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The Origins of My Curious Condition


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Today is Sunday. I know this because the bells of Saint Anne ring faintly even here, and though I have no use in my present circumstances for the names that men assign their days, the bells remind me of who I was some Sundays since; there is an echo of her in me still. I had a name then too, which like the names of days means nothing to me now. For I live in the water, among fish; the fish and I care not that today is Sunday. In the water we are sinless. We have no need of forgiveness.

In the water no birthday follows the day one is born, no holiday set aside for remembrance. We do not live by week, by month or year. Each nameless day is much like any other, except in vacillations from fair to foul and hotter to colder--and vengeful to forgetful, for myself alone. Sunday is a word, nothing more, and words are made in the mouths of men. The tongues of men and bells make but one noise for me: mere clanging.

In the water one becomes accustomed to a different kind of time. Our clock is run by ebbs and flows, its hours marked in tides, minutes by waves. I know the day before a storm by the swells and a quickening of the breakers. I know the first day of summer by the tang of it in my nose. I know the first of winter by a prickling upon my back, by the bloating in my fingers. I know the half point between sunrise and set by the presence of starfish below my feet.

I have come to measure my age not by years but by the length of my hair, which was once, as I recall, the color of horse chestnuts. Having no mirror I can see only that which has grown within my scope, and at such length the sun has blanched it. The tresses that cling like seaweed below my shoulders are even whiter, and snarled and matted, for I've no comb with which to disentangle them. I have learned to tether the coarse ringlets behind my neck in knots of kelp or deadman's rope. Once, I kept them bound by a yard of satin ribbon I discovered in a shoal, discarded by some young lady in the heat of compromising her virtue with a sailor perhaps, perhaps a soldier. This I wore until salt and sun wore the pretty bow to tatters and it fell away.

On land, I might be a woman of 30 years today. I might be walking to Saint Anne now, with others of my age and social standing. But what may be construed of those women cannot be construed of me, for I am no woman, though I bear a resemblance to one--that girl, of whose echo I spoke. She was driven into the sea before her 16th birthday, her legs held fast in a barbarous manner by a pin. My existence began the moment hers ended--when she was plunged into the water, having stood her last upon two feet.

Let me acquaint you with the pin: in length it is just shy of two feet, in thickness the diameter of a new plum. It was meant for the mooring of boats; the like can be found in great number along the docks at Marseilles. It was stuck through the thick of my thighs, missing the bones but joining my legs behind me. I tried to pull it out by the exposed haft in those first days of sea life, but the mortification was set and would not budge without fresh torments. I chose the secondary pain of leaving it be and lay half-dead upon a narrow sandbar; the half of me yet alive was kept so only by the insistent wound. That I survived the crime against me might be seen by one more pious as a holy miracle; I am more inclined to regard my salvation as a twist in the natural law. It was the outset of winter--perhaps the chilly air numbed my senses short of freezing my blood; perhaps it was the sea salt that stanched the bleeding as I lay in a black swoon, my trunk submerged in water, my contouche clinging wetly against my crucified parts like a bandage, sucking the sea into my open wounds.

Whatever the mechanism of my salvation, my survival was its result. When I might just as easily have perished, should have perished, I lay upon the sand until my hemorrhages clotted of their own accord. The need for fresh water and food forced me out to hunt. Water I found in plentiful supply after half a day's crawling along the shore. I came upon a freshet falling between some rocks into a large pool that fed a smaller pool in turn. This I drank as avidly as the newborn suckles milk. Two or three ravens regarded me curiously from their perches in the limestone cliffs. The larger of the pools was dancing with a kind of minnow; I cupped them in my hands and swallowed them up. I ate the sprigs of wild fennel that grew sparsely along the base of the cliff. I wanted to die but could not bear the starvation that would realize my wish.

I know not how long I stayed in this place; the sun might have made 5 or 25 passes over my crippled body. By day I slept away my miseries and woke only to appease my hunger. By night I could not sleep for the cold, my thin dress affording me scant warmth. My solitude was complete save for the ravens. I heard only the surf that girdled the shores about me; I trained my breath to its respiratory cadence and have kept time in this way ever since.

As I have said, I couldn't extract the pin driven through my hams without inviting further agonies, so I left it sticking there, and my flesh festered all round it, blackened by infection. I was impaled past all remedy upon the wretched spike. But when the punctures sealed over and my afflictions began to heal, the blood flowed into my legs again, and they were not so much restored as transformed. My flesh adhered around the metal, reconformed itself to the pin like a strange new bone. In time, the discomfort subsided and along with it, all sensation.

I discovered I might move about again free of pain, but only in a laborious and sidewinding fashion. I taught myself to crawl adeptly upon my scabrous elbows, dragging my lower extremity crabwise across the sands. This part of me I have come to regard as my tail, for when it is submerged in water I can propel myself a good distance by the use of it, though not so naturally as the dolphin. I keep my tail dressed in various and pretty seaweeds, laced into what remains of my corset. This I do for vanity, though no man has seen me in all my second life--save him that surprised me on the rocks, but he is drowned and may not speak of what he saw.

