Tomiko knelt at the table, across from her father, carefully holding her back rigid and straight as they ate their breakfast. She hoped the formal posture would make him take her arguments seriously, but he barely looked at her as he ate mix of rice and nattō, fermented soybeans that gave off a pungent smell and overpowered even the constant fishy odor of her father’s skin.
The Little Mermaid of Innsmouth
by Caroline M. Yoachim
Tomiko knelt at the table with her back straight and her webbed hands folded in her lap. She hoped the formal posture would make her father take her seriously, but he barely looked at her as he ate his breakfast of rice and nattō, fermented soybeans with a pungent smell that overpowered the fishy odor of his scaly skin.
“You are nearly seventeen, and it’s time to consider your future.” The words were calm, but Father was angry. Tomiko could see it in the way his veins bulged out beneath the gray-green skin of his forehead, and in the tension of his tightly-closed gills.
She stood her ground. “I don’t want to join the Esoteric Order of Dagon.”
“Everyone who lives in Innsmouth joins the Order.”
“Not Mom.” Tomiko stared defiantly at her father’s bulging black eyes. Mom was forty-nine years old and still fully human. She was spending the summer in San Francisco, visiting her brother, Yuji. Tomiko had begged to go along, but Mom insisted that she’d be better off here, where she fit in. Mom was massively overprotective.
“Natsumi bore seven daughters for Dagon, and if she wishes to decline the honor of unending life in the watery deep, well. . .” Father trailed off. Tomiko often heard him arguing with Mom about it, but everyone else in town left her alone. She’d done her duty.
“I want to go live in San Francisco with Uncle Yuji. My English is good, and I could work as a waitress in his restaurant.” Tomiko dreamed of streetcars and brightly painted row houses like the ones on the postcards Mom sent.
“None of your sisters gave me so much trouble.”
“They wanted to have fish-froggy families and be rewarded with gold trinkets. I don’t. That’s not me.”
“You can’t live in the human world, my little ningyo. The deep ones are in your blood, even if you haven’t pledged. You’re already starting the transformation.”
“Don’t call me ningyo. I’m not a mermaid!” Tomiko looked at her arms, covered in scabs from where she’d used Mom’s tweezers to pluck out her scales. The affliction was becoming ever harder to conceal–she had to wear scarves to hide the gills forming on her neck, and thin webs of skin gave her hands and feet a batrachian appearance. . . She would need surgery, and that would cost money she didn’t have. Getting a job in San Francisco would be the perfect solution, if only she could convince her parents.
Father slapped his webbed hand against the table. “Maybe you can’t see it, but I want what is best for you. I want you to embrace who you really are.”
“You have no idea who I really am.”
Father had nothing to say to that, and they finished their breakfast in silence. Tomiko ate her rice not with the stinky nattō that her father was fond of, but with a fried egg and pickled vegetables. If Mom had been home, there would have been miso soup to go with the breakfast, and fewer arguments from Father. It was so unfair that Mom would leave for San Francisco and abandon Tomiko here.
Webbed hands or no, she would find a way to get out of Innsmouth. She grabbed her bento lunch, but instead of going to school she walked to the bus station, arriving just as the decrepit gray motor-coach pulled in. It was empty save for the driver, Joe Hashimoto, and a single passenger. The passenger was clearly an outsider, with none of the classic Innsmouth look–his eyes were sunken, and his nose was sharply pointed, almost like the beak of a bird.
Tomiko watched him get off the bus, intrigued by his pale skin and sand-colored hair. He noticed her and recoiled in disgust. Had he seen her webbed hands, the scars on her skin? She was not as far transformed as Father, but she clearly couldn’t pass as human even if she did manage to get herself out of Innsmouth.
“Skipping school to spend the day in Santa Cruz?” Joe asked, smiling. She’d cut school once to go to the beach with her friends, a couple years ago when she’d looked more fully human, and Joe hadn’t breathed a word to her parents. He wasn’t far out of school himself.
Tomiko shook her head. That’d been her plan–to ride with Joe to Santa Cruz and then take the train north to San Francisco–but she’d clearly have to work on her appearance first. She was too far along in her transformation to pass as human. She waved her hand in the direction the man had gone. “What’s he doing coming here?”
Joe frowned. “He spent most of the ride rambling on about research of some sort or another. Came up from Los Angeles and saw the gold tiaras at the museum in Monterey, piqued his curiosity.”
