Most of the characters in my currently out-of-print novel, EEL’S REVERENCE (not about eels) are human, but it’s the mermayds I usually write about in side stories. Maybe in one or both of this month’s remaining EEL-world Story A Day in May stories, I’ll pay some attention to my own species. Maybe not.
Loach and Muriel are both major characters in EEL’S REVERENCE, which is now under minor revision and cover work for republishing.
Honor of Age
by Marian Allen
Loach curled his long, heavy tail with ostentatiously practiced ease, showing off for the young mermayd who was aground for the first time. He looked across the dockside eatery at Muriel, the owner, and cocked his head at the tad struggling to find a place for his flukes.
Muriel crooked a smile, unlike her usual brilliant flash, and sent one of her employees over to take their order.
All thoughts of impressing his young nurture mate – sibling was the closest translation in human language – Loach used his constantly improving human to ask, “What’s wrong with Muriel?”
“Just feeling her age, I guess. She’s got a birthday coming up. Now what can I get you?”
Loach ordered two of the special – raw oysters with spiced lemon sauce, and stewed calamari. While they waited for their order, Loach explained the use of tables, supplied human and mermayd equivalents for all the objects in sight, and instructed him in the rudiments of land-side dining etiquette.
“Muriel,” the tad said, wrapping his mouth with difficulty around the mushy formations of human language, “you know him how long?”
“Longer than you’ve been alive. Two – maybe three years. And Muriel isn’t a him. There are two kinds of humans – well, there are many kinds of humans, just like mermayds, but they can only spawn one way or another way. The hers always only produce eggs and the hims always only produce sperm. Muriel is a her. They call us all him because they think we look more like their hims.”
When the servant returned with their food, Loach asked, “How many years has Muriel?”
“She’ll be twenty-eight in two days.”
The mermayds were left stunned. Twenty-eight wasn’t an unknown age, but it was an impressive one. A mermayd that old would either be a paranoid recluse or a battle-scarred ruffian. Muriel was neither, which impressed them deeply.
In the language mermayds used out of water, the youngster, Bass, said, “Do I want to be here for human spawning season? Is it beautiful and terrible, like ours?”
“They do that differently, too,” he said, for the first time finding something about humanity he thought was better than the mermayd way. “The hers hold the eggs inside their nurture pouches and the hims fertilize one or two of them right there. Very economical. And it happens randomly, so each human has a particular birth day, not a swarm anniversary.”
Loach’s pleasure of displaying his knowledge of an alien race was tempered by concern for his friend. And he did consider Muriel a friend, insofar as a mermayd and a human could be friends. They had helped each other over difficulties, he had known her nearly all four years of his life, they had come to respect one another – again, insofar as that was possible.
Loach returned alone the next day, and was appalled to find Muriel walking, not on two legs, but on three. The third one was wooden; she held it in her hand and used it to help her balance on those inherently unstable “two tails,” as the old seabodies called them. Using a cane had been pointed out to Loach before as a sign of advanced age.
For the first time, he resented being relegated to the “mermayd table” in the corner, a table without chairs, to accommodate his people’s bulky, eel-like tails. He wanted to be closer to the kitchen, so Muriel could come visit with him as she usually did, and as she obviously wouldn’t now, since that would involve crossing the room in her elderly decrepitude.
The next day would be Muriel’s birth day, but the servant who waited on him said the restaurant would be open, with no celebration planned.
He decided he needed to honor their long friendship. As mermayds grew older, the pod honored the oldest, especially those who had been of most benefit to the pod: nurturers, defenders, poets, leaders, wise counselors. Muriel had been none of these to him, but she had been friendly in the face of family and customers who disapproved of her serving mermayds in the restaurant. She had been a steady customer for the seafood and coral and salvage from human wrecks he had brought her. Perhaps it was time he acknowledged that.
Loach knocked at the back door of Muriel’s restaurant while dawn was still staining the sky. He bore a large, wet sack on his back and a small one in one webbed hand.
Muriel opened the door, standing on two legs. She glanced at the sacks and said, “Got something for me? Bring it in.”
She stepped back, and Loach eased into the kitchen and clattered his sack onto one of the prep tables.
“Oysters,” he said. “All still alive.”
“You don’t mind if I check that, do you?” Muriel grinned. They had, indeed, done a lot of business together, and Loach had been known to slip a few dead ones in to boost the count. Not today, though.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
When she had inspected and counted the oysters and put them into the holding tank, he named a price much lower than usual.
She counted out the coins slowly and with warranted suspicion. “Why so cheap?”
“It’s a birthday present,” Loach said. “Twenty-eight is an age of honor.”
Muriel put her coin purse away before she laughed. “Twenty-eight is very young.”
“Young for a human.”
“It is? What about your cane? The aged walk with canes.”
“The aged and people who have a stone bruise and need to take some weight off for a day or so.”
“You aren’t elderly?”
Muriel glanced around, apparently making sure none of her staff was there to hear him.
“You say that in front of anybody else, and you’re banned from the restaurant for life. What’s in the little sack?”
It was really too late to pretend he hadn’t brought it for her, so he put it into her hand.
“Happy birthday,” he said.
She emptied the contents into her palm: four matched pearls the size of the humans’ peas, almost perfectly round and thickly lustrous.
Muriel’s eyes widened and she caught her breath. “Loach! Loach, they’re beautiful! I – I don’t know what to say!”
“I’m just glad to know you aren’t at the edge of death’s chasm.” With uncharacteristic gravity, he confessed, “You’re my best friend on land. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Muriel’s arms jerked, as if her impulse was to pin his arms to his side, the bizarre way humans did to show affection, but she restrained herself and only nodded, smiling, water leaking from her eyes.
“Thank you. Thank you. I’ll treasure these forever.”
Loach left before she had time to wonder where he had gotten the pearls, how many others he had found in the oysters he had sold her, and how much better were the ones he had kept for himself.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: invented languages, meeting Jane the jeweler’s daughter today at a restaurant for her birthday dinner