Sea Monster Week

Monstrous Beauty (Excerpt)

We’ve got excerpts that pair perfectly with our Sea Monster Week, like fine wine. Take a look at Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama, out on September 4:

Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences. Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.

Prologue
1522

Syrenka wanted Pukanokick.

She watched him but never spoke to him. She never dared to approach or reveal herself. A year of stealth had taught her his language, his habits, his dreams, his ways. The more she knew, the more she loved. The more she loved, the more she ached.

The sachem’s eldest son did not go unnoticed by the women of his tribe. A quiet keegsqua watched him, too. Syrenka noticed the way she smiled at him, the way she brought her work to the shore while Pukanokick burned and scraped his first dugout canoe. And why shouldn’t the keegsqua want him? His glossy black hair glinted blue in the morning sun, his skin beaded with sweat, his eyes shone as he worked with single-minded passion on the boat. Syrenka read the keegsqua’s shy silence for the desperate proclamation that it really was: the girl wanted Pukanokick, too; she wanted a smile that was meant only for her; she wanted to know his deepest thoughts; she wanted to see him lift beautiful sons onto his shoulders and hug their warm, bare feet to his chest; she wanted to grow old with him. She wanted him to save her from emptiness.

Syrenka’s smoldering ache ignited into a fire. She spent all of her time near the shore now, and ignored her sister’s beseeching to join her below, where it was safe, where she was supposed to be. Where she could not tolerate being.

On the day Pukanokick finished the boat, his younger brother and his mother’s brother helped him drag the charred dugout to the edge of the water. They watched as he paddled it out, and they leaped and shouted with pride to see how true it glided and how stable it was, even in the heavy chop of that day, even when he stood and deliberately tried to tip it. One corner of the keegsqua’s plump lips lifted silently with joy, while she pretended to bore holes into stone sinkers. Syrenka studied them all from behind an algae-green rock.

But early the next day, the keegsqua was gone. Pukanokick’s brother and his mother’s brother were gone. Pukanokick was alone when Syrenka became entangled in his fishing net. Swimming a short distance from the dugout, she was distracted by the rhythm of his body as he plunged the paddle in the dark water, lifting his weight off his knees, stroking a heartbeat into the quiet morning. She forgot that he had set a net the evening before—it was cleverly anchored with rocks and suspended with cattail bundles—until the fiber mesh collapsed around her and her own surprised thrashing caught her fin fast.

Working quickly, she was almost free by the time he had turned his boat and eased it over the net. She was curled upon herself, tugging at her dark tail with her thick white hair in a bloom around her, when she felt the cool shadow of the dugout move across her skin. She looked up and her eyes caught his—they were brown-black, the color of a chestnut tumbling in the surf. Her own eyes would alarm him, she knew. She saw him take in a breath. He did not reach for his club, although he could have. He did not reach for his bow. He watched.

She attended to the net and her tail. She lifted her arm and slashed at the remaining strands with the fin on her wrist, cutting herself loose. She looked back up and slowly rose from the deep, shoulder hunched and face to the side.

Her cheek broke the surface first. He didn’t recoil. She smiled, careful not to show her teeth.

“Kwe,” she said, in his own Wampanoag.

“Kwe,” he whispered.

She tried to keep her voice smooth and quiet, unthreatening. “I am sorry. I broke your net.”

He shook his head almost imperceptibly from side to side. He wasn’t angry. She saw him swallow.

“This is the finest mishoon I have ever seen,” she said, sliding her fingertips along the hull of the boat as she swam its length.

“Thank you,” he said. And then he seemed to remember something. Perhaps that he had a club, and a bow, and that he was the sachem’s eldest son.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“I am Syrenka. You are Pukanokick.”

“How do you know my name?”

She had never been this close to him. The muscles in his forearm extended as he unclenched his fist. She followed his arm to his shoulder, to his angular jaw, to his broad nose and then his unwavering eyes.

“I have seen you. Fishing. I hear others call you. I follow you. I listen.”

“Why do you follow me?”

