Fish Stories and the Mermaid

by Walter Giersbach


The sea off the Oregon coast was throwing up three-foot swells the day Kate came home. In fact, she preceded the letter from the state saying she was being released because she was no danger to herself or others. Comforting. Now I had my sister to worry about plus my job.

I was taking my boat out. No need to tell Kate anything except to throw her bag in the loft. “I’ll be home by the time you’re asleep. Don’t wait up.”

Kate was a pisser. Brilliant kid, but doctors said she was bipolar; Mom called her schizo. Stealing our neighbor’s Chevy landed her in the loony bin, but there had been incidents for years. I think they led to our Mom’s early death. Dad had lit out for Alaska when we were kids. Kate was haunted by the devil, skipping school to go tramping in the Coast Range with nothing more than a buck knife. I think she ran naked in the hills and lived with the animals. She insisted the bears adopted her.

Me, my devil was my stuttering. It’s why I left before finishing high school. Signed on as a deckhand in Astoria, worked out of Juneau, saved enough to buy my own boat. Salmon don’t make conversation, so we got along fine.

A couple days passed before I had time to talk with Kate. Her mouth was sucking at coffee like a grouper looking for bottom feeders. She carried twenty extra pounds and her long hair was a rat’s nest.

“So, what’re you going to do now?” I asked. “Get a job?”

“Saw the dolphins,” she said without looking at me. “They’re coming up from Baja.”

“Cannery’s hiring, I think.”

“I learned to scuba while I was in Salem, in the Willamette River.”

“What? At the hospital?”

“I can stay under and go deep. I got right up close to one of the dolphins yesterday. His name’s Rudy.” She looked at me with an otherworldly smile.

“You’re an idiot. Don’t you know the rip tide’ll take you out two hundred yards? And dolphins don’t have names.”

“They’re called cetaceans, dummy. And they’re evolving to survive. My book calls them synanthropes, animals that adapt to us.”

“They eat the fish that put money in my pocket.” I stopped. “You went swimming during that squall? Alone?” Oregon waters can be a helluva master. Last winter I listened to the Abby Lee go down with her pilot calling “Mayday” and screaming for the Coast Guard cutter that never came. His last words on the radio were “Oh, Mother of God.”

Then Kate’s words came to me. “You went out with scuba gear? Where’d you get tanks?”

She shrugged and I knew she’d stolen them. I could just see the cops come knocking on my door.

“Rudy looked out for me,” she said. “He knows the waters.”

“Your dolphin is eating my fish. Taking my job away.”

“They’re trying to survive by adapting. It’s long-term selection of the species. You know, if you can’t fight ’em, join ’em.” Then she laughed at some weird joke.

I gave up trying to talk sense to Kate as the days passed. She’d go on about the dolphins defending themselves any way they could. I was so tired I ignored her. Let her drown, I thought.

Heavy weather was coming, so I told my crew we’d heave to until the sea calmed. Fishing was worse, with the government laying down quotas. Bank was leaning on me for overdue payments, and the green sea laughed at us all. I was a bottle of Scotch to the good so I laid to on the porch and watched the fog roll in.

Kate came out of the house wearing a gray Speedo, her hair hanging like seaweed. She could’ve been one of those sea nymphs talking Greek for all we communicated.

“You, sister dear, are a mess,” I said.

She plopped herself down. “Fish are disappearing. Trawlers are sweeping them up with their drag nets. Killing dolphins too. End of their world, but they’re changing. Getting crafty.”

“How’d you get so smart?”

“Rudy,” she said in a matter of fact voice.

“Your dolphin told you?” I should call the hospital, tell them she’d drown if they didn’t take her back.

“We communicate. You, with your stutter, hard to figure how you even talk to your crew,” and she went “Mmm mmm mmm” the way she teased me as a kid, making me crazy.

“Oh, yeah, my mermaid sister chatting with the wise dolphins.” And then, “Are you taking your pills?”

“I know where the Abby Lee went down.” Her voice cut sharper than I’d ever heard. I realized all her hospital fat had been replaced by muscle, and her skin glistened from the salt water and weather. “I saw it,” she said. “I saw Lester James through the pilot house window. Floating ten fathoms down.”

The glass slipped out of my fingers. How’d she know Lester had been piloting the boat?

Aaand,” she drew the word out, angry at something, “there was a suitcase — one of those bags businessmen carry — filled with money.” She threw a wad of cash at my head, soggy hundred-dollar bills dropping over my shirt and papering the floor. “More bags filled with dope.”

“Rudy showed you...?” Lester running dope to stay ahead of his loans?

“Rudy didn’t call me crazy or a mess. He said he respected me, and I believed him.”

I picked up a glob of money. “I wasn’t putting you down, Kate. Just working out my troubles. The bank on my back, the fish disappearing.” I reached out with my hand, the one without the money.

“I’m telling you because I need your help. You’re my brother.”

“You never needed anyone.”

“Goddammit,” she shouted, “I’m pregnant. But just like a man, Rudy left with his pod!”

That night, I finished the bottle, thinking, Adaptable species change and move on, but the perfectly adapted find it tough to survive. Kate would be a survivor, but I wasn’t so sure my world would ever be the same again.


Copyright © 2011 by Walter Giersbach

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