Rated: R, for the vengeful justice of seafolk.
One More Song
By Eliza Chan
After Mira closed the door the selkie shed her skin, leaving the mottled grey fur in a heap like stepped-out-of work clothes. Mira handed her one of the many robes hanging on the hat stand and kept her eyes on her blue and green rug, only catching glimpses of the woman’s bruises. There were purple marks the size of fingers on her legs and red, raised lines across her back. Mira blinked rapidly, her hands already clenched into tight fists as she tried to keep her rising anger from bursting its banks.
“How can I help you, Ms. . . . ?” Mira asked.
“Iona, just call me Iona,” the selkie said, knotting the robe tightly at her midriff. She winced visibly and her eyes darted up. Mira moved to her drinks cabinet, deliberately turning her back so the other woman didn’t have to look her in the eye.
“I need help. I, my husband, well you can see his handiwork. I asked for a divorce, I tried to go to the police. They wouldn’t listen. Said I was only on a spousal visa, so . . .”
Mira handed Iona the mug. She clasped her hands around the porcelain like it anchored her.
“I assume he has some leverage?”
The client nodded, tucking her hair back so Mira could see a ragged hole where her right ear should have been — a void of darkness as if that part of her had simply ceased to exist. “He cut a patch out of my skin. I can’t swim far, not out of the city at any rate, or I’ll drown.”
She was smart, Mira mused. Selkie skin couldn’t heal like most, but others had tried, even with pieces missing, to escape their partners. Their bodies washed up against the buildings, waterlogged and drowned.
“Iona, I’m afraid you may have misunderstood my services,” Mira began. “I’m a private investigator. I watch, find things, report back. I don’t take direct action.”
Mira leaned back in the brown leather armchair and waited for her client’s reaction. In the pause she could hear the sea water lapping just below her window sill.
“I’ve heard otherwise. You’re the one who’ll get things done.”
Iona’s grey eyes were staring at her with hope. She would have been beautiful when she was young but now her silver-grey hair and eyes were concealed beneath weary dark circles and rippling wrinkles around her mouth. No laughter lines.
Mira had vowed she was done with all that. It was dangerous work and those who came pleading to her door rarely had the money to pay. Shell necklaces and a side of salmon didn’t keep the landlord from yelling obscenities about stinking fish wasting his time. Even a submerged studio apartment caked in coral cost more than she was bringing in these days.
“I’m sorry, I got out of that business years ago,” Mira started. She reached for the box of business cards on the side table. “I suggest you run. I know a kelpie with a small delivery business. He can get you a new ID card and hide you in the van, take you somewhere to hole up.”
“I can’t run. I ran before and he paid a seawitch to find me.”
Mira looked up and saw the blue tattoo on Iona’s hand. She had been tagged; the seawitch’s magic was impossible to remove without the marine courts. And Iona couldn’t get to them without her skin.
“He’s going to kill me,” Iona said. “I know it. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but he’ll do it. You are the only one that can help me.”
Mira swore as she used the ladder to drag herself out of the water and into the biting wind of the tram’s platform. Already regretting the selkie’s tears and cash payment, Mira slid into the tram just as the doors slid shut. Tired mums with hybrid prams, businessmen in partially unzipped wetsuits, and shoppers with bags that knocked haphazardly against everyone’s knees filled the carriage.
A bunyip offered his seat to an elderly woman, water dripping from his protruding tusks as he inelegantly flopped from the chair onto all four webbed feet. Looking at him suspiciously, and at the muddy puddle he left pooling on the plastic chair, the elderly lady gripped her handbag tight to her chest and shuffled away without meeting his eye. The air was damp and stagnant, not just because of the sea water dripping from the bunyip’s whiskers. He sighed and rolled his eyes, catching Mira’s glance as he did. They nodded in mutual understanding.
“It’s not fair though, you’ve got four legs,” a schoolboy complained to his friend as they recounted a football match.
