One summer I fell in love with the sea. It didn't end well.
My cousin owned a cottage in northern California. It was like something out of a storybook. A former inn, built in a Bavarian style, sitting about a hundred yards from the water's edge. Retaining walls made of colorful sea-worn stones. Lovely backshore with verdant patches and big picturesque rocks whose interesting shadows crept along the landscape. Acres of that pleasant smooth sand the same color as the wheat fields back home. And the sea! The endless sea. How could I even describe it? I wanted to stay by its side for as long as I lived.
Three days of strangeness changed my feelings. The sea is as alluring as ever, but it no longer welcomes me.
It started with the neighbor's dog. That little loud-mouthed vermin and the portly loud-mouthed curmudgeon who owned it constituted the only unpleasant part of my blissful stay at the cottage, the thorns on the proverbial rose. I'd go get the paper, it would yap at me. I'd fill the bird feeders, it would yap at me. I'd weed the garden, it would yap at me. I'd go swimming, it would yap at me. I'd lie in bed listening to the gentle cadence of the waves, it would yap at somebody else, but I'd still hear it.
One morning I found it on the cement steps leading down to the shore, tearing at the remains of some animal. I tried to shoo it away, and ended up swearing loudly and brandishing a chunk of driftwood when it wouldn't leave. The old man came out and we got in a rather heated argument. It was some time before I was alone again and remembered to throw the dead thing in the trash.
The dog hadn't killed it. It didn't look like any animal had. It looked more like somebody butchered it and left what they didn't want. I might not have thought much of it if it weren't for the next day.
I was sweeping sand off the same steps and noticed a carcass lying on a flat rock a few feet away. This one was more disturbing, because I saw it before the animals could wreck it. It looked nice and orderly, in a horrifying sort of way.
The animal had been carefully skinned and dissected. Some of the muscles and organs were cut cleanly away in a symmetrical fashion, and the rest was laid neatly on the ground. There was hardly any blood. I could have called the police, talked to some neighbors, or at least taken a picture of the weird sight, but my first instinct was to throw it away.
It was only after I tied up the trash bag that I made an unpleasant connection. The old man had been calling for his dog all morning, and the mutilated body was just about its size and shape.
I kept the discovery to myself. I would've looked pretty suspicious if I shared it.
The carcasses weighed heavily on my mind for the rest of the day. Who does that sort of thing? What else do they do? I didn't have any answers that weren't scary. I remembered seeing something on T.V. about this happening to cattle. It made me uneasy. When night came there was a pleasant stillness all around, but I couldn't relax. I couldn't forget why it was so quiet.
The following evening I came in from my last swim of the day and sat a while in the enclosed porch. I had a Glazunov record on the turntable, a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the end table, and was watching the tangerine Sun slowly sink into the wine-dark sea. The air and water were as calm as they get, and the landscape was beautiful.
Something caught my eye. It was crawling over the smooth rocks amid the long shadows. It looked like a person, but didn't climb like one. He, she, or it seemed to be searching.
Just as I was getting curious about what I was seeing, the sight was gone. I scanned the boulder-strewn shore for another glimpse, but to no avail.
Soon after I gave up, I noticed something else (or the same thing in a different place). A woman was settled in the sand, letting the gentle waves wash over her body.
Walking down and sitting next to her seemed like the natural thing to do. I'm not normally so bold around a strange woman, but I was enchanted by the moment (or buzzed from the wine).
She was a dark-haired pale-skinned beauty. The stuff of Rococo paintings. She was bare from at least the waist up. She seemed to have something on, but the waves and sand that enveloped her made it hard to tell.
When she spoke to me, her voice was soft and sweet. Her accent was nothing I recognized.
"The sea is beautiful tonight," she said. I concurred.
"Were you looking for something?" I asked.
She showed me. It was a knife. She replaced it in a pouch she had with her. It was a rusty olive color with little decorative tails and curly cords. It looked almost alive. It was full of implements like blades, forceps, and scales.
I might've wondered about that, but when she leaned against me I couldn't think about anything but her warm, soft body. I found myself eyeing her chest. I didn't mean to look, but there were a couple things I couldn't miss: long red gashes.
"No," she said calmly. "Those are normal."
She was right. I recognized what they were in a moment. A surprise, but it made sense. Just as I'd started to get the notion she'd gone swimming in a sliver sequined skirt, it dawned on me I was seeing something entirely different down there.
Again, a little buzz, no panic. I didn't even say a word, just continued relaxing in the sand. I was curious, to be sure, but I wasn't in the mood to analyze the situation.
I put my arm around her and we enjoyed the summer evening together. Mostly we sat in silence. I did ask a couple questions before our encounter was over.
"What brings you to land?"
"What kind of food?"
"New kinds. Not very good."
"Do you like the land?"
"I like where it meets the sea." She gestured to the shimmering waves. "How could I not love sights like this?"
The sunlight was slipping away, and before very long it came time for her to go. I asked if I could see her again.
"I'd like that," she said.
"Before you leave, may I see you? All of you?"
She didn't answer for what seemed like ages. I was scared she was offended. I couldn't blame her if she was.
Just as I was thinking how to word an apology, she slipped into the water to wash the sand off her body. All was revealed when she did a handstand in the shallows.
This confirmed what I thought. She was quite the mammal up top, but an unmistakable fish at the bottom. There was some confusion in the middle, with peachy skin around the gills and scales around the navel. The things you expect to see on a woman stopped showing up after the waist. The silver scales glistened gold in the sunset. I could never possibly describe how beautiful the sight was.
"Now you," she said as she rested in the wet sand.
"Now I what?" I asked, though I was pretty sure what she meant.
Without negotiation, she seized my shirt and swiftly yanked it off over my head. Not wasting an instant, she started pushing me into a standing position. The moment I obliged, she stuck her fingers into my waistband and pulled my trunks down.
"So this is a land man," she cooed as her eyes examined my body. Her cute expression of innocent curiosity made me smile. The fear and embarrassment that should have been at the forefront of my mind were over in a distant corner instead.
Soon her eyes fixed on something that made her nose wrinkle in disgust.
Almost as soon I was gone, running naked to the cottage as fast as my legs could carry me. I've never gone near the edge of the ocean since. Not after those final words the sea woman said to me.
"That'll have to come off."
Written by Floyd Pinkerton (Lee Sherman)