At the age of eight, Alice Pasternack was given a seahorse. Syngnathidae Hippocampus. It was not much larger than her thumb and bright orange. She thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and surely proof of God because who else but a playful God would create a tiny orange horse that lived in the sea? She eventually lost her seahorse and, some years later, her belief in God, but she never lost her love of sea creatures.
In an indirect way, the seahorse was responsible for her joining the carnival, for falling in love, and for rescuing a beautiful, four-foot Merman.
Everyone remembers the discovery of the Mercreatures nine years ago. Discovered on a small island in the Southern Ocean, the first creature to be captured, a female they called Ariel, was displayed at the London Zoo until her death two years later. Another four found themselves in other zoos throughout the world. None had fared well.
Two others had been sold to private owners – Donald Trump and Ken Parker. The Trump Mercreature's fate was unknown, but Parker had arranged for his to be displayed in his Miracle World Exhibition in Australia. He had been nicknamed the Carnival-Merman and he spent his time in a large aquarium, supervised by a team of marine biologists and scientists, sometimes touring with the carnival known as Parker's Phantasmagoria.
His name was Poseidon.
Alice worked in the Animal World section of the Entertainment Park as an assistant curator. She often visited the Mercreature, but she wasn't allowed to do anything other than observe; the exhibit was far too important for the likes of her.
Once, she had been walking past the exhibit in the late afternoon, and had seen pale blue light coming from inside. Curious, she had gone inside and had seen Jamie McIntyre standing in front of the aquarium. The blue light emanating from the display poured over him like water. He was wearing jeans and a grey t-shirt. Alice had stood looking, secretly watching him.
Jamie worked in the Big Tent, where the clowns, trapeze artists, magicians and animal acts worked. He was a general labourer, doing odd jobs, constructing things, cleaning up. She had never spoken to him before but, that night, he had turned and had smiled.
"He's beautiful, isn't he?" he'd said.
Alice stepped closer and looked at the Merman, asleep on his bed of rocks. His perfect pale grey face, smooth and round; his long grey limbs; his webbed hands; his lithe, shiny body – he was extraordinarily wonderful.
"Yes," she had said.
"Do you think he's happy?" he asked.
"Oh, I doubt it," she replied.
He turned to look at her.
"How can you tell?"
"How could he be happy, without the ocean or his family or his fellow creatures?" she had replied and he had nodded, turning to look at the sleeping Mercreature, watching it silently, thoughtfully.
"Victor says it's just a sea mammal, like a whale or a dolphin."
"Whales and dolphins are very intelligent."
"We kill them. I mean, the Japanese do, don't they? And the Norwegians."
"But… are they like us, do you think? I mean, we have families and lovers. They're just fish."
He looked at her. He had clear blue eyes. He told her of a dolphin they had found dead on a beach. It had drowned. There were marks in its skin which came from the beaks of other dolphins who had been trying to lift it to the surface to breathe. They had tried to save it. They knew what to do, but had failed.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Alice," she replied.
"Just because they're different, Alice, don't underestimate their minds," he said, then he had left.
She had watched him leave. She had looked back at the tank and had raised a hand to touch it with her fingers. The Merman opened his yellow eyes, looking at her through the thick glass.
Mercreatures (mermen and mermaids) – stelleptipus arieluss
Mercreatures are large amphibious mammals who live on the island of St Victoria. Although sea creatures, they have many similarities with humans and monkeys. Up to fifty million years ago, the ancestors of Mercreatures lived on land as apes, however, over the millennia, they have evolved into an aquatic species. This evolutionary trend is likely to be the result of mutations within the species which favoured individuals who competed for food on an island with limited food and space.
Physically they still resemble humanoids, with two arms and legs, a humanoid-shaped head; however, they are smooth-skinned, with no hair; their flesh is silver-grey and they have eyes with a transparent lid which protects them underwater. Their hands and feet are webbed and larger than land mammals. When diving underwater, they put their legs together and spread their feet so that they resemble a large tail fin. The average Mercreature stands four and a half feet tall.
