Morning came pale and smooth as the underside of a shell, alighting on the bloated disfigurement of what had washed up on the shore.
Male or female, it wasn't clear. Whatever had been on its head was inked black in the wet, hung fan-like entangled with clots of seaweed. Swollen, purple lips puffed out, while dark, bruised sockets had sunken in.
The carcass rested on the shore belly up, and laid there quite peacefully in the rippling tide, foam fuzzing around it, until an old fisherman came to poke at it with his fraying sandals.
"Not a fish," he remarked in interest, squinting down with half-blind eyes."Not a sharky either."
He'd seen a scant few in his lifetime wash up dead, jaw gaping and skin an ashen rubber. None of them grew too big. None of them grew hair either, far as he knew. If it was a shark, the dead carcass must have been tangled in some strange seaweed.
If it wasn't--the old fisherman, they called him Mr. Skeeter, crouched lower just in that case. He covered his nose with the crook of his elbow and pulled a bit on the black, clumped material coming out of its head. It tugged loose in a matter of seconds, so he took his time sifting through the strands with his fingers.
And hardly believed it. A great watery eye, his left one, beheld the locks in amazement, for even blurred with cataracts and age its vision could not deny the truth.
This here was human hair.
It was then he made out arms, awkward things that bent under the carcass but looked distinctly dissimilar to fins. The old man felt his heart nearly give out when he inspected the legs. Or lack thereof.
“This here’s a she-fish!” he shouted into the misty sea-breath, his croaking voice quickly swallowed by the ocean’s roar. But Mr. Skeeter paid that little heed.
The first person he told was his daughter--Sara, who’d just come back carrying the washing with dry, red hands and a pinched expression. “Sara, love, a she-fish!” He sang gleefully to her as he entered the weather-worn shack, smiling so wide his three teeth were there for the world to see.
Sara frowned. “That’s nice, Papa. I can start supper then?”
“A she-fish, Sara! Long locks of black hair, skin as white as the moon. Dead on the shore, she was. I’ve gotta bury her before the vultures get her.”
“Papa, I’ve gotta start supper. Did ya catch anything ‘sides a mermaid?” She put her red, cracked hands on hip bones that stuck out from her thin dress, tapping a foot impatiently. Mr. Skeeter shrunk back, moved as far away as the tiny room would let him till his back hit the square of glass window.
He was always like that, he found, someone catching him wrong. The bait-man Portley wouldn’t sell him bait any longer, not after Mr. Skeeter stole two buckets on accident. Sara had to go to the general store for anything, ever since he touched the ribbons in little Miss Betsy’s hair and her papa gave him a whooping.
“You’ve been out all day, Papa. Surely ya caught some-at for us to eat.”
He mumbled something, looking down as he moved bony fingers like a mute man begging. They were skeletal appendages, almost made clicking sounds as he knocked them against one another.
“What you been doing the whole damn day,” she said, staring at him like he was another pair of stained knickers for her to clean.
Sara hated him too, Mr. Skeeter knew. She got extra hateful when they were alone, and that young constable James was off on duty. Sara had been after his proposal for three years.
“Didn’t catch her,” he repeated himself a little louder, and his face lit up again. Remembering. “She was waitin for me, dead as a doorknob, but she was waitin there. Like a sign, Sara. A sign.”
“Show me,” she said briskly, and so he did right then. He took out the hair he’d stashed in a pocket, laid it on their weathered table with a gentle, petting hand.
“That’s a woman’s hair,” Sara said, frowning even harder. Little white chunks hung along the roots still, and her red fingers shook ever-so-slightly at the dawning realization. “Papa . . . Papa, who’d ya get that from?”
“She was dead, washed up on shore,” he said brightly, stroking the hair as he spoke. He didn’t see when Sara’s frown twisted into something frightened, or when it began to sour into something feral.
When James returned he’d always say Some Day. She’d offer him her smiles, her lips and her womanhood. He smiled, and left again. Some Day when your father’s gone
“Ya gotta see it, Sara, I tell ya--”
Sara slapped a hand on the table, lips pinched into a thin line. “Why ain’t you dead yet?” she asked him, eyes bright with rage, and in a flurry of silence she was gone from the house.
Mr. Skeeter sighed, and went to find that rusty shovel buried in their old garden.
