Originally posted in Out of Print.
The pulse of the ocean pressed against the hull of the ship, making the aged iron and steel groan. The sound was deadening inside, lumbering through the halls; carried by the wash of the waves. The hermit crabs were startled back into their shells, but the shrimp paid it no mind.
Xer crept along the crease between wall and ceiling, the gills at his throat opening to propel another breath of seawater back out into the ocean. His tentacles curled about some barnacle husks as he waited, lightbulb eyes focused on the emptiness that surrounded him.
As a scalawag, Xer knew he was different from the rest. Different from the fish and crustaceans he shared his home with. He could devise thoughts, for one, and second, whenever he was so inclined, he could speak. Not that the occasion and the will to do so came often, or even concurrently. Xer was a scalawag, a mermaid of the deep. His kind were not the sirens of poetic legend; no, he lingered amongst the squid and anglers, pale and monstrous to behold.
The current shoved itself against the ship again. Metal groaned heavily on a hinge. It was Xer’s cue to move, and releasing himself from his perch, he darted through the ship to the noise’s origin. His webbed fingers propelled him the final distance to the window. One of the portholes had opened again; the locks were failing, rusted to oblivion. In an instant, he grabbed hold of the glass shutter and yanked it shut. Silence filled the ship once more.
Only then did he take another breath.
The ship was old and rotten, but it had been Xer’s home for time enough now that it was precious to him. He shared the cabins with the fish and crustaceans of the reef. His relationship with them was mostly symbiotic, until he found himself hungry enough to snatch them from their nests. He considered it a fair trade, given he protected the rest of them from the real dangers of the outside.
Another squeak of metal sounded out. It brought him to the armament, where another shutter had billowed open, bubbles escaping the hull like little silver jellyfish. He closed it quickly, though the abrupt motion brought several greened spears to the ground beside him. He found cover in a shattered demijohn, waiting for the sea dust to settle. Around him, Spanish helmets, which once had gleamed in silver radiance, now sat so neglected as to be mistaken for pottery. They did not interest him. Only two things did: eating, and staying alive.
When at last he was certain that the noise had not attracted anything from the deep, he finally pulled himself out of the jar, his breaths slowly returning to normal. The current had passed; at least for now, the shutters would stay closed. He lumbered across the floor, back into the hallway and then along the stairs, which he had ever only known as laying on their side. A sheet which once might have functioned as a door allowed for fresh water to enter the hull, and Xer found the taste of the new sweet, refreshing. He crouched onto his belly, tentacles tense as he crawled out of the ship through the door, his eyes scanning the whole of the sea, above and below, before proceeding even an inch.
Almost an hour later he finally pulled the last inch of himself from the shipwreck Cosechador. Urns littered the garden in front of the barque. Xer made himself scarce among them, sniffing and exploring. He could get lucky sometimes; eels liked making their homes in the dark almost as much as he did. For nearly forty minutes he scoured the jugs, until at last he found what he was looking for: a meal.
The fish never saw him coming. The protective barbs of its spine were relaxed as it grazed the mud and slime between the jars. The fish, distracted by its own hunger, reacted too late to the sudden, deadly strangle of the scalawag’s tentacles and claws. Xer’s meal caught, he returned immediately to his shelter, a thin trail of the fish’s blood dissolving into the Endless. He set into his meal immediately.
Supper lasted all of seven minutes. His freeloading bedfellows crawled out of their hiding spaces as bones and bits of stringy flesh fell from his lips, but he did not scare them off. His belly was satisfied and he was feeling safe. The scalawag found his basic needs met and did not feel like expending the energy to fight off the scavengers that soon swarmed about the floating vestiges of his meal. He crawled, content, through the ship.
