Right before you die, everything becomes crystal clear. Perhaps that’s just adrenaline, but I believe it’s something else as well: perspective. Nothing puts life in perspective like death. Nothing else makes you realise what’s important to you, what’s wasted your time, and what you bitterly wish you’d spent more of your life doing. The ‘I’ll do it laters’, the ‘one days’: you realise immediately how you shouldn’t have put them off.
Of course, it’s too late now. You’re going to die.
I stood at the base of the long plank, arms tethered behind my back, feet bound by pound-shackles, looking back at my life: the North Star and her crew—my family, really. My family and, ironically, the very people complicit in my death.
After the old captain died there was an awful power struggle, and by trying to do the right thing, I’d somehow offended the captain’s daughter. The old captain had always doubted she had yet developed the maturity and wisdom to govern a ship; she could mechanically run a ship, of course, we all could. She thought that was what mattered. When I happened to mention that there was more to running a ship than to stocking the larders and repairing the sails, I unintentionally started a war.
It was a war I couldn’t win. The captain’s daughter was beautiful, fierce and connected. She was also ambitious, and she rose to the post of captain as easily as bubbles rise in water. No sooner had she placed that hat on her head, she set about putting rumours of her ill-fit for the position to a swift death. That meant me.
So, there I was, standing precariously on the long plank, bound and shackled. The North Star moved underneath me as she trailed across the Great Northern Sea, bouncing me and threatening to throw me overboard before my ‘trial’ had even begun. My crew stood watching me struggle to stay upright, rotten fruit and vegetables ready to hurl at me.
The new captain towered above all of us on the navigation deck, her beautiful sharp chin held high. “Elizabeth,” she said, her voice cutting through the air, “you stand accused of mutiny. How do you plead?”
It was a frivolous charge. I don’t think a single person believed it—well, maybe they did, who knows, people can be very stupid when they want to fit in. They all just wanted to be in the new captain’s good books and the ugly scarred woman—me—was an acceptable sacrifice in that endeavour.
“I plead not guilty,” I said clearly. “Wanting what is best for my ship is not mutiny.”
Her face twisted. “Plotting against the captain is mutiny,” she corrected me. “I bet you think you could do better, do you? You? Didn’t we pick you up in some grimy, dirty port, infected with skinrot about five minutes ago? Disgusting.” She laughed, and the crew laughed with her, jeering at me and contorting their faces to mimic how mine looked.
I knew the fact I had scars from skinrot on one side of my face and neck made it easy for people to hate me. Especially compared to the beautiful new captain. “And yet,” I said anyway, “even someone who had skinrot once can see you don’t have the wisdom to run a ship yet. Executing me won’t suddenly grant you that.”
She wasn’t listening to me. She didn’t care what I said. In her mind, throwing me overboard would mean the end of any doubts she wasn’t fit for her post. She pretended to yawn. “I’m quite sick of listening to her pathetic bleating, what do you say, crew?” Predictably, they all agreed with her, and started shouting for my death. “Exactly!” She looked back at me. “If you hate how I run the ship so much, Elizabeth, I’d like to invite you to leave it.” She made an ‘after you’ gesture towards the plank.
Two sailors shoved me forward on it. I’d left the deck of the North Star, now: there were only colossal waves and deep, dark water far below me.
This is it, I thought, as I was shoved forward again.
Behind me, the sailors were singing the law song: a shanty about how justice always finds bad people in the end. At the chorus, they all started to throw their rotten food at me. Some of it was so old it was fermented and it exploded on impact, showering me with foul-smelling liquid.
Out on the plank, the movement of the ship felt greater. With my arms bound and legs shackled, I felt like I was riding on a horse standing up, ready to fall at any moment. Finally—teetering, swaying and writhing—I did fall.
Time slowed almost to a stop.
I could hear it: the Captain, laughing. Her arms were probably crossed. People were cheering as they threw old, rotten food. Later, the same people I’d drank with these past years would drink to how I—an evil mutineer—was purged from their fine ship.
And then there was me: plain, scarred me. In rags and shackles, my matted hair and uniform, falling fast towards the waves.
