Rated R for blood, guts, and monstrous appetites.
A shadow passes overhead and mermaids rise from where they were playing hide-and-seek among the jellyfish. It has been weeks since they’ve fed. If the shadow is a whale, the mermaids will only wish it safe passage. But the shadow is a galleon. Is it the one I’m looking for? I rush upwards.
The sky is noon-bright; the air, still. The ship’s main mast, cracked and scorched by lightning, lays toppled. Torn sails flutter on the fore- and mizzen-masts. The ship has been left to drift at the whim of the current. Mermaids crawl up the hull and cling to barnacles. Their voices, which usually hiss like the breaking waves, bend to wordless song. Lured by their music, sailors peer over the rail, their faces gaunt, their gums rotted. No matter. The mermaids’ sharp teeth will slice bone and reach the marrow.
As the mermaids sing, I linger in the water and try to mimic them. My bubbles are quietly stolen by the frothing waves. Mermaids spy my efforts and say not to worry; they will eat the man who killed my lover. I tell them that this is not his ship. But they are hungry.
Sailors close their eyes in ecstasy. Some fling themselves overboard and mermaids dive after them. A few bites, and intestines unravel in the waves like loose mooring rope. Hammerheads join the feast, much braver than other sharks when facing mermaid appetites.
As the sailors die, they see me, one apparition to another. Yet they do not stay long. Like the captain I lost so long ago, they promised themselves to the blue devil and are soon washed away in a spectral tide.
Except for the mermaids, I am alone. I died before my captain, gutted by the same Spanish sword. Those who feared my lover called her Sadie the Axe. She captained the Sea Rose, though some knew it as The Disgrace of the Waves. Her body lies among the sea feathers, so like the plume of her tricorn hat now lost to the depths. A hat she wore as she claimed the deck and prepared for siege. A hat that rested beside our bed every night when I would pull her into my arms and beg her to find her way back to dry land. But she was free beneath the black sails.
The water is thick with blood, but all the useful bits of flesh have been swallowed. The mermaids retreat, pot-bellied, to languish on the sea floor. I drift down to where they flirt and giggle with the Rose’s figurehead. It was carved to look something like them, but mostly like me.
Down here both moon and sun are inked out and the mermaids’ eyes reflect what stars abound: the living sapphires that hunt each other and twinkle in and out of sight. I see with the spirit of eyes. If I still had a heart, I would feel like I belonged to these glittering creatures. But my heart was eaten by a red crab and I belong to no one. So, instead of wishing on stars, I wish on the night beasties for the death of the man who murdered my sea wife and me.
The mermaids, those eternal creatures, call me Pandora. I never stray far from the chest of silver and gold that, like a dead heart, curdles between the wooden ribs of the Rose where her halves lie on the shivering undercrust of the sea. Sadie stole the Rose from her own marauding father who then claimed it had sunk in a storm. That was only half a lie. Sadie was a storm of a woman. Her crew was loyal. So was I, though she’d kidnapped me from my own merchant ship. Bounty, I think she called me. I don’t remember my real name.
The mermaids hear me weeping and mock me.
“Next time, next time,” they call, laughing.
How often have they said that? And they scarcely eat — unless their meals happen upon them. I kick the chest, my foot passing straight through, and they laugh harder.
Sometimes when the mermaids are too annoying, I float up and search the horizon for the poisoned sails of the galleon I will one day take down. And when the mermaids tease, I don’t tell them if danger is near.
Something large streams overhead. A minke whale, her belly distended. The mermaids sing, ushering her towards shallow birthing waters. It is too deep for her here. Too dark and with too many places for sharp beaks to hide.
Even as I think it, midnight tentacles curl over a ridge and rise towards the whale. She is a faint gray pinch that disappears behind the kraken’s languid tent. The mermaids hide in the splintered ship, their eyes raised to the new night.
I have no fear for my chummed-up body and, as a spirit, what nourishment could I offer the beast? But near the chest lie my captain’s bones scraped clean of life. When Sadie’s body broke the surface, I followed her down and chased away the mermaids’ hungry tails (which, irritatingly, amused them). I could not guard against the crabs and shrimp tugging her apart or the boneworm that slid down her throat. I hate the sea. I never promised myself to it, only to her. So even now I stand watch as Sadie’s spine rattles in her fearnought jacket. I have lost her almost entirely.
The kraken is the blackest black, a shadow to shadows. How I wish it would swallow me! I am so cold here, though anger warms me when the whole ocean is pressing down. I cannot sing, and justice for Sadie feels no closer than the moon.
Frustration and rage spark inside me. The sea begins to glow. Scattered doubloons shimmer. Half-buried ruby rings flare red. Sadie’s sword flashes as it did against the blade of the one that slew her. I gleam like the sea constellations.
