fiction by Hannah van Dijk
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest
When we were seven our father bought a house on the ocean. It had a loft for my sister and I, a small kitchen, and a second bedroom that was turned into a study. Our father was a biologist who studied the sea and thought that children should play outdoors for their health. Our Gram used to tell us it was our mother who left us fairy-tale names – Miles and Maribel – and our father who taught us everything else, a combination which produced little blond twins who made up fairy stories about bacteria and the scientific method. He would sit in our newly renovated study on summer afternoons and write textbooks while my sister and I explored.
The house also came with a dock, a little stretch of beach, and a mermaid. The dock was small and rather disappointing, but there were tiny crabs and little silver fish living beneath it and along the shoreline. We would find them trapped in tide pools each morning, shimmering and scurrying in sun and shallow water. Occasionally, one of these pools, devoid of any other fish, housed the mermaid.
Her hair was long and golden just like in the picture books Maribel loved, and it fanned out around her in the water snagging on dead shells and bits of seaweed. Sometimes we would talk to her, and she’d respond with a low voice and speech unlike any other grown-up I’d met. By the end of that first summer we believed she was ours, as much a part of our backyard playground as the dock or the morning tide.
I was making a sandcastle and my bucket had drifted away in the tide. My rubber boots were new, a special present from my gram that I’d been told to wear and yet forbidden from getting dirty before she could visit. The mermaid was circling lazily in the shallows a ways out, sunning herself in the warm water. We had a cat in the beach house to keep my father company, and when I was bored indoors I would watch her play with mice and little green beetles, her eyes ticking back and forth to follow each movement of her prey. That was how the mermaid eyed my bucket as it drifted out of my reach. When she saw me watching she flicked her tail and pushed the bit of plastic back to me in lily-white hands.
“Thank you very much.” I said politely, as I’d been taught.
“Could you get me one of those please?” I asked. A pool full of clamshells lay close by, cut off from me by the tide. There didn’t seem any harm in asking. The mermaid tilted her head to the side, considering me with my red boots and my bucket.
“I could bring you whale bones,” she said, crawling close, pale flesh pressed against the damp sand, eyes blue and fixed upon my own, “ancient things that sing in the depths of the sea. Or pearls from reefs where water is green and clear as glass.”
“No thank you.” I said, not quite meeting her eyes. I was seven and my castle was too small for whalebones. “Just the shells please.”
She laughed then, and brought some that sat polished and heavy in the palm of my hand. They weren’t the shells I had wanted but I lined them up in the sand anyway. The light caught them prettily, and when I went home I showed one to my Dad. It had to be lifted carefully by holding the middle because the edges were sharp. One of them had left a shallow slice along my palm, a drop of salty blood trickling down my arm to stain the sand. The mermaid’s eyes had followed it hungrily.
“Where did you find this?” Our dad asked, peering at it through his spectacles. He was a tall man, and thin like a stork. He didn’t like the beach because his skin burned and he had to wear big floppy hats that covered his eyes.
“A mermaid.” I told him.
“Oh.” He said.
The shell looked a bit like that of an oyster though it was heavier and changed colours if you turned it round in the light. Our dad could not find it in any of his books, so he lost interest and I left it on the windowsill in the loft, wrapped in a bit of plastic to dull the edges.
I hardly spent any time in that loft. My shells were there, and the little dried-out bodies of crabs I’d pinned to a sheet of card paper and stored in a drawer one summer. Maribel slept there too until she turned into a girl when we were ten, surrounding her bed with books and drawings of underwater castles and strange colourful fish with human eyes. We were twins, but beyond the loft and our shared face we seemed to have little in common. Sometimes we played together, but most of the time I would wander the beach by myself, collecting shells and tiny crabs for my collection.
The mermaid liked her better anyways.
Maribel liked to read to the mermaid. She would sit on the edge of the dock with her bare feet tapping at the water and a pile of books behind her, fairytales and picture books from our Gram, propped between books on exotic fish from our father. The mermaid would lie on the dock beside her, or float on her back in the water warmed by summer sun. Her tail twitched to the beat and tempo of my sister’s voice and she hummed along as Maribel read her The Snow Queen for the hundredth time each summer. I would stand on the shore, careful to keep my boots from the waves, and talk to the crabs in my bucket. They didn’t give any sign of hearing me, but that was not unusual.
