I've been coping with life by buying a bunch of mermaid art, and in my searches, I came across this gem, entitled "Manchovy" by the wonderful Kat Efird who so graciously let me use this illustration for the story it inspired. I had to know Manchovy's deal.
I was also inspired by the children's book THE RAINBOW FISH, which is probably one of my most loathed books. Basically, this beautiful fish peels away his own magnificent silvery scales to give out to his "friends" who are jealous of how pretty he is. It's trash, and this is my retelling. Shine on, little Rainbow Fish.
That said, THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT A CHILDREN'S STORY!
The patron-submitted prompts were: capybara, prawns, reflections, and cannon (which was supposed to be canon, but homophones, am I right?)
And if you haven't already, feel free to kick some coins into my Patreon. I'll be raising money to pay marginalized artists to illustrate these stories and to support my local Justice Coalition.
Please enjoy the read, comment and share, and please, please, please continue to support the protesters and activists to the best of your ability. Black Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter.
Rainbow Fish, Redux
By Nicky Drayden
Rhonda Jean Fulton is definitely not my type. She’s way too chatty and cries at the drop of a clam shell and pronounces the “l” in salmon, but she’s totally into me. All of me. And in the Boston dating scene, that’s hard to come by--especially when you’re a reverse merman with a bit of an inferiority complex.
Rhonda Jean’s got me pinned to her couch, her lips running up and down my body. Her tongue is rough against my scales, and I flinch when she bites at their tips.
“Easy,” I purr at her.
“Uh, sorry,” she says, abruptly sitting up. “Am I being too rough? I didn’t mean it, I...just got a little carried away. I didn’t hurt you, did I? I thought you’d like that!” Exasperated, she puts her hands to the sides of her face, her pale white cheeks steadily turning a splotchy pink mess. Wetness blooms in the corners of her eyes.
“No, no, no…” I say, reassuring her. “It didn’t hurt. It’s just that I’ve been losing scales left and right lately and don’t need the extra agitation.”
“Oh, gosh, you poor thing.” She relaxes some. Her hand slides down my side, stopping just short of where my scaled gray fish torso turns to brown human hips. “Maybe we should try something a little different then? Some food play, perhaps?”
I quirk a brow, imagining licking a pool of honey from her navel. Or maybe chocolate or, damn, warm caramel, but before I can ask her what she has in mind, she’s hopped off me and is hustling to her fridge. She comes back with a small bowl and smiles demurely at me, keeping the bowl clenched close to her chest.
I grit my teeth. “That looks cold.”
“Yeah, but mentioned how you miss the cold of the ocean against your skin, and the freedom of swimming through the breaking waves, and catching fish with your bare hands. I thought maybe this would remind you a little of home.”
Rhonda Jean is a good listener, I’ll give her that. I didn’t talk much about home usually, but I’d overshared on our third date, when things were picking up steam, and she was licking that sensitive spot on my gills, and I got so nervous I started babbling. “Yeah, sure, okay then.” I relax and cross my hands behind my head. She dips her finger into the bowl, then she paints a goopy white line from my bottom lip down to the waistband of my boxers. It’s cold, but not for long, because now she’s slowly licking it away. She comes up for a kiss, my pouty lips nearly encapsulating the entire bottom of her face.
Nice. Really nice.
But...that taste in her mouth. My heart thuds, like I’ve taken a cannon shot to the chest.
“Wait, is that tartar sauce?” I ask, sitting up so fast she tumbles across the couch. “This is just one big fetish to you, isn’t it?” I am brusque, and before I can even get the whole sentence out, she’s already bawling.
“No! I really like you!” she says, tears streaming down her face. “I don’t care that you’re a reverse merman! I don’t even see species! We’re just all people, you know? You could be a centaur or half gator or a purple sea urchin, and it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest!”
I want to believe her. I’ve seen pictures of some of the other guys she’s dated, and that list is pretty accurate, minus the sea urchin. I pull her close, stroking her back. “Gods, I’m sorry,” I say, reveling in the saltiness of her tears against my face. “I shouldn’t have said that. Forgive me?” I swallow my dignity, then dip my finger into spilled tartar sauce and draw a little heart shape on my chest. Then I lean her back onto a pink sequined pillow, noticing one of my shed scales wedged right in there. Rhonda Jean smiles her hungry smile at me, though I can’t stop thinking about how it feels like the wrong kind of smile and the wrong kind of hunger.
I start to tug my boxers down, the human half of me still feeling extremely horny right now, but she catches my hand. She’s hardly ever interested in that. Instead she guides my head down below to where she reminds me of home in many and various ways.
