human and the other half is fish – Dunstaffnage do fish. Suppose I sent them a photo of the fish bit – so fresh – and they’d say “What’s the head end like?” – then what do I do? And they wouldn’t believe me anyway. Amazing what you can do with photoshop – well, not me, but some can. Anyway, could you just post mortem a part person? Could be tricky – there can’t be any legal protocol. Or she’d be cast, or stuffed, or pickled. That hair, floating over that face in a tank full of spirit. Ha! Damien Hirst, eat your heart out! But too disrespectful, utterly inappropriate (though it would be interesting to know  . . . oh, so much!)

Should I go for a minister? Or a priest? They’re all a bit thin on the ground these days. Aren’t mermaids supposed not to have souls? In fact, are they supposed to be immortal? Who would believe it and scramble out here? And that would still mean formal burial. Would the council take half a fish – even if she were ever allowed to have a burial without someone interfering and making off with her for science or display? No rights for the fey.

I sit down and think it all through again. I should take photographs – but that doesn’t seem right, snapping a corpse. I could try a sketch, though; somehow that’s different, not disrespectful. And it leaves time to see if perhaps with a different metabolism, she’s not dead after all.

So I sit a while. A gull hovers close by and I wave it away. And think – there is another option. I leave my sea bean beside her, cover her gently with fresh seaweed and make my way back, before the tide comes in.