The sky is bright and feathered in clouds. A sticky wind ruffles the backs of seagulls as they bob along the glassy current. Waves lick and fizzle against the slick black rock Cordelia stretches her long tail across. With narrow eyes she peers towards the horizon, watching the ocean purr and swell beneath her. Her fingers lace through a mop of seaweed as she tosses her face toward the sun. The yellow light kisses her cheeks and she smiles. On days like these, she doesn’t mind being confined to her boulder on the sea. When the tide retreats and the sun begins to sink, Cordelia scrapes the salt from the sides of her rock and collects it in a small glass jar. She returns to the cool shelter of her cave; the walls are damp and trickle with an oceanic glaze. Cordelia places her jar on a slice of driftwood, amongst an assortment of jars. One by one, she picks them up, taps their glass and examines their contents. Each is filled with white pebbles, fish bones, spices, dried flower pedals, coral or gems. Anything that keeps her occupied. But the sun is low now and she is getting impatient.
Back outside, Cordelia watches the sky bleed red and pink against the water and contemplates swimming towards the radiance. She knows that Jack wouldn’t like that, so she stays where she is. She lies on her belly and slips her arm into the water, combing the marble surface with her fingers. Her eyes close and she takes a deep breath in, imagining he is with her. His voice is rough and slow in her ear as he tells her how beautiful she is, that no one will understand her beauty. A lump forms in her throat and she flicks her eyelids open again to watch the last bit of sunlight be swallowed by the horizon.
Cordelia is awoken by the clattering sound of glass on rock. She rubs hers eyes and gazes into the dark water. A green glass bottle glimmers on the surface and clanks once more against the boulder. She gasps and grabs at it eagerly. With shaking hands, she clutches the bottle to her chest and plucks the cork free. The paper slips down the neck of the bottle and lands delicately between her knuckles. It crinkles as she unwraps it. The pen scrawl is scratchy and blotted on the soggy parts of the paper. She tilts the message towards the moonlight and reads the words as Jack taught her to read them.
Could not make it to you today. Work to be done. Will be to you by tomorrow.
Will bring fish. See you soon, my beautiful Cordelia.
She squeals in delight and presses her lips repeatedly against the paper. She retreats into her cave and curls up in the cloth he brought to her during his last visit. Breathing deeply into the fabric, she tries to find the patches that still smell like him, but the salt water has consumed most of the scent. She falls asleep with the letter in her hand, tracing the loops of his signature with her index finger. “My Jack,” she whispers and drifts off.
In the morning, Cordelia twists her long red hair into braids, weaving it through with thin strips of seaweed. She crushes the dried flower petals against the skin on the nape of her neck and waits for Jack. Hours pass like years and just as her heart begins to sink, she hears the bell. Out on the horizon she sees Jack’s boat, rugged and wooden and familiar. As it nears the rock she can make out his silhouette. He stands at the bow, yanking on the bell profusely with one hand, waving with the other. Cordelia gasps in excitement and throws herself into the ocean. The water is refreshing against her skin. She glides effortless through the current, watching the white light collect and dapple on the surface above her. An instant later she is next to the boat, breaking up through the water with outstretched arms. Jack crouches and his rough skin feels warm against her clammy arms as he pulls her onto the boat. Cordelia laughs melodically as they collapse to the floor. She wraps her hands around his neck and kisses his cheeks.
“Oh, Cordelia!” he cries, running his dirty fingers through his hair. “How I’ve missed you my love.” He pulls away from her to examine her face. The freckles sprinkled below her green eyes are right where he left them. “Not a hair out of place,” he says with a smile, smoothing his palm over the top of her head.
“No sir,” she whispers back, cheeks aching from her boundless grin. His eyes skip quickly down to her waist and then to her tail. He runs his fingers along the glistening scales.
“So beautiful,” he says beneath his breath. His hands shake as he strokes the length of her tail, pondering each iridescent inch. “Oh, have I missed you.”
