Sand and Ruin and Gold
Once upon a time . . . that’s how the old stories always begin.
Once upon a time there was a king of a fallen kingdom. He was just and he was beloved. Or so the numbers said. One day, he gathered together the greatest, wisest minds in all the land—not sorcerers, but scientists—and he bade them fashion him a son. A prince. A perfect prince to embody his father’s legacy.
The scientists each brought the prince a gift: beauty, strength, ambition, intellect, pride. But they must have forgotten something because when he saw the mermaids dance at the Cirque de la Mer, he ran away to join them.
For a year, he trained them, performed with them, thought he was happy. For a year he thought he was free. But then Nerites came: A merman who refused to be tamed. A captive from another kingdom. A beast in a glass cage.
The old stories always end with happy ever after. But this isn’t one of the old stories. This is a story of princes and monsters.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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I must have been very young when I saw the mermaids at the Cirque de la Mer because it was my nurse who took me, and her place in my life was soon surrendered to tutors. I don’t think my father ever found out. He would not have approved.
The day is little more than a sensory haze of pastel children, the laughter of strangers, and the burn of salt and chemicals at the back of my throat.
The mermaids, though. They are as vivid as stained glass, even now.
There were three I saw perform—Neaera, Arethusa, Ianessa—though it was for Neaera that the crowd went wild. She was the number one attraction, her image on every poster, shining, beautiful, and perfectly iconic: copper skin, burnished golden scales, the untamed waves of her dark-green hair. I didn’t know, then, that she was the cirque’s seventh Neaera.
It is that particular combination of hair and skin and scales, at least according to market research, that best meets our ideal image of a mermaid.
And it’s right.
She was sun and sky and flame that day.
And I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful, or so free.
I was young. I didn’t know any better.
When I turned eighteen, I ran away from home to join the cirque.
I had tried at fourteen, and sixteen, but they always brought me back. I never told anyone where I was going or why. I never told them about the mermaids.
My father was bewildered. He had hired the best geneticians in the country to create me. I was supposed to be flawless, and when he returned me to the lab, once, twice, three times, they assured him I was.
I was. I am.
Everything he coded into me is there. Everything that should have made me just like him.
But something got into my heart that day at the cirque. A piece of grit, love, or beauty, or hope. Words we didn’t use so much anymore.
I thought you would need special knowledge or advanced training, perhaps some kind of background in marine biology, to be allowed to work with the Mer. But, no, all you need is the desire and—I would learn later—the ability to look good in a wetsuit, and I possessed all those things. My father was vain enough to make me an ideal in ways beyond the merely intellectual.
I didn’t know if the years had changed the Cirque de la Mer, or if they had changed me, but it was strange at first to see beyond the veil of enchantment to dingy pools and peeling paint, grey concrete beneath a grey sky, in the empty times after closing when there was no laughter left. But, in some ways, that was when I liked it best, when it was ours again—we who waited when everyone else went home.
You have to understand, we did it all for love. We offered these glimpses of glorious things, too dazzled ourselves to see the truth of what we did. And the crowds flocked.
I worked without particular affiliation at first, going wherever I was needed, doing whatever I was told—scrubbing buckets, cleaning tanks and filters, injecting the necessary vitamins and antibiotics into the frozen fish that were delivered daily in huge crates. But whenever I could, I watched the mermaids, learned their names, their ways. Neaera who would sometimes lie with her head in her trainer’s lap, letting her comb the tangles from her mane. Tempestuous Arethusa who had skin of lapis lazuli and hair the colour of moonlight. Ianessa, slighter and shyer than the others, whose blushes were as pale as cherry blossom. And then there was Taras, Neaera’s son, who was her shining, golden shadow. Everyone loved to see them perform, mother and child together, breaking the blue-green water into diamonds as they leapt for the sun.
Those were good seasons, before Taras grew too restless and had to be taken away.
We never forgot the Mer were wild creatures. Predators. But they were our whole lives. We greeted them in the mornings, said our farewells at night, worked with them all day, talked to them, thought of them, dreamed of them. We taught them tricks that would please the crowds. We called them friends.
