Birthright

This is my first published story. A fun little sketch goes along with it. When I moved to Maine, I lived with my parents for about six months. I was sending out stories with my parents' return address. When I moved to my own apartment, a few stories were still outstanding (par for the course in the publishing world). I more or less forgot about them. A couple of months later, I went over to my parents for my birthday (in May) and right before dinner, my father handed me a letter from a magazine.

"Oh," I said as I started to open it, "yeah, once they get your name, they send you advertisements and stuff." Then I started screaming.

A few years later, this comment would have been me trying to be all nonchalant and sangfroidy, but at the time, that's what I really thought. It didn't even occur to me that it might be an acceptance letter (which it was). Unfortunately, this means that from that day forward, I've been convinced that I will never get an acceptance unless I'm NOT expecting it. Bizarrely enough, that has happened more times than not. One acceptance letter came back in the manilla envelope (unusual), one came by e-mail (more usual but still surprising). But it's terribly difficult to suspend one's expectations 24/7.

Anyway, Space & Time bought it (and my second "Golden Hands"). It was published in Spring 1999. I should also note that this story has been made into a book illustrated by my brother Henry and bound and covered by me (there are 9 issues of one edition).

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Malcolm said, "Merfolk rescued a young fisherman from the sea. He promised to pay them for their pains, but he forgot."

Laura frowned into her mixing bowl. No point in saying, I'm not interested; I don’t care. Malcolm would talk and talk no matter now much listening she did or didn't do, trying to change the world with his words. Laura's hands gripped the mixer that rattled and plunged in the bowl.

"The fisherman had three sons," Malcolm said. "Only the eldest was old enough to accompany his father in the family fishing boat. They rowed far from shore to where the waves churned and the clouds grumbled. A mermaid appeared on the bow of the boat. She demanded the son as payment for rescuing the fisherman so many years before. Desperately, the fisherman cried, 'I have other sons,' and the mermaid agreed to let the eldest go in exchange for the second."

Laura leaned forward and with one hand wiped sweat off the window panes, peering out towards the road. Malcolm would choose this particular story to tell, on a night when Thomas and Alec were late. She entreated the rain and the wind to bring them home and not, please not, let Thomas do anything stupid.

Malcolm said, "The years passed. The fisherman believed the mermaid had forgotten his promise, and he took his second son with him to fish. Again, the mermaid appeared at the boat. Again, the fisherman cried, 'No, I have other sons. Leave this one,' and the mermaid agreed."

He was pushing his words at her, but I'm not that fisherman, Laura thought. I'm not what you think me, Malcolm.

"The man had grown proud of his cunning and when the youngest was old enough to learn his father's trade, the fisherman did not hesitate to take the boy with him in his boat. Once more, the mermaid appeared. Once more, the man cried, 'No. Wait. I have other sons.'

"'Liar,' the mermaid shouted. 'This is your last son, and he is not enough.’

"Seizing the boy she dived into the sea.

"Years later, the man's youngest grandson was lost at sea. The man remembered the mermaid's words. He knew the merfolk were still exacting payment."

Malcolm sipped from the mug at his elbow.

Laura said, "Why do you tell me fairy tales when Thomas and Alec are late and dinner is getting cold? Will stories make them come faster?"

"I'm warning you," Malcolm said. "That fisherman was many times our grandfather, yours and mine. You'll have to worry about more than a cold dinner soon."

Laura's lips curled.

"They took my brother," Malcolm said. "They always return, especially when the boy is handsome and clever."

"Then why did they come for your brother?"

She wiped her hands on a dishcloth, took plates from the cupboard. A car swung into the driveway, its lights sweeping the windows. Laura planted the plates firmly on the table.

"Move your elbows, Malcolm."

She could hear Alec and Thomas in the front hall: the rustling of their coats, their feet--Alec's tread and Thomas's heavier stomp--on the wood floor.

Her husband, Thomas, and her son, Alec, stood in the doorway, stamping mud from their boots.

Thomas said, "Here to entertain us, Malcolm?"

"Educate you, more likely," Malcolm said.