I felt every inch, every foot of air between the plank and the water. I heard the roar of the ocean grow louder and saw the hungry waves rise as I approached the surface. I broke it with a side-splitting slap of skin, everything suddenly fell silent.
I couldn’t put my arms out: they were tied together, and I couldn’t swim upwards because I was wearing pound shackles. I tried for a few moments anyway: frantically kicking at the water, my neck bent towards the sunlight filtering through the surface. Rotten fruit fell through the water around me, plummeting downwards towards the distant ocean floor as the North Star surged onwards.
I kicked, I struggled, I writhed in the water: the surface was right there! It was so close! Surely I could reach it to take one tiny breath—? Surely just a few more kicks, a few more moments and I’d finally make it to the surface?
The more I struggled, my lungs burning with the effort, the more I realised the surface was getting further away. The water was getting darker around me. It was no use: I couldn’t fight the weight of the shackles. I wasn’t going to be able to take that one tiny breath.
This is it, I thought, letting my limbs fall still. This is where I die.
When I stopped struggling, I sank faster. As the sunlight disappeared above me and the hull of the Northern Star sailed into the distance, the chill of the ocean began to claw at my skin. The water was cold. Between my prickling skin and the burning of my lungs—how I longed to draw a big, gaping mouthful of air!—I could struggle no more.
There was no point in fighting. This was the end.
Still, it took me god knows how long—it felt like years, with each second ticking by like the calling of the hour at midnight—to take a huge, heaving lungful of seawater.
The result was immediate. My stomach clenched like I’d swallowed poison. The salt burnt my desperate lungs, chocked my throat and I was dimly aware of clawing at my neck, twisting a writhing as my ears rang.
I stopped heaving and choking at some point. I was still sinking, though. Sinking deep, deep down, chilled by the water as the light faded around me.
In my semi-consciousness, a half-light of cottonwool and warm memories, I had an errant thought: my mother. My mother playing with me as a child on the beach. Collecting shells, laughing and enjoying a fading summer’s day. I’d always loved her hair—curly like the vines on the walls of our house. Soft like the fur of a tiny kitten.
I sank, feeling my fingers running through it, warm in the late August sun.
Something woke me—coolness brushing my cheek.
I’d stopped falling, I realised.
My shackles had reached the ocean floor and I was anchored there, bobbing in the water like a half-sunken buoy.
I hazarded opening my eyes—shouldn’t I be dead already?—and when I did, I realised my skin was glowing.
Not only was it glowing, but—my chest was moving? Was I—breathing?
The water felt heavy to breathe, heavy like lead in my lungs. I could feel it moving in and out of my throat, thick like wet concrete. But it—seemed to be sustaining me. For all I laboured to inhale it, it was as relieving as breathing a lungful of air.
While I was struggling to make sense of that, looking around me at the ocean floor—I noticed shadows were moving in the dark, lit by my glowing skin. Huge creatures were surrounding me, moving in the edge of my light.
I’d let go of life already, I wasn’t afraid of them. Come into the light, I bid them, trying to say it but bubbles just rose from my mouth, so I gave up physically saying it.
As if I’d spoken, they did.
I thought they were women at first. They had breasts like women and the faces of women, and their hair swirled through the water just as a woman’s hair does. The likeness stopped there, though: their fingers were webbed, their eyes reflecting light like a cats’ do, and from their navels downwards, their skin became fleshy scales, and where their legs should have been were long, writhing eel-like tails several times longer than their bodies. I thought the scales black and grey at first, but as they moved, they shimmered: deep reds, navy blues and pearlescent whites. They all had their own colouring.
So this was what mermaids looked like? I wondered, just as they tumbled over each other to inspect me, their fingers reaching out to touch my glowing skin.
What happened? I could hear them think—one of them, all of them, I couldn’t tell. Their voices and thoughts were audible to me as if they’d spoken directly into my ears. Tell us how you came to join us!
I don’t know, I told them, looking down at my glowing skin. I should be dead, I was executed. They didn’t react very much to those words, but when the memories of what just happened floated to the surface of my mind: the rotten fruit, the Captain’s laugh and desperate struggling not to drown, they all startled and pulled back in alarm, as if they were seeing those things themselves. They could read my mind?
