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Seeräuber by Maria Dahvana Headley

“There are some who are in darkness

And the others are in light

And you see the ones in brightness

Those in darkness drop from sight.”

-Bertolt Brecht

The owner of the hotel bought the Jenny from a sailor, who swore he’d found her in the water. Here she was then, a creature unlike anything the hotelier had seen before, her face pinched and wide-eyed, her mouth a thorny little pronged slash. She had wings and a whip-like tail. She was naked, and her fingers were very long and very thin and very brown. On top of her head was an incongruous plume of flowing blonde hair rather like a horse’s tail. It was tied up with a piece of worse-for-the-wear pink ribbon. 

The Jenny was bottled. The Jenny was dead. 

“But not long dead,” the sailor swore. “Live when I got hold of her. We hauled her up on a line a week ago, and she sang us a song.” He was improvising, his voice the deepening voice of a taleteller. 

“A song such as they say the sirens sing, a dark and terrible thing that made all of us on the ship fill our ears with wax and still we heard it.”

The hotelier leaned closer, seduced by strangeness.

“She sang until she rolled her eyes and died,” the sailor concluded.  Now she was for sale. 

In any port, of late, you might find sailors selling some Jenny Haniver (this was what they were called, by universal decree, and the sailor, no, could not say why) or another for spare nothings, or sometimes for gold, depending on the beauty and craftsmanship of the Jenny. Some of them were large and some were palm-sized, some were jarred and some were dry as hardtack, but all of them were dead. This Jenny was roughly the size of a ship’s cat, which made for relative ease in handling. The sailor had seen a shark-sized Jenny, and that one, oh, had he acquired such a thing, that would’ve been much worse. They were marketed under various names. Monster or a mermaid, or a tiny dragon or angel, perhaps. An angel. That was the way to sell this. The hotelier looked as though he had a passing familiarity with religion, and thank the gods, no notion of what it was the sailor sold him.

“Some aboard my ship thought the Jenny fell from heaven and into the ocean, seared by the sun on her way down. She would’ve been alabaster and gold before, if you can imagine it.” 

The sailor said this all in a half-whisper, leaning in toward his customer, who seemed hesitant, who indeed seemed as though he wasn’t in the market to buy anything at all, despite his wavering purse, out in his hand. A heavy purse. And a well-wrought gold chain on his pocketwatch. 

“An angel, true, that’s what they said. See her pretty wings.”

The wings were not pretty. And would not that descent, from sky to sea, make her into a devil? Good angels didn’t fall out of heaven. The sailor did not mention these unpleasantries. Land felt uncertain beneath him, and if land did not care for him, he did not care for it. He wanted most desperately to be rid of this ghastly, ghostly curiosity. He was due back at his ship, and there would be no market for such a thing there. 

It was the morning after a bad evening, a fistfight, a pummeling and then blackness. He’d meant to have spent the previous night in a small hotel, spent his purse on a pretty enough girl, spent himself on her skin. Other sailors had slept in softness, but not he. Waking today in an alley, his face oh, very near a rotunda of dog shit, his breeches wet with unknown thisandsuch, he’d discovered his arms wrapped around this Jenny, his cheek against the chill glass of her jar, his eye horribly close to hers. 

What had he given in trade for her? He did not recall, oh, but then he did. He’d arrived in the tavern with a tiny and perfect painting of his bride-to-be, her big brown eyes and a lock of her auburn hair, placed tightly in a locket and protected behind thin glass, and he’d left with this Jenny in a jar. 

At last, the price was agreed, and the gentleman before him, ruddy face, neatly clipped white beard, slightly crushed tophat, vest embroidered with wall-eyed stags, nodded. The sailor pushed the Jenny into his arms and wheeled away, whistling, jingling, going, going…

Gone. He turned the corner and ran, not knowing why he did. The more distance put between himself and the jar, the better. 

The hotelier examined his purchase, pleased with himself. He was not, however, certain that this was what he’d meant to do. He’d left his old hotel on an errand for his wife, and now he was here, the new owner of a mermaid, a dragon, a monster, an angel, a Jenny, a Haniver. This thing, his new possession, didn’t look like any Jenny he’d ever known. She had no sparkling hazel eyes, no shining hair, no flirtatious smile. This thing looked significantly less than a Jenny, and yet, somehow much more than a fish. She was a thing, and not even quite a thing. The hotelier felt queasy. He took her, nonetheless, in her large and heavy liquid-full jar, and hauled her down the street in his rolling cart. 

