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Introduction to ‘The Mermaid’

The story ‘The Mermaid’ is my second submission for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2011. I had forty-eight hours to write a horror story set in an aquarium incorporating mouthwash in a thousand words or under. In the English Renaissance, mermaids can be grouped with the monstrous hybrids that are located in the deserts and frozen wastelands occupying the map edges. These creatures are indicative of what John Gillies calls, ‘The link between monstrosity, margins and sexual “promiscuity”‘ (Gillies 13). Therefore, hybrids are ‘the offspring of literally “promiscuous” unions between creatures of different kinds’ (13). Such fecundity occurs far from Europe’s civilised borders in the barbaric lands of Asia, Africa, the East Indies and the New World.
The themes of barbarity, promiscuity and miscegenation are prevalent in Shakespeare’s Othello (1602). Othello’s barbaric roots that are often attributed to his descentinto enraged jealousy are revealed by his traveller’s tale:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven

It was my hint to speak – such was my process –

And of the cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders… (I.iii, lines 141-146)

Othello describes a place that can be termed ‘primitive’. As ‘deserts idle’ implies, there are no settlements or farms, just a barren wasteland populated by unsavoury characters. Although Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and her father, Brabantio, are entranced by Othello’s ‘travailous history’ as ‘It was my hint to speak’ testifies, Othello is still a moor whose own European identity as a Venetian general is corrupted by his association and contact with uncivilised cultures.

The Mermaid and Hare Placard (1567) depicting the adulterous union between Mary, Queen of Scots and James Hepburn/Lord Bothwell.

Even Othello’s marriage to the fair Desdemona is interpretable as a hybrid union that produces a monstrosity in the shape of Othello’s jealousy. The indication that they are sexually promiscuous as the stereotypical ‘creatures’ of a different kind is capitalised upon by the villanous Iago: ‘I am one, sir [Brabantio], that comes to tell you your your daughter/and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs’ (I.i, lines 114-5). Iago is obviously referring to a sexual position. Yet he also infers that the coupling between Othello and Desdemona is monstrous as, together, they create a ‘beast with two backs’ – a creature that wouldn’t be out of place in Othello’s traveller’s tale.

In my story ‘The Mermaid’, I named the two main characters Dion and Otter in an attempt to suggest a link with Othello. Otter is a down town drifter who tries to adhere to ideal civilised values, but is still a barbarian at heart. Dion is Otter’s Iago who, aided by the mermaid’s singing that equates to Desdemona’s beauty, subtly manipulates Otter by playing on his aggressive nature. Though the story’s ending is very different from Shakespeare’s play.

Warning: ‘The Mermaid’ contains material that some readers may find offensive and upsetting.

The Mermaid

Dion almost choked on his tuna sandwich when the buzzer vibrated inside his trouser pocket. Business was slow at Washington D.C.’s National Aquarium, so he’d decided to set up a light sensitive wireless device in the space in between the metal detector and the top of the stairs. It alerted him when someone’s legs broke the invisible light beam the device emitted, which was invariably a loser rejected by the Commerce building above. His ingenuity allowed him more time to study Madison, the aquarium’s unique prize, who was the focus of his research on omnivorous fish. He dreaded the day when she’d be available for public viewing.

As usual, the rest of the staff had left early leaving Dion behind. He liked having the aquarium to himself, and annoyed the security guards by always being the last person in the building. “The guardian of the crypt”, they called him. Smiling to himself, Dion carefully wiped his hands on a tissue. He then gargled with strong mouthwash before spitting into a drain beside Madison’s tank. Personal hygiene was important for customer service.

A man in a creased suit was waiting at the entry desk, looking around nervously, when Dion arrived.

“It’s getting late, Sir, only time for a quick look,” he warned.

“I just want directions. No one seems to know anything round here.” The man pulled at his knotted tie as though it was strangling him, showed Dion his fake Rolex. He tapped the scratched glass. “I’m supposed to be at a business conference in Georgetown in thirty minutes.”

Dion whistled. “That’s quite a journey, Sir.”

