I mean, every kid went through that phase, right? When you’d go to the pool you’d dive in and imagine your legs fusing into one and growing scales of your favorite color. I wanted blue scales. More than once I’d surface hacking and coughing because I’d try to hold my breath for a second too long. Not pleasant. But by the time I was ten I could do it for quite an impressive amount of time.
My dad thought it was hilarious. Mom treated it as just one of those childish things I’d grow out of. But my Uncle Craig actually encouraged it.
Uncle Craig was my mom’s oldest brother, a big man with a thick stomach and a roaring laugh. Despite having four kids of his own, he loved coming to see me. He’d bring me seashells and tell me stories about his latest catch. And he always listened to me tell my mermaid stories.
I was an imaginative lil kid. I loved coming up stories about this mermaid named Elora, who was pretty and looked just like me. My parents never cared to listen. But Uncle Craig would eat up every one. Every time he came around he’d ask me, “So, what has Princess Elora been up to lately?” and according to him my face would light up like lighthouse through the fog.
For my eleventh birthday, he took me on a fishing trip.
Mom tried to talk him out of it, saying I’d be bored the whole time, but Uncle Craig said that he’d ‘show me a mermaid’ and that was it. Mom knew I’d never shut up about fishing with Uncle Craig if he was going to show me a mermaid. So when Friday finally came around Uncle Craig picked me up and we drove to the ocean.
Uncle Craig had his own boat, and it was actually pretty decently sized- big enough for us and three of his friends- Abe, Bobby, and Irvin. Irvin brought his twin daughters Ocean and River. They were quite a bit older than me, probably almost eighteen.
His friends were quite nice, asking my name and complimenting my Ariel backpack. Once we headed out on the water, Irvin turned and asked, “So Hazel, your uncle says you have stories about Princess Elora the Mermaid. Care to share a few?”
At first I was nervous, four adults and two older girls with all their attention on me, but once I got going about the time Princess Elora battled a hammerhead shark, I was chattering away with no fear at all. River would ask questions, like what was Elora’s palace like and what she liked to eat for breakfast. Ocean didn’t talk very much, but she braided my hair and made it super pretty.
I think my mom expected I’d be bored to tears or that my uncle and his friends would get drunk and rowdy. On the contrary, there was a few beers tossed around at night, but the men stayed sober the whole time.
Saturday I fished for the first time.
That was kinda boring, but Ocean and River made it fun by singing. Both of them sounded just like the mermaids I dreamed about. Ocean would encourage me to join and even though my singing talent would make a deaf man’s ears bleed, the girls would grin and bear it.
I caught a fish about midmorning. I don’t really remember what it was. All I remember is screaming that I was catching something and my uncle was right behind me, encouraging me and telling me I had this, I had this!
And I did. It was a tiny little thing, but the way everyone acted like I had just broken a world record. Lots of cheers and slaps on the back, picture opportunities abounded, and Uncle Craig lifted me above his head and tossed me into the water. Apparently it was a tradition.
My clothes were soaked, but I was grinning from ear to ear when he pulled me back out. This was the best birthday present I could’ve ever gotten, I’d almost completely forgotten about the mermaid thing.
When I was shooed off to bed, Uncle Craig winked and said, “When we find a mermaid, don’t worry- we’ll wake you up.” With a promise like that, it was almost impossible to go to sleep. I did end up drifting off sooner or later.
I was awoken by my shoulder being gently shook and Abe’s quiet voice.
“We spotted one. Come on up, lassie.”
I stumbled to the deck, rubbing the sleep dust from my eyes and looking around eagerly for the mermaid. The mood had entirely changed from the day.
Ocean and River were sitting at the front of the boat. My uncle was sitting on to my right while Irvin and Bobby were to the left. No one was talking, or singing, or even smiling. I frowned and opened my mouth when Abe pressed a finger to his lips.
My mouth shut. Abe stood next to me, his eyes flicking around. The only sound was water lapping at the boat.
Then Ocean gasped.
“There she is!”
I ran to the front of the boat with my uncle, my heart pounding. Was it her? Was it a real mermaid?
I saw the brief tail flip before my uncle threw the nets over her.
“Think we got it! Ocean, River, start singing!”
The sisters joined in unison, singing a song I didn’t understand or know. The water turned to white foam as whatever was inside the net thrashed about. Beads of sweat dripped from my uncle’s face and landed on the top of my head. He gritted his teeth and pulled harshly. “Irvin, grab hold! She’s a fucking fighter!” He barked.
I got pushed out of the way as the other men grabbed the net and pulled, I heard the sound of something heavy coming out of the water.
The girls silenced their singing as the catch was hauled up and then dropped on the deck.
It was a real life mermaid.
