The night he brought the mermaid home was the night Cecil could not sleep. He had told her that she should not be waiting up for him every night; that he had no other place to come home from but work. And she did as she was told; she had stopped waiting for him. She would just drop off to sleep in her own bedroom—they agreed to sleep in separate bedrooms a long time ago, a week after their wedding day—and would wake up early the next day to prepare him his breakfast.
But on that particular night, she could not shrug off unease. It came falling with the faint moonlight through the window, crawling up the shadowy walls, and hanging suspended from the ceiling, at which she was gazing, lying on her back. For years in their marriage, she had been an obedient wife, doing what her husband bid her to do. But she could not help defying him that night; no matter how she tossed and turned, read a few chapters from a book, she merely could not sleep. She lay awake in bed with the lights off, until she heard the low hum of his car engine from the garage and the squeaks of the cast-iron gate swung closed. From downstairs, there was a shuffling, then light footfalls ascending the staircase. In the dim room, she wanted to get up to see what was going on, but held herself down, reminding herself that he would prefer her, under any other circumstances, to stay in bed, to lie motionless as though she were sleeping, oblivious to whatever sound he stirred upon coming home.
She heard him grunt from outside her door, as if he were carrying something heavy. Then a doorknob clanked. A door was opened, its hinges creaking. Then it was slammed shut, booming through the walls and the bedroom door. Startled, she sat straight up in bed, and, looking around, in the silence that followed after her husband’s unusual ruckus, realized that he had entered his room. He had come home, noisily.
She remained sitting in bed, unable to dispel the feeling that something was strange. Listening to the squeak of the bathroom faucet and to the splash of water filling the tub, she knew something was wrong. Thus, sitting in bed, her knees drawn up to her chest, restraining herself from getting up, from inquiring after her husband, she waited. The crescent moon looming outside the window waited with her until it grew tired and gave way to the approaching sunlight of the early dawn. She did not have to fight off sleep; sense of foreboding kept her up all night. She resolved to wait for him to wake up.
Ademil, however, had not wakened up till 9 a.m. The breakfast she prepared had already turned cold while she sat at the table, on which she drummed her fingers. Though her body felt heavy (sitting down was agonizing enough), her mind was fully alert. When he came downstairs and kissed her on the cheek, greeting her, “Good morning,” she asked the question: “Why were you noisy last night?” But she threw the question softly, her tone devoid of accusations.
He looked up at her from his plate but did not answer. He stared at her, then, instead of answering, went on to eat his breakfast.
“That’s turned cold already,” she said. “Let me fix another for you.”
“No need,” he said, as she was about to get up. “This one’s fine.” So she sat back down. Everything was quiet save for the chink of his spoon and fork on the plate, the steady hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the wall clock, and the whirring of the ceiling fan, whose blades were slicing the air thick with heat.
“Why were you noisy last night?” she repeated, to which Ademil finally reacted, dropping the spoon and fork on the plate, creating a sharp clang, and replied: “You are not to enter my room in any way for whatever reason. Do you hear me?”
Taken aback, she couldn’t answer him; neither could she throw another question. They sat staring at each other. Her face expressed terror of him; his was of annoyance over something she couldn’t put a finger on. And in the seemingly eternal silence, he said, “Do you understand what I just said?”
“I never go in to your room unless you tell me so.”
Her answer momentarily disconcerted him. “Just stay away from my room.”
“Can I ask why?”
“I’m keeping a mermaid in there. I’m taking care of her. And you, Cecil, should stay away from her. You should keep to yourself. Are you happy now?”
“For how long are you keeping her?” was all she was able to ask. Her voice quavered, her tone pleading. Then she realized the absurdity of the question. In the span of silence that stretched between them, she realized she had to take it back and ask what was expected. “A mermaid?”
“Yes, a mermaid.”
She paused. “Where did it come from?”
“That’s no longer your business.”
“But it is, because it’s here in our house; it’s here with us. Have I told you—” and she stopped herself from finishing the sentence, lest he rant again about her mother’s supposed lack of grip on reality.
“Have you told me what?” And when she did not respond, he asked again, louder, “Have you told me what?” punctuating it with the pounding of his fist against the table.
“Do you remember what my mother said about mermaids?” She kept her eyes cast toward his plate as she asked this.
He sighed. “That and the rest of the crap your mother said are unfounded. They are based solely on emotions and pure trick of the imagination. Not even a speck of what she said resembles the truth.” At that point, she got confused, not understanding the truth he was referring to. But instead of asking about it, she asked, “Don’t you have work today? It’s already late.”
