A women’s compound deep in an Oregonian forest protects girls with special abilities. Something’s gone wrong.
A workaholic detective in the ninth month of a surrogate pregnancy is investigating them.
Easy, flowing style. Interesting characters and scenarios.
I read this book out of order in the series. It held together and made sense.
The most interesting relationship(s) in the book —for me—was between the female detective who is carrying a child for her sister and the spark of forbidden attraction with the baby’s father.
Possibly more interesting than the book was how it entered my reading sphere. Most of my favorite books arrive through word-of-mouth, recommendations from trusted curators, or editor picks. This one, in true sci-fi fashion, was selected by Artifical Intelligence on a linguistic profile matching site for authors.
My bookshelves are now filled with Lisa Jackson books!
His sixteen-year-old bride arrived in a gold-painted sedan chair. Carried by her brothers, the conveyance bobbed behind honking geese, herded by children dressed in red silk. Breeze-ruffled curtains concealed all but her profile and rigid posture.
Like a boy, Lee wished he could run down the lane, and pull back the cloth to see. But his upbringing would not allow him to dishonor the family. He remained in place, bland-faced, keeping his tumultuous emotions from showing.
As the procession drew near, Lee expected the geese to be shoo’ed inside their animal pen. Instead, the children formed a circle around the birds, using bamboo poles to avoid vicious snaps.
Stepping forward, the bride’s father declared, “ As tradition dictates, a wife must come to her husband with nothing, but my disobedient daughter refused to leave behind one item.” Smiling, Mr. Tie waved his arms at the flock, bowing deeply. “A messenger bird holds this item. You must decide what to do with it, Gee Lee.”
The gander stood at the center, feathers erect, beak open, hissing, tongue at full point. Dark eyes locked onto Lee, the enemy.
Crossing his arms, Lee nodded. Secured around the messenger’s neck was a bright blue ribbon; a yellow purse dangled from it. This was the first test of the marriage ceremony.
The wedding party expected Lee to refuse outright or walk through the flock, subjecting himself to injury. Lee took his time assessing, ignoring the sweat breaking out on his upper lip, as his exhilarating mating fantasies submerged under icy waters of responsibility.
He strode forward, taking two bamboo rods from the children. Lee directed them to move away. Tapping and swinging them, Lee drove the geese into the pen, separating the messenger.
Tossing the rods to the ground, Lee scooped a handful of pebbles while making a cautious advance. The gander raised its wings, lowered its head, and charged.
Lee threw stones in the bird’s face, deflecting the charge, but not before the infuriated fowl clipped the tender flesh above Lee’s knee. It clamped on; its beak like crab pincers, tearing the fabric and skin. Refusing to yell, Lee grabbed the ribbon while kicking at the animal. The purse dropped, landing in the dirt as the gander waddled away, rejoining its gaggle. Lee stared at the scene feeling a vein thumping in his temple.
Biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood, Lee willed himself to walk without limping, retrieving the purse. As he considered opening it, pitching it, or handing it over to his mother, a Confucian quote floated to the surface of his thoughts.
When it is obvious that goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
Taking measured steps, Lee approached the sedan. After a thoughtful pause, he plunged his hand inside, offering the purse.
As he waited, anger sparked into a blaze, threatening to incinerate the curtains. It would be within his right to humiliate her, make her kneel before him in the open air.
When cool, trembling hands cupped his, Lee’s violent emotions plummeted. A shiver traveled down his spine.
From inside, a breathless, “thank you,” came as the purse lifted away.
With the return of Lee’s exhilarating fantasies, only the force of his will kept Lee from smiling.
Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.
As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.
For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.
Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)
Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.
Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing
are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.
Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.
Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.
With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.
Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.
With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.
Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.
A shrill scream, erupting suddenly in the darkness, sent prickles scuttling up their spines.
Bolin’s panic attack at the tunnel’s mouth made them late for their shift. Now they were alone, stumbling over rubble, feeling their way to the worksite.