“He say what his name was?” Tomiko asked.
“Robert Homestead? Olmstead? Something like that.” Joe give her a stern look. “Nothing but trouble there, though. Your father finds out you’re talking to outsiders he won’t be happy.”
While she was talking to Joe, Mr. Olmstead disappeared into the grocery, perhaps looking for breakfast. Tomiko trailed behind, not wanting to go to school, but not sure what else to do. She didn’t want to attract the man’s attention by following him inside, so she sat on the curb and watched the gulls circling above the fish refinery.
Mr. Olmstead came out with a bottle of some kind, mostly wrapped in a brown paper bag, with only the top of the bottle protruding from its wrapping. It was well before noon, and she wouldn’t have pegged him for a drinker, so she followed him with renewed curiosity as he headed toward the pier.
Joanne Hoag was there, and the pieces suddenly fit together. Joanne was an elderly white woman with frizzy gray hair who’d come to Innsmouth from Fresno after her husband died. She was the only outsider to join the Esoteric Order of Dagon, and also the only person Tomiko could think of who had ever escaped it. She decided Mr. Olmstead must be a reporter or a historian of some sort, trying to learn about Innsmouth by getting gossip from the town drunk. Joanne was always good for a tale after a few shots of liquor so Tomiko found a nearby bench and settled in to listen.
Mr. Olmstead noticed her again and frowned, but made no comment. He spoke to Joanne softly, but when Joanne didn’t appear to hear him he raised his voice, “So how is it that you live in Innsmouth, but you don’t have the Innsmouth look about you?”
Joanne squinted at him, studying his face. “I don’t like you.”
“I brought some whiskey,” he said, holding out the bottle.
Joanne snatched it, and poured herself a flask full. “I still don’t like you.”
“I’ve heard there’s another Innsmouth out on the East Coast,” he said, trying to lure her into conversation.
“There’s a Portland out there too,” Joanne snapped. “What of it?”
They sat for a while, Joanne drinking from her flask and Mr. Olmstead occasionally taking a small sip from the bottle. He shifted his tactics and started with a safer topic. “You follow baseball? The Yankees are looking good to make the series again this year.”
“Don’t keep up much on baseball, but my cousin met Babe Ruth once, a few years ago. He came to Fresno and played with a team of Japanese players. Towered over them like a giant. My cousin invited me to visit, but. . .” Joanne trailed off, then took a swig of whiskey from her flask.
“Well, you missed Ruth, but I’d imagine you’ve seen some pretty interesting things in your life,” Mr. Olmstead said.
Joanne stared off at the horizon. “There’s creatures, out in the deep water. When I was a young widow, fresh out of Fresno, the deep ones courted me. Promised me a longer life and golden trinkets. I was stupid then, and joined their esoteric order.”
Tomiko strained to listen. Mr. Olmstead strung Joanne along skillfully, leading her to the story he wanted to hear.
“…and when the gills started to bulge in my neck, I panicked. I swam out to the reefs, you can see them just there–” Joanne pointed. “I begged the deep ones to let me make a deal with Dagon. I wanted desperately to regain my human form, to go back to the life I lived before I stumbled upon this cursed seaside town.”
“And what price did Dagon demand?”
But this question Joanne would not answer. She drank deeply from her flask and tears streamed down her face. “I don’t like you. I knew I didn’t like you.”
Mr. Olmstead asked several more questions, but the only answer he got was quiet sobs.
Twenty minutes before the evening bus to Santa Cruz, Tomiko followed Mr. Olmstead back to the bus stop. The motor-coach rolled in from Monterey, unloading a few native residents of Innsmouth. Mr. Olmstead stepped up to the bus, but Joe stopped him.
“Sorry, engine trouble,” Joe said. “No way to get it fixed before tomorrow, maybe longer. You’ll have to ask at the inn, unless you got someone to stay with.”
Mr. Olmstead shook his head. He seemed unsettled at the thought of remaining in Innsmouth at night. Tomiko felt sorry for him. She didn’t like it here, and she was part of the community. To be stuck here as an outsider must be even worse. She almost stepped up and asked him if he wanted to stay at her place, but the thought of her father’s reaction held her back.
Tomiko waited until Mr. Olmstead had disappeared into the inn. “Anything wrong with the engine?”
