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art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico

Love, the Mermaids, and You

Holli Mintzer lives in College Park, MD, where she reads, writes, and attempts to knit.

After graduation, still in the white dress the school made all the girls wear, you go down to the lake to see the mermaids. It's a long walk: through the backyard of your father's house to the woods, over the neighbors' gate, down the lane and under the bridge and across the irrigation ditch. This early in the summer, the grass in the meadow is knee-high and still green, and the tangle of vegetation down the slope of the hill smells damp and alive. Along the lakeshore, the mud sucks at the heels of your new white sandals, bought to match, until you take them off and hook the straps around one wrist. They've left the start of blisters in two spots, on the top of each foot.
The grotto where the mermaids live is on the far side of the lake, far past where most people bother to go. There's a path, but it's not much more than a deer trail, and you remind yourself to bring the hedge clippers, the next time you come. The raspberry canes will creep across the path, otherwise, and they're prickly.
The lake is a long, narrow crescent, curled around the base of the mountain, fanning out into the marshes on the far side. As you get closer to the mountain, the mud gives way to mossy stone, and you can hear the bell-clear sound of the many little streams that feed the lake. You've laid planks and placed stones to bridge the streams where they cross the path, over the years.
To get to the place where the mermaids live, you have to scramble over a huge, weathered boulder, and duck through a narrow gap between two even-larger stones. You leave the white shoes on the ledge outside. The grotto is cool and dim, full of the sound of water. A little light filters in from the far end, where there's just barely a triangle of daylight visible above the surface of the lake. That's how the mermaids get in.
There are three, today: the mermaid with the pearls in her hair, the mermaid with the long earrings, and the mermaid with the birthmark on her shoulder; but the mermaid with the birthmark on her shoulder has never had much to say to you, and she slips into the water without a hello.
The other two smile and welcome you, and you tell them how graduation went: the valedictorian's speech, the piece you played with the rest of the senior orchestra, the way you stepped smoothly across the stage to take your diploma, as though your shoes didn't hurt at all. The mermaid with the pearls in her hair smiles at this, pleased: she is the one who taught you how to walk in heels. The mermaid with the long earrings asks if you'll bring your violin, next time, so they can hear your part. You tell them you'll be gone for a week, on vacation with your mother's family, but you'll come to see them as soon as you get back.
"And there's one other thing," you say. "I could use your advice." The mermaids nod at this: it is, after all, what they have always done.
You have known the mermaids since you were seven years old, since the year you nearly drowned in the lake. You have often wondered if the mermaids were the reason you didn't drown; but you didn't meet them for months after, and other people have drowned there, before and since. You've asked, but the mermaids have never been much for answering questions about themselves.
When you were seven, you were angry all the time: your parents were splitting up, and you had thought it was your fault. You hadn't even minded nearly drowning, for the way it made them act like they had used to, too worried about you to fight with each other. But it hadn't lasted, so you decided to run away.
You had emptied all your school things out of your backpack, and replaced them with your favorite clothes, a bathing suit, extra socks, a flashlight and a box of matches. You stuffed a loaf of bread into the space remaining, and put a jar of peanut butter and a knife in the front pocket. You laced up your sneakers, slathered yourself in bug spray, and left though the back door, towards the woods, and the lake, and the mountain.
You made it down the lane and under the bridge, through the meadow and around the curve of the lakeshore, before it began to rain. That was when you ducked into the forest, to take what cover the trees could give, and found the deer trail, and followed it to the boulders and the grotto.
On overcast days, the grotto is very dark. You hadn't been able to see much, just the shapes of rocks and a faint glimmer of light on the water. So you took out your flashlight and set it end-up on a flat stone, and when you turned it on, you saw the mermaids.
There are seven mermaids, although you've very rarely seen them all together. That first time, they were all there, stretched out along the boulders or pulled half-out of the water onto the pebbled beach. They were very obviously mermaids: they looked human, from the waist up, with tangled damp hair and lovely faces, but from the waist down they were long scaled fishtails, each ending in great shining fins that trailed in the water. They looked at you, and you looked at them, and you said, "Hi."
The mermaid with the short dark hair had smiled at that, a quick flash that showed her dimples, and flicked her moss-green tail. "Hello," she said.
"I'm running away from home," you told the mermaids, and that was the first time the mermaids ever gave you their advice.
"Are you sure about that, sweetheart?" asked the mermaid with the ragged tail, and the mermaid with the freckles wondered if your parents wouldn't be worried sick, and the mermaid with the birthmark on her shoulder gave an eloquent roll of her eyes before she pushed herself off the rock and into the pool, and was gone.
The other six mermaids drew the story out of you, over peanut butter sandwiches that were only a little squashed, and told you there were better choices you could make. They promised that if things got bad again, you could come back to them. "Especially if you bring food, again," said the mermaid with the short dark hair, who has always been the one with a sense of humor.
