Toby stretched out in the stern of the small boat, propping his feet up on the bench opposite and trailing one hand in the cold water behind him. Checking the lobster pots was nice work for a clear evening like this, even if the breeze was a little sharper than he had realized when he left the quay. Summer wouldn’t truly be with them for months yet, and without a jacket, his skin was prickling with goose bumps.
Once upon a time, Prospero
, his father’s boat, had been a way to supplement their income, but as times grew tighter, the crabs and lobsters they brought in for themselves grew more significant in keeping their fishmonger's shop afloat. His parents had altered the small fishing vessel when Toby was young, adding benches around the edge of the deck so they could take tourists out, but a little village like Haggenby didn’t get the influx places like Bridlington and Scarborough pulled in. A few hikers, a few families looking for somewhere less commercial, a few people who really wanted to be in Whitby but left it too late to book. Same as most of the villages along the North Yorkshire coast.
Though he’d already switched off the engine, there was still a faint tang of diesel in the ozone-scented air. The sun shone through the church on the headline, the stones in the cemetery outlined in gold. Even without the engine, the boat’s forward momentum drove him toward the buoy bobbing a short distance away. The water was cold enough to make his fingers tingle, the waves slapping against his wrist. He leaned farther back, reaching toward the buoy.
A warm hand grabbed his.
Toby clutched at the rail with his free hand, his center of gravity wavering dangerously over the edge of the hull. The hand tightened on his, clinging with an air of desperation. It was infectious; fear shot up Toby’s spine, and he clenched his fist around the stranger’s hand.
The light wasn’t good enough to see deeper than his own arm. The clawing fingers declared this wasn’t some scuba diver fooling around. Adrenaline pumped through Toby and flushed the panic-stricken fog from his mind. He had to act fast.
Toby looked up. Shit
. Someone must have got caught in the buoy’s rope, though God only knew how.
Toby rolled so he was folded over the rail, and hooked his feet under the opposite bench. He grabbed the buoy one-handed and hauled it toward the boat, but when he tried to pull it aboard, he could barely lift it out of the water. He needed both hands.
He pried the terrified hand from his own, wishing he could convey why he was doing it. The fingers spasmed weakly against his palm as he gave them what he hoped was a comforting squeeze.
With both hands free, he pulled the buoy easily over the side of the boat. Rope piled up beside him as he hauled it aboard, hand over hand. It was coated in green slime--he’d been doing this for so many years he adjusted his grip without even thinking, and any disgust he’d felt had been left behind in early childhood--but about a meter down, the texture changed. He scraped some of the algae off; beneath it, an orange wire wrapped tightly around the rope. Fishing line, the kind they used at the quayside for kids to catch crabs.
He kept hauling until the line lost all of its slack. If he hadn’t already known someone was caught up in it, the change in weight would have told him; it would have had to have been a hell of a crab to set his shoulder muscles burning like this.
A seal’s tail emerged from the water, surprising Toby. It had definitely been a human hand clutching his. Maybe a diver? Yes, probably a diver, trying to get his attention to help the trapped animal. It didn’t feel quite right, though. Why had the diver been so frightened? And why wasn’t he or she helping Toby now?
And then one of the diver’s arms appeared. Attached to the seal’s torso.
The shock of it made Toby relax his grip, and the algae-coated rope slipped through his fingers, the strange body disappearing back beneath the waves with a splash. Saltwater hit his face, and he shook the surprise away. You didn’t expect the sea to forgive you even a moment’s inattention. The sea might not care if whoever--whatever--this creature was died, but Toby did.
He hauled the body on board and stared down at it. He wasn’t a man of science, but he believed in evolution and the big bang and global warming. He didn’t believe in magic or fairies or...or mermaids. But here one was. Or something like one anyway, though mermaids in stories were half-fish, and this was clearly mammalian.
He shook himself. It didn’t matter whether he believed in mermaids or not. There was one here, and if he didn’t do something, it would die. He rolled the being onto its side, the closest he could get to the recovery position, and frantically searched the boat for scissors or a knife. The line was tangled around the creature’s tail, cutting it so deeply it looked like the skin was an entirely separate layer from the human torso.
He found a knife and sliced through the line tethering the mermaid to the buoy. He shoved the buoy back over the side of the boat. The crabs would still be there tomorrow.
