Emma and the Mermaid
by Bethany Cardwell
I was ten years old the first time I ventured, alone, to the large rock that stretched from the beach into the sea. It was a cool, almost-summer morning, and I was poking at a tangle of seaweed with a branch, thinking about how June had invitedall the girls in our class to her party but not me. All the girls kept looking at me and whispering, “Don’t tell Emma!” at recess that day.
I slashed the branch through the water, and the seaweed shifted, revealing two dead eyes peering at me. Before I could scream, the dead eyes blinked and the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen lifted her head above the water and began to sing to me. The sound was tinkling and tinny. The song vibrated within me, and I knew everything was okay.
For the next ten years, I visited the rock whenever I could spare a moment from the non-stop piano lessons, homework and boys. I called her ‘the mermaid’ because she said she didn’t have a name. She was my best friend. My treasure. My secret.
She told me about her world below, fantastic stories about racing whales and wrestling octopuses. I imagined I was there beside her in the warm and playful sea. She collected shells and fossils, she said. Dead things.
“Can you make me a mermaid? Can you show me?” I asked her every year. Every year, she’d said the same thing. She couldn’t show me until I was ready, and please don’t ask again. I stopped asking somewhere around my sixteenth birthday.
She’d ask me about my life and what it was like on land. I told her no one knew who my father was, and my mother, Aida, had disappeared after I was born, so I lived with my Grandma Cora.
Grandma Cora knitted me horrible sweaters that the girls at school made fun of. The mermaid shook her head and said never mind those girls. I tried, but it wasn’t easy.
When I was a teenager, I seethed to the mermaid about the boys who hurt me, and how I’d hurt them back. I even told her about the one I loved most of all, who left and never returned. She’d nodded. She’d understood my pain when no one else had. She’d listened when no one else had.
* * *
Now I’m 22. The angst of the teen years is behind me, but the last few months have been the most difficult of my life. I go down to the rock looking for the mermaid whenever I have the strength to make the walk. The mermaid hasn’t been there, and I’m beginning to feel abandoned.
I decide to try again today. The sun is rising, but it’s windy and overcast; there’s no chance of any adventurous explorers coming upon the cove. My legs are weak by the time I come upon the spot on the rock where I first saw the mermaid, twelve years ago.
I sit on the rough rock, dip my toes in the water, and watch the first rays of sun light up the dense clouds in a fiery pink. The seaweed smells strong today, like fish and brine. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it makes me feel safe somehow. I’m not sure how long I sit before I hear her familiar splashing as she swims up close and lifts her head out of the water.
She takes my hand and gently pulls me into the water. It’s too cold, and I’m too tired to swim today. I try to sit back on the rock. Her grip tightens, and her eyes harden as she pulls me. “I’m exhausted,” I say. “I can’t swim.”
She’s no longer listening, and the icy water is freezing my legs. My heart beats faster when I remember all the times she’s talked about her collection of dead things. She’s trying to pull me under and kill me. Sand rushes beneath my feet as I struggle against her cold grip. With the help of the ocean, she overpowers me. Her orange scales glitter against the dark turquoise of the sea.
The mermaid is silent. The raw, ruby lips that talked and sang to me for hours as a child are as strange and still as the old bowed cypress trees along the cliff. My head dips underwater, muffling our sounds in the dawn. Her tail slaps against the surf. It sounds like my thrashing legs.
Soon, we’re deep beneath the surface, and I feel the ocean’s pressure in my ears. “Why?” I ask, surprised at my voice. It sounds like tinkling music. “Why are you doing this?”
“You said you wanted to see,” she says, pulling me close, weaving us through grasping strands of seaweed. “I told you one day I would show you my collection.” She must mistake my panic for confusion.
An enormous cave engulfs us, dousing out the last of the light. Below us, a trunk glows gold. The cave walls brighten in its reflection. The water is warmer down here. My lungs don’t hurt anymore. She opens the lid and shows me the shells and fossils of dead sea creatures she’s collected. In the light of the trunk, I see another mermaid’s tail. It takes me a second to recognize the purple fins are my own.
“Now you will know what it is to be a mermaid,” she says with a sharp-toothed grin. “Part of the sea, part of dreams. One day, you’ll find someone to take your place in the sea, so that you can return home.”
“Why? Why would I do that?” I look around and everything is so peaceful here, swaying, serene. It’s nothing like the harsh living on land.
She looks like she wants to tell me an urgent secret but then changes her mind. “The Above will call you home. You’ll long to see sparkling stars and to breathe salty air.” Small bubbles are escaping her mouth and the urgent look on her face returns. She takes my face in her hands and looks at me. I never noticed how much her eyes look like mine. “Trust that you’ll know why. Goodbye, Emma,” she says as a large bubble rises from her mouth. She races it to the surface, silly legs flailing.
She’s wrong. I’ll never want to leave this place. I run my tongue across sharp teeth. Water pulses through new gills. I swim down with my powerful new tail fin, in search of something to eat.
* * *
I’d forgotten how hard it was to swim with two legs. Leaving Emma at the bottom of the ocean was agony. If I hadn’t lost the ability to breathe underwater, I would be there now, instead of having to leave her again. I’m not sure if it’s my heart or my lungs that hurts the most. With a final kick, I break the surface and gasp for a few seconds. My legs are too tired to kick any longer. I float on my back until I’m close to shore and then stand, swaying in the currents, on wobbly legs.
Once I reach dry sand, my legs feel strong again, less strange. I’d forgotten how sand clings to wet feet. My toes push into the rough sand for warmth. The ocean feels like ice on my skin.
All of my daughter Emma’s stories are mine to treasure. No one will know she’s swimming at the bottom of the sea, cracking shells with her teeth. One day she will surface, looking for me, and I’ll tell her everything. I’ll tell her about how we came to be cursed by the sea and how it caused the boy I’d loved most of all to leave and never return. She’ll learn that I didn’t leave her because I didn’t love her, but because I had to.
The boards leading to the house are flat and unforgiving. Walking on sand was easier, more like swimming. I must concentrate to use my muscles in this way. I try not to sway my hips too much. I perfect my walk until it is steady, like hers.
The doors of my ancestral home creak open. My mother, Cora, sits beside the fireplace and looks up from knitting a sweater. I smile as I think about how many times Emma complained about wearing ‘Grandma Cora’s ugly sweater.’ This one is meant for me. I don’t care how ugly it is, it looks soft and comfortable. After over two decades in the ocean I want to wear something, anything, fuzzy.
“Hello, my darling Aida,” Cora says. “I’m so glad you’re back. Come, sit by the fire.” Shadows dance against her soft, smooth skin. She smiles, sharp teeth glittering in the semi-darkness. She points to a chair with a dress draped across it. I slip it on and briefly enjoy the fire tingling my skin. As much as I want to sit beside it, warming my bones and chatting with my mother as normal people do, there is something more important to see.
“Is she in there?” I point to my childhood room.
Cora nods and gets up from her chair. “She’s sleeping,” she says and leads the way down a dim hall and slowly opens the door.
My body wants to dash into the room, but I tiptoe quietly up to the large, wooden crib. My granddaughter is beautiful and precious. I want to pick her up, but I’m afraid to wake her. “Hello, sweet girl,” I whisper.
“Her name’s Arora,” my mother whispers to me.
“Arora,” I whisper. “I’m so sorry that Emma, your mother, had to leave, but I promise to take care of you. Always.” I lean over and kiss her tiny nose. She smells sweet and milky. She moves a little and, for a second, I’m afraid I’ve woken her up, but she soon settles again.
I think of Emma and how I had to leave her just like this. One day Emma will remember her daughter and surface. She’ll make me promise to bring Arora down to play on the beach as often as possible. I will do everything Emma asks of me, just as my mother did for me.
Copyright © 2018 by Bethany Cardwell