So you did, the next time, bring a bag of cookies, and a gallon jug of lemonade. The mermaids sipped it from Dixie cups, delicately. They all have perfect manners, at least when the mermaid with the pearls in her hair is watching. They asked you about yourself, little nudging questions that steered you towards your seven-year-old problems, and then they gave you advice: told you how to do long division, how to look like you weren't upset when you really were, how to make your parents feel bad enough about their behavior that they would, at least, stop fighting in front of you. And it was good advice, it worked, and as time went by you got used to going to the mermaids with your problems.
The mermaids call each other "sister," though they all look about the same age, and they don't look anything alike. It's hard to see how the mermaid with the freckles, whose long hair curls red over her shoulders, whose bright eyes match her blue-green tail, could be sisters with the mermaid with the necklaces, whose skin is dark, whose tail is blue-black. But they call each other "sister," and they behave like sisters too, sometimes, bickering fondly, full of affection.
The mermaid with the pearls in her hair, who's blonde and fine-featured, with a tail the pinky-grey you find inside a clamshell, is more or less the leader. At least, when she's around, the other mermaids will usually defer to her, and she's the one who's had the answers to many of your questions, especially these last few years. The mermaid with the long earrings patiently went over sheet music with you when you were young; the mermaid with the ragged tail rubbed soothing circles across your back when you were miserable. But the mermaid with the pearls in her hair is the one who taught you to curtsy, to glide across the uneven floor of the grotto in shoes that pinched, to coil your hair into a French twist in one smooth motion. These are skills that have come in handy, lately.
You moved in with your mother when you were fourteen, so you could be close to the high school in town. Before that you'd stayed in the house you grew up in, with your father; he'd kept it after the divorce, because your mother had been tired of living in the country. You spend the weekends with your father now; really, that means you spend the weekends with the mermaids.
Lately, your boyfriend has complained about the weekends with your father. He wants to spend time with you outside of school, to go to the movies on a Saturday night. You've told him he can come with you to your father's house, go hiking the way you tell people you do when you're really visiting the mermaids, but he is perceptive, and can tell you don't really want him to. He's good at reading people. It's one of the reasons you liked him in the first place. The fact that he can't read you very well is, you suspect, one of the things that first drew his attention your way.
Your boyfriend does not know about the mermaids. He does not know that you came to them last year, achy with your unrequited crush, and asked them how to be the kind of girl he would date. He does not know about the hours you spent, under the mermaids' patient tutelage, practicing your careless laugh and graceful walk, learning how to cut your eyes sideways from under the fringe of your hair. He only knows that you are elegant, and clever, and that you seem to know a secret that the other girls do not.
You do, of course. That's not cheating.
The mermaid with the ragged tail asked you, once, if you were sure that this was what you wanted. "There are other things we could be teaching you," she said, but her sisters came into the grotto after that, and she never said more. You don't know what she meant, anyway. The things you learn from the mermaids have always been useful.
Once you had your boyfriend, you didn't need the mermaids to tell you what to do with him. You let him kiss you across the front seat of his car, slow and careful, and you ran your hands across his shoulders, tipped your head so he could tangle his fingers in your hair. You held his hand in the halls at school, and you smiled when the other girls looked at you with envy in your eyes.
The other girls don't understand how you know the things you know. To them you're the ugly duckling, the ragged tomboy of a preteen who has turned into a pretty, polished swan. You were never much interested in their company, even as children; the mermaids were your friends and confidants. You have always been a solitary sort of person, as far as anyone human knows.
But now things are changing. You are going away to college in the fall, to a school with no lake and no mountain and no mermaids. You have the summer, and then you will be on your own. And you're not sure that you're ready for it.
So that's why you've come to the mermaids, in your white dress. Ostensibly, it's because you don't know what to do about your boyfriend; you aren't going to the same schools, and you don't think you want a long-distance relationship. But you like your boyfriend, are happy in his company, and you feel, obscurely, that you worked too hard to get him to give him up now. You explain this to the mermaids, and as you talk the others join you, until you are faced with all seven of them.
"It's not that I love him," you say. "At least, I don't think I do. Yet."
"But you could," prompts the mermaid with the ragged tail. "If you wanted to."
"Maybe," you admit.
"Then you should stay with him," says the mermaid with the short dark hair. "Love's important."
"She could meet someone at school, though," says the mermaid with the freckles. "Lots of someones. Plenty of fish, and all that."
"You're too young to have a serious boyfriend, anyway," says the mermaid with the long earrings. The mermaids fall to squabbling, each insisting her own way is best, while the mermaid with the pearls in her hair watches them, her mouth flattened into a disapproving line. You yourself are a little astonished. The mermaids have argued in front of you before, but never this much, or for this long. Normally, they present a united front.
