LITTLE FISH • by Scott James

My mother thinks I am dead. Her toes sift the same sand each year, a barren starfish somehow surviving the picking predations of children, and constant push and pull of the tide. She tucks her knees beneath her chin and watches the surf roll out and in. She wraps herself in a blanket for the morning light, the gulls calling to her: “He is gone,” they cry, “your little fish is gone.”

I have watched her sit through rain in her vigil, beneath burning sun and raging sky. But I am nothing she would recognise here beneath the waves. I am grown and changed. I am a rolling seal, a diving bird, the glint of an aquatic eye.

Before I drowned she looked for my father, but not from the beach, in the bustle and rush of the seaside bars where he found her. I liked to swim. In town I sat waiting, her chasing a glimpse of a face from the past. It is possible she saw him once or twice. I know that now.

Now I go ashore only to mate, creeping, wet beneath the moon, changing, stumbling through velvet dunes, avoiding the fires and music of teenagers. They call to me, thinking me drunk, as I struggle and flap in the shadows beneath the pier. My scales turn to clothes, my scent a perfume desired by mortals like my mother. We are not the men they know from home. We are fantasy, our skin aglow with health and fortune. With the salty rush of the ocean in their hair they are free to indulge, at a price.

Love is a fleeting passion for us, but not for a mortal’s warm heart. They return to linger, bringing our children with them. Beneath the sun, on hot white sands they watch them laugh and play in the surf, watch with pride as they swim further, faster, deeper. Scream when they are taken. There are many little fish like me.

Our own women must call and lure, seduce from afar, lay lines with their music, cast nets with their song. They may not change or ever step ashore. But their beauty is the very art of Amphitrite, and mortal men, with family, go overboard to reach them. The women we prey may be haunted by our memory, but they know our children for a time, and survive, a while, when they are gone. Mortal women are strong. Not so the sailors, fishermen, seamen, who plunge and dive to our watery caves, the craving upon them, our sibilant sirens’ song in their ears.

You may think us malign, tempting your women and stealing your men, but we also do good; the swimmer saved from sharks by a darting dolphin, the floundering child nudged by a seal back to balmy shallows, the hand in the waves the lifeguard seeks.

I would go to her, comfort her, tell her I am well. But to go ashore, other than to procreate, is to break with sacred law. Those lured by the shallow highs of mortal life, or who yet mourn those left behind, will wander ashore and have their time, but be cursed on their return. As they stumble back with the change upon them, it is not a tail and scales they feel flourish in the twilight, but sickly soft organ, tendrils and polyp. The lucky ones make it back to live at least in exile, drifting together in lonely crowds, seething, stinging, hateful jellies. But most fall on the shore, short of the surf, where they lie choking, in change until the dawn, and the hot sun rises to dry and burst them, or children drop rocks to shatter their soft, cursed forms.

And so I cannot go to her, my mother; she must come to me. Seasons pass, three years now, and still she sits and watches, scans the dark and twisting seas. I have tried to go, swim free, and thrive, but I cannot leave her on the shore, some busted shard of driftwood. A mother’s love deserves far more. As she felt my father’s presence here, she feels her son’s sweet spirit near, comes creeping through the salted night to stand upon the creaking pier. I wait below, one quiet tear, through moonlight, in the night, falls near.

She jumps, and I am here.

Scott James writes in Cambridgeshire, UK.

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