A little white terrier belonging to the hotel trotted alongside, and barked at the Jenny.  He looked through the glass at her, his dog eyeball looking directly into her Jenny eyeball, and judged what he found there. Nothing good, the dog knew, and had known since he first saw her. Nothing the least bit good. He barked at the top of his voice, but his master only clucked at him and made his way toward home, back along the cobbles and through the alleys, all the places already marked by the dog that very morning. They’d been meant to go to the market. The dog could smell the spices they’d forgotten to buy. He tried to tug at his master’s trousers, but the master walked on, dragging the wagon behind him. 

Inside the bottle, the Jenny hissed, mouth experimentally open, then filled with alcohol. Instantly drunken, she rolled in her prison, shifting slowly like a fetus in a womb, but the hotelier did not notice. He trundled her along, over cobbles, the wagon padded with straw. In the bottle, the Jenny arched backward around herself, and clasped her own toes in her fingers. They were not exactly toes. They were pointed though, as though she was a dancer. She was not. She was a Jenny, and she came from the sea. 

The dog watched her, resigned to trouble. He could see it in her eye. He could see it in her tail, whipping about like something made of spring-loaded wire. All the dog wanted was a small bone, and perhaps a crumb from his master’s cruller. He did not wish to gnaw at any part of that Jenny, but he feared he’d have to. His master had bought a devil in a glass house, and glass was breakable. Eventually, that thing would be out, and the dog would be charged with keeping her from getting up the stairs. 

Into the hotel they went, the hotelier and his Jenny. He rolled the jar across the floorboards, until it came to a halt at his wife’s feet. She looked up from her needlework. 

“What is that?” she asked, her face grim as something carved and hung above a church door.

“I’ve bought a sort of an angel for the check-in desk,” he replied. 

“That doesn’t look like any sort of angel.”

“Who are we to say what an angel might look like?” he said, flustered. He did not know why he had bought the Jenny. He simply did not. 

Inside the jar, the Jenny stayed still, playing dead. She was, in fact, too drunk to move. She kept her mouth slightly open, the better to taste the fluid she hung in. It tasted of turpentine and tears and thumbprints, and a little of knives. It tasted nothing like the sea. The Jenny’s eyes were slit-pupiled and dirty orange. They could see in the dark. There was another set of eyes on the back of her head, hidden by the fall of blonde hair. The eyes in front could see, but they saw through glass, and everything they saw was shadowed. The Jenny’s wings ached to spread. 

The hotelier flipped the Jenny jar vertical, and, deaf to his wife’s protestations, heaved it up on top of the desk, between the registry and the cashbox. 

“An angel of protection,” muttered the hotelier, meeker now. The Jenny no longer looked like an angel to him, did not look the least bit protective, and he realized that he’d given that sailor his entire purse, when he’d meant to give him only a few coins. He’d managed somehow to buy a dried-up monkeything, when he’d been bound for the spice market and a few pinches of Ceylonese cinnamon. 

He looked at the Jenny for a moment. Her eyes and fists had been open, he was certain, but now they were closed. 

The hotelier’s wife struggled to her feet, sighing. This vest was embroidered with fish, and something had gone awry in their faces, some miscounting. All their jaws were wrong, packed with too many teeth, and now she would have to pluck her stitches out. No cinnamon. No cruller. No comfort, and didn’t she deserve comfort? She’d been at the laundry all morning, and making up the beds, and scrubbing something foul from off the floorboards, certainly not blood, given the generous coin the room’s occupant had left on the bed for her silence. 

She looked irritably at her husband, who’d grown too portly for the vest she’d made him, the one with the stags that had taken months to needlepoint. He’d popped a button, just as she’d known he would. A segment of white-shirted belly showed, there, like a deer’s arse between dark pines, and the sight of it filled her with the futility of embroidery. Nothing could cover the ugly things in the world. They would find a way to show. 

The hotelier’s wife gazed at the Jenny, and as she did, she discovered a floating urgency, a thought drifting out of the wet quiet at the back of her mind: yes, there it was. She wanted to stab her husband with her stork-handled sewing scissors, right in the fat of his jowls, just below his chin. 