According to Bolin, the ceiling was crawling with Jiang Shi (Jang-sure).
“I’ve got you,” Yáng said, gripping his arm above the elbow, squeezing like a vice.
“They’re watching!” Bolin shook his head as if he were trying to loosen clay marbles inside. Lurching forward, he broke Yáng’s hold.
It was Yáng and Foshan’s first day working in tunnel number six. Bolin had been here for a month. He was taller and more muscular than most of his countrymen. Once he started hammering a borehole, Bolin could do it in half the time as anyone else. The problem was getting him into the tunnel.
Upon arrival, a railroad gang leader informed Foshan and Yáng, “We work in teams of three.”
“Foshan is one of the best, but he’s been troubled since his brother’s death.”
“Stick with him, he’ll teach you all you need to know.”
Nitroglycerine was a new construction tool recently brought to the mountain. Blasting holes don’t have to be as deep as those for black powder. After detonation, there is less residual dust. Its downside is volatility. Slight movements or temperature shifts can set it off.
No one makes eye contact with the nitro carrier, bets are placed on how long he’ll last.
All work ceases when the nitro bearer arrives, stepping softly, holding his breath.
Bolin’s brother had been a nitro carrier. An untimely sneeze turned him into red rain.
Chinese dead must be buried with their ancestors. A soul is cursed if there are no remains.
In Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried on home soil. Systems are in place to return sojourner bones to China. When ancestors are gathered, the family grows stronger. Living relatives honor them with celebrations.
Spirits of the dead are cursed if they leave no human remains. Hun and po split. Po, the evil, foolish part lurks in the dark hunting for life force energy (qi), stealing it from the living. Once enough qi is gathered, the po can reanimate a dead body. Stiff and green with mold, they grow claw-like fingernails and fang-like teeth. Hopping, they move slowly, but they never stop. Ever.
Foshan trotted to keep up, patting Bolin’s back. “The power of legend is only as strong as your belief,” he soothed.
Bolin turned to stare with wide, torment-filled eyes. “You haven’t been here long enough to see most your friends die.” He tilted his chin toward Yáng, “or your brother.”
“True,” Foshan admitted, “but we can’t get lost in the bad. The living must inhabit our thoughts. Tell me of your children.”
Nodding, Bolin started, “I have a beautiful little girl.”
“I have a daughter too.” Foshan nudged him to walk while talking, “How old is yours?”
Approaching the rock face, Yáng hoisted a drill bar. Regarding the eight-pound sledgehammer in Foshan’s hand, he warned, “Don’t miss.”
A corner of Bolin’s mouth turned up. “Watch and learn.” Gripping high on the handle, he slid his opposite hand close to his hammer’s head.
Bolin, swung the sledge high. The blow, ringing like a bell, sent shock waves through Yáng’s arms and shoulders.
Foshan, following Bolin’s example, raised his hammer. The heavy tool came down on Yáng’s hand.
“Idiot!” Yáng cried, holding up a broken, bloody finger. Diving at Foshan, Yáng pummeled him with his good fist.
Bolin broke them apart. It didn’t register immediately that he was frantic. “Stop!
“Jiang Shi are attracted by blood.”
It took several work crews and irate supervisors to calm the scuffle. The three were sent back to camp, ashamed.
Four months later, the brothers congratulated themselves for helping Bolin. By talking about their families, he could get in and out of the tunnel without incident. Bolin told them he could still see the Jiang Shi because his brother was one. “There are hundreds of them hanging from the ceiling. Their ears rotate, following sounds made by people below,” he confided.
Crews working at both ends of the tunnel, plus from the inside out, had broken through. The three had finished their most recent borehole. They took a break while waiting for the nitro carrier.
Yáng walked a short distance to stand behind a boulder. He was appreciating the fresh alpine breeze while creating a warm puddle near his feet.
A loud pop, a burst of air, and a wet spray pelted his back.
Bolin was right, Yáng thought, as he entered the tunnel with his new crew. Hordes of menacing ghouls hung from the ceiling. Maniacal, green-tinged faces smiled at him revealing double rows of sharp teeth.
