Illustration by Eleanor Davis
Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender
By Ramona Ausubel
It was dark all the time, and so it was dark when the ship’s captain crept into the corner where his young daughter was asleep. It was dark when he carried her out onto the deck and raised her up in the moonlight to better see him claim.
The whole sky turned green with fire. The girl looked up at her father, at his matted beard. He said, “I loved you first.” He thought of her nine years, all of them under his care.
“You loved me before you hated me?”
“I loved you before anyone else did. I’ll love you after whoever buys you stops.” The captain lowered his head and kissed her on the mouth. She smelled like fish oil. She turned away. The sea churned below them and the captain was no less lost. Through the girl’s thick clothes, a little bit of human heat escaped.
The girl was young enough to seem alive. He said, “We’re lost. We’ve been lost for weeks. I’ll take something good before I die.”
The captain kissed her again, mashed at her with his thick tongue.
Yet more sea rolled under them, yet more water.
The girl pulled her head back, looked up at him. From a leather belt she drew a blade, which glinted. It might have been the only clean thing on board. The girl raised the knife and she sliced her father’s lips.
By morning the captain’s face had begun to blister and rot, and at the very same time, the ship began to blister and rot, as if the man and the bilge were one body. As if he had hot-mouth-kissed a hole through the old lumber, straight to the glacial abyss. In a single day, the bottom softened and the craft split open.
Men and women and children and babies and chickens and goats and bricks of butter and yogurt and dried meat and murky vats of alcohol bobbed on the freezing surface for a few breaths before starting the slow, sinking journey to the bottom of the world where the muck-thick gods would welcome them.
Two men, Esa and Paer, were belly-flopped across what wood was left, praying to a thousand different gods. The water was dark and clear and miles deep. There were pieces of ice, dirt-gritty and luminous blue, floating.
The heart tripped and panted with a desire to save; the body knew not to go in after the beloveds. The fearful skin pressed away, onto the shingle, away from the blue. Esa, from the cage of his head, watched three ghosty women disappear below him, their leather coats opening and waving like the skirts of a jellyfish. Their legs, those unkicking tendrils, white as pearls, were sinking treasure. Women’s legs in those days were hidden beauty, cloth-covered and unmemorized. A shame, Esa’s twirling mind said, a shame to have kept that flesh hidden, seeing how short its time turned out to be. It had been easy to think that arms were for hoisting and hauling, the only fire a rope burn on the palm.
Paer watched everything go down. He craned over the edge of the raft, his right arm in the water, reaching. Paer gathered a bowl, a man’s undershirt, a comb carved from the antler of a reindeer—what an impossible creature that seemed then, land-sturdy and strong-footed on the big, traversable surface of ice and tundra. Paer’s arm turned stiff but he did not remove it. When his wife sank below him like he knew she would, he reached for her, touched her ankle but could not grab because his hand had frozen by then.
Esa had seen Paer and his wife together over the months at sea, and it had been unremarkable. She handed him one thing, he handed her another. She slept in the women’s quarters, he in the men’s. Now, Esa saw that Paer was a body severed from itself. It made no sense for one to exist without the other: there is no such thing as half a heart, still beating. Esa’s throat stinging with salt, he thought of the gods waiting to catch her. The giant man and his thousand daughters, their pots full of sweet liquor, gathering bodies to dance with in the everlasting celebration of death and cold and water and darkness.
Paer put his face in the water but Esa pulled it out by the hair and made him drink the air. Where, where, where, Esa sang, somewhere in the foggy forest of his mind, drift, drift, drift.
The captain, on another shingle, turned himself over and looked up instead of down. His ship, his crew, went deeper and deeper below him. He just lay there, flattened by the cloud-heavy sky. He could have rolled into the blue ice, been dead in seconds. He chose torture, because his heart wanted it, because it was warm.
Currents brought the captain close and Esa reached for him and lashed the rafts together with a strip of cloth torn from his shirt. “Captain,” he said.
“I am no longer.”
“You survived. We have to call you something.”
“Halvar,” said the captain. “But I won’t last.”