At any other time, I’d have been horrified and frightened by the prospect of having my mind read. Now, it didn’t trouble me. I was gone—lost. I didn’t even know why I was still alive: if I was still alive.
In response to a question I didn’t even know I’d asked, one of the mermaids untied my hands and held one of them to my chest. I could feel the slow, steady beat of my own heart. Somehow, I was alive. I was breathing water, and I was alive.
When she released me, several of them made quick work of my shackles simply by touching them: they dissolved into dust, blowing away on the tide. I expected to shoot up like a cork now I wasn’t weighted down, but I didn’t. I floated back and forth in the water like the mermaids were, my faintly glowing skin throwing light on them.
They were such beautiful creatures—that was all I could really think. Beautiful, mysterious mind-reading creatures.
One of them took my hand. Come, she ‘said’, and led me through the water.
I’ve always been a strong swimmer, but I couldn’t keep up with them. Their powerful tails churned the water with such force that I felt like a dead weight being pulled through the current. My clothes pulled at me, dragging at the water, slowing us down. I stopped the mermaids so I could abandon my clothes, casting them off to drift in the tide.
When we began to move again, the water flowed past me far more easily. Bubbles churned by their tails brushed along my naked skin. It felt good: I’d never had the courage to swim naked before. Now that I was ‘dead’ and surrounded by topless creatures, it hardly mattered.
We all dove through the darkness together into an underwater grotto—a cave, I thought, and expected it to be nothing but darkness.
It was far from nothing. There was a glowing light within the grotto, and as I cast my eyes about, I saw—houses, I think? Individual dwellings marked by beautiful gardens of carefully placed and tended sea anemones. Mermaids—all women—were basking in a warm tidal flow rushing underneath the grotto. Some of them were making jewellery. Some of them were reading, I think; reading or interacting in some way with beautiful curling marks on the tall wall of the sheltered grotto.
It was beautiful, it was peaceful. And it all centred around a soft light: an enormous giant clam in the centre of the sand. Its mouth was open, filtering sea water, and inside was a pearl that glowed with the same gentle intensity as my skin.
Curious, I approached it.
It was sentient, I could feel, but not sentient in the way the mermaids were. It had a deep ancientness about it. It regarded me with ancient eyes as I ran my fingers over its rough surface, and it pulsed with a deep, resounding sensation like a long, slow and enduring heartbeat.
All I had to do was wonder what the clam was, and one of the mermaids answered me.
She is life, one of the mermaids told me. The cradle of life: a token of the magic of creation.
It was a lot to take in. I looked back at the giant clam, spending a few moments listening to that ancient heartbeat. Are you why I’m alive? I wondered about the giant clam, not expecting a response.
I received one anyway: an overwhelming, complete and firm yes that I felt with every fibre of my being.
A pale hand touched my shoulder. She’s why we’re all alive. We’re all lost. Lost to the sea, and found by her.
There was so much depth to the consciousness of the giant clam that when I touched it with the edge of my mind I felt like I was tumbling into the vast, deep ocean again. I felt all at once I didn’t have the capacity to understand her or speak properly to her: she was too much. She was too long. She was thousands upon thousands of years of witnessed experiences, knowledge and life. Just by existing, she was proof that life persisted, even at the dark, cold bottom of the ocean.
Around her, this beautiful grotto full of mermaids had gathered, bringing light and life to an underground desert.
While I was meeting their creator, the other mermaids had come from where they’d been settled to meet me—their hands exploring my body and their minds touching mine. I could feel their individual voices: some younger, some older. I could feel humour and compassion, curiosity and interest. They touched my legs and feet with gentle nostalgia, and promised me I’d have my very own beautiful tail very soon.
They speculated on what colour it would be—the consensus was gold, like my hair—and they tried to imagine together what sort of mermaid I’d be. What would I like? What would I do here? What talents would I bring, how would I build on the pod? They touched my scars with interest, with reverence.
She must be very brave, one of them said, thinking I’d earned my scars in battle. When I informed them it had been due to skinrot, their expressions softened. It is also brave to travel the world above looking like this, one of them pointed out, bearing the scars of sickness.