My doctor says stress is what’s causing my scales to fall out. Okay, well, Dr. Vega is not really my doctor. She’s got a VMD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and is the head vet at the New England Aquarium. If I catch a good Groupon deal, the admission ticket is less than a copay, and she doesn’t mind entertaining my myriads of questions while she’s giving tours to twelve-year-olds.
She’s the only one I bother telling that I’m going back home to the ocean.
“Oh, Phillip, I’m happy for you,” she says, after her tour has concluded. We walk through the coral reef exhibit, her heels clacking loudly in this enclosed space. I like how the fish always seem to follow her. Maybe they recognize her signature floor-length skirts. The fabric patterns vary, but they’re always marine animals. Today it’s pink jellyfish.
“Thanks,” I say, with all the enthusiasm I can muster up, which isn’t much.
“So when do you leave?” Dr. Vega asks.
I check my watch. “Ferry departs in thirty minutes, so…”
“Oh, so soon?” A frown crosses her face, but a compassionate smile quickly eclipses it. “I’m sure this move will help with your problem.”
I scratch at the bare patch on my neck where a cluster of scales had come loose after Rhonda Jean’s aggressive nibbling. “That’s what I’m hoping. I’ll miss your tours, though.”
“Well, you know we’re here, right on the Harbor. You can still come visit any time.”
I smile at her, but I can’t help but feel like I’m giving up. Things were never really that great at home, which was the reason I’d left in the first place. Reverse merfolk are pretty rare. There was one in the clan down current from ours, but she was seventy-six years old and kept to herself, and never took interest in me, though I’d tried to connect on a couple occasions. I’m starting to understand why she’d shut down. There is no place for people like us, below the water’s surface or above.
I take the ferry as far out as it goes. My swimming skills are rusty, and my lungs are crap from smoking with my coworkers. It was an awful habit I’d picked up while struggling to fit in with Jim and the other alpha males in accounting. They took at least six smoke breaks a day, and I’d finally worked up the nerve to join them. They were standoffish at first, but then Jim had made a joke about how the ladies must love my big fish lips, and I’d said, yeah, well actually they do, and we’d all had a hearty laugh. I didn’t dare tell them that men were pretty partial to them too.
Now that I think about it, that’s when my first scale had fallen out. I’d spotted it near the ashtray as we were heading back inside. Silver. Unremarkable. The size of a thumbnail. Important to no one but me.
I always got great evals from my boss, but it didn’t take long to notice that a certain type of employee was getting all the promotions. Jim’s type--loud and boisterous, and a little full of himself. So, I tried to be more like him. I laughed at the crude jokes they made about our gay coworker. I laughed at the racist remarks they made towards Sandy, the Black woman they’d hired to redesign our reports. I studied the plaintive smiles they gave her when she was around. They were nice as could be to her face. I’m all fish and scales up top, so they didn’t know I’m Black, too. Still, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the smile they gave Sandy was the same smile they served me.
I shrug off the memory and find a quiet spot near the back of the ferry. I look over the railing and into the water, catching glimpses of my distorted reflection on the ripping surface. It’s not much different from the face I see in my own mirror, actually--warping and bending to appease others and relieve them of their own discomfort with me. I sigh, then shrug off my sweater, slip out of my corduroys, and tuck my phone in my shoes on a bed of $300 custom arch supports. Won’t be needing any of that now. I dive into the water, and with an uneasy pit in my stomach, I swim down towards home.
Mother beams when she sees me and is immediately pinching at my sides, asking why I’m so thin. It’s so good to see her face--plump, brown cheeks and bright green eyes framed by chunky lobster claw earrings dangling gaudily from each lobe. Several current-shifts ago I’d ventured all the way out to the sea vents to heat them for her, turning them a striking red-orange. Mother swims off for a moment, and when she comes back, she’s got a huge tuna head just for me. While she was gone, she’d also twisted her long, rust-red locs up into a bun, with a fork pinning it in place.
Shit. I’d brought her the fork on my last visit home. She loved silly little human trinkets, and this was one of her not-so-subtle hints to ask what I’d brought back from the surface for her this time. I’m completely naked except…
On my wrist sits the watch I’d forgotten to remove, waterproof to a depth of 100 meters. We’re way past that now, but I take it off and give it to Mother anyway.
“What is it?” she asks.
I struggle to find words to explain the human concept of time, and how they are bound by minutes and hours and seconds instead of the rising and lowering of tides and the seasonal changes in the currents, but it seems like too much of a bother. I tear into the tuna head with my fingers, stuffing bits of tender meat in my mouth. “It’s a deelywhop,” I say as I chew. Gods, this is so fresh. Nothing from the Seaport restaurants comes even remotely close. “Humans have poor directional sense, so they use it to navigate.”
“Ohhhh,” she says. “It’s very nice. Your Aunt Saffra will be jealous. You should go visit your cousins. They’ve missed you terribly. Especially Ida.”