Nothing propelled that small craft. Not wind, not waves, not hope. The three men had no wishes for themselves. They lacked the strength to drown themselves, and the strength to break off a loose slat and begin to paddle. They did not have enough blood in their hearts to be hungry, or tired or sleepy or dead or alive. They were three thick trunks, cut down.
Esa had not reached into the frozen murk because he had no love to save. He would not have believed lonelier was possible. He rested his head on the wood and smelled its tree-bloody resin.
Not dying was the surprise. Washed up on a beach white with crystallized salt, the three men continued to lie still, feeling waves below them that were not there. They half-slept, half-breathed, half-lived. It was a hawk that woke Esa, the shrill call she made before diving, soaring back up with a grey rabbit, legs still running in the air. Esa found his feet, stood dizzy on the earth, trying not to throw up, trying not to fall down. No fires, no people, no dogs or horses. Granite mountains jagged behind them and the shore was a white plain. Shrubs and trees scratched upwards. The saltwater melted a dark border of pebbled sand between what was frozen and what was liquid.
Ice groaned beneath the weight of the sky. The three men were held there, between upper gods and lower.
Halvar took Paer’s dead arm off with a sharp rock. Esa had a needle in the satchel that he wore, always, around his body. It was an inelegant wound, bound with three of Esa’s long hairs, braided together. They expected the arm to infect and green, to kill the body to which it belonged, but each day, it healed more. The scar hardened into a ropy tangle. They built a hut out of snow and carved benches on which to sit and sleep. It held the body heat, what body heat there was. In the spring, once the snow had melted, they planned to build a longhouse into a hillside using rocks and mud and logs. The sun would stop setting and any living thing would hurry to grow as much as it could before the light left. Even the roof of the longhouse would green over with unripe grass.
Paer discovered a whale carcass down the beach and set to work on it, building rib from rib with driftwood, turning the skeleton of the deep-swimmer into the skeleton of a surface-floater. He was not bothered by the slowness of his progress, his one arm sore and tired. He had time, all of time, and where he would sail, even he did not know. Back to the middle, back to his sunken wife?
Meanwhile, Halvar began to tunnel, to dig himself down into the ice and snow. He made a maze, as if no kind of lost was lost enough.
And Esa? Esa needed no task to remind him that he would die alone. He sat at the top of the bluff, watching the horizon for anything at all.
Survival of body was not the question for the three lost men, not yet anyway. There were fish in the sea, reindeer to be hunted, washed-up branches to be sharpened into spears. There was snow that could be melted and drunk. The three young men ate their breakfast together around the firepit, in their world of lost ice. They took turns boiling the dried meat until it softened and they could chew it. It felt like nutrition but not like food. They let the meat-steam fog their faces like some warm, wet heaven. They thought of honey, finger-scooped and glistening. They remembered summer, bushes swollen with berries. They remembered the black-red rot on the ground, thick with flies. The boys would have eaten that now, greedily.
Esa wanted to say “Good morning,” but he didn’t, because morning meant afternoon and afternoon meant evening, and he could not think of another night. The other two stooped their shoulders over their bowls and drank the hot-
watery broth. After, Halvar went out to his trenches, to deepen. Paer went out to his boat, which he was building out of the carcass of a whale. Esa left the snow hut, left the last of the fire and went to sit on top of the bluff where he watched the horizon until it scrambled before him, until water and sky flipped, became borderless. He lay down on his back and closed his eyes. Even his dreams were of blank blue expanses, cold against cold.
Esa smelled her first. Fishy and rotted, the slog of deep water. He thought: Great, whales washing up dead all over. You can’t move a dead whale; you have to let it rot, you have to live in its rot until it is finished. A year can pass before the skeleton appears, that great bowl of bones. Esa, before he had even opened his eyes, imagined this time next year, crawling into the empty carcass, hoping to drift away.