Two of them looked like Foshan and Bolin.
Yáng let loose a demented scream.
Tunnel Spirit Crossings Poem
To learn more about Bonnie McKeegan, her poetry, fiction, and therapeutic writing exercises click here.
The origins of mythical creatures, created from fear, to explain the, as yet, unexplainable is always an intriguing subject!
When background research for Crossings EAST revealed the Jiang Shi, I was thrilled. It took a considerable amount of thinking to decide to leave the paranormal element out of that story.
This short story was written to get the ‘paranormal’ out of my system before the work of deep character development begins on Crossings EAST, a historical fiction novel about Chinese railroad workers at Donner Pass.
Legendary murder crime story with a contemporary edge.
Bridget Sullivan is the Borden family maid. She’s an Irish immigrant and a witness to rising family tensions before the famous Lizzie Borden murders.
I liked the contemporary timeline tie-in with Brook’s (barista) character. Mailman does a superb job drawing parallels between people working in service sector jobs while illustrating the persistence of racism and prejudice over time.
Borden Murder Details Enhance Reading Experience
The fine details in the Borden story give evidence to the many hours the author logged while researching the famous murder, combing through trial documents, visiting the crime scene, and studying forensic photos. While details can sometimes bog down historical fiction pieces, Mailman uses them to enhance the reader experience.
If you enjoy thinking about historical events beyond what was recorded in history books and newspapers, or if you are a true crime, murder mystery enthusiast, you’ll enjoy The Murder’s Maid.
Mailman’s seamless storytelling, from the maid’s point of view, is fresh and immersive.
Because I have similar interests in re-examining historical events, Brook’s statement, “If you had been killed in a barbaric way, would you want strangers tramping through your house in 150 years and looking at photos of your brain spilling out of your skull?” struck a powerful chord.
The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, often at low pay. They cut canals. They dug trenches for water and sewer pipes. They laid rail lines. They cleaned houses. They slaved in textile mills. They worked as stevedores, stable workers, and blacksmiths. – History.com – When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis
“History, warts and all,” is the essence of what Gary Noy delivers. Noy’s meticulous research, ferreting through dusty archive boxes for photos and first-person accounts, makes his gritty, sometimes enormously disturbing, and often entertaining Gold Rush story vignettes radiate with life.
In the lawless immigrant melting pot of California dreams, “accidents, disease, murder, natural disasters, [and] mob violence, … took a heavy toll during the era. Some estimates indicate 20 percent of all forty-niners died within six months of reaching California,” Noy writes.
I had the pleasure of attending a lecture Noy delivered at a writer’s conference.
From the extinction of California’s Grizzly Bear, environmental destruction, and racist atrocities to situations engendering multi-cultural cooperation, Noy links California’s haunting past to contemporary issues still playing out today.
Our culture sells concepts. If we make lots of money, have a beautiful house, send kids to good schools, and travel we’ll be successful. This will make us happy. But does it?
In tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom, a sportswriter on life’s fast track, slows down to visit his dying college professor.
Morrie Swartz has ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. He’s spending his last moments sharing lessons for a meaningful life.
Keeping a supply of tissues at hand, I read this book in two sittings. It touched tender spots; missing loved ones after relationship breaks, forgiveness, the meaning of family, grief and loss, the decision to have children, and saying good-bye.
[Scroll to the end for still images with quotes for social media sharing.]
“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” ~ Morrie Schwartz.
In a series of interviews with Ted Koppel and audio recordings taken by Mitch, Morrie gifted his wisdom to people who never knew him. He wanted to bring dignity to death.
Morrie accomplished what he set out to do. Wherever he is now, I thank him for it.
Note: I remember where I was and what I was doing during the O.J. trial, the time when tuesdays with Morrie first came out. It wasn’t until after the book celebrated its 20th anniversary, and I’d run Phases of Gage (historical fiction novella) through the ScoreIt! linguistic analysis program that I finally read Albom’s book. Gage and Morrie are a match.