“So do you,” the other boy quipped as he nickered under his breath.
“I’d beat you in a wrestling match, mind,” the first boy said as he started to put his scuba apparatus back over his head.
The kelpie boy didn’t answer, but turned into horse form and snatched up his school clothes in his mouth. The doors slid open at the next stop and Mira saw the boys dive into the water, jostling good naturedly as the mildewed glass slid back and hid them from sight.
In ten years the human will be a manager and the kelpie will work on the factory floor until his back gives out, Mira thought bitterly.
“Tell me,” a voice said, the reek of alcohol assailing Mira’s senses, “why do you do it?”
A middle-aged woman leered up at her, clinging to the tram pole. She stabbed one finger against Mira’s arm to punctuate her speech. “All that hair and big eyes, reeling them in like stupid fish. He might just be a piece of meat to you but he was someone’s husband!”
Mira’s arm started to hurt under the repeated jabbing. “You’ve misunderstood —”
“You are all the fucking same. Siren songs and false promises.”
Mira started to move down the carriage but the woman’s words carried and everyone was staring at them.
“I wish you’d just slept with him! At least then he’d have been satisfied,” the woman shouted. Her voice was breaking and despite herself, Mira stopped. She knew this woman’s story as well as many others. The suicide rate for unrequited fixations on sirens was as high as the number of restraining orders that had been issued.
Mira walked back and put a hand awkwardly on the drunk woman’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, but that is not our intention. Despite popular belief, we don’t just . . . switch it on and off.”
The woman’s eyes widened, then her mouth pursed and she pushed the hand away. “Bullshit! You are all the same!”
Mira’s good intentions crumbled in the face of ignorance and she leaned in close so only the woman could hear.
“Maybe if you hadn’t been such a wet fish, he wouldn’t have been tempted.”
Mira was smug as she exited, satisfied to have had the last say until she turned and saw the window as the tram rolled away. Frightened faces watched her, window after window of staring eyes. The water pooling on the raised platform began to seep into her shoes.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. She had only made things worse.
The sushi place at the corner was completely underwater, with only the carp-shaped windsocks and ornamental dragons on the tiled roof showing. Mira moved along the raised walkways and dove down to find the entrance. There was an artificial air pocket inside the restaurant doors. A small red bridge and a waterfall graced the entrance. A kappa stood under the water, a look of pure pleasure on its face.
“Welcome, patron. Please hang up your wetsuit and breathing apparatus, and avoid falling in the water!” he said without opening his eyes.
Mira burst out laughing.
“Oh, it’s you. Kai won’t be happy,” the kappa said as he shuffled out from the stream. His skin was tough like turtle shell but he waddled awkwardly. The whole look was rather comical even though Mira knew his beak could pierce flesh and he had the strength to carry off an adult human if he was so inclined. The kappa puffed out his chest and frowned at her, but being no higher than Mira’s waist, it just made her laugh even more.
“What if I’m not here to see Kai; I might be here to see you!” she said in her brightest voice.
The kappa picked at the webbing between his hands, inspected it, and then ate the pickings. “Those tricks don’t work with me, Mira.”
Mira feigned innocence as she winked and walked on. As she passed through the enchanted tori gate, her clothes dried instantaneously. Kai was behind the sushi counter, the knife glinting in the dim light as he sliced raw fish onto a platter. His blue-grey hair was pulled into a topknot and he wafted the smell of the ocean across the room. Not for the first time, Mira felt her heart sing and wondered if the pain was the same others felt for her song.
“Are you going to say hello, or were you just planning to watch?” he said.
“The view isn’t too bad,” she admitted, crossing the room.
“And yet I get the distinct feeling this isn’t a social call,” Kai said. He wiped the edge of the platter and turned it to check from all angles.
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of business and pleasure,” Mira said, putting a slight melody into her words.
Kai raised an eyebrow and then took the platter to the nearest table and started eating. Mira sat next to him and dropped the act.
