by Ian Salavon
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Odie and his twelve younger sisters ran out of the beat-up farmhouse to greet their Pa when they saw his rickety wagon pulling up the dirt road. They were dressed in patchwork clothes that were too big on the younger children and too small on the elder ones. Their faces and hands were clean, but their shoeless feet were filthy. Pa was pulling a wooden tank that looked like the water tower in town but much smaller.
“Pa’s home! Pa’s home!” They squealed and sprinted down the road to meet him.
“Stay back!” Pa shouted. “I’ll be along straight away.”
Odie could hear the sloshing of water every time a wheel hit a rut or rock. Pa maneuvered Renaldo, the old, scarred up gelding, to pull the cart up to the edge of the pond. He opened the rear of the tank, and its contents gushed out. Something large splashed into the water.
Pa pulled the wagon up to the house. He was smiling with his head held high. He climbed off the cart and onto the porch, the boards creaking under his feet. The younger siblings showered their father with kisses and questions, while Odie unhooked the horse.
“What did you bring me from the coast, Pa?” “Did you see any monsters on the road, Pa?” “Pa? Were there any elves in the city?”
Pa answered the questions as best he could, laughing and enjoying his family. He was a broad-shouldered, tall, tan man with brown hair that was starting to pepper grey. He had kind, twinkling brown eyes and a bushy moustache and beard. He looked exactly like what he was, a fourth-generation farmer.
“Now children. Leave your father be. He just got home, and I’m sure he is tired from his trip. All of you go wash up and get ready for supper.” Ma said. She was not an overly comely woman, but she was handsome in her way. She had strong blue eyes and hands that were worn with hard work.
The younger children left to wash up as Odie returned from tending to Renaldo.
“What’s in the pond, Pa?” Odie asked. He was practically bouncing from foot-to-foot waiting for an answer.
Pa’s naturally jovial face went dark for a second, and he leaned in with a low voice.
We’ll talk after supper.” He put his finger to the side of his nose, which was Pa’s signal for ending a discussion. Odie knew better than to press, even though he was practically exploding.
The family ate their supper of a small scoop of bean stew and crusty bread while Pa regaled them with stories of his trip to the coast. The children were enthralled when he told them about the argument he had with a goblin merchant over the price of a bushel of cabbages. The night went on with more tales until Ma saw the fatigue in the children’s eyes and ordered everyone to bed.
Pa whispered to Odie. “Come to the porch with me.” Odie turned to Ma, and she nodded her permission.
The night was clear and cool. Pa pulled out his pipe and a bag of tobacco that smelled like berries and old parchment, then stuffed a wad into the bowl. He motioned for Odie to sit next to him on the old bench facing their barren fields. The farm used to by bountiful with corn, oats, and peas. Now, it lay dead, unable to grow much of anything except weeds.
“I got this tobacco from an elf merchant. It’s magic!” Pa’s eyes were wild, and he smiled mischievously, then laughed. Odie laughed too. Pa took a puff of his pipe and let out a cloud of lavender smoke that smelled like roses. He took another puff that was orange and smelled like mixed fruit.
“Odie, in that pond is something that’s going to change our lives.” Pa was watching the water with his jaw set.
“What is it?” Odie asked, hardly able to sit still.
Pa took another puff of his magical tobacco. This time it was blue and smelled like something Odie couldn’t recognize, but he liked it.
“It’s a mermaid,” his dad answered.
Odie’s eyes went wide, and he used every morsel of self-control he had to keep from running to the pond and looking.
“Truly?” He said giddy and short of breath.
“Calm down, son.” Pa said. “Yes. Truly. And I am telling you because I want you and you sisters to stay away from it.”
Odie’s face sagged like something was pulling his skin to the ground.
“Son, you don’t realize how valuable that thing is.” He pointed to the pond with his pipe as yellow smoke wafted from it. “Do you know how much gold we could get from selling it?” Odie shook his head. “Enough to where we don’t have to be farmers anymore. Plus, if I can figure out what she wants most” He paused to take a long pull off his pipe. “She will grant us a wish.”
“But I like being a farmer!” Odie said. “And I’m good at taking care of the livestock. Even better than you.” Odie paused and saw Pa raise an eyebrow, but he went on. “Who brushes the mule-icorn twice a day? Who’s in charge of the harpy aviary?”
If he was being honest, Odie didn’t like taking care of the harpies. Their shrieking gave him a headache at least once a week.
“Who nursed Renaldo back to health when that dragon got hold of him? I even won the blue ribbon at the fair for that cockatrice I raised from an egg! I can take care of one mermaid! Please, Pa?” Odie had made his point. It was up to Pa to agree
“Odie, I know your heart is in the right place. And I admit, you have a way with the animals, but this is different. Mermaids aren’t domesticated. They’re dangerous and devious. Don’t you remember all the stories when you were little about shipwrecks because of merpeople? Those aren’t fables. She’s smart. She’ll try to manipulate you. She will blind you with her beauty. I’m telling you, for your own safety, stay away from her.”
