Still So Strange is the first collection of short fiction and poetry from fantasy and horror author Amanda Downum, whose atmospheric, fantastical prose allowed it to become a World Fantasy Award finalist. Downum dreamed of becoming an author from the age of six, and as she grew older, she was influenced by beloved fantasy and science fiction authors such as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, and H.P. Lovecraft.
In this stunning collection, readers will find 20 short fiction pieces and two poems that draw us into the world of monsters, ghosts, witches, and mermaids inspired by fairy tales, mythology, and folktales. While some stories connect and others stand uniquely alone, all are vivid and captivating and promise to immerse readers with their darkly imaginative plots, always with a bit of hope dashed in.
The first story in this collection, “Wrack,” is an enchanting romance between a fisherman and a mermaid in which the author explores the depths of a relationship—both joy and sorrow—that is destined to lead to heartbreak between a mythical woman and an ordinary man. Below, read an excerpt of this mesmerizing tale and then download the entire collection to find out the lovers’ fate—and read the rest of the haunting tales in Still So Strange.
Read an excerpt of Still So Strange below—then purchase the short story collection!
Wind keened out of the north as they hauled in the last catch, whipping white froth on wave caps and whistling past the rigging. The sky was green, air tangy with the coming storm; waves slip-slapped against the Calliope’s hull. The winch groaned under heavy nets.
Not heavy enough, Jess thought, as the net slopped onto the deck, spraying water and scales. A quarter of what his father had caught on a good day. The off-season would be lean. He glanced away with a frown, rubbing his hands together against the bite of the wind.
“Jesus!” Colin shouted.
Jess turned back to the net, followed his mate’s wide-eyed stare to a pale line amid the glistening-dark mass of cod. He took a step closer.
Smooth flesh, marbled blue-green. The curve of a thigh, the angle of a knee. A woman’s leg.
“Christ,” Jess seconded, crouching beside the net. He knotted his fingers in wet nylon and tugged. Writhing fish slid away from a face smooth as ivory. Dark tendrils of hair clung to her cheeks, tangled with net and fins. Stormlight lent an unreal cast to her skin.
He reached out one scarred hand—
She stirred, wide green eyes opening. Jess’s heart jerked and he nearly lost his balance. Then she hissed, baring a mouthful of needle teeth, and he fell hard on his ass. His boots slipped on the wet deck as he scrambled back. Colin cursed and jumped away.
Jess could only stare, his tongue gone numb. The woman stared back, eyes huge, pupils crescent-shaped. She pressed a hand against the net, splaying clawed, webbed fingers.
“Mother of God,” Colin muttered, moving behind Jess. He crossed himself, then reached for the knife at his belt. The woman hissed again.
“Put that away,” Jess said. He found his balance, crawled closer. The deck pitched—the storm was coming. He showed her his open hands, careful as he might with any wild animal. The net had scraped her arms raw, and the abrasions wept watery blood.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he murmured, reaching for his own knife. Her eyes flickered, but she didn’t move. Nylon parted under the blade; there’d be hours of mending later. Fish slithered through the gaps, slapping his hands and boots. When the hole was big enough, he stepped away to give her room.
Her eyes flitted from Jess to Colin and back again as she crawled out of the net, landing on her hands and knees amid flopping cod. No mermaid tail, just lean-muscled legs and wide webbed feet. Her hair clung like sea wrack, scales shining like sequins amid its tangled dark length. Something gleamed in her left hand.
She tried to stand, but her feet tripped her up and her legs gave way. Jess sheathed his knife and knelt beside her. “Are you hurt? Do you need anything?”
It took a second to recognize the low sound she made as laughter. “I need the sea.” Jess shivered at her sibilant voice.
“Don’t we all?” His calm surprised him, like he cut mermaids out of trawl nets every day. He slipped one arm under her shoulders, the other under her knees, and lifted. He nearly expected her to be spun sugar and fairy wings, but she was real and solid as any woman. He grunted as he stood, and she caught his shoulder.
“We’d get more for her than for any load of fish,” Colin said. His face was pale, sickly in the dimming light. He still clutched the hilt of his knife.
The woman stiffened. Jess just stared at the other man until Colin flushed and looked aside.
