Jackie Krogmeier is a third-year Purdue University student from the U.S., where she was born and raised in small-town Indiana. Her work has appeared on the online journal Typishly. She is currently studying in Dublin and spending her days traveling by train to as many coastal towns as she can visit before she must return home.
The boy speaks to mermaids.
His mother is a caramel chew stretched under the oppressing Maryland sun, her toes rooted in sand, a novel abandoned by her chin, cheek on back of hand. He sees the red rise on her skin like watching buttered turkey roast in the oven, crisping into the hard rind he likes best. It’s June, midday, all around town a mirage of boiling discomfort. His mother is almost a mermaid herself; she doesn’t last long on dry land. Her hair is still knotted and wet from swimming the past hour while he sat patiently on the shore with arms around his knees. He watches, ready to rescue her at a moment’s notice if her strong arms stop lifting from the waves.
Maryland is not a good place for mermaids. It’s too hot, too crowded, there’s too much for sale on the beach – lemon shake-ups, lemon water, lemon ice, bottled water, ice cream, cold beer, root beer, non-alcoholic beer, even sandwiches. The buying and selling of things hurt mermaids. They find the wrappers caught in the rocks, buried in the sand. The boy tries to help but he is afraid to get his hands dirty. If he sees trash, he uses two fingers to take a corner and neatly pull it from the ground, gently shake it off, and hold it away from his body on the way to the garbage.
There are two mermaids at Sandy Point beach. One is named Foxy; the other is named Camille. The boy doesn’t know anything about mermaid names, and supposes they are called something different in their own language, the language of the sea. Foxy sits between the restrooms, wrapped in a large blanket.
“Aren’t you hot?” he asks her.
“I can’t let anyone see my tail,” she says.
Foxy has skin like gray chalk. The boy thinks it would feel like powder, that it might even disintegrate when touched. Her eyes are deep in her head, always blinking thin wisps of hair away. Foxy protrudes a lip to blow hair out of her face rather than withdraw a hand from the blanket. It’s funny how the hair is suspended for a moment, revealing a red-scabbed scalp the boy thinks must be painful. This is what people do to mermaids, Foxy explains.
“They shrivel us up into old women,” she says. “They rot our teeth and make us smell.”
Foxy is always wrapped tight in the blanket. She is terrified to move while people watch.
Camille is a prettier mermaid, but the boy wouldn’t tell her that. He likes them equally and thinks rude children deserve to have dessert privileges revoked. Camille has long blue hair that she separates into three braids, one sweeping each hip and a third looped under a bow. Camille wears so many beads she must have a very strong neck, or maybe just a big brain, thinks the boy. Her eyes smile more than she does, in a way that tells the boy he should give her a kiss on the cheek, but he wouldn’t do that, not even if she asked.
When Camille was little, she could never get out of bed. This was because she needed to be near the ocean, but her parents couldn’t understand, and kept her in the city where the air smelled like exhaust and tobacco. She lay under her covers all day until her parents took her to a doctor. This doctor wanted to help, but he didn’t understand mermaids. He thought her tail was causing her to be lazy so he took it without asking.
“Don’t go to the doctor,” says Camille. “Don’t ever go to the doctor.”
The boy nods politely. He knows he will go to the doctor if his mother takes him. He trusts his mother implicitly, and besides, he isn’t a mermaid. Doctors must be more dangerous for mermaids than for little boys.
Camille collects rocks, and insists he put a shell in his pocket. “You shouldn’t be so tidy. It’s okay to get your clothes wet.”
Rocks that split open cure nightmares. “One half for you and one half for me,” says Camille after dashing a pimpled rock open on a stone face. “Pick the nightmare wisely. When you cure one, the others get worse.”
Shells with red spots improve your balance. And sand dollars, if you manage to find one, will prevent you from winning the lottery.
“The worst thing in the world is to win the lottery,” says Camille.
Foxy and Camille know each other, naturally, but aren’t friends. Mermaids are territorial. They go different places when they leave the beach. Camille leaves earlier than Foxy. When the boy and his mother have cook-outs at Sandy Point, Foxy is still sitting between the restrooms in the thick twilight, her paper cup between her blanketed knees.
Camille wears a dress like wind, a breeze that exists only for her catching the tricolor fabric in its hands, dancing around her willowy body. She is never sweating, and her skin is penny brown, shiny and clean. She wades in the ocean, lets her dress catch the waves, her feet immoveable, her confidence unshakeable.
“Don’t you swim?” the boy asks.
“Not without my tail,” she says. “Mermaids drown without their tail.”
His mother has left the towel and is cutting lines in the ocean. The boy traces her back and forth, just in case she disappears, but she never does. Camille doesn’t like his mother. She is one of many humans who use the ocean without respecting mermaids, she says. The boy understands his mother might not always do everything right but has trouble believing this.
“You should come with me, and we’ll go to Nova Scotia,” says Camille. “The climate in Nova Scotia is better for mermaids. Ireland is best, but mermaids can’t travel by plane. They get filled with air molecules and explode.”
“I have to go to school,” the boy says, rubbing his hands on his pants nervously.
Camille makes an unhappy noise. “You talk like someone smaller than you are.”
An important thing to remember about mermaids is they aren’t human. Sometimes they get frustrated and say things you don’t like. It’s okay, they aren’t being mean. When the mermaid makes you uncomfortable, take a break, or talk to a different mermaid. Mermaids are not all the same.
Foxy let the boy sit next to her before, but people kept asking questions. “Do you know this boy?” “Do you know this woman?” “Where’s your parents?” People don’t understand children like mermaids do. People only like to ask questions.
Once, Foxy fell in love, and her love convinced her to leave the ocean. Her love carried her all the way into the city and set her down on the twentieth story of a building without a pool. But Foxy didn’t have legs and couldn’t walk. This made it hard to get a job. Many people also think mermaids are less intelligent than they really are.
“If they say you’re stupid,” says Foxy, “it’s because they don’t want to pay you.”
Foxy sent him on a mission, but all the coins he found were cemented in gum and dried spit under toilets. He stood and stared, willing himself to pick them up, or preferably for them to unstick their way to the sink for a good rinse.
“I’m sorry,” he told Foxy. “They were grimy.”
“It’s okay. It wouldn’t help. What a mermaid really needs is a salt bath and some bread.”
His mother is done swimming. She shakes her head to get the droplets out of her hair and towels off, the novel held at arm’s length. It’s time to go. The boy recognizes her expression as one of needing to collect a misplaced shoe.
“Baby, did you never take your sandals off?” His mother is cross. “The sand is so good for your toes. God bless, ma’am.” She drops a quarter in Foxy’s cup. “Skip to the car, meet you there.” She skips away, always trying to be playful, always trying.
Foxy grabs the boy’s arm before he can leave. He has never seen her hand before, and it is withered and burnt into toast. “Do you want to see my tail?”
The boy glances after his mother. She doesn’t notice he isn’t following. He nods quickly.
Foxy pulls up the blanket. His eyes widen. The tail has two fins like silver wire, and is as big around as his whole body, scales like stained glass, a meaty purple flesh rippling beneath the translucent plates. The tail twitches. It creates ripples in the air that dispel the sweltering Maryland mirage into images of dark waves under a moon that has a face. The boy blinks, and the images go away, the moon stops looking at him with those pensive eyes. Foxy drops the blanket, the heavy sweep of her tail tucking back under her body.
When they return to the beach the next weekend, the mermaids are gone. The boy hopes it is because Camille found a new tail and swam to better climates where she wouldn’t need to cure nightmares, and because Foxy finally shed her blanket, pulling herself by the hands and elbows across the cement, the gravel, past the boys selling lemonade, past the men pushing beer, the sand, the rocks, not caring who would see, and into the ocean where she could be home again.
© 2018 Jackie Krogmeier