As my call rang and rang, I watched the strange sky. Dark cloud scraps scudded up from the south, angry gusts of rain pitting the sea’s momentarily dull metallic surface and the sand of the ayre. But when the wind snatched each ragged cloud away northward, strong June sun returned the sand to gold and the water to its usual froth-laced emerald and sapphire. “Piss off then,” I said to the unresponsive mobile. “This is the last thing I need today.” I chucked the device into my holdall, grabbed my snorkel, mask and fins, zipped the bag shut against the bit of rain. Wading out past where my increasingly rubbish day could follow, I let the pure cold salt water wash the chip-shop funk from my hair and the aggravation from my forehead. I breathed slower, floating above seaweeds, urchins and pretty fish. Summer evenings stretched so long I could lose track of time out here. And as the last families headed home I had the beach to myself, though I spotted seals still playing amid the stacks and skerries. It was obvious enough he wasn’t coming that I wouldn’t have bothered getting out of the water to ring him back, but I’d gotten pretty thoroughly chilled. I stood on the ayre facing north, to keep the sharp breeze at my back. He actually picked up. “Where are you?” I greeted him. “With Bridget? Again?” The quiet lasted several heartbeats too long. “Freya,” he said at last. “It’s… been Freya for a while.” “Freya?!” I echoed, a mirthless laugh escaping. “Jesus, Reid. Look, don’t ring me back. Like, ever.” Not till after I’d paced back south to slump on the sand, a few stupid tears falling inconsequential at the sea’s lapping edge, did I notice another person swimming. I guessed they’d have arrived while I was talking to Reid... lovely timing. I hoped the wind’s intermittent dull roar had kept my humiliating conversation private. Whoever it was had superb diving skills, remaining submerged much longer than I could. It made me nervous at first; but eventually the swimmer’s head always broke the surface, calm and unrushed. They found their footing and stood chest-deep amid the swells, raised slim arms to sleek back a curtain of long black hair. Good job Reid hadn’t been here after all, for me to endure him flirting. Not that I’d have blamed him entirely. I found myself staring, half hypnotised by the swimmer’s simple grace walking ashore, lovely mermaid hair trailing on the surface. Wearing no fins, they stepped onto the ayre in full, golden sunlight and stood six or eight metres away, watching the glitter off the gentle waves. Wrung out, that hair didn’t look the tangled mess mine must, after swimming with it loose (and mine wasn’t half so long). The swimmer startled me by unzipping and peeling off the top of the wetsuit, movements unhurried as before. Wiry muscles rippled like the sea along his arms, shoulders and back as he looked skyward, apparently relishing the rays that set his fair skin alight with saltwater diamonds. No mermaid at all, I laughed to myself. That’s a selkie lad if anyone ever saw one... only wearing a higher-tech sealskin than in the old tales. And with a camera tethered to his belt, which I hadn’t noticed until he lifted it to get some images of sun pennies in the foreground, skerries beyond, and that stormy southern horizon. Focus turning to the nearer shoreline, he laughed audibly to find me in the shot, a low-pitched laugh with quiet music to it. “Sorry,” he called out. He had the unspoiled lilting, far-Northern accent you only ever heard from the last of the old crofter folk. “Didn’t see you there sooner. You blended in.” Laughing too, despite everything, I looked down: gray wetsuit over a rounded body, sat there like a stone lump on the shore. Sandy hair and skin allover gold with freckles. All but invisible, that was me. He started toward me, easy and slow. It wasn’t only the hair and the muscles that were so beautiful. I couldn’t think how a boy this gorgeous hadn’t been discovered by some international modeling agency, except I supposed he might not be tall enough. So it seemed impossible he’d stare as long as he did at my quite ordinary face. “And does everybody say you’ve got mermaid eyes?” he said, low voice as soft as water against the shore now he stood close by. “They’re pure North Sea. How can a man be sure you’re not a dream...” A flush crept up my salty cheeks. Of course he was only teasing. “They’re greener when I’ve been crying,” I admitted. His own big dark eyes asked for permission before he sat at my side. “What sort of arsehole makes a mermaid cry?” I looked away, at the waves foaming around the skerries. “Never mind.” “Right.” He laughed, gently now. “Clearly he’s not worth naming. You are, though…” “May,” I told him, finding another smile. “Good evening, Mermaid May.” He offered a strong hand. “I’m Eoin.” “Selkie Eoin,” I somehow dared say. He chuckled aloud. “Nice. Okay. At your service.” “Show us your photos, then?” “Trade you for a few with your eyes in them.” Maybe it really was a dream--I couldn’t seem to find the odd request as creepy as I ought, merely charming. He stepped back into the edge of the surf and had me look out at the sunlit rock formations, not his lens. The shutter snapped several times. He sat back down to view his handiwork. “Aye, that’s the one,” he said, and tilted the viewscreen my way. He’d somehow captured my tangled hair as a soft halo of beachy waves down around my straight shoulders, the hint of freckled cleavage where I’d partially unzipped the neck of my suit. And my eyes--unsquinting yet aglow, miraculously neither red-rimmed nor puffy, indeed a near match for the turquoise water in my blurred background. I just looked at him, lost for words. He didn’t let the moment linger into awkwardness. Instead, he showed me more of the afternoon’s images. The best ones, light battling shadow as dramatically below the surface as above, were for his own