Fiction — From the December 2009 issue
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From the beginning, our town was torn between the impulse to disclose everything and the desire to protect our streets from media invasion. Officials cooperated as fully as possible with outside investigators but refused to allow photographs of our mermaid. They also refused to relinquish ownership of the body, which was claimed as town property. A special committee, appointed to handle mermaid affairs, voted to permit the release of the body for twenty-four hours into the care of a hospital in Hartford, where further tests were performed and tissue samples collected. The mermaid was said to be sixteen years old and in excellent health; the cause of death was blood loss from a large wound in the lower fishbody, which appeared to have been attacked by a shark. We learned that she had human lungs, a human heart, a human stomach, and part of a human intestinal tract; below the waist, where the skin grew seamlessly into scales, the inner organs, including the reproductive system, were those of a large saltwater fish. She had green eyes, a small straight nose, small ears lying flat against the head, and well-formed teeth. Her hair was abundant and lustrous, a mixture of straw and blond, and fell in long undulations to her waist. The scales were gray-green with brown and black markings. They were spread across the back of the fishbody and came around to the front, leaving on the belly a strip of whiteness about ten inches wide that tapered to four inches at the tail. The forked tail fin grew parallel to the human shoulders; such an arrangement suggested that the mermaid swam on her stomach, with the fin held horizontally, in the manner of a dolphin or whale, although one scientist stated emphatically that they were only making the best possible guess, since nothing at all was known about the habits of mermaids and she might sometimes have swum on her side, with the fin in a vertical position.
An immediate question arose: What should be done with our mermaid? The body was being kept at the funeral home, where experts were invited to find ways of preventing decomposition. The committee, in an emergency session, voted unanimously that a discovery of this kind was too important to be kept from the residents of our town, who deserved to see the natural wonder for themselves