“Okay, you win. I need something from you.”
“I’m not allowed to disturb the balance, Mira.”
“Yes, all you can do is make sushi and do calligraphy,” she retorted. It was both the attraction and the curse of knowing a water dragon. His premises were a safe zone — many of her clients had found a moment’s reprieve from all the arid crap of the world within its walls — but Kai wouldn’t lift a finger to change the equilibrium. They had fought about it more times than she cared to remember until she had finally had enough and left him.
“You don’t need to know anything,” she continued, touching his wrist gently. “Just give me a blindspot. A few hours is all I need.”
“You are kidding?” The sushi fell from his chopsticks. “Mira, I thought you packed it in? You know I can’t keep doing this. After last time . . .”
“I’m not like you. I can’t just sit by and watch our people being hurt.” She regretted her words as soon as she had said them. Mira knew that Kai had no choice — he had been sent as their ambassador and for right or wrong, he had to stick to the rules.
“That’s not fair. Integration is our only hope and if they think we are using our powers to directly harm humans then all you’ll do is save one person and screw the rest.” Kai rubbed his temples and slumped back wearily.
Mira pushed her chair back and stood behind Kai. She traced a finger around his right ear tenderly and then leaned in close, her arms draped over his shoulders. “He cut her, right here. Cut her ear clean off.”
Kai’s shoulder stiffened and he pushed her away. He raised a hand and soft bamboo flute music filled the room. Mira recognised the melody as a glamour, shielding their words whilst it played.
“Give me two days. I can get you an hour, two at most, from noon. And that’s it. Then we have to talk about this, Mira. Properly.”
He looked round at her and Mira could see flickers of his dragon form superimposed over his features. She had started to forget what he looked like as a dragon. For a decade now he had been forced to live as human because his sheer size alone was deemed unsuitable, frightening, monstrous.
“Mira,” he said softly, shaking her from her thoughts. “You know if you get caught even I won’t be able to protect you.”
Mira smiled grimly. “I’m not the one who needs protecting.”
The aquarium Iona’s husband owned was a monstrosity by sea-dweller standards. It took up the whole sixth and seventh floor of an old office block, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows turned into tanks. With the city half-submerged, there was marine life everywhere and the aquarium was a grotesque carnival of cruelty, needlessly entrapping the animals in squat boxes to be peered at.
Mira did her groundwork in the bar beside the aquarium, listening to the workers gossip and vent after work. The men respected Iona’s husband. Hard-up after losing jobs in fishing and tourist boats, they drank rum and talked about what they would like to do to his selkie wife. He simply laughed along with them.
At noon on the second day, Mira threw on a glamour: young, human, coffee-coloured skin and dark hair, wide frightened eyes and a backpack bulging with possessions as if she had run away from home.
“I . . .” she said at the door, tilting her head towards the camera in the corner so he would see her pretty face. “I need a job.”
“We aren’t hiring,” the man at the ticket office said, leafing through an old newspaper.
“Please I, I really need the money. I’m . . . desperate.”
As if on cue, the phone rang. The ticket officer answered it, frowning a little before reaching into his desk and printing off a complimentary ticket for her.
“He’ll meet you at the stingray exhibit.”
Mira didn’t have to act terrified as she walked around the maze of decrepit tanks. Tanks were piled on tanks, with the fish all clustered near the top of the water, gasping for air amongst the bodies of their dead comrades. Green algae coated the glass on both sides and there was a thick film of scum on every surface. It was nothing more than a morgue. Mira had seen fishmongers who kept their animals in better condition than this.
Around the corner there was a room made of glass. Floor, ceiling and four walls were joined into one seamless tank. Kite-shaped stingray soared around them and underfoot like ripples in the water. A middle-aged man stood at the centre. He had thinning hair, a shirt that had once been white but was now yellowing at the collar and underarms, and gold-rimmed glasses that looked like fish tanks. There was something sallow about his whole appearance. He approached her and smiled with the geniality of a predator.