As mammals, Mercreatures are warm-blooded, have mammary glands to suckle their young and have to surface to breath air. Mercreatures breathe air through their lungs and therefore must surface regularly, however they have a far greater lung capacity than most mammals and can remain underwater for up to half an hour. When underwater, their heart rate slows and their lungs collapse, allowing them to withstand great pressure.
Tiny slits in their neck, resembling gills, are, in fact, the Mercreature equivalent of dolphin blow-holes and are used to rapidly suck in air when on the surface; when underwater, these slits close, trapping the air inside, preventing water from entering.
Mercreatures have an extremely efficient circulation system. As well as breathing less frequently and taking deeper breaths than land mammals, they have more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and can regulate where their blood is distributed. During a deep dive only essential organs such as the heart and brain get oxygen-rich blood.
Unlike dolphins and whales, they spend much of their time on land (in this they are similar to seals), using water only to rehydrate and to hunt for food or play. They sleep and mate on land, though they remain close to the ocean, often sleeping on rocks or on the sand.
There have been numerous sightings of Mercreatures over the years by sailors and explorers. Their human-like shape and the tail-fin-like effect when they dive no doubt have contributed to the mermaid myth. The first modern Mercreature was discovered and caught in 2013. Mercreatures exist in the New York, London, San Francisco and Halifax zoos. Two are privately-owned. The Carnival Merman, also known as Poseidon, is on permanent display at Miracle World in Australia.
In 2017, the United Nations declared them a protected species and their island was given World Heritage listing. It is now forbidden to trade in Mercreatures.
Jamie had a guitar. Sometimes he would sit at the back of the storage bay and play. Alice would sit just out of sight and listen. He played well. He liked melodies that were gentle and intricate. The day after they had met in the Merman enclosure, she heard him playing and, this time, instead of hiding, she walked into view. He glanced up, paused in his playing then, when she nodded for him to continue, he resumed.
She sat near him. She watched his fingers playing the strings. She wished she could play a musical instrument like him.
"He cries, you know," he said without looking up.
"At night. Have you ever been here at night? You can hear him. He cries. It's like a wail."
He stopped playing.
"I saw a documentary about them catching him. They flew over low in a helicopter. There were a whole bunch of Mercreatures on the rocks. They scattered into the water. They dropped a net and he was caught up in it. They pulled him up. The others watched him from the sea, being taking up into the air. They had to shoot him with a dart, to prevent him from tearing the net open and falling. They still sedate him sometimes, when he becomes too agitated. He bit one of the trainers once and they sedated him for a whole week. He just lay there on his rock, looking up at the ceiling of the enclosure, hardly eating."
"I've only ever seen him being calm."
"Most of the time he is. It's their nature I suppose. But sometimes the grief and the loneliness takes hold of him and they have to sedate him. If they don't he works himself up and throws himself against the glass, trying to break through. I think sometimes the only thing he wants in the world is to get out of his tank."
Alice remembered her seahorse. After a time, it's bright orange colour faded to a kind of watery, pale pink. It had caught an infection and had died. Poseidon was like that: pale and fading away with loneliness.
"Maybe they should find a mate for him?" she suggested.
Jamie stood up. He held his guitar like he would a child; gently, naturally.
"That would just be putting two of them in jail," he said, then he headed off and Alice watched him; watched the slow swing of his hips and the shape of his back and shoulders, until he disappeared behind a caravan.
Interest in Poseidon had been big at first but, as with all new things, it was waning. The owner was making changes. He had opened a café called The Black Lagoon Café. Poseidon was being marketed as a kind of horror creature, with a poster of him on his legs, arms raised, as if attacking. The artist had made him greener than he was, more reptilian. His skin was, in reality, more like a dolphin's, grey and shiny.
The souvenir shop now sold plastic models of him in the same pose as the poster. There were key rings, mugs, tea towels, t-shirts, all with Poseidon's image on them.
Then they went a step further. They stopped sedating him for a while and waited until he started throwing himself at the glass, then they had a woman in a one-piece white swim suit stand in front of the glass and they took photographs. They shot him with a dart before he could do any harm to himself. The photograph they turned into a poster showed the woman screaming, with an angry Poseidon behind her, looking as if he were about to attack her.
Being a Merman wasn't enough now; they were turning him into a monster.