In those days, when I had no other chores, I liked to sit by the viewing windows of the back pool. Underwater, they were different, silent and sinuous, all the ways they were not human—their stark black eyes, the webbing between their clawed fingers—more apparent.
I was assigned to the dolphins for a while, where I scrubbed more buckets, picked up the rudiments of training and performance before—at last—they transferred me to the mermaids.
I’d become a fixture, like the sullen shark who floated in his glass tube or the sea lions scrambling on their artificial floes. And a marketable one. Nineteen years old, glazed by sun and salt and physical labour, unrecognisable. It pleased me to think perhaps even my own father wouldn’t have known me. I saw him often enough—or his image, at least. He had secured another term in office. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place. A certain man for an uncertain time.
Sometimes I stared into the pixels that were his eyes, looking for the loss of me.
I never found it.
The head trainer told me there was only one way to learn to swim with the Mer and that was to swim with the Mer. Either they would take to you, or they wouldn’t. “Waterwork” it was called, when you were interacting with the animals directly. The routines were demanding, a complex combination of underwater acrobatics and aerial ballet, requiring strength, grace, and above all, trust. It was reserved only for the most experienced trainers who had bonded effectively with the Mer. The rest of us waited in the shallows, restricted to whistles and hand signals and buckets of fish.
I learned a lot in those early days about training animals. Lost in behaviour shaping, stimulus discrimination, auditory queuing, and lexigram reinforcement, I never noticed how little I learned about the Mer themselves.
I never thought to be afraid.
When I ventured fully into the turquoise waters of the mermaid pool, Ianessa was the first to come to me. It felt like the moment I had been waiting for my whole life. As if I had always been holding my breath.
At a distance, or behind a pane of glass, mermaids look delicate, the trailing tendrils of their dorsal fins drifting upon the slightest eddies.
Up close, even little Ianessa was nothing but power. The beating of her fluke churned the surface of the pool to white froth, and the effortless rush of her moving was enough to push all the air from my lungs in a single, panicked exhalation. I came up, gasping and dizzy, and she surged up too, breaching with one flick of her tail, pulling me into the air with her in a torrent of streaming silver. Clawed hands at my waist, my mouth and nose seared by salt and bromide, the sky nothing but a distant ripple to my water-blurred eyes, I think I laughed. At the pinnacle of her leap, she tossed me into a swan dive, and for a moment, just that moment, I was unbound, earthless.
Arethusa caught me on the way down. I clung to her on instinct alone as she whirled me through the water in a flurry of flashing scales.
We were flying, and I no longer cared about breath, the popping of my ears, or the burning in my lungs.
There was no space in me for anything but whatever it was I felt in the echo of Arethusa’s heart as it pulsed against my own.
The tips of her hair had opened cuts on both my cheeks, but I didn’t see the red ribbons in the water or notice the sting until later.
They said I was a natural.
It wasn’t long before I was performing for the off-peak crowds and then the matinees. I had come here once, unknowingly in search of something lost, taken, or unspoken, and I had not only found it, but I was a part of it now. I never tired of the gasps, the cheers, the wide eyes, and the parted mouths. It felt a grand and magnanimous thing we did: to give the gift of wonder. Though there was something else, as well, something I could not have named or even admitted then. A sort of self-directed envy that fed on the thought that everyone else would turn in their dreams at the exit gate and return to lives more trammelled than the one I had dared to take for myself.
It was at about this time that Nerites came to us. I was so involved with the others by then, I barely remember the day he arrived. We were pleased, though—a full-grown male for the breeding programme (or cultivation, as it was called), which had fallen into abeyance since the death of Eryx, some years before I arrived. Cerebral haemorrhage, they said. It did not occur to me ask the cause. Taras’s sire had been on loan from another park, and while there had been some success with artificial insemination, the cost of merman seed was prohibitive, even for the Cirque de la Mer, the biggest attraction of its kind in what remained of Europe.