The kraken pauses in its ascent, arms and clubs hovering black against black. The whale keeps swimming. The kraken does not pursue her but falls like a shroud over the ship’s remains. Its bone-china eyes are the size of carriage wheels. Can this night creature consume me? I am unnerved and my glow dims, yet I stand firmly between the beast and Sadie.
It shows no interest in her pile of bones. A tentacle dances towards me. My light illuminates nothing of the kraken: no details of flesh, no shades of darkness, though I can see fine grains of sand in each ripple of the ocean floor.
“How do you make the light?” The question is in my head, a whisper so small I would have thought it my own if the beast’s flat stare was not fixed on me.
And how does one answer a monster? Do they only understand more monstrosity? “I am full of hate.” Even as I say it, I know it to be more than that.
The kraken stares with eyes of spinning milk.
I think of all of the strands of pearls I’ve counted to mark my days, all of the endless nights spent dreaming of revenge. My voice will never soak the seas and I do not want to waste more time spitting bubbles at fish. Could the kraken prove more useful than the mermaids? It is larger. Faster. Hungrier. “I will show you how to glow, if you help me.”
I do not say how. It might even be a lie, yet hope trickles through me. Have I not seen octopus and squid writing illusions on their parchment skin to foil predators and capture prey? Surely the kraken is like its cousins. I am a merchant’s daughter, and before swords, words were the tools of my trade. So I drag a net of curiosity over the beast. “Like mermaids who compel down their fare, you will lure your dinner. No more near misses. No more lonely shadows.”
“What would you have me do?”
“There is a ship.” I tell the kraken of tasty meals floating just out of reach in vessels made of landweed. “Think of the shoal of corpses — and others driven up from the depths on which you will feed. If you have the right disguise.”
I close my eyes, a habit leftover from life. I imagine the face of the man who killed me, imagine driving my cutlass into his chest and up to its emerald-jeweled hilt before he has a chance to slaughter Sadie.
My hand glows. Rage ignites my very fingertips. I press these to the kraken’s tentacle. Through it.
It jolts in surprise but does not retract.
Am I cold? Hot? Silver threads weave from my hand into the tentacle. I step into its gyrating suckers. Their tiny teeth needle me in an echo of pain. Then light spreads up its arm to the mantle and through the rest of its body. The kraken’s eyes flash gold. The monster is a fiery, liquid mirror reflecting the Rose behind me.
Drained, I pull away, and if a ghost could stumble, I would.
The kraken falls dark.
Then it rolls its tentacles and flickers. Stars emerge across its surface like the diamond necklaces Sadie once draped over me after a raid. The kraken is no longer an abyss, empty of light, but shines like the sea’s deepest secrets.
The kraken disintegrates into a pile of rocks, matte rubble against the press of black.
“What else can you do?” I ask.
Its skin shimmers and stretches, then the rocks rupture into bright coral and anemones. A tropical reef on the bottom of the sea.
The kraken shivers. In pleasure? Then its skin wrinkles and smoothes into pale blue. A whale so great it might fill the ocean.
The kraken has become one of its own prey. It is unnatural and yet more natural than anything I know. My father was determined I would grow to love the sea if I sailed it long enough. Sadie, too, spoke of the ocean’s wild pull. They were wrong. It was the blue devil whispering in their ears.
In the deep ocean, sound is lumpy and untethered. I can barely make out the crack and splash of cannon fire miles away.
I glance at the shipwreck where mermaids yawn and turn to the kraken. “You must be hungry.”
It ripples like water itself and breaks into shards of mirror. Each sucker is an empty silver bowl I have promised to fill. I concentrate and grip its mantle. If I can blow bubbles, then I can hold onto the kraken’s slippery mass.
It jets upwards. As we rise, marine stars wink out and the sea is infused with crimson. Sunset rims the kraken’s eyes. We surface. I gasp for air, though it won’t fill me. These compulsions die long after the body does. I cannot even touch the wind as it drives the waves and dashes them to foam.
There are no clouds to echo back the boom of cannons. The setting sun is blotched by the masts and square sails of ships jostling with each other. I cannot see the flags they fly, yet one ship has a familiar girth. Five hundred and eighty tons. Four masts and thirty two cannons. The Spaniard’s galleon. My father’s, the one who murdered me and my mate, then sunk the Rose.
The kraken is pink with sky, its eyes minor suns.
“You must disguise yourself. I don’t think even you can withstand a cannon’s blast.”
Its brilliant skin turns as clear as water.
“Perfect.” I quash the instinct to hide. “Now go.”
The kraken cuts straight to the battle.
