This story is by Hannah Tussing and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Yer gonna love this one, Madam,” said the thick-jowled man as he waddled to the edge of the dock.
“It had better not be a painted tomcat this time,” I snarled, picking my way around rotten boards that the bright moonlight revealed.
“No, no, this’un’s a real freak, you’ll see.” He stopped beside the large fishing vessel, Sea Song. “It’s on here, Madam. Freshly caught this morning, it was.”
I tapped my boot against the wooden planks. “I don’t appreciate my time being wasted.”
The man’s fat lips lifted in a gruesome smile. “This freak’ll wow your audiences, don’t you worry.”
I followed him aboard the ship, avoiding looking down at the dark water lapping at the hull. The man lumbered across the deck, his breath wheezing in his chest. I lifted my chin and adjusted the top hat on my head, keeping my gaze forward instead of at the sailors that paused in their work to gawk at me. My nostrils flared at the overwhelming stench of dead fish and salt.
“Where is this creature?” I asked.
“Right here, Madam,” the man said, gesturing to a tangle of fishing nets haphazardly settled in a large wooden box. Water streamed from cracks in the wood, forming dark puddles on the deck.
The nets writhed above the box and scales glimmered in the moonlight. I took a few steps forward.
“What is it? A fish?”
The man laughed. “Nope. Even better.” He held up a lantern, illuminating the water enough to see the outline of the creature’s body. “It’s a shy’un, it is. Don’t like the light none.”
My eyes widened when the creature withdrew from the light, pressing itself into the farthest corner of the box. It thrashed against the thick nets that dug into its fleshy torso. Golden eyes shimmered in the flickering light, wide in terror. It slapped the water with its scaly tail in frightened, panicked movements. A wet, webbed hand reached out toward me.
I jumped away from the box with a yelp. The man chuckled. “Told ya it’s a freak.”
I straightened my gold-trimmed crimson jacket and cleared my throat, gathering what shred of dignity I had left after my childish display.
“Is it real?”
He laughed. “Does it matter as long as yer audience believes?”
I glanced back at the creature trapped in the net. Its pale, bare chest heaved, though it drew no breath from the air. Its hauntingly beautiful eyes watched me, piercing my soul. I looked away.
“Do ya want the freak or not, Madam?” The man asked. “I got other buyers if’in ya don’t.”
I patted the inside pocket in my fitted jacket, comforted by the feel of the coins nestled there. “No, I want it.”
“Gonna cost ya, Madam,” he warned.
“I’m willing to pay for good merchandise.”
He grinned and held out his hand expectantly.
I shook my head. “Not until it’s loaded properly into my wagon will you see a single coin.”
He huffed, blowing his breath through his jowls. “Alright, alright.” He turned to the sailors. “Quit yer gawkin’ and get this here creature onto the Madam’s wagon.”
The sailors grabbed the nets and dragged the creature from the box. It opened its mouth in a soft shriek and writhed in their arms, clawing and biting them. The creature twisted its head, glittering eyes piercing mine.
Two of the sailors carried the creature off the ship, four more following with the wooden box, water sloshing out of it. I strode behind them, eager to disembark the dismal, smelly vessel.
The men dropped the creature into the box and it fell with a splash. It slapped its tail against the water, spraying droplets into the air. The sailors set the wooden lid on top of the box and tightened the straps, securing it to the wagon.
“Alright, you got ‘em. Now, ya better hold up yer end of the bargain.”
“I always do.” I withdrew ten gold coins from my pocket and dropped them into his grubby hands.
He counted them greedily, his chubby fingers sliding over each coin. “This’ll do nicely, Madam.” His lips parted in a crooked smile.
I nodded curtly and stepped around to the front of the wagon, swinging up onto the seat. Gathering the reins in my right hand, I slapped them over the backs of the horses. They strained against their harnesses as they moved down the docks. I kept their pace slow and steady for the entire trip, but I could still hear the water sloshing out of the box.
I pulled the horses to a halt in front of a giant colorful tent. Music filled the air and lights flashed in the darkness. The show was about to begin.
“Is it a big fish?” A hulking, mustachioed man asked, walking up to the wagon.
I shook my head. “No, something better, Alphonse.”
He cocked his head. “What’s better than a giant fish?”
“See for yourself.” I accepted his hand and stepped down from the wagon.
Alphonse followed me to the back of the wagon and lifted the lid off the box. A breathless gasp left his lips. “What is it?”
I smiled. “The newest addition to my show.”
Alphonse grasped the struggling creature in his right hand and dropped him into the tank in the corner of the menagerie tent. He belly-flopped, sending a tidal wave over the glass sides. The creature thrust his powerful tail, slamming his face into the glass pane. He jerked back with an agitated cry, swimming into the other side with the same result. The creature pressed webbed fingers to the glass, mouth opening in shock.
He stared out at me with depthless eyes that pierced my soul, judging every action he found there. I squirmed under his intense gaze.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I whispered.
“You gonna put it in the show tonight?” Alphonse asked as he placed the vented lid over the tank.
My stomach clenched and my heart hammered against my ribcage. The canvas walls tightened in around me, constricting the air in my lungs. “Perhaps tomorrow night. I haven’t had time to properly advertise it.”
Alphonse nodded. “You’re the boss. You do what you think is best.”
My gaze roved the menagerie surrounding me. The two-headed calf blinked its four innocent eyes. The white tiger paced in its small cage, a hollow desperation in its gaze I’d never noticed before. The fairies huddled together in a glass jar, their shimmering wings drooped.
Do what you think is best. I stumbled backward. An uncomfortable tingle of guilt crawled across my skin.
“You okay?” Alphonse asked.
I ran from the tent, the creature’s glittering gaze following me.
Fog hung heavy over the streetlamps, obscuring the road ahead. The mares whinnied when their hooves slipped on the wet street. I tightened my grip on the reins to keep them from bolting. The wagon wheels splashed through a large puddle and drenched my overcoat in icy water.
My teeth chattered and raindrops pelted me, soaking my pants and the woolen socks inside my boots. I began to question the sanity of my mission. But his soul-searching eyes kept me from turning the mares around.
I pulled the horses to a halt at the end of the pier. I climbed into the back of the wagon and lifted the lid from the tank, ignoring the sharp splinters cutting into my hands. The creature shrank away, eyes wide.
Guilt tore through me at his frightened expression. Why had I never seen it before in the other’s eyes?
I reached into the tank, hand clasping over his. His webbed skin was wet and sleek, like a seal. He screamed and writhed, fighting my grip. I tightened my hand around his and hauled him out of the tank. He continued screaming and flailing, knocking us both backward onto the pier. Stars spun across my vision and my chest heaved at his added weight atop my ribcage.
He wriggled off me and collapsed on his side. Gills flared on his sides and his whole body shook. I rolled to my feet and grabbed his scaly tail, hauling him to the edge of the pier.
“Go,” I said, releasing my grip on him.
He slapped his tail against the wooden boards and dove into the dark water below, making a soft splash. I looked over the edge, searching for his lithe body in the gentle waves below.
His head broke the surface of the water. His golden-blonde hair hung in wet strands over his face and he lifted his gaze to mine. For a few breathless heartbeats, his glittering eyes pierced mine. They flared like embers, burning brighter than any star.
“The others will go free,” I whispered.
He inclined his head slightly before disappearing beneath the water. Only quivering waves remained as evidence that he’d ever existed. I stood alone on the rainy pier, his golden eyes forever burned into my memory.