Perhaps I’m too close to my work to see similarities beyond neurological challenges and giving death dignity, but I’m glad to have read Morrie’s story no matter how it happened.
Do monsters fall in love? Can a human love a monster? According to The Shape of Water, the answer to both those questions is, ‘yes.’
The Shape of Water is “an adult fairy tale for troubled times,” says Guillermo del Toro of the story for which he is most proud.
The Shape of Water is a feel-good must-see for monster lovers, lovers of love stories, and sci-fi fans.
The film’s color palette, the 1960’s cold wartime period, and costuming blend beautifully with the superbly crafted monster in a nostalgic tale of beauty and the beast. The shape of Guillermo’s story encompasses lonely, voiceless, disabled outsiders banding together for a greater good—saving an intelligent misunderstood and endangered creature.
In an interview, del Toro commented, “Success and failure are doors that stand side-by-side. You knock and see what happens.”
Happily, for its creator and for audiences everywhere the project turned out to be a resounding success. It is entertainment at its best with important messages…for troubled times.
embracing the authentic self
interspecies understanding and communication
different is valuable
even monsters are worthy of love
love overcomes fear
people with no ‘voice’ can make a difference
Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.
Fan fiction continuing The Shape of Water love story.
Picking up where the movie left off, Giles continues his narration as he and Zelda journey to South America in search of their friends.
Short Story – The Shape of Water Continued
Zelda and I stood together on the canal bank watching as they dragged for bodies. We cried when they placed one red shoe into her trembling hands.
We consoled each other after the investigation interviews.
We bonded when we cleaned out Elisa’s apartment. The princess didn’t have many valuable possessions. I kept her egg timer, and Zelda wasn’t parting with that shoe.
Elisa had some money saved. She left a note saying to split it between us.
Our conversations were stilted as we trundled through grief-stricken tasks.
“I think he healed her and took her away with him,” I’d say.
Zelda’s expression was melancholic, “If she were still alive, she would have let us know.”
“How could she? Too many people are still looking for him….for them.”
Our prospects for work dwindled. Zelda was spending nights on the sofa sleeper in my apartment. Though I enjoyed her company and cooking, sharing a bathroom with her was nearly intolerable.
“Yolanda, from work, cleaned Colonel Strickland’s office.” Zelda offered as she turned hash browns one morning. “She overheard him talking about where he found the creature. She knew the place; she has cousins near there.”
“Did Yolanda say if her cousins ever heard of a River God?”
“She didn’t.” Zelda compressed her lips. Those words dropped off into a moment that was as deep and broad as the Monterey Canyon. Zelda’s stern brown eyes bored into mine. My scalp tingled. I ran my fingers through the hair that hadn’t been there before Aqua Man.
A postcard arrived one day. Not in the mailbox but slipped under my door. There were only two things on it. My street address and a stamp from Peru.
Zelda and I became unencumbered adventurers. We headed south making discrete inquiries. We were lucky Zelda speaks Spanish. She started teaching it to me. A year, to the day, after we left, we stumbled on a lead. Iquitos is a hole-in-the-wall-town on the edge of the Amazon Jungle. Zelda found a job almost right away teaching English to school children. She dragged me along sometimes.
One of her students, Jhady, is a disfigured girl, the daughter of a local businessman who owns an ‘art gallery’ in the back of his grocery store. Zelda kept nagging me to show my sketches to her father.
When I did it, he was expressing lukewarm interest until he came across a piece titled, Elisa and her Monster. Raimee’s eyes went buggy; e began talking so fast that I couldn’t track a word. He seemed in danger of stroking out, so I rushed Zelda in to translate.
We learned that Raimee had seen the River God, he called him Iglootoo. The River God receives pilgrims during harvest moons. He pointed to my sketch, speaking two words I understood, “White Queen.”
“We found her!” Zelda screeched, her eyes filling with tears.
