Men are so beautiful when they’re done struggling for the surface. The water plays through their silken hair. Its texture is like nothing on the ocean’s floor. Believe me, my sisters and I have searched for hundreds of years for its match. The only thing I miss after they give up and go limp is the way their eyes sparkle and dance in the moonlight. Before I clutch them to my breast and bring them into our world.
The tender kisses I cover them with never seem to be enough to sustain them though. Marea and Sirena join me. Brushing lips against chilling eyelids; tracing fingertips along waxen cheeks. The men’s mouths fall open like the curious fish that swim near, searching for an easy meal. When they get too close to my prize, I lash out with claws and teeth.
“Esfera,” Marea pouts, moving away from the light-haired beauty in my arms, “he’s gone as cold as the northern waters.”
Larger fish -- eyes cold and dead too -- swirl into view, drawn by the blood that seeps from the holes in this one’s chest. Wounds that smell like metal and sulphur. Still, these creatures continue to move and live, so why can’t this perfect human? I give my love one last kiss goodbye before letting him sink down, down, down. He reaches up for me. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light.
“It’s late.” Sirena flicks her fins past my outstretched hands. “Let’s go back home and sleep.”
Marea nods her head in agreement. She clicks her teeth together, a false shiver. We prefer the icy waters this time of year. It makes our blood race through our veins that much faster. More than that, the low temperature is good for our skin. Barnacles and other free-riders stick to the warmer coastal tides. Though we have managed to attract the attention of an adult remora. She asks for nothing, simply cleans one sister’s scales and then the next. We’ve named her Vuela because of the way the V sound vibrates in our throats.
The swim to our new grotto doesn’t take long. Marea shows off by breaching the surface and crashing back down like a dolphin. I join her. The sea spray tastes good in our laughing mouths. Sirena hangs back with Vuela. Stroking her thin dorsal flairs. Cooing at her as if she’s a fingerling.
We nestle ourselves together near the fissure at the bottom. It belches oxygen and heat. Nurse sharks lay near it, motionless and silent, but do not bite us as we snuggle beside them. Heads rest against backs, shoulders, and arms. We fall into the easy sleep the laden bubbles bring. And there I dream of him: The one who will be able to return my love in equal measure. He’s bright-eyed and dark-haired and thrilling in the slants of light.
Sirena sucks in. “Can you taste them? Men.”
We three clasp hands and swim lazily towards the moonlight. Dawn is not far off, but the water matches the sky in inky color. Flashes of red and orange spark across the heavens, blotting out the stars in their wake. The smell of acrid smoke drifts from the land and hangs in the air. At the surface, we carefully peek out. There are several ships in the water. No lights. No sounds. We know they are filled with men because we can smell the imitation of brine that permeates their thick clothes. We can hear the throbbing of their hearts, even over the slap of water against the metal hulls. I lick my lips and look to my sisters, who have already positioned themselves to begin their seductive song.
‘Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.’*
The sweet sound fills the air. More pure than any dove’s morning song. More wholesome than a calf’s first cry to its whale mother. Hardly before we have woven our first piece of magic, there’s the heart-warming splash.
More words are crushed with a command to be silent. We sisters three need little more invitation to slip beneath the almost morning waters and rescue our fortunate treasure. This one will be loved. This one will survive. I have dreamed it.
I see the shiny black boots first. They’re desperately kicking, but he’s kicking downwards instead of for the surface. Trying in vain to reach the air that will only burn and keep him from joining us. My webbed fingers curl lovingly around the man’s ankle. The leather is hard under my hand. Instinctively, the man strikes at me. He doesn’t know how much I need him. What I will do to keep him safe with me. With Marea. With Sirena. He will be cherished.
It’s so easy to swim with him so that we are eye to eye. His eyes are wide and blinking. He shakes his head, punches my arms, and kicks out at me. He doesn’t understand. I smile at him. Rub my face against his. The hairs on his chin are rough on my cheek. Giggling, I pull him towards me and kiss his mouth. I breathe salt water into him. His grip tightens on my shoulders, and then he relaxes. Tiny tremors follow. Then he is motionless.
Marea bobs over. She takes him from my arms. She spins and clutches him. Her fins twine about his body. Kisses follow. Too many to count. They pop with bubbles around his mouth and eyes. She moves to his throat. With a quiet kind of shriek, she lets him go. We watch as he disappears below us.