They touched all of me, all my scars of my face and heart, their bodies were smooth. They shared themselves freely with me in a mass of warm, writhing flesh.
It didn’t start as anything sexual—not at all. But it had been so long since anyone had touched me in a vaguely affectionate way, and they were all so beautiful and wholly accepting of me that I couldn’t help but experience desire for them. I guided hands to my breasts and bodies against mine. Curious, they happily complied, exploring my body just as they explored my mind.
Every aspect of me was laid bare, and each one of those mermaids made it in the dark corners of my mind as their hands found the dark corners of my body: difficult memories and bad experiences. Memories I’d buried deep below the surface and hoped never to find again: they found them. They considered them, turned them over in their own minds, and accepted them.
It was a pleasure greater than I’d ever known: being wholly accepted, wholly understood as a dozen gentle hands touched me and moved against me. When my own hands moved they found a dozen different pairs of breasts, a dozen soft faces and strong tails. There were lips on mine—they belonged to the mermaid who’d untied me. I could only taste the salt of the water, but her tongue was smooth and gentle and it felt very much like kissing a human woman.
Nothing else about this encounter felt like being human; when I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could hear all of their voices, individually and in chorus together, filling my mind.
This whole experience felt like an impossible gift: that I should be dead, a rotting corpse on the floor of the ocean, nibbled on by ugly fish from the depths. Instead, I wasn’t. I was alive, glowing with the magic of ancient life and being made love to by a dozen beautiful mermaids.
It felt surreal, too good to be true. At any moment I expected I might find myself stirring awake from a fevered dream on the North Star.
Perhaps I’d wake up to the captain spreading rumours and gossip about me—as if I had, I felt that weight settle on my chest. Perhaps wake up to fellow crew I’d grown to love falling silent as I passed and then bursting into a frenzy of whispers after I’d gone.
Perhaps this was the night before I walked the plank, and I was just having tragic and desperate dreams about somehow escaping the fate I knew I’d have to accept.
While I was recalling what had happened to me and imagining that I might wake up to still being embroiled in it, I realised everything was still. The mermaids had stopped touching me.
I opened my eyes. They were all still close to me, lying alongside me together on the sandy seabed, listening to me intently as if I was telling a story. I didn’t know what to say to them.
The mermaid who’d been kissing me touched my cheek gently as she said, What happened to you wasn’t fair.
I felt those words burrowing deep into my heart. I know, I said. I know.
They all looked upwards at the same time, towards the surface. I could see what they were all imagining: a violent storm and angry waves. Their bodies smacking against the hull of the North Star, their magic hands dissolving all the iron nails to rust, and the ship cracking and falling apart in the stormy water a hundred miles from shore.
I saw them all swarm upon the new captain as she fell into the sea, grabbing her legs, her arms, her body and pulling her under the water. I saw the panic in her eyes and as she opened her mouth to shout out for help and it filled with seawater. I saw the surprise, the shock, the fear, as her eyes fell on me. I saw horror creep onto her face as I forced her to look upon me for every second as she drowned. I would be the last thing she ever saw.
The mermaids looked back at me. We could do it, they said. We could right this wrong together.
For a moment, the prospect of tearing that ship full of traitors apart and punishing the woman who’d executed me was unbearably enticing. I could almost feel the satisfaction of watching the ship fall apart, and the triumphant moment the captain’s eyes fell on me.
Yes, I imagined saying to her. It’s me.
I imagined how that would feel: a proper revenge. A proper retribution for what they had done to me.
In the mermaid’s silence, though, the slow pulse of the giant clam was more audible. A heartbeat, steady over time like the hands of a clock counting out the centuries.
It was that ancient sound that anchored me.
Deep in my own heart, I knew the captain’s troubles were just beginning: I couldn’t have been the only person who doubted her. She’d always been petty; I’d have been a fool to think I was the only person who noticed that.
If I slowed down like the ancient heartbeat, if I stood back and just allowed myself to witness what was to come, I knew how the future would unfold.