Listening to Raimee and nodding, she repeated, “A small group is preparing to leave next week. He says he’ll arrange for us to join them if you will speak to the River God on behalf of his daughter.”
She pointed to my sketch.
Waving his arm, Raimee encouraged Jhady to come out from behind the curtain where she’d been hiding. She hung her head, letting her long dark hair form a barrier. I could see enough of her face to observe tight, contorted skin around her nose and mouth.
As the date for departure approached, our nerves grew taught.
“What if it’s not them?” Zelda worried.
“It has to be! Raimee recognized Elisa in my sketch.”
“It doesn’t look that much like her! If it is her, what are we going to say after all this time?”
“Hello? I’ve missed you?” I suggested with sarcasm.
“Should we take something as an offering?”
“If we don’t, they might not let us go—” I smiled slowly. I knew what I was going to bring.
It would be a four-day trek into the jungle. We bought burros to haul our gear. Neither one of us believed that the other could hike that distance. I hoped those burros could carry people!
We headed out at dawn with guides at the front wielding long, thick blades, doing battling plant life. Zelda and I were the last stragglers in a group of twelve.
We stood at the edge of a small lake. Thick tropical foliage obscured the opposite shore.
An elaborate calling ceremony began with pounding drums and song. Zelda stood to my left. Raimee to my right. Jhady pressed against her father’s side like melted cheese on beans. Flower petals were cast over the glassy surface.
When bubbles appeared moving in our direction, all grew silent, even the birds and monkeys stopped chattering.
Zelda’s breath caught when a blue-grey, be-gilled head rose from the water like a bioluminescent Atlantean Prince.
Following the locals, we dropped to our knees, sinking into warm, soft mud. Supplicants displayed their offerings before them.
We could tell he recognized us when his purposeful footsteps halted; his head swiveled in our direction.
The party leader stood, calling the creature’s attention.
“He knows you!” Raimee stated clearly in English.
“Where’s Elisa?” Zelda whispered vehemently.
In my peripheral vision, I watched our scaly friend picking his way through the line, accepting gifts and laying webbed hands on heads, feet, and other places the petitioners extended for inspection.
The expressions of those he skipped turned to masks of disappointment. I wondered at his choices, did he not care for their gifts?
As he got closer, he seemed distracted.
Jhady was next in line. The River God dismissed her. Raimee’s face crumbled, “Not again!” he cried.
“Wait!” I called, even though Zelda pounded on my arm.
Standing, I held out my basket. Mewling sounds came from inside.
Aqua Man’s gills flared. I think that’s as close as he gets to smirking.
“I remembered,” I said looking him full in the face. “I was going to ask for more hair, but I’d rather you heal this little girl.”
When he pointed to my basket, signing the word for, ‘funny,’ Zelda and I glanced at each other, grinning.
Aqua Man returned his attention to Raimee’s girl.
Peeling her away, Raimee thrust her forward, admonishing, “Sé quieto!”
Clawed, webbed hands cradled the girl’s face. The River God remained in that position longer than he had with any other pilgrim. The girl’s frightened utterings echoed the kitten cries. When he pulled away, he dropped to his knees, hanging his head.
‘Leave us,’ Aqua Man signed.
In the awkward moment when no one but Zelda and me knew what he wanted, Zelda took care of business. “He said you should all go now. Va! Va!” she shooed.
Before the pilgrims departed, Raimee approached us. “My Jhady is beautiful again!” Tears coursed down his faces. He grabbed Zelda’s hand kissing it. Thanking me profusely, bowing to the River God, he backed away.
When he could stand, Aqua Man led us to a vine-choked path. The going was slow. He grunted as he pulled at the stalks, making room our burros to pass. I tried helping, but he waved me away.
I had a waking nightmare that the jungle was a many-pointed sea star grasping and suffocating everything in its path.
My friend was breathing hard, stooped, and unsteady by the time we reached a clearing. Zelda was steadying him when we heard a, ‘Whoop!’
