Break, O Time

Lake Michigan from Silver Beach

Break, O waves, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Break, O heart, and let the pieces sparkle like scales as they fall to the unknown depths.
Break, O time, that she may live again.
Break, break, break.

I was hauntingly lucky to bear witness as the mermaid of Lake Michigan died. She’d done her best to prepare me for the moment when I’d call my hoarse approximation of her name to no response, but not for the possibility I might be there. To watch, powerless, as she transformed, reclaimed by the watery depths.

Looking back, I can see the beauty of it. It replays in slow-motion in my mind, perhaps because I felt frozen at the time. Unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to stop what was occurring before me: A body suddenly replaced with a million glinting stars. My gaze would not let go of the water as it flowed into the space where she had just been. But water does not wait for you to let it go. It shifted and churned under my increasingly confused searching, until her sparkling remnants were lost to the mysteries of the Lake. I could see scales glinting underneath the waves as they sank into the depths, others tossed high into the air and backward, away from the shore. All of them, it seemed, moved further and further away from me.

Heavy seconds fell like stones before I allowed myself to realize that the pieces of her could never be reassembled. She would never be put back together again. The mermaid of Lake Michigan was gone. And with her, my heart and soul. I could do nothing but watch the waves lap against the gentle curve of the shore.

Break, O waves.

I didn’t know what I was accepting when she gave me her first soulstone. We couldn’t speak to one another at the time. Part of me thought she was a hallucination, this iridescent green creature sitting placidly on the unrecognizable shoreline. I crawled up the dune toward her on all fours, exhausted from escaping the riptide that had yanked me from knee-deep water off of Silver Beach. From slowly slogging my way diagonally back to land. Her emerald tail had acted as a beacon, directing me to safety.

She smiled, toothless and strange, and leaned down with an open palm. In it glinted a small, round jasper. I reached up to take it, looking from the rock into her depthless black eyes, and held the stone over my heart in thanks. I felt a jolt as the jasper failed to stop at the boundary of my skin, entering and hardening a part of my aorta. For a moment the blood crashed in my heart like waves upon a shore. Then it stilled. Suddenly light-hearted and light-headed, I collapsed onto her lap. She ran her hand through my hair, wordlessly reassuring. Some stray hairs caught on her lightly-webbed fingers and she gurgled in surprise, or perhaps delight.

I nodded assent when she looked at me with a question in her eyes. She placed the loose hairs in her mouth. A gift for a gift. I lay my fingers over my chest, feeling the confident stone where flimsy flesh had been.

Break, O heart.

I understood more about soulstones and the connections they wrought by the time I removed my left ventricle and traded it for a piece of her granite, smoothed like glass and flecked with gold. By then, she’d grown teeth of quartz and hair like a halo of bristly seaweed. Evidence of my gifts and the bridge they built between her and humanity. Outside, I remained the same. But I could feel the newfound solidity of my soul. A little less human, a little more like her.

She’d grabbed my hand more forcefully than usual that day. “There will come a time I will not be here when you look for me.” Her words crashed upon me, leaving me breathless. She was direct like that. She never opened with context or explanation, names or diminutive.

“Why?” I’d responded, facing her and the conversation head-on. She made me feel self-assured. With her, I could face anything.

“Because my body does not age like yours. It simply is or is not. Right now, it is. Later, not.”

Now, peering ineffectually into the opaque waters upon which the setting sun danced, I wondered what it meant that I was there when it happened. When the Lake reached out to reclaim her form, scatter her knowledge throughout its vast expanse. When it threw part of my soul beyond reach.

I understood what had happened, objectively. People die, mermaids die. My friend died, and I wasn’t ready to lose her. I didn’t scream, or bargain, or beat my hands against the sand. I simply sat, staring at the way the receding waves seemed to draw mountains on the canvas of the shore. And gasped gently at each burst of liquid heat flowing in my suddenly sodden heart.

Each rush of blood through my veins felt like a betrayal.

I understood what had happened. But I couldn’t fathom how I would survive. I threw a stone, and watched it sink into the depths. Maybe it could find the rest of my soul down there, the pieces of my heart that I could no longer access without her. Maybe it could burst them open, find what they harbored inside. I wanted to break time itself like one breaks a geode, and find that luminous place where I could believe the lines I repeated to myself: She is still a part of me. And now I am a part of Lake Michigan.

The liquid loosening reached my eyes, and I finally cried.

Break, O time!

Break, O waves, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Break, O heart, and let the pieces sparkle like scales as they fall to the depths.
Break, O time, that I may already have learned how to live again.
Break. Break. Break.

Copyright 2022 Jenna Hanchey

Photo by Jenna Hanchey

Story notes

I wrote this story after my beloved dog of 9 years, Mojo, died. It was sudden: a heart attack or something similarly quick and unexpected. I kept thinking about how lucky I was to be there when it happened, to witness his transition, to be there for my best friend’s final moments. I wanted the story to capture how we can form relationships across species, initially without shared language—until we put in the labor to build it.

Jenna Hanchey

Jenna Hanchey is a critical/cultural communication professor by day and a speculative fiction writer by...uhhh...earlier in the day. Her stories appear in Nature: Futures, Daily Science Fiction, Wyngraf, and Martian Magazine, among other venues. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @jennahanchey or at jennahanchey.com.

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