Colter’s Mermaid

DSCN2179Daphne pulled herself out of the steaming pool. The boiling water beaded on her milky blue skin. Dusk was settling behind the line of trees in the distance, giving the barren white landscape a rosy glow. Steam sizzled and twisted into the air around Daphne while she opened and closed her fist, gazing at the last rays of sunlight. The lace-like webbing, which had fallen from between her fingers, legs, and toes, evaporated before it hit the ground. Within moments of coming out of the hot-spring, Daphne was sprinting. She ran directly toward the trees. Sandy white plumes billowed out behind her as she deftly navigated small bushes and chasms filled with boiling water. Little rocks dug into the soft soles of her feet, but she barely noticed. She was concerned only with reaching the trees.
Compared to her silent home in the acrid springs, the world of the forest boomed with the cacophony of life. She continued at a run until the trees started thinning. Through the trunks there was a clearing and Daphne could heard the river on the other side. Every night she visited this spot first, filled with hope. It was here that Daphne first saw a creature that looked like her.
The mermaid had long lost count of how many moons had filled the sky since she had seen humans. Foggy memory tugged at the periphery of her conscious; she had relived the moment often and sometimes she wondered if it had been a cruel trick of the forest. Daphne squeezed her eyes shut and remembered: a small little wobbly thing, walking like her, had wandered into the trees where she now stood. She could never have imagined the feeling of the tiny hand, like hers, when she bent down and it touched her face. It squealed like a bird. Back in the dark, empty clearing, Daphne shook her head sharply and pulled her long, silvery grey hair over her shoulder. She determinedly rubbed the arrowhead hanging around her neck. Its sharp edges had been worn smooth and soft. This token was Daphne’s proof: she couldn’t have imagined the searing pain as the flint ripped through her chest.
DSCN2227Daphne lay on her back, reveling in the feel of the soft earth and grass, and let the sounds of the forest wash over her. Immediately, the sound of owl and bat wings filled her mind. She concentrated, listening for any sign of humans. The purr of the cats and the howl of the wolves came next. There was the softer shuffling of innumerable ground animals, very close. That’s when she heard it: like a boulder crashing toward the river. Daphne’s chest pounded as she shot upright and flew to the riverbank.
She froze at the edge of the water. Directly across the roaring, black, churning river was a man. He stared back at her, mouth open, eyes wide. Flinging his arms wide, the man bellowed. Then he fell to his knees. Startled, Daphne watched as he slumped onto his side. He lay motionless, naked, with only the blanket he had been carrying in a pile next to him. His crumpled body reminded Daphne of young, sickly bison she’d seen, forgotten by their herd.

When John Colter woke, the first thing he noticed was that he wasn’t dead. His entire body ached, but that’s what happened when you’d run for your life from a group of angry Blackfeet. He sat up slowly and squinted into the dark: he was in a clearing, a few hundred yards away from the river. John scrambled quickly to his feet, almost toppling over, when he saw the blue woman watching him. She was unlike any human John had ever seen, and he’d considered himself well-versed in human-types. When Daphne stood to meet him, he stayed rooted to the ground, frightened. She was certainly the tallest woman he’d ever met. She might have been beautiful if she weren’t so unearthly: she had round eyes set wide into a broad, open face with pearly hair and glowing skin. But her lips were set in a line and the eerie silvery eyes revealed no emotion.
John felt his heart stop when the creature burst into a child’s giggle. The tinkling laugh crackled through the night like a bird breaking through treetops. The sound was unnatural, coming from one so fearsome. She smiled. Then, Daphne started poking and prodding John’s chest and arms.
“Ouch!” He grabbed her wrists and exclaimed, “who are you?”
Daphne easily broke free and the words tumbled from her, fully formed, “Daphne. I’ve been waiting for you!”
DSCN2212John Colter couldn’t remember a lot of his nights, but he was certain he’d have remembered a young woman called Daphne with long silvery hair who ran through the woods naked and whose skin happened to be blue. Perplexed and exhausted, he considered his options. He could kill her, but it didn’t seem necessary. Daphne might be his only chance at survival out in the wilderness, miles from the nearest fort. She was obviously fighting-fit. He asked,
“Shelter. Where do you live?”
Daphne grimaced and looked toward the sky, which was turning lighter shades of blue with every passing moment. Daphne grabbed John’s shoulders and gave them a rough shake,
“I live in the water. I have to go back,” panic was filling her voice, “promise me, you will stay here!”
There was so much desperation and urgency in her voice, he didn’t think before agreeing. She took off running through the forest, away from the river. John stared after her, dumbfounded.

