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Love Sharp Enough to Rend

She was drowning, gasping brine down her raw and waterlogged throat, so I took her. And why not? This is all you know me for. I take children. I bring them to my cave beneath the sea, I tuck them inside, and I eat them.

You know why I do it. My own children stolen. Murdered, maybe by me and maybe not; I never found out and I don’t care to. But do you care? No. You only care that I take your children.

But I take the ones that are already gone. I watch them run, gleeful, into the waves, their sweet little heads never knowing what poison spines narrowly miss the soft soles of their feet, never minding what teeth graze their calves, but still crying as something–seaweed, you say, but they cry because instinct tells them it is fingers–caresses the tender backs of their knees.

So when I found her drowning, I took her. I wish to the gods I hadn’t.

Marielle’s first instinct is to scream her daughter’s name and sprint into the ocean so fast she fairly flies. Not the best instinct, but the one any mother would have, and you can’t blame her for it; it’s certainly what I did when I found my children gone.

The lifeguards shake their heads at her. Of course they do–their instincts are unnatural, trained rather than burned into their DNA.

But Marielle’s instinct is what allows her to see what she sees: the child’s hand not falling but yanked, the flash of glossy green that could be but isn’t quite seaweed. I think later, when I see her the way I see her little girl, that this is the moment that doomed me.

And then Marielle falls, face-first, into the water. Who can say what tripped her? An errant pebble, a child’s lost toy, the unexpected pitch of a wave.

Seaweed, maybe.

No matter. She goes down in water that’s up to her thighs, she gasps in brine, chokes it out, then gasps in more before she can slog her way up to her knees. She coughs the water out and starts to swim, or, more truthfully, to thrash. The lifeguards are past her now and she doesn’t care. All she’s thinking is please, please, please.

That doesn’t help. Her daughter is gone, has been gone, and no one, not even the lifeguards with their instincts honed to save such careless lives as these, can swim fast or deep enough to pull her free.

Is she thinking of the knife already? Surely not now. But is it a little more difficult for her to breathe? Does she toss more glances at the ocean than she should? Oh, yes.

I should know. I was once standing where she was in the sand, wishing for her daughter’s endless questions and not those of the cop who is ever so sorry about the drowning Marielle knows did not happen.

Gabby is nine when I take the tender heart from her chest in my cave of bright coral. That heart of hers wishes Daddy would work less, wishes he’d come to the beach even though he hates it, wishes she could get one more hug from her mama. Her hopes and loves and fears slide down my throat with the hot, salty flesh.

I used to save them. Used to take them to a cave of ivy and briony where they loved and grew up and wove wildflowers into their hair. But what good did that do me, what good did it do them? They still died in the end.

Rending their selves from bone, weaving their little souls to my own marrow, is so much better than letting them drown.

Marielle, in some ways, does not emerge from the water she fell into the day her daughter did not drown. I know the taste of this drowning, and I do not savor it.

Some days the water is rage. Some days the water is grief. Most days, for her, it is the research that her husband first tries to stop and then ignores with a discomfort that never leaves him.

She finds mermaids first. She remembers movies and books and she remembers that slick green something in the waves and she attacks this avenue with all the fervor of a starved wolf with a frozen, half-gnawed bone.

But, no, it’s not quite right. Mermaids are for sailors, grown men who can be tempted by the curve of a hip and the flash of what might–or might not–be a breast.

She finds sirens next, and this is closer. Mermaids eat people sometimes, but eating people is what sirens do. But no–again, Marielle’s daughter was not a sailor, a man who would dash his ship on the rocks for a pretty voice and the promise of more.

When Marielle finds lamia, the word strikes her heart in a way it hasn’t been struck since she first saw Gabby’s frightened face, silent, upturned, gulping at the air in the troughs of the waves. There, in the pale glow of her laptop at 3:37 AM, is when she first feels the cold certainty of murder.

The lungs are next: I consume Gabby’s laughter, her words, her calls for Mama when there’s a monster in the closet.

I wrap all her frightened words up in me and let her laughter race through my marrow with the other little ones I’ve pulled into the gentle, rocking arms of the ocean.

It’s better for them here, where they’re cared for, where they’re held. I will love them until the universe ends, or until I do. And I have been here for a long, long time.

Marielle does not surface after she finds that Gabby is gone from her forever. Marielle dives deeper.

She crawls the internet, and when she’s exhausted that, she finds libraries, churches, collections with as much mythology and occult as she can muster.

It is difficult to find information on lamia of the sea. Most are interested in those that live on land, in caves green with ivy and briony, the ones that can crawl through your window and steal your babies from their cribs.

There are fewer of us in the sea. But we are there, and you bring your children to us in droves, and we feast while you wail and cry and chalk it up to sharks.

But not Marielle. No, there is a spear in Marielle’s heart shaped like a slick green tail, heavy like a child’s upturned, drowning face, and nothing can remove it, so it pulls her on, as inexorable as death.

Ribs and belly, crunchy and soft and good good marrow. I get all those bone-crushing hugs, the home-cooked meals, and oh, gods, how her mother loved her, loved her, loved her. Her father, too, bastard that he turned out to be. He made her mouse-shaped pancakes and bacon so crispy it bordered on burnt. He came home with a puppy for her fifth birthday and let her name him even though she called him Susan.

And why shouldn’t she live this love forever, bound safe in my aching, empty spaces? She was drowning. She was drowning, and now she is safe and I have another little soul to love.

Is there so much harm in that? Is there truly?

The things that Marielle throws herself into: scuba diving, martial arts, silver knives and those foolish enough to make them.

The things that her husband throws himself into: ignorance, a woman named Lainey, Gordon’s Gin, because it’s so damn cheap it hardly shows up in the budget until suddenly it does, and that is when the divorce happens.

It doesn’t happen because Drew drinks too much, or because he cheats, or even really because Gabby is gone and it ripped them apart. It happens because there was a rift that neither of them could see across even before Gabby, one that finally got bridged by a mess of silver and glass and mourning that was ultimately far too late. And when they cross it, when they see each other again, neither recognizes the other.

So they divorce, and while in some senses they mourn, it is only for what they used to be.

My favorite part is the feet: the gentle little feet, the ones that take me everywhere they walked, everywhere they swung under every tired, carrying hand. These ones run with Susan in the yard, run to friends on the playground, swing lower and lower to the ground in chairs too tall for the legs above them. They run into the ocean, the mouth far above laughing and calling for Mama to follow.

And when I came, still they ran, then they kicked, then they stirred, and then went still.

No more poison spines for these soft soles. No more seaweed, no more grazing teeth.

No more running, either.

But there are grazing teeth still. Mine.

I swallow before the idea can make me sick, but the jagged bone of her heel burns on its way down.

When Marielle wakes a week after she gets certified to dive, her thighs stick together with sweat. She peels them apart and turns down the heat and goes back to her computer with coffee. All day the insides of her thighs itch and burn and nothing she does can stop it.

It only gets worse. The next morning, it’s harder to peel her legs apart. It hurts. They look like she’s burned them when she’s done, and not even the thick coating of aloe she puts on after helps. She doesn’t understand.

Not yet.

Fingers crunch like carrots: messy finger paints, fingertips against the soft of Mama’s cheek, against the funny, tickly bristles of Daddy’s beard, against the sunny fluff of Susan’s fur.

Maybe I’m wrong about the feet. Maybe the arms are the sweetest, the ones that hug without abandon still, the ones that haven’t yet learned to be shy or scared or hesitant.

And she doesn’t have to learn those things, never has to hurt again, only to twist and slide over the taut lines of my tendons. She never has to die, never has to go the way all those children did before. All the ones that Hera took. All the ones who died in my earthly cave of ivy and briony.

There is something far above now, a dark speck in the swimmy surface sunlight. And I don’t understand.

Not yet.

Finally, after days of raw skin and crying no matter how Marielle sleeps, even with a pillow between her legs–in fact, that was the worst, because then the pillow stuck and oh gods she spent hours picking the scraps of white fabric from her skin–her legs stay together, and she hobbles around like she’s in one of those potato sack races she used to watch Gabby do on field days.

It’s absurd. She looks absurd, she feels absurd. She tells no one.

That is the day the rest of her skin begins to itch, and that is the day she begins to understand. That is also the day she begins, slowly, to welcome it.

The dark speck glints green above me, and I, scooping soft brains into my mouth, am beginning to understand as well. I suck the last of the marrow from Gabby’s bones with less relish than I might otherwise display.

She will live all the same, relish or no. Does the woman above, the monster she has become, understand what I’ve done? How I’ve saved her daughter, how her daughter is saving me?

I don’t think that she does.

I am going to have to run.

The skin below Marielle’s waist flakes off, finally easing the itching that grew so intense it ached. She’s already quit her job. How was she supposed to go to work with her feet fused together and webbing between her toes?

She understands completely now. All she has to do is wait. Wait while that flaking skin begins to darken. Wait while her teeth start to throb, while the sides of her neck flay themselves open. Wait while she grows closer to the end of her becoming.

She knows it is time when the silver of her knife begins to burn her palms, and she drags herself to the door.

It hurts Marielle to get to the car. The tar of the driveway scrapes at her new-grown scales and makes them bleed.

She pays no attention to it. She levers herself up into the driver’s seat, tosses her fabric-wrapped silver knife into the passenger’s seat, and thanks all the gods she knows that she drives an automatic as she turns the key.

By the time she reaches the beach, her neck hurts, her teeth have cut her tongue wide open, and she’s started to gasp. To choke on the air the way she choked on the salt-thick water she flew into, trying to save her sweet Gabby.

It is not night, as she originally planned. It is midday on a Saturday and children shriek as she heaves herself across the stinging, burning sand, the knife blistering her palm even through four layers of fabric.

This time, when she gasps in water, it is a cool and blessed relief.

Marielle is on me before I can flee. That mother’s rage, untempered by time as mine has been, overcomes me in an instant. She climbs my thrashing body, the knife scraping silver-crusted burns up my skin, and pins me to the ocean floor.

She is as glorious in her fury as I ever was: wicked tail aglow, hair a blazing corona, red of her own blood seeping between her sharpened teeth in a steady, curling trickle.

When she leans in close, I take her blood into me and I see into her the way I saw into Gabby: desperate, then mourning, then angry and dragging and determined to have my life.

I decide, as I taste the way she thrashed into the sea, that I love her, and that is the moment at which she drives the knife into my heart. That is also the moment at which I decide that I deserve it.

While my heart slows, Marielle devours me in much the same way that I devoured Gabby: one part at a time, slow and savoring and delighting in the memories it brings. Crunching down on my fingers like carrots. Taking in all the parts of me, the things like my heart that used to be soft.

Another breath of blood, a second skimming of Marielle on my tongue, and I taste the final two things I will ever know.

One thing she understands and I did not: when she has consumed me, she will finally have her daughter back.

The other thing I understand and she does not: she thinks she will only ever take the dying ones.

But if Gabby would truly have drowned, been gone before Marielle could reach her, Marielle would not have seen her little girl tugged beneath the waves.

How long will she last until for her, like me, the dying ones are no longer enough?

About the Author

Leah Ning lives in northern Virginia with her husband and their adorable fluffy overlords. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in PodCastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and Human Monsters, among others. You can find her @LeahNing on Twitter, @leahningwrites on Instagram, and on her website,