“Would you rather
be stuck on a desert island with a mermaid
who was top half fish or bottom half fish?”
The game unfurls like a wave
as another game breaks down: cards shuffled, and the loser
heading to the fridge for more beers. Everyone has questions.
Why is the mermaid trapped? Can’t she swim? Can she swim us to shore?
If we run out of food could she help us catch fish?
How did we end up on this island? Are we really stuck here forever?
The guy who asked, the one you came with, rolls his eyes. ”You’re trapped,
okay? Both of you. And no one is leaving.” A girl replies,
“Bottom half fish. I’d need someone to talk to.”
“Top half fish,” another counters. “I’d rather not have to talk
to someone I’m trapped with.” The guy with the cards shakes his head, says,
“None of you are drunk enough to play this right.”
The guy you came with, whose hand was on your thigh the whole time
you were playing cards, whose mouth tastes like Dr. Pepper
and scotch, says, “Top half fish. Obviously.”
The other guys grin knowingly, their faces the chortling masks of a chorus
whose only purpose is to point out what everyone is thinking
to the ones who don’t yet know:
“Catch and release!” one calls, and another responds with,
“Two holes is better than one.” “How long can a fish last out of water?
Ten minutes?” “Long enough.”
They’re all laughing, every single person is laughing
as you fight to breathe, as a hand shoves your thighs open, as another
smashes your iridescent face into a pillow of sand
so they don’t have to see your lidless eyes rolling, your gills rippling,
or hear the sound of your cries like wet scales smacking
the deck of a ship as hips
slap the back of your thighs. The guy who went to fetch beers
returns to the table, saying, “Fish on top can’t say no,”
as he passes cans around,
slides one across to you with a wink. Your mouth,
smeared pink with lipstick like the inside of a shell, hangs open
in the astonishment of an old instinct,
one that makes you boneless during an attack,
and will keep you alive till he rolls you back into the surf,
till you can gag the oxygen from your lungs and gulp in the sea
as he softly kicks your legs, nudging you in. “Catch you later,”
he says over the surf, just like he did on the phone
when he invited you to a party,
his voice confident, expectant—
“Catch you later.”
Erinn Batykefer collects bones in jars. She earned her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of Allegheny, Monongahela (Red Hen Press) and The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (Coffee House Press). She is co-founder and editor of The Library as Incubator Project and lives in Pittsburgh.