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Probert Dean



Her Lady Ship


The human wife glares as they wheel me up to the drawbridge. Glares more as her people, blacktrousers mainly, part to let me through. The looming castle eclipses the heavens – an amorphous, gargoyled shadow against the night. Finely ground gems are embedded in the stone, so the walls glisten like ersatz stars in the corner of my eye. In the distance, the men are dismantling siege weapons and singing (though their songs sound more like football chants). Her Ladyship hobbles towards me, poking her tongue into her cheek whenever she puts weight on the injured leg. I hope it’s hurt badly. She sticks a jewel-speckled hand into my tank and pulls out mine, which she kisses so hungrily I half expect her to take me right there with the human wife still glaring. The human wife turns to glare at the nearest distraction instead – a portcullis – but I can glean her thoughts from the vein in her neck, throbbing its little morse-code fuck you. She thinks I must feel very important being wheeled around like this. The opposite is true. This contraption, my little tank on wheels, may be gilded but it is still a cage. A crystal fishbowl. I’d renounce all my servants, all my jewellery, even cigarettes, to soar once again through the pelagic depths. Here, in the world of sky, you can’t fly. Some swim along the ground but I’ve never tried it – apparently it isn’t seemly for a refined mermaid (their term) to writhe around on the floor like a worm. ‘What a glorious night for victory,’ says Her Ladyship, which is what we call her now her name has been erased from history. ‘Look. The moon reddens to honour us. Yes, blushing maiden, we may have lost 200, but the fish lost thrice that.’ While the Earth’s shadow has indeed dimmed her the colour of sangria, the moon doesn’t look like she gives any more of a shit than she usually does. I pull myself over the rim, splashing water over everyone’s shoes, and pop a cigarette in my mouth. A soldier, wincing from wet feet, lights it for me. I blacken my little fish lungs while our glorious leader, my beloved wife, talks of flanks shattered and cuirasses pierced, of silver plundered and merwomen taken. That’s how they got me, of course, five long years ago. I wouldn’t come up here voluntarily, even though the seas are full of plastic six-pack rings, abandoned shopping trolleys and – my favourite – sewage. A mouthful of sewage would be like sweet nectar compared to a kiss from Her Ladyship. She’s all tongue and usually tastes like a venti cappuccino. Halfway through my cigarette, a man, some haughty landmammal in uniform, snatches it and stubs it out under his boot. Apparently it’s time to go inside. The indoor smoking ban is one of the few remaining relics of civilisation and they won’t give it up easily. Yesterday, this entire castle was under water. The humans have drained away an entire estuary just to capture it. The stone is still black with moisture, the grass is beaded with saltdew, and all over the former seabed fish are flopping, wondering if this is hell. We follow Her Ladyship through the portcullis, into a hall so large that every drip from the ceiling sounds like a bongo drum, and every splashing puddle