A word about my skin: once it was fair and supple, but the sea makes a thing sealike, and my countenance has been made olive by the sun; swarthy, too, coated in an oily slick that seems to ooze from me as oil upon the fishes' scales. This condition may be due in part to the codfish and oysters that predominate in my diet.

I know which of the seaweeds are meet for consumption and which are not. I know in what coves kelp is abundant and how to choose its sweeter buds. Though bitter still, I suffer them humbly. Without this I might go hungry on the nights my fishing fails me. Mostly, I eat the fish I catch by my own hands in the shoals where shallowness impedes their escape.

At first, to catch the fish was near impossible; they slipped out of my grasp, as amorphous as water. But in time I learned to secure them, to still their throes within my fists, to pierce the gills between my teeth and so bring death upon them quick. I learned to execute my prey with mercy, to stop their thrashings in my fingers, for their anguish did not sit well on my conscience. But in the water, one becomes accustomed to cruelty out of necessity, and my heart did not grow hard in this so much as it was overshadowed by privation. When I killed the fisherman I barely felt regret. In truth, I felt more contrition when I killed that first season's fish. I held his head down in the brine until the bubbles of his last breath burst all around me and the water stopped churning. I could hear the bells of Saint Anne as his body bobbed silently up to the surface, facedown. I thought of the abbe in his pulpit as the bells summoned his parish to him, unaware that his congregation would be one fewer, the one I had dispatched to god.

I did not kill him but by necessity, as you shall see.

There is a sea stack that sits upon the water between two steep calanques where, when the tide has waned, small spider crabs can be found in large number, and here I sometimes make a meal of them. If the weather is fair I linger on the stones before my swim to shore. The rocks lie well enough apart that one can swim between them freely, though as one nears the mouth of the inlet, they cluster closer and must be negotiated like the mazes in the gardens at Versailles. In this outcropping I fancy resting on a certain stone; it is smooth and cushioned by a pallet of algae that when fired by the sun is most pleasant to recline upon.

I did not hear the approach of the skiff as I lay in the blistering sun that day, only the fearful outcry of a man, which shook me from my repose--too late.

I knew him once, and at 20 he was already a drunkard and a rake. He sold spider crabs to the gentry, as had his father before him, investing the day's earnings in that same evening's drunken whoring. Once he kissed me in the larder of my master's house and laid his red chafed hands upon my leg. I fought him off, but he overpowered me, until madame the cook came back to the kitchen with his fee. Then he left off.

"What's this?" he cried at the sight of me, which must indeed be weird--my tail stretched across the algae, my white ringlets strewn wildly like the tendrils of a jellyfish. "What's this?" he cried again, clutching for the cross that hung about his collarbone, as if his piety, which he had built a fine reputation against, should protect him now. He put his oars in their fulcrums and tried to row out, but the crowding rocks hampered a simple retreat.

I dragged myself by my elbows, lobsterlike, and slid off the stone belly down as the seal slips into water. There being little leeway between the stones to swim clear of the skiff, I cleaved to the prow of it that I might be unseen. I plunged under the surface and traced my way under the hull, but the maze was thick here, the seaweed dense, and it foiled my circumvention. I stayed below as long as breath might hold me there, the count of five waves breaking, but when I must come up for air, he heard my gasping at the side of his boat and, standing up, brought one oar down by my head.

Well, I saw he was intent to make an end of me, so I gripped the skiff by its starboard side and rocked at it mightily until he lost his footing and fell out. He flailed about in a state of panic, cursing me roughly and begging me not to harm him. Then he assayed to climb upon the rocks on which he'd found me.

But I was disinclined to leave him go, to let him sail back to the harbor with his strange tale. I would not have him bring the curious looking for a glimpse of me.

So I swam up behind him and by his soggy boots pulled him off the rocks down into the water. He could not match my strength though he was not so old and still strong. As he bleated the names of mother, savior, patron saint, I laid my hands around his shoulders, pushed him down into the brine. He tried to beat at me with his fists, but the water retarded his defenses. I watched his face beneath the surface, staring into mine, an arm's length from the precious air I denied him, so close to the line that distinguishes life from death. As the water gushed into his mouth and filled up his insides, he struggled all the harder: he knew he must drown.

How like a fish brought out of the sea he looked, the man I held fast underwater; for a fish will drown outside the sea surely as a man must expire within it. And like a fish he writhed in my embrace, desperately at first but gradually surrendering, until all his limbs relaxed and he fought no more.

With some trouble I returned the body to the skiff, where I also relieved him of the willow pots wherein a few spider crabs lay. Then I turned the skiff about and pulled it by its mooring rope, out past the tortuous sea stack and into the currents that would shepherd it back to the harbor.

This pleased me, that a drowned man should come a-sailing into port. For this must surely cause a terrible consternation among the townspeople, give rise to rumor and confabulation, and they will suspect the sea has turned against them and keep their children well away from the waves. They will fear the very waters in which they must make their living, and this suits me well.

For I would have them believe in all the silly yarns they have spun themselves, in the sprites and mermaids that populate their own fears, who drown their hapless sailors and sink ships and spur the tempests and the floods against them.

I would breathe life into such fantastic monsters; I would blacken the sea with superstition. I would give them much to pray for; I would give necessity to the ringing of their bells.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Garret Gaston.

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