Despite the return of his sedation, Poseidon continued to be unsettled. Perhaps he could pick up the change in the atmosphere now that he was being billed as a threatening monster, rather than a benign sea creature, and the crowds were more excited?
The scientists looking after him protested but the carnival was more of a sideshow than a scientific exhibit and crowd numbers were back up, so the promotion continued.
In actual fact, in the wild, Mercreatures were placid animals. They spent much of their time sunning themselves. They went to the water when they wanted to exercise or fish. They also ate fruits that fell from the trees and seaweed washed up on the shore. They had no major predators, only some seabirds which sometimes attacked the very young.
The reason they had remained a secret for so long was that the island was at the bottom of nowhere, on no shipping route or flight path. They were also masters of concealment. Any sign of a ship or boat and they quickly headed for the depths of the ocean. No doubt ancient mariners had caught glimpses of them; strange human-like creatures slipping under the waves in the distance with grey fins instead of legs and feet.
The only animals they attacked were fish. They were scared of humans and might lash out in defence, but most of the time they were calm. In temperament, they were more like sloths than monkeys.
One night, before she went home, Jamie asked her to go to the Mercreature enclosure with him. He had keys, as he needed to get in for maintenance now and then. He turned on the lights and they flickered alive. It was strange being there after hours. No people, no piped music, no cameras flashing.
Poseidon was swimming. When he swam he looked masculine and lithe, like an athlete or dancer.
"He's beautiful," she said going to the glass.
"This is what he does when everyone goes. When people are watching, he gets shy. But, when he's alone, he swims"
"But we're watching?"
"He's used to me. I come in every night. He trusts me."
Suddenly, Poseidon swam over. He floated mere inches from the glass, looking at them. She had never been this close before. It was incredible, looking into his eyes. You could see the intelligence in them, the individuality. He looked at her with obvious curiosity, tilting his head slightly. And then he reached out, pressing his tiny webbed hand against the glass.
She jumped, startled. Jamie smiled. He took her hand and lifted it, pressing it on the glass in the exact spot where Poseidon's was. Her mouth fell open. She felt a shiver rush through her. For a few seconds their hands were pressed together, separated only by the cool, clearness of glass, and then, in a swift, graceful movement, he turned and swam away.
She looked at Jamie who laughed.
"We have to rescue him!" she said suddenly.
"I'd hoped you'd say that."
It was Jamie who suggested Alice disguise herself as a boy. When they found out Poseidon was gone, they'd check the security cameras and, if they thought it was two males, it might put them off the scent for a while.
They were going to drive down to the coast, hire a boat and sail to the island of St Victoria, where they were going to let him go. Jamie had seen a film called Turtle Diary, which was about a couple who rescued a turtle from a zoo. It was where he got the idea.
They met in Jamie's flat. It was small and neat. His guitar was propped up against the wall beside a bookcase. He had a poster of a dolphin on the wall. He poured wine and they talked, making lists of things they needed, the best routes, the best times. She had suggested they do this on a whim; now it all seemed so real and dangerous.
Jamie cooked them pasta. She wondered if they would end up in bed. She thought she wanted to, but she wasn't sure.
When it was late, he called her a taxi. He gave her a twenty dollar note for the fare. It was a cold night and the moon was full. His face was illuminated by moonlight, making it look white and ghostly. She rode home feeling a little drunk and light-headed.
The night before they did it, they practised dressing her as a boy. She had cut her hair short and she wore a check shirt, pants, boots. In the bathroom she had used cloth bandages to tape her breasts flat. She wore a fake moustache; small, nothing too theatrical. She wore glasses as well.
Jamie told her to watch him walk. She mimicked him. He told her not to be too dramatic; to try to walk naturally. It was necessary, she discovered, to walk with natural confidence, to be straight and calm. He held her by her hips and turned them gently, showing her a way to turn so that her hips swivelled as if on a fulcrum.
"On the night, it's important you look strong and natural."
"Strong and natural," she repeated, aware of his fingers resting just below her waist.
"We'll have to get you bigger clothes though."
"They fit perfectly."
"That's the problem. They show your shape."
"What's wrong with my shape?"
"There's nothing wrong with your shape. You're thin, Alice, but you're shaped like a girl."
“Well maybe you should dress as a girl? Two girls would really throw them.”