“I’m the aquarium owner, Steve.”
“Levi,” Mira answered.
“So you are looking for work? Industrious of you,” he said, looking her up and down with an appraising eye.
“I — I’m new in the city,” Mira said. “And I’ve worked on a fish farm before so, I just thought . . .”
“You’d use your skill set to find a job. Impressive. I like that. There aren’t many young girls in the city that would be smart enough to think of that.”
“It’s — I just needed the money,” Mira said, looking down at her feet.
She heard him open his wallet and a wad of banknotes was pressed into her hands. It was more money than the average unskilled worker made in a month. Steve’s hands lingered over hers. “Call it an advance,” he said.
“Oh, but that’s too much, I mean, I wasn’t expecting so much . . . thank you, but are you sure?” she said.
His hands moved up her arm and tilted her chin up so she was looking at him. “We’ll make sure you work it off.”
Mira tried to look flattered and confused, resisting the disgust crawling all over her skin. She turned away, hoping it would look as if she was overwhelmed. In silence she stood staring at the stingrays, waiting for his next move.
“They are a member of the shark family,” he said.
“But everyone thinks they are so much friendlier. See that happy face on its underside? Looks can be deceptive. Those aren’t eyes, they are gills.”
“Mermaids swim with stingrays, keep them as guards,” he said. His hand had somehow made it to her shoulder. Mira grimaced under the glamour and pretended not to notice him smelling her hair.
“I’d love to meet some seafolk,” she said. “I mean, of course I’ve seen them in the streets and stuff, but I’ve never been friends with one of them. I’ve got so many questions, you know, stupid things really. How do they breathe out of water and stuff.”
“I could answer your questions. My, um, late wife was a selkie,” he said.
“No, really? I don’t believe you, however did you get a selkie to fall for you?” Mira said, setting the net.
“I have captured many sea creatures. Seafolk? Well they aren’t much different. They might look more like us, yes, but we both know they are nothing more than fish. And, well you should know how to catch a fish. With some bait and a hook. Easy as that. Just don’t expect to have an intelligent conversation with one of them,” he said.
“Then why did you marry her?” Mira asked before she could stop herself. Luckily he took her vehemence for naïve enthusiasm.
“I have a reputation. I mean, how do people know I’m any good at rearing the creatures if I don’t have proof of it? And a selkie . . . well they are easy enough to seduce, we all know that. All you need to do is buy them a couple of nice dresses and compliment their hair. But do you know the average length of a human-selkie marriage? Six months. I have been married for eight years. That makes me, unofficially of course, the leading expert in seafolk around these parts.”
Kai’s words echoed in her head. She couldn’t do harm to a human unless in self-defence but the nape of her neck was tingling from the desire to. She had a seawitch tattoo there, same as all the other seafolk who lived in the cities, that would burn her if she used any of her magic illegally.
Mira pretended to be in awe as he beamed and then suddenly she laughed curtly. “No! I believed you for a moment there. You are pulling my leg! How could someone like you get a selkie for a wife?”
His face dropped along with his cloying goodwill. “I am most certainly not! In fact, I have proof!”
He rummaged in his pocket, flustered as strands of hair fell across his forehead. Pulling out his keys, he brandished them inches from her face. “See, proof!”
Attached to a jangling set of boat and house keys was a scrap of grey fur, ragged and dirty with lint from his pocket.
“You keep it on your keys?” she said.
“Yes, um, to remind me of my dear departed —”
She snatched the keys from him. “You keep it on your keys!” she repeated, no longer holding back the rage.
The stingrays had gathered into a dark mass above Steve’s head, their happy underbelly faces swimming before her eyes over and over. Her neck started to burn. Mira moved over to the glass and put her hand on it.
No direct harm.
“I could do with a drink,” Mira said.
