They Still Talk in Terms of ConquestGabriela Denise Frank
Euan lingered near the standing stones at the edge of the wind-whipped cliff.
Looking out over the North Atlantic, he shivered against the mist and shoved his hands in his pockets. He had forgotten his gloves in the car. The blanched January skies matched the hue of the turgid white-capped water: the dense clouds made it impossible to tell where the seam of horizon lay. Below, the roaring sea bashed itself against the black haystack rocks.
Engulfed in gray, the emerald promontory was as he remembered it: a ring of hand-hewn pagan monoliths sprouting from the edge of the dank, grassy earth. The tallest bore a face-sized hole carved through its heart. Euan hadn’t seen the dun-colored stones in years; as a boy, he and his granny visited often. Somewhere, there was a photo of him peering through the vacancy, sticking out his tongue.
He couldn’t help from stroking the monolith’s smooth surface despite signs urging visitors to refrain. The skin’s oils degraded stone and parchment alike—human curiosity ruined all manner of things—but a single touch couldn’t hurt, could it? He gasped when his fingers found a pulse beneath the monolith’s skin. It was like the damned thing had… spoken.
His granny’s admonitions echoed: Careful, boy! Don’t go near the portal unless you want to wake up in a different world. Her superstitions made him chuckle. His otherwise practical grandmother believed in fairies, omens, and curses. She crossed herself at intersections and strung garlands of garlic over her windows. The crochety old bird even tossed salt over her shoulder to trap the devil who, she said, lurked in dark corners, ready to pounce on the unguarded. She chided Euan for his disbelief in folk legends. If the tales are true, you’ll thank me, Mr. Scientist, and if they’re not, what’s the harm in believing?
His soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, Jane, who was moving out of their flat at that very moment, posed this question differently. She kept asking where it was going between them, where his faith in the future lay. The truth was, Euan struggled to believe there was a future—for anyone.
Buoyed by a wellspring of hope and a belief his passion could change the world, he began working in climate activism right out of uni. Seventeen years in, he could barely drag himself to the day’s Sisyphean tasks, lobbying against corporate polluters who—if they were prosecuted and fined—would shrug and keep polluting.
It seemed Euan had wasted his life. His efforts wouldn’t save the planet, though as long as he held his post, he’d have to pretend they would. He couldn’t admit, not to his colleagues, his family, or Jane, whose biological clock was ticking, that faith had a half-life, and his had begun to erode. How could anyone bear to bring children into this world?
He was about to turn back for the car when a gust of wind carried up a woman’s screams. Scanning the sea, Euan found her at the break: a flailing torso, arms, and head. What was she thinking, swimming at Duntulm? The area was known for riptides, hence the red DANGER signs that people ignored to their deaths. There had been a number of recent near-drownings, some free water swimming nonsense. The woman yelped as one wave after another closed over her head.
There was no time to lose.
Euan had been caught in riptide as a lad, after his mates dared him to swim out to the crab pot buoys. Someone’s dad saved him in the end. He shoved away the paralyzing feeling of swimming furiously without going anywhere, and let righteous anger yank-start his heart.
He’d save the woman, then he’d give her what-for.
Scrambling down the steep stone stairs to the beach, Euan slipped here and there on green flanges of moss sewn in the seams. On the sand, he stripped off his anorak, jumper, trainers, and socks, and dashed into the ocean. The woman’s cries grew faint. Damn her. Besides the riptide, the water was sharky—he was trading his life for a stranger’s—but that was his MO, wasn’t it? Jane sniffed at his attraction to beings in need. You’re always saving someone, aren’t you. That’s how they met: he pulled over when he saw her on the roadside with a flat tyre. The man of the grand gesture, she teased. For a year she said this without irony. His mother was a nurse, his father a vicar, both in the business of saving souls. What was Euan to do but embrace the urge bred into his bones?
He gasped, wading in to his waist—the water was frigid. Best to dive under and get it over with. He plunged and came up for air, shivering violently.
“F-f-fuck me,” he spat.
He wiped salt sting from his eyes and found the woman, fifteen meters out. She rose and sank, gasping violently as she arched—he knew that feeling of existential weary. Their eyes met for a moment above the tide, then she disappeared beneath.