Jack docks the boat next to the big black rock and carries a sack of goods into the cave. Cordelia lies in the pile of cloth as Jack fumbles with a nest of twigs. “I know you don’t need the warmth, darling, but I sure as hell do.” The sun is gone again and wind howls through the cave. Outside waves are crashing against the rocks in soft rhythmic hushes. Jack lays out fish on a pan and sits beside the now blistering fire. Cordelia’s eyes widen as the fish fry above the flame. “You always did light up when there was food around,” Jack chuckles, “ever since I found ya.” Cordelia leans towards him.
“Tell me the story,” she pleads. Jack sighs and smiles.
Jack shifts his weight towards her. “Well, I was out fishing by myself. No one would come with me on account of that God-awful storm. Of course now I understand why. The waves that night nearly capsized me! I spent the longest six hours of my life just praying I wouldn’t die on that angry black sea. Thunder clapped and lightning blazed around me. The water was as cold as I’d ever felt it. Soaked me right through. But I survived it. The storm calmed just about daybreak. If I hadn’t been puking my guts out from nerves I might never have seen ya. You were floating on a piece of debris, curled up and sleepy looking. There was blood on your side.” Jack reaches over and touches Cordelia’s ribs. She giggles lightly. “I threw over a life preserver and you just clung to it like it was the last thing you’d ever do. Up on the boat I fixed your wounds and stopped the bleeding in your tail. You were cut up real bad; I figure a propeller or something snagged ya. You were so small then, coulda bled right out if I didn’t stop it.” Jack poked the fish and flipped it over in the pan. The skin popped and spat back at him. His eyes narrowed at the flames like he as thinking.
“You were such an amazing creature. So stunning. I had never seen nothing like you before. Only read about it. I didn’t know how to mend a creature like you. Scales were flaking off left and right all around the gash.” Jack shook his head but Cordelia was smiling. She tapped the leather pouch around his neck. “That’s right,” he said, pinching the pouch open. “I’ve been carrying those scales around ever since that day.” He carefully pulled one out and held it near the fire. It was small and worn but still sparkled in the light. “I couldn’t do away with any part of you. It was just too magnificent.” Cordelia blushed. “How bad I wanted to take you home with me! But I just knew the town wouldn’t fall in love with you the way I had. They wouldn’t see your beauty as good as I could. They would keep you locked in a lab. They would pick you apart.” Jack shook his head before placing it in his hand. “I just couldn’t bare the thought of that. So I took you here, to this special rock. I taught you to read and speak and how to stay safe from things, to not swim too far away. And you’ve done such a good job, haven’t ya? Can you believe that was almost ten years ago?” Cordelia shakes her head. Jack sets the pan on a rock and turns to face her. “And how my love for you has only grown.” He strokes her cheek, his small brown eyes flickering in the firelight.
“I love you too,” she says and kisses him. The coarse hair on his face tickles her chin. His mouth is so warm on hers she can feel it all the way down her spine. They stay up until dawn, talking and touching and feeding each other salted fish meat. They fall asleep nose-to-nose, with their bodies wrapped around one another. Jack’s breath falls across her face before he slips off to slumber. “You are too beautiful for this world,” he whispers.
Cordelia awakes to a platter of fruit beside her. She smiles and stretches her thin arms above her head. “Jack,” she whines playfully. He descends from the mouth of the cave, backlit by daylight.
“Good morning, sweet angel.” Jack kisses her eyelids and kneels beside her.
“I’m taking you somewhere today.” Cordelia leaps to sit up.
“Where?” she demands. Jack chuckles.
“Somewhere not half as beautiful as you. But a place I think you will like.”
Cordelia laughs brightly. She can’t remember the last time she has gone somewhere. After the fruit is eaten, Jack helps Cordelia to the boat. The sky is clear and the air smells like it is sweating sugar. Cordelia licks her lips as Jack pulls the boat away from the cave. There is an uneasy feeling in her stomach when the rock drifts out of sight. Jack assures her she will love his surprise. She listens to him hum sailor tunes as the hours pass quickly, lying on her back on the floor of the boat. The wood is warm beneath her skin as it moans and creaks against the current. She squints up at the sky, watching the gulls sweep the skyline in search of something. She wonders where they fly when they fly all at once, in a flock of fluttering white. She wonders if they all have a rock like hers that they go to. She doesn’t know why, but it makes her sad to think they are all going to a rock. She decides they go somewhere more beautiful than that.