And there she was! The White Queen, our own dear Elisa. I stared in shock – her eyes and smile were the same, but the rest of her was drastically changed. She was a combination of a heavily endowed fertility goddess and an Aqua Woman.
Lumbering toward us, tears streamed down her face, “You found me!”
Another jolt – her voice!
Overjoyed, the three of us cried and hugged.
After a moment, Elisa pulled away. “Iggy,” she said, “Thank you. Please go now.”
He nodded, turning away. We watched him walk into the water. At thigh height, he dove.
Returning to one another, we replayed a muted version of our happy reunion.
“Let me look at you,” Zelda said while swiping a hand along her cheeks.
Elisa’s hair was hanging in a thick braid down her back. Across the top of her cheeks, along her collarbones and arms, were glittering, overlapping scales.
“How–?” I began, not knowing what else to say. I reached for her free hand. “I saw you shot.”
“It’s a long story,” Elisa replied, her voice lyrical and butter-soft.
Zelda erupted in tears again. “Your voice—it’s just like I always imagined.”
“Me too,” Elisa smiled, “Though I don’t use it as often as I’d like.” Shaking herself, she continued,” Come inside, out of the heat. You’re staying,” It was a statement rather than a question.
Zelda and I hadn’t talked about it, but we’d packed everything.
I situated our burros before following the women into the house. It was a single room building. Two double beds were pushed up against the walls. A small kitchen counter took up another wall. A table surrounded by four stools stood in the middle.
“Zelda will share with me, and Giles will take the other bed.”
“But what about—?” Zelda asked.
“That’s his name?” I wanted to know.
“His name is Iglootoo. He told me that after I taught him how to spell in our language.”
Zelda nodded. “I never thought about him having a name, but I guess you’ve got to call him something.”
“Iggy fits him,” I responded. “Did someone give it to him or did he choose it for himself?”
Chuckling, Elisa patted my shoulder. Leaning in to plant a kiss, she said, “I’ve missed you, Giles. We’ll have plenty of time for stories. Did you bring your art supplies?”
“I never leave home without them.”
Zelda joined Elisa in her small garden picking vegetables for our meal. I sat inside, observing. Sketchpad in hand, I let my pencil capture the scene.
Long shadows, two women wearing large straw hats, their heads together. I couldn’t draw the feminine laughter but wished I could capture it artistically. Their voices carried.
“How long till Iggy comes back?”
Elisa straightened, raising a hand to her brow, looking out over the water. “He’ll be gone for a while. Those ceremonies take a lot out of him. He needs to go down deep to feel restored. He’s worried about the baby and me,” she rubbed the base of her spine, “so he hasn’t gone as far as he should. With you here, he can take as long as he needs.”
“Honey,” Zelda came to stand beside her, “are you worried about—” she nodded at Elisa’s middle.
Elisa faced away from me, but I could see Zelda’s expression. In all honesty, I’m glad it wasn’t me out there voicing the questions that were on our minds.
They moved into the shade, sitting close. Zelda’s arm wrapped protectively around her dearest friend.
“My child— if it lives. If we both live, won’t have any friends,” Elisa cried.
“If it lives?” Of course, it’s going to live, and so are you! As for friends—that baby already has four people who love it.”
“It,” Elisa repeated, letting the word hang in the air.
Elisa leaned into Zelda; they huddled together. “I’m so glad you are here, Zeldy.”
“Me too baby girl!”
Our days became predictable; meals, naps, tending the burros and the garden. For the first time, in possibly decades, I was relaxed and at peace. I noticed, with pleasure, that I’d lost track of the days of the week.
One afternoon, Elisa and I were sitting at the table sipping tea. I’d just finished telling her about the inquiries, the search for bodies, and apologizing for getting rid of all her things. She patted my arm.
“Thank you for taking care of everything. That phase of my life is dead, you did the right thing.”
When Elisa noticed my eyes rapidly blinking, her mouth turned down. She used to read me like a book. I think her skills in that department had deteriorated.