The Spanish ship is indeed my father’s merchant vessel, Nuestra Señora de la Fortuna, half-crewed by Armada men. I was once proud of its flags before I left the chains of daughterhood. I cannot summon even one morsel of regret. Instead, my rage flows hot as blood.
The other ship is leaner and built for speed. Its lettering reads Razor of Tides and the teeth of its skull-faced flag chomp swords. Every flick of the wind is another bite. Gunpowder chars the air, yet Spanish cannonballs have not breached the Razor’s hull. Just as well. The pirates did not kill my Sadie. I bear them no malice. But no one on La Fortuna tried to stop my father from killing me.
I point to it. “The cannons will not harm you if you pull the ship under.”
The kraken curls a tentacle into smoke. I cross it beneath thundering waves to where pirates have tied small boats. Ropes dangle where the ship has been boarded. I weigh nothing and yet it is an effort to pull myself up the line. Swells gush through me. I almost slip off from exhaustion. Do I really want to do this? My rage wavers like a candle flame.
Yes. I hold onto the rope. I have nothing else left.
La Fortuna’s crew shouts as smoke coils up from below. I reach a deck awash in blood and sea spray. Sharks must be near, if not the mermaids wary of the kraken.
My father is fighting. He holds my cutlass, the emeralds almost black in the growing night. How can he bear to use my sword? Had I simply become another pirate?
He stabs his opponent’s belly as he did mine. The pirate slumps, so he grabs his lapel and thrusts him down to the circling fins. Lucky man, the pirate dies before he hits the water. His soul rises past me and blinks out.
There is no moon. Smoke lies heavily over the ship. Some have stopped fighting to squint up at the strange rings that blush with cannon fire. Then the smoke shimmers and solid night collapses over the deck. The kraken’s tentacles crush wood and tangle rigging. Pirates retreat to their grappling hooks and the boats below, followed by desperate soldiers. The kraken slurps out of the water and snaps away La Fortuna’s masts. Decks shudder as the beast heaves itself fully onboard. Perhaps it does not want to share with the sharks.
My father lowers his weapon and clutches at the rail. His face is ragged from sun and salt, his hair nearly all gray. And he is not looking at the kraken. He is looking at me.
I am shining. Around me fog memories of the night I died. Cold rain that slashed our faces. La Fortuna blasting away at the Sea Rose. My father shouting for The Disgrace of the Waves. Shouting for . . . No, that was not what he called the ship. That was what he called me. He boarded the Rose and sought me out, his beard matted with rainwater, his shouts of betrayal knifing my bowels as I stood tall and faced him.
As I do now.
My name. It is another kind of blade.
I can brim with light. I can transform a monster. I can seize my revenge.
My cutlass. His eyes widen as I take the edge. I barely feel its sharpness. It cannot hurt me. I am full of grief, and that hurts, but I don’t know what else to do. The ocean is so cold. I am so alone.
My father has gone pale beneath my shine. Even as he holds the hilt, I guide the tip of the sword upwards to a gap between his ribs. He sweats, fighting and shaking, trying to rip it from my grasp. Full of light, I am stronger. I impale him. He half-tumbles, half-slides over the blood, his own and others’.
Now, as before, he looks at me with disappointment. His eyes tremble closed. His soul claws its way out of his body and vanishes, promised to the blue devil. So he has no regrets. And he will see Sadie before me.
I burn luminous with hurt. May I sizzle away into nothing.
The kraken is snatching soldiers and pirates alike to funnel into a gaping, crunching maw beneath its hulk. The Razor speeds away with new crew to replace those recently eaten. What living are left behind on La Fortuna throw themselves at the sea only to be scooped up by the kraken. It cannot enthrall them as the mermaids do and they die white-eyed with terror, their souls extinguishing in bursts.
All this death. I have done this. And for what? It will not bring Sadie back.
I have never felt so much pain.
I reach for my cutlass and pull it stiffly from its flesh. It is warm where my father held it. Warm where his blood congeals along the blade. I hurl it into the sea where it will be mine forever.
The kraken looks at me. I nod. A tentacle reaches down and wraps around my father. His body disappears into the beast.
The wind dwindles away and the ship falls silent. The kraken’s eyes are twin moons and it glows softly, sated. A false mirror of my destruction. Despite everything, La Fortuna remains afloat. Another ghost ship left to the mercy of the sea. Perhaps I am not so alone. Stars are shrapnel above and below, and in my heart the blue devil whispers.
About the Author
Kathryn McMahon is an American living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in places such as Syntax and Salt and The Cincinnati Review, as well as in the food and horror anthology Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up to No Good (Upper Rubber Boot). Among other adventures, she’s been in quicksand twice, camped in a bat-filled cave, and steered a tall ship. But mostly she just likes to read. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.