“We are here!” Jack says. Cordelia twists herself around and looks out over the edge of the boat. Jack has driven them to a place where the water narrows in a calm seaside pool. There are no booming waves, only soft sunlit ripples. All around them, encircling them is a tremendous garden of flowers. It is the most beautiful thing Cordelia has ever seen. The flowers bloom pink and purple and blue all around her. She can smell their honey-scented pedals and she begins to weep. Jack runs to comfort her and coos gently in her ear. “What is wrong?” he asks, “What upsets you?” Cordelia’s voice cracks between sobs.
“It is so beautiful,” she says. Jack kisses the top of her head and holds her tightly to his chest. He nods.
“Beauty can be saddening,” he whispers.
Cordelia’s breaths return to normal and she apologizes to Jack. He secures the boat before helping her into the shallow pool. Cordelia stretches her body and swims in small loops. The color from the plants reflects against the glassy surface of the pool, vibrating pink and greens. She laughs at the mirrored flowers and splashes. Her hair flows out in long red curtains behind her as she approaches the shore where Jack sits watching her. They lay together on the bed of grass while the sun falls.
“This place is like heaven,” she whispers, pressing a flower to her nose and inhaling. “I will remember this always.” Her eyelids swoop to her cheekbones and she smiles. “How can I ever thank you for taking me here?”
Jack kisses her neck softly. A breeze rolls delicately across them.
“You know,” he says, lifting his leather pouch from his chest. “I showed your scales to a man at market the other day.” Cordelia’s brow tightens. “He says I can get quite a bit of money for them.” Her stomach churns. She doesn’t understand.
“But they are-“
“They are special.” He interrupts and clutches her hand in his. “I would never dream of parting from them.” A silence falls like lead between them. Cordelia plucks a red flower from the earth and twirls it between her fingers.
“I may not be able to visit you anymore, Cordelia.” Jack’s voice is low. Cordelia can feel the air flee her lungs. Her chest constricts.
“Why?” she asks. Her eyes skip from the flower up to Jack’s face.
“Cordelia…” he sighs, searching for words. “In the real world, it costs money to do things. I can’t afford to leave my work anymore. I can’t afford to come out here to you.” Cordelia feels dizzy.
“But you love me.”
“I love you more than anything that breathes, my beauty. But I am running out of money and when it’s gone I won’t be able to come back here.” Her eyes feel swollen and her tongue is thick in her mouth. Jack cannot leave her. Jack is all she has.
“These!” she says, pointing to the pouch around his neck. “These can get you money?”
Jack nods. “But I would never wish to part from them! They are pieces of you!” Jack cries. Cordelia insists.
“You must sell these so you can stay with me.” Jack looks out at the water for a long moment before nodding.
“You are right, my love. I must do it for us.” They embrace each other. The sun slips beneath the land and Cordelia can no longer see the colors of the garden.
Cordelia weeps the next morning as Jack’s boat pulls away. He rings his bell for her until the sound is just a fleeting echo. She cries for the rest of the day and far into the night. The next morning she is startled awake from a dream about him. She can’t account for most of it, only remembering soft sounds and warm fingers along her throat. Later that afternoon, Cordelia’s sit and watches the gulls until Jack’s boat pulls up to the rock. She is delighted to see him so soon after he left her. She kisses his face and he hugs her ferociously.
“You are back so soon!” she tells him.
“I couldn’t keep away from you for too long.”
Inside the cave, Jack unloads a sack of fish. They fall from the bag and slip around on the rock floor. They are plump and pink and full. Cordelia arches an eyebrow at the expensive pile of fish. “Aren’t they a beaut?” Jack says. “Better than that cod I was bringing you!” Cordelia smiles. She loves the glint Jack gets in his eye when something thrills him. Jack makes a fire and they feast until their bellies bulge. Cordelia leans on top of Jack, her eyes traveling to the pouch around his neck and back to his face.
