By Elizabeth Willsmore
Anya stared at the shimmering scales on Susie’s forearm, mouth slightly open and forehead wrinkled with tension as she tried to wrap her mind around what Susie just told her.
“But,” Anya murmured, her eyes flitting between the scales and Susie’s face, “but you don’t – you don’t have a tail? And you – you look so human, how did you-” her words were cut short by a burble of laughter, as Susie realized that Anya’s naive incredulity made her the perfect first human to tell her story to.
“I’m half-human,” Susie responded, after her giggles had settled, gently rolling the sleeve of her blazer back over the glinting scales on her arm. “I grew up north of Seattle, on the coast near the Olympic Peninsula. My mother’s family lived in the shallows there, just beyond the rocks surrounding First Beach. Back then the area was still relatively quiet, and humans rarely ventured out beyond the sand whenever they visited.” For an instant, Susie’s intense gaze softened as she recalled the crisp briny air of her childhood, the wind whipping her long, wet, black hair into a frenzied halo around her head.
Anya’s eyes were riveted on Susie as the latter took a deep breath, the air shuddering slightly on the exhale as a singular lock slipped free of her tight bun. Hesitantly, Anya reached out and gently placed a hand on Susie’s shoulder, feeling her tense at the gesture, before relaxing back into her story.
“I barely knew my father,” Susie began again, her eyes unreadable in the dim basement light. “My mother told me he worked for the oil companies, in their environmental impact office. He was out surveying the beaches and ocean levels when they first met. Most people didn’t get out past the rocks, but he was looking to see how the tidal patterns changed deeper out to sea and he found the shallow area where my mother lived.” Susie paused, her eyes growing darker as she recalled the details. “Until then, no humans knew Mer-people existed. Even now, knowledge of us is confined to a limited few, mainly conservationists and marine biologists, but my father was the first human to directly make contact.
“Things were fine until my mother got pregnant – something neither of them had even thought was possible – and then my father made the mistake of telling his company what happened.” Susie’s voice broke slightly at the end and she shuddered at the memory of what happened next. “I’m sorry,” she murmured softly, turning briefly to glance in Anya’s direction, “it’s just I’ve – I’ve never told this to anyone – to any human – before.” Reflexively, Susie reached up and gently rubbed the part of her blazer above the patch of scales on her arm, her fingers circling the outline of her wrist in a soothing, rhythmic gesture.
Anya’s brow furrowed in concentration as she gazed at Susie’s features, normally so well composed and controlled, and which now looked soft and vulnerable in the dim light.
“Why are you telling me this, Susie?” Anya whispered, eyes narrowing in concern as she continued to study the latter’s expression.
“I – I’ve never – I’ve never told anyone – exactly,” Susie began haltingly. “And after what you told me, about your grandfather, I just – I felt it was right to tell you, in a way.” Susie glanced over at Anya, whose eyes remained fixed on Susie’s face, as she gave a slight nod, as if to signal Susie should continue.
“Within twenty-four hours of learning what happened,” Susie began, “the oil companies arrived at my mother’s grove. They sacked the place, taking the entire Mer-group captive, destroying the home my mother’s family had lived in for centuries. Everyone, her parents, siblings, and extended community, was taken to a research lab and placed under observation and testing for ‘scientific’ purposes. Years later, we learned most of them died within that first year, since the researchers didn’t know how to maintain the climate necessary for them to survive on-land.”
Susie stiffened as she uttered those last few words, her voice raw and vibrating with the pain of saying the truth out loud. On instinct, Anya gently removed her hand from Susie’s shoulder and placed it on her back, moving it in comforting circles across the smooth material of the blazer, which seemed to shudder at each interval of Susie’s breath. The lighting felt almost eerie as the two women sat in the silence, bathed in a half-earthly, half-marine glow that illuminated the piles of artifacts and objects which Anya realized in horror had likely belonged to Susie’s family before that awful day.
“Fortunately, my mother managed to escape,” Susie continued, her voice less shaky than before. “She never saw my father again, but she knew he would try to find us, and the longer she stayed that close to shore the easier it would be for the oil companies to return and capture us. So, she sought refuge with a group living deeper in the ocean, and stayed there until I was born, when it became clear my half-human half-Mer respiratory system couldn’t handle that type of ocean pressure. I grew up next door to her old grove, outside Second Beach, in the shallows where I could go sleep on the rocks if my lungs were feeling especially weak.”
“I stayed there until I was about fifteen, by which time it was evident I could pass as human, provided I wore discrete enough clothing.” Susie gestured to her blazer, at the long sleeves which left her arms completely covered, and her nylons, which disguised her legs well enough to attribute any strange shimmer of scales to just a trick of the light.
“After that my mother decided I should try to integrate fully into human society. I’d already been making trips into the nearby small town for years, and knew one of the shop-owners, so I was able to rent out a room in her house in exchange for working in her store. Flash forward ten years and here I am, passing as a human, working for Clarke Industries as a representative for their biggest project yet.” Susie smiled dryly, her dark eyes unreadable in the dim basement lights. Anya stared at her for what felt like years, a single russet curl falling across her cheek as she absorbed what Susie had just told her. She turned and glanced around the room, taking in its piles of Mer-artifacts, the tridents stacked haphazardly in the back, and what looked like a collection of children’s toys scattered across various countertops.
Finally, Anya turned back to face Susie, the latter standing exactly as before, her dark gaze direct and unyielding.
“But Susie,” Anya whispered, her voice sounding almost-alien in the still air. “I don’t understand how you think I can help you. As the engineer of this new underwater base, I’d be building where the Mer-people live.”
A smile unfolded across Susie’s face as she replied, “Exactly, Anya. But your building this base could be the chance my people need to be included in the dialogue on climate change.” Susie’s eyes sparkled with a fire Anya hadn’t seen until that moment.
“When I heard they were considering you for the engineering position, I applied to be the representative. You also know what it’s like to feel at fault for the death of your family, and I knew if I could get anyone to understand and advocate for my people, it would be you.” Susie reached over and took Anya’s hand, her gaze never leaving the latter’s face.
“You could be the chance the Mer-people need to regain our power in this climate war, Anya. That’s why I need you to build that base, not only for the humans, but for my people, the Mer-people, as well.”