Alec laughed, and Laura smiled.

My boy, that's right, laugh and keep laughing.

"Malcolm," she said, "if you don't mind, I'm setting the table."

Malcolm stood, lifting his mug.

Alec, hair ends dripping, said, "Won't she listen to you, Malcolm?"

"I've been telling her about mermaids."

"We needn't worry about that for awhile," Alec said.

He edged towards the door, avoiding Thomas. The silence between them was heavy, more than the usual closed looks and hooded eyes.

"What's the matter?" Laura said.

"He started to walk home in the rain," Thomas said.

Laura clicked her tongue.

"You'll get sick, Alec."

Thomas said, "It's more than that--"

Laura squeezed the washcloth tight between her hands. The water dripped through her fingers.

She said, "Does it matter so much? He got a little wet. Forget it."

"The road runs along the beach. He--"

"Forget it."

Alec left the room. She heard his feet on the stairs, two at a time.

"You," Laura said. "You and Malcolm filling his mind with foolishness." She rested her hands on the counter. "Don't you think it's enough already?"

Music came on upstairs, loud music.

"You see what you do to him? You hover over him with your fear of mermaids, and he hides in his room, he walks home in the rain. Why don't you just let it alone?"

"There are no more sons," Malcolm said.

"Out," she screamed. "Get out."

Thomas was a handsome man with long, nervous hands and a quick, disarming smile. Laura had married him the summer they met. They lived on an island off the coast of Maine in her parents' house. Thomas owned and managed the antique store on the island and two on the mainland.

Malcolm was Laura's only living relative. He worked with computers in Augusta, a good job, but after Alec's birth, Malcolm left Augusta and moved into the second house on the island.

Thomas, perplexed, had said, "Doesn't he think we can take care of a boy without
his help?"

And Laura had said, without thinking, "It's mermaids" and laughed.

She distinctly remembered laughing, but Thomas must not have heard. She had found him the next day talking to Malcolm. They stood shoulder to shoulder on Malcolm's porch, staring out towards the bay, and she had heard Malcolm say, "You must never, never let him go out there."

After that, everyday, it was the same: "Laura, let's go. Laura, let's send him away."

"No. No."

Thomas insisted on camp during the summers: horse-riding camp, hiking camp, camps in Vermont and even Colorado, anywhere away from the ocean. Thomas wanted to send him to a private school during the fall and winter, but Laura had cried, and Thomas had said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so frightened for him."

"Why do you worry? Perhaps, he'll be ordinary. Perhaps, he'll be plain and stupid. The merfolk don't like plain and stupid. Ask Malcolm."

He wasn't ordinary. He had his father's smile and her bones. At seventeen, his hair fell nearly to his shoulders, black and tousled, and he lifted thin, dark brows over dusky eyes. And Thomas worried and worried, and Laura said. "No. Stop it. It's not true."

Thomas dreamed. He sat in a row boat without oars. Alec drifted past, rising and falling with the waves.

Alec, Thomas called. Alec.

Jump in, Dad. Drink. Taste the salt.

Hands thrust out of the churning water, seizing Alec's shoulders. Alec laughed, spitting up water and blood.

Drink it all up.

Hands rove across the water, gripped the side of the boat.

Thomas thought, Surely I'll wake now, and woke, trembling.

Beside him, Laura slept.

"They can't touch him unless he goes near the sea," Malcolm had said, but Thomas, trembling, wondered, What keeps them from the house? They are devils incarnate. They want my boy.

They may have come already, tonight, and carried Alec away, leaving his bed awash with sea water, scales, sand and pebbles.

Thomas shuddered. If the boy wasn't so lovely, so impossibly beautiful and masculine. What can I do? My son, my son.

Thomas climbed the stairs to the second floor. He unlocked Alec's door, using the key around his neck.

Alec slept, one arm curved, his hair tumbling over his forehead, his face--his whole body--seductive with youth.

Gray sky filled the window panes; gray light stroked the boy's cheek. Thomas stared.

I'd love him if he were ugly. We would have a family. He would be safe.