I grin. Ida and I were so close in age that we’d schooled together. The deep, rich black of her tail fin drew much attention, often unwanted, as did her thick, indigo locs. She could have been one of the most popular mermaids in our school, but she was way too broody to bother. Still, my proximity to her saved me from getting bullied more often than I was. No one wanted to get on Ida’s bad side.
I look up from the fish skull I’ve nearly picked clean and see Mother holding up my prosthetic tail. I stiffen from head to toe, and it’s all I can do to tamp the anger out of me. “I don’t need that,” I tell her. “I can swim faster without it.”
“I suppose we’ll have to get it taken in around the waist,” she says, as if she hadn’t heard me. “But I’ve got a stretch of kelp rope you can use to tie it in the meantime.”
“I’m not wearing it again,” I say to her. More sternly this time. “We’ve talked about this.”
“I know, dear. It’s just that, you’ve been gone so long, and people might feel a little uncomfortable with…” She gestures awkwardly at my bottom half.
“I know they’re a part of you, but…”
I nod like I understand. I smile like she’s not one of the people who fall into that “uncomfortable” category. Mother raised me. Sacrificed for me. I’d never confront her on how she’s slowly suffocating me with her love.
I take the prosthetic, slip it on. Damn, she’s right. I’ve lost a ton of weight. She smiles lovingly at me as she ties the rope around my waist. “How’s that?” she asks, pulling it tight. I feel the scales beneath the makeshift belt coming free from their beds, but still held in place for now.
“It’s fine, Mama,” I say. “Just fine.”
I ditch the tail as soon as I’m outside the boundary of our waters. I’ll just lay low for a while, maybe fuck around with Thandis some. We’d dated on and off, never anything serious, but dolphins don’t really do serious. He and his pod were nearly always high on pufferfish, tossing the poor, bloated critters between themselves and letting the neurotoxins warp their brains.
I approach the pod bearing gifts, an armful of huge prawns, like an elaborate crustacean bouquet with little legs sticking out every which way. The boys all chitter when they see me and swim over excitedly, probably too stoned to catch their own food. I understand dolphin just fine, but I have trouble hitting the highest pitches, so my speech has always been stilted and circular. Thandis says he likes how lyrical it makes me sound as I fumble with stringing together twenty words to express a concept he could do in four.
The pod surrounds me, swimming around and around until I’m enveloped by a cyclone of bubbles that feel like magic against my skin. They cry over how much they missed me, then bark out their questions all at once, asking what it’s like above the surface and if humans are really as dull as they seem. Then they tear into the prawns, gulping them down headfirst in a frenzy, and it’s like I’m no longer even there.
Except Thandis still notices me, now a ways off, eyeing me from near a patch of dead coral.
I swallow my nerves, then kick down into the deeper, darker depths. I feel the shift as I pass between currents, waters suddenly becoming cold and murky. My body aches for his in a way that I’d forgotten in my time above the surface.
“Hey,” he says, a casual high-pitched trill. Light from the surface barely penetrates here, but it's enough to highlight the blue-gray of his taut skin.
“Relaxed tidings are being offered to you,” I say. Hey.
I know we don’t have much time. He’ll be needing to swim up for a breath soon, and the pod will be getting curious to where we’ve gone, and I’m about to crawl out of my skin with the cocky grin he’s shooting at me, mouth half open showing all those tiny little teeth.
His skin is slick like wet rubber and gives in all the right places. We make love behind the coral, always behind a coral, out of sight. I bite back my moans, and just like that, we’re done, and he’s speeding towards the surface for a breath. I kick up, too, after I’ve given him just a bit of a head start and catch him breaking the surface with his bottlenose as he reenters the water from an excited flip. He performs another dozen flips, back to back. His stamina is endless.
The group joins Thandis in his folly, and I tread nearby, watching them, envying their power and grace. Thandis hadn’t been overly rough, but I wince at the tingling sensation beneath the scales along my dorsal side. Maybe...maybe it isn’t as bad as it feels. But I don’t dare reach back to check.
“We’re headed to the sand bar, wanna join us?” Odyn says, the pod’s elder, though only by a few current-shifts.
“The honor of traversing the tides with your cohort would delight me in a very tangible way,” I say. Hell, yeah.
I catch Thandis flinching, his snout clenching. I chitter his name to question what’s on his mind, but he won’t meet my eyes.
“Let’s head out, then,” he says, then thrusts himself into a fast sprint, diving above and below the waves. The others join Thandis. I swim after them, struggling to keep up. I was barely able to before, but now with my lost muscle mass and creaky lungs, it’s all but impossible. I start treading again, feeling alone and adrift in this vast stretch of endless blue.