He carried her to the rail, moving carefully on the tilting deck. The sea roiled, whitecaps rocking the ship, scattering spray against his face. The sky to the northeast was nearly black. Jess paused, hip propped against the rail, and stared at the fairy-tale creature in his arms. “Do you grant wishes?” he asked softly.
She smiled a pretty, close-lipped smile. Her face was a pale diamond amid coils of hair. One wet hand brushed his cheek. “Sometimes.”
And she rolled out of his arms and vanished into the waves.
His hand closed around something cold and hard. Gold winked between his fingers—a glittering chain, dark flecks of seaweed caught in the links. Jess studied it for a moment, then tucked it inside his coat and steered his ship back to shore.
The storm that chased them home lasted two days, keeping boats in the harbor and Jess in his house. More time than he’d spent there in a while; strange to stand so long on solid ground, to lie in a bed without the sea to sway him to sleep.
He lay in the dark as rain lashed the windows and ran the golden chain through his fingers like a rosary. The links didn’t warm to his flesh, but stayed cold as the wind outside. His father’s stories about sea monsters in the Atlantic no longer seemed quite so outrageous.
He fell asleep to storm-song and dreamed of mermaids.
Jess worried that Colin would go to the papers, despite their agreement not to. Colin went to church instead. A week later he came to collect the last of his pay and told Jess he’d found a job in Providence. They parted amiable enough, but the boy wouldn’t meet his eyes as they shook hands in farewell. Jess knew he should find a new mate, but he delayed. He took the Calliope out alone, but haddock and tuna were only an excuse.
For weeks he found nothing but fish, and not many of them. His father had suffered under harsh regulations and empty seas, and things hadn’t gotten better since Jess inherited the ship.
The sea had always been hard, but at least it had given him one moment of magic.
She came back one evening as the sun melted like butter behind the coast. Jess leaned against the rail, nets long since pulled in, staring at the waves rippling gold and marmalade around him.
He didn’t startle as she surfaced along the starboard bow, but his heart beat faster. She floated there for a long moment, hair streaming like ink around her. Dying light gilded her face and the curve of her breasts.
“What are you looking for, fisherman?” she asked at last. Her voice was rough, unused.
He pulled the chain out of his pocket; it gleamed like sunlight against his callused palm. “You left this behind.” His voice wasn’t any smoother than hers, scoured by wind and salt.
She glided closer. “It’s yours. For your … chivalry.” She smiled. A lovely smile, when he wasn’t close enough to see her teeth. “And I hardly deserve it, since I was foolish enough to get caught in your net in the first place.”
He ran a hand through salt-stiff curls and tried not to think about the impossibility of this conversation. His tongue felt thick and clumsy and he feared she’d vanish if he spoke again.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Jesse Finn. Jess.”
She watched him for a silent moment. “You can call me Morgan.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Do you want to?”
His stomach twisted as he remembered her weight in his arms. Maybe this was what seasickness felt like. “I do.”
She slid closer to the hull, until he could see the green depths of her eyes. “Don’t be so quick to answer, Jesse Finn. I’m of the sea. I’m always hungry. Whatever you give me, I’ll take, and then more.”
He swallowed hard. “I’m not afraid of the sea."
She sighed. “You should be.” Then she was gone, not even a ripple to mark her passage.
Two weeks later he took the Calliope out late, past the shallower waters where he fished for cod, haddock, and hake. He dropped anchor and sat on the deck, watching the stars flicker to life. The wind blew gently against his face. For a few hours he didn’t worry about money, or the next catch.
She pulled herself over the rail, skin blazing white, hair a midnight river. A cold, wild thing made of salt and starlight. Jess couldn’t move, could barely breathe. She took a halting, uncertain step forward and he rose to meet her.
Her skin was so soft he feared to touch her, but she pushed him down, surging and cresting in his arms, strong as the sea itself. Her teeth scathed both their mouths. He tasted her blood and his—iron and copper and salt sweetness. The cold deck bruised his back, and salt water burned his eyes, but he didn’t care. He drowned in her.
Afterward she lay beside him, warm and gentle. Splinters and stray scales poked his bare flesh, but he ignored them. The stars wheeled overhead as they lay together, skin to sticky skin.