Alec's clothes covered the floor, the chair, the desk. Thomas chuckled. He would come up here some afternoon, knock gently on the door. Alec would let him in, and they could laugh about Alec's room, and how Thomas's room had looked exactly the same when he was a boy.

Alec slept. Thomas stepped over a pile of shorts and tennis shoes. He opened the desk drawers, shuffled through the papers. He pulled out Alec's jackknife from camp two years before.

He stood beside the bed. He opened the jackknife. Alec's hands lay gently on the sheets, his face untroubled.

I wouldn't care if he were ugly. What kind of father would I be if I did? If I put his beauty above his life? But I won't, I won't. I'll cut hard and deep.

Alec woke screaming, his body still struggling with sleep or shock, and his scream didn't scream, it whimpered. His father hunched over him, clutching a knife.

"Alec," his father said. "Please, it's for the best."

Alec tried to lurch backwards, to get away from the knife, but his body wouldn't respond, and his father cut him again, across the other cheek, and this time, Alec did scream. He heard his mother's voice downstairs, but he didn't want her up here with his father going berserk. He rolled off the bed, landing on his feet. The clock radio and bookcase lurched across his vision. His father nicked him on the neck.
Alec scrambled for the door. The world tilted, and he tore his wrist on the lock.

His mother stood at the bottom of the stairs. She wailed when she saw him, her hands at her mouth. Alec shoved past her towards the outside door. He fumbled for the bolt.

He reeled down the porch stairs, fell and crawled out into the drive. The air bit cruelly. The haze in his eyes faded. The pain returned. Blood dripped into his eyes, ran in rivets down his face. The world blurred, and he sat abruptly, jarred and weeping.

"Alec."

His father stood on the front stoop. His mother stood in the doorway.

"Alec, I'm trying to save you."

"From what?"

The pain streaked down his face, trembled through his skin. The haze rose momentarily.

"From mermaids," his mother said, the anger deep in her throat.

She moved away from his father towards Alec. He didn't want that. He couldn't stop her.

"Alec, I was afraid."

"I never--"

"It was the only thing I could think of. You're safe now. I'll protect you."

"Did it ever occur to you I might not want to be safe?"

That stopped them.

His father said, "But--"

"Did it ever occur to you that I might want to go with the mermaids?"

"No--"

Alec laughed.

"Anything to get out of that house," he said.

His mother turned then.

"You see," she said to his father.

Alec didn't understand why she sounded so pleased, so vindictive.

"Alec." Malcolm was sprinting towards him over the pebbled road. "What happened? Alec, your face."

"My face." Alec sobbed. "They won't come for me now," he said. "They won't come."

"Come on," Malcolm said. "Come on, let's get you to a hospital."

He gripped Alec's arm. Alec jerked away.

You're old, man. The mermaids didn't come for you.

Alec scrambled across the road. Someone shouted. He tripped, scrapping his knees, but, What does it matter now? They will never love me now. They will never take me. It'll be my son instead. It isn't fair.

He was on the beach, clambering over the large boulders. He flung his arms wide, opening his body to the spray that drilled his wounds with salt. His hands shook. A wave exploded against his chest.

He crumpled, the waves tumbling him against the sand. He struggled upright, trying to grip the ocean floor with his toes.

Come, take me to the palaces of gold and green beneath the sea.

The waves slapped him. He huddled beneath the breakers, dreaming that the touch of a mermaid's hand caressed his shoulder.

It was Malcolm who dragged Alec from the sea.

Laura, jeering, said, "So, they didn't come?"

"They didn't want him," Malcolm said.

Thomas, elated, said, "We can have a real home, now, Laura, we can."

But Laura thought, Not want my boy? Not want my boy for a few scratches, a few bruises? Throw him back? Refuse my boy? My boy?

But you never believed they would come, Malcolm might say, and I don't, Laura thought, I didn't. That doesn't matter. He--he so sensitive, so naive--he'll try to go to them again. It's up to us to save him. To give him no reason to hope.