“Horseshoe crabs generally stay in the shallows, but they’ll come out of the water to find a sandy spot on the beach to lay their eggs,” says Dr. Vega, carefully flipping over one of the horseshoe crabs from the Edge of the Sea touch tank to reveal her vulnerable underside and hairy legs. School-aged kids gather all around her, their eyes wide and receptive. “And because the males are latched on to the females with their boxing glove hands, they’re able to fertilize--”
“What about him!” one of the kids shouts, pointing at me. “Does he live in the tide pools?”
Dr. Vega gasps when she sees me, still dripping wet from the ocean, draped in a skirt of seaweed. I’m more raw skin than scales now. Dr. Vega flags over an aquarist to continue the tide pool tour for her and ushers me to her office. Her heels clack against the gray cement floor in hurried steps beneath her long, flowy skirt. Pufferfish today. I wince.
“Phillip, what happened?” she asks as she pulls a first aid kit down from a high shelf, then applies salve to my back. I feel relief almost instantly. I’m not sure if it’s the salve or the touch of someone I know I can trust.
“Rough time at home,” I say. “I don’t think I can go back there. Mama wanted me to wear that prosthetic,” I sob. “And Thandis. Thandis just wanted--” I start heaving, and Dr. Vega wraps her arms gently around me.
“Why are you trying so hard to please them?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I just want to be loved. To fit in. To belong.”
“Then maybe you’ve got the right reasons and the wrong people. They’re drowning in their own insecurities. You can’t let them become yours.”
“My cousin Ida used to tell me that exact same thing. Back then, I’d been naïve enough to believe her, but...what if there are no right people? I’m either the object of someone’s fetish or someone’s dirty secret or making people uncomfortable by just breathing or keeping parts of me hidden away.” I shake my head. “You just can’t possibly understand.”
Dr. Vega smiles wryly at me. “You’re right. I’ll never understand what it’s like to be a reverse merman.”
She closes the first aid kit, then returns it to its high spot on the shelf. Her floor-length skirt hitches up as she stretches. I’m so taken aback that seconds pass before I realize what I’m looking at. Her noisy heels aren’t heels at all. They’re glossy black hooves, segueing into too-thin ankles that seem incapable of supporting her weight, but somehow do.
She turns back, catches me staring. She hikes her skirt up a tad higher, revealing bristly golden-brown fur continuing up her legs. “Human upstairs. Capybara downstairs,” Dr. Vega says, then drops the skirt. “And I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.”
“But…” I gesture around her office at the framed fish anatomy diagrams, plastic models of bi-valves, and impressionist whale art.
“How did I get so interested in marine life?”
“How did you get so interested in spreadsheets and amortization schedules?”
Okay, point taken. My head is still spinning, though. Half of Dr. Vega is a giant rodent. Half of her is human. But it’s the whole of her that’s been so kind to me all this time, despite my faults. Maybe it’s time I learn how to extend that same kindness to myself.
“How are you feeling now?” she asks me.
I stop and really take stock of how I’m doing. My skin no longer burns. The ache in my heart is receding. A little. “Better. Famished though. The swim back was brutal.”
“Are you up for grabbing a bite somewhere on the Seaport?”
“I mean, yeah, but I’m not really dressed for it.” I look down at the remnants of my kelp skirt.
Dr. Vega leaves me with my thoughts for a few minutes, then comes back with navy blue sweatpants and an oversized New England Aquarium sweatshirt. “Here, let me…” she says, helping to ease me into the sweatshirt, but she gasps again as soon as it’s gone over my head. I worry I’ve lost more scales in the process, but it isn’t concern on Dr. Vega’s face this time. She presses gently at my neck, then digs through her purse and pulls out a compact, angling the mirror so I can see.
A tiny silver scale is poking through the skin, so new and shiny and pearlescent, like the inside of an oyster shell.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“Of course, it is. It’s a part of you.” She grins at me. The right kind of grin, I’m sure of it. “Come on, let’s see if we can beat the dinner rush. I know this place that has an amazing salmon plate that’ll leave your taste buds spinning.”
She says salmon with no “l”, thank each and every sea god. So is this a date? Or an extension of friendship? Or just a kind thing that any concerned doctor would do? I’ve got a ton of rapport with my podiatrist, but he’s certainly never asked me out to dinner. And Dr. Vega’s not really my doctor, now is she? And I’m barely even a patron today, since I’d had to sneak in through a service entrance...
I’m stressing again. I take a deep breath, then let it loose, feeling my own insecurities rush out of me like a receding tide. Just be yourself, Phillip Fishman. No matter what happens, you’re still a great catch. I smile back at Dr. Vega, gesturing her through the door and towards whatever adventures lie in wait.