“You got money for the scales then?” she asks. Jack’s jaw tenses. His eyes flicker and then flatten.
“Yes,” he says sternly, “But, my dear, not nearly as much as I should have. People in town don’t understand what an enchanting, magical vessel you are. They value your scales, but not as much as they should. I truly came here to tell you this, I’m afraid without more scales I still won’t have enough to keep coming here.” He puts his face against his palm and grimaces. Cordelia feels a tightness in her chest and she rubs Jack’s back. It breaks her up inside to see him grieve. The thought of living without him is too much for her to bare. Jack begins to weep.
“Shh, my darling,” she says quietly “I have more”. She takes Jack’s hand and runs it down her tail. His fingers slide across her smooth, tiled body. Jack raises his head and blinks with wet eyes.
“I would have to cut them from you,” he spits. “A disgusting thought!” Fear lurches from a deep place within Cordelia. She swallows it hard.
“What is a cut for a lifetime with you?” she replies. Jack furrows his brow. He looks contemplative before nodding.
“I suppose it’s the only way.” Jack sits up and Cordelia tumbles from his chest.
He reaches into his sack and pulls out a knife the size of his finger. The blade sparkles by the light of the fire as he brings it up to her tail. It feels like ice against her body. Sweat collects between Jack’s eyes as he looks up at Cordelia. “I’m afraid to hurt you, my love.” He says. Cordelia opens her mouth to tell him not to worry, but he has already plunged the blade under her scales. Cordelia shouts in pain but quickly clamps her teeth down on her tongue. Blood spills as Jack yanks on the blade and a removes three large scales. They shimmer in his blood stained palm. He ogles at them for a moment before slipping them into his pouch.
“You have blessed me, my beauty” he says and kisses Cordelia on the mouth. Jack sterilizes Cordelia’s wound and varnishes it with antibacterial. He binds it in a new, clean cloth and settles to sleep beside her.
In the morning, Cordelia stretches her arm across the cloth to find his warm body absent from her bed. Terror runs through her before she sees a note on the floor.
Had to get an early start. Rest Easy. I will be back. Love you forever.
She will love him forever too. Cordelia sits up and pulls back the cloth wrapped around her tail, revealing a gnarled, bloody wound. She crawls out of the cave. The air is cool and the tide hurls itself ravenously against the rock. Cordelia sees no birds in the sky today. She slips her long tail into ocean before plunging the rest of the way in. The cold water sends a burn through the wound and up into her chest. She knows she isn’t supposed to swim too far, but the wide expanse of sea is the only thing she has to take her mind off her missing scales. The chill wakes her as she spins fluidly through the blue-green swell. She drags her fingers along the ocean floor, twirling, mesmerized by the vibrant colors of plants and coral that sprout from the sand. The current tickles her skin as she arches her tail in an easy, rolling motion. Bubbles slip through her teeth and escape to the surface. Cordelia follows them and returns to the daylight.
Something splashes a few feet ahead of her and her heart quickens. She ducks below the surface and sees a large, glittering tail, bending gracefully through the water. As it moves back towards the daylight, she sees a pair of milky shoulder blades draped in a curtain of blonde hair. Without thinking, Cordelia swims through the murkiness and towards the familiar body. She wants to call out to her, to reach her hand out and touch the body that looks like hers. Her heart aches as she swims, her tail beating rapidly against the waves. She always had a feeling in the deepest part of herself that she wasn’t the only one. She can’t remember her life before Jack, but she knows there are others like her. There had always been an unsettling heaviness in her chest that told her she had a home aside from lone rock.