Sirena has rescued another. This one has dark hair, eyes, and skin. He wears a helmet strapped tightly around his chin. I join her and press myself against his body. He, too, struggles. We pass him between us, kissing and licking at his face. It tastes of fear. I stare into his eyes, with my every breath I try to convey how much I love him. How lovely he is to us.
We’re dangerously close to the shoreline as the first rays of morning glint off the boats. I pull my sisters back into the deep.
“We can’t be seen,” I say, holding Marea’s hand. She nods, but her eyes are fixed on the shadows the boats make above us. The throbs of explosions reach us through our salty world. It is then that the taste of copper floats to us. The water ahead bleeds red. It dilutes in the waves. In other places it pools at the surface and trickles down towards the seabed. Men at war are never neat.
“Look at how the bullets pierce the ocean, Esfera,” says Sirena, so quietly I have to strain to hear her. “They could kill us if they liked.”
I slide against her. Place my hands on her shoulders. Nose to nose, we try to comfort each other. Turning to see if we are out of harm’s way, I see him. The man from my dream. No bloody shroud, just him, floating face down, being pulled towards us by the heavy pack on his back.
Sirena pushes me gently. “Go to him. Bring him to us. We’ll save him!”
Following her urging, I carefully glide towards him. Before I can take his hand, he starts, bubbles issue from his mouth. He shrugs off his pack. It sinks like a large stone, catching me in the shoulder before falling down. I see him struggle with his boots, think better of it, and kick to the surface. He treads water handily, removing his heavy coat. It remains near him for a moment before taking on too much water and sinking to join the man’s pack. The smell of him falls with it.
Taking courage in this, I swim to him. Bump against his frog-style kicking legs and slink against his chest. He moves with a start away from me. I break the surface and we stare at each other. His jaw hangs like a basking shark’s, showing me all the way to the pink of his throat. His eyes glitter with wonder, then something like understanding passes over his face. He closes his mouth. His hand disappears to his side and returns with a knife. The point is steely and dangerous.
I make to pull him under with me. He lashes out with the terrible blade, slicing my elbow. Instinctively, I sink down. The cut doesn’t feel deep until I look at it. The blood’s already blossoming to the surface and swirling away. The indignant shouts of Marea and Sirena fill my ears. Staring them down, they quiet. I can see they’re still agitated. They swim in circles below us, carefully staying away from the bullets that still fly.
He will know of my love, so I swim to him again. He holds the knife in front of him with one hand, treading water with the other. I raise my arm and make a pitiful cry. His eyes are calm. He whispers, “I’m sorry,” and drops the weapon. A sign that I immediately embrace, as I take him in my arms. His mouth is warm against mine. His tongue rough and sweet. One quick tail movement later, and we are out of harm’s way. He clutches me. His eyes widen again, as he struggles to return to the air world.
His boot strikes me squarely in the stomach. The force causes me to release him. He kicks easily back to the surface and I follow. I can do nothing else.
“I cannot breathe,” he sputters.
In my sing-song voice, I reply, “I’ll never leave you. I love you. I need you.”
His eyebrows fall down. The glitter that shone in his eyes not long ago is replaced by regret. “You belong to the sea. I belong to the earth.”
I hear what he’s saying, but I don’t understand. We come together again. Our mouths easily find each other. It’s not hard to keep us afloat. One of his hands traces my back, the other tangles in my hair. I draw away, his eyes are still closed, mouth puckered. With a soundless movement, I disappear to join my sisters.
Something hard and cold sits on my cheek. Marea plucks it from my face.
“A mermaid’s tear, Esfera. We haven’t had one of these since the fall of Troy. Guard it well.”
The man who washed ashore is sitting close enough to the water that it splashes his feet, buries them in the sand. In the two days he’s stayed with us, he hasn’t spoken a word. It’s only from his fatigue pants, the cut of his hair, that we know he’s English. We burned his uniform and dressed him in our son’s clothing. My wife and I also know he must be kept hidden from the Nazis who march through our small village day after day. Rumor says they’ve taken Paris.
Their patrols have become more frequent as the summer burns into autumn. They expect protection under our simple roofs. The less generous ask for the company of our wives. The devils among them demand our daughters. Most of the men of our town are dead or too feeble to complain. They would laugh at us, and then kills us like they did my son, Antoine. Flecks of his brain can still be seen on the outside wall of our house. A reminder to the entire village of what it means to defy a German officer.
All we can do is pray that the man who stares out to sea is part of a battalion. One that is searching for him. Fighting their way along the coast to liberate him and us.
