It had been calling to her.
She could hear it from the water. Revenge, it said. Take back what was taken.
Its cries drew her up from the sea. Out from the waves she heaved herself, onto this shingle beach to pull its empty air into her lungs.
Night here had its own songs: dark birds, distant engines, the thin howl of a man lying sideways on the shore. Across the bank of stones, she dragged herself to find the source of calling, each pebble gouging itself along the slick and silvered length of her.
“Whoo-zere?” said the man, slouched in the shadow of the wooden groyne. Glass clinked beside him, fallen bottles.
She hauled the weight of her body past his legs, his heavy boots, and up the rise toward the small blue house.
It was in there – she could hear it, singing through the walls.
Hungry for it now, she slid up the door to reach the knob. It slipped in the salt brine of her hands. She couldn’t turn it. She beat against the door, but no one came to let her in. Finally, she dragged herself up by the jaw-jut of the sill to see.
It was glowing, rippling, shimmering: the tail.
The great length of her mother’s tail, suspended on the wall like a prize. A trophy.
Her mother told the story of the night it had been taken, when the last great flood rose the sea. A man was rowing down the flooded high street, wooden oars propelling him between the houses and the shops. Her mother floated beside him, wanting only to get a look. Human men were only stories, told down in the depths of the grey-green estuary. She only wanted to see.
She did not expect the rope he threw or how it caught her round the middle.
She pulled against the man and his rope, but he pulled her back toward him.
Stories told how humans caught things, how they hauled them up for show.
The man tugged her back by his end of the rope, but she pulled against him, just as hard. The rope bit. She felt it tightening. The harder she swam, the more the rope cut in – until it split her.
Split her here across this tail, she’d said, while she was left to claw herself back toward the sea’s cold sting, trailing blood and salt. See here, daughter, she would say and show the ragged seam of her.
The tail her mother lost was here, inside, but she could see how it had weathered. The fins were paper, the scales half-gone, its seaweed green faded to the dull dust grey of human skin, of human night.
Bring the tail back, Mother said.
She pressed her hands to the windowpane but didn’t break it. The sea was full of glass – she knew its ways. Waves tumbled everything, turned broken glass and human trash to gemstones, but they couldn’t smoothe her mother, wouldn’t soothe that join where the rope had split her or the hatred she bore toward men. All men.
She slid back down to the rough doorstep, fingered the objects there, but there was no way in: no key hiding beneath the upturned flowerpot, nothing but a little pile of oyster shells and a coiled length of sea rope.
Blue sea rope.
She took it in her teeth and turned her bulk back to the sea, to slither herself across the stones for water. The man groaned by the groyne, the sea defences put in after the last great flood, to hold the sea back – as if an manmade thing could.
Down she rode the shingle with a shush-shush-shush of stones.
“Whoo-zere?” The man blinked once – blinked twice – as if he couldn’t understand what he could see.
She rose up before him on her great tail.
“Whoo?” The man kicked, tried to find his feet to stand before he slipped, lost his grip, and fell back hard.
She surged toward him.
“Who?” His breath was hot.
Her own was cold. She breathed salt. With the coil of sea rope, she worked to bound the man, wrapping it around his legs to hold them together, to make a fish of him. He was too startled to object. With that rope, she hauled him up and over the groyne, to hang him upside down like someone’s catch.
“Whoooo?” His drool moved up his cheeks.
She had no weapon, but her teeth were sharp enough.
Into the cloth of him, she put her teeth.
Into the meat, the sinew, she bit down.
The man cried out, but she could only hear the tail, her mother crying.
Revenge, they said. Take back what was taken.
She would not go back home empty handed.
Slowly – slowly – she began to chew.
Peggy Riley is a playwright, novelist, and writer of essays and short fiction. Her work has been produced, broadcast, installed and published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the Costa Short Story Award. Her first novel, Amity & Sorrow, is about God, sex, and farming. peggyriley.com