It is not always a knock at your door: the sound of night wanting in to consume your limited light. It can be a horn, or a bugle. Or the twist of a screwdriver in a once abandoned tin can. Sometimes they are already there, waiting as you loosen your latches and walk in to what you expected to be a welcoming vacancy. Or it is a dusty presence suddenly beside you as you sear your clothes alive in the river.
You go with them, hugging your expectations in the willingly imagined criminality of your forgiving arms.
You match your gait to theirs. You remember every dim abode you pass, and the condition of the welcoming road. You note whether your neighbors’ cattle are properly penned, and if you can see their hopelessly female children bathing openly at a shouting window. If you have shoes, you wonder why you have shoes and think of how silly they look; if you have no shoes, you wonder why not, and suspect your toes are the most absurd of all the toes yet to have pushed out of a man’s feet.
There is little conversation. In different ways each of you is embarrassed to the grain; each regrets the plan and the impersonal execution of this exercise. As the intervention comes very near to its climax, everyone’s overburdened shoulders droop, all eyes drift petulantly weary down. Each individual seems on the verge of tearfully apologizing to all the out-welter others who make up this night’s exposure party.
It does not matter whether you believe in mermaids or not. Which camp of belief you belong to is not likely known to those who have come for you. All the wicked, speckled night you can keep your beliefs to yourself. No one will ask. No one cares to know.
Soon you are in front of a dark structure at water’s edge. You will not at first be able to locate a door in that seemingly fallow construction, but one of your enforced companions will go directly forward, mount the shadowed steps, and somehow find a breathable opening in the flat, black wall. He will open the door like a man suspecting a house fire on the other side. Only then will you see that the construction is engorged within with a thirsty blue light, a light that grows softer and more flimsy as you approach, soon going absolutely filthy with its diaphanous wisps.
Inside, with a man at either of your elbows to support you, you are led gently and not unwillingly to the constricted body of water within. You peer into the huge tank, eyes adjusting to the change in depths and media: at first concentrating on the wake the tank’s inhabitant makes as she goes lazily around the fickle glass edgelessness. There is a geometry that for a while will playfully guard your focus, a physics that at any construction-base makes a sense you can wrap at least nine fingers about. But you must eventually look at her, and not at where she simply hangs her corporeality: the damp blonde hair matted at her shoulders; the huge, waving breasts that even in these dire extremes brings carnal attention to your loins; the stutter of blue-green scales beginning just below the navel; and the sustaining fluke as wide as her femininely, mountebank muscled shoulders.
She stops to stare back at you, to place her wise wifely hands against the curve of the tank; and sets her damp cheerleader’s face to limp, as though forcing a first frowning flirtation, into a smile. She dips one shoulder seductively in the water and whips around the ever smaller tank, her conquering hair billowing behind, her fluke in suddenly serious temptations fingering from dash to drift. She is as unconstrained as she can be in the confinement that is spread out before you.
You are not being asked to believe, nor is it expected that you understand: you are here simply to see.
There is water left curiously idle on the floor outside of the tank, and hidden in the tank’s listing ocean is a grate with a latch that closes a tunnel leading to the incomprehensible sea. She is not for keeping, but she skims these few moments for the State, twirling around your dry sensibilities, reorganizing your thoughts to line up with her capture and escape, her residency and her leaving, the power that runs the whole length of her.
And then with one mighty pulse of her fluke she breeches, and slaps back into the tank’s beaded water.
You will be allowed to collect yourself on the front steps. With the door to the structure closed behind you, and the soothing uneasy blue quietly gone, the dark façade stealthily returns and supports your back as though you might actually lean substantially against it. Home, warehouse, temple, tank. You will be impressed that architecture is not the ghosting pin that, at the last, makes up your querulous mind.
The ungeometric, halting walk home will be no less awkward. Your feet will feel like stone in winter, as though the weight of precocious mud sucks you down ankle deep and you rise against it ever more consumed each step. Every so often you will catch the carbonized edges of your compatriots’ extravagant exhales. Every so often you will hear, at the shadow of any random house you pass, the disquieting sound of water being used for common tasks: bathing, washing, drinking, urinating. You might hear the drops banging against each other; you might feel their protective union in the face of the unknown.
Your mind will not change. You will remain in your sect. Everyone remains. If you did not believe, you will not believe. If you did believe, you will believe no more strongly. No one will ask you of it, ever.
But you will coil into your bed that night, and pressed into the effortlessly pleasing back of your wife you will reach past her protective elbows and carefully clutch like the key to Eden one soft, darkly anonymous breast, testing the ripeness with the palm of your once again sleek hand. All about you, you will feel the effects of buoyancy: the slow of sinking when still, the reasoning of rise as you race round and round any enclosure.
You will form a plan. This is what they want of you. And, down to the quick of your silver scales, you will believe that this is what you without knowing have wanted, too.
Lean forward; kiss the gills of your wife.
Ken Poyner lives in the lower right-hand corner of Virginia, with his power lifter wife, four rescue cats, and two attitude-challenged fish (in their separate but similar bowls). His 2013 e-book, Constant Animals, 42 unruly fictions, is available at the usual large commercial vendor web sites.