She stroked the edge of the boat. “You are not ready for the answer.”

He stood up, balancing easily in his dugout. “I am.”

She whipped her tail below her, rising out of the water like a dolphin—but carefully and steadily so as not to splash him—until she was eye to eye with him. She reached out with her hand and stroked his cheek. He did not flinch. He allowed her touch.

“Noo’kas says I must give you time. You must grow accustomed to me. You are yet too young,” she recited.

“I am a man.” But his breath caught as she traced the line of his jaw. He lifted his chin. “Who is this Noo’kas to question that?”

“Noo’kas is the mother of the sea. I must obey.”

Pukanokick’s eyes widened. “Squauanit. You mean Squauanit thinks I’m not yet a man?—the sea hag who brought the storm that killed my mother’s father?”

“Shhhh,” she said, putting her fingers on his lips. Her nails were long and sharp, but she was gentle.

She sank down into the water again and swam away.

“Come back!” She barely heard the muffled shout. She stopped, astonished. She felt her skin tingle with hope.

She turned and swam underneath the dugout. Back and forth, with his shadow above her as he knelt in the boat. She needed time to consider. To be calm. To choose wisely.

He waited. She gathered strength from his patience.

She rose to the surface.

“You are right. Noo’kas is a hag. She has become ugly as the seasons circle endlessly. She will live forever, but she will never be beautiful again. She missed her time. What does she know? I will decide myself.”

Pukanokick rested his forearms on the edge of the dugout and leaned his head over the side so that his black hair nearly grazed the water. He asked her his question again, but softly this time.

“Why do you follow me?”

She brought her face close. “I follow you because I love you.”

She brushed her lips against his. Warm breath escaped his mouth. He put his arms around her and kissed her. His lips were nearly hot on her skin, but firm and gentle. She felt a hunger for his touch that she could no longer hold back.

The dugout did not tip, but Pukanokick lost his balance. He fell into the bay, clutched in Syrenka’s embrace. She released him instantly. But of course he knew how to swim—she had seen it many times—and he came up laughing. She joined him. He kissed her again, and they sank under the water together. She saw him detach his buckskin leggings from the belt at his hips. He swam up for a breath.

Syrenka surfaced and saw the sunrise, spilling pinks and purples and blues into the sky, as if for the first time.

Pukanokick touched her cheek. “I want to be bare-skinned in the water, as you are.”

She sank under again and tried to undo the belt of his breechclout, but it was foreign to her. His hands pushed hers away and fumbled with it while she pulled down on his leggings to remove them. She brought him deeper and deeper as she tugged.

Lost in concentration, she misunderstood his struggles. She thought he was wriggling to pull out of the leggings. She did not see the bubbles that escaped his mouth in clouds. She did not remember the passage of human time. She forgot her strength.

Finally, triumphantly, she peeled the first pant from his right leg. When she looked up, she realized with an agonizing start that his head swayed against his chest slowly in the swells, and his body floated lifeless.

She screamed underwater, a high-pitched wail with a rapid burst of clicks that caused the sea life around her to scatter. It was as Noo’kas had foreseen. She had dared to love, and she had lost everything.


Chapter 1

 

The wind whipped Hester’s hair around her face. She shoved it behind her ears and closed her eyes for a second, taking a deep breath of sea air—faintly like salt, faintly like cucumbers. The ocean filled her with joy and longing, all at once. It was strangely, achingly bittersweet.

She had gone on dozens of Captain Dave whale-watch adventures over the last seventeen years: her best friend’s father was Captain Dave Angeln himself, and her own dad—a researcher at Woods Hole—often used the trips to collect data and observe mammalian life in the bay. When she was a child she had loved clambering up on the ship’s rails, her father gripping the back of her shirt in his fist, and scouring the horizon for the telltale spouts that she was almost always the first to see. She still thrilled at skimming alongside a massive humpback, its slick body and watchful eye hinting at secrets from beneath the surface.