like a wave hitting the beach. Shifting lava lamps and bioluminescent jellyfish throw multicoloured shadows across the floor. This is a mermaid’s castle: the walls are golden sand, the soft furnishings are a rainbow of coral, and everything from the curtains to the mirrors is embellished with shells and starfish. And they say we’re primitive. ‘Through here, Your Ladyship,’ says a soldier, and she and her guards stomp through a doorway. The human wife and I, relegated to the back of the queue, each try not to be the last one in. ‘After me,’ she says, in faux-politeness, and barges past before my pusher can get any momentum behind my wheels. At least with him wheeling me around I am never the last to enter. This was probably a storeroom. It’s empty now, post-siege, apart from a solitary sea-cucumber lying shrunken and silty in the corner. Three merwomen wait, shackled on the floor. The one in the middle is cradling the heads of the other two on her shoulders like a holy painting. She looks just like the figurine on Her Ladyship’s war table, with the same brown-jewelled tiara on her head, only she is far prettier in full-size. No, wait, I must stop thinking like the terfolk. She looks like a hero should, toned and muscular, with her tail curled in defiance, and an intelligence in her eyes like that of several minds burning at once. ‘Now,’ says Her Ladyship. ‘Are you going to be good little fish?’ The three merwomen nod. Our leader snatches the brownjewelled tiara and examines it. The blacktrousers, too, seem mighty impressed by it. ‘Zigra,’ she snaps, and I am wheeled forwards because I am Zigra. ‘Hello,’ I say, but I pronounce it ‘yello’, which I know annoys Her Ladyship. ‘That siren in the middle. That is Rahab, yes? Tell me you recognise her.’ The merwoman’s eyes meet mine and instinct makes me break eye-contact. ‘Well?’ says Her Ladyship. This time I hold her gaze. We become one mind. She can smell my thoughts – and I know because I can smell hers too, though unlike mine there is no whiff of helplessness, no pungent undertone of fear. I know then that she intends to rescue all of us. I open my mouth to speak, to announce that I’ve never met the rebel Rahab, but, before I can, she gives me the tiniest, barely visible of nods, and, for a microsecond, a wistful plea glistens in her porcelain eyes. I’m the only one who sees any of this. ‘That’s Rahab alright,’ I say. Her Ladyship claps her hands. Then the words are pouring out of her like gunk from an outfall pipe. She’s telling her slavemaster to do a tally of the remaining mermen, and her guard captain to see that there is no fighting over the mermaids. Do this, do that. ‘Help yourselves to these two,’ she says. ‘But Rahab is mine.’ Rahab doesn’t react but I sense her loathing, her inner face scowling. The already tense jaw of the human wife tightens further. She has been warned by the cosmetologist about grinding her teeth. The blacktrousers look at each other, at the endless liquid motion of the lava lamp, at the twirling ammonite patterns on the ground – anything but Rahab herself. The rebel leader is a dangerous prize to claim, a poisonous blowfish supper. If she doesn’t kill the mistress herself then she’ll probably inspire others to do it. We live in hope.