He thought this was funny and he agreed to try on her dress. She took him into the bathroom and used her make-up to paint his face, smearing red lipstick onto his lips, showing him how to press his lips together to smear the glossy paint in. He had long hair, which she tied in a pony-tail with lilac ribbon. He was masculine, but looked good as a girl.
After, they sat and drank Jack Daniels. The ice chinked in their glasses. He said they were doing a good thing. It was a good thing they were doing.
She drank her whiskey and, once again, felt light-headed. She didn't go home that night. He made up the couch and she slept in his bed while he slept in the front room. His bed smelled warm and masculine. She closed her eyes and listened to the rain fall outside. She felt like she was sinking into the bed, drowning.
They had hired a van. In the back they had placed a plastic tub and had filled it with salt water. It was deep enough to hydrate him, but not drown him.
They would have to sedate him. They had a fish with pills stuffed inside. Jamie had stolen the pills from one of the scientists and knew the correct dosage from some notes he had read.
When the van drove up and she climbed in, she had laughed.
"Nothing," she smiled, touching him on the knee, "you make a cute girl, that's all."
Inside, Poseidon was asleep. Jamie tossed the fish to him and he awoke, but he wasn't interested.
"Now what?" Alice asked anxiously.
"Wait there," Jamie replied.
He returned a short while later with a dart gun.
"This is probably better anyway," he said.
He climbed up and aimed the gun, looking somewhat ridiculous in his yellow frock.
"Sorry Poseidon," he said then fired.
The dart hit him in his side. The Mercreature felt for the dart, shocked, but soon fell and rolled off his rock into shallow water.
Jamie unlocked the glass cage. They had brought a stretcher from the sick bay and they somehow managed to roll Poseidon onto it. He was heavier than they had imagined but they managed to carry him out. Outside it was bitterly cold and the stars were sharp and bright.
With some difficulty, they managed to get him into the back and rolled him into the tub. He lay there with his head resting on the side. They tied his legs and hands with cloth bandages. They didn't want him panicking and running around when he woke up.
"Will he be all right?" Alice asked.
"I think so. We can keep checking."
The left him in the back, in the dark, and climbed into the cabin. Jamie reached out and grabbed Alice's hand, squeezing it.
"I'm glad I met you," he said, then he started the engine and they drove off.
They turned on the radio. They listened to country music while they drove out of the city, through the suburbs, heading towards country roads. They hoped to be a few hundred miles away before Poseidon's absence was noticed.
Alice looked at Jamie, his face lit by the passing street light – bright, then dark, bright, then dark, his lips dark, like red lollies.
"Should we check on him?" she asked, after a while of driving.
"When we get to a petrol station. The sedative will still be working."
When the news came on the radio, they both expected to hear of the theft of Poseidon but it was just news about wars and car crashes and the stock market.
They pulled into a petrol station. Jamie filled up, looking shy and awkward in his dress, while Alice bought sandwiches, coffee, juice and water. They checked on Poseidon. He was still asleep. He made a little murmuring sound. Alice cupped her palms, filled them with water and splashed his face so that it wouldn't dry out.
They closed the doors. A police car drove in behind them. They climbed into their cab and drove off.
It was raining hard now. The windscreen wipers pushed the water across the glass.
"When will he wake up?" Alice asked.
"In a few hours. He's dreaming now."
Their tyres splashed through the water on the road.
She wondered what Poseidon dreamed of.
"When I get old, I’ll tell my grand kids how I rescued a merman and let him free," she said.
He laughed. He looked at her and, in the red light of the traffic light, with his lips bright red, his face looked oddly clown-like, but lovely.
They drove through the morning. The rain eased. The sky became washed with pale light. Soon it was day.
They found another station. They checked on Poseidon first. He was awake. He looked at them with perplexed, frightened eyes.
"It all right," Alice said softly, stroking his head; wetting it again. He made a little whimpering sound that was a bit like a dog crying.
Alice stayed with him while Jamie went to the bathroom and became masculine again. They bought breakfast. They ate as they drove.
"He must be awfully scared," Alice said.
