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FALSE MERMAID

Excerpt

False Mermaid

Mysterious Disappearance of a Young Woman
The Land of the Banshee and the Pooka

What would read as akin to the fairy romances of ancient times in Erin, is now the topic on all lips in the neighborhood of Ardara and Glencolumbkille. It appears that a young woman named Mary Heany, wife of a local fisherman, living with her husband and two children in a fisherman's cottage in the townland of Port na Rón, disappeared on the evening of May the fourteenth, 1896, and has not since been heard of. Up to the present, notwithstanding the exertions of the police and numerous search parties, no account of her, live or dead, has been found.

One event did take place, which has produced all the sensation—the husband swore that the evening before his wife's disappearance he observed her speaking in a low voice to a wild creature—a seal—outside their cottage window.

There is a local superstition concerning seals who may change their skins at certain periods of their existence, sometimes coming ashore in human form. It is said amongst the local people that upon discovering the skin of such a creature, a 'selkie,' while it is in its human form, the person so doing becomes the master of that person or soul, until the creature may regain its own skin again. Of course at the evening firesides such wild stories of ghosts and fairies are devoured with an avidity that only a mysterious occurrence of this kind can produce. Possibly the appearance of the woman in the flesh, by-and-bye, may rob the case of all romance.
   —The Ballyshannon Herald, 18 May, 1896

Chapter 1

Death was close at hand, but the wounded creature leapt and twisted, desperate to escape. Seng Sotharith pulled his line taut and played the fish, sensing in the animal's erratic movements its furious refusal to give in. He would do the same, he thought—had done the same, when he was caught.

Sotharith sat on the crooked trunk of an enormous cottonwood that leaned out over the water and watched the river flow by. Sometimes as he sat here, suspended above the water, he whispered the words over and over again, intrigued by their strangeness on his tongue. Minnesota. Mississippi. He had been in America a long time—five years in California, and now nearly eight years with his cousin's family in Saint Paul, but still the music of the language eluded him.

High above on the bluffs, the noises of the city droned, but here he could shut them out. Sometimes on foggy mornings, he looked across the water and felt himself back in Cambodia. He saw houses on stilts, heard the shouts of his older brothers as they played and splashed in the river. The pictures never lasted long, dissipating quickly with the mist. Now the sun was rising behind him, gilding the leaves on the opposite bank. Soon he would have to scale the steep bluff and get to his job at the restaurant. All afternoon and evening, deaf to the shouts and noise of the kitchen, he would wash dishes, wrapped in his thoughts and in memories that billowed through his head like the clouds of steam that rose from the sinks.

He had once harbored a secret ambition to follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor. Now, nearly forty years old, he knew it was far too late. But he was determined to learn English at least, to conquer its strange sounds, and even stranger writing. It was the one way he could bring honor to his father's memory.

Sotharith concentrated on his fish, letting the creature run one last time before reeling it in. Coming here helped clear away the images from his dreams, the tangled arms and legs he stepped through every night, the expanse of skulls covering the ground like cobblestones.

When he first arrived in Saint Paul, his cousin had brought him to a doctor, a gray-haired woman with kind eyes. She asked him to speak about the bones, but he could not. No words would come. They all looked at him—his cousin, the interpreter, the doctor. She tried to tell him that he had nothing to worry about, that he was safe here in America. He repeated the English word inside his head: safe. No matter how many times he said it, the sound meant nothing to him. Sotharith only knew that he had to climb down to this riverbank as often as he could, to walk the woods and sandbars below the green canopy and hear the birds at first light.

His catch was finally tiring. Sotharith stood and edged his way down the cottonwood's broad trunk and landed the fish in the shallows beside its exposed and twisted roots. It was time to go. He gathered his sandals and the rest of his gear and headed to the place where he cleaned his fish, a pool in a marshy clearing just below the bluff.

When he reached the place, Sotharith took out his knife, giving the blade a few sharpening swipes against a small oval whetstone he kept in his pocket. The flash from the knife fell upon a bunch of red berries growing a few feet away. Sotharith set the knife aside and crawled toward the fruit that hung like tiny jewels, bright crimson against the dry leaves. He plucked one berry, biting into its sweet-and-bitter flesh, the taste of survival. Then he lifted the fish from the basket and cleaned it with a practiced hand, slitting open its pale belly and clearing the shiny, slippery viscera from between the ribs with one finger as he watched the light in its staring eyes go out.