The figure in front of her is growing closer by the minute and Cordelia can make out two thin arms that graze the sides of a scale-covered tail. Whimsical ripples of yellow hair flow against her body. She has so many questions to ask her. Cordelia stretches an arm out and her fingertips just miss the end of the girl’s tail. She wants to touch the firm, silky surface of her scales; knowing they will feel like her own. A realization suddenly twists Cordelia’s body into stillness. She thinks of the awe in Jack’s face when he marvels at her body and how much love he has for her. She remembers his rule of staying near the rock and thinks about how far away she must be from it. She rests her tail against the current and lets her body drift. The figure swims further away from her now and all of the muscles in Cordelia’s body tense. Jack wouldn’t like this game of chase. She watches with wide eyes, as the girl becomes a small blot amongst the gloomy water.
Cordelia resurfaces and watches the tip of the girl’s tail flick through the water as she spins further and further away from her. Barely in sight now, Cordelia notices three more tails breaking through the surface. Her heart sinks into her stomach as she watches the family disappear into the horizon. It is time for her to return to her rock where she truly belongs.
The sky has been buttered in thick gray clouds and the air feels heavy. Cordelia’s wound is stinging again, a sharp and almost unbearable pain. She peers frantically around her, unable to see her rock. Fear cuts down her spine and muddles her thoughts. She ducks back below the water and swims in the opposite direction. As darkness descends upon the sky, the waves grow stronger. Cordelia’s body is hurled around beneath below the water, tearing at the edges of her gash. The tide yanks at her and pulls her along the ocean floor as she becomes paralyzed by pain. She should have listened to Jack. She shouldn’t have teased herself with the idea of family. Jack is her family and the only place she belongs is with him. If only he was here to help her. Her eyes squeeze tightly together as a wave spins her tail over her head. She screams out in agony but the sound is muffled as a surge of water that floods her throat. She tumbles through the angry sea, praying she will live to see Jack again. She imagines his dark eyes and thin lips. She hears his warm voice in her ears, soothing her, protecting her. Her body arches and spasms, completely useless and consumed in pain. The tide throws her against something hard. She grips the object in panic and scrambles onto it. She has been swept back to her rock.
Cordelia rolls onto her back and coughs up mouthfuls of ocean water. The rock is slimy and cold and hard to grip. Ocean water continues to roll onto the rock and chill her quivering body. She gasps for air and crawls into the depth of her cave. She wraps her torn wound that gushes blood across the cave floor. Curled up in the pile of cloth, her shaking body slowly calms. The pain is numbing and dizzying. Her thoughts slow and her vision steadies. She wrings her hair out and sets her head down. She will live to see Jack again.
The next morning a familiar chiming sound wakes Cordelia. Her eyelids flutter open and she quickly recalls the storm the night before. She thinks of the beautiful tails disappearing from her vision. Her body shutters. She hears the chiming again. At the mouth of the cave she sees Jack’s boat. Her heart leaps into her throat and she cries out his name. “I had to come to you!” he says, tying his boat to the boulder. He springs onto the rock and embraces her. She kisses him hard, hands shaking. “That storm last night was horrible. You didn’t get caught in it, did you? I had to make sure you were safe.” Cordelia tells him her story, leaving out the part about the girls like her, and begs to be forgiven for her foolishness. Jack’s face reddens before he kisses her knuckles and tells her she must no longer leave the rock. Cordelia nods in feverish agreement.
A day later, Jack returns. Cordelia is delighted with how frequent his visits are becoming. The scales must have made him lots of money. Cordelia greets him at the entrance to the cave and he picks up her, whirls her around and carries her back inside. She laughs as he kisses every inch of her. But the sun sets and Jack’s face grows serious. He explains to Cordelia that the man he sold the scales to was no longer interested. He spent an entire day and night looking for someone new to sell the scales to so that he could come back to her. Cordelia pets the side of Jack’s scruffy face. “The man I finally found admired your scales, but he said three was not enough.” Her face falls.
“What did you tell him?”
“Well of course I told him I couldn’t get him more, my love! I could never put you through such agony again! He said if I changed my mind he would be around all week.” Cordelia’s eyes travel across the ground. Her lips are pursed together.