“Nah, I’m just tired from driving all day.” Joe smiled. “If anybody local wanted to make the trip, I’d do it, but for him? He can wait until morning. Besides, this gives the Order a chance to scope him out–”
Joe stopped suddenly, realizing that despite her features, Tomiko technically wasn’t part of the Order. He’d said enough for her to figure out what was going on, though. She smiled reassuringly. “I’ve lived here long enough to know a few things. Gibbous moon tonight, hungry deep ones, that sort of thing.”
Joe chuckled. “Yeah, I forgot you aren’t pledged yet.”
“My father’s been on my case about it.” Tomiko admitted, “Especially now, with Mom spending the summer in San Francisco.”
“She’s quite the woman, your mother,” Joe said. He rubbed his hands over his back, sore from a long day driving. “Well, you better run home, young lady. It’s almost dark and the streets are no place to be tonight, even for you.”
Tomiko nodded and started walking home. When she was out of sight, she stopped and doubled back, keeping to the side streets and eventually hiding in an alley across from the inn.
When the sun went down, members of the Esoteric Order of Dagon began to congregate on the street–older men and women with bald heads and flattened faces, people who mostly hid indoors during the day, because the sun dried out their fish-frog skin. They spoke in a mix of Japanese and another, older language, chanting prayers to the deep ones that were not well suited to human tongues. Tomiko cowered in the darkness of the alley. No one noticed her. They were too intent on other prey.
The moon was waning, not quite full but still bright in the night sky, illuminating the streets with silver-blue light. The townsfolk made their way into the inn. For a time, the streets were quiet.
A window creaked open on the uppermost floor of the inn, and Mr. Olmstead climbed out. It seemed a stupid thing to do, to leave the relative safety of his locked room to chance the dark streets of Innsmouth. He scrabbled across the roof of the inn and leapt onto the neighboring building before slowly climbing down.
He took off to the north, toward the highway to Santa Cruz. Moments later, Tomiko saw her father emerge from the inn with several members of the Order. They chased after Mr. Olmstead, and a morbid curiosity compelled Tomiko to follow the angry mob.
Mr. Olmstead led them on a winding chase through the streets of Innsmouth, weaving through the buildings with a hint of evasive strategy at first, but growing ever more careless as he failed to shake his pursuers. In a fit of panic, he ran to the outskirts of town, where there were precious few places to hide.
It was in this poor position and state of panic that Tomiko approached him, and he scurried away from her in terror, stumbling off the side of the road and backwards into a ditch. Tomiko climbed down carefully, and ascertained that he was breathing, though not conscious. Whether he had struck his head upon a rock or merely fainted she couldn’t say.
If she didn’t do something, the members of the Order would find him and sacrifice him to the deep ones. She didn’t know the man, but he was trapped here unwillingly, just as she was. Tomiko had heard about the sacrifices that sometimes happened in the middle of the night, but she had never actually seen one of the victims. It made the horror of it real. This was not some abstract sacrifice but a human life, and she felt compelled to save him.
She emerged from the ditch, and when the mob arrived, she pointed them to the pier. Her father scowled and yelled for her to go back home, but he didn’t stay to make sure that she complied. Tomiko glanced down at Mr. Olmstead, passed out in the ditch. She wondered whether he would be grateful, and whether that gratitude might compel him to help her escape Innsmouth.
It seemed the perfect opportunity, if only she could make herself more human.
The deep ones always swam closest to the surface when the moon was bright. It must have been on a night like this that Joanne Hoag had made her deal with Dagon to become fully human. Tomiko ran after the mob, joining them as they gathered at the end of the pier. The call of the sea was strong, and several of the town elders dove into the salty water. Tomiko kicked off her shoes and plunged in after them. She paused to remove the heavy skirt of her school uniform, then swam hard against the current, all the way out to Devil’s Reef. All around her the sea was full of town elders and deep ones. Even her sisters were here, with their golden tiaras glistening in the moonlight.
Tomiko struggled against the churning waves in the shallow water above the reef. She sliced her foot on an outcropping of coral, and deep ones swarmed around her like sharks. A dark cloud of blood drifted through the water.
Dagon emerged from the depths, a hideous creature of vaguely human shape, but with the face of a fish and a mouth filled with pointed yellow teeth. “You are not the sacrifice I was expecting.”
