“The Little Mermaid” by Gabriel Pacheco
The legends told the tales the best, the stories of the Sea Witches.
They’d appear, comely and calling, sunning and singing on far off rocks, beckoning to easily lured young men.
They’d swim out, expectant. And meet their doom.
At first, many believed they just drowned the young men…
But that was before bones began washing ashore.
“Lock up your sons.”
It was a temporary measure, for under the full moon, when a Hag’s power was the strongest, her song could reach far inland, far beyond the beach, past castle walls and into closets and cradles and where ever else a mother or father might hide their son or boy-child.
You couldn’t stop them.
They’d walk, they’d run, they’d crawl, and clamor…
To meet the sea…
To meet the Hags.
Still far off, they were smart not to get so close to shore, for men were not without their means and nor were the women among them.
So they took to ship.
At first, the voyages were doomed.
Out on the water, the territory of these Hags, there was nothing to protect the crews from their songs. Now, not just singing of seduction, they summoned gales and water spouts, threw their voices to sound like men overboard and when a man would look, would trap them in nets of seaweed and kale, pulling them down.
The last thing a man saw, they said, was a mouth of razor sharp teeth and gleaming, fish eyes on a “woman’s face”.
There wasn’t a solution. Men disappeared. The young and then the younger and then the old men, out for revenge. Those, they just drowned, the bodies, bloated and some still bleeding, washing upon the shore.
There wasn’t a solution.
She bound her chest as tightly as she could. “Yes, Mother?”
“Are you sure?” the woman asked, her voice hoarse from weeping. “Are you SURE?”
She put on her clothes -her brother’s clothes and then went to the vanity, picking up the scissors.
“But they’ll know. They’ll eat you -they’ll kill you! The Hags -.”
“Even if they do, I’ll kill as many as I can.” as she looked at herself in the mirror, grabbing a handful of hair and began to cut.
Her mother wept again, leaving the room.
No one had made it to Hag’s rock proper. It was a small island to itself, far off the beach.
Sometimes, when the Hag’s wanted to taunt them, they’d sit up on the rock, backed by the waves and toss their “hair”.
Once, in a spy glass, she’d seen them up close.
It wasn’t hair at all, but tentacles. Some like squids, some like jelly fish. All sorts of limbs and tentacle hanging down, hiding eyes and mouths that were so… inhuman.
She’d wanted to sob and empty her stomach, walking the island. There were sun bleached bones and tattered clothing everywhere, trinkets and things from the pockets of deadmen…
Mementos from wives and daughters.
“You’re not Man-Flesh.” a voice rasped.
“No.” Ericka said, unsheathing a long dagger. She turned to look and there one was.
A Sea Hag.
Pale skinned, pasty skinned, with long, jointed webbed hands that splayed on the rock. She couldn’t see the thing’s mouth, its face covered over with a mass of wriggling red tentacles.
She heard a sucking sound, watching its chest expand and gills flutter.
How long could a Hag stay above water?
It tilted its head.
“A Female…” the tentacles lifted randomly, playfully, as if in amusement.
And then the sucking sound again.
“We do not have songs… for females.” the tentacles parted and Ericka saw what she deemed to be an eye, the pupil horizontal and liquid looking. “But I am hungry…”
The sucking sound again and a wet smack as it began to pull itself, hand by hand -flipper even, onto the rock
“Come Female…” it raised a flipper upwards, pulling aside some tentacles to reveal a beak.
The sound was horrible and Ericka put her hands over her ears, screaming. She turned away, wanting to flee, but then she remembered her brother and what they found of him, washing up on shore. And she turned back, gripping her knife.
“JUST DIE! ALL OF YOU DIE!” she screamed.
She rushed the monster, slashing wildly. The song stopped, the sounds coming from the Hag now the sounds of its own screaming.
Tentacles flopped and writhed, dismembered from the Hag’s face, and there was a mix of something black mixed with the blood. She slashed at where she thought the thing’s throat was, terrified when more Hags began to appear on the rock, began to drag themselves out of the water, to the defense of the dying one.
