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Birthday card for my little sister. I call her shrimpy because she is small and shrimp-like.
Do you have a pet fish? the leggy lady asked the mermaid.
Yes, I have a smelt whose name is Salty, and a pufferfish called Yoyo.
Like yoyo dieting—one moment he’s skinny, the next he’s fat.
Mermaids use that word too?
O, yes. We gain weight very easily, especially when trading with sailors in the summer months. During winter, when we receive few visitors, we are restricted to fish.
Eating fish… isn’t that like eating your pets? Or even your own kind?
No, fish come to us when they are old and offer themselves as sacrifice.
Like you’re gods!
In a way.
I would love to have a pet pufferfish.
The mermaid shrugged. Seals are better, she said.
They are like your dogs. Dutch sailors have a good name for them: zeehond—literally, seadog. But they are much harder to acquire.
Because they choose you.
You’re so lucky, the lady said as she looked down at her thin, scarred legs.
The mermaid suddenly tossed her hair. I must go, she said. I have to find Grumpy.
Wait—I have one more question.
What about your children?
What about them?
How—I mean—are babies easy to bare?
We don’t have babies—think of our figures! There’s a reason you don’t see pregnant mermaids. We lay eggs, only we call them bubbles, like any sensible fish.
Thousands, though only a finful reach adulthood.
How many children do you have?
The lady lowered her eyes. None, she said.
Pity, said the mermaid, easing back into the water.
Will you visit again?
Maybe, depends on my tides.
My mood, said the mermaid. And with a flick of her fins she vanished beneath the waves.
The lady watched the sea until the sun sunk below the horizon. Then she slowly traced the track back over the dunes.
Moments later, my own feet followed, crushing the prints she had made with her small toes.
I watched as she entered a weatherboard house, gently closing the door behind her. After a minute, steam billowed from an open skylight and I could hear the sound of running bathwater.