Maribel was the one to find it. We were beachcombing together on order from father. Our Gram was visiting later in the afternoon and he suggested we find something pretty for her. I’d brought her a piece of glass once with a bottle- blue glow and edges dulled by the tide. She’d put it up on her mantle-piece when we visited, and now Maribel and I were having a competition to see who could find the biggest piece. But what we found was not glass, though it was brittle and cold and it lay where the tide had towed it in. It was little more than a shape, with pale limbs that tangled on the rocks, that smelled like fish and dark things. Pale skin covered in a sheen of sweat and salt, and a patch of red that leaked from between two legs. The colour vibrant against the grey water that lingered on the pale sand, held back from the tide by pebble and seaweed. The hands were bloodied too, with tiny barnacle cuts and a bruise that spread across the dead woman’s back from neck to navel.
The shape of that bruise, twisted across pale skin in shades of blue and grey and black still haunts my dreams some nights, though the face has changed to reflect another.
Our father called the police when we showed him, and they made us go back to the house and talk to a man with glasses and a clipboard. Years later I went through old records to find out the dead woman’s name and I learned that the police thought she’d drowned herself; she’d been written up as a suicide victim. No one told me that then, and I don’t think I ever asked. I was seven, and the thing we found on the beach was not a person yet.
When we were twelve Maribel and I fought for the first time. She’d told a school friend about our mermaid, and soon everyone in our class was calling her a nut.
“Tell them.” She’d said to me, eyes dark and damp “Tell them it’s true – there is a mermaid. Tell them she’s real.”
“There are fish,” I said, staring at the ground, trying to explain, “some of them are really big.”
I knew the look that crossed her face; it was mine when our dad shut the study door on our birthday, or when I found the crab shells rotten in the drawer after a damp winter. It was sad and then it turned disgusted, and Maribel wouldn’t say a word to me until dinnertime when our dad dragged rehearsed apologies out of us both. She went down to the beach that night, and I sat in bed, hot and angry and ashamed.
In my dream the pebbly stretch of beach is transfigured. The moon hangs low over the ocean, turning the rippling surface to silver and black. The water is cold, and my sister has wrapped herself in a blanket as she curls up on the edge of the wharf.
“There are castles of stone and bone down there,” the mermaid is saying, “and beds made up of pearl and kelp in the hulls of sleeping ships.”
“Isn’t it lonely?”
“We’re all sisters in the sea. No one can cry underwater.”
The siren smiles – I can see her red lips and the sharp teeth below from where I hide in the dream. I run from her, and from my sister’s red-rimmed eyes, waking alone in the empty loft.
Maribel didn’t come home till morning, by which time my father was worried and pacing, and I was curled up alone in the loft, useless with a twelve- year-old’s guilt. She smelled like salt and seawater.
When I was twenty we lost Maribel for good. She’d gone off to school while I pursued an apprenticeship across the country. The doctors gave us a great number of big words to explain the problem, but Gram just tells me that she was heartsick in the end.
No one had seen her go, but we found footprints leading across the stretch of beach onto the dock. She’d left her books and shoes behind.
I stayed away from beaches of any kind for years. My dad would have sold the cabin, but my Gram put her foot down and lived her last years in it out of stubbornness and memory. Eventually my dad gave in, drawn by some strange desire for penance, and retired there. On his death it passed to me along with her books and his papers and our little stretch of beach. My wife loves it, and our children crowd into the loft on holiday weekends. I still won’t let any of them down to the beach alone, and they call it one of my peculiarities.
“But you go by yourself all the time!” my youngest will argue.
“When you’re as old as me, you can do as you like.”
She’ll groan then, and call me ancient and old-fashioned. She’s only seven, and I’m not a person yet.
There are nights when I pace the beach alone, my father’s shadow spread in front of me and the shell from so many years ago clutched firmly in my hand. Its edges have been dulled by age, but if I hold tightly enough it will prick me, leaving welts of red and blue-grey-black along my palm. The mermaid never appears, but I look for her, knowing that just as I was once too young I am now too old and tired to be snatched away. I crouch on the dock, tucking my feet below me on the dry wood and imagine I see her lurking below.
She wears my face, a cold reflection, lost and young and twisted. Her hair fans about her in the pink-tinged water, and a tail twitches lazily back and forth below.