The final short story in my series based on the concept of Disney princesses in a dystopian world.
The sign outside used to say, San Sebastian Aquarium, but some bright spark has left an addendum in streaky green paint. It now reads San Sebastian Aquarium… and Freak Show, and the crowds can’t get enough of it. It’s all the rage, and even the fancy folk come down from their penthouses to watch us perform. I view the queue through the smears of algae on my tank.
I can see her, lingering on the fringes, hood pulled over her shaven scalp. There is a wildness in her eyes, a shimmer of danger that makes me yearn for freedom, and I’m not talking about the open ocean, but for legs and lungs.
I remember legs and lungs, and screaming hunger, and living in the dirt. I remember a woman, who might have been my mother, handing me to the Ringmaster in exchange for rations of bread and a pipe full of tobacco. I remember, in snippets of bright pain, the creation of my mutation. Mermaids aren’t real, we are made.
On cue the loudspeaker squarks to life.
“Welcome to the Splashiest Place on Earth.”
In the water, no one can see your tears, and yet the anonymous watcher seems to understand. Her skin looks blue, tainted by the chemicals in my tank, but her gaze locks on to mine and somehow, she knows.
“Today, for your entertainment we have the Siren of San Sebastian, the incomparable Erica.”
Expectation builds, and my pale webbed fingers brace against the fibreglass rocks of the enclosure.
I am not beautiful. My hair is lank, and algae green, stained by the chlorine and chemicals in the pool. My eyes are huge and dark, more pupil than iris now, and I dare not smile lest I reveal a mouthful of serrated teeth. Gills flare in my back and the sharkskin of my tail rasps against my stage.
“Freak.” They call, for freak I am. There are no mermaids here.
The show, so to speak, is survival of the fittest. Rather than sit on a rock and sing sweet melodies whilst combing my hair, I battle with the other shark pups for a mouthful of dolphin carcass. Sometimes, one of us gets bit in the frenzy. Sometimes the pups die, but not me. I am the star of this little show.
The girl is always the last to leave, she lingers in the shadows until the Ringmaster dims the lights. My too big eyes can see her approach and for the first time in an age there is a shimmer like excitement in my guts.
‘What do you want?’ She has scrawled on a tattered piece of cardboard. There is no hesitation in my reply. I write back with my finger, sketching wobbly letters in the algae film.
‘LIFE’. I want to add legs and lungs, but life will do for now. Perhaps she will liberate me back into the plastic choked ocean.
‘I am Zel.’ She writes back with a smile, and the seed of excitement blooms into hope.
She comes back, again and again. Night after night with scraps of trash to scribble on.
She is free.
She wants to help.
She has a friend.
I make a plan. A gravely dangerous plan and hope that Zel will be there when I need her.
Show day dawns.
The crowds gather and the air is electric with their bloodlust.
“Ladies and Gents, please make her welcome… Erica the Siren of San Sebastian.” Even under the water I can feel the vibration of the applause. “I present the danger of the deep…” He raises his voice over the din and the pups churn the water in circles up above.
The world is warped this deep in the tank, distorted and twisted to my shark eyes. I can wait… I can wait until the Ringmaster with his monkey brain looks over the edge of the platform.
I’ll wait. Then I’ll hunt.
Muscles surge, slicing through the water and the leap is pure ballet. Ringmaster doesn’t die well, and the threshing limbs stir my sisters and brothers to a frenzy that has the audience screaming in delight.
My warped blue world runs red, and in the chaos I lift myself on wavering arms over the edge of the tank to gasp and flounder in an atmosphere that can no longer sustain me. I’m not sure if the sodden blanket is a help or a hindrance until strong hands lift me up, and then there is the blessed relief of cool, untainted water.
“You’re safe now.” I think that must be Zel’s voice, but when the blanket is lifted off I see another woman who has the same wildness in her eyes. She, I presume, is the leader of this most unusual caravan. Dressed in gold, she is the mistress of the Bull-headed humans that tow the carts on which we ride.
“Thank you.” I make the bubbles sing and when I glimpse my reflection in the glass, I see the wildness in my black irises and understand that what I see is freedom.