Over the next few days, Daphne visited John in his camp every night. As soon as the sun had set enough that Daphne could come out of her spring, she raced into the forest. The consistency of her visits convinced John that she was not an apparition, and his curiosity motivated him to linger in this forlorn section of wilderness. John learned that Daphne was confined to underground springs during the day, and led a life of complete solitude. Daphne learned about John’s adventures scouting The West.
John considered his meeting Daphne a part of the divine destiny of discovering the wilderness. He tried to commit to memory every detail of these bizarre encounters so that when he made it to the fort, he could describe Daphne – and her home – with accuracy. He knew an expedition would come back to this forlorn desert-like place eventually; no one would believe his descriptions otherwise.
DSCN2231One night, after following Daphne to her spring, he watched as she mournfully slid back into a wide dark pool of water. Daphne stayed at the surface while the first rays of dawn warmed the horizon. The water around her was so clear, John could see the webbing grow between her fingers and her legs fuse into what could only be described as a fishtail. When gills opened on the sides of her neck Daphne gasped for air; her head was still above water. John was speechless. Tears streamed down Daphne’s face as she pushed off from the side of the pool and dove deep down into a tunnel. The depths of the pool were so dark, they might have reached the center of the earth.
As the sun continued to rise and cast light over the barren land, John saw for the first time what he would later describe as a hell-on-earth. Pools of water the color of gemstones steamed and bubbled. In the distance, a geyser spouted so ferociously it shook the very land where John stood. The boiling water shot into the sky as tall as any building. Sulfur stung the air all around him, making his eyes water.
Sacrificing a wayward squirrel, John had discovered some of the pools – Daphne’s included – contained water that burned flesh on contact. Whether other pools were filled with some devilish magic or water alone, John wasn’t eager to find out. He tread carefully over the white gravely land.

DSCN2170A few days later, John was waiting for Daphne when she came out of the water; he had decided to start heading to the fort at first light and wanted to be well rested. He was eager to see other humans again. When Daphne broke the surface of the water at sunset, she smiled widely. After she was out of the water, they walked together toward the forest. Daphne was humming and grinning, pointing out different animals as they walked through the wood. While John typically enjoyed a life of solitude when it was his choice, he wouldn’t soon forget what it felt like to be abandoned in the wilderness. Loneliness is overwhelming and he felt guilty leaving the mermaid. He pushed the guilt to the side, reasoning with himself. After some hours together, John told Daphne of his plan to leave the following morning.
A shadow passed over Daphne’s face and her features turned stony. Her eyes burned. John realized – too late – that he’d made a mistake. He tried to persuade her that he would return with an expedition as soon as possible, but it was as if the soul he had befriended was snuffed out. After a moment of stalemate, where neither party moved, Daphne quietly advanced on John. He stumbled back and she pushed him to the ground. Lights danced in John’s vision as Daphne loomed over him. There was a great weight on his chest, pinning John to the earth; it was Daphne’s palm.

Frantically, John flailed out for anything that might serve as a weapon. His fists came up empty. John grabbed the hair at the back of Daphne’s head at the same moment she wrapped her free hand around his throat and squeezed. He twisted his fingers into the smooth tendrils of her hair and pulled, clawing at the arm that was strangling him. For a moment, Daphne’s hand released from John’s throat and she yelped with pain. He moved quickly: throwing all his weight toward her, John threw Daphne off him. Scrambling to his feet, he sprinted to his humble camp a few yards away. His hunting spear rested innocently next to the glowing fire-pit. Just as John was reaching for the spear, Daphne tackled him from behind. Mouth full of dirt and coppery blood, John grasped for the weapon. His hand wrapped around the rough wood, swinging up and around with all his might. There was a sickening crack as the spear made contact with Daphne’s chest.

DSCN2202Daphne was forced back with the blow, her face contorted in pain. A scream lingered in the air, though now she could only gurgle pitifully. The creature was splayed out on the ground, face up. Blue shimmering liquid – as dark as the night sky – had started pooling around her, pouring silently out of the spear’s opening. After a few moments, she was completely still.

John watched, kneeling, trying to catch his breath. He’d killed Indians and white men before, but that had been war. This was different. This had been personal. Aloud, to no-one but the trees, he said,
“She was going to kill me.”

John sat back, sweaty and shaking, until dreamless sleep washed over him.

He woke sometime later, startled, not realizing he had fallen asleep. In the new morning light John could see the clearing in front of him was empty: Daphne was gone.

It took John Colter three days to walk to the nearest fort. When not hunting or sleeping, he wondered about his last night with the mermaid. He had made a true – and lucky – target of her heart. She died in front of him. No human could have survived. Constantly, he reminded himself Daphne wasn’t human. Animals weren’t clean scavengers; and they weren’t quiet. It was eerie: if she had survived, why hadn’t she finished the job she started? Falling asleep like a child in the clearing like that, he would have made an easy target.

DSCN2211After making it back to quasi-civilization, it was hard to get anyone to believe his wild, outlandish descriptions of the boiling wilderness he had encountered, nonetheless believe he had encountered a mermaid. John went on to new adventures and continued to explore the mountain ranges of the West. Daphne drifted slowly from his mind, until she was only a dream that only occasionally deigned to haunt him. Eventually, after others had explored the wilderness and found no such creature, he attributed the entire experience to a vivid Indian-drug induced hallucination.

John Colter sat at a stool at the only saloon in the small town. Since returning from the West nearly two years ago, John had married and he missed the quiet, vast wilderness. Here it was fields and farms. He yearned for an adventure and missed the mountains, the solitude. John rarely came into town and on this occasion he had done so to enlist. Somewhere in the middle of his drink, a woman approached the bar. Dressed all in black, with a measure of black netting obscuring her face, she asked the bartender for a glass of water. The barkeep chuckled and pulled her a beer. John glanced at the woman in the mirror behind the bar. She pushed back the veil and brought the glass to her lips. John’s heart stopped. Blue skin, silvery eyes, it was Daphne.

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