Nerites came with a female, Melantheia, who was already pregnant. The stress and disorientation of travel must have been too much for her, and the child was born prematurely. We named her Ourea, but she lived only twenty-one days, a frail, twisted, listless creature her own mother several times attempted to drown before they were separated. We knew little of their origins—another cirque, we were told, which had recently closed. Melantheia was the colour of rain, grey skinned, grey scaled. Even her eyes were lighter, their iridescent surface clouded somehow.
The others were not particularly accepting of the newcomers, but this was normal. Even amongst the three who had lived together for years, rough play and dominance sparring was common, and we presumed it was the same in the wild. We knew the Mer were matriarchal, and Neaera would often rake and bite her tankmates, leaving deep lacerations in their flesh.
There were other destructive behaviours too: biting at gates, clawing at the concrete. When it was my job to clean the filters, I would often find teeth and chips of claw, and the Mer required almost constant dental irrigation—nearly all of Arethusa’s lower teeth were gone—but because it was not unusual, we accepted it was normal.
Transporting Mer, especially over long distances, usually involved coating them in lanolin oil to prevent exsiccation, and it took a day or two for us to hose and peel it off the new arrivals. Of them both, at the beginning, I can recall only dirty grey ghosts pressed into ragged shapes.
And one incident, at the time its meaning unrecognised.
One of the other trainers in the shallows, who had been tossing handfuls of frozen fish to Nerites and Melantheia, was reaching down to accept Nerites’s outstretched hand. This was typical relationship-classified behaviour. We all did it. We were encouraged to. The other behaviours were enrichment, training, performance, and cultivation. But when the senior trainer saw him, she shouted for him to get out of the water, and there was a rush across the connecting bridges, a chorus of fast-moving feet rattling the metal and disturbing the Mer below. Neaera and Taras breached together, clicking to each other, water flying from them.
Panic was thick in the air. But it seemed without cause, without direction.
The trainer backed slowly out of the pool and up the landing shelf.
Nothing else was said or done. No explanations sought or given. Just a single moment, untethered in time.
I wouldn’t think of it again until it was already too late. Perhaps I should have wondered what it was the senior trainer knew to fear, but my father had little regard for lost things, and I didn’t think to ask about Nerites’s history.
Where he had come from. What might have happened to him before he came to us. What he might have learned.
Or done to survive.
When the lanolin came off, they found he was covered in rake marks and lesions, some of which had become infected. We had intended to release him into the main pool, but it seemed preferable to keep him and his tankmate in relative isolation, at least initially. But in the end, they had to be separated even from each other, when the trainer responsible for the morning feed found the water thick with blood and ink and Nerites covered in fresh wounds, his fluke shredded raw.
I was called in to assist with the gating, as separating the Mer could be tricky when they were restive and disinclined to cooperate. We knew they’d been involved in performances at their previous cirque, but they had very little training with us.
Nevertheless, I gave a calling whistle, and Nerites came almost immediately. I rewarded him at once to reinforce the behaviour, throwing him frozen fish, which he ripped apart with his long, sharp teeth. As I ushered him through the gate, our eyes met for a moment.
It was . . . peculiar.
I felt, in some way, quite deeply seen.
I had not expected him to be obedient. I had not expected his trust.
Truthfully, I could imagine no reason for him to give it to me. It left me troubled by something I couldn’t recognise then, although it became a familiar sensation over the days that followed. A kind of agitated uncertainty I would later call shame.
He wasn’t my charge, so once I had closed him into the back pool, I left him there and went about my day. Did my shows. Performed my appropriate behaviours with Neaera, Arethusa, and Ianessa as the duty roster required.
But when everything was done, I found myself standing before the viewing windows of Nerites’s pool. He was floating almost motionless in the water, head bowed, the tendrils of his hair and fins swirling softly around him.
I realised then that I had never seen an adult merman before. It was bewildering, because I had thought the Mer were so familiar to me. He was larger than the others, and he moved—when he was moving—without their swift, savage grace.
Carefully. That was it. He moved as if he was too aware of his own power.