A strong swimmer, Euan intercepted her quickly. He hauled her above the surface where she sputtered and coughed. “It’s okay. I’m here,” he called over her splashing. She fought with desperate exhaustion, halfway between surrender and grappling. Riptides don’t pull people under, they tire them out to the point of surrender. It was not unlike falling in love.
The woman’s eyes bulged when he took hold of her. Her mouth gaped like a fish out of water, her breath jagged and thin. She was hyper-
ventilating. In her panic, she nearly plunged him under. This was how drowning people drowned their rescuers.
“No, no! Don’t fight,” he pled. “I’ll get you to shore. Please. You have to relax.”
He wasn’t sure she understood, but she must have. She stopped struggling.
“Just breathe. I’ve got you. Here, let me—”
He drew his arm across her chest. Nose to nose, she peered at him so earnestly he blushed.
“Lay back and float. I’ll swim for us both, okay?”
He towed her behind him and paddled parallel to the sand. Swimming for two was the hard part, but he could do it. Twenty meters and they’d be in the clear.
Halfway there, he felt her go limp. Had she passed out? Who knew how long she had been in the icy water. He turned and put his mouth at her ear. “Stay with me. You’ll be fine. I promise.” He hoped she didn’t hear the shake in his voice.
When the riptide released them, Euan swam all-out to shore, sighing as the velvet sand rose beneath his feet. “We made it,” he said mostly to himself, and dragged the waterlogged woman from the waves. On land, she was surprisingly heavy. He kneeled over her, his auburn curls dripping seawater onto her cheek.
“Hello? Hello? I’m here,” he said, touching her face gently. “I’m Euan. Are you alright?”
Her blue-green eyes fluttered open. They speared his with lurid vulnerability.
Thank god. Alive.
The woman was older, about fifty, and achingly gorgeous. Her long hair, threaded with blond and caramel, swirled around her shoulders as if she were still in the water. Euan drank her in. He found himself wanting to kiss the papery crow’s feet radiating from the corners of her eyes. Her disarming stare sent a shudder through him.
The woman’s grateful expression melted his angst. She breathed normally now. Before he could pull away, she lay her hands on the sides of his face. His skin flushed at her touch, sparking a line of desire that burned from his head to his loins. His attraction to older women was a longstanding joke: his mates gave him hell about Jane, who was ten years his
A MILF, they called her.
“My hero,” the woman said, her accented English thickened with dark honey from the base of the comb. She drew him to her lips, filling his mouth with hers, a succulent oyster of saline, maple, and rust. A moan escaped his throat as her kisses consumed him. My god, the woman was elemental. Sensibility said that he should warm her up, but he couldn’t stop kissing her.
“Don’t worry,” she said, nuzzling his neck. “You can warm me in other ways.”
He keened with longing when she ran her hands along his hips and tugged his body to hers. Wait—had he said that about warming her up—or thought it?
“We need no words,” she chided. “Between us is ancient.”
She kissed his neck, his ear, his cheeks, his mouth, and worked her way down, her low purrs stoking his lust. The crashing waves drowned out his thoughts; the weak yellow sun sank away. Yes. Euan unbuckled his belt and wriggled his pants to his ankles. Perhaps the woman helped him out of them, he wasn’t sure, he didn’t care, all that delicious fumbling. Before he knew what was happening, the woman straddled him on the damp sand. They moaned in unison as she pushed him inside of her, her body wild and urgent. She writhed and churned like the sea. Back and forth, her undulations evoked a vast darkness; the green sea closed overhead. When she rolled him roughly on top of her, he edged perilously on climax. It was hard to hold back when she drew her legs around him, plunging him deeper inside. Wave after wave, her hips swelled and billowed and broke, my god, yes and yes and yes. Keep going, please, she murmured, her breath hot in his ear. Yes, come, my love, she said, or perhaps her eyes did; his desire overboiled. He wasn’t sure which of them cried out as he poured into her.Maybe they both did.