The dog barked at her, and she came to her senses, slowly. No, of course not. The scissors were not sharp enough. She’d hack him with a kitchen knife instead. 

The hotelier’s wife looked into the jar where the Jenny floated, a sweet thing, just like a little baby. And what was a little baby doing in a jar? A baby should be dressed in white and lace and warm underthings, a baby should be booted in soft leather, those pointed toes, those slender fingers mitted, that little hungry mouth, a baby should be nursed–

Her hand reached for the lid, and the dog nipped her ankle, sharply, letting his teeth nearly penetrate her stocking. The hotelier’s wife looked down at him, kicked him in the ribs (oh, how the dog newly resented everything about this duty, this protecting, this stewarding, but it was his nature and he could not deny it) and then, bewildered, wandered up the stairs, her fingers working. The dog sat on his haunches, looking wearily at the Jenny, wishing that he could roll her out the door without breaking her jar. Into the street with her. Across the cobbles and into the harbor. Out, out, out. Dropped into the murk. 

The Jenny opened her orange eyes and regarded him evilly. 

The hotelier blew out the candles and ascended the stairs, and the Jenny hung in the dark of her unsea, alive. An egg was where she’d started. A leathern egg, dropped at the bottom of the sea, a mermaid’s purse. She’d come out of the purse, a thing more valuable than coins, and swum up toward the glory of the light, wings spread, gliding. The ocean her home, and in it, others like her, flying through the heavy deep, shadowing the sand below, rippling winged creatures. 

Newborn, not yet wary, she’d been hooked on a line, gasping in the air, breathing the rasp and raw of sky, and the next day carved up with a knife, pared away until this form was all that was left. Stretched and pinched and dried and plucked at, shown off on deck by her third mate maker as a particularly fine Jenny, a fancy Jenny, a Jenny carved with a semblance of petticoats and feathers. Her mouth intact, filed into a smile. Her tail tipped with poison. The sailor had tattooed her with his name, and there it was, on her left wing, an X surrounded with a star, a symbol that meant himself to him, and to the Jenny meant something else. She took it as her own name, a birthmark. The Jenny didn’t need all the flesh she’d come into the world with.  The Jenny had what she needed to survive.  But she, newly conscious, newly made into something other than what she’d been, dreamed of the sailor’s head floating, jaw agape, and eels eating his eyes.

At night, she lay beside him in his hammock, because he feared some other sailor would steal her and sell her. She rasped against his face, learning him, what little there was to learn. Hating him, what little there was to hate. The sailor had fallen, hadn’t he? He’d tripped, ankle-snared, in a coil of rope, and the Jenny was in his hand, still as a piece of wood. He’d fallen down the ladder and into the hold, and the Jenny was there too, her sting in his thumb, last thing seen by him, orange-eyes and crackling dried-up skin. Her maker was shrouded and buried at sea, rolled off the plank, his coins on his eyes and his soul into the locker, and the Jenny fell into the possession of the captain. 

When, a few days hence, the captain shot himself suddenly in his stateroom, looking out at a calm and blue sea, the Jenny was already folded flat into his possessions and hidden amongst his shirts for the battle that lost the ship. In the sinking, listening to the booming of the cannons, the Jenny delighted, waiting for the water to take her back. 

It was not to be.  She was snatched at the last moment by the ship’s cook, who brought her from the vessel and into a boat, thinking to use her as emergency provisioning. After a few days of drift, his tooth marks were on her tail, but the next day, his bloated body went overboard to be fed to sharks, and the boat he’d been in was sighted by another ship and rescued. The Jenny was found and examined. A fancy Jenny to bring some profit. The rescuing vessel was pleased. 

And so, in port, the Jenny was sold and jarred by a chemist, who shortly sipped some of his own poisons, lost his mind and spent the evening wandering from bar to bar, trying to give her to anyone who’d have her. The Jenny had no particular place in mind. She’d been taken from her home, and could not return to it. Things with legs could not swim in the deep. Things with legs could not fly. What she had been was nothing she was now. She was transformed into a hoax. And yet. The hoax had made her. 

