He could never get used to the way she insisted on eating raw fish.
It made his stomach turn, even after all their years together, to see her snap the head off and pop it still dripping gore into her mouth. Her extra strong teeth cracked the bones with ease as she chewed nonchalantly. It was just so animal like.
They ate privately, the five of them huddled around a table he had made from nailing together two broken crates. He had put fish net over the windows to act as curtains to keep the curious from peeking in, although it had been a long time since anyone had bothered them. The children ate like she did, but he insisted that she partially cook their fish. They probably would have preferred it raw but he didnít care, they were going to act normal as long as he was head of the family.
She made a pretence of washing dishes in the large basin she had filled with river water. She dunked each plate into the soapy water slowly, once, twice three times then ran a rag over it to get rid of the food remnants. He watched her as she did this automatically; wash the plate and turn it over to dry in a small plastic dish drainer. All the while she stared out the window, watching the sea rushing up to the shore and then retreating. She stared at the sea dreamily while her hands dipped plates and enamel cups. Then it was the cast iron pot she had cooked rice in, then a long handle spoon. All washed without her ever looking at her task.
He sighed. She stood with her back to him; her long locks tied with some string at the nape of her neck and allowed to flow to her thighs, jet-black locks she had been growing since she was 19. When he held her, her hair smelled of the sea and the coconut oil concoction she used as a hair dressing. She was still beautiful at almost 35, with bewitching silk ebony skin and fiery eyes. She smiled without showing the full length of her teeth, so men stared at her full curved lips and were lost. Her magic still worked on him too, although now he was older and more immune, he hoped. He would not admit to himself how desperately he still needed her.
She had stopped washing and was un-naturally still as she stared transfixed at the sea. ďIím going for a swim,Ē she suddenly said in her deep voice. She sounded rough with desire. He instantly put aside the net he had been trying to repair and got up from the grass mat.
ďItís too late for that now,Ē he put his arms around her and physically lifted her away from the window. He placed her gently on the cot they shared, and spoke to her gently. He told her about the house they were going to have one day, with the big back yard and the swimming pool. She looked at him helplessly. He had been saying that for years. Her eyes were wet and after a while she shut them so she would not have to look at him any longer. He talked until he was dry in the mouth. She turned her back to him and dozed. By the time dusk fell she was better. She washed clothes, and made him some hot bush tea to drink before the neighbour sailed up to collect him. He kissed her and she smiled but her eyes were cold.
He waded out to his fishing partner and dropped his gear in the bottom of the boat. The old man grunted a greeting and packed the net away carefully under his seat. The children swam and frolicked around the boat with utter abandon. He laughed as they teased the old man, splashing him with water. Even the two year old could swim and dive perfectly. They waved and shouted their goodbyes and put in their requests for the kind of fish they wanted. He gave each one a pat and told them to look after their mother. His eldest, a girl, looked at him quizzically with her slanted eyes so like her motherís. He felt uncomfortable under her scrutiny and signalled to the old man he was ready to go.
After he was gone, she had nothing to do but to sit and remember. The children were self-sufficient, made so by force because she had not been of use to them for so long. The older ones made tea for themselves and the younger ones, and put themselves to bed. They took turns watching her through the night. She tried not to be resentful of their care and reminded herself that she must get over her illness and be a better mother.
When did this strange sickness come over her? One minute she had been happyno. Not happybut at least content with her life, then suddenly one day she had woken up with an consuming desire to get away. She was a prisoner, trapped in a life that was of her own making. The abject poverty they lived in suffocated her with its unrelenting, intense minute by minute struggle to survive. The only thing that might have made this life bearable was the sea and she had promised never to go back there.
Just before dawn the children woke up and ate the fish she had saved from their supper. They ate it with berries and crackers, chattering loudly and excitedly about their plans for the day. She felt old and tired listening to them, but something about their joy was infectious. They teased her until they coaxed a real smile from her and they dragged her off to the river to play.
Their bodies streamlined and sleek like otters, twined and tumbled over each other as they boisterously swam and dove off the river rocks. She shivered in the crisp coldness at first, her body slower to acclimatize than theirs. Eventually she slipped away to glean for fruits, awkwardly trying to climb trees to steal their booty. The sun became too hot for her and she began to feel faint. The sunís rays filtered through the leaves in thin streams seeking to sting her skin as she perched in the branches, her mind started to wander as she stared at the beams of light
It had been his flashlight dancing on the surface of the water above her that had attracted her. The light was something new and shiny and tantalized her, drawing her up to the boat. He was not so interesting, but his treasures from the land acted like a magnet, and so she kept returning to the boat night after night.