*

We sail home by moonlight on what’s left of the sea. I spend an hour or so parked up on the deck, the stars and the moon floating in my tank like a little universe. When I close my eyes the breeze is almost like waves of cold seawater rolling over me, my long hair stalks of kelp flapping in my face. A man arrives and stands before me with the anxious reverence of a servant. He has a handsome scaly face and brilliant black pits for eyes, but since he is nude I look at his face only as an afterthought, glancing first at those muscular thighs. ‘Ma’am, I’m your pusher for this evening,’ he says. The males of our species are frequently killed – the terfolk consider them devils and sea monsters – but their bipedal nature makes them useful for degrading jobs like cleaning, or retail. My merman pushers are rotated once per night. This is to stop them falling in love, which the humans, in their mermaidophilia, their ocean fever, consider inevitable (and it’s inconceivable to them that I could fall for such a glasseyed, sharp-toothed hunk as this). ‘What’s your name?’ I ask. ‘Moby,’ he says. ‘What would you have me do, ma’am?’ I want to lean over and kiss those thighs, which look strong enough to crush a head. ‘Take the night off, sir. But first I’d like to find the rebel Rahab. I saw some soldiers escorting her near the lazarette. I’d like to go there.’ ‘If you please, ma’am, I’m grateful for you addressing me such – no one has ever called me sir – but it’s not quite correct.’ ‘Nothing wrong with a bit of fish solidarity,’ I say. ‘No, it’s just that I’m a merwoman.’ I apologise and apologise again, but Moby forgives. She understands that I’ve begun to think in terfolk terms, lumping all the algae-coloured bipeds under mermen and all the caudal, smooth-skinned ones under merwomen. How could I let them infect my words? ‘Lots of merwomen,’ says Moby, as she rolls me to the hatch. ‘Once they’ve been married to powerful humans for a while, start thinking themselves above the rest of us.’ ‘Yes,’ I say, knowing I’ve been guilty of that. ‘You and I are sisters,’ she says with a sudden change. Her eyes, dismissed as vacant by the humans, shine with teary passion. The ramp to the lower deck creaks so loudly that I fear it’ll split open, swallowing us into a salty abyss. We do not have boats where I come from – I am quite literally out of my depth. The air tastes like rotten wood and the rocking carbonates my stomach fluids. Moby is very careful with me, gripping my tank so I don’t roll away or spill any water when the floor lurches under us. Near Her Ladyship’s quarters, where Her Ladyship has already retired for the night, we pass a group of people. Beyond the shadows I see the human wife, dressed in the finest human clothes, all cut to accentuate her legs. Those are, after all, the main thing I don’t have. Two officers escort her to the door, then she waves them away and slips inside. When she sees me, she flashes a look of magnanimous triumph – this is her night. She can have it, and every other. As the guards march away, one says to the next ‘Why didn’t Her Ladyship send for the new wife?’ ‘Rahab?’ says the other. ‘Too bitey and scratchy.’ We continue through the dripping dark to Rahab’s cabin. Two blacktrousers are guarding her compartment. One of them is small but has a face fond of cruelty. The other is large enough to plug a doorway. I’ll have to seem submissive, so as not to pose a challenge to their authority, but also not too eager, so as not to rouse their sadism. ‘Is the prisoner shackled?’ I ask. ‘Of course she is.’ ‘May I speak with her a moment?’ ‘Why?’ ‘I heard she was “bitey and scratchy”. I thought I’d try to explain that marrying a human is a good thing. It will stop her from turning into seafoam, you see.’ The guards obviously think this beneath them. Mermaids and their silly legends. ‘Be quick,’ one of them says. When we enter the room we find Rahab curled on a cushion with her hands in manacles. A crimp in her hair goes all the way around her head where the brown-jewelled tiara had been. There’s a film playing with subtitles, something about Chinese women in a palace, but I don’t think she’s watching it. She’s listening, I believe, to the music of the ocean. ‘Oh good,’ she says. ‘I was wondering when you were going to come.’ ‘What?’ ‘You’re Zigra, aren’t you? Pleased to meet you, I’m the rebel Rahab. Listen, I need someone to saw through these manacles. Moby here brought me a rusty file earlier but I can’t quite manage it myself.’ Something in her voice, songlike and dreamy, makes me obey – like a dancer enthralled to a rhythm. Being chained in a squalid little room has done nothing to dampen Rahab’s dinner-party charms. Before Moby can volunteer, and I know she will, I reach over the side of my tank, snatch the file, and begin sawing the chains. It takes longer than I expect, and I tear two fingernails, but in the end the metal rings hit the floor with a clang and she is free. ‘Those things were killing me,’ she says. ‘Now, time to escape I should think.’ ‘This is happening too fast’ I say. ‘We can’t escape, we’re on a boat.’ ‘Not fast enough if you ask me,’ she says, picking up a notebook from the table and glancing over the open page. ‘I intend to seize this ship. If it quells any pessimism perhaps I could tell you I’ve done it before?’ ‘And have you?’ ‘No.’ She laughs, though I don’t find it very funny. ‘Let’s do it,’ says Moby. ‘Even if we die, our martyrdom might inspire others.’ ‘That’s the spirit,’ says Rahab. ‘Look at it this way, Zigra. If there were no merfolk or terfolk, and we were all just one or the other, there’d be no misery in the world.’ I think that’s not true, though I don’t say so. If it wasn’t marine versus terrestrial it’d be northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere, or nocturnal versus diurnal, or something like that. In my mind, humans are already striking my heart with tasers and truncheons, but I can’t drop the trident now; what would Rahab think of me? ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I ask. ‘Old mermaid trick,’ says Rahab, with a glint in her eye that could be genius or madness. ‘We crash the ship onto the rocks.’