enjoyment. But I saw art in the others too, macro shots detailing environmental changes for the freelance gig today’s work would fulfill. Twilight was finally falling. It wouldn’t get fully dark this time of year, but it was late. Eoin retrieved his tripod from the car park, took a few minutes to set up an overnight time-lapse film of sea and sky for his client. It was a perfect moment for the exit I hated to make. “I was meant to meet what’s-his-name for the evening,” I found myself saying instead. “Have his tea if you want. It’s nothing fancy, just cheese and tomato sandwiches… but the bread and biscuits are homemade.” “I’d love it.” He smiled, black brows arching in amusement or suggestion. He was even more pleased when my uncapped thermos conveyed a whiff of the whisky I’d added. “And what do Shetland mermaids do for a living?” he asked lightly, accepting the cup, then his sandwich packet. I laughed. “Scalloway’s best fish and chips.” “Ah. The princess in a humble disguise. Evergreen.” His limpid eyes kept inviting the truth. “I’m doing proper culinary courses on the side, though. When I inherit the shop, I’ll make it over into something with a bit more style. Like a gastro-pub, you know?” “Show off more local produce than just tatties and cod and cockles.” He nodded, smiled, clinked his cup against mine. “Is that… home for you, too, Scalloway? Lerwick?” “Oh. I’m… here and there.” “Traveler?” I suggested carefully. His answering gesture was something between a nod and a shrug. I didn’t press it, just nodded too. “Biscuits?” I said instead. He hadn’t so much as unwrapped the sandwich; but I didn’t like to think of him maybe sleeping in his car, going hungry. “Hell yes. What’ve we got?” “It’s vanilla shortbread with bits of red clover in.” “Gastro-pub worthy,” he grinned. “Too nice by half for the likes of what’s-his-name.” After another hour’s easy chatter, he still hadn’t opened Reid’s sandwich, but mine was gone. Most of the biscuits too, of which I’d only had two or three. “Do they not… kick people off the beaches this late at night?” I wondered aloud, languid with the cold-water swim, so much laughter, and a warm bellyful of tea, whisky and butterflies. His smile subtly shifted. “I’m here until dawn.” He gestured over his shoulder at the running camera. For the second time, I was left just looking into his eyes, darker than tonight’s sky would ever turn. “But you’ve got any number of better places to be,” he murmured, never looking away. “What’s-his-name might be waiting at home with roses... Chocolates?” “Well, the call you probably witnessed earlier was himself, declaring this wee cow from the second-hand book shop is his one true love. If I did find him at mine, my next call would be to the police.” I meant to speak as flatly as I had to Reid; but my eyes stung, throat pathetically tight, voice too wobbly. Eoin shook his head, velvety hair scarcely reflecting the lingering light. “Och, what’s-your-name, ye peerie mirrybegyit.” Blinking only made the tears spill over. I hated having to sniffle. But--as if I’d really been a princess in disguise--Eoin brushed the salt drops from both cheeks with one tender, respectful hand. “I don’t know mermaid custom for such situations. Tears, sure. What else are we having? Rage bonfire—got stuff of his in your car? Or is it cold, calculating revenge?” I had to smile. “What’s usual for selkie lads?” His gaze held mine. “Well, for one… I know wronged women can summon them for comfort by weeping seven tears into the sea.” “So revenge, but… not cold?” My breath trembled; I was past caring he could tell. “Yes please.” His smile, his kiss would have left my knees unsteady, if we’d been standing. “Back in five,” he whispered. “Please don’t go anywhere.” The silken warmth of that hair, his skin, and the next kiss were so exquisite I let slip a tiny groan. “Couldn’t if I tried,” I breathed. He brought blankets from the car park, and the last of his own whisky. We moved to the sheltered curve where the ayre kissed the island, leaving the camera to its own devices. With Reid I’d only ever wanted the lights off; but here under the ebbing and flowing simmer dim sky, the bliss of seeing Eoin--and being seen as he saw me--kept taking my breath away. In between, he built us a driftwood fire. We finished the biscuits, then the whisky. We quietly invented stories of the mermaid and her selkie lad. I never wanted to sleep. But I woke to the eager yelling and splashes of young children, under a newly bright sky. The fire was out. I guessed before I sat up, clumsily getting my suit on under Eoin’s blanket, that he and his camera would have gone. I didn’t expect the large oyster shell poised atop my holdall. When I lifted it, the inside gleamed a sea-hued rainbow. Honey-scented banks- and clockie-flowers tumbled from underneath. Set amid the blossoms was a big, gold-tinged pearl, glorious in its imperfection. These tears had nothing to do with yesterday afternoon. I pressed to my lips the blanket he’d sacrificed to keep me warm, folded and placed it in my bag. Whether he came round for fish and chips or whichever way we found each other next, he’d have it back. This, and whatever else he might ever want from me. “Oooh, Mummy, look,” shouted one of the kids on the ayre. “Out there. See, there’s a lovely seal...”
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Ashley Bevilacqua Anglin’s first mermaid story, “Acqua Alta,” was a runner-up in ASU Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative’s inaugural Climate Fiction Short Story Contest, available in the online anthology Everything Change (Vol. I). “St. Ninian’s Isle Treasure” ties more directly into the magic-tinged near-future world of her forthcoming novel (currently seeking the right home). Ashley is a community college professor of Spanish and Italian, wife and mother of two teens, and an amateur performing artist.