Her magic ensnared him. She was so full of life and laughter. So he too returned night after night with trinkets and flowers and shiny cheap things he could ill afford. She had been eager to see the place where these fascinating items were from, but was afraid. Eventually he had coaxed her into the boat, and the rest was many years ago.
She was drying out, sitting in this tree letting the sun bake her. She climbed down carefully clutching the fruit in the front of her dress. She stood on the river bank and called to the children in her native tongue, a low melodic call that reached to them from the deepest areas where they dived and played. They came to her instantly, wet and shiny, hair bleached to variations of red and blond from the sun. They raced away from her back to the sea shore, as fast on land as they were in the water.
She laughed as they flew with the exuberance of young, free, wild things. They entranced her, these beautiful children she had birthed. They kept her here, because how could she bear to leave them behind?
It was midday the next day and he was exhausted as the boat puttered to shore. The old man divided up the catch and gave him his smaller share. It wasnít a bad take really, there might even be a bit of money left over to buy one of the kids some new shoes for school. His spirits lifted as he approached the shack. Wary of her mood, he dropped the fish in the barrow and talked to her about his day. He hurriedly selected the childrenís fish from out of the batch and left her, anxious to get on the main road and sell to the motorists who would be expecting him.
He was also anxious to be back by evening when her longing grew to its strongest. He had been very lucky until this last year when her depression began. She was still able to keep her promise, but lately, at that hour, her sense of duty eroded.
It was a good day for the fisherman. He sold all the fish in record time, and even got extra because two of his customers had large bills and were too impatient to wait for change. His muscles rippled in his wiry arms and shoulders as he hoisted the barrow handles and pushed it home, the soles of his feet were tough as cow hide and he jogged across the asphalt to the sand with ease. The children leaped around him and cheered when they saw the money, then they raced back to the sea. It was almost a shame summer was coming to an end. They turned gray with misery when they were cooped up in school all day. He swept aside the net that served as a door to the hut, and greeted her before turning the barrow upside down outside so the fish water ran into the sand. He waved the notes at her and was gratified that she favoured him with a smile. He wished the smile would reach her eyes.
She had over cooked the fish; a sign her mind had been wandering again, but he was so hungry he swallowed the dry flesh ravenously. The children bounded in with their usual energy and waited impatiently for their dinner. She served them with a growing air of detachment, her movements slow and deliberate.
She sat down with her own plate last and began her usual ritual of ripping the fish apart. He watched her for a few minutes trying to assess her mood, before he really took a look at what she was doing. She took the heads off, set them aside and with her hard nails sliced into the fish. He stopped chewing.
She reached into the fish and took out the roe eating it first. She gave a small sound of pleasure and closed her eyes for a few blissful seconds. Suddenly she felt his stare. She opened her eyes and caught his look of dismay before he could disguise it. At the same moment she felt two distinct stirrings; one in her womb, and one from the sea. They looked at each other for a long moment knowing exactly what the other was thinking. Even the children stopped eating as they became aware of the unnatural silence. They turned in unison looking first at him, and then at her. How long had she been eating roe without realizing it? How foolish of her not to have guessed.
He wanted to break the silence, to tell her it was ok, that he was happy. He should say something.
ďIím going for a swim,Ē she said dreamily and rose from the crate she had been sitting on. Her plate with the disembowelled fish clattered to the floor. He reached across and grabbed her wrist but her will was too strong. She dragged him after her without regard. The sea leapt and rushed in anticipation. The stirring in her womb intensified and she knew this one was different from the others. This one was no hybrid; this one needed the sea.
He begged and commanded in turn as she strode powerfully to the waterís edge. The children ran around them in agitated circles wailing. Their sorrow tore at her heart but she knew that they would thrive without her.
They all went into the surf together. She cried out loud from the joy; her salt tears mingled with sea spray. Her long dry skin soaked in the healing minerals. Her body undulated and shook violently in tumbling water.
He hugged her around the waist and tried to stop her transformation but nothing could stop it now. Her locks floated on the water around her as the chemical reaction in her body created visible waves of energy. His tightly linked arms slipped down her waist as skin gave way to sleek scales, and legs melded into a single trunk.
He finally released her and she dove away from him into an oncoming wave. She fluked; her large blue-black tail slapped the wave and raised spray high into the air. The children swam with her in their first true union, darting around her like dolphins. Their bodies twisted and turned together; mother and offspring intertwined in a joyous race under the moonlight. They went with her as far out as they could and nuzzled her. Then they raced back to the shore; to him.
And she dove to the depths carrying his last gift safely inside her body, and returned to her people.