Slowly, crew would realise what their captain was truly like and leave the ship. One by one at first, then in droves. She would need to hire replacements, men with no allegiance to the North Star who wouldn’t take care of her properly and who would fight amongst each other. The captain’s coffers would run dry trying to pay them nonetheless. Rather than admit defeat, she’d run her own ship aground in the end. I wondered if she’d think of me as she sank beneath the waves.
It hardly mattered if she would or wouldn’t think of me; it hardly mattered if I intervened in her fate or not. Her future required no input from me. The hands of fate were already in motion: she would be her own undoing. I’d known that from the beginning.
Still, she was living her life right now, and I felt a pang of sorrow for having left it myself: the warm sun on my skin, tipsy and singing sea shanties with my crewmates, and drunk women sharing their warm bodies with us when we docked at ports. That life was far behind me, now.
I was here, 1000 leagues under the sea, surrounded by strange and beautiful creatures and slowly, slowly becoming one of them.
You’ll enjoy it here, too, one of them promised me. I was beginning to recognise their individual voices; I looked at her as she spoke. We sing too, and we like the sun, too! There’s some volcanic isles nearby—just rocks, no humans. We sometimes journey there when it’s warm and lie in the sun with the seals. It’s heaven.
It sounded like heaven. As they showed me their memories of the journey and I could feel ‘my’ long, heavy body on the warm rocks under the sun, the gentle waves lapping at the edge of my tail. They were singing on the rocks: above water, their voices still sounded human. I was sad when the memory ended, because I’d been enjoying their harmonies.
When it was clear I liked that memory, they were all so anxious to show me other things they thought I’d like: making beautiful jewellery out of shells and items from a shipwreck nearby (some of them had been passengers on that ship, I learnt). They wanted to show me their beautiful art of the historic stories the giant clam told them that they’d been carving in the grotto walls, and all the things they’d found when they went exploring the great ocean floor.
I love exploring, one of the mermaids told me, her slit eyes lighting up as she smiled. My mother never let me out of the house when I was human. Now I can visit the entire world if I want to!
Excitedly, they all shared with me what they loved about who they now were: every little detail, every memory. Their faces glowed with joy and they were all interrupting each other to try have me hear their memories first.
You’ll love it here, the mermaid who kissed me promised, touching my face again. Her eyes were soft as she watched me; I felt at once very sure that I could get used to looking into them. It’s hard at first, very different, but you’ll love it here.
Overwhelmingly, even though all of them had favourite things they loved about being mermaids, what they loved was a sense of togetherness. A sense of oneness that came from hearing each person’s most intimate thoughts. A sense that no one had anything to hide, and that everyone had something to contribute. Everyone had past joys and happy memories and feelings to share with the pod, and every time one of the mermaids had a good experience, she’d come rushing back to the grotto to share that feeling freely with everyone.
At their bidding, I shared all my good memories with them: I watched their faces as I remembered my first love and my first kiss. I let them experience just how very good it felt the first time I successfully navigated a storm. I let them feel how it had felt to have the old captain—the man who’d taken a woman infected with skinrot who would have been left to die on land—onto his ship and to his doctor, saving her life. My life. I’d never known a father, but in that moment, I felt what it must be like to have one.
The mermaids experienced all of it with me, listening rapt to my memories, just as engaged in my stories as if I was a world-class bard.
And when I was done, having bled myself dry of happy memories, they held me gently and shared their own.
They were so many women from so many lands. Tillers, farmers, even a countess. Their lives were incredible—painful, many of them. In all their stories, not a single one of them was sad to have left that world behind.
I listened, feeling every emotion and seeing every memory as if it was my own.
As tide cooled with the setting sun above and the giant clam closed and hid the glowing pearl, I let all these incredible women—now beautiful mermaids—hold me as I waited to become one of them.
Somewhere far above, I knew the crew of the North Star were toiling into the evening, preparing the ship’s course for the night. I wondered if they knew what was to come: how one foul ego would tear their great ship and their world apart. I wondered, but there was no emotion in it.
I didn’t want to waste any more precious emotions thinking about that anymore: I’d rather save that energy to spend on making these mermaids smile with me.
The wheels of fate would turn for the captain: but I wouldn’t notice. I would spend each previous minute they did in the arms of people who wanted to share their happiness with me.