“René,” my wife, Solange, calls from the kitchen, “go and bring him back inside. The sun’s full up.”
I shuffle into the kitchen, kiss her cheek. It’s wet. I don’t make mention of this. To mention it could somehow make the horror more real. Instead, I smile at her, hoping it reaches my eyes. If I pretend in front of those I love, does it make me more of a coward?
I sit next to the boy no older than my dead son. No, they are both men. One is dead; the other is broken. His eyes focus on something past the small white crests that roll across the surface. The wind is strong today. It whips the water into a frothy grey. Birds float on the currents it makes. They dip and weave, calling to one another before diving into the sea for fish or krill.
My hand reaches out for the man’s arm. Yet I can’t bring myself to touch him and in doing so begin to fix him. Apologies to my son and my wife tumble from my mouth. The man continues to stare into the void. For the span of a bird’s cry, I wish this man were a Nazi. He’s so near I can smell the sea on him. If I were this close to one of them, I would crush his skull with my two hands. I would force my thumbs, callused and rough from decades in a boat, into his eye sockets. All this I would do while calling Antoine’s name.
But this man is not the enemy. I don’t know where he belongs, or how to get him back home. I only know that some wounds can only be healed with time, so I pass my hand in front of his eyes. He blinks. Confused. I indicate with hand gestures for him to follow me. Standing, hoping he will follow, I amble towards my weathered boat. The nets are folded neatly along the starboard side. The craft is small, barely big enough for three grown men, but I fancy it an escape route to the open sea.
The man has followed me. More hand signals, and before I know it we’re both in the boat. It has been pushed into the surf. The waves crash against the bow, but they are no match for the way the man paddles us farther out. He searches the water around us. Looking for one of his soldiers or something else, I cannot guess.
I take the oar from him, fit it into its socket, and grip the two handles. They almost feel like extensions of my arms. The sweet familiar burn begins in my shoulders. We are far from land when I stop rowing and secure the oars. The man runs his fingers through the water. He leans ever so slightly over the port side. He sighs, having not found whatever he was looking so heartily for, and I can’t help feeling that I’ve disappointed him.
He sighs, as though he can read my thoughts. Patting my hands, he takes the oars and steers us back to the beach. There are soldiers there with the red, white, and black armbands of the Third Reich waiting for us. I catch the man’s eyes and make the slightest of nods with my head. I pray he will not say anything.
We ride a small wave into the sand. The boat jerks back, but we’ve run aground. The soldiers seem to leer at us, trying to look friendly.
“Heil Hilter,” one says, the others fall into line. They echo the words. I give a half-hearted salute. The man stands behind me, squinting in the sunlight at the soldiers. He’s sizing them up, taking notice of what weapons they carry. I would have done the same if I were younger.
From the side of my mouth, I murmur, “Ils mal.”
An eyebrow raises on one of the soldiers. He grabs his sidearm.
“Courez!” I shout. “Cachez! Courez!”
The man doesn’t understand. How could he? So I push him. Wave my arms. Repeat the demand over and over until it flows into a prayer. The other soldiers are pointing their weapons at us. The man shrugs. His foot turns in the sand and he runs. The guns are trained on me, the madman.
The man who wears my son’s clothes gets knee-deep into the water before the first shot is fired. The mark is wide. I continue to send out my prayer: Courez! Courez! Courez!
The bullet that finally buries itself into the man’s back finds a reward in the dark stain that spreads out. The man falls into the sea foam. It turns pink and then red. I fall to my knees. One of these bullets could find me. My wife would never know and I wonder if she’d forgive me?
The Germans behind me cheer when the man doesn’t stand up from the water. My face is wet with tears, but even so my eyes are still sharp. The man’s body is nowhere to be found. In my imagination, I have him swimming down into the depths to hide. The soldiers continue to walk down the beach. They pass a cigarette among them. Their laughter carries like the smoke through the wind.
When I return home, Solange is waiting for me. She’s seen what happened today from the kitchen window. She takes me in her arms, which are strong despite the weight she’s lost since Antoine was murdered. Somehow I find what I’ve been looking for for so long: comfort.
In the morning we will wake to find Antoine’s clothes folded neatly on the table. The blue work shirt will have a hole in the back, about the size of a bullet. There will be no blood. And in our hearts we know that both men who wore this shirt live forever in our memory.
* Excerpt from W. B. Yeats’ poem: The Stolen Child.