Jamie didn't reply. He turned on the radio. This time, when the news came on, they heard a report about the theft of the Carnival Merman from Miracle World. "CCT footage shows two women in their mid-twenties, driving a white van. The Mercreature is highly valuable and would be worth millions on the black market. Scientists at Miracle World say they are anxious about his safety as any long absence from the water could be dangerous to his health."
"Well, we'd better keep to the minor roads," Jamie suggested.
"We're criminals now, I suppose."
"We'd better push on."
They drove along a country road. Trees surrounded them; pale, ghostly eucalypts in a dense forest. Alice looked at the road map. It was an area simply called the Wooded Glen.
"Aren't you tired?" she asked Jamie.
"Yeah, but we'll push on for a bit. I want to reach the boat."
"It's dangerous driving when you're tired."
He glanced at her.
"Tell me a story. That'll keep me awake."
"I don't know any stories."
"Tell me about seahorses then."
She laughed. She thought for a few moments.
"Shall I tell you about their courtship? They have such a marvellous courtship."
"Yes. Tell me."
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The morning sunlight was shining through the grey clouds creating a kind of luminous, halo effect.
"Well, when two seahorses become interested, it's not that wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am stuff you get with most fishes. They court for several days. It's a slow, loving process. And, while they court, they change colour. From red to orange to green or yellow. They swim side-by-side, holding tails, and sometimes they grip the same strand of sea-grass with their tails and wheel around in unison. It's called a 'pre-dawn dance.' It's very beautiful."
"And then the true courtship dance begins."
He laughed. She looked at him, wondering if he were making fun of her, but he was smiling kindly.
"Well, it lasts for about eight hours. Can you imagine that? Eight, long, slow hours making love? The male pumps water through an egg pouch on his trunk and this expands, opening to reveal a colourful emptiness. That's how I heard it described once. 'A colourful emptiness.'"
"The female likes this?"
"I guess so. While he opens his pouch they both drift upwards, snout-to-snout, spiralling as they rise, and she deposits her eggs into his pouch. When it's all over, they float back down and then the female swims off. It's the male that has the babies see."
"And the female just buggers off?"
"Not quite," she laughed, "it's not as cold-hearted as that. The pregnancy lasts up to three weeks and every morning the female returns, and they undergo a little courtship dance again, changing colour, entwining tails, wheeling around sea-fronds, finally dancing a little promenade dance with their tails entwined. It lasts around six minutes and happens every morning of the pregnancy. It's very beautiful."
"Sounds like a real little performance."
"Weeks and weeks of lovely dancing. How romantic."
Jamie laughed loudly and she could see that he was happy. He reached across and touched her hand, keeping his eyes on the road.
"What about our friend back there? How do his lot mate?" he asked.
"More like apes. Not nearly so lyrical."
"Though they often choose the water when they have sex. They like to mate under the sea, and it's kind of like a swimming-dance. Very balletic."
He was about to say something and he opened his mouth and turned to her, but then the van spluttered and stalled. He looked puzzled. And then the engine cut out altogether and he let it drift onto the side of the road into some gravel.
"I have no idea what's up," he said, after inspecting the engine, "we've got plenty of petrol. And the engine hasn't overheated."
"Could it be something electrical?"
"Vans aren't my thing."
He tried turning the key but there was no response other than a little electrical whine.
"So, what do we do?" she asked.
He ran a hand through his hair. He looked up and down the road. He scratched his head.
"Chuck us the map book."
She reached inside and pulled it out.
He inspected it. She could see him thinking. Then he said: "Change of plan. We can hardly wait here and flag someone down. There's a shore line about two miles this way.
He tapped the map.
"But what about the boat?"
"That's at least twenty miles way. We'd never walk it. We'd be spotted anyway."
"So we release him here? Is that what you're suggesting?"
"I don't see any other way. It's not how this was supposed to work, I know, but this thing isn't going to be going anywhere in a hurry and if anyone comes along they'll be likely to discover Poseidon. We don't have much choice do we?"
"This isn't fair. How are we going to get him there?"
"On the stretcher. We'll tie him to it. It'll freak him out I suppose."
He looked up suddenly. In the distance there was the sound of a helicopter.
"Come on. Let's get moving."
