Fiction: The Mermaid Problem

Read More: A brief Q&A with Kimi Traube

The fish had been running so strong the fisherman decided to go out with larger nets.  He loved the sight of them trapped all together behind the jute, loved their silver sides and frantic flapping, loved the way they arched their scaled tails all together in their last gasp for air.  He fished at night by the light of the moon, as all men in his small town had been taught to do, and on the third night with the broader net, the fisherman caught something he’d never seen in all his years on the sea.

When he told the tale to the other fishermen in the sea-side shack that served as their pub, none of them believed him; he could see it in their eyes.  Not even the bar wench with her thin frame and gaze permanently cast downward seemed to believe his story as she brought another ale to his table.  But she didn’t matter, with her sagging flesh and salt-ruined skin.  She didn’t matter, and the other men didn’t matter; they didn’t have to believe him because the fisherman knew what he had seen.

She’d gotten away from him in the end—the mermaid.  The huge new net groaning still with silversides and the little ship groaning under the weight of something ten times their size: small, for a woman, but large for a fish, beautiful where her face strained against the net in the moonlight, the lovely curve of her tail as she convulsed, breathless, on his deck.  She seemed in no way human, despite her breasts and long dark hair—the shimmer of her scales spread everywhere, from face to fingertip to flailing tail. And the alluring, alien red of her gills in the net in the moonlight: smaller than a human, though much larger than most of his fish.  And she had thrashed and gasped and shredded his large, new net with her pointed teeth.  But before she flipped over the ship-side and descended into the deep, the fisherman had looked in her eyes, caught her gaze in the moonlight, and no one else had to believe him because he knew.  She had a woman’s eyes, and for a moment when she stopped fighting, perhaps exhausted or perhaps enticed, he saw how she looked into him with her woman’s eyes and saw everything.  She saw his loneliness and his frustration, how the men in the pub mocked him for his small fry, how the barwench wouldn’t even let him sink his fingers like hooks into her flesh now, after years of acquiescence.  He saw the mermaid with woman’s eyes and saw how she loved him immediately, saw how her body went limp, perhaps from lack of oxygen but mostly from deep love and compassion for him, this mermaid with eyes black in the moonlight, a gift the sea had given him, a wife, finally, to call his own.

He had to pawn his grandfather’s astrolabe to buy the new, new net, larger still and stronger, made not from jute but plastic cabling.  Aphrodite herself couldn’t gnaw through this one, the netmaker told him as he held out the heavy synthetic line.  No one believed him, but they had no problem telling his story to each other either, and so the fisherman set out doubly determined to net and land his wife.

For three nights at sea, his net came up empty, the waves barely illuminated under the last sliver of moon.  Even the silversides seemed to have fled for richer waters, but still the fisherman waited patiently under the ever-darkening moon.  On the third night, when the black of the sky matched the black of the waters and he had been waiting empty-netted for hours in the salty air, he brought out the bait he’d been saving for the occasion: a small glass canister, tightly sealed and filled with as many of the season’s last fireflies as he’d been able to trap.  He lowered the net again into the water, with the glass bubble of still-living light tucked inside, and he knew he’d chosen right for his new wife when he felt the weight of her struggling against the black cord in the black water, drawn to his side by his ball of captive light.

This was love, the fisherman knew when he landed her, and so he pinned her flapping frame in his arms and rowed into shore, beached his skiff, and hauled her into his windowless house.  This was love, so he deposited her immediately in the bathtub, which he, with his caring nature, had taken the time to seed with salt, so his wife would feel at home.  This was love, so the men in the pub would come later, and he’d savor their expressions, full of jealousy and chagrin at his beautiful new merwife, when he was ready to let them see her, when he was ready to let them in.  His wife, for her part, was even more beautiful by the light of the candles than she’d been in the light of the moon, though she seemed to be unconscious, her broad silver tail still in the waters of the bathtub, her red gills slowly pulsating in the flickering light.

In the morning, she seemed weak and did not open her woman’s eyes until he pulled her face from the water and slapped her, but then she did open them, and he saw it again, how she loved him, how she knew all of his sins and forgave them, how she would be the balm for all of his afflictions, how she’d bear his children and his name as his wife. […]

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Kimi Traube’s short fiction and translations have appeared in Bomb Magazine, Electric Literature, the Best of the Net Anthology, and elsewhere. The 2020 Pamet River Prize highlighted my novel in prose poems as a semi-finalist. My translation of Juan Villoro’s The Guilty garnered praise from the New York Times and the L.A. Times. Traube completed her M.F.A. at Columbia University in 2014.

Read More: A brief Q&A with Kimi Traube