The sun was barely up, but already the heat—and the smell—were almost overwhelming. They were being marched across a muddy field littered with bodies, and although he tried not to, he could not avoid stepping on them. The soldiers ahead stopped for some reason, and they heard voices raised in argument. Get down, his father whispered suddenly. Get down and be still. He'd felt a hand pressing on his shoulder, and had done as his father commanded, slipping down between the still-warm bodies, and trying not to look into their unseeing eyes. He felt a cold, lifeless hand laid across his face, then heard the orders barked at his father and the others, and felt icy terror as they moved on without him. He did not make a sound. A few moments later he heard the soldiers call a halt. No shots followed, no shouting, just the distant, dull sound of blows and bodies falling, and a single faint cry, abruptly cut short. It hadn't taken long; by then the killing had become habit.

Everything was less clear when he tried to remember what came after, how long he had lain among the dead, waiting for a chance to escape, or all the days and weeks he'd spent hiding in the jungle, catching rainwater as it fell from palm fronds, eating the fruit he could gather, insects and grubs he dug out of the ground, whatever he could find. Time lost all measure; it seemed that he had lived with the birds and the monkeys for years before the soldiers caught him and sent him to the camps. It had taken another kind of will to survive there.

Here in America, he had always felt the mark of death upon him, a stain where that cold hand had touched his face.

He washed the fish blood from his hands in the pool of spring water that rose up from the forest floor. After cleaning fish, he always took care to bury the entrails. He'd chosen this spot not just for the spring, but because the earth around it was soft—easy to dig. With one hand, he cleared away dead leaves; with the other, he picked up a broken branch to use as a tool. At first, the ground yielded easily, coming up in irregular clods. Then his makeshift hoe snagged on something. Rocking forward on his knees, he pulled harder, tugging the branch to one side and then the other, and felt the earth erupt beneath him as the object suddenly came loose. He tumbled backward, tasting a shower of rotting leaves and feeling dry branches snap under his weight. Sotharith raised himself on his elbows and looked down to see what he had unearthed.

On the ground between his feet rested a human skull, its cheekbones cracked and splintered, empty eyeholes staring. Sotharith could only stare back, not daring to breathe. Inside his chest, he felt a slow resurrection of the knowledge that he had carried within him for so long. There was no safe place, not even here. The killing fields were everywhere.

Chapter 2

The elevator opened, and Nora Gavin peered out into a long, broad hallway. It was dimly lit, empty, and silent. She stepped off and felt the whoosh of closing doors behind her. No signs, nothing to tell her where to go. But this must be the place. Her footsteps sounded in hollow echoes against the tile, and she was acutely aware of passing through pools of light that fell from buzzing fluorescent fixtures.

Upon reaching the wide door at the end of the hall, she raised one hand to shade her eyes and peered through the window. In the glow of a single hanging light, a still, silent figure draped in white lay on a table in the middle of the room. A tangle of dark red hair fell from beneath the sheet. It was happening again. She backed away, pressing herself against the chilly tiles, unable to speak or move. The door began to swing open, and all at once a loud voice sounded close to her ear: "Ma'am, would you mind bringing your seat forward?"

She awakened with a start, still in the cold horror of the nightmare. It took her a moment to remember where she was—on a plane, headed from Ireland home to Saint Paul. She tried to take a breath, but her chest was still constricted with fear.

"Are you all right?" the flight attendant asked.

"Fine, thanks."

The woman's eyes held hers for a moment longer, until she felt obligated to say something more. "Bad dream."

The flight attendant nodded sympathetically and moved on. Nora sat up and pulled the blanket from her shoulders, raking both hands through her hair to make sure it wasn't sticking up in odd places. She must have been out for an hour or more. She had slept only fitfully the last few nights, probably the only reason she could nap on a plane—in broad daylight, too. It seemed like an age since she'd left her flat in Dublin, but that had only been the start of this strange, overlong day. Following the sun on its westward journey always felt like traveling back in time.

She scrubbed at her face with both hands, trying to erase the pictures that seemed to linger just behind her eyelids. Now that she was returning home, all the images she'd tried to push away these past three years were invading her waking thoughts and dreams once more. Strange—in all the times she'd had that awful dream, she had never made it inside the viewing room, never once lifted the sheet. And that was odd, because in real life, the nightmare hadn't stopped at the door.

She had not been alone. Flanked by two detectives, she had entered the viewing room sick with dread. A disembodied voice had asked: Are you ready? She remembered nodding once, knowing it was a lie. How could anyone be ready for what she was about to see?

