The merchant was taught—ever since she was old enough to fear anything—that monsters could walk in daylight and nightmares could wear the skin of normalcy for a short time before slipping back into the depths below, shedding their masks as night falls again. So, when she was roused awake by a stranger knocking on the doors of her shop, begging for medicine and bandages, she proved herself a fool by answering.
Many travelers come by the raggedy port town to seek temporary shelter from the raging oceans and sell whatever treasures they found on their adventures—she had assumed that this traveler was no different. It was obvious since their first : the traveler’s damp hair mottled with sea-spray and blood that was anything but red, her sallow skin that seemed translucent under the moon’s harsh glare, her face’s angular structure looking more like an impressionist drawing than human countenance.
Who was the greater fool: someone blind to the truth told by their eyes, or someone who understood but still remained curious?
She invited the traveler inside, and with a towel helped dry her shivering form and then dressed her wounds, all the while ignoring the strange markings on the traveler’s arms. The traveler had then stripped out of her blood-soaked robes, revealing even stranger scars on her torso that told tales of exploits the merchant could never hope to experience and survive. She only saw them for a second as she cleaned away the aftermath of an untold battle, but those vulnerable moments were enough for the merchant to bathe her senses in traveler’s scent—the musky brine hinted at time spent at sea, a scent belonging to veteran mariners.
She should be grateful for having a roof over her head and a place to call home in a capricious world like this. She should be thankful that she wasn’t a wayfarer, constantly moving from place to place, facing the threat of death on a daily basis.
“That’s a unique ring you have.”
The comment had left her mouth before she realized she was admiring the exotic jewelry on the traveler’s spindly finger. The ring was a shaped like a claw and crafted out of a contradictory material that seemed to be soaking in the light while simultaneously having a lustrous sheen to it.
“Take it,” the traveler said, her voice low and accented in a tongue unidentifiable to the merchant. “Your payment.”
Once clothed and bandaged, the traveler hastily shoved the ring into the merchant’s palm. She then left, saying thank you with stiff formality, and was gone without a name or introduction.
When the merchant encountered the traveler again, she did not ask for her name. The sun was already sinking into the inky waters when the traveler came by asking for materials to fix her ship in exchange for more of the alien jewelry along with gems and pearls of indescribable colors, salvaged from the deep sea. Upon noting how the merchant still wore that claw-ring, given so long ago, the geometry of her face seemed to soften—something which did not pass the merchant’s notice.
Yes, the pieces of jewelry were breathtaking, the merchant admitted: A necklace that looked like a string of barnacles coated with a layer of rubies, a bracelet consisting of fish bones and amber and teeth of a sea monster large enough to swallow her whole, and a hairpin of petrified corals sprinkled with iridescent flecks, shone like shattered stars in her hair. She thought herself above such material gains, yet the merchant found herself feeling like a kid who discovered toys for the first time.
Every time the merchant showed liking to any of the jewelry the traveler had brought her, the traveler’s milky eyes seemed to sparkle. The merchant thought the look of pleased amusement that danced in those eyes truly did soften the traveler’s gaunt face, dispelling the air of cool disdain that usually hung around the inscrutable woman.
If only she were a woman.
The merchant may be a fool, but she wasn’t oblivious.
During one meeting, the merchant was surprised by a pair of hands covering her eyes. She did not scream for the hands were much too gentle to be those of some thug, barely brushing against her skin as if she were to run away if touched too roughly. With her sight gone, there was no way she could miss the sensation of the spindly fingers nor could she miss the scent of musky salt.
She pulled those hands away from her eyes and whirled around to see the traveler standing behind her, their bodies separated only by pieces of cloth. With the traveler’s fingers entangled in hers, the traces of tiny scales on her fingers felt cool to the touch and the almost invisible webbings between each digit became much more identifiable. When the traveler flashed her the rare smile, she had the lethal fangs of a predator.
Anyone smart would be afraid.
The traveler traded many goods, not just with her but with other residents of the port town too. Yet, she was never seen purchasing any food. The merchant had gifted her a meal of salted herring once, and it was turned down, no matter how much she boasted of her culinary skills.
“I’m sure it tastes wonderful, but I can feed myself.”
And so began the series of maddening questions, asked in an endless circle like an infinite ouroboros. Where are you from? Are you searching for something? What are you hiding?
No answers were given, but the traveler replied with a kiss that soon turned into kisses, tastes of fever dreams that only left her hungrier than before.
“It’s not fair,” she had complained, burying her face and frustration in the traveler’s embrace. “You know my story—the sheltered girl: trophy daughter of a mayor who runs a ramshackle port town, stuck in a shabby shop selling goods to passersby. And I know nothing.”
Eventually, she accepted her fate. Just like how she had accepted her position within the town, she had accepted that if the traveler refused to answer then she would simply receive no answers.
For once, she was happy to have been wrong.
When the traveler found her again, the merchant was burning up. A sickness had spread around the town, and like many others she had fallen ill. The traveler was by her side before she could collapse, the traveler’s skin feeling pleasantly cool against her own, like the soothing touch of melting ice on a hot day.
“It’s not fair how frail you are,” the traveler murmured as she tucked the merchant into bed, whose mind ebbed in and out of consciousness in a hazy fog.
“I came to say goodbye, actually,” the traveler said, “I’m bound to a cycle, and it’s not fair.”
The merchant gazed at the traveler with half-opened eyes, who rambled on as if nobody was listening.
“I won’t return, not for another century or so. Before, I could pretend to be human, most days at least. You would assume practice and time makes it easier, but now…”
“Then don’t. Don’t pretend—not with me.”
