5 of 5 stars.
This tragic tale is very short and exquisitely beautiful in the most heart-breaking way. However, the beauty and the tragedy revealed themselves subtly and late in the story. Like, Carrie Vaughn’s “Fishwife” that’s also included in the same anthology, and the short stories included in Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, this tale centers around a sea-creature of folklore and mythos. Usually, these stories have themes related to dysmorphia, feeling otherness in one’s body, or gender dysphoria, feeling detached from one’s gender.
The titular character has recently lost her grandfather who raised her on the New England coast after her mother left and never returned. Her truest friend, and secret love–albeit unrequited, is Michael whom she calls her gentleman caller, and he plays the part by bringing her flowers and cooking meals for her weekly. Alas, Michael is gay.
Elizabeth has a deeper, darker secret that Michael knows about–but they don’t talk about it. But he helps her with it, when the pain is too much. He will gently sponge her down with salty water to ease the discomfort as her body morphs into that of a sea-creature . . .
Admittedly, at first, I mistook the physical transformations in Elizabeth as symbolic of the gender dysphoric relationship between two people whose sexualities do not align–not that everything needs to be symbolic in literature . . . But Elizabeth’s pain outweighed my early thoughts:
Now he’s running the sponge down her back, beginning at the nape of her neck and ending at the cleft between her buttocks. This time, the pain is bad enough she wants to double over, wants to go down on her knees and vomit. But that would be weak, and she won’t be weak. Michael used to bring her pills to dull the pain, but she stopped taking them almost a year ago because she didn’t like the fogginess they brought, the way they caused her to feel detached from herself, as though these transformations were happening to someone else.
I’ve seen this pain intimately a couple times in my life, and it’s name was cancer. And like Michael, I was on the sideline helpless and trying to help.
“Betsy, you don’t have to be so strong,” he tells her, and she hates the pity in his voice. “I know you think you do, but you don’t. Certainly not in front of me.” She takes the yellow sponge from him, her hands shaking so badly she spills most of the saltwater remaining in the bowl, but still manages to get the sponge sopping wet . . .
This tale is highly recommended. I had previously encountered Caitlin R. Kiernan’s excellent “The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean”. “The Transition of Elizabeth Haskings” appears in New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird edited by Paula Guran after originally appearing in Sirenia Digest #74, January 2012.
[Check out my other reviews here.]