by J.M. Templet
I have always enjoyed the taste of cake. While other children were greedily diving in face first to smother themselves in their birthday confections, I held back. I would not waste a slice. I would not waste a drop of sugar crystal icing.
On my seventh birthday my mother gave me a handful of invitations with colorful balloons on the front. She’d hired a clown and my grandmother, who was from Japan, had come to stay and bake a swan cake.
I gave those white cards to anyone and everyone. Some tossed them in the trash right in front of me. The others waited until after I’d gone.
I remember the cake more than anything else. More than the sick feeling I had when no one came. More than the shrill sound of my mother’s voice as she demanded to know if I’d handed the invitations out. More than the sound of popping balloons as Jumpy the clown tried to make us all feel better.
My grandmother, Miko, patted me on the head and cut the neck of the swan. I ate the silvery beak and the icing feathers and the black licorice eyes. Later that night I crept down to the kitchen and ate cake until I puked and then ate again. That is what I remember.
It would be twenty-five years until I found a taste that contented me as well.
I’d graduated from a state school with a useless degree in English Literature. My mother had wanted me to be a doctor but I’d never had clever hands. I found work as an editor at a small magazine. I lived alone, with only my cat, Sasha, for company.
My mother had just died, leaving me a small amount of money. It was enough to purchase the first vacation I’d ever had as an adult.
I booked a hotel in Atlantic city during February when only the most enthusiastic tourists might brave the chill waters.
The first night I watched the waves, listening to the chattering birds. I smelled the sea air and drank the complimentary bottle of wine that had been left in my room.
The next day I wandered the boardwalk, searching for trinkets to send back home. I saw a crowd gathered around a billboard painted in blues and greens and reds. A mermaid pouted out at me.
The sign said:
LIVE MERMAID GIRLS. SIX TIMES A DAY. FIVE DAYS A WEEK.
11:15, 12:45. 1:15, 2:45, 3:15, 4:45.
$5 at the door. $10 for a picture.
See the mermaids! Have your picture taken with them!
I checked my watch. It was twelve thirty. I looked at the painting. Perhaps it was a hoax like one of those two headed fish. Perhaps it was simply women swimming with snorkels. I suddenly wanted to know quite badly.
I paid the man at the front, following the crowd inside where a large tank stood. It was the size of an aquarium tank and had a floor of teal rocks. Small fish swam quickly to and fro. Lights sparkled around the frame.
I could see tails near the wall, twitching in the green water. There were four, all colored pink and orange and red. Muted rainbows of false scales and shimmering fabric.
The announcer stood in front of the tank. He had a mustache that curled at the side and a head as white as an egg. He bowed deeply from the waist.
“Welcome, ladies and gentleman! Welcome to the show! What you’re about to see is a miracle of nature! A mystical sight that not all are privileged to behold. Four live mermaids! Here to swim and breathe and dance for your enjoyment. Give them a hand ladies and gentleman!,” he shouted. His voice sounded like a trumpet.
The crowd clapped and hooted encouragement. A tall man next to me shouted “Show us your titties!”
I stepped away from his loud voice and his sweat stained t-shirt. He smelled of fried food and sugar.
The mermaids jumped in. One. Two. Three. Four. One had ink black skin and pure white hair. She waved, turning in circles for us.
One had cotton candy hair and blue eyes that sparkled. She dove deep, tickling the fish on the bottom.
One had a tail the color of seaweed. She threaded her hair through the fake coral, smiling.
It was the last that struck me. Her hair was the shortest, curling around her chin. Her skin was almost like my grandmother’s. Her eyes tilted like mine.
The mermaids swam together and apart, bubbles escaping their closed mouths. We held our breath, almost hoping we’d see one of those colorful figures drown.
I’d heard of pearl divers from my grandmother. Women who could dive so deep without coming up for breath it was like they were part fish. My grandmother described them as white strings under the cool water. I imagined them as tentacles on the arms of a jellyfish.
I came back for the next show. And the next. And the next. I never stayed for a picture. I never stayed past the time when the mermaids surfaced. I wanted to see them as weightless blurry figures without eyes or ears or mouths.
Five days a week. Six shows a day. I started calling my favorite mermaid Pearl. I dreamed of her in Japan, swimming for those gleaming orbs.
In the dream, I could hear my grandmother’s voice like a tin bell, telling me about what she called Ningyo.
“There was an old man who went fishing late one night. One of the fish had a face like a man. The old man fried up the fish but found it smelled odd. Like rot or something long dead. So he left it on the beach and went back home. A fox came along and ate the fish with the man’s face. It turned him into a demon with nine tails and he ate everyone in the village.”
She always told me about these strange monsters. It seemed everything was controlled by demons in Japan. As a child, I’d vowed never to go there. I’d imagined goblins in toilets and police cars and streets. All waiting to consume parts of me.
I saw Pearl through my grandmother’s eyes. Each night I thought of taking her away with me. Taking her someplace she could swim free without loud voices and eyes like sharpened knives.
The audience was thin that night for the last show. It was growing cold and the tent wasn’t heated. Some left before the girls even dropped in the water.
I waited until the show closed. I waited until the girls came out back, heading towards their cars. Pearl drove a battered truck with an “I BRAKE FOR SEALS” sticker on the back. I followed her. I followed her until she parked in front of a small bungalow with orange shutters.
No lights were on. She unlocked the door and I saw no one inside.
Still I waited, shivering. I waited, wondering.
I waited until it grew so dark and cold I couldn’t stand it.
“Some don’t become monsters. Some live forever. It’s the same curse, child. It’s the same curse,” my grandmother’s voice echoed.
I lowered my wheelchair down, maneuvering inside it.
Pearl answered the door in her robe. Her hair stuck up as though she’d just finished bathing.
She smelled of salt.
“Can I help you?”
“I’ve locked my keys in my car. Can I trouble you to use your phone?”
She smiled, opening the door. “Sure.”
I rolled in, my wheelchair bumping over her carpet.
“So what’s your name? I’m Sara. I’ve seen you around, haven’t I? You must really like the show.”
“Zale. My name is Zale.”
She turned to get the phone after closing her front door. I rolled in behind her, grabbing one of the knives from the wooden block on her counter.
I hacked at the back of her knees first. She made a sound like a mouse, turning to try and hit me with the phone. I was strong. People think because you cannot walk you cannot do anything. But I trained every day. If I was only able to use my chest and arms they would carry me anywhere.
I cut her face trying to get to her throat. She didn’t scream. She didn’t scream at all. Blood bubbled from her mouth, staining her teeth. I cut her until she didn’t move. I cut her until my arms were tired and my breath came in pants.
My hands were gloved in red. I dropped the knife near her legs.
The hard part was over.
I cut into her legs first, tasting a piece raw like sushi. It tasted sweet, melting in my mouth. The other parts I cooked, baked, or stewed. When they found me a week later, I was picking parts of her from my mouth with the tiny bones in her hands.
They could take me but I would live. I would live forever.
Issue #4 Contents
Bed and Breakfast
The Silver Apples of the Moon
C Was for Cat
Jack Campbell, Jr.
Skin, Before and After Packaging
The Turning of the Worm
Brian Douglas Moakley
J.M. Templet lives and works in Baton Rouge. She graduated from LSU several years ago and earned the Matt Clark prize in short fiction there. She’s currently in graduate school at TWU in the field of Library Science. Previous Publications include: Triggerfish, Counterexample Poetics, Marathon Literary Review, Strong Verse, Dig, Crossed Genres and Fae Fatales.