The Commodore’s room was his favorite. The ship had sunk slowly, leaving most of its treasures intact, and in the Commodore’s quarters, nothing was in particular disarray. The desks, chairs, cot and table had all been nailed to the floor while the man had still been alive, and now, owing to the angle of the ship’s impact with the ocean floor, hung out sideways at nearly ninety degrees. Xer considered the room a playground. He liked to slip between the chair legs and slide down the arch of the decaying love seat. It pleased him to pick at the canvas painting on the floor, which was actually the wall. He would pull at nubs of paint with his suckers, until they offered the sweet chips to his mouth. The art, the antiques of the human world were wasted on the scalawag. He took no greater joy than mangling the faces of the ugly creatures entombed in flesh, porcelain and paint upon the barque.
Rolling onto his spine, Xer stretched out with a yawn, stroking his belly with webbed, clawed fingers. The suction cups on his tentacles curled around greened ingots, dragging them across the floor like stress toys. The ocean was quiet. He could hear the crabs in the neighboring room scuttling across broken glass. It almost sounded like music. He didn’t like it.
Resolving to see to the obnoxious melody, the scalawag flipped to his belly once more, creeping out of the Commodore’s room and then into the hall. There was no door on the neighboring room. Sliding in, he made straight for the crabs, his tentacles shaking in a territorial huff which sent the crustaceans scampering back into the dark corners they inhabited.
Xer lingered, looking at the green and brown glass on the floor curiously. A less cautious tentacle curled round a jagged piece and sliced its tender underside open, making Xer yelp in pain and retreat back himself. He was in the process of folding the injured appendage under the umbrella of his body when he noted the ship had gone stock still.
Another current was coming from the deep.
Alarmed, the scalawag curled himself in the same corner of the crabs, sitting on top of them as he braced his body. The current slammed into the hull not seconds later, making the iron skeleton groan in complaint. All around him, Xer could hear the locks popping, the shutters opening. He wouldn’t be able to get to them all in time.
He darted out of his hiding place instantly, pulling the shutters closed without care for the noise, though perhaps he couldn’t hear the racket for the beat of his heart filling his ears. Xer was off to the next room immediately, and then the next, barreling his way through the ship, closing the portholes and shutters and every other manner of window that had been knocked open.
And then he heard it, that which should never have touched his ears. The song of the sirens. The dirge of the deep.
Xer would never escape now. The voices took hold of him, hypnotizing him, drawing him through the hull, back to the Commodore’s room and to the window. His eyes were already dead as he emerged from the ship, into the wide, into the open, where he could be seen.
The song was exquisite. It made him feel young; it made him feel old. It filled his head with desires and contentments, turned his fears into pleasures. His tentacles no longer squirmed—he held his arms out to the deep, begging for his mermaid sisters to take him, to keep him forever at their bosoms.
They came, and as they tore his body asunder, he could only weep in bliss. They were monstrous: maidens with human flesh and dark eyes and brown seaweed for hair. They tore his arm from its socket, gnashing on the flesh of it greedily, fighting for pieces of him while he still yet lived.
He did not feel pain, not while their song persisted. His eyes rolled up as he watched beautiful ribbons of red ascend from his body. He vaguely felt another siren ripping into one of his tentacles, but it no longer mattered. Their song was bliss and—
It stopped. Agony crushed him under her weight and he screamed for release. Xer writhed in renewed vigor, instinct dictating that he should not be eaten alive. The sirens screeched an ear splitting wail as they pursued. And then shadow covered them all. They, and Xer both, looked up in trepidation. A bigger fish had come to play.
Xer forgot the sirens then, scrambling to the barque, blessed by having an abundance of legs by which to do the job, though the sirens, blood-thirsty, grouped together to try to fend off the serpent. The scalawag spared not a look until he found himself safe and comfortable back in the ship, though he continued to bleed profusely.
The leviathan was shrouded in a bath of blood; two of the sirens already floated uselessly in pieces. This pleased Xer, though he did not herald the leviathan in thanks. He knew very well that the serpent was no ally of his. But he watched, mesmerized, as the sirens were slaughtered by the most beautiful creature in the sea; he held his breath, as their flesh was shred in fangs of pure violence and then spit out as if inedible.
And then he waited for the leviathan to leave—but it did not. It swam for the barque, and that was when the scalawag knew; that was when Xer knew he was going to die.