“Take a good look at me, Giles.” She stretched out a leg. Hiking up her skirt, revealing a creamy thigh, and areas covered with translucent scales.
Across the room, Zelda stirred from a siesta, yawning. Swinging her feet to the floor, she hurried over.
Elisa slipped off her shoes spreading her toes. Holding up her hands, she held her fingers wide. Webbing filled all the spaces.
We couldn’t contain our surprise.
Elisa bit her lip; she looked as if she was holding back a smile. Making sure we were looking at her face, she blinked with a set of inner eyelids. They moved vertically from the corners of her eyes toward the bridge of her nose.
“Mary, Mother of Jesus!” Zelda exclaimed, placing a hand over her heart. She puffed up, “I get that gilly thing,” she waved a finger at Elisa’s neck. He had to give you those when he took you in the water and healed your gunshot wound. But he dragged you all the way out here to the middle of the jungle, and he knocked you up,” Zelda’s voice was gaining volume, her gestures taking up more air space. “Then he leaves you all alone when you’re about ready to drop that kid—” Zelda paused when Elisa started repeating her tirade in sign language. Like a statue, Zelda rotated ninety degrees on her toes.
Iglootoo stood in the doorway, dripping, a puddle forming at his feet. ‘I did not change her or heal her,’ he said in the silent language spoken with his flipper hands.
One of the kittens scampered in around his ankles. Lightning fast, he pounced. Zelda and I jumped. Striding across the room, handing the cat to me, he kneeled at my side, bowing his head. I patted him, remembering the first time he’d encountered a house cat.
That evening as the three of us ate our meal; Iggy reclined on one of the beds playing with the kittens.
‘Iggy’ eats while he’s in the water,’ Elisa explained.
“I like that,” Zelda commented, “a man that don’t need no cooking’s alright by me.”
When the dishes were cleared, Iggy stood, coming to the head of the table. ‘Elisa asked me to tell our story,’ he signed.
He waited for her signal to start. She nodded.
‘Elisa is a lost cousin.’ Going to her side, he lifted her hair, touching her chin gently with a claw, he turned her face left and then to the right.
Her gill slits flared, displaying crimson filaments inside.
Zelda shivered, “I could have gone all day without seeing that!”
Iggy looked to me, I rolled my eyes, shaking my head.
He continued, ‘I was sent to find her, to bring her home. Elisa was designed to be my mate.’
I wasn’t sure if the word he’d used was ‘designed’ or ‘destined,’ but I was too engrossed to interrupt.
‘I was setting out on my journey when I was captured. I did not recognize Elisa when I first encountered her. My sense of smell is not good in the open air and my thoughts were muddled. When our kind enters courtship, we remain in constant companionship. I did not understand how Elisa could come and go. Her unusual behavior was a curiosity that I studied. When we traveled back here, in our liquid environment, we completed the bonding rituals.’ He paused, looking down at her, running a knuckle along her jaw.
Elisa covered his hand, smiling up at him.
‘I’m in you,’ he signed solemnly to her.
‘As I am in you,’ she replied, ‘and we are everywhere.’
Their moment of intense communication drew out.
I could see Zelda bursting with questions; she must have decided to keep quiet too.
As if reminding himself that he had an audience, Iggy continued, ‘When we arrived, we expected to be greeted by the family, but they are gone. All my people are gone. While we wait for the offspring, I tend to the city and search for the others.’
“City?” I questioned, glancing around.
Elisa sighed, “It’s underwater, and it’s beautiful, Giles! I wish you could see it—draw it.”
Just as my imagination was taking root, Iggy bent over, placing a hand on Elisa’s belly. ‘It is time,’ he signed. ‘We will return in three days.’ Scooping her up, he marched outside.
“Wait!” Zelda cried chasing after them, her voice on the edge of panic. I followed too watching Elisa’s crooked smile as she kept an eye on us over Iggy’s shoulder. She waved before they submerged.
While Zelda was unsettled with the latest changes in her friend’s life, I was revitalized. I would bear witness to a new, possibly one-of-a-kind, life form. I wished for gills and webs so I could join Elisa and Iggy in the sea.