Toby crouched over the body, praying he wouldn’t be called on to remember his long-unused CPR training. The only thing that came to mind was how rarely it worked. He felt for a pulse on the creature’s only arm--its other limb was a seal’s flipper--but his own heart hammered so hard he couldn’t tell if the creature’s was pumping at all.
The being convulsed, coughed, and vomited water across the deck. As Toby watched, its chest started to move, shallowly at first, then great, heaving breaths. Toby gave its human shoulder a tentative shake, but it remained unconscious.
He tucked a life jacket under the creature’s head and laid the blanket from the first-aid kit over it. No, him. At least, judging by the face. Toby didn’t know how to check a seal’s gender and didn’t think it would be appropriate to go poking around under the circumstances.
Despite his growing sense of urgency, Toby steered Prospero
back to the quay as carefully as he could. As long as the merman was breathing, the priority was to prevent his wounds from getting worse. When Toby glanced back, he could see blood seeping through the blanket.
When he arrived, the quay was empty, the pub the only building with its lights on. That was normal for Saturday night in Haggenby; most of the village would be in there, including, if Toby’s luck was in, his father. The harbor was full of fishing boats like Prospero
, some in better repair than others. Most were day boats. The harbor wasn’t big enough for large trawlers, which usually docked at Whitby instead.
The merman was still unconscious. Toby lifted him first onto the rail, then hopped over onto the slick stone steps leading up to the quay and picked him up again, one arm under his neck, the other where his knees would be. He was far more awkward to carry than a human, but the shop was only a hundred yards away. By the time Toby reached it, he’d lost his grip on the merman’s tail altogether and held him awkwardly under the armpits--flipperpits?--like a child clutching an oversize teddy bear.
Haggenby was the kind of town where you didn’t need to lock your house at night--something for which Toby had never been more grateful as he shouldered open the door next to the shop front. To his left was the back of the shop and the family kitchen, while ahead of him was a steep staircase. He ascended it backward, trying to hold the merman high enough his tail wouldn’t knock against the uncarpeted steps, but not always succeeding.
The only way to reach the bathroom was through his father’s room. Toby held his breath as he nudged the door open with his shoulder, angling his body so if his father was in, at least he wouldn’t see the merman. The door swung away from him slowly, the last rays of the evening light through the blinds drawing stripes across Toby and the merman.
The room was empty. Toby hefted the merman higher in his arms and waddled over to the bathroom door. Toby laid the merman under the window and shook the kinks out of his arms. He’d need a good wash himself before all this was over.
The bath was an old claw-footed one, older than either of the present occupants of the house, and took an age to fill. He didn't know if the merman could survive for long outside water--Toby was fairly certain he was mammalian, and he was still alive for now, but Toby wasn't willing to stake the stranger's life on some guesswork biology. What if, like a whale’s, his lungs weren't strong enough to survive his own body weight? He turned both taps on full in the hope it would fill a little quicker. He doubted the merman would care about the temperature, not if he was used to the cool waters of the North Sea.
There had been an extensive first-aid kit in the shop ever since a young Toby had shown off his filleting skills to his school friends and lost his left ring finger from the first knuckle up. The kit included a bottle of antiseptic wash, half of which Toby emptied into the running water.
He turned around to check on his patient and found his patient checking him out. There was no other way to describe the appraising look in the merman’s eyes.
Toby swallowed. Right. No
. He was imagining it. The merman was in pain, and Toby was in a ratty sweater and stained bib-and-braces oilskin. He was a shapeless blob of yellow polyester that smelled of fish.
Toby swallowed again and approached the merman. The merman propped himself up on his human arm, watching Toby closely. He opened and closed his mouth.
“Sorry,” Toby said. “I’m deaf.”
* * * *
Toby wasn’t profoundly deaf, but he had no hope of making out the words in whatever noise had come out of the merman’s mouth. His hearing aid was upstairs next to his bed; it wasn’t waterproof, and Toby avoided wearing it as much as possible. He’d lost his hearing in his teens--completely in one ear and partially in the other--after contracting meningitis, but at the time the only aid his father had been able to afford was a large, uncomfortable thing with an external microphone he’d had to squeeze into his breast pocket. Because school hadn't been bad enough when he couldn’t
hear them laughing at him behind his back.