When he returned, the she-fish lay unchanged, a sleepy shade of blue cast over the beach and almost fooling him into believing it a shark again. But as he came closer that shock of black hair still fanned around its puffy face. The arms still looked like arms.
“Cecily,” he sighed out loud, crouching next to the carcass reverently. “What I’ll call ya, yeah? I come to put you to rest, darlin.” He brushed a hand through the black locks still attached to the skull, wet still from the tide.
It was time. He speared the sand a little ways off the carcass, piercing straight into the grainy, stony matter of the beach. Six feet was a proper grave, but Mr. Skeeter was an old man. He wheezed after an hour at the task, throat constricting tight as a straw as he leaned on his shovel. The beach sand glistened now, white and pearly.
He should have made Sara come with him, Mr. Skeeter realized as he beheld through his blurry eyes the dead body now level with his head. Then she’d see for herself. Cecily, lying there under the heavens, one of God’s greatest creations. His lungs still couldn’t barely draw air, but the old man took it for the breathless sight in front of him, the night hush of the waves lulling his light-headed brain.
Then the old man dug on, shovel by shovel that eventually he couldn’t hoist out of the grave without the moist, sand-mud falling back down on him again.
Perhaps he’d dug too far. His old eyes couldn’t measure it very well. Cecily was high above him at ground-level, though, so high Mr. Skeeter wasn’t sure how to get out of the grave. He tried climbing, but didn’t make more than inch off the bottom of the grave before stumbling onto his bottom.
The old man found he didn’t feel too much like shouting and destroying such a peaceful night. His heart felt so, so tired.
Sara would come looking anyway. Sara would fetch a ladder from the town to help him out, the old man reasoned, his weary bones ready to crumble against each other. He leaned his back against the grave wall, sighing and touching the locks of hair he’d stuffed back in his pocket. The old man hummed a tune about ol’Davy and his love, the sound snuffed up before it could even blow into the air above ground, long gone before the melody trailed off.
Sara had come looking. She brought the constable, her James, and Portley and Miss Betsy’s papa from the general store an hour later. The latter had his shot gun cocked and ready, leading the way as they scoured the beach for Mr. Skeeter and his victim.
The great mound of sand soon drew attention, a mountain of dirt growing steadily darker near the top. And a human-sized carcass lied at the base of it. Sara went ahead of the others in nervous anticipation, her squeezing stomach flipping dramatically when she got closer.
But it was not Mr. Skeeter. No, it was . . . something. Else.
“Found your father,” James reported stoically, and Sara whipped her head from the she-fish to where the three men stood, just behind the sand mound.
“Tired himself out, looks like,” Portley said doubtfully, peering down closer than the others. For at the very bottom of the deep hole sat Mr. Skeeter himself. “Mr. Skeeter!” he shouted down into it. The old man did not raise his head to answer.
“Sshhhh!” Sara said automatically, and her stomach twisted in another nasty flip. She wrung her red, chapped hands. “Don’t . . . don’t try to wake the dead.”
“The dead?” James asked, frowning.
“He died digging a grave,” Miss Betsy’s papa chuckled rather sourly, uncocking his gun with ease. “Looks like there’s no work to be done after all. Even if he did kill’er, he’s dead himself, ain’t he? Nothing more to do, I say. God serves true justice.”
“Was that a snore?” Portley interjected, and cocked his head towards the grave.
Sara shrieked a laugh. It sounded more like a scream, coming from her stiff lips. “A snore? That was the sea rumblin’, nothing more Portley,” she said resolutely after composing herself, and then gestured towards the piled sand. “Shoon’t we put them both to rest now?”
The men went back for shovels and the preacher, though they came back only with shovels. The preacher couldn’t be bothered with blessing the grave of a suspected murderer at such an indecent hour, they’d been told. So the carcass was unceremoniously dumped down the hole, landing on the old man’s splayed legs.
It made for a rather romantic sight, the she-fish laid out on Mr. Skeeter’s lap like a lover. James whistled a cheerful tune as he and Portley dumped the dirty sand back into the hole, filling it slowly inch by inch. Vultures cried out above them in sorrow, and the tide was licking at their heels as morning began once again to bleed onto the shore. This one was a hazy red smear, smudging the horizon in a careless streak. Sara and Miss Betsy’s papa crossed their arms as the other two worked, watching it done.