A Little Mermaid
By E(lipse, 2003

Dolphins ply the water, converging on the pressure wave around the bow of a large sailboat. A gracious father hoists his little girl onto his shoulders, one tourist amidst a throng, gripping the railing of the boat. A winsome mother grips the child’s tiny hand as a dolphin breaks away from its group to leap high into the air, drawing an appreciative ruckus from the crowd. It is the last day of the family’s vacation, but they will return home to a small town near other salty waters, a section of suburban sprawl in Florida’s panhandle, nestled against the Gulf coast.

Merle wants to be a dolphin when she grows up.
Merle is an intelligent and perceptive young woman, age six, and she knows that fulfilling this desire is quite impossible. With forthright insight, and mature acceptance of the inevitabilities of life, she adapts.

Merle wants to be a mermaid when she grows up.
Sometimes people make decisions as children that influence their lives all down the line. The life of an individual with Merle’s desires, intellect, and ambition could course down many streams. She could start down the same paths as Sylvia Earle, Jacques Cousteau, Wyland, or Eugenie Clark. She could become a brilliant marine biologist, or a world-class SCUBA diving instructor. Little Merle has within her the seeds of the necessary focus and talent. Yet it happens that, at only six years old, she chooses a different road.

Merle wants to be a mermaid when she grows up, and so she shall be.
Mermaid dolls begin to accumulate in Merle’s bedroom, and mermaid drawings to adorn her walls. She must be a mermaid for Halloween. Amidst the other children in her grade, some have a horse phase, a dinosaur phase, a cat phase. The natural assumption, duly made by parents and teachers, is that Merle is having a mermaid phase. But unlike many of the passing interests trivialized as “phases,” this persists, developing in sophistication over time.

The adults in her life are fairly attentive, and they take care to exploit the young girl’s interests for her own advantage. Merle takes swimming lessons, and in skill and enthusiasm, she is unequalled. Merle takes singing lessons, and her angelic voice is adored by all who hear it. Once literate, she collects books about the undersea world. She seems a bright child, a little too focused, perhaps, but heading towards some kind of success. She refuses to cut her hair.

Alas, one does not stay young forever. Middle school is a rude awakening, as this girl becomes isolated from children who do not spend much time playing with mermaid dolls any more. Puberty is a worse awakening. With dawning awareness of the complex creature that she is becoming and the things that are expected of her, Merle finally realizes that she has set herself up for a life of great difficulty. She knows it is too late to stop or alter course. She sees herself as most adolescents do, but with a twist, perhaps a little extra poignancy. Merle is in a world apart.

Yet… she is nothing if not resourceful. She continues to do those things that she loves; whether it is possible for her to waver shall be always unknown, as it is clear that in her life she never does. She knows who she is and what she must be; she knows that her mind and body are wrong for it, and that she lives in a world that is not quite right, and does so not quite rightly.

Merle is unhappy at school. She is unhappy not because her fellow students tease her, although they do. She is unhappy not because she does not think that pre-algebra will be useful to her, although she does not think it will. She is unhappy because every hour at school is an hour on dry land. Every minute at school is a minute of impossible-to-deny humanity. Merle wears skirts to hide her legs. She slowly ceases to turn in homework, to talk, to eat meals with her family. She is often sick with trivial colds and bacterial infections, and clumps of her hair begin to fall out, presumably from stress. Many familial arguments ensue, often following three or four hour baths on her part. Finally, fearing for her health, her parents allow her the chance to opt out of school and study at home. It is taken in a heartbeat.

Over the months, her hair grows back in. Though naturally brown, it is bleached to an uneven and brittle straw-blond by continuous exposure to sun reflected by sand and water’s surface. Once blond, chlorine turns it a sickly green, and for all her mermaid’s care and brushing, it never looks quite normal. Merle swims for hours every day in the community swimming pool. She is allergic to chlorine; when she heaves herself out onto the concrete and tiles she realizes that her nose and throat are swollen. She gasps for breath and she cannot see, her vision blurred, salty tears stinging her red eyes. She coughs, she chokes, she drags herself home (or into the grassy part of the park) and she collapses into an awkward sleep.
And she returns and swims, each day. Years ago she ceased needing swimming lessons, having been taught all that the local instructors could teach her. She was unwilling to participate in the school’s swim team; a child who had made a different choice might have won trophies and discovered a way to fit in, though it be a poor fit. Merle will never be that child. Yet although she is stubborn, and perhaps somehow insane, she is not entirely rash or wanton. She knows she must become strong before spending all her time in the open water.
Merle sings sweetly still, but now her songs have no words. They are mermaid songs, high and wild and wandering.

Merle stops eating red meat, beans, and most grains. In violation of any standard of good judgment, she teaches herself to spearfish alone.

For sweet sixteen she gets a professionally made custom mermaid tail as a gift from her Aunt Tanya. Merle gradually stops wearing clothes, and is seldom seen in anything other than a swimsuit. She wheedles her college money out of her parents (who have gone through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression regarding their daughter's obviously dangerous eccentricity, and are now in a sort of stage of incredulous exhaustion). Merle uses this money as a down payment on an empty lot, an eighth of an acre in size, and builds a dirty little shack out there on the coast. This is likely a violation of many building codes, but the lot has always been overgrown with thick bushes and trees, a clot of hardy tropical invasive and native species, and ultimately no one seems to care. Within a year, she has moved out there. Merle stocks the shack with all of the diving and personal care equipment she can afford before running entirely out of money. Her father will not speak to her; her mother visits when she knows her daughter will be gone. After a week of living there alone and nearly starving, Merle pulls herself into the cabin to find a large willow basket in the door-less entrance, brim full of bananas, cut honeydew, ripe peaches, tart pineapple, sweet strawberries.

Merle is where she always knew she must be. She lives off fruit, both found and delivered, and her own hand-gathered or spear-caught fish, clams and crabs. She wears her green tail day and night alike, save for brief instances of necessary bodily maintenance. Lions paw shells gathered over the years with carefully drilled holes are lashed to her chest with ribbons and raffia. Goggles tight around her head dig into her skin, allowing her a kind of vision that is not her birthright. She curses that she has no natural mechanism with which to compensate for the fact that the optical densities of her corneas are the same as that of water, but she has never been above artificial help. Some days she wears a weight belt; often, a snorkel. Always, waterproof sunscreen. In the winter, she dons neoprene (around her tail, encumbering her motion further still) and clings numbly to the rocks, swimming to maintain her warmth, eating fish right there in the water. Against the odds, she survives. She keeps a diving knife sheathed at her side. She fashions simple jewelry out of shells and adorns herself heavily.
Merle swims an exhausting underwater dolphin-kick, feet held together by a monofin inside her tail. When she can swim no longer, she clings to the rocks. Before sunset, she returns to her overgrown suburban lot, drags herself up on the sandy beach, digging her fingers in, flopping and rolling. At the highest tides, it is only a few feet to the driftwood shack, which needs to be rebuilt after every storm. Inside are piled all that she needs to survive: thick blankets and towels, extra swimming and diving gear, bulk waterproof sunscreen, countless gallons of purified fresh water, lotions and hairbrushes, her mother’s basket full of fruit. Merle collapses in the pile of terrycloth and woven blankets, shivering violently. She pulls off her goggles, exposing raw welts where they daily rub her skin. She sleeps.
She wakes to eat her fruit, her raw fish, the day’s fresh catch. She rubs salves on her abused skin. She grabs a comb and hand mirror and pulls herself outside to comb oil into her hair and sing wildly to the setting sun. The face she sees in her hand mirror is wild. Her yellow-green hair is untangled, thanks to her daily ministrations, but most ends are split or broken, and they fly up in a halo around her head. The longest strands reach down her back to her waist. Her lips are sunburnt a rich ruby shade of red; her green eyes are swollen and rimmed with marks from her mask. Her teeth are, amazingly, healthy, white and straight. More amazing still, her hearing remains fine, despite inevitable infections, despite the risk of not equalizing the pressure in her eustachian tubes on a deep dive and bursting an eardrum.
Merle can force her eustachian tubes open by moving the muscles in her jaw; she hasn’t done the Valsalva maneuver for years. Merle practices modified Pranayama breathing techniques; she can hold her breath for 4.5 minutes in motion, and dive deeper than 60 meters. Merle is ignorant of how many lives have been lost to shallow water blackout, but if you told her, she wouldn’t change a thing. Merle’s legs, though sore and constrained, are very strong.
It is an inhuman life. Yet against the odds, this girl survives.

One July day she has swum out to the public beach, a short stretch of sand behind which sits a grassy public park. A fierce downpour has recently ended, and the beach is largely empty. A moving figure catches Merle's eye. Alone, a short girl of confident bearing with dark fluffy hair is building sand sculptures, sand castles. She mounds the watery sand high and then carves it down, cutting out archways, doors, steps, towers, and minarets. Liveliness and energy characterize her movements. Hours pass as she remains absorbed in her work, and Merle absorbed in her. As evening falls, the young woman leaves her castles, heads to the bike rack in the public park, retrieves a blue bicycle with metallic streamers on the handle bars and a pull-cart latched behind. She bikes away. Merle remains, struggles far onto the beach to inspect the castle. Finally swims away in the foamy, inky dark.

Something happens which Merle has never experienced. Instead of spending the morning hunting, watching sea life, and collecting shells, Merle returns to the public beach, again and again, to watch the sand. Her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a blue bike wedged in the park's bike rack. At night, swaddled in her slightly mildewed towels, Merle dreams. She is lying, out of water, far out of water. Damp, gritty sand trickles into her tail, sticks to her legs and between then. When she moves, the sand abrades her skin, working its way into tender places, causing her to cry out. Merle is used to discomforts, yet many of these seem to her to be only natural, simply part of being. This pain is different; it is of something alien beneath her skin, where water cannot wash it out, where she must remove a part of herself to try to cleanse herself. Yet so far is she from the water… and she will not remove her tail.

The beach girl's name is Carla. The longer Merle watches her, the worse the dreams become. Merle sits on the rocks and sings a song for Carla, yet this makes her unhappy. The song is not right. She sings again, but she cannot express the joyfulness and beauty that she saw in Carla.

Merle begins to sing songs with words; there is no other way to do justice to the lovely creature about whom she is compelled to sing. Merle spends time on the sand, hours of dry land where she tries to build castles and sculptures.
Merle imagines how Carla would see her life, her house, and is alarmed. She begins to cook her food over little driftwood fires. She tries in vein to create an image of Carla in wet sand, and finally resorts to landly techniques of ink and paper.

One morning, Carla swims out into the Gulf. She swims long laps, farther and farther, preoccupied. She looks back and realizes that she has left the shore far behind. She starts to swim back in, but she is panicked, upset. She is fighting the current, and her progress is so slow. Merle watches until she can bear it no longer, darts in towards her, catches Carla up in her arms. Whispers with a voice that has not spoken aloud in weeks. "I am a strong swimmer. I…will help you back to the, to the shore. You are so tired, and this is dangerous. I…" Carla seems to understand, relaxes against her body. Her short, wet hair brushes against Merle’s chest. Merle is fast and strong and in her element. She brings Carla out on the shore, where she lies gasping for breath, but breathing. Eyes closed.
Merle realizes where she is, what she has done, realizes that she does not know how long now she has lain in the sand and gazed on Carla’s face. Merle panics. She lunges towards the surf, wriggles desperately into the water, and is gone, back to cower amongst the rocky cliffs, collecting clams and spearing black grouper for her supper.

Now Carla experiences a phenomenon well known to Merle. Where before her trips to the shore were occasional pastimes, now each day she walks down by the beach and stares out to the sea. Although she has work and play waiting for her, friends to see and talk to, her own normal life to live, her thoughts are elsewhere. Who rescued her? A girl with long wet hair and ruby lips and shells around her neck. A girl her own age who must be an Olympic class swimmer, strong arms, strong legs, some obvious compassion.

Weeks pass and Merle has become torn between her life, which was so difficult to achieve and is now so preciously difficult to live, and the burning impulses inside her, which are new and strong. Merle has known since she was six; some things can’t be changed, some things are inevitable and inescapable. One evening she returns to the beach, looking for the blur of blue at the bike rack, looking for a tuft of dark hair and determined motions. Carla spots Merle first, the strange color of her hair. Carla is passionate, gives in without a fight to her own vague wants. Though clothed, Carla runs into the water, and swims as hard and far as she can. Her muscles burn, then cramp. She gasps for breath and inhales salt water. She coughs and sputters. She swims out farther than she has ever swum before, out past the buoys, out where a ship could run her down in the space of a moment, and no one would ever know where she had gone. She begins to feel her doubts; was she really alone out here? Why did she do something so stupid, so thoughtless… So self-destructive?
Then she feels it. Smooth, but tough, almost leathery skin. Arms wrapping around her from behind. Long wrinkled fingers that barely have nails; an improbable cloud of wet hair clinging to the back of her neck. She relaxes, collapses. Merle draws her around to her back and swims, carries her up above the waves.
But Merle saw what Carla did. Merle does not carry her back to the public beach. Merle swims to her own shack, her tiny, abandoned, overgrown lot by the sea. Merle lays Carla down upon the sand, pulls herself up beside her in the worn groove where she drags herself out each night. Carla’s eyes flutter open.
Lips swollen round and large, burnt berry-red meet soft land lips coated with key-lime lip-gloss and drying salt. That saliva is sweet, and not salty like most else that flows from human bodies, surprises Merle; it always has. She cannot drink her fill. The skin off chapped and damaged lips flakes away and they can both taste blood, and blood is salty, desperate and sweet. Fingers clutch at anything at hand: at first this is mainly sand, and for once, the sand feels good and cool and soft.
Much later, Merle willingly