The creature attempted to sit up as best as she could, trying to fold her tail beneath her as she looked around frantically. The lights on the boat flicked on brightly and she flinched, covering her face.
I could scarcely breathe. I’d always hoped I’d see a mermaid someday. I would pray that they were real. And the real deal was just as beautiful as I hoped. Her kelp green hair clung to her skin, patches of cerulean scales growing across her breasts and arms. Her tail flopped about uselessly, the fins translucent and glittering in the light.
Her royal blue tail, with gold flecks mixed in with the smooth scales. I barely realized I was reaching out to touch it.
Uncle Craig seized my hand before it got too close.
“Whoa, Hazel! Don’t touch!”
The mermaid lowered her hands as she bared her teeth ferociously, and it showed I would’ve made a horrible mistake- her smile was more like a shark than a pretty mermaid princess’.
Bobby chuckled and lifted up his right hand, which was missing three fingers. “Rookie mistake. Been there done that, kiddo,” He said.
I gulped and backed away.
Uncle Craig pulled a knife from the sheath on his belt, and my attention hyperfocused on that. “What are you doing?” I asked.
The mermaid’s face had gone pale. She attempted to struggle away, but the twins grabbed the net and twisted it around her, make it impossible for her to crawl to the edge of the boat and jump off. My uncle paused for a moment before he turned to me.
“Remember how we gutted that catch of yours this afternoon?”
“This is the same concept. You can go back to bed if you don’t want to see.”
I swear time froze. I looked at the mermaid, who was starting to shake. Her eyes looked at me. She knew what that knife meant. I knew what that knife meant.
I didn’t move. I didn’t say anything. I just nodded.
Mermaids bleed an almost greenish red. She wasn’t alive for much of it, Uncle Craig didn’t prolong her suffering. He slowly began to cut her down the middle before he froze. “Holy…” He made the final cut fast and I saw dozens of reddish-black beads swirl about in her guts. The other men began to freak out, swearing and running their hands through their hair. Bobby’s jaw dropped. “That… that can’t be…” He stuttered.
“Mermaid. Caviar.” Uncle Craig lifted up a handful of it, running the small beads between his fingers. He looked at me before he grinned. “I’ve been fishing for maids since I was your size, Hazel, this is the first time I’ve personally harvested mermaid eggs. You’re a good luck charm.”
I ran below deck to puke. I didn’t make it to the toilet. I collapsed outside the bathroom and my dinner splattered across the floor. The stomach acid burned as I continued to dry heave, and it took all my strength not to pass out in my own vomit.
I don’t know when the girls came down, but they didn’t get mad about the mess. They cleaned me up and put me to bed.
I almost could’ve thought it was a dream, except in the morning when I walked up on deck to see the mermaid tails put on ice.
They’d caught one more since I was in bed. This tail was ruby red and thicker than the other. I ran my hand over the scales, and they were as smooth as they looked.
“We caught a merman after you went to bed.”
I turned around to see Uncle Craig, who looked nothing but proud at his catch.
“You know how much last night’s catch will pay out for me?”
I didn’t answer. He continued.
“Enough to keep pay for your college. Already got my own kid’s covered. You want anything else for your birthday? New bike? Trip to Disneyland?”
I looked back at the scaled tails. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say anything. I just remembered the look in the mermaid’s eyes before the knife plunged in her chest, the spurt of blood covering my uncle’s hands.
“… I can understand if you’re upset.”
Uncle Craig sat a hand on my shoulder. “Your mom was the same when our dad took us the first time. Mermaid catching runs in the family. Has been since your great great granddad. And it isn’t pretty. But it’s what we do.” He ran a hand through my hair and I flinched.
“Let’s go home, kid.”
Uncle Craig treated me to an enormous ice cream cone on the way home, my favorite flavor- cake batter. I ate it while trying to forget about the tails without mermaids attached to them.
I avoided my Uncle Craig a few months after that. I’d hide away in my room and pretend that I was busy. This didn’t stop him from leaving me presents. I slowly grew to forgive him and soon enough we were hanging out like old times.
It’s been ten years. I’m already a published children’s writer. I write books about Princess Elora the Mermaid. Kids love how she has these crazy sharp teeth, although parents not so much. Writing about her makes me happy.
Uncle Craig passed away two months ago from heart failure. He lived a good life. Long and full of happiness. One of the two things he’s left me is his fishing boat.
I got in my car and drove to the ocean as soon as I could. When I got there I saw two grown woman waiting for me. It took me a second to recognize them as Ocean and River.
Ocean smiled and waved.
“Hey, Hazel! You’re not so much of a kid anymore… up for a fishing trip?”
The other thing he left me was in my pocket. A list of coordinates. Places to fish.
“Can’t wait. I’ll drive the boat.”