Tomiko shouted against the howling wind, “Make me human!”
“You are one of mine, little ningyo,” Dagon answered. “They will not accept you.”
“Make me human,” Tomiko repeated.
“Foolish child.” Dagon stared at her with unblinking black eyes. “Very well. I will make you human, and we will see if you can pass for one. If you win the love of a man, you may stay human until you die a natural death. If you fail, you will be tomorrow’s sacrifice.”
It was too much risk, for too little reward. “One day isn’t enough time to win someone’s love.”
“One day,” Dagon insisted.
“You will make me beautiful, like my mother?”
Tomiko considered the offer. It would have to be Mr. Olmstead, for there were no other human men close enough. Robert, she corrected herself. If he was going to kiss her, she must start using the more familiar form of address. He had been repulsed by her before, but Dagon would make her attractive, and perhaps she could draw him out with conversation about the history of the town. “How will I know if I have won his love? Perhaps a different goal would be more easily measured–a kiss. Surely if I can coax a human into kissing me, I will have proven my ability to pass as one of them.”
“It is. . .sufficient. Do you accept?”
“Yes.” As soon as the word left her lips, pain shot through the webbing in her toes and fingers, a sensation like the cut of a knife, but without the release of blood. Her gills were absorbed back into the flesh of her neck and each breath was like inhaling fire. She struggled to swim through her pain, and would have drowned but for the webbed hands that reached out to her. Three of her sisters, with golden tiaras upon their bald fishy heads, held her up and helped her swim back to the pier.
“You should not have made this deal,” they told her in rasping voices. “You should have been content to transform and live with us in the sea.”
“I want more from my life than that.”
Her sisters shook their heads and helped Tomiko haul herself back up onto the pier. Dagon had not given her much time, but after staying up all night, she could barely keep her eyes open. Robert was likely sleeping, anyway. She went home, and with her webbed feet cut into dainty toes, each step felt like walking on shards of broken glass.
Tomiko woke before sunrise and put on her nicest outfit, a flowing red dress with delicate floral print that Mom had brought back the last time she’d gone to San Francisco. Tomiko’s hands and feet ached with the pain of her transformation, but her skin was a flawless golden brown, and her hair–once stringy–was full and black and permed in a fashionable wave. For the first time she could remember, she felt beautiful.
She tiptoed past her parents’ room, where her father snored loudly, and she slipped outside. The streets were deserted as Tomiko hurried to the bus station. It was two hours before the morning bus was scheduled to depart, and Robert was nowhere to be seen. There was no sign of Joe either, so Tomiko rummaged beneath the hood of the motor-coach. She tore out belts and anything else she could pry free.
It would take a while for Joe to fix the damage, so there would be no way for anyone to get out of town before evening. Sabotage completed, Tomiko went back to the ditch where she’d left Robert. He wasn’t there, but thankfully he hadn’t gone far. She found him walking on the road that led to the highway. She called out to him, and he regarded her with suspicion.
“Come with me back to town, and I’ll tell you the history of Innsmouth. You can take the evening bus to Santa Cruz, and it’ll be faster than trying to walk.”
He stood, obviously torn between wanting to flee the horrors of Innsmouth and wanting to hear more about its history. “The creatures,” he said softly, “are they gone?”
“Asleep,” Tomiko assured him. “The town will be no worse than it was when you first arrived. Look, the sun is rising, see the pink glow above the hills?”
She led him back to town, where they bought breakfast from the grocer. Tomiko got onigiri–rice balls wrapped in seaweed and filled with pickled plums and salted salmon. She encouraged Robert to do the same, but he insisted on more Western fare, though the stale rolls he purchased hardly looked appealing.
They ate their breakfast on the front stairs of the inn. Tomiko positioned herself carefully, not too close, but leaning in suggestively, her hair blowing gently in the seaside breeze. Robert hardly noticed her in his eagerness to get more information about the residents of Innsmouth.
So Tomiko changed her tactics, and tried to court him with her knowledge rather than her appearance. “Innsmouth is run down now, but it used to be a prosperous town, almost a city. The main industry was abalone. Ryuunosuke Kodama brought divers and harvesting techniques with him from his home in Chiba, Japan.”
“Wait, I’ve heard that name. Kodama is the founder of the town, right? And the source of the–” Robert paused and his face flushed red, but then he continued, “the Innsmouth look.”