She unlocked the door to the attic, unlocked the chest in the farthest corner; her family's journals lay inside. She had taken them from their shelves downstairs soon after Alec's birth, out of Thomas's reach. She had still believed then she could distract Thomas's obsession, mold it into something less possessive.

She read:

"The merfolk came for Eric, December 16, 1861."
"Aunt Harriet lost David to the merfolk, Sept. 6, 1882."
"Leslie and Penny's boy taken, March 8, 1919."

All the tales she had never believed, had scoffed at.

Boating accidents, she'd jeered. Human mistakes. Human stupidity . Why should the merfolk care more for us than any other family?

From the oldest journal on the last page, July 16, 1764: "Matthew spoke the curse to save Timothy. They took Matthew instead and destroyed all our boats. But a merman died."

A merman died.

She read the scrawled words again and again.

She strode out of the house.

"Laura," Thomas said. "Where are you going? What's wrong?"

She walked to the beach, stood on the water's edge.

She lifted her arms, roared, shook her fists, spoke the curse's harsh words.

A merman died.

May they all die and rot, stinking white bellies rising to the sun.

I am stronger. My desires are better, my wishes more absolute.

Die and die and die.

Thomas gaped from the bank.

He's still afraid.

Laura passed him, triumphant.

I'm not.

A mermaid beached. Alec slid into the sand beside her. Her eyes opened once: the color of the waves in the afternoon. Her skin was coral white and flickered with translucent colors.

She writhed, the great tail thrashing the sand. She gasped blood from her lungs. Alec grasped her temples, holding her steady, afraid that in her retching she would snap her neck.

She gagged, her body weakening. Alec carried her into the water and released her, but she clung to him. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms, kissed her, chanted to her: "You’re in the ocean. Go on, go on."

Life fled with hardly a whisper, none of the long, painful death throes of the movies: a faint twist, the final, parting touch of the soul as it fled.

He shouted, shook her. The questions he hadn't dared to ask before, he asked now:

"Are there more of you? Why did you die? Where are you from? Please."

Shaking her, pushing her into the water and up and out again.

He let her go finally, laid her on the waves. Dead bodies float, but she sank and vanished.

His mother stood above him on the bank, arms akimbo, face flushed with pleasure. Alec didn't even bother to hate her. Both his parents willing to destroy for him. He must be some sort of curse.

That night, the wind whistled hard, and the waves heaved. Alec, standing on Malcolm's porch, watched the ocean swell, stirred by black whirlpools. Breakers pounded the rocks, rolling and billowing, rushing up the beach towards the houses: the city of the deep arising. Merfolk rode the waves, poised on the edge of cataclysm.

His father shouted from the opposite porch, "Stop, no, I have other sons."

"Liar," the merfolk cried. "Liar."

"I am," Alec said, "all other sons."

"But you are the last. If we take you, there can never again be more sons."

"I want to go."

"We never take those who wish to go."

"Take Thomas," Malcolm hollered. "Take Thomas."

"No," Laura said.

"Do you refuse me because of my scars?" Alec said.

"That amused us. But no, even before you lost your beauty, you were worthless: you could not swim well or catch fish. We have no use for you."

Laura laughed.

"Listen to them. They've destroyed his longing better than any of us could ever do."

Alec jerked forward, stumbled and fell, lay with his face in the dirt and gravel. The merfolk laughed. He pushed himself up, the muscles in his arms straining.

"Not my fault," he said. "Not my fault."

"Does it matter?"

He didn't even have the satisfaction of walking away like Malcolm. Nothing left to do but plead and whine and cry: Please, don't leave me here.

His father shouted. His mother's face floated like a white globe. Only Malcolm waited.

"No more," Alec said. "No more children unless you leave me one of yours. Unless you come for me someday. Promise."

Their patterns shattered. Alec flung back his head, his hair spraying them with drops. He stretched his skin until the thin scars split, pouring blood. Like a sacrifice, like an offering.

"My blood," Alec said. "My bones. My seed. No more children until you give me one of yours."

They howled in frustration and raced back to the ocean. But they left a mermaid behind. Alec held her, and she did not die, and he cried Hallelujahs with the voice of the ageless covenanter.