There was no whale. The beach was empty of sea-giants. Something flicked, a big fish, close to the water. It was in the approach that Esa saw greeny hair at the top. It was when he got close that he saw a face. “Oh,” he said, because what do you say when a mermaid washes up? She looked unwell. She looked possibly dead. Esa knelt a few feet away, trying to calculate the danger. She could bite, or sting or enchant. She could drag him off to sea. He let the small waves joggle her body, but when she loosened from the sand and seemed like she might drift back out, Esa drew close and grabbed her by the tail. Her scales were dim. She did not fight his grasp but he could see a very faint rise-and-fall in her chest.
It hardly seemed fair to discover magic, but for the magic to be snuffed out. “I could have used the full miracle,” Esa whispered to the mer. She really did smell of the depths. It was an exhausting smell. Esa felt dizzy and unprepared, but he made a soft place in the snow for the newcomer, rolled her into it. Should she be warm or should she be cold? Should she be wet or dry? He took his fur coat off and draped, because this was a woman, though legless and possibly lifeless, she was the first woman in months. It’s good to be a man when there’s a woman around.
Esa poured a thin rope of water from his canteen up the mer’s body. Tail, belly, chest, throat, chin, nose, forehead. Her skin was pale green, swampy. Esa had to touch her. She was cold and rough. She made his fingertips hum.
Water dripped into her eyes and she flickered. Esa stepped back but she was asleep again, or dead again, or deep in some other depths.
Esa decided the mer should be wetter. He dragged boulders down and made a small pool in the shallows so the woman could not drift away. It was hard work, and he sweated inside his leathers, had to sit down and rest. Esa drank all his water but he was still thirsty so he chipped pieces of ice into his canteen and held it close to his body until solid turned to liquid. The reward: for fifty paces, he hugged the thick, fishy body to himself, felt the scaly slap of the tail, the reedy riches of her hair. “Let’s get away from here,” he heard himself say. “Take me to your fathoms.” When he laid her down, he fell in too, and though the water was just this side of unfrozen, he stayed there, floating, his breath gone, his mind cold-quiet, his insides swimming. Esa smelled the mer’s neck, felt a gentle pulse. She was a little bit alive. Any kind of alive was enough.
Esa, at night, let the steam steam his face. Tried to act like it was a day like every single other. Halvar said, “What was it like to be warm?”
“I can’t remember,” said Paer. But Esa remembered because there was a new ember in him. One white coal.
Esa remembered being a child, waiting for his parents to emerge from their bed. He knelt on the floor, jealous that his mother and father were alone together, jealous enough that he lifted the heavy skin and walked into the sweat-muggy room. His father stood up, shaggy and huge, picked Esa up by the hair and threw him out into the snow. From something that warm to something that cold. That is how Esa had always thought of love: a shock to the skin.
In the morning, Paer was out when the others got up. Esa felt an itch to run and check on his mer but he tried to stay even. Halvar grunted and scratched his big chest, stretched to find his feet. “Trenches today?” Esa asked, which was a stupid question because it was trenches every day for Halvar. Trenches were the whole of his existence. He kept himself buried in a long maze, big enough to fill with a thousand men and elaborate enough to keep those men alive through a great siege. The trenches wound like the fingers of a river delta all around camp, separating, connecting, pooling in strategically placed restocking areas where Halvar had carved shelves into the snow and ice. They were deep enough to hide an average-sized man, though Halvar’s head stuck out as he worked so that Esa could track him, the floating head making its way through the labyrinth, disappearing to dig. For a moment, no Halvar, and then a shovelful of snow sprayed out, glittered in the sunlight.
Paer got up in the night, sleepless and wretched. The world glowed with discontent. Emptiness was everywhere. There was mist over the water, a hover of wetter air. The horizon was dark purple—weather was on its way. Paer thought about boiling snow to drink, or trying to get less hungry somehow. He did not bother to think about heat. Way down below on the beach he saw a big fish, moonlit, even from a distance. Shimmering. Paer felt his blood change direction, his slack heartbeat tighten. He began to make his way through the stiffened snow, picking his steps carefully. With one arm, balance was different and slipping was bad. Paer was slow and careful, trying to keep his dumb body from further harm. He thought he heard an animal, something hoofed, something with putrid breath and ice in its beard, but when he stopped, so did the sound. He realized that he had heard an animal. The scavenging beast hoofing at the ice was Paer.