Steve’s eyes widened and she knew the glamour had faded in her anger. He grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the glass as she started singing. Mira let herself fall on the ground without interrupting the song. Her voice spiraled higher and higher, the tune of waves and whale song. Steve shoved his hand roughly over her mouth but it was too late. The glass began to reverberate and splinter around them.
“Siren bitch,” he spat as he let go of her and groped around his neck. Mira realised belatedly he must have a protective charm. She shouted out her last note as the glass smashed around them and the room flooded with water and stingrays and fresh blood.
Once Mira returned her pelt, Iona went straight to the marine courts under protection of some of Mira’s contacts. She would be immune from the seawitch’s spell until the court had come to a decision and Mira was confident of what side they would fall on.
Steve on the other hand, had gone missing.
Pouring herself a drink, Mira sat on her office armchair and decided not to let it bother her — she deserved one night off before she started worrying about him. She dozed off but woke with a start when the phone rang. It sounded like pounding on her skull at first and it took Mira a while to answer it.
“Mira? Mira, are you okay?” Kai asked.
“It’s going swimmingly, what’s up?”
“The lines have gone crazy. I’ve had half a dozen reports of a man who has approached every seawitch in the city to learn how to kill a siren. If this goes down, the balance is screwed!”
“The balance? Always about the balance! It’s already screwed. You are about the only one who has stuck to the letter of the amnesty agreement. We were fools to ever agree to curtail our powers when they were the ones who polluted our waters!”
“I think you should come here for a few days until it blows over. I would just feel better if —”
The pounding started again. But it was different this time. Someone was trying to break down her door.
“Eh, I need to go Kai. Someone is knocking.”
“Don’t open the —”
She hung up the phone and rubbed her temples. She didn’t have a head for alcohol any more and confrontations were a huge annoyance.
Steve smashed in the glass of her window with a huge fish hook. He was carrying a fishing net in his other arm.
“So,” he said, as he unlocked the door through the broken glass, “this is where the harpy lives?” The stingrays had had some revenge. Barb punctures riddled his arms and face. “You honestly thought my own animals could kill me? I’m not that stupid. And all for Iona? Really? She has nothing to do with you. She’s my wife!”
“It’s called domestic abuse. Holding someone against their will. There are laws,” Mira said as she slowly stood up.
“Screw the laws, no human jury has ever taken the side of seafolk. You are all asking for it.”
“And that’s why I still have a job,” she said, realising her words rang true.
He threw the net towards her chair but she moved easily away. Too easily. A second net wrapped around her head, tightening immediately so that the mesh pressed against her face in stinging lines. He wrapped the fish hook around her neck.
“Try to sing now, you mermaid whore,” he said smugly.
Mira’s voice would not come. The net had choked her breath, like drowning. But he had forgotten she had tools other than her voice. She grabbed at an ornamental conch and smashed it hard against his leg so the spike dug into his flesh. Steve swore and let go.
“You slag! I’m going to make you pay!” he shouted and flung the conch to one side.
Mira peeled the net off her head and grabbed the hat stand — even Kai would consider this one self-defence, she thought grimly. Her voice was still hoarse and numb and Mira could only hope the enchantment would wear off quickly. As Steve sliced down toward her with his weapon she whipped the hat stand in the way. The hook cut the bathrobes into shreds but became entangled in the curved arms of the stand. Steve screamed and pushed with his shoulder, forcing Mira back against the wall, pinning her there.
“Make me want you so badly I drown myself? That’s your game, right?”
Nothing would’ve revolted her more. Mira kicked him as hard as she could, but she didn’t have the physical strength to do any real damage. Steve laughed cruelly and seemed to be enjoying himself. She saw the violence in his eyes and knew that whatever happened, it was worth it to save Iona from this. Mira let herself go limp so that Steve leaned in closer and then cracked him hard with a headbutt.
Then her voice came back.
