by Claire Horn
There is no zipper. It happens when flipper tips touch fatty, slick stomach, melt through and become hands. Seal skin on flesh, flesh to ribcage, coat slips off easily. It is messy (she finds this disorienting each time). Thick, gooey lumps of blubber slide in slow glue rivers down her chest and legs, making a plop as they hit the sand. She looks around, embarrassed. Someone will hear the noises and misunderstand. There is no one. She takes pleasure in squishing her human toes through the blubber clumps and blending them into the tide pools at the water’s edge. She rinses her flesh and her skin, pulls on waiting clothes and a woolen coat (resentful—why is it so cold to be human?) and carries the skin in a leather bag. She shudders as she remembers where the bag originated. Skin in skin.
Every port city is the same and when she opens her mouth the air is salt and dirt. The people are gray and bright. She drinks a coffee: this is her favorite ritual. It tastes burnt and dysfunctional. Two young women talk about honesty, intellectual rigor. She mimics their faces. She can tell her cheeks are too pursed and her mouth is unnaturally open, but she cannot formulate her flesh around them. She bares her teeth and the women are frightened. “A smile,” she thinks. Outside she asks a stranger if she has ever heard of a Selkie. The stranger says “A mermaid? Why?” and keeps walking. She strokes a tree in a large park, goes to the library and rubs the tip of her nose on a row of books. Chilly, the frigid wind seeking out the bare skin under her coat, she approaches a man and latches her chin on his shoulder so that her neck is warmly connected to his suit. He screams.
She is bored. And so cold. She will visit the river locals and then return home. She holds her eyes wide with her fingers so the salt water will come. She takes a low liquid breath, feels the trickle. In it, a tiny smoothed stone, beach glass, a sand-scraping parting that will let the shallow ocean through. She pulls on her skin. Reaching the Thames, she feels the ink figures swirl beneath her, alongside canal boats and steamers, below the eerie orange light-shadows cast by MI5 and its cameras. She nibbles a clump of something chewy caught in a wave, splashes in the glow before she finds them. Instead of flowers, the filth mermaids’ hair is filled with debris gathered on the riverbed over centuries: a bullet casing, mud hardened into stone and washed from the bank to the depths and back again, a mummified bit of wood from an archway lost in a fire, a glass jar once holding pesto, a cast iron wedding ring, a bit of rotted raven’s beak, a belt buckle from around a corpse waist. They wear mollusk armor over breasts tested by the talons of seagulls, their tails coated with the sludge of battles, burnings, fallings past, and marked with the print of discarded books—lost works, gilt words from dead presses. They have never seen daffodils but they know spring.