With some difficulty they put Poseidon on the stretcher, binding him by his wrists and ankles. He wasn't too heavy but it was awkward carrying him through the dense forest that was marked on the map as The Wooded Glen. The ground was covered in moss. The trees soaked up the sound so it was like walking through a sacred place, hushed and lonely.
"Are you okay?" Jamie asked.
"I'm all right."
"I shouldn't have got you into this."
"It was my suggestion, remember."
"They'll charge us. He's worth a fortune. And a protected species to boot."
"Well we've done it now. It was the right thing to do and you know it. He would have died back there. It was just a matter of time."
"Is he okay?"
"He's quiet. He's terrified. He won't have any idea about what is happening to him."
She looked at his grey face; it had no nose but it was very human-like. Carrying him like this, through the silent, white trees, was eerie. It was like carrying someone to a secret execution in the forest. Did he think he was going to die?
"He'll be drying out. He's not too heavy?"
"I'll cope. He'll be all right, won't he?"
Jamie didn't answer. They just kept on walking.
They heard the helicopter coming closer. They put the stretcher down and crouched down.
"They must have seen the van. They're searching for us."
"It might be a coincidence."
"Maybe? But I bet you Parker found the van and now they're searching the forest. He's after his investment. Damn! They shouldn't be able to see us through the trees though if we don't move."
They both looked at Poseidon who whimpered softly. He looked at them with frightened, yellow eyes. Alice wanted to hold his hand, but would he understand her meaning?
They waited until the helicopter flew off into the distance and then they headed off again.
"What are we going to do when this is over?" Alice asked as they carried the supine Mercreature through the shadowy trees.
"Well, we can't go back, can we?"
"We'll have to keep on running."
"I suppose so. If we can make it to the train station a few miles east, we can catch a train down to the city. We can get a room, think things out. Work out where we're going to go."
"It's us now, isn't it?" she asked a little tentatively.
He looked over her shoulder at her. He nodded and smiled gently.
"Us," he said firmly.
That's when Poseidon started making a moaning noise. He struggled frantically with his ties.
"What's the matter? What's up?"
They put him down.
"Take it easy, fella."
Alice stroked him but he struggled and struggled. Jamie sniffed the air.
"He can smell the ocean," he said.
"Let's put him out of his misery."
They carried him down to the beach. The sea was grey and rough. The salt wind was cold on their faces. Exhausted from their walk, they lay the stretcher carefully on the sand.
"What should we do?" Alice asked.
"Just untie him I guess."
So they both knelt down. Alice took care of the feet, Jamie undid the ones around his wrists. Poseidon leapt up. Alice was afraid he might attack them; it would be a reasonable thing for him to do in the circumstances. But, instead, he just stared at the ocean in awe, staggering a little, as if drunk, and unsure on his webbed feet. It was as if he did not know what to do, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He was frozen on the spot, sniffing the air, listening, looking.
Then, without a thought for Alice or Jamie, he walked steadfastly towards the water, over the wet sand, into the foamy surf; he paused, briefly, the white foam frothing around his sleek ankles, then he waded deeper and deeper, until the waves were around his waist. Alice hoped he might turn and wave, but that was too much of a human gesture to expect. Instead, he dipped under the waves suddenly and they saw him swimming for a few metres - just a hint of shiny grey skin - and then he was gone forever.
"He'll be okay, won't he?" Alice asked after a while, almost sobbing.
"I think so."
"Will he find his way home?"
"I don't know."
"Jesus, what if he drowns or gets eaten by a shark?"
"He's in his element now. He'll be all right. He belongs out there."
Jamie put an arm around her waist and she wasn't surprised by the gesture. She rested a head against his shoulder. They stood in silence, wondering.
"Well that's that, I suppose," said Jamie at last, "the end of our little adventure."
"Or the beginning?" Alice suggested.
He looked at her and smiled.
"Come on," he said, "we've got some running to do."
They headed back through the wood, holding hands. Just before they disappeared into the trees, Alice took one more look at the ocean; at the silvery, turbulent waves and the pale, grey horizon.
He was out there somewhere, swimming like a dancer, supple and powerful and free.
Jamie pulled her along and they walked deeper into the dark forest, and soon the only thing left of the now unseen ocean was the sighing sound of waves behind them.