The merman smiled at him. He let Toby pick him up--much easier now he was conscious and helpful--and lower him into the bath. Propped against the end of the tub, he put his fingers to his lips.
“No, I can talk just fine,” Toby said. “I just can’t hear you well.”
He signed as he spoke, a habit ingrained as long as his hands were free, though he didn't always speak as he signed. The support team at the hospital had decided young Toby would do better learning Sign Supported English rather than British Sign Language since his father was still hearing. SSE used the same word order as spoken English, and the two were usually combined. Toby knew the basics of BSL syntax, but he rarely practiced it.
The merman repeated the gesture. He pointed to his ears, smiled, and nodded, then his mouth, frowned, and shook his head. He pointed to Toby’s mouth, nodded, then his ears, and frowned.
“You’re mute?” Toby asked.
The merman nodded.
“Okay, well... Do you know sign language?”
The merman put his fist next to his stomach and moved it upward, the divers’ sign for “low on air,” then made the more gruesome “out of air,” hand slashing across his throat.
Well, it was a start, and the merman was hearing, which meant they could manage “yes” or “no” questions at least.
Toby dunked his hand in the water and swirled it absently. The bathwater was pink with the merman’s blood, and the tang of antiseptic stung the back of Toby’s hand. He peered down at the merman’s tail. The first-aid kit had a small pair of scissors for trimming bandages, which Toby hoped would be sharp enough to snip the fishing line if necessary. He wasn’t sure about cutting it, though; some of it was so deeply embedded, he was scared he’d miss it if he didn’t get the line off in one go.
Water hit the side of his face. The merman was trying to get his attention.
Fear shot through Toby. More of the merman’s cut skin had come loose. The merman gestured to it with both hands, then directed Toby’s attention to his face. He smiled at Toby, tilting his head slightly to one side, and waved at the length of his body.
With both hands.
“What?” Toby said aloud.
The merman was human to the waist. Where his flipper had been was an arm to match the other one. Around his hips clung a furred skin, moving gently in the currents generated by the running taps.
Toby touched the loose skin. The underside was warm from where it had rested against the merman. He ran his fingers along the join between skin and merman. The furred material lifted away from the merman's human flesh easily, but the body underneath didn’t fill it out properly; the roundness of the seal was replaced with the sharp angles of a human pelvis. Toby’s fingers skittered across the merman’s hips, the humanity of the flesh causing his breath to catch in his throat and the blood to rise to his face.
Under the fur was a very attractive man. Warm brown complexion, slightly darker body hair, responsive under Toby’s touch.
An orange line snaking through the water tangled around Toby’s roving fingers. He blinked at it, uncomprehending, before he remembered what he was doing.
“Shit.” He snatched his hand back out of the water. “I’m so sorry.” With a flat hand he rubbed his chest in a circle, the sign for sorry.
The merman watched him closely and copied the gesture, arm trembling.
Toby forced a smile for him. “Are you in a lot of pain?”
The merman shrugged, but the movement was small and tight. Of course he was in pain. What had Toby been thinking? He wasn’t a teenager anymore; his hormones shouldn’t have the power to distract him like that, no matter how attractive the stranger was.
He found the end of the wire and tied it around a stone with a hole in it to act as a weight. All traces of bait were long gone. The merman slid down the bath to rest on his back and raised his tail. Toby rolled up his sleeves and passed the line underneath him. It had cut more deeply into his hips than anywhere else, and as it came free, the water grew pinker.
It took three hours to untangle the whole line. Toby refilled the bath twice when the water got too cloudy to see the line through. The strangest moment came about halfway through the process when the merman’s skin, shredded into strips, drifted free and gave Toby a glimpse of the merman’s knees underneath.
Toby stopped working. “You’re not a merman, are you? You’re that other thing, that Scottish myth. Or is it Cornish? Silky? Selkie?” His hands were still on the stranger’s skin, so he couldn’t sign. He didn’t know what the sign was for selkie, now he came to think about it. He’d only seen the word in books.
Not that it mattered, Toby supposed, when he’d have vehemently denied the existence of either creature up until a few hours ago. He wasn’t some kind of superstitious stereotype of a fisherman, some “ancient mariner,” thank you very much.