Some sang, they sang in that horrible voice. Some attacked her, monstrosities with spiked faces and open wound mouths shooting spines at her, others flaring out their fins and hissing, some spitting ink and acid.
She stabbed her knife into the thing’s throat, fleeing back for her boat, fleeing for the safety of the shore, but it wasn’t to be.
A black tentacled thing, its body obese and gelatinous took hold of her boat, got into her boat, its eyes glowing.
“Poor, unfortunate female…”
Ericka screamed, her cries cut off as she was wrapped up, head, throat and body, by the thing.
There was no solution, there was nothing they could do.
There were no songs now, no warnings. They did not taunt from the safety of the rocks now, the Sea Hags.
But now they walked the shores.
You would see her, a thing you thought was a “her” anyway, stumbling along the shores in need of aid. Red haired, pale skin, with elegant limbs -surely, a high born lady. It would fall and you would run to her, turning her over. And what you would see first was the wound on her neck and then the criss cross of deep gouges on her face. And then you would see this was no lady, but a Thing.
A beast thing from the sea.
They would find the bodies with their faces eaten off, the pucker marks of tentacles all across the exposed neck and arms. They went after fool-hardy men and naive women, feeding on seagulls and crabs when they couldn’t get their regular prey.
“Beauty and the Beast” by Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone
“You must go. For tribute.”
“I just… please understand. Everyone who has a daughter must give tribute. If you were a Son…”
She’d simply said “Yes” over and over, “understanding”. She knew how it would be.
If she’d been a son, she’d would still have had to go… except to her most certain death.
First sons and bachelors were went to the forest to “slay” the beast. They never returned.
But neither did the daughters.
It was a myth they knew, to soothe nerves, that he used the daughters as maids to keep his home. But it was a myth.
They could hear the howls from the forest. Too loud to be wolves, too maddening to be human.
A thing like that didn’t want maids.
A thin like that only wanted a maiden’s blood.
She wondered how it would be? Would she be torn limb from limb? Knocked out? Would she faint from terror and fright? Would it matter once she was dead?
There was no ceremony, no carriage. Once she stepped beyond the village into the forest, all of her things would be destroyed. Burned or given away… but who wants the mementos of a sacrifice?
In a town full of the too old and the too young, who wanted to remember that death was there for everyone? Coming in one form or another?
She walked deep into the forest and was not comforted by the quiet. She wasn’t soothed by the sight of nature or the distant song of birds. It got darker and darker the further she went and from the darkness came a stench.
She knew not what it was, but the bark of the trees was slick. And as she stepped, she realized it was not mud that her feet sank into. It was not the white, sharp jutting on stones she saw, nor the green of moss…
But bones and mold and rot and blood.
A bile rose in her throat, but there was nothing her stomach might give.
She came to an open space, a natural opening, littered with bones and the tatters of dresses.
She knew the colors, muted and the fabrics, mutilated. She covered her mouth with her trembling hands and that’s when she noticed the instrument.
It was clean. Free of the horror of the scene, simply sitting there against a tree.
It was so out of place, she was drawn to it automatically.
They’d all learned to play once. A long time ago…
She reached for it and that’s when she saw the eyes.
In the distance, beyond the clearance, in the darkness…
Two glowing eyes.
Her breath stopped and all she could hear was her heart thumping.
This was it.
There it was.
She hesitated and the voice boomed,
So she snatched up the instrument, her trembling fingers trying to find a melody.
It was a monster like she’d never seen nor imagined coming out of the darkness, coming out of the brush. A lion and a wolf and a horned thing, dressed in the tatters of man’s clothing.
She shut her eyes, trying to play something, trying to play anything, knowing, this was what happened! They’d all died this way!
Any moment! Any moment now…
She opened her eyes, her tears beginning to fall. This was how she would die, entertaining this beast.
But he just sat there, at the edge of the clearing, watching her. Listening to the tune.
She sniffled, her fingers faltering, but fast enough to fix the song and keep going.
He watched her and then nodded.
She played for as long as she could, until her fingers bled. She played until the beast began to nod off.
When he was asleep, she put the instrument down. She tried to leave then, backing up and he lifted his head.
“You cannot leave!” he snarled. “You must stay!”
She froze in terror.
“Stay… and play…”
She picked up the instrument again, strumming out a simple melody.
The beast grew tired again and shut his eyes.
She played for days. Every day and sometimes every night.
She could not leave. But he did.
He bought her food. He brought her clothes. He brought her jewels.
Water to wash her bleeding fingers, bandages to wrap them…
And in return she played.
Day after day he sat and listened, falling asleep or leaving to come back with some reward.
She wondered how long it could go on?
“Do you understand?”
“We all have to… contribute.”
“I’ll be a Maid or something right? I’ve heard the stories.”
“I’ll miss you all.”
“Just do your duty, as the girls before you have.”
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The whole time she’d walked, she’d heard music. She wasn’t sure where it came from, but the further she walked, the darker it became.
She stepped in things she didn’t want to know about and when she touched the trees to steady her steps, her hands came away wet and sticky and red.
The stains were smeared all over her dress and she began to realize, the hanging things weren’t vines, but entrails. The rotting things, the stinking things, the slices of sunlight all revealed them to be… bodies. Bodies of things.
She could see the tatters of clothing in the bushes and trees.
There wasn’t a castle and she wasn’t to be a maid. She’d been so naive.
She cried, going forward, hoping to find the source of the music.
She came to a clearing, her eyes red from crying, her jaw clenched against the screams of hysteria.
“Hello?” she asked.
She heard a simple melody, the sound of a lute and looked.
Across the dark clearing, bathed in a single spotlight of sun, was a young woman playing.
“Oh! Thank god!” the girl said, rushing forward, but then she stopped.
The young woman’s dress was stained with blood, her feet bare and dirty. She played now, louder and faster, looking up at the girl.
She was smiling, crooked and gleeful and the girl backed away, shaking her head.
“Sing.” came a voice from the forest beyond.
The girl shook her head again, screaming.
And the playing faltered.
“We’ll have to find someone to sing for us Beloved.” she said softly, looking over her shoulder.
A magnificent beast sprang from dark forest, a thing that was lion and wolf and horned and quite hungry, and leapt upon the girl who screamed and hollered all of her horror as she was torn limb from limb.
When the screaming stopped, the playing began again, the beast dragging an arm over to the young woman.
“I will find us someone to sing, my Beauty.”
She smiled, nodding and playing.
They would find someone to sing, but for now…
She would play.
His wife was waiting for him when he slipped back through the crack that led to their side of the wall.
“Well?” she said. “Did you find anything we could use?”
“There was some leather,” he said. “All cut out and laid out for tomorrow’s work.”
“Have you made anything for our shop this day? Any clothing we can sell?”
“No clothes,” he admitted.
“Then what were you doing all hours of the night while the giants slumbered?”
“I… I was making shoes,” he said.
“Oh, well,” his wife said, brightening. “Good shoes?”
“Very fine shoes,” he said. “Of the best leather, and not a stitch out of place.”
“That’s something,” she said. “They should fetch a decent price.”
“I hope so,” he said. “The shoemaker’s family could certainly use it.”
“The shoe… wait, do I understand you to mean that you made shoes for that cobbler and his wife, and nothing for us?”
“It wouldn’t feel right, taking from them when they have so little,” he said.
“And we have less!” she said. “You didn’t even make a hat or a jacket from the scraps?”
“There… there wasn’t time,” he said.
His wife threw up her hands.
“When my older sister’s husband traded their beans away for a lumbering beast full of milk and meat, I told her ‘You won’t catch my Alfred doing that.’ When my younger sister’s husband gave away his two best axes to a man because he ‘had an honest face’, I said ‘My Alfred’s got a better head than that!’ Now what will I tell them?”
“Now, dear… it isn’t as bad as all that,” he said. “The cobbler and his wife are very kind people… I’m sure they’ll do us a good turn if we give them a chance.”
“You can wait for a good turn when our shop is prosperous and our pocketbooks bulging,” she said. “Until that day, you’re going back through the wall every night until you have something to sell!”