From the editor:A creature of the salt, the sand, and the sea, a mysterious woman with mysterious scruples bargains for her life. Or, at least, for a fleeting feeling of home. Renee Carter Hall is an author of many talents, including turns as a novelist, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and an expert in literary chiaroscuro.
From the author: A bit of contemporary flash fiction inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."
An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →
He wants me to write my name. That would be the first step, he says. He keeps looking at the blank paper in front of me, at the blue crayon next to it. He is not a bad person, probably not a bad doctor, but I still can't make him understand.
When I pick up the crayon, there is hope in his eyes. Excitement. I know my eyes must have looked that way once, not long ago. But I don't draw letters, even though I know how to write. I draw waves, curling lines of blue, sometimes making them very light and faint, sometimes pressing down until the lines are dark and waxy.
There are six sheets of paper, and I fill them all with waves and swirls of foam. I look longingly at the sterile white walls of my room. I would like them to be blue, or blue-green. It would not feel like home, but it might help me forget.
I stand. Pain slices through my feet as I carry the papers to my bedside. I press one of the drawings against the wall, then look back at the doctor. He understands. He leaves, comes back with tape, and fixes each drawing to the wall above my bed. He does this carefully, and I begin to like him.
The next day he brings more paper, a long roll of it, and a box with squares of paint. I take up the brush and begin. There are so many colors, bright, light-filled colors that ripple and wash over the paper. I paint water and plants, flowers and fish. I paint my garden, with all its red flowers. I paint turtles with shining green shells, whales like great shadows looming beyond. He watches me and does not ask questions. He is good at being silent, but not as good as I am.
When I am finished, he cuts the painting off of the roll and tapes it on the far wall. I look at it and feel happy, and I realize how long it's been since I felt anything like real happiness.
He leaves the paper and paints with me, along with the plastic cup of water. He takes the scissors with him when he goes. He takes the tape, too, because of the jagged edge on the dispenser. He doesn't need to be so careful. I don't want to kill myself. Sometimes, anyway, I feel as if I'm already dead.
All night I lie on my bed and imagine that the waves are rocking me to sleep with their gentle push and pull. As I close my eyes, I think I can hear my sisters' voices. They are singing, trying to find me, trying to bring me home. Their song is distant and sad.
I paint again the next day. I cover all of the paper and start on the walls. The doctor doesn't get angry. He seems almost pleased. Almost, because I have not yet written anything to tell him who I am.
"Will you paint a picture for me?" he asks.
I nod, and he asks me to paint where I came from. I sweep my arm in a broad arc, gesturing to the paintings all around.
"Your home," he says. "Your family."
I look down at the box of paints. For some things there will be no colors, but I decide to try. I paint my father's palace, its coral walls, amber windows, and roof of mussel shells and pearls. I paint my five sisters, my father, and my grandmother. I paint the grand ship of the prince I loved, and the house of bones in which the enchantress dwelled.
The prince I loved. I thought he was a prince; I thought we were in love. I was a fool twice over. He loved someone else--loved her, married her, bedded her, left me without a voice, without a soul, without a home. This painting is a place I can never be again.
The doctor is trying to understand. He thinks I have no mind, that what I have painted for him is some fantasy born of illness. I paint a new picture for him, one that he can understand: a sandy shore, with waves coming up and crashing into white foam. I point to myself, to the painting, and I ask him with my eyes.
I know the ocean is near. Sometimes, led from room to room for tests or bathing or eating, I can smell the salt air, even through all the other smells.
He understands me, but he shakes his head. "I can't take you out today. Maybe another day. Maybe tomorrow."
He is probably lying. The enchantress lied. She said if I plunged the knife into the prince's heart, I would be home again, could shed these legs, these pain-sharp feet for the emerald tail I used to have. But nothing happened.
I try something else. I take a new sheet of paper, dip my brush into the black paint, and write my name in broad, dark strokes. A trade: my name for the ocean. All my life, it seems, is bargaining with parts of myself.
Now he smiles. "Good, very good. I'll talk to them. We might be able to go tomorrow."
I hear him talking later, outside my door. "She isn't violent."
"Tell that to the guy she stabbed."
"I think this will help me make some progress with her. Just give me an hour. That's all I'm asking."
There is a long silence. Then the other man speaks. "One hour. But if anything happens--anything--it's on your head."
It is a long time until the next morning, when at last we leave the building and drive to the beach. I stand on the hot sand facing the ocean. Gulls swoop and circle their shadows over me. I wonder if they recognize me. Once, before my first ill trade, I could understand their calls. Now their voices are as unknown to me as my own.
I walk toward the water, until the sand under my feet is wet and cool and each wave swirls around my ankles and shifts the sand underneath. I close my eyes and try to remember how it was to sport with my sisters in the depths, how it was to feel the muscles of the powerful tail pushing me along, guided by the graceful turns of the currents. The memory is fading quickly. I have been in this body too long.
I go farther in, until the water is above my waist. The waves splash against my face, and I taste the salt water--so familiar. I let the waves rock me, and I feel my spirit flowing out with them as they recede, leaving my body like driftwood on the land.
My grandmother told me that none of our kind have a soul, that only through the love of a human man could I hope to attain one. She was wrong; I know it now. My body will leave this water; my body will walk, slowly, back to the doctor. But my heart is in the depths of the ocean. My soul is foam on the sea.
This story originally appeared in Anthro Dreams.