She stole a glance at Peter, a bullhorn hanging in his right hand, his left hand shielding the late spring sun from his eyes. She could see just the side of his face: a high cheekbone, black glasses, a thick eyebrow, weather-beaten blond hair like bristles of a brush, lips pursed in easy concentration. He was looking for whales. His eyes passed right over her as he turned, scanning the bay. In a moment he lifted the bullhorn to his mouth.

“Awright, folks, we’ve got a spray on the horizon off the port bow,” he announced cheerfully. “For you landlubbers that’s the left side as you face forward, near the front of the boat.” The tourists rushed to see, chattering and aiming their cameras. A father hoisted his son onto his shoulders.

“There it is again—eleven o’clock,” Peter said. “Ah! There may be two of them.”

The crowd oohed with delight and pointed eager fingers. Peter announced, “The captain is going to take us in that direction— toward the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. It’ll be a few minutes, but with any luck we’ll get a much closer look at those animals.”

He lowered the bullhorn and caught Hester’s eye, smiling. He yelled against the wind, “You’re slipping, hawkeye.”

“No fair, I was distracted by something,” she called back.

“Oh, yeah, by what?”

She opened her mouth but nothing came out. The truth was, she had been distracted by him. She had dropped her guard. How could she have let that happen? She felt her ears heat up.

A girl with a pixie haircut and a nose piercing rose from her seat and tapped Peter’s shoulder. He turned away from Hester to answer the girl’s question. Hester examined her; she was boyishly pretty with a heart-shaped face and cherry red lipstick. She wore tight black pants and a gray cashmere sweater with a red silk scarf. The girl’s eyes fairly sparkled as she spoke to him, and her broad smile revealed perfect teeth. Hester felt a little weight press on her chest, and then she felt irritated by the sensation.

Peter took off his Captain Dave’s windbreaker as he talked and Hester tilted her head with a new discovery: his shoulders were broader now. Had she already known that? She’d been friends with him for so long that half the time in her mind’s eye he was a bony six-year-old, hanging on to a swimming ring for dear life at the beach, craning his neck to keep the water from splashing his face, while she recklessly dove under him again and again, just to unnerve him. He was such a funny little chicken back then, she thought. She caught her eyes sweeping over his shoulders and his back again and she forced herself to look away.

She had no business admiring him, or spying on him when he was with other girls.

She pulled a necklace out of her collar—a rounded gold heart with softly brushed edges, on a delicate, short chain. She pushed the heart hard to her lip until the pressure against her tooth made her wince. She reminded herself of the history of the necklace: her dying mother had bequeathed it to her when she was only four days old, and her grandmother had given it to her mother under the same circumstance. According to a story passed down through the generations, the original owner was Hester’s great-great-great-grandmother, a woman named Marijn Ontstaan, who had died of “languishment” or something equally nebulous less than a week after her own child was born.

What a burden that little heart represented for her family, Hester thought, dropping it back under her collar: a legacy of premature death, passed on to innocent new life. It was also a warning, she had decided years ago, against love and its cozy associates: sex and marriage. Other people could dare to love—Peter and the pixie girl, for instance—people who wouldn’t lose everything if they did.

She looked back at the two of them. Peter was showing the girl a specimen of a baleen plate from a whale. From his gestures Hester knew he was describing the filter-feeding process of the whale and telling her that the baleen combs were made of keratin, like fingernails, rather than bone. She had heard him explain it to tourists a thousand times: wholly approachable, never impatient, always sharing a sense of discovery with them. But now his head was so close to the girl’s, they were almost touching. And then they lingered like that; a beat too long. He was neglecting the other passengers, wasn’t he? He wasn’t tracking the sprays of the whales for the captain, as he usually did. The girl brushed her hand over the baleen sample and then grinned as she ran her fingertips over his hair, comparing the two. He received her touch without flinching—maybe even playfully?

Hester needed to lift the weight from her chest. She moved to the back of the boat, to the other side of the captain’s cabin, away from them. She looked out across the water and allowed the feeling of longing to wash over her, spill into the crevices of her soul, and fill her completely.

 

Monstrous Beauty © Elizabeth Fama 2012

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