When the morgue attendant pulled back the sheet she stood frozen, trying to make sense of the coil of red hair and the features so brutally disarranged. A strident chorus of denials echoed in her ears as the attendant gently lifted the body's right arm and turned the wrist to her, a reminder that she was here to check for identifying marks. What was the point, if this wasn't Tríona? It couldn't be.

Then she had seen it, a shape like a half-moon just below the wrist. There was no denying her sister had such a mark. The attendant moved down and lifted the sheet to reveal another small dark blot of pigment on the calf—yes, Tríona had something very like that as well, but still the voices shrilled—until he rounded the end of the table and gently turned up the sheet at the ankle to expose a small whitened zigzag scar. It was only then that the clamoring voices in her head were stilled. In the silence that followed, she reached out and placed one hand over the scar, remembering how she had been responsible for that particular distinguishing mark.

It had been sweltering day in the heat of summer. Fifteen years old, and forced into a bike ride with her sister, she had deliberately taken a rough gravel path too difficult for ten-year-old Tríona to navigate. She remembered turning back at the sound of tires skidding in gravel, and how the oily bicycle chain had bitten so cruelly into her sister's ankle. How she'd gone into automatic mode, doing all the things she had learned in first-aid class—wrapping the wound, applying steady pressure—until the blood stopped. She remembered her satisfaction when her first aid worked. She had felt prepared for anything in that moment—anything, that is, except for the way Tríona looked at her. How could she have forgotten? That moment had altered everything, when she saw herself for the first time through her sister's eyes, and felt thoroughly ashamed. Standing in the mortuary, she could feel that there was no pulse, no breath, no life at all beneath her hand, and still she could not let go.

Nora sat back and closed her eyes again. Today was five years to the day that Tríona had gone missing, nearly five years since her almost unrecognizable remains had turned up in an underground parking garage in the trunk of her own car. Nora knew she could not let herself be pulled back into the downward spiral that seemed to draw her in whenever she thought of Tríona's murder. Nightmares and flashbacks were not a good sign.

She reached into her pocket for the knot of green hazel Cormac Maguire had woven for her on their last evening together, at a place called Loughnabrone. Lake of Sorrows. A place where a number of people had died, where she had nearly lost her own life. She did not dwell on that thought. What she remembered most clearly from that awful day was the expression on Cormac's face when he saw her hands, her clothes covered in blood. And the relief that washed over his features when she said: Not mine. It's not my blood.

Swells of longing swept through her. It was just as she had feared that day out on the bog, that upon leaving Cormac she would start to see him everywhere. Stop. She was going to drive herself mad, thinking like this. And yet it was really because of him that she was on this plane, heading back home again. The time they'd spent together these last fourteen months made her question whether she'd done all she could for Tríona. Without Cormac, maybe she'd still be working away in Dublin, trying to avoid thinking about what had driven her there. But working beside him, she had been carried along into stories of people whose lives had ended in grief. They were all real to her, though she had only become acquainted with them in death. And most of all there was the red-haired girl, the cailín rua, that nameless, decapitated creature from the Irish boglands who had set everything back in motion. It was the cailín rua whose fierce and unending suit for justice had set Nora's own foot again on the path she never should have left. As deeply as she'd become involved in the stories of the bog people, whose stories she had helped to reconstruct, she had come to realize that they were all just stand-ins. Behind everything, it was Tríona's unfinished story that kept catching at her conscience, pulling her back into places she did not wish to go.

Cormac had not asked her to remain in Ireland. On the contrary, he said he understood why she had to make this trip—but how could he begin to understand, when there was so much she had deliberately kept from him? She had explained what happened to Tríona—the bare facts of the murder, at least—and confessed her suspicions about her brother-in-law, Peter Hallett. But the thought of spelling out all the rest of it—trying to find words to explain about the rift with her parents, about her young niece, Elizabeth, not to mention the harrowing dreams and doubts about her own grip on reality—all of that was more than she had been able to face in her evolving relationship with Cormac.

She must remember Elizabeth. How long would the innocence of childhood protect her, how long would it be before Elizabeth had to navigate the same minefields with her father that Tríona had tried to cross? No matter how many different ways Nora thought about the situation, it always came down to a final question: What was she prepared to sacrifice to see that tragedy did not repeat itself?

This time she would not fly away to Ireland when things got difficult—and they would get difficult; there was no point in deceiving herself. She felt the power of the jet engines only a few feet away, anticipating the dreadful roar they would make at touchdown, trying to reverse their own lethal momentum. She felt the last stomach-churning lift just before the huge wheels skidded onto the tarmac and understood that there was no reverse, no slowing down, no stopping now.

Copyright 2010 by Erin M. Hart

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