The moon lit the Jenny through the hotel window, and she spun in her jar, lazy, intoxicated, mouth open, and from it came a high and wicked sound, like a chime ringing somewhere muffled.  The dog watched her, waiting for whatever horrible was coming.  There would be a horrible. Anything that looked like that was made to spill. 

The door rattled, a key in the lock twitching like a scorpion’s tail. The dog growled in a way he was not accustomed to. He was a welcomer. This would be a guest. And yet, his lip curled up. He felt his teeth naked and dry in the cool night air.  He felt himself piss on the floorboards, a circle of heat around a sudden frozen darkness. 

The door opened, and the guest entered. A woman, young, and dressed all in black, pinched waist on her dress, taffeta tight about her breasts and body, flared at the knees, veiled and hatpinned, and in the hat, flowers made of black silk, and a bird, stuffed and plumed, also black, though the bird had once been something golden. About her neck, there was a choker made of shark’s teeth, and they shone like pearls in the dark. She signed the hotel’s registry with the name Morita, a flowing and thorny hand, a watery hand, and on the floor at her feet, the dog swallowed, growling. 

The woman walked up to the jar, and placed her hands on it. She leaned in, to look closely at the Jenny, who shuddered in her bath. The sound she’d been making was done, her mouth clamped tightly shut. The Jenny’s wings flared out to the sides and beat briefly against the glass. 

“There you are,” the woman said, and licked her lips. To the dog’s ears, her voice was nearly unbearable. It was rough and vibrating at once, nothing like her appearance, which was pale and nearly, but not quite, pretty. The dog watched, greatly relieved, as the woman picked up the jar, and left the way she’d come, her hips swinging side to side like something ticking time. He gave a small yelp as the door shut behind the duo of awful things, and then he lay himself flat as a rug on the floor, and tried to recover from the ravenous urge he suddenly had to bite his own paws, to eat his own toes, to nip off his own tongue. 

The street was empty, and the woman moved over the cobbles, and down the alleyways, her feet in their delicate black slippers soundless, and the jar in her arms, a heavy jar, strangely balanced, seemingly light. In the jar, the Jenny struggled for the surface. 

“Quiet,” the woman said, and the Jenny sank to the bottom of the fluid, flattened, her eyes wild. The fluid sloshed back and forth, waves building inside the bottle, and the Jenny was quiet. The Jenny was still. 

Three streets away a horse bucked off its rider¸ and the woman looked up and smiled at the clattering of horseshoes, the snorting of panic, the cry of a man fallen into the street. The horse ran down the alley where the Jenny and the woman stood, its great wet eyes rolling, nostrils flared, mane twisted. It stamped its hooves when it saw them. It took a tentative step, considering, and then reared up and pivoted, galloping away.

The woman laughed. On her fingers she wore black pearls. Her nails were ragged and untrimmed, long and pointed. Her gums were a dark blue that was nearly silver, but her teeth were very white.

They entered a final alley, and made their way down it, beneath a wooden sign painted with the words Morita’s Curiosities, and a carving of a mermaid, smiling. In each of her hands was a crushed and broken ship, and her tail was scaled with chips of bone. 

The woman in black tossed back her hair. On her throat, just below the ear, there were three slashes in the flesh, pale and bloodless, opening and closing as she breathed. She unlocked the door, and brought the Jenny into a lit room stuffed full of things, each one of them strange. Some of them had been sold as scraps, and some had cost much more. The Jenny did not notice. She feigned death and in feigning death, she slept. 

The woman placed the Jenny gently on a shelf. Collected. There were other things around her. A starfish with eleven arms, each one of them bent in a different direction, and moving slowly, signing to itself in a language indecipherable to anything else. A glass fishing float containing something small and desperate, a gusting puff of smoke which sometimes resolved into a screaming face. In a birdcage made of bones, a flying fish spun on its perch. And here, a color-shifting octopus, stretching tentacles out of its tank, grasping a pen and writing on a notepaper, long lines of verse and song telling of its plight.  A complicated rope knot which stretched and untwisted itself, resolving into a pair of lovers, who tied each other into new knots, and then frayed. One lover strangled the other, and then they reversed, tied together forever by the rope that made them and bound them.  Here was a book bound in a murdered sailor’s skin, his hide covered in tattoos, each one of them of a beautiful woman, and each woman looking out from where she’d been placed, blowing kisses and curses silently into the room. Here was a pearl large as an ostrich egg, made by some oyster large enough to consume a whale. The pearl glowed with its own secret light. It shook and chattered, something inside it waiting to be birthed. 