The man briefly glanced at the plastic sharks dangling high above before continuing, “It’s my own stupid fault. I took the Green Line to Chinatown for a bit of sightseeing before the main event. Now I’ve got no spare cash on me and there’s something wrong with my bank cards…” He held up his empty hands in exasperation. “It’s embarrassing, I know, but I’m desperate.”

Dion knew there was no metro from Georgetown, and the man didn’t look the business type in his cheap second hand suit with ill-matching shirt and trousers. He was probably a drifter with no family and no home. Someone nobody would miss.

“How much money do you need, Sir?” Dion asked.

 The man laughed. “What do you take me for? The name’s Otter, by the way.” He held out a sweaty palm ingrained with dirt that, instead of shaking Dion’s reluctant hand, grabbed his aqua blue sweater and pulled him forward. In his other hand, he held a small plastic knife with a deadly serrated edge against Dion’s throat. Their noses were almost touching.

“Who else is down here?” Otter murmured hoarsely.

Dion took a deep breath, wishing Otter had used Listerine, “Just us.”

“Thought so.” Otter dragged Dion along the counter top, encouraged him to lift up the hinged part. “Take me to the safe. Nice and easy, now.” With a jagged knife blade nipping his nape, Dion slowly led the way to the main exhibit area. It was a darkened circular room walled by blue-lit glass, beyond which glided shadowy forms. Some darted fervently into blackness, while others slowly twisted and turned.

They’d shuffled across the room and were about to push through an unlocked door marked PRIVATE, when Otter pinned Dion against the nearest tank on the right. He held the knife below Dion’s ear as he looked anxiously from side to side. “What’s that noise?”

Behind Dion’s head, glowing jellyfish drifted like aimless parachutes. There was no sound except for the men’s laboured breathing.

 “This place is giving me the creeps,” Otter muttered, roughly pushing Dion along before hearing again a soft melody. “There.” He lifted his head as though picking up a scent.

“Just a fish singing,” Dion sighed.

“Sounds human to me.” Otter drew the blade down until it produced a thin rivulet of blood from Dion’s neck. “If the cops come, you’re dead meat.”

“That’s how she survives,” Dion retorted. “Nothing you’ll be interested in.”

“Try me.” Otter shoved Dion through the private door. They hurried down a dark corridor passing many offices. The singing grew louder then stopped when the corridor widened into an expansive dimmed space. In the centre was a large fish tank illuminated by sterile light, containing a woman lying supine in shallow water with closed eyes. She had long brown hair down to her shoulders and golden skin. Her breasts were like perfectly rounded hilltops. Below her waist, she had the silvery scales of an Arowana and a huge fin that flapped languidly.

“Don’t tell me that’s some broad in a mermaid outfit,” Otter scoffed.

“She’s the last of her kind,” Dion corrected. “South American tribes hunt mermaids because they think they are monstrous self-replicating hybrids.”

“That’s because they are,” snorted Otter, who hadn’t really heard Dion only what he wanted to hear. “Bitches are nothing but trouble.”

Madison’s singing had different effects on the men it attracted. Otter was clearly agitated. Dion watched as the brute climbed the steel ladder at the side of the tank, and dropped down beside the aquarium’s prized catch. Dion almost laughed when he realised Otter was looking for the zipper on Madison’s fish tail, until the mermaid screamed. Otter was hacking at her scales with his knife that soon became stuck in her hard skin, so he started kicking her feminine body.

“Please, don’t,” Dion implored. Then Madison started singing again, a soft plaintive tune. Otter sank to his knees exhausted and let the mermaid clasp his head in her small hands. She made to kiss his forehead but, instead, snapped his head to one side and tore it from his shoulders with ease. Blood splashed the tank’s sides as the mermaid greedily tore at the cadaver’s fleshy cheeks with her razor teeth. At that moment, Dion felt the buzzer jumping inside his trouser pocket.

“You’re in luck, Madison,” he shouted excitedly. “Dessert has just arrived.”


Special thanks to Alan Dyer for his information on Washington D.C.’s metro services.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1602. Ed. E.A.J. Honigmann. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2003.