The Mermaid

The June waves crept cold and soft and sudden in between my toes, drowning my blue nails in invisible salt and multi-colored wet sand.

I had never been so close to drowning before. My father had pulled me out just in time. The sea had had me in its dark, green and wicked gape until rainbow fish danced before my eyes. I laughed while coughing up the sea, babbling dreamily about the magical underworld and its mysterious and inviting shimmering lights. My mother told me to keep coughing and spitting and I did. She held me up and patted my back while I tried to get the feeling back in my legs. But they had grown weirdly soft. Like jelly. Like the sea.

The coming night, and many nights after, I dreamed vividly about the gold and pink zebra-skin of the sea, colors of sunlight and blue-green darkness permanently tattooed on my eyelids.

That was five years ago. In early June.

As the waves left my toes in puddles of hollowed out sand I didn’t know where to move. Bird-Clouds of migrating swallows banked in the sky and I imagined schools of fish doing the same out there. Under the blue blanket of wetness. But I had become afraid of the water. Its magic oozed into my forbidden dreams, rank with salt and silver.

For the first time in my life I had fallen through a portal into another world, a world whose rules I did not understand: an underworld of slowness and flying things maneuvering through shafts of unpredictable greenish light. I thought I was going to stay there forever. I don’t know if I had truly wanted to or not.

Later that summer I found a conch shell on the beach and my mother told me to put my ear to it. In it I could hear the song of the sea again. It became my one and only link to the world I had left behind. But I never went into the water again. Ever.

It was the first day of the school holidays and I was back on the summer island. It was the beginning of a new life. A life called summer. It was a short life, like a butterfly’s, but with endless days that seemed to contain so much more than ordinary days. So much growing up spread out, searching for the sweet nourishment of dreams.

My sisters spent the first days looking for summer boys, for among hundreds of holiday guests there was bounty the sisters had never seen before. Tanned giants and skinny surfers darted from beach to beach, their squawking tangled with the continuous rant of sea gulls. My uncle and aunt let us run free like sparrows, leaving the seduction of youth to run its course. I watched the sisters and the boys scattering on the cliffs like handfuls of berries tumbling to the sea after a fall. Their limbs long and sun kissed like the days. But my toes were always white and my fingertips were wrinkled and pink from the teeth marks of the hungry sea.

There was a storm that night and I was awakened by the blue-black roar of wind-whipped waves. The moon, halved by the shadowy summer night, shone icily and pale overhead. I pulled a white cotton dress, conveniently placed on the chair next to my bed, over my head and climbed out of the bedroom window I always kept open. There was no sign of any humans. I was alone, out of sight, and shadowless. Down by the dock my uncle’s boat danced wildly in the wind and pulled its moorings like a fish on hook. The island was blue and grey and lost in nostalgic reminiscence, solidly rooted in the world, it didn’t bother much about the sky’s rolling temper. It was a rainless wind. The sky was clear and warm. I walked barefoot down to the dock. It was a pillarless dock made of wood and it moved slightly back and forth. This is where I had fallen into the underworld five years ago. I could still see the portal, black and silvery and seductive. I bent over and tried to find my reflection in the chaos of the surface. There was a silhouette down there, moving rhythmically. But it didn’t look like mine. The face was blurry, but the hair seemed to be longer and the eyes, deeper set and perhaps it was just the moon, but they seemed to be shining as they looked straight into mine. And it was then I heard it. In the echo of the storm, notes that didn’t belong in the natural world: the slow keening of the sea.

Then, suddenly, the world ended. I don’t know if I let go or if I was pulled, I don’t remember feeling it happen. The furnished night disappeared with all its traditional smells and logic, and complete silence occurred. As though it had never been otherwise. Everything seem to fly into place as the loneliness of night was replaced by the unquestionable swirling of the mysterious patterns of the underworld. Time was suspended, and my body, from walking and running, took on the slow graciousness of a fish, bending and flickering like a speck of dust moving motionless from sun shaft to sun shaft. Pillars of curled seaweed bent to the current as my eyes went voyaging in the endless blue. A memory flickered in my mind. Of legs turning to jelly. Only it had never been jelly. My green and silver slippery skin curled like the seaweed and performed the dance every underwater creature knows. I moved effortlessly, and the expanse, with its crumbling non-existent walls, widened before me.

I let go and allowed the sea to take me. But I didn’t get far. Something had grabbed hold of me, had gotten its hook so deep into me that I couldn’t move. And I felt my breath stuck in my lungs, drinking the whole sea. I fought hard. But the hold on me just tightened. I was caught in someone’s net. The more I fought, the more I lost. Until I was hoisted out of the sea and tossed on to hard land. I blinked hard, trying to focus on this new world around me. And as it resettled in my mind, the patterns became familiar. Nothing had changed since that summer five years ago. And nothing had escaped. My eldest sister looked at me with horror. Not understanding what she had just done. Desperately trying to set the scene anew. I coughed and spat and the same came out of me. My jelly legs, reunited with hard ground, reformed and recoiled. My sister patted me on the back and draped her cardigan over my shoulders. A summer boy appeared behind her. He looked frightened and out of place. His brown chest was bare and his shoe lace undone. My sister pulled me after her, I wriggled in her brick grip, but gave up and let her lead me back to the house. The summer boy disappeared into the sunrise.

Later that summer my uncle taught me how to swim. After my sister told him about my little seaside escapade there was no mercy. Funnily enough I learned pretty fast. My uncle called me a natural.

In every Life there is a Sea

This story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by an old Norse myth.

In every life there is a sea, if not without, then within, roaring serenely and pulling quiet into chaos, until there is a pause, and you can hear sea urchins singing like porcupines, and then when you are far out in the darkness, you will come to believe that the truth is in the sting, yet the poison…the poison is in the almost invisible threads straying after slow-moving ships with too beautiful eyes…

In the distance, the little islands outside Brandywine Bay are shining emeralds strung on an invisible garland against a soft blue horizon, irresistibly glamorous in its overlapping of white sails and wedding-caked sea fairies, whooping deliciously against red – and black painted prows, adorning exotic names like “Estrella Del Mare” and “Blackbeard’s Pipedream”. Little blue-black dolphins skip across the surface, their metallic fins gleam glossily as they pierce through the paler surface, shining like octavian stars bobbing in the summer sun. The air is thick and hot, laced with salt and flowers and fermenting mangoes, stealing across from the islands and bridging the gap between coasts.

“You are going too fast,” says Cohen, “slow down, you are scaring the fish away!” I am tempted to go even faster, I can’t stand the sight of fish wriggling and kicking and fighting for their lives with a huge hook in their mouth. But I slow down, just to please Cohen. I do a lot just to please Cohen. He is two years older than me and gorgeous, too gorgeous to be stuck in a small dinghy with me on a hot summer day. But our mothers have been friends forever, so he is just that, stuck with me, the girl with muddy gypsy eyes and the lanky body of an overgrown ten year old boy. “There, I’ve got one!” A tiny fish gleam silver and green just below the surface, Cohen reels it in a bit too fast and it slips the hook and skits away into the deep. “Damn fish!” complains Cohen, but I release a deep content sigh. “What’s with you?” Cohen glares at me, “you’re acting weird. Don’t you want me to catch any fish?” I lower my eyes and bite my lip nervously, “sure,” I stammer, but I can’t quite look into those marvelous blue eyes of his. I just sit there, staring at my brown sandals, acting like a typical girl. Cohen snorts and throws the hook back into the sea. “Lucky for you this bloody pond is full of fish,” he says and laughs, thinking perhaps I didn’t get the double meaning, but I did. I silently curse myself for being in love with such a jerk. That is the truth though, me, awkward nerdy Lucy is in love with the Norse god that is Cohen Leery. I have a whole drawer full of poetry to prove it. Oh, yeah, you heard me right: poetry. Another proof of my hopeless nerdiness.

Something is pulling on the line again, and Cohen tightens his grip on the fishing rod and starts reeling in the line. He is sweating in the midday heat, and all I can do is stare. “A little help, please,” he hands the rod over to me, and I obediently hold on to it while he battles the line. It is something big, something heavy. Oh no! Shit. But suddenly the line goes slack and still. “Damn it!” swears Cohen, “that was a big one!” He lights a cigarette and lets go of the line, I jump as the rod almost slips out of my hand when the hook at the end of the line again plunges into the deep blue. Cohen laughs. He studies me behind clouds of smoke as I struggle to get the right grip on the fishing rod. I haven’t held a fishing rod since I was a little girl, but even then I couldn’t look at the death sentenced fish. It was my father who had to pull the victims out of the ocean and hit them on the head with a rock. I always stayed in the background. “Do you want me to show you?” he asks and flares a smug grin. I shake my head and position my hands on the rod. But the line has gone slack again, and I can catch my breath.

Cohen smokes while we both gaze into the liquid blue. The sea is a cool shade of turquoise, the sun has started its descent, and glazed skinny threads ripple across the surface. Rays of light tunnel towards a cluster of corals, barely visible behind the tell-tale scattered shadow of our dinghy, a handful of bright apricot and pink tentacles swirl meditatively in the light, a seductive dance to lure its prey into a beautiful, but deadly trap. Cohen finishes his cigarette in one last long drag and plucks the fishing rod out of my hand. “It seems you are bad luck,” he says and gives me a pat on the back. His hand is warm against my soft skin, and it leaves a burning mark inflaming my entire body. I quickly look down, not wanting him to see the redness voyaging across my face.

We are drifting further from the shore as the wind is shifting and increasing its pace. But Cohen still wants me to take us even further out. “Use the oars,” he demands, “the motor will only scare away the fish.” I dip the oars into the surface and turn the boat out towards the deep. I know I am not supposed to go this far out, there are sharks, tiger sharks and even great whites. The inflatable dinghy seems pathetic as it steadily makes its way to the ocean, away from the bay. The corals disappear from sight, and under us; there is only inky black silence. “Wait,” Cohen reaches for the line, it makes small dips against his hand, “I think I’ve got something.” I lift the oars and let the dinghy bob quietly on the small waves. It really is a fish this time, a tiny white and red one with beady silver eyes. Cohen laughs and holds it up against my face. I cringe. The tiny fish is gaping, the oxygen slowly choking it, and it wriggles its tail desperately, as though it could get back into the sea by pretending it is already there. “Please,” I whisper, “can you at least give it a merciful death?” Cohen looks at me and chuckles, “I didn’t know you were such a softy, Lu.” I shrug and lift my head to look at him. But apparently my discomfort has no effect on him. “Nope, this little guy is perfect bait if I am to catch us a proper dinner.” He throws the hook back into the sea with the tiny fish still on. I can’t take my eyes off it as it plunges, with the hook still in its mouth, as fast as it can into the sea, desperate to get as far away from us as possible. I feel like crying.

Cohen lights another cigarette, but keeps his left hand on the fishing rod. He squints his eyes as he pulls the nicotine into his lungs. I look away. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Cohen drops the cigarette and grabs the rod with both hands; something is pulling the line, something big. I can see his biceps and arm veins bulging as the pliant fishing rod bends so much that it almost curls in on itself. Cohen is struggling, fighting whatever is down there with all his strength. He breaks into a sweat, but the fish only pulls harder. I start to panic. “Cohen, “I beg, “let it go, it’s too big.” “No way in hell!” Cohen’s voice has an edge to it. I can see that his black pupils are dilated, and he has a wild look in his eyes. He laughs and swears as he fights the giant fish. Cohen is strong, stronger than I had imagined, all the muscles in his body are tensing and popping out, and I can’t stop staring at him. But this is a dangerous game. And when it comes to crossing the sea, the sea always wins, all islanders know that. But Cohen is not ready to let this one go. “Cohen, please,” I touch his arm, he is only wearing a t-shirt and I have to put my hand on his hot sweaty naked skin. Cohen shrugs it off. I look into the deep, trying to follow the line as far down as I can, and there, in that black infinite pool I see an even blacker shadow rising up towards us. I scream. But Cohen doesn’t even register my scream. He is fixed on the battle, like a warrior fighting his own destiny. He is starting to scare me.

“Cohen! Cohen!” I scream into his ear, but he doesn’t even flinch. I try to wrestle the rod out of his grip, but it is useless, he doesn’t even stir. I stare back into the water, the shadow is bigger than our boat, it surrounds us on all sides, and that is when I know, it must be a great white, there is nothing else as big as this in these waters. And just as the revelation hits me I can clearly see a fin, and aren’t those white things teeth? “Cohen!” I plead “It’s a shark! It will tear us to bits! Cohen we’re gonna die! Let go! Please!” But Cohen doesn’t hear me. I have no idea where his strength is coming from, the shark must be more than fifteen feet long, how can any human battle something like that? Then suddenly it is over, or I think it is over. The fishing rod stretches out again and for a second it looks like the tension on the line is gone, but I am wrong, so wrong. The dinghy starts moving, so fast that I fall over. Cohen stands at the bow holding on to the rod pulling us further and further to sea.

I can no longer tell where the shadow underneath us starts and where it is ending, it all seems like one big black blur pulling us away from home, from everything that is safe. I start screaming again, but there is no sound coming out of my mouth, I have lost my voice. Cohen is laughing now. “Is that all you’ve got you old bastard!” he shouts into the sea. Behind me, the islands are disappearing, and I realize that if I don’t do anything now we will both be dragged so far away from the shore there will be no turning back, we will die, either by the teeth of this shark or we will drown. I need to cut the line, but how? I don’t have a knife or anything sharp. Oh, yes, but I do! I’ve got my teeth. I hurl myself at Cohen, gnawing the salty, almost invisible line through my teeth. I am desperate, so desperate I almost forget to breathe. Spit and tears trail across my chin, all salty. There is too much salt! Cohen tries to fight me, but even he cannot fight two opponents at the same time; his hands are locked around the fishing rod. Then finally I hear a sharp snap and the boat jolts to a stop, we are free. The black shadow disappears instantly and Cohen blinks as if coming out of a trance. His hands are bleeding. He sits down, panting. I don’t say anything. I can’t, I can’t even look at him. He stares at his bleeding hands then out into the sea. The tide is still pulling us outwards so I quickly start the outboard motor and turn the dinghy back towards land. I speed up as much as I can, forgetting about the dangerous reefs and the underwater rocks. I just stare through my tears at the growing islands, willing the boat to go faster, faster. When we finally reach shore Cohen says nothing, he just sits there. I tether the dinghy to our pier, not bothering about pulling up the outboard, and run, away from Cohen, up to the house, crying harder and harder. Some of the tears fall into my mouth and I am surprised by the absence of salt. I leave Cohen there. I really leave him.

The wind has settled for the night. And quiet seems to slip in with the darkness, only the melancholy sound of tree frogs makes up the soundtrack of the night. Cohen has pulled the dinghy up on the beach and tied it to a swaying palm tree, or maybe it wasn’t Cohen at all. There is a glassy jellyfish stranded on the beach, it is covered in a pattern of red eyes. I want to toss it back into the sea, but it has a train of poisonous threads, all entangled, around its body. “I’m sorry,” I say, even though I know it can’t understand me. The flamboyant tree shakes its head at me. With the silver-streaked onyx sea to my left and the garland of haint blue island houses to my right, I walk through lanes, scattered with magenta bougainvillea, towards home. In the corner of my eye I can see a tall darkly handsome boy standing by one of the many cliffs on the island, staring forlornly towards the blue-black horizon, his bloody hands are open, reaching out, as to a lover lost and drowned at sea.

Solitude

The moon
is sinking low
behind the pale horizon
and I am alone
haunted by a shadowy sea
of starlit memories
I take my solitude
by the hand
and together we walk
along a prayer-spangled beach
untroubled by the drifting years
of the night