Tomiko laughed, as though completely unbothered by his disgust for the fish-frog residents of the town. True, she had been cursed with the Innsmouth look, but she was human now. What did it matter if Robert found the fishy features of the other townspeople offputting? She herself had hated it, when she was afflicted. Still, she could not reveal the true nature of the transformation without explaining the Esoteric Order, and she felt it would be unwise to share such information with an outsider. So she skirted the subject by saying only, “Many of the residents of Innsmouth are descended from Kodama in some manner. He had six children, all of whom stayed here to run the family business.”
They talked at length about the town. Several times throughout the day Robert attempted to make excuses and take his leave, but always she regained his attention by meting out historical facts, anecdotes, even idol gossip about the residents of the town. But by late afternoon she was no closer to winning his affections than she had been in the morning, and her time was running short. When once again he tried to make excuses, she made a desperate suggestion, “but first come out to the pier and I can tell you the story of Devil Reef. Joanne has always been an outsider, and the tale she tells is but a fraction of the town’s true history.”
To her relief, this was enough to recapture his attention. She had hoped the pier at sunset would be a romantic setting, but the tide was low and the breeze coming in off the water bore an unpleasant stench of rotting fish. Tomiko could see the shadowy forms of deep ones not far from the end of the pier. The sun was low, and her time was nearly done. If she did not win her kiss soon, she would be their sacrifice, a feast for Dagon.
Robert’s attention was focused on the reef, and a whisper floated up from the water beneath the pier. Tomiko knelt, and saw her sister, Amaya. Her stringy black hair was plastered to her gray-green face and her gills flapped gently in the open air. Her golden tiara was gone.
“We’ve made a deal for you,” her sister whispered. She held up a knife carved from the shell of some large sea creature. It had an opalescent sheen as it caught the rays of the setting sun. “Sacrifice the human, and you can transform into one of us, and live your immortal life beneath the waves.”
Tomiko took the blade. Robert had no part in her deal with Dagon, save for being the only human who happened to be in town. She wasn’t sure she could take his life for hers. She held the blade behind her back, hoping he wouldn’t see it.
“Robert,” she said, calling his attention away from the pier. She was a beautiful woman, a human woman, and she would be bold and take this opportunity to live the life she wanted. She looked at him with deep brown eyes catching the merest hint of gold from the setting sun, and whispered, “kiss me.”
Robert pushed her away. “I will not defile myself with some perverted mockery of the human race, some horrifying creature of the Yellow Peril. Your eyes are hideous, bulging and nearly lidless with their epicanthic folds. You smell of the fish you are always eating, and your skin is a color better suited to simians than to men. I was curious as to the history of this town, but I want no part of you with your Innsmouth look.”
“I saved you! I could have told them where you were, but I protected you. And this is how you repay me?” Tomiko held up her knife and called to her sisters. They dragged themselves out of the water and stood beside her to lend their support against the unspeakable horror of his xenophobic hatred.
Tomiko stepped closer. Her sisters formed a wall behind her, making it impossible for him to escape. She pressed the tip of her blade against his chest, and red blood bloomed like a flower against the white of his shirt. His pale eyes widened with terror at her attack, and he hurried backwards, careless of the slick boards at the end of the pier, where the waves had splashed up and soaked the wood.
He screamed as he fell into the water. Dark shapes beneath the surface pulled him down, and his screams transformed into incoherent burbling as his head disappeared beneath the waves. Tomiko hurled her knife at the spot where Robert had disappeared. The deep ones had their sacrifice for Dagon, and they swam back to the reef, content.
The sun set.
Tomiko’s skin burned as though the last rays of the sun had lit her on fire. Her face melted into itself, and the red lines of gills sliced into her neck. Human skin fell away to reveal a scaly back and a slimy white belly. Her hair fell to the pier, leaving her completely bald. She had lost her deal with Dagon, and she was human no more.
But the love of her sisters had saved her from being a sacrifice. She didn’t have the human form she wanted, but she was determined to live her life. She dove with her sisters into the cool ocean water, and together they swam out past the reef. Her sisters returned to their underwater city, but Tomiko swam north along the coastline, to San Francisco.
Mom would be furious, but maybe there was a place for a fish-frog waitress at Uncle Yuji’s restaurant.