“But without money from the scales, we cannot be together?” she looks up at him. His eyes are wide. He nods slowly. Cordelia unwraps her wound; it is uglier than she remembers. The storm had ripped at it and expanded the gouge. She feels uneasy and terribly wrong about everything. She start to protest, but Jack takes the knife from his sack and presses it against her healthy scales. Jack says he loves her as he pries the scales from her body. Cordelia howls in pain. Jack examines the scales before pocketing them and cleaning Cordelia’s gashes. He holds her for hours, humming sea songs in her ear, twirling her hair between his fingers. The humming stops eventually and he slips away from her. Sleepy and disoriented, Cordelia blinks into the darkness.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“Tomorrow,” Jack answers. “I will be back tomorrow.”
The next day, Cordelia unwraps her wounds and stares at the pink patches of bloody, exposed flesh. Her stomach churns. She winces and falls back asleep. She dreams of the girl’s glistening tail slipping just out of her grasp.
She awakes to Jack already standing over her. She smiles widely and leaps to wrap her arms around him, but she can see that he is unhappy. “The merchant wants to buy continuously from me, or else he will not buy at all.” Cordelia doesn’t understand. Jack explains that whenever he stops giving the man scales is when he will no longer be able to see her. Cordelia bows her head and sobs into her hands.
“Hush now, angel,” Jack whispers, “You know I will always love you. I have taught you well. You do not need me to live a beautiful life.” Cordelia wretches. Of course she does. He is all she knows and all she is. He holds her against his chest until her cries dissipate into whimpers.
“But Jack,” she says, raising her head to meet her puffy eyes with his. “They grow back, don’t they?” Jack nods in realization and reaches for his knife.
“They do grow back,” he agrees. He kisses the tears from her face before pressing the blade against her. Cordelia notices this knife is different, no longer the size of his finger, but the size of his forearm. Cordelia’s screams bounce through the walls of the cave and Jack shovels the scales into his pouch without inspecting them. He moves hurriedly to clean her wounds. She doesn’t understand why he must leave so soon but he tells her he loves her more than anything in the world and she falls asleep with a full heart.
The next day goes the same. Jack comes to her, kisses her face, and Cordelia is filled with joy. He scrapes the scales from her body. It saddens her deeply that he can’t spend the night, but she knows he is doing this them. A week falls away and almost all of Cordelia’s tail is wrapped in cloth. Jack notices this and asks to see her body beneath the cloth. He pulls back the cloth to expose her skin and a smell like rotten fish fills the air. She is raw and festering. The pink flesh has turned a milky green color and Jack bites his lower lip to suppress a gag. Her once magnificent, luminous tail has been reduced to a mass of putrid flesh. Jack wraps it with two layers of new cloth and decides to spend the night with her.
Cordelia has missed Jack’s presence in her bed and she sleeps dreamlessly through the night until he wakes her at dawn to take more scales. “Of course,” she whispers sleepily. She can barely feel the knife anymore. Before he leaves, Jack kisses Cordelia for longer than usual. She is grateful for the extra moment of intimacy. She is the luckiest girl in the world.
Jack takes her face in his hands and searches her eyes intently. “I love you, you know that?” he finally says.
“Of course,” she responds. “More than anything.” Jack’s bottom lip quivers before he turns abruptly away. “See you tomorrow?” she calls weakly, but Jack is already at the mouth of the cave and he must not have heard her.
Jack does not come the next day. A week passes and Jack doesn’t show.
Cordelia is sad without him. She hopes everyday that he is safe. Her bones are protruding because she has run out of food. She has no scales left. She wishes to watch the birds fly by, that always makes her happier. But she can no longer make it outside by herself. Instead, she pretends that Jack is beside her, kissing her face and telling her how beautiful she is. Her breaths become labored. She closes her eyes and imagines Jack is taking her outside to watch the gulls. He laces his fingers through hers and they stare up at the endless blue sky together. The birds flutter by in a glorious array of soft white blots. She turns to Jack. “Where do they go when they all fly together like that?”
Jack just smiles “Somewhere more beautiful than here,” he says.