“I can’t stay with you,” she said at last, barely audible over the soft susurrus of the waves.
He ran a hand over her hairless arm, tracing the snake-soft pattern of scales. “I know.” The thought of her on dry land, in his tidy little house, was obscene.
“You can’t stay with me, either.”
His hand paused, then continued its caress. “Why not? This is my home, too.”
“This, maybe—” her gesture took in the Calliope’s deck, the rigging over their heads “—but not the rest. I can’t give you breath with a kiss and take you to my palace below the sea.”
He smiled, face half-buried in the seaweed tangle of her hair. “Do you have one? A palace?”
Cool fingers traced the curve of his lips. Salt stung the claw-wounds on his back. “My father does. It’s not a place you’d care to visit.”
He might have spoken, but she kissed him again, soft and sweet, and stole his voice away.
Three nights he sailed out and met her under the stars. Each time she told him not to stay, each time she was gone in the morning.
On the fourth night her face was grim, and she held back from his embrace.
“I can’t meet you anymore.” Her tone was cold, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “My father is unhappy.” She glanced toward the choppy black water. “He’s … jealous.”
“I don’t care.”
“You will.” The ice in her voice cracked and she reached out to cup his cheek in one webbed hand. “Please, Jess. You knew how this would end.”
He did know. There was no other way. He should simply be grateful for the little time he’d been given.
“Stay close to the shore,” she continued. “Catch your fish. Don’t look for me again.” She stepped into his arms, clumsy on flippered feet. “Let your nets down tonight, and I’ll grant you a wish.”
“Grant me two.” He tilted her face up to his. She let him.
When he hauled in his nets the next morning, they were heavy with fish, rotting wood, and cloth. The fabric split under his touch, and yellow gold gleamed in the light.
For two weeks he did as Morgan asked, trawling close to the shore, keeping his eyes turned away from the broad expanse of the Atlantic. The treasure she had given him was enough that he didn’t need to fish again for a long time, but he couldn’t keep himself busy on land. He slept on the ship, but even the rhythm of the sea didn’t quell his restless, longing dreams.
In the third week his resolve broke. He turned the Calliope toward open water.
The storm thundered from the north with barely a gust of warning. The sky turned black as a bruise, and the waves churned into deadly walls of water. The ship was tossed like a toy, tossed and cracked and swallowed down. Before darkness took him, Jess thought he heard Morgan’s voice.
He woke battered and half-drowned on the beach, arms locked rigid around a life preserver. The Calliope’s wreckage lay scattered on the rocky shore.
When his legs worked again and he stopped vomiting seawater, he staggered home. Home—that little house trapped on a rock. The only home he had now. That night he cried for the first time in years.
But he had his gold, and he didn’t starve. Not for food, at least. At night he stood on the cliff and watched the moon rise like yellow silver. He listened for a voice among the churning waves, but it never came.
Three months after the storm, he met Jaime.
She tended bar in a little pub by the docks. Her hair was the color of pirate’s gold, her eyes deep and rich as loam. When she smiled at him he could almost forget the sea.
For months she talked and smiled, touched him with freckled, work-callused hands. Then one night she took him home.
His heart broke the first time they made love, but afterward he fell asleep on her soft shoulder. For once he didn’t dream. Steady as stone beneath the softness, and she gave as much as she took.
Weeks rolled on and Jaime stayed. When he came home at night after walking the cliffs she didn’t ask questions, just held him, warm and safe. Eventually Jess stopped listening to the call of the waves.
If he couldn’t tell her everything, at least he could talk to her about how the loss of the Calliope ached inside him, how he’d inherited the ship from his father and always meant to pass it on to his own children.
“I can’t have children.” Her dark eyes were sad. “Does that—”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, pulling her close, letting the peppery sunflower scent of her hair fill his nose.
They were married in a little church on the coast, six months after they met. Just maybe, Jess thought, looking into his wife’s warm eyes, he could have a life without the sea.
That night a storm howled down, screaming and sobbing, tearing at the house. Jess sat in the dark long after Jaime slept, bitter tears tracking his cheeks. Finally, he walked out into the raging night.
“You knew how this would end,” he whispered.
The storm stole his words and carried them away.