And that was absurd. Perception was one thing, imagination another, speculation yet another. It did not do to confuse them, and I was concerned at my inability to recognise where the lines lay.
Nerites opened his eyes, and I was stricken by a shiver of awareness just as I had been that morning. His eyes were shiny black, full of reflections and the impression of depth.
There was something human in the faces of the mermaids—perhaps the delicacy of their bones, the soft curves of cheek, and lip, and jaw—but, in him, there was simply . . . not. The angles were too sharp, the planes too taut, and then there were the scales crowning his brow and curling along the edge of one eye, the sweeping filaments that followed the arch of each cheek. His gills were standing in a ruff, and the effect was unexpectedly regal.
I felt as I had that day in the stadium so many years ago. The same sense of self unfurling, but it was tinged by something else now, complicated in ways it hadn’t been before, and all I wanted now was to escape it.
But then he moved. With a flick of his tail, he came towards me through the water. It was quite deliberate, and I searched instinctively for precursors of aggression. I don’t know what I would have done had I spotted any. It was after hours, I was alone, and while there was a wall of glass between us, I was quite abruptly reminded how big he was, all his possible strength.
And yet I did not move.
His skin was very white where it wasn’t cut or seeping. Not human pale, but as stark as ice or marble, save where the ripples and the shadows in the water cast their magic-lantern theatre across his body. In sharp contrast, his scales were black, without sheen or lustre, coiling like strange tattoos down his arms and over his chest. And his hair the same, streaming behind him in the water, though as he drew closer, I saw that it was streaked here and there with white. I thought at first it must have been traces of lanolin, but I learned later it was natural. Or at least not the result of stains or dye. Perhaps variegation was common in mermen. Perhaps it was the result of some loss or trauma.
I never found out.
He stopped just before me, and I gazed up at him. His dorsal fins—spiny, and more pronounced than in the mermaids—curved downwards, as if dragged towards the bottom of the pool by some invisible force. I wondered if it was simply a consequence of their greater size and weight.
I came to suspect it was not.
He raised a hand and laid it gently over the glass. The webbing between his fingers was almost transparent, the vulnerability of that stretched and tender cartilage oddly shocking in its closeness to his curving, silver claws.
His eyes gleamed like sea-polished stones.
None of the others had ever behaved like this. As a species, the Mer are strong observational learners. Arethusa had briefly developed the habit of beckoning to visitors until they approached, and then she would bear her fangs and claws and beat her tail on the glass. The screams and starts must have amused her, and it amused us until the others started doing it too.
It was very much the wrong message. Our Mer were supposed to be magical, beautiful and serene, occasionally a little mischievous. They were supposed to be happy with us. It had taken several months of low-stimulus response conditioning to train them out of it, and we still discouraged visitors from coming too close.
The way Nerites was looking at me was . . . impossible. A trick of the light.
And then I understood. This was some relic of his previous training. What he was waiting for, looking for, was the reinforcer.
I was still possessed by an almost-overwhelming and entirely irrational need to flee from him, but instead, I steadied my breathing and did not respond. For long moments, I offered the least reinforcing scenario, and at last, his hand dropped.
I was supposed to do something else now—give him an opportunity to remain calm and attentive and be rewarded. But he was swimming away from me, spiralling slowly towards the dark surface, his filaments trailing behind him like pieces of lace and shadow.
And then I . . . I fled. And I didn’t know why.
I didn’t know why I was so afraid. Or if it was even fear I felt.
[R]eally beautiful...love this short story.
[T]terrifying and breathtaking... For sure one of the best reads of this year...I loved and revered it, and will re-read it and cry over it many, many more times, of this I’m sure. Just… read it. Read it.
...beautiful but heartbreaking. It captures and disturbs you in equal measure. It’s dark and light and absolutely exquisite. It stays with you long after you finish reading. And you should read it.
[T]his story is gorgeous as well as wild and fascinating.... Hall's prose is beautiful and the love story will gut you...in a good way.
This story is hauntingly beautiful and it will stick with you after you finish. Excellently written, Alexis Hall brings this world and the characters therein to life wonderfully.