Down in the Water

They come in June, and always they leave with the few of us they have to take. They come to take us once the full moon hangs in Sagittarius when Heaven shoots the most stars at the earth below and the tide swells and rises and all the fish jump just to feel the silver light of this one midnight that only ever happens once a year. And if they were bloated, if they had bits of fishing net embedded in their flesh, or the sores water rot blooms on skin, we’d assume they were the teenage girls who are always drowning every summer—the girls who are swallowed by the ponds and the lakes and the streams and the creeks and the river and the puddles and the irrigation canals and the quarry and the bay—the girls we have to bury on the edges of the cemetery or else the town will flood again and carry away all our livestock. 

Their silhouettes crest the hills of our town where the land attempts to run away from the water, from the coast. They step forth from the shadows of other things; from the vine-laden gateways, they unfurl from the grape leaves; barefoot upon the thyme-riddled stone, they come. They come, and suddenly they are here, and suddenly some of us have been chosen, and suddenly the rest of us are left where we were when first they came. Left standing in our kitchens watching tap water pour over a pile of dirty dishes. Left sitting in our claw foot tubs watching the last of the bathwater slip down the drain. Left in our yards where our garden hoses gurgle in the grass; where the sprinklers still turn and the sun tosses color through the air-borne water. Left standing on the beach staring at the froth in the sand the last wave just left behind like the sea spit on the shore. 

They come and they are always thin and naked and they all look the same. Naked, but if we see them in just the right light, we’ll catch the bits of fins and scales that glitter forth from their otherwise human skin—a silver patch here and there around the wrist like a bracelet—they are more fish in the places where a body bends or where a body opens. And when we see the bits of scales we think of the sequin gowns we’ve either worn ourselves or else our friends and sisters and aunties and mothers have worn. And when we see the fins that trail forth from their gray flesh we consider the silk and lace veils some of us wore for our weddings—we think of the scarves some of us still wear wound around the bareness of our arms to hide the writing we compose upon our skin with sharp blades because there is no one to tell our secrets to. And we never see them until it’s too late. By the time they’ve come, they are upon us, and the air is a meandering miasma of fish and salt and sex, and they come after the spring rains have filled all the bodies of water to brimming.

They come when the tulips and daffodils have died, when these flowers have retreated back into the underworlds of their bulbs. They come when the vegetables and fruit are just taking form—they come, and they are neither slow nor swift, and they come because they must.

They come, and they have long hair that is always wet and tangled, and while they have no eyes or noses, they do have mouths, and when they snarl at us we can see their teeth—jagged and sharp, the color of jade—they have tongues like small black eels. 

They come, and because their mouths are almost always open they look like they are singing, only they are swallowing all the sound because when they come it sounds like when we go underwater once a year come December when it’s our turn to pull on our white robes and then step down the steel rungs of the ladder and into the glass tank at the church while our congregation carefully sings “Down in the Water” to keep us from actually drowning. 

They come and when they do they take away the sound of our world yet our fathers still call them sirens like the screaming ambulances that can never save us, and our mothers call them whores the way they called us whores too the first night we didn’t come home because we had bedded the sailors they’d told us to bed. And when they come from the water in June their song is so heavy no one can move which is why no one ever tries to run. And when they come there are always a few of us they have to take back to the water. And every year in June they pass me by in favor of my sisters, my cousins, my friends. And every year I’ve seen them come, they’ve passed the lure I make when I dangle from a straight hook the bait of a wanting body that is me.

SARAH ELIZABETH SCHANTZ's short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice and has appeared in journals such as Third Coast, Midwestern Gothic, and Hunger Mountain. Her first novel, Fig, debuted from Simon & Schuster in 2015 and was selected by NPR as A Best Read of the Year before it won the 2016 Colorado Book Award. She currently teaches creative writing at Front Range Community College and via her own private seasonally inspired workshop series, (W)rites of Passage.
The Adirondack Review
winner of the 2017 Fulton Prize