He slid the last few feet down to the rocky shore, and the fish came into focus, but it was not a fish, not completely. She was also a woman, and immediately his eyes made a wife of her, made her familiar, made her his long-lost. Paer collapsed over her, rolled her into his arm, let the waterlogged mass of her soak his clothes. “You found your way,” he said. He felt her shallow breaths on his neck, and Paer wept.
It was afternoon when Halvar put his head out of the tunnel because the sun had grown suddenly bright. It had been a long time since he needed to squint. It was not warm, but it could have been, and he let his mind be tricked. He felt the sun find his face, settle over him. He felt a strange cheer come. Maybe he was a better man than he had thought or the gods were worse. Maybe in this world he was considered good. He thought of the shipboard kiss, his milky daughter, her dead, him alive. He considered sacrificing something, offering his thanks, but there was no reason to draw attention. If the gods wanted to hear their praises, they could come inside his head.
Halvar looked out at the old sea, the horrible, patient sea. At the shore, he saw something glint. A fish, he thought. Dinner. Anything other than dried meat. Halvar had not run in so long, but his legs seemed to remember. Heat spread through his lungs, which were big, dry caves inside him. He almost yelled, “Fish!” but stopped himself. He did not have to share, there was no rule that says any of this treasure belonged to those who did not find it.
And what treasure. He saw his daughter, salt-eaten and aged. Stupid girl, he thought, to think you could escape me, escape my love. She was helpless and fleshy and alive enough to take. Not dinner, but another way to feed. Halvar kept himself from thinking, knowing his mind could easily unmake this reward. Either he deserved her or he did not. Halvar took off leather and wool and his skin below was white and pruned from being covered so long. He smelled like a dog’s kill, buried and dug up later. He stood naked over the maid, dragged her onto the beach and lay down on top of her, her two breasts in his hands, wrung out. “The whole ship went down for you.”
The maid turned her head away and Halvar saw a smile slip across her face.
The maid opened her eyes and looked at him. And then she twisted, and the scales on her tail sliced him from belly to ankle. Hundreds of tiny knives, across his sweat-softened skin.
The maid rolled herself back down to the water and left Halvar, blood-patterned, tortured by his own stripes.
Esa had waited for a salve to spread on the everyday wounds, those scrapes on his heartskin from being alive and from wanting. On that big ship, surrounded by marrieds, he had hoped for an alone-with-me person. Two and no more. He had imagined cupping the girl’s face in his hands, feeling the bones beneath, knowing the shape so well he would have recognized even her sun-dried skeleton, a thousand years later. Esa thought a love like that deserved its own lands, a brighter tundra. When he was young, he had begun to gather gifts for his beloved. Whalebone coins and reindeer combs, necklaces with locks of horse-mane at the end. Esa put a ring around his ankle, promising before anyone had asked him to. Its twin was sewn into his undershirt, circling his heart like a target.
Esa thought of going to visit his mer but he had to think this out first. He wanted to ask for her forever. He wanted to tell her that he felt her scales in his bloodstream, that he was swum full of her. It began to snow. Esa dragged a piece of cloth outside and sat on it, his back against a pine, watching the sky fill with flakes. The mer was ankleless, so Esa planned to click the ring around her wrist. He kept saying, “I know it always happens this way, a wrecked sailor, a mermaid. How do I make you believe me?” Even in his mind, she knew better.
The mer was old, hundreds of years of swimming behind her. Love worked differently in that kind of time. More chances to lose something and more chances to gain it back. Her loves had been in the thousands. Red-haired ships’ captains, boys just old enough to want to use their bodies, whales, others of her own kind. She was too tired now, too worn through to love anyone back. But here she was, a little alive still, and why not let her good body go to use. Why not let her skin and scales mean something miraculous to these lost boys, the poor landbound humans, outposted at the shore between one nothing and another.
The clouds came apart. Snow and snow and snow and the earth was gone. It fell silent and heavy. A new, white sea was born. The snow melted when it hit the water but it covered the mer. She was whitened, only strong enough to clean her face. This storm might finally be the thing to bury her.