When his vision cleared, Euan rolled beside the woman and lay back on the sand, spent. It took a few moments for his pulse to slow to a dull thud. The wind picked up, prickling his skin with gooseflesh. Next to him, the woman hummed contentedly.
What had he been thinking?
Too shy to face her, Euan fumbled for his pants, sand stuck in every crevice. He dashed to gather the rest of his clothes strewn along the beach. What would he say? What would she expect from him?
He returned to find the woman peeling off what looked like a vellum wetsuit. He had never seen one like it. It was tawny and semi-translucent, painted with iridescent scales that matched her flesh tone. Had she been wearing it the whole time? Had he made love to her with it on?
She let the suit fall, a layer of sloughed skin, and stood before him, her full, luscious breasts swelling with each breath. Her ruddy nipples stood erect from the frigid wind.
Euan’s cheeks burned. “Are you mad?” he sputtered. “What were you doing swimming here? You could’ve drowned—I could’ve drowned saving you.”
The woman smiled, cocked her head, and reached for him. He faltered back, tugging his long-sleeved T-shirt out of the jumper for himself, and shoved the rest of his clothes at her.
She looked quizzically at the bundle and made no move to dress, so he pulled the sweater over her head and arms, and drew the anorak around her shoulders. His jumper barely covered her sex; thankfully, the jacket skimmed her thighs. It was strange. The woman didn’t seem ashamed or upset; Jane’s cheeks would have been furious and puffy. She’d be babbling to cover up what they had done. Instead, it was Euan who felt bashful.
“What’s wrong with you? Say something.”
The woman shook her head, and lay her finger on his lips. She dropped to the sand, and patted the space next to her. Euan wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t leave her like this. He sank to his knees and sat, shoulder to shoulder, with the woman wearing his clothes. For awhile, they stared out at the ocean.
The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.
He wasn’t sure if she said this, or he thought it. It was a line from Rachel Carson.
He used to come to this beach to whisper his secret desires to the water though he never remained long. That, Jane observed, was his weakness: Euan was aces at saving, less so at staying. The windchill made it difficult to remain.
“It feels cold to you, but too warm for us,” the woman said. She pronounced each word carefully. He couldn’t place her accent. Was she Swedish? Norwegian?
“You spew poison gas into the air, the water warms, and my people die. You don’t care. You’ve set adrift gyres of garbage we can no longer contend with. You kill our kind without remorse. The only way to stop this is to stop you.”
“Who?” Euan cried hoarsely.
The woman smiled, revealing a mouthful of sharp silver teeth.
“Your granny warned you,” she said. “Portals work both ways, you know.
You’ve made our oceans uninhabitable. We must adapt, or we’ll go extinct. We have no choice but to make your home ours.”
Euan staggered to his feet. “You’re mad.”
The woman rose and walked to him, swaying step by step. She was tall and
lovely. The source of everything. Caught in her sea-gaze, Euan was powerless to move.
“I thank you for your aid, though, as will these little ones,” she said, laying her palm on her belly. “The first generation will bridge the divide between kinds, between water and land.”
She pressed her mouth to his. Despite himself, Euan stirred at her kiss.
When she swept her nose tenderly with his, he saw: they weren’t wrinkles but gills radiating from her eyes. They fluttered open and closed, featherlike, when she breathed. He recalled then that the near-drownings had all been women; in newspaper photos, they looked disheveled yet striking, their rescuers local blokes no one heard from again.
The woman walked Euan back against the cliff face. She was steadier now. Powerful. His urge to run evaporated when she nuzzled his neck and tugged his shirt over his head, peppering his chest with kisses.
The rush of the mermaid’s lust was not unlike drowning: oceanic and unending. Euan’s sinuses flooded with tin and brine, his crystalline thoughts dissolving in somnambulant bliss. This was the beginning where he was at his best, where passion worked magic, where faith made the future possible, for it should be noted that bodies are portals, too.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a trans-disciplinary storyteller, editor, and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in True Story, Tahoma Literary Review, Hunger Mountain, HAD, Bayou, Baltimore Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. The author of “Pity She Didn’t Stay ‘Til the End” (Bottlecap Press), she serves as creative nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.