And then there was the ship in the bottle. When the Jenny opened her eyes and saw it in the early light, it was as though she had never seen anything before. Her gaze fixed on it, and from that moment on, it was all she could see. Inside the bottle was a tiny freighter, a ship with eight black sails. The Jenny gazed at it across the room, large as herself, perfect in its details, the rigging fine as spider’s webs, the sails stretched and hoisted, each rope knotted perfectly, each plank like something cut from a true tree. The ship had portals and cabins, a captain’s quarters, and in it, a mahogany writing desk, a table set for dining. A lamp glowed from the table. A hat with an ostrich plume hung from a peg. The ship had a tiny cat and tiny rats the size of needle’s eyes. On its mast was a skull, small as a mouse’s skull, but it had never belonged to a mouse.

The woman opened the door, then, and the customers entered, tourists and scientists, opera singers and sailors, captains and doctors, momentarily passing through the port town, looking to see the sights, and perhaps take home a strange thing or two, a gift from the sea or a curse. The prices were sometimes astronomically high, and sometimes, the woman gave someone something for nothing. 

A beautiful coral-centered shell, that when held to the ear of its new owner, a man with spectacles and a tightly pinched expression, whispered stories so erotic, so slippery and hungry that the man could not let the shell go, even as he placed his ring finger gently into its sleek pink interior, even as something, a small and rapacious something, put fangs into his flesh. A tiny chest filled with dark powder that flitted upward like piranha, fascinating the buyer, but also leaving tiny flecks of blood on his cheeks. A luminous seahorse, prancing in its vessel, twirling giddyingly fast around inside it. An hourglass filled with black sand from the very coldest bottom of the sea. And where these objects went, they changed things. A town sank into itself, like sand through that hourglass, slipping beneath the earth suddenly, as though it had never been. Another town suffered a whirlwind, which destroyed every building, and still another, the one that had taken the chest filled with powder, found itself, elders and children and all, walking breathless to the edge of the ocean. One by one, the entire village dove into the waves. 

The shelves were replenished nightly, the woman in black going out into the port and seeking the things that called to her. Rich and strange. She had an unerring sense of the locations of the sea-changed. 

For days, the Jenny gazed from her jar across the room, full of desire. The ship was a thing like herself, a curiosity, made by someone as a toy, folded, collapsed and fit into the neck of its bottle.  Black sails. A crow’s nest. A plank, stretching out over a nothing sea. 

Perhaps it had been made by a sailor, squinting through a glass, tweezing and carving, mouse into man, or perhaps it had not. She’d seen things on the bottom of the ocean, things like this, but writ large. Perhaps it had been forced into miniature, crushed into its bottle, a vessel for a thing like the Jenny. There was the vessel’s name, painted across the bow, beneath its many guns, the Sunken Scream, and there was its figurehead, though the Jenny could not quite see what sort of woman was depicted in the carving. 

No customer desired the Jenny, and she did not desire them. They looked at her, and wrinkled their noses, reading the label pasted to her jar, which read “A Mer-Maiden.” None of them thought she was that. They spoke to her through the glass, and she looked at them. They did not know to what they were speaking. 

She hissed and stretched inside her jar, her tail whipping, her mouth open, looking for the right one, the one who would save her, and there, at last, one day: a little girl, bonnet, silk flowers, spring-coiled locks like the spring-coiled tail of the Jenny, jam-smeared fingers against the Jenny’s jar. The little girl’s father bargained with the woman in black for possession of a certain sack of sand, something that might be poured out onto the floor and resolve itself into a map of treasures, albeit treasures crushed beneath the weight of the world’s water. The father desired fortune, and a quick revelation. He’d forgotten he had children. 

And there, the little girl, face against the glass. Her blue eyes opened into orange eyes and she looked at the Jenny. Her brother tugged at her hand, his breeches already damp, ruffles sodden, and he let loose a wail of misery, but the little girl had already spun on her heel, and was across the room, her hands on the bottled ship before anyone could stop her. With that, she brought it down from the shelf, and with one more desperate glance at her father, still bargaining, at her brother still wailing, she’d smashed the bottle on the floor. 