Esa stood on high ground and searched for Halvar in the tunnels. He thought about going in, turning the turns of Halvar’s high-walled maze, but the sky did not look like it would clear by nightfall, and Esa imagined the whiteness and the darkness, and he knew that he would not find his way out again. Halvar, he hoped, had some dried meat in his leathers. Halvar, he hoped, had made a den in the ice for burrowing. Esa thought of the big man lying still, trying to keep his own heat.
Paer squatted at the fire, keeping it alive a moment longer. The wood was wet and whiny. He would bring broth to his finned wife, and when she was warm and ready, he would drag her down to the water’s edge. He had considered dragging her across the white earth to his whaleship where they could live, tending and waiting until they died weeks or months or years from now.
He could have dragged her, but he would not. His love was not a carcass. She had grown a tail to be with him again, and now it was his turn. Paer would remove his animal skins until only his own pink leather remained, and he would wade into the water, which would burn him with cold, and he would tie his one end of a rope around each of their waists and one-arm swim her, slowly, through the ice-thick sea. He would fight for air, and he knew that his heart would pound for dry land and dry cloth, but if he would keep swimming, if he stayed submerged, his legs would begin to freeze. Paer did not know how the next steps went, how a man turned into a fish. Yet knowing rarely made the journey easier. It was up to the gods now. Man and wife would swim for a long time and turn over onto their backs when the swimming became too difficult, and the snow falling on their faces would feel soft and warm and generous, the sky offering itself to them, both legless now, waiting for the leagues to take them home.
Halvar, bleeding, could not make himself move. He could not forgive the trillions of white-hot flakes or the pink-black sky or the sound of the sea or his own body, reckless and stupidly alive. He should have gone down with his ship. He should have been more ferocious, or less. He stopped wiping the snow from his face. The snow dressed his wounds, covered his weeping skin. Halvar could hear the thrum of his heart change. He lost his edges first: toes and fingers. By nightfall, he was a small white hill, no bigger than any other drift. His body would not matter again until snowmelt, when a pair of bears, sleepish and starving, came to dig around his skeleton for mushrooms sprouted from the richer soil.
Esa went to his mer. He would stay all night, brush the snow off. He worried that she was cold, though he knew the deep water must be just as chilly. He said, “I can’t live in water and you can’t live on land, but we can stay here at the edges. I’ll build a house on stilts, over the sea with a hole in the floor and a ladder. The place where air and water meet—that’s our home together.” Sometimes it takes a shipwreck, he thought. Sometimes it takes a tragedy. The mer washed back and forth with the waves. She looked into Esa’s puddle-brown eyes. It was good, a service, to let someone believe.
“I was worried about the same thing.” Paer was standing above them, holding a broom he had made from pine needles. He knelt down to kiss her. “She found me,” he said. He brushed his hand over her frozen hair.
Esa knew that this was not Paer’s wife. This love was his love. He imagined wrestling Paer to the water, holding his head under. The snow would still be falling when he was done. He looked at the man beside him brushing their seabeauty with gathered needles. How tended-to the mer looked. She smiled up at the boys. Esa was heartswollen. It would be a service to let Paer believe. Maybe, he thought, they would all set off in Paer’s boat, the mer trailing behind at the end of a long rope handspun from their hair. The snow would eventually stop and the black sky would grow delirious with stars. They would sail to her kingdom and some of them would survive, or none of them would.
Esa had enough blood to love the mer but not enough to be the only one. He wanted to kiss her but Paer was already there, his beard frozen and his mouth warm. Esa was freezing, every living thing was, and the world had slowed down so much that Esa was not sure it moved at all. The water had turned to ice, stopped lapping. The air was hardly breathable. Time had quit on them. Esa lied down in the snow and put his head on the mer’s belly. Her skin had no discernable temperature. Esa felt Paer’s glove on his hair. His father? Home had found him, he thought. The differences were no longer the point: warm and cold, home and away. There was only this hour to move around in, and what it contained: bodies, ice, water, earth.
On the horizon, the frozen edge, green light spit across the sky. The whole endlessness split open and bled.
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