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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Homo Homarus

Ellen Denham was an active child, given to fits of jumping up and down excitedly. By the time she was in her teens, much of this energy had been channeled into drama and music. She is currently teaching voice and pursuing a doctorate in music at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She no longer has fits of jumping up and down (ok, not very often anyway), but regularly has fits of writing, especially since attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2006. Her previous publications include works in Hypersonic Tales and NewMyths.com and her written works for the stage have been performed by the Butler Ballet and the Indy Convergence. Not content to keep her writing and performing life in separate boxes, Ellen likes to hang out in the dark alleys where artistic genres and disciplines intersect. To help promote such border-crossing art, she recently joined the executive board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation. You may find her online at denham.virtualave.net.

***Editor's Note: An adult story with mature, adult themes***
When I see you for the first time, a shark-sized shadow slinking around the mad-hued corals below, I gasp through my snorkel. But curiosity gets the better of me, and I linger, floating above. Your arm emerges first. A man swimming so deep without a tank? The instinct of rescue thrusts me into a dive. Then I see your segmented tail, mottled gray. And only then, your beautiful face, upturned, startled--almost human except for the flexible antennae extending from your jaw. I push back to the surface, a creature of land and air--unlike you--needing a breath to make sense of what you are. You rotate to face me, your torso well-muscled and pale as marble, like a Greek statue. Watching me, you coil and uncoil the jointed carapace that forms your body from the waist down, allowing me glimpses of the tender flesh beneath. A gesture of trust, or of submission? Your gaze is calm, eyes wide with wonder as mine must be beneath my mask.
To show I mean no harm, I raise the hem of my rashguard top, revealing a belly not as firm as it once was, nearly as pale as your translucent skin. A smile softens your face as you float surfaceward. With a graceful arc of an arm like a dancer's, you motion for me to follow before swimming away, toward a cay on the horizon.
How can I not follow? Even as different as we two are, I can tell you are flirting. I long to catch you in my arms, cover your pale skin with kisses. But I am not as strong in the water. I finally catch up to you, reclining upon a sandbar, your dappled crustacean's tail draped beside you. Your eyes laugh though no sound escapes your parted lips.
I take your hand, my breathing shallow, my body aching to explore you in all of your uniqueness. You kiss me with fish-cold lips, undress and caress me with your hands until I am overtaken with a longing you cannot fulfill. You try, but our bodies are not made for each other.
Your hand slashes like a knife across your midsection, as if you wish the tail cut from you.
"No," I whisper, though I doubt you can understand me. "You are beautiful the way you are." When I stroke your antennae, you shudder with delight.
I almost don't recognize you lurching toward me across the sand on awkward man-legs, blood crusted over the stumps on your chin where your antennae once were. "How did this happen?"
You shake your head and weep salt tears onto my shoulder.
I enfold you in a towel to stop your shivering and guide you to the warmth of my cottage.
When we make love for the first time as man and woman, and I am unable to release your seed with any part of my body, I weep too. I had half-hoped you might be able to plant a child inside me, though I am getting old for such things. But I also wanted to give you pleasure. You shake your head as if you don't mind, but you've never had a man's body before and may not understand what you're missing.
For the rest of the summer, you share my bed, a mute, not-quite-human creature. I care for you as best as I am able. Your ungainly new legs make you stumble like a drunk, crashing into furniture and doorframes. You slurp your soup straight out of the bowl and cram fish into your mouth with both hands, despite all my demonstrations with spoon and fork. At night your cold body shakes with inexplicable sobs. No matter how tightly I hold you, your skin never warms. I cannot fathom the thoughts that pass behind those sea-gray eyes. Before summer ends, I tire of your fish-cold lips, your alienness, my inability to make up for what you've sacrificed. "Go," I say, and when you don't understand, I thrust both arms outward, away, back to the sea.
You turn from me with a drooping brow that nearly makes me run after you, catch your hand, tell you I didn't mean it, come back. But our season is over, and I can no longer pretend.
I never imagined you could no longer swim. When your swollen body washes up on shore, I close your eyes and weep ocean into ocean, asking questions you could never have answered.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Author Comments

I'm fascinated by the idea of the Other. This story started with an image of a crustacean-human hybrid creature, but it wasn't long before I knew it was essentially a retelling of "The Little Mermaid." As a multidisciplinary artist, I like to explore an idea in more than one medium. I adapted the story into a short opera with improvised music which I directed at the Indy Convergence, an interdisciplinary collaborative workshop for performing artists, in 2011. Though the two works are by necessity quite different, what I learned from this experience helped me strengthen the prose version of the story.

- Ellen Denham
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