And the ship was out, there on her own beach of glittering glass, a freighter with her eight ink black sails, a she of the sea. A small breeze came questing through the room, swelling those sails, and on the mast, the skull that was not a mouse’s skull opened its jaw and whispered. The little boy shrieked, stricken by sugar and by smashing, and his salt tears fell onto the floorboards.

One.

Two.

Three.

On the ship they fell, one-two-three, and from her jar, the Jenny watched, her tail whipping, her fingers spread wide, her toes pointed.  She stretched her tattered wings, and swam up through the alcohol, up and toward the lantern light. The boy made a gurgling sound. The father was no longer in the room. Onetwothree and the girl drifted past the jar, petticoats filled, hands spread starfish, mouth open, rosebud lips, eyes wide with shock.

Onetwothree. And now the little girl’s lips were blue. The black freighter grew. 

The shopkeeper, with her necklace made of shark’s teeth, smiled as the newborn sea took her, and the teeth about her throat smiled too, sharper and keener, and what had been dead became live. Only her face was visible now, her eyes closed and rapturous, and there was the shadow of her body, pliant inside the body of the thing that became her, fins and tail, gills and eyes, silver as a shined service. 

A gun aimed from the bow of the ship, slowly pointing at the Jenny in her jar, and she pressed herself against the glass, and when it shot, when her jar shattered, she was not wounded, no. She was free. Her wings stretched, rolling over her shoulders. Her eyes, darker orange than ever, wide open and lidless, and she undulated, free from her prison at last, taking her time descending, still above the floor, still on her shelf as the alcohol poured off its edge. The Jenny looked at her ship. 

Outside a clock struck noon, twelve chimes, and with each chime, the freighter grew, and with each chime, the sea washed over the floorboards, an amniotic liquid that fed the things it touched. The water filled with scrimshaw and starfish, with a hatching pearl, cracking slowly in the wet, something emerging. With each chime, the flag rose up the mast. 

The windowpanes on the shop burst, one by one, pushed out by water, and then the water was too much, and the walls began to bulge outward and into the street, bending like steamed planks. The Jenny swam into her ship, up the plank, and as she did, Morita’s Curiousities burst. 

The newborn ocean spilled forth across the cobbles, and flooded through every alleyway.  In the Jenny’s ship, her growing ship, the Jenny’s flag was raised up the mast, higher and higher, black and crossboned. 

The ocean swept over the buildings of the town, and across the decks of the ships docked in the port, and there was the Jenny, her tattered wings spread wide, the blonde hair that had been glued to her scalp stripped off, the pink ribbon floating in a pool of foam-flecked seawater, left behind in a broken town. 

The Jenny stood on the deck, surrounded by her crew of pirates, of sea robbers, and they brought the drowned for her inspection, piled up and very dead. No one would sleep in the town that night, nor any other, because the town was gone, and with it all its people and dogs and little girls and spice merchants and needlepoints and sailors with knives.

As the Sunken Scream and her new captain floated over the last street, and over the coastline, as they floated over the place where the color of the sea changed from blue to black, there was a cheer up from the deep. All around the ship swum strangenesses from the shop, each thing larger than it had been, a nacreous white whale still shaking off the shards of its pearl, a steely shark, tail ticking like a pendulum, two lovers made of rope twisting themselves up into the rigging, fingers braided together, each creature curious and calling to its crew. Things that had never been, but were now. Hoaxes and horrors and glories and angels and monsters that had never been thought of before. Fireworks came off the deck, lighting up the sky with exploding stars, and out there, in the sea, the things that had always been swam up to look. On deck, the pirates sang a shanty, and the freighter sang too. 

The freighter went out to sea, and aboard it was the Jenny, on a black and surging wall of water, a surging will of water, a singing wail of water. 

The Jenny went out to sea and into the sunset, and on the mast of her ship, the skull opened its mouth and joined the song. They sang together, all these things, the Jenny and her pirates, the whale and the shark, the octopus and the starfish, the fireworks and the knives, a song of all the world’s wetness, all the world’s salt, all the world’s deep-drowned bones and treasures.

Location

Address:

P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

Fax: