art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Love, the Mermaids, and You
by Holli Mintzer
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.