“Once upon a time, there was a girl.”
There was no storm to herald her birth. No raging of the sea or darkening of the sky announced such an auspicious occasion. Instead, she was born during a calm with not a breath of wind to cool her mother’s perspiring face. Nonna laughed every time she recounted the story, “Only those destined to be villains or heroes are given such an announcement. The rest of us, well, we forge our own path. And you, little one, are very lucky. Being born during a calm has done wonders for your temper.”
Meris smiled proudly; inscribing the story deep within so that no one could ever tell where the story started and Meris ended. Nonna always told stories. “The telling of tales is in our blood. So is the making,” she added winking at her youngest grandchild.
Meris didn’t miss Nonna. She knew Nonna’s stories well enough to mumble them to herself in dreams, and in the end, that was all that mattered. Not a person’s touch or smell or presence, but their stories.
“She lived by the ocean with her sister and her father”
Neither Meris nor Lotte or Papa ever left the town where they lived. “I’m just a simple fisherman,” her father boasted, “I know my place. Why should I leave for places unknown when all I need is the sea?”
Meris wasn’t interested in the wide world of the land. What did it matter when eventually the sea would reclaim all? She watched it, nibbling at the coastline, or trying to devour a cliff. Farmers bemoaned the loss of fertile land. Meris sat for hours sometimes watching the ocean reclaim what once it had lost. She told Lotte about this once. Lotte had laughed.
“Every day she went out to beach and watched the waves.”
Meris always woke at dawn. She walked out barefoot and in her flimsy white nightgown. She’d ventured out along the beach, clad in nothing but sand and lace. She picked clams during the earliest part of the morning when the sky painted the sea pink. She spotted the little bubbles left in the surf from where the clam vented air. Facing the surf, she’d bend over, sticking the shovel into the soft sand. After a few expert scoops she’d uncover the clam, then reach to place it into her yellow plastic bucket. From the distance it looked like she was praying.
Late mornings were leisurely. Lotte would paint her face carefully. Using first this cream then that. When Meris told her that it smelled bad Lotte bloomed red and proclaimed that it smelled better than salt, seaweed, and fish guts. Most mornings her father fished and Lotte worked in the hotel, cleaning up after the people who left their trash on the beaches.
This morning Meris swam and examined the tide pools: playgrounds the ocean provided solely for her amusement. As it did the shells. She thought that the shells washed up on the beach must be poor things indeed. The ocean kept the best things for itself. Therefore the best shells were to be found in the sea. Full of interesting crabs and worms and similar crustaceans. Other people found it odd that she didn’t collect the shells she found. Instead she returned them to their original positions, resting in the warm sand.
During the afternoon their father returned with the catch. Lotte claimed that their scales irritated her skin, that the boning and gutting of the fish disgusted her. She wouldn’t touch their father’s catch. So Meris did. Sitting by the wharf where the boats were tied to keep them from wandering.
Lotte came home at night. They’d eat dinner (invariably fish or clam or crab) while seated around the old, wooden table. Exposure to the salty air had pitted and weathered its surface. Father gulped his food down like whales did brine, while Lotte nibbled her meal like the little fish in the tide pools would to Meris’ bare toes. After dinner the others dropped into exhausted sleep, too tired even to dream. Meris sat awake in front of the glowing hearth, opening the door to the crash of the tides, and the glow of the moon. At such times she’d remember Nonna. Nonna would sit in the old, frayed chair by the fire smoking her pipe, with Meris curled up by her knees. Nonna often pulled a carved comb through Meris’ hair, braiding it with smoke and stories.
Meris told herself a story. The best stories began “Once upon a time.” This story Meris crafted herself. She made it with the sounds of the waves and the pull of the comb. With the glow of the fire and the smell of fish. It was this story that she poured herself into, forcing truth into every fall of her words. In it Meris was not a girl of knobby knees, burned skin, and scrawny limbs. Instead she was all seaweed and pearls, a thing of the sea.
“She wished more than anything to be a mermaid.”
The next day dawned as all the others before it had. She got up, hunted for clams, and kissed her sister goodbye. She then went to the wharf where her father stood waiting for her by the heap of fish. She greeted him and picked up the knife, preparing to scale it. Her father looked at her oddly. She wondered if he could see the thoughts in her head. If he would send her home; fearful of pulling her up, bloated and pale, in his net. Instead he smiled at her, “Well, it’s good to see you so happy.” She nearly laughed. Was that what this was about. Was she smiling?
“So she came up with a plan.”
Meris carefully scaled the fish. Cutting just so, so that flesh and scale fell connected in narrow strips. She collected the strips using several of her clamming buckets. She used the regular slop buckets for the heads and guts and bones. Finishing this, she ran home buckets flying out behind her. She hurriedly stored them in a dark cool place under her bed and filled each bucket with cold seawater. That night her father returned from the market and Lotte came back from her job at the hotel. Both were too tired to notice her mood. They went to sleep after dinner, Lotte climbing into the bed they shared, unmindful of what lay hidden beneath.
Meris awoke the next morning. She lay still in bed. Her stomach felt like it had been stuffed full of kelp and wriggling crabs. She could feel herself sweat and tremble, too full of nerves to stay still. Today was the day.
Lotte was concerned. She lingered over her morning grooming, offering water or medicine to her sister. Meris refused. She knew that everything would soon be made right. She watched her sister paint her face. And jumped up when she’d left.
“She made herself a tail out of the skin of fish.”
From the sewing supplies she took needles and strong thread. She labored all morning and into the afternoon; drawing the thread into small, tight stitches. She was careful not to tear the flesh, or remove any scales. She labored over it all morning, hands stiff and scales dulled from constant exposure to the air. When she finally finished it was nearly time to help her father with the catch.
Instead she carefully picked up her skin and cradled it in her arms. She walked down to the water, clothed in scales and thread. The water frothed gently lapping at her feet, her thighs, her hips. It was welcoming her. It knew what she was doing. She smiled and then carefully, oh so carefully, she pulled the tail up over her legs to her thighs. It was hard to move her legs. She’d spent time practicing swimming with her legs bound before, and now she remembered the skill she’d perfected.
“Then she went into the ocean and put on her tail.”
Meris swam. She dived deep, blinking the salt sting that burned her eyes until she could no longer feel it. She watch the fish dart about intent on their own business, weaving scenes around her. She saw crabs and eels, kelp and coral, and even the shadows of a pod of dolphins.
She moved with the inherent grace of the moon and the tides that was found in all the creatures of the sea. Eventually, as afternoon blended into evening, so did the scales of her crafted tail merge into her skin. Soon there was no seam marking the start of one and the end of the other.
“The tail stuck to her flesh, and where it touched, it became real. Slowly, the threads unraveled and the scales knit themselves together into her skin. Thus the girl became a mermaid.”
She’d made her own story, like Nonna told her she could. And in this story, Meris was not a girl of knobby knees, burned skin, and scrawny limbs. Instead she was all seaweed and pearls, a thing of the sea.
“And she lived happily ever after.”