The traveler jolted, surprised by the groggy response. The comment took all of the merchant’s remaining energy before her eyelids became too heavy. The merchant fell asleep to the traveler’s soft chuckle, listening to her smoky voice telling tales of civilizations too ancient and too overwhelming for her to comprehend, of the traveler’s family who slept below the sea only to awake at the world’s end, of cyclopean structures constructed with non-Euclidean geometry that shifted and changed like the moon’s tide. She heard all the explanations that once were previously denied and lullabies recited in an inhuman tongue, notes that no vocal cords on e could replicate.
She dreamt she was deep underwater, in a world without light or the need to breathe. She dreamt about wearing a crown of coral, except it was gold and coated with a soapy, swamp-colored oil and crafted in a form impossible with human tools. A translucent material reminiscent of seaweed hung from the crown, almost like an otherworldly bridal veil. For a moment she imagined herself as some queen, as someone other than a mayor’s daughter, more than a cowardly merchant stuck in a town in the middle of nowhere.
Then she woke, aching, her bedside empty.
The traveler’s voice teased at her ear; the ghostly smile visible in her mind’s eye.
Only the empty night air greeted her.
The dreams never left her.
Every other night, she dreamt of feather-light caresses by fingers that could only be loosely described as fingers for they seem to stretch on infinitely, reaching and fondling every corner of her body. Her dreams showed a naked form entangling her own, an anatomy with shifting angles and limbs which looked like a child’s scribble of a human figure before they learned what proportion meant. In her sleep, she met the traveler who cast aside the human facade like a snake shedding its skin, transforming into a creature with skin so sheer that her inner organs were visible. The center of her chest glowed like an anglerfish’s light, and the merchant could see the lava-glow flowing through the traveler’s veins with every thump of her eldritch heart.
A wise person would be terrified.
And one night, she was.
Instead of closing her eyes and feeling scaled lips brushing against her own, she saw rows and rows of teeth like poisoned needles sitting inside wide disjointed jaws. Shadows crawled across the once familiar features of someone who used to feel like home, twisting it into a nightmarish parody of a face. She found herself underwater, and above the surface she heard hecklings and cannon shots and saw a ship looming, slowly inching closer to the shore. Then came the chaos: the ship brought to a halt by an unnaturally violent thunderstorm, men dragged underwater by the hungry tides, claws extending, and red clouding up her vision.
She woke up, gasping, her mouth tasting of copper and salt.
The next morning news spread around town of a pirate attack that was thwarted by a storm occurring that night, sinking the ship before a raid could occur. Yet, it did not explain some of the corpses which floated ashore, and gossip soon grew of a monster who murdered these men.
Morbid curiosity and a suffocating sense of responsibility pushed her to seek out the corpses.
She was grateful that she hadn’t yet had her breakfast. The stench of blood and rot and feces. The limbs torn barbarically apart, utterly ravaged. The bodies whose faces were gone were replaced by marks of teeth and claw. Worse than all the gore was that she knew exactly what was responsible.
Days later, when she felt a sudden pair of hands covering her eyes, she almost shrieked. When the all too familiar voice muttered in her ears, her stomach churned, the dreaded nausea returning.
“I genuinely did try to leave, to fulfill my duty. I thought myself above sentimentality, but here I am.”
Her heart could not stop pounding. She swallowed, noting how her reaction was new; she had not recalled meeting the traveler and being afraid of her before.
“So?” she asked, trying to seem indifferent.
“It’s not fair how humans die like mayflies, how someone with you is stuck so hungry.”
Hungry—the word stung like an accusation, even if it was not intended as such.
She was a bird coddled in the safety of her nest, even if the nest was tattered and frayed. She still remembered her refusal to accompany the seafarers as they embarked on their adventures, remembered how she turned down a chance at a new life and despite her pretenses, how her smile did not reach her eyes as she wished them luck on their journeys.
It had taken her forever to finally admit it: she was starving, all those years ago, when she said no.
“I can give you the world; say yes and join me.”
Was it cowardice that made her say no in the past, and if she said yes now, would it be out of foolishness?
If it was security that she wanted, she should have rejected the traveler’s advances ever since their first encounter. For her to have known since the beginning of the traveler’s true nature and to still play along…only an idiot would stick their hands into an inferno and expect it to feel cold. What other outcomes were there to this? Her hunger for danger could only end in disaster, yet her heart was no longer racing, her stomach no longer twisting.
The traveler’s hands still covered her eyes. She knew these were the hands of a murderer, yet the quirk brought back memories not of the bloodied nightmares and mauled corpses, but instead of the time she almost laughed upon realizing that the traveler was trying to be playful. She was reminded of their silly attempts at courting, exchanging gifts for kisses, the joyous memories untainted by gore and horrors. This time though, she noticed how the traveler’s fingers were trembling, the hands covered her eyes but barely so as if a touch skin-to-skin would burn her.
Whatever she was feeling now, the traveler was a thousand times more scared.
“Yes,” said the merchant.
She took the traveler’s hands in hers and uncovered her eyes, spinning around to greet the familiar face. Her eyes drank in the view, committing every feature of the traveler’s appearance to memory lest she fade into thin air again. The eyes the color of seafoam that made her feel like the center of the world, the hair like kelp that brought her comfort every time she stroked it, the lips that were pale but plump and very kissable—the traveler felt like a fantasy made flesh.
She laughed at the traveler’s bewildered shock.
“Yes, take me with you.”
Penny Senanarong is an undergraduate student at the University of Exeter; a wild but pleasant change from her bustling hometown of Bangkok. She is an advocate for diversity and a human rights activist. Other pieces of her work can be found at 50-Word Stories and Better Than Starbucks.