Today, though, they cannot seem to reach a consensus. They divide roughly into two camps, three and three, the mermaid with the birthmark on her shoulder abstaining. The mermaid with the pearls in her hair tells you it's getting late, that your father will be missing you. You take this hint for what it is, and leave.
The next day is a Monday, and so you leave your father's house for your mother's, and return to town. It's not a big town, but there are enough people to keep from feeling claustrophobic. You are going to college in a city, though, a real city, and you wonder what it will be like, to never see familiar faces on the street. To be anonymous, one person among many, with nothing tying you to the place where you live. You think it will be strange, but part of you is excited, anticipatory.
Your boyfriend is going to a smaller school, half a day's travel away from you. He said he wouldn't be happy anywhere the trees were shorter than the buildings. You both love the outdoors, love long rambling walks in the woods and muddy hikes and birdsong. The two of you have planned a summer's worth of time spent outdoors together, and you are looking forward to it.
Time to yourself is still something you treasure, though, and you go walking in the woods alone all the time. Today you walk around the lake in the opposite direction you normally take, approaching the mountain on the far side from the mermaids' grotto. There are well-marked trails here, and you pass other people on the path. After a while you spot a deer trail, and plunge off the path in the direction of the lake.
It's rare, very rare, that you see the mermaids outside their grotto. They are careful not to be seen, and keep mostly to the parts of the lake that are inaccessible to humans. But today you come across the mermaid with the birthmark on her shoulder, stretched out on a rock, nearly hidden by the trailing branches of a willow tree, and you duck under the waving green curtain to greet her.
She nods at you, but says nothing. The two of you sit in silence for a long while. Finally, you say, "I still haven't gotten your opinion. About my boyfriend."
"I think you should learn to think for yourself," she snaps at you, and you are taken aback at her vehemence. But she softens, relents a little. She says, "I think my sisters have done you a disservice. This isn't something you should let them choose for you." And then she pushes off the rock and slides into the water, gone with barely a ripple.
You spend the next day with your boyfriend, at the house of one of his friends. When it's time for lunch, the boys and girls split into separate groups, as if powered by magnets, the girls retreating to the kitchen and the boys congregating around the grill. Your boyfriend offers you an apologetic smile--he thinks it's as silly as you do, you can tell--but he goes with the other boys.
You remember the mermaid with the necklaces, telling you when you were nine that you could do anything you wanted, that there was no such thing as something boys could do but girls couldn't. But you also remember the mermaid with the pearls in her hair, who told you when you were twelve that it's never easy to be the one who won't go along with the group. So you join the other girls in the kitchen, to slice tomatoes and listen to gossip about people you don't really care for.
One girl has just been dumped by her boyfriend, in anticipation of their parting at the end of the summer. The other girls are offering her soothing words, telling her he's a jerk anyway, and to your surprise you find yourself wanting to contribute. "He wasn't willing to give the two of you a chance," you say, and the girl who's been dumped looks up at you, startled. The other girls look a little surprised, too, to hear you speak up at all. Your mouth goes a little dry at the attention, but you still say, "If he doesn't think it's worth trying, he's not worth your time. You should forget about him."
It's the kind of advice you think the mermaids would give. The girl who's been dumped looks thoughtful for a moment, before she thanks you. "I think you're right," she says. Then she asks if that means you and your boyfriend are staying together.
You are startled that she's made the connection, though perhaps you shouldn't be. "I don't know yet," you say. "We haven't really talked about it much."
On the way home, you talk about it.
You bring your bathing suit, the next time you go to see the mermaids. There is no one in the grotto when you arrive, and you change into it and slip into the water alone. You duck under the surface to swim the few feet from the grotto entrance to the open lake, and flip onto your back to swim a lazy backstroke, looking up through the trees to the blue, hazy sky.
After a little while you hear the slap of fins on the surface of the water, and you lift your head. There's no one around. So you hold you breath and duck your head under the water, kick a few strokes until you are hanging, suspended, a few feet below the surface.
The mermaids float around you, all seven of them, their long tailfins waving gently back and forth. They're wreathed with bubbles; their hair floats loose around their heads. Other parts of the lake are murkier, but here the water is clear and fresh, and you can see them plainly. They have always been your friends, have always had your best interests at heart, you know, and you will miss them dearly. But they belong to the lake, and the mountain, and the world you are leaving behind.
You swim back to the grotto, and the mermaids follow you. "Did you make up your mind?" the mermaid with the ragged tail asks. "About your boyfriend?"
"We did," you say. "I think it's going to be all right."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 6th, 2012

Author Comments

This started out as a story about performing femininity, and ended up not quite being about that. Sometimes I wish I had advice mermaids; they seem like they'd be awfully handy.

- Holli Mintzer
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