*

The mutineer melusine has gone, wheeled out in my tank. I’ve taken her place on the floor, biting my remaining nails and wondering what’s going on outside. In the paranoid dress rehearsals of my mind, everything goes wrong: the merfolk are too depressed to rise, the blacktrousers uncover the ruse and kill her. If Rahab harboured any doubts they were oystered away inside her, pearly and secret. ‘Fortunately, it’s night,’ she’d said. ‘And terfolk can’t tell an Adriatic mermaid from a Caspian.’ When Rahab’s screech rings out like a bell I know it’s time. There’s a clatter outside and something heavy falls over. I open the door a crack and see the guards drawing swords and whistles against two mermen. I lunge at the closest and drag him to the floor, surprised at my own strength. I suppose living in water will do that. By the time we’ve manacled the guards, the merfolk are racing above deck, Rahab leading like a figurehead on the bow of a ship, shrieking an assault to enemy eardrums. Some are armed with dinner knives, others planks of wood. I come across a smashed tank – my own, perhaps – and take a sharp piece of glass. I slither after them, throwing open my lungs to join with the deafening war-chorus. A merwoman in front of me has been cut in half by a sword, but there’s nothing to do now other than crawl on through blood, to the open deck – to our allies, the rain, the sea. Slithering is like being born again. It is the most wonderful thing (no, that’s swimming, but this is close). With our strong tails and limber arms we outpace even the mermen. I take my first gulp of cold freedom, swimming in wind and starlight. When a man kicks me in the side I swallow the pain and rise up to head height, flashing my shard of glass so his eyes become moons. The sea growls behind him, hungry for vengeance. Up close the man is an ancient mass of sinews and– never a soldier but probably some kind of mariner. Does that make him a civilian? ‘Can’t believe it, I can’t,’ he says, his voice faint in the din. ‘That mermaid, the one they brought back this morn, only just saw her up close. That’s Monstro, it is.’ ‘You mean Rahab,’ I say, stirring the air with the glass so his eyes follow. ‘I know Monstro when I see her. I were only a boy when she sank me first ship. Course you lot don’t age, not like we do. My pa perished in that wreck. I’d never forget the face that did it.’ I tie the old man up, wondering if there is any truth to his story. Meanwhile more terfolk are dragged overboard, and those remaining throw up their hands in surrender. Rahab already has the helmswoman surrounded and is pointing out her course correction, towards the rocks. She looks like the statue of a war hero. Perhaps she really has done this before. I look around the deck, unable to believe that we have succeeded. ‘I only take orders from Her Ladyship,’ says the helm. ‘This is our ship now,’ cries Rahab. ‘And I’m renaming it. How about Her Lady Ship?’ She laughs madly but the helmswoman refuses to capitulate. ‘Fine,’ says Rahab. ‘We’ll figure out how to steer it ourselves. What’s the worst that’ll happen? Drowning, ha! Actually, while we’re on that subject…’ Strong green arms seize the helmswoman and dunk her into a mermaid tank. She kicks and froths and I look away, towards the bow, where another figure is running towards us. ‘Wait,’ shouts the approaching woman. It’s the human wife, wearing a white slip of a dress. She wobbles as the ship quakes beneath her. ‘Stop the killing,’ she shouts. ‘We surrender.’ Her hands are dribbling blood. Rahab nods to her minion and the helmswoman is released, choking and dribbling, at their feet. ‘You did well, my terrestrial sister,’ says Rahab, and the human wife runs to her side and stands there like a child clinging to its mother. ‘If everyone remains calm this ship will not sink. At least, not tonight.’ There is talk about where we’ll go, of oceans beyond the sunset, lagoons blueing by the sky’s cyanosis, and cooling shadows like little tree-shaped nights. Castles of gold with hearty crimson reefs for carpets, pearls fastened into chandeliers to shine a thousand moonlights. But I hardly listen. There are already ships on the horizon. There always will be. I slither towards the bow. Slithering is one of many freedoms I will learn to enjoy. Moonlight pours out of the parting clouds and turns the sea to marble, and I dive into it.


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