And then there were three.
They arrived in the night when the temperature was low and the humidity high. Elisa cried a little when she described Gemmalyn’s struggle to take her first breath of air. “If we didn’t make her use her lungs right away, they might never develop,” Elisa’s voice shook. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The nipper is a delight. ‘Darling’ and ‘adorable’ are words Zelda uses when she holds her. ‘Little Monster’ are others she says when she’s sporting a wounded finger that got too close to baby’s sharp teeth.
On a sweltering afternoon when Zelda was in town, and Iggy was away fishing, I sketched Elisa with her baby. It would be another contribution to the baby book Elisa was making. Gemma, still attached to her mother’s breast, had a full belly and was resisting sleep. Elisa rocked, in no hurry to put her daughter down.
“He took me to the city for Gemmalyn’s birth,” Elisa began. “I’ve never had the stamina to make it without help. When we’ve gone in the past, he holds me around the waist; I help kick. This time he carried me, just like when we left. That position creates a lot more drag,” she laughed softly. “It was an effort, but he got us there. It was the first time I felt sad about the place being deserted.”
“He took me to the women’s hall, then, in his language, he gave me the sights and sounds of the city as he’d known it. In that way, I saw his female relatives, and the traditional birthing circle,” Elisa raised glassy eyes gleaming with unshed tears. “It’s indescribable, Giles, understanding how it was and watching Iggy trying to make it right.”
Behind the mother and child scene, I began filling in the background with structures. A bustling, underwater metropolis with lots of Iggies.
“He did the work of the women, helping me bring his daughter into the world. It hurt, there was blood, and sharks circled above, just like buzzards, waiting for a chance.”
“Iggy kept us safe. We stayed in the royal’s suite in the grand palace. While I recovered, Iggy made sure Gemmalyn didn’t swim out of his sight.”
“And then we came home, to you and Zelda,” Elisa sighed, her eyelids growing too heavy to stay open.”
For a moment, I wondered how this mud brick structure compared to a royal suite, what held such attraction to keep them coming back here?
I put the baby in her bassinet, covered Elisa, then went to cool my feet at the river bank. My mind was churning with things only aquatic life can experience.
Iggy emerged with fish on a kelp stringer. Wrapping it securely around a branch, he let our lunch enjoy a reprieve. ‘What is on your mind, Giles?’ he signed as he sat next to me.
“I’m tired of sitting around,” I said, no longer bothering to sign back. Though he could not speak, he understood our language perfectly well. “I want to go with you, to help search.”
We started my endurance swimming and free diving lessons that afternoon.
I enjoyed my new quest, searching with Iggy sometimes, and other times alone.
Nearly a year later, our little clan is still intact. We’ve added rooms onto to Elisa’s house. The Iglootoo family, as I now think of them, is in residence less and less.
Gemmalyn, the most beautiful creature on the face of the Earth, is the best of both her parents. She is graceful in the water and out. She’s as curious as our cats and rambunctious as a monkey.
Though there’s been no sign of Iglootoo’s people, he remains hopeful. He is a devoted mate and father, and he’s a first-rate best friend. He’s accepted us as part of his tribe. Our association with him has elevated us as human beings.
Zelda helps Elisa chase after Gemma when she’s on land. She’s also become my art representative with Raimee, who’s been selling my Iglootoo sketches. (Elisa and Iggy have sworn us to secrecy about Gemmalyn!)
I suspect Raimee’s daughter has been playing matchmaker between Zelda and her father. Zelda nearly glows every time she returns from town.
Elisa has been pushing Zelda into talks with the National Parks system. Her goal is to make sure their home remains protected and safe, that people like Colonel Strickland can never repeat what happened to Iggy.
Iggy restored nearly all my hair and gave me back the body of a forty-year-old.
I’d be remiss in ending our story without mentioning my fresh start with love…
Iggy believes the merfolk are fairytales, he’s wrong.
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