She sang a single note, higher and louder than she had done in years. The power pitched through her and slammed Steve to the ground. Right now if she told him to stop breathing, he would.
“You wouldn’t dare,” he hissed through the enchantment. “The amnesty forbids you from harming me.”
Mira sang a simple refrain and watched the blood drain from his face and his conviction falter. Her body ached so much she barely registered the heat from the nape of her neck.
“Oh? Really? But I’m not doing anything; you are,” she said. “I want you to relive it. Every hurt you gave your wife: every emotional, physical and sexual piece of shit you subjected her to, you are going to do to yourself with this lovely fish hook.” She picked up the hook from the rug and put it reverently in his hands.
Then she turned her back on him, humming her song under her breath, and put the kettle on to drown out the noise. She tidied the charmed net into a drawer, wondering if she could use it against the mercenary seawitch — she would have to deal with that little problem sooner rather than later.
When she checked on Steve he was holding the fish hook in both hands, fighting her song for control. And losing. He looked shocked every time his own hands opened up another cut. Trails ran down his body and pooled in bloody footprints on her rug.
Mira remembered why she had stopped doing these jobs. And how many rugs she had gone through. She remembered how the power made her feel and she wasn’t sure if she liked it.
“Go. Go and get cleaned up,” she said.
Steve screamed at her but he could not control his body. It pulled him over to the window, yanked it open, and stepped off the edge into the raging sea below. The tide was low and he fell two floors before he hit shallow water. The water blushed with the flow of his blood and as he thrashed, Mira could already hear the carnivores of the sea honing in on him. His protection charm wouldn’t work this time.
“No direct harm,” Mira reassured herself. She looked at her bloodstained rug and the cooling mug of seaweed tea in her hands. She shook her head and headed for the door, reaching it just as it was flung open. It was Kai.
“Are you ok?” he said, breathless and dripping wet.
Mira smiled and pushed them both out of the room, closing the door firmly behind her. She slid the brass door sign to “closed” and put her arm through Kai’s.
“No rescuing needed today. But it won’t affect the balance if we eat, right?”
“What happened?” Kai said.
Mira pulled out some very damp cash and waved it under his nose. “No questions, I’m paying.”
“Mira . . .”
She smiled back at him once as she walked to the stairs. With a brief pause, Kai followed.
About the Author
Eliza Chan writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. She likes to collect folk tales and modernise them with a twist of lemon, pinch of pepper and a kilo of surrealism. Her work has been published in British Fantasy Award nominated Asian Monsters, Lontar Journal, and Fantasy Magazine. This is her first Escape Artist publication but she has narrated for Cast of Wonders. She is currently working on a dystopian fantasy novel based on the same world as “One More Song.”
About the Narrator
Sofia Quintero is a writer and producer who tells stories that meet audiences where they are and take them someplace better. Raised in a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx and graduating from Columbia University, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” has published six novels and twice as many short stories across genres including YA, “chick lit,” and erotica. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote three novels described as “sister-centered hip-hop noir.”
Sofia’s stories are usually ahead of the curve, offering nuanced depictions of underrepresented communities years before the mainstream entertainment industries took up the challenge. Because her novels reflect an intentional hybrid between the commercial and the literary, exploiting popular tropes to raise socio-political issues for broad audiences, they are assigned at colleges across the nation and in multiple disciplines including English, Sociology, Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, Latino studies, African American Studies, and Education.
In 2012, Sofia earned an MFA in Writing and Producing Television from the TV Writers Studio at Long Island University and was a 2017 Made in NY Writers Room Fellow. In addition to developing several projects for television, she’s working on her seventh novel called #Krissette. Inspired by the #SayHerName movement, #Krissette will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2020. Sofia will also be re-releasing her Black Artemis backlist as audiobooks.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include Knite and Fisheye Placebo webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature. You can read her comics for free at YuumeiArt.com, Follow her on Instagram, or support her on Patreon.