Pa softened when he saw the genuine disappointment in Odie’s face. He reassuringly put his hand on his oldest child’s shoulder. “Son, this is something we must protect. I’m barely making ends meet as it is. We lost money with our crops this trip. Think of her as an investment we don’t want to jeopardize. Trust me. Stay away. Its man’s work, not for a boy.”
“But Pa…” Odie pleaded.
“No, son. You’re not to go near the pond until after we sell her. Shouldn’t be more than a few days. I’ve already got some buyers. You’ll get to see her then.” Pa pressed his finger to his nose, and the chat was over.
Odie went to his room and laid on his bed without changing or washing up. He stared at the ceiling breathing deeply through his nose. His jaw was clenched so tightly his teeth hurt. Who was his father to tell him he couldn’t handle taking care of a mermaid? Pa had been gone for weeks. Didn’t everything get taken care of in his absence? He was the man of the house while his father was at market. Odie made sure everything ran smoothly. So what if Ma and his sisters helped him. He’d still been the one to get up before the suns and get the day started. He was thirteen now. Almost an adult. If he couldn’t help caring for it, at least he could look. What would that harm?
Odie waited a few hours until all the moons were up. By then everyone in the house would be sound asleep. He opened the shutters to his window and climbed out. The dewy grass squished quietly under his bare feet. He chose his footsteps carefully, being as silent as he could until he was far enough away from the house to walk. Odie wasn’t concerned about waking up his parents or his siblings, but if the harpies heard him, they’d start a racket. The sky was clear, and Odie could see the reflection of all three moons on the surface of the pond. Only the gentle wind moved the water.
He picked up a small rock and walked closer to the edge of the water.
“Hello?” his voice came out softer than he’d intended. Odie cleared his throat and said again, “Hello?” Not forcefully, but loud enough to be heard. Nothing.
He couldn’t blame her for not wanting to talk. She was probably angry to be captured. Odie wasn’t even sure if mermaids could talk. He made a sound halfway between a grunt and a sigh and threw the stone into the pond. It skipped twice and landed close to the middle. Odie turned to walk back to the house. He took three steps when he felt something hard hit him in the back of the head. It made his ears ring. Odie shook his head to clear it and turned back to the pond.
The water wasn’t moving but something was floating in the center that hadn't been there before. He stepped toward the water's edge when he kicked something. Odie looked down and saw the same stone he’d just tossed into the pond.
The thing in the pond raised up. It was a head. He was breathing faster and bouncing on his feet. The head was moving to the water’s edge. Odie took a step forward then remembered Pa’s warning. He wouldn’t let some sea creature beguile him. He was stronger than that, and he was determined to show his father that he could be a man. He decided to stay at arm’s length no matter how close the mermaid came to the shore.
As she got closer to the grass, Odie could see details. She had unblemished skin the color of toasted wheat and a long mane of golden wavy hair. Her eyes were soft and so green they made the wet grass he was standing on envious. Her body was supple and curvy, and she moved with unpracticed grace. Her breasts were bare and heaved in the moonlight.
Odie took two steps toward her before he realized he’d moved. Once again, he forced himself to step back.
At her waist was the beginning of a long fish tail. The scales started out bright silver, faded to bronze toward the middle, and ended in a mixture of purple and pink. She was the most beautiful anything Odie had ever seen, and it took all his will not to run to the water and embrace her.
“Hello.” She said. “I did not hurt you, did I?” Her voice was a combination of song, wind, rain, and lust.
“I…uh…I…” Odie’s thoughts were somewhere else as he stared at the creature.
“The stone.” She giggled and pointed to the rock on the ground. “I did not mean to hurt you. I was only trying to play. Is that not what you wanted?” she said and pursed her lips.
Odie thought he was familiar with beauty, but this was different. She stirred something in him. “No.” His voice was shaking, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“You didn’t want to play?” She pulled her shiny hair behind one of her ears. They were pointed.
“Yes!” Odie said eagerly. “I mean, no you didn’t hurt me.” He rubbed his head where the stone hit. Gods, Odie thought, it was like looking at Heaven.
“Good. I’m Druadina, but you may call me Drua. What is your name?” she said and pushed her body up to the moons. She slapped her fish tail in the water. Odie tried to look away, but he ogled her even more.
“Odie.” He managed to mumble out.
“Odie. That is a cute name for such a strong young man,” Drua said batting her eyes. “What shall we play?” she licked her full pouting lips.
“What do merpeople like to play?” Odie asked, rubbing his chest to calm his stampeding heart.
“Let us play Questions!” Drua’s tinkling voice rose. “You ask me a question, and if I do not know the answer you get a point. Then I get a turn. The person with the most points after we ask ten questions each wins. Ok?” Odie nodded in agreement.
“What do we win?” Odie asked.
“I am certain I can think of something.” Drua said and winked. “Oops!” she said and covered her mouth. “That’s not an answer. You get a point.”
“You are so beautiful,” he said. His hands were trembling.
Drua giggled again and Odie took a step closer. “That’s not a question, silly. One point for me.” Drua licked her finger and made a mark in the air as if keeping score. “My turn.” She put her finger to her chin. “Have you ever kissed a girl?” she said with a coy smile.
“Of course!” Odie blurted and threw his chest out. “Lots of times.”
Drua raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms but did not cover her breasts. “Mermaids can tell when someone is lying, Odie.”
His face turned red, and he looked at the ground shuffling his feet. “I am only teasing.” She laughed. “But if you did lie, that is a point for me.” He nodded and she marked the air again.
As the game went on Drua shared her story about how she was captured in a fishing net while hunting mackerel, about how much she missed the sea and her family.
“I thought mermaids had legs on the land,” Odie said, but Drua told him that he listened to too many bards. She fascinated Odie with stories of wrestling squids and races with dolphins. She told him about her life, and Odie realized it wasn’t all that different from anyone else’s. Food, safety, security, a family. That’s all anyone, on the land or sea, wanted in the end. Thoughts entered his head that he never expected to have: How could Pa do this to her? Is there a way I could get her back to her home? Would she love me if I helped her?
Hours went on and the moons started to set as dawn approached. Odie was sitting next to her on the ground with his feet in the water brushing against her tail. It was quiet as they watched the sky start to turn colors. She wiggled closer to him.
“You said you kissed a girl before?” Odie gulped and shook his head. She leaned into him, “It is alright to be shy,” Drua said as she pressed her body against his skin, “but, do you want to?”
Odie wet his lips and said with all the confidence he had, “Is that your question for the game?”
“We are not playing anymore,” she said. Odie’s eyes almost rolled back in his head. He decided right then to do whatever she asked. He didn’t care if he was being charmed or bewitched. He was going to follow her commands as best he could. The idea of not listening to her caused him pain, so he banished the thought along with everything else that was not Druadina.
“What did your Pa tell you about me?”
“He said he was going to sell you and make enough money to stop being a farmer. He told me to stay away from you,” Odie said in near rote memorization.
“What else?” she asked tracing her finger around his ear.
“He said you would grant a wish if he could figure out what you wanted.” Odie’s mind tingled at her touch.
Drua squeezed Odie’s ear and gently pulled him to her whispering “Do you know what I want?”
Odie’s skin ignited with goosebumps. He shook his head.
“I have always wanted a boy of thirteen years.” Her smile was as graceful as the approaching dawn.
With lightning speed, her hand clasped around Odie’s wrist. He heard the bones snap before the pain registered. He gulped in a breath of air to scream, but Drua’s other hand shot to his mouth so hard, he felt several of his teeth shatter. He struggled to get away, but the mermaid’s grip was like iron clamps.
She gave him a bigger smile. Her mouth grew unnaturally wide showing rows of needlelike teeth dripping with saliva. Her face morphed into jagged sharp angles, and her eyes turned completely black and lifeless, like glass.
Odie’s cheeks were wet with tears. “Do you ssssstill want that kissssss?” She hissed demonically and dragged him into the pond. There was a sharp and brief thrashing at the water’s edge, and then everything was silent again.
A short time later, Pa walked out of the house and stretched his back. A series of pops accompanied his movements. He surveyed the farm as he did every morning, taking note of how still the water in the pond was. Ma joined him on the porch with a big earthen mug of steaming coffee. He took it, blew on the surface, and sipped. Pa put his arm around Ma’s shoulders, and she hugged him back. They stood together enjoying the dawn. The suns were low on the horizon and the sky was lit up with pastel colors of a new day. Birds were chirping. The scent of jasmine was on the wind.
“Gorgeous morning,” Ma said gripping Pa more tightly. He grunted in agreement. As they both watched the slow activity of the morning build on their dilapidated home, they saw the surface of the pond ripple. A brown skinned, golden-haired, storybook beauty of a mermaid emerged. She looked at the couple on the porch and waved, giving them a thumbs up. She patted her stomach. Pa raised his coffee mug in greeting. She spun once then leapt clearing her entire elegant body from the water and splashed back down.
“Well,” Pa said. “That’s that. One less mouth to feed.”
Ma clutched her husband “What are we going to wish for?”
They smiled and gave each other a little peck on the lips.
“Everything!” Pa said. He took another sip of coffee and tapped his finger to the side of his nose.
Ian Salavon is a professional chef by trade and a lover of speculative fiction in every flavor. When he is not writing, he spends his time at the Fort Worth Judo Club where he is a black belt and coach. His work is mainly featured in long road trips and family bedtime stories.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.