“No, I don’t.”
She nodded and went to the kitchen, keeping her steps light, lest he perceive the tapping of her slippers on the floor as stomping. Standing by the sink, facing out the window, she wept, secretly. He must not see her cry. He had forbidden her to cry, saying that it’s her way of unmanning him. Thus, if it became intolerable, she had to cry secretly. And she did just that by the open window. The next-door neighbors, she was sure, would not spy on her and tell about it. It’s the privilege they had for living in a posh subdivision: Everyone’s minding his own business; and it’s the privilege upon which she was bestowed by her husband, who kept reminding her about it.
She wept there for a seemingly long time until she heard him go back up the stairs and lock the door to his room.
He did not come down the whole day. His lunch, which she prepared, went to waste. But she could not go up and knock at his door to call him for lunch. He had made it clear that he would either be asleep or working behind that closed door. It’s one of his restrictions in their marriage, like the sleeping in separate bedrooms. And she consented—as if she had a choice—to these whims, and tried to understand him, considering the demands of his work (so that they get to keep their lifestyle, he reminded her). He held a job position that granted them their house in Ladislawa Village, that maintained his SUV, that gave them enough to save up for their child that never came.
By dinner, though, she couldn’t help but try to ask him to eat. Surely he must be hungry by now, she thought. She hesitated at first. As she stood before his closed door, which looked colossal and appeared to be of wrought iron, she decided to risk it; she had to do it. “After all,” she repeated to herself, “he must be hungry by now.” She gently knocked on the door, twice, listened, heard nothing, knocked twice again. Still, there came no reply.
She pressed her ears against the door and heard nothing but the beating of her own heart. There was pure silence from the other end. A few moments later, there was the sound of water filling the tub, splattering on the porcelain, then becoming a gurgling as it continued to fill.
Closing her eyes, she imagined him standing naked before the tub, in which the mermaid was submerged, its arms rested on either side of the rim. It would look up at him and seduce him with a sweet smile, showing its perfect set of white teeth, its lips bright red and alluring. It would then pucker its lips in an invitation to a kiss. Its long, black hair would stream down behind its head toward the pool of water; the ends of its hair would fan out on the clear surface like water lilies. She imagined him getting into the tub, facing it, their faces close to each other, breathing on each other. They would kiss with the passion with which she wasn’t granted for a long time now. As he kissed it, he would smell the fragrance of flowers instead of the stench of fish, and he would taste sweet nectar instead of brine.
Her vivid imagining was enough for her to wobble into her own room, fumble for the light switch, and collapse onto her wide bed. She was crying when she made her way to the room; tears that were coursing down her cheeks tasted of salt. She was crying when sleep—out of exhaustion—took over her.
Due to the exhaustion from having had no sleep the night before, she woke up late the next day. The sun was already ablaze out the window; the curtains of which she had forgotten to draw shut. The room was a furnace, and she was covered in sweat. The sheets and pillows were damp.
She got up from bed with a terrible headache, as if her heart had been transplanted into her head and there it settled into pounding with fierce rapidity. She tottered to the bathroom, and, sitting on the toilet, realized the house was too quiet. She went downstairs, looked for Ademil in the kitchen, in the living room, to no avail. She climbed back up the stairs, her bare feet light on each step, her hand tracing the banister. Upon reaching the landing, the whitewashed door to his room loomed before her again. She noticed for the first time its intricate designs. The carvings inside the three squares, which were stacked up on one another, were of loops and swirls. She almost tried turning the gilt knob, but she withdrew her hand right away. It was remembering Ademil’s order that kept her standing still. For a moment, she was gripped by the desire to pound on the door, yell out his name, accuse him of purposively abandoning her over a sea creature, whose nature, as what her mother told her, was that of destructive entrancement, that its capture would bring forth a supernatural wrath from which humans were incapable of escaping.
Instead of opening the door without his consent, she took the courtesy of knocking on it, and, after getting no response, began rapping on it. From inside, she heard that splash of water. She knew he would storm out and demand her for an explanation. She brazened herself for that moment, thinking of excuses that would placate him, as what was her wont in their marriage. But he neither went to the door nor shouted from the other end. There was nothing.
She went downstairs and looked out in the garage. The car was not there; she was alone with the mermaid. Realizing thus, she knew she had to consult her mother, who would know what to do. She picked up the receiver, dialed her number, and waited, running her jittery fingers through her hair. Something had to be done before Ademil returned. Time was against her.
It was because her mother had warned her against mermaids. They were creatures, she said, that would at first enthrall their victims then destroy them afterwards. But the destruction was always self-inflicted, spurred, nonetheless, by their mere presence. There was one man, her mother told her, who, back in their hometown in Leyte, returned one day from the sea and had caught one of them in his fishnet. As he dragged the boat onto the shore, while the mermaid struggled in the enmeshed nylons, people started to gather around and watched the creature thrash about before their very eyes. Her mother was 9 years old then. In the spectacle, the general expression was of awe instead of horror, because they could not look away from such a beautiful being, whose scales radiated even though the sun had not fully risen yet and there was only that orange fire spread across the horizon.
“Raul, you are such a lucky man,” one of the fisherfolks said. “You are now a rich man.”
“What do you mean rich?” Raul snapped. “I’m not going to sell her.” It was a reaction they did not expect from him, knowing how hard-up his family was. Among the fishermen in the village, he was the only one who had to rent a boat.
“Then what are your plans with it?” a woman asked.
“Her,” he corrected. “I’m going to keep her.”
And everybody turned to the creature that had calmed down and was also looking back with pleading eyes. At that moment, the villagers were simply beguiled and let the matter go at that.
As expected, Raul’s wife did not complain. The children, to their dismay, were forbidden to come near it. But it wasn’t until two days later when tragedy struck. Just when the spectacular presence of the mermaid was about to wane, the whole fishing village woke up in the middle of the night to a screaming from Raul’s hut. Raul had gone mad and was trying to butcher his entire family with a bolo.
“Tabang!” his wife shrieked from the hut. “Tabangi kami niyo!” The villagers, in half-awake, half-dream state, hurried toward the hut. The men were wielding their own bolo; their only light was from the full moon, which the sea reflected in a glitter of fluid silver. Not long after, the screaming had ceased and the noise left was that of the men who were rapping on the door and calling sense to Raul. One of them decided to kick the door open. And as it flung inward, dangling askew from its top hinge, the men charged forth.
In the hullaballoo, Cecil’s mother, Piling, had crept from the house and found the mermaid crawling toward the silvery sea. It was working both its arms, dragging along its tailfin. It left behind a trail in the sands, on which some sloughed off scales glistened. Its hair was streaming black and shone in the moonlight. The waves ahead were lapping at the shore as if in welcoming.
“It’s getting away!” Piling had yelled, pointing to the sea. She ran toward the group of villagers who had gathered outside Raul’s hut. “Come quick! It’s getting away.”
“Piling! What are you doing here?”
“The mermaid is getting away!” she repeated. They all turned to where she was pointing and saw the empty stretch of the beach. The waves had already claimed the mermaid. All they saw were the upended boats and the fishnets that were hung flapping ghostly white in the wind.
A man came panting at the doorway of the hut, and said: “Raul’s dead. His whole family is.”
Because of that incident, they could not help but associate the murder with the mermaid, for it was known to them that Raul had been of kind temperament. He was the one who kept to himself and was never heard yelling at his wife or children. Rumor had it that the mermaid drove him mad, that he spent his entire day tending to the creature to a point of neglecting his family. They speculated that his wife asked him to dispose of it, to which he retaliated with murder.
It was the same story Cecil recounted to Ademil when they were still engaged. Even then, he did not indulge in the topic, neither did he ask about it again. She knew, even then, that he detested it, that he found it absurd, just as how he detested everything her mother had told her. He would reiterate that these stories were nothing but flights of fancy, that such stories were the reason her family never attained financial progress. Folktales, according to him, were signs of stupidity. She never brought up the topic again, or any topic with similar nature for that matter.
And when he brought home a mermaid and kept it in his room without even a trace of disbelief, she knew he had been beguiled by something inhuman; it was up to her to save him.
“Hello?” her mother finally picked up on the other line.
“Ma, it’s me.”
“Ma, I need your help.” She paused, wondering how and where to start.
“What is it? Is everything OK?”
“I’m afraid not.” She broke into a sob. Then everything came spilling out. “Ademil’s got a mermaid in his room. I tried to dissuade him from keeping it, but he simply refused.”
“Oh my Lord,” her mother groaned. “Did you inform him of the consequence?”
“I did, but he wouldn’t listen. Ma, help me.”
“Cecil, what can I do? I know of no other way but to rid of it. Where’s Ademil? Let me talk to him.”
“He’s not here.”
“And the mermaid?”
“It’s upstairs, locked up in his room.”
She had not been telling her mother about their situation, lest she worry or ask her to leave him.
“Ma, help me!”
“Stay where you are. I’ll go there now.”
Before she could respond, the line already went dead. After that faint click, there was this silence, like a void swallowing her up. She felt as though she were left to her own devices. She replaced the handset on the cradle, sat slumped on the sofa, looking at the clock on the opposite wall. Its too-slow ticking seemed to reverberate across the room.
She had nothing else to do but wait for her mother. But then again, time was against her. However clearly her mother said to stay put until she arrived, she could not dispel fear of her husband having a headstart. He was probably driving back home at that very moment. She turned to the wooden chest placed in one corner. On it was their wedding photo in a gilt frame. Both of them were smiling and looked genuinely happy. The photograph reminded her of those moments when she was happy, moments lived only in the early stage of their marriage, moments she held on to and tried to regain over and over by acquiescing to his every whim. She, however, knew that something had to be done, that defying him—even for once—would do him good.
So, in her resolve to save the marriage, she decided to kill the mermaid. She ran to the kitchen, pulled out a knife from one of the drawers, and felt the haft in her hand. It gave her a sense of power and urgency that she started toward the stairs with quick steps. The blade glinted now and then, catching the sunlight streaming through the windows.
She turned the knob and swung the door open.
His room was in disarray. The bed sheets were rumpled and were partly hanging over the bed. The closet was open and empty; his clothes were strewn about on the floor. The drawers were pulled halfway out from the bureau. The room looked as if it were ransacked.
She walked toward the bathroom, raising the knife; its glinting flickered because of the trembling of her hand. She opened the door and the putrefaction that greeted her was so sudden that she cringed. The bathroom had been the way she last saw it: was of white tiles, looking pristine. What was missing was the fresh pine scent it once had. Instead, there was that stench of rotting fish that dug in her nose.
And the mermaid was there, immersed in a tub-full of clear water. It had its arms rested on the porcelain rim. It had half of itself propped up, its head and torso above the surface. Its tailfin seemed to writhe in the water, which rippled with its every movement. The scales, contrary to what she had imagined, were filmy gray instead of iridescent gold. What she had seen was not a majestic presence but a matter of repugnance. The upper body, which she thought was a smooth skin of a nymph, was covered with gray scales. The drooping breasts looked like two sagging balls of metallic armor. The eyes that looked back at her were perfectly round, and they had no lids, no eyebrows. Its gray lips were parted and jutted out in a pucker. And the mermaid was bald; its tiny flippers flapped on either side of its head, showing red gills underneath.
Cecil and the mermaid were gazing at each other; the former was staring, the latter glaring.
“So it’s you,” Cecil said, rather too calmly. The creature merely stared back at her. She then heard the faint hum of Ademil’s vehicle pulling over in the garage. Panic gripped her. The walls seemed to slacken; her legs felt like they liquefied under her weight.
She raised the knife higher and lunged at the mermaid that raised its own arms in defense. It screamed (or at least Cecil thought it did, for the sound was that of a gurgling stream). The creature caught her wrist; its skin—stiff and crusty—grazed against hers. Water splashed onto the tiled floor. She wrenched herself free, stood back a few paces, panting and preparing for another attack.
The mermaid steadied itself on the rim, keeping its eyes locked at hers. From its throat ensued a steady gurgling sound.
Cecil then struck, jabbed the tip of the knife into its head, and slashed its right eye in half and its right cheek. Blood spurted and began to pour from the wound as the creature slipped into the water, thrashing about.
“Cecil?” Ademil said, standing at the doorway.
She stiffened at where she stood, her head swimming.
Ademil ran in to the bathroom and climbed over the tub, cooing to the mermaid, wrapping his arms around it, consoling it. Holding its head, compressing the gash, it calmed down, and with its calming quelled the turbulent water. “It’s OK. I’m here,” Ademil said, kissing the unwounded side of its head.
Cecil already knew her loss from what she saw. The loss was something irreplaceable. She stood there, frozen, watching them, the knife still in her hand, dripping blood onto the floor.
The doorbell then chimed and snapped her out of dejection.
“Mama,” she said, and hurried toward the stairs. But on the top landing, she missed one step, and imbalance hurled her forward. At that brief moment, she saw the walls tilt before she tumbled on another step and her body came rolling down the stairs. Thuds rained on the wooden steps; a baluster tore off from its bottom edge and hung dislocated from the banister. And midway in the flight—as she helplessly tumbled down, long way before she reached the bottom landing—the knife (which she tightly held, which she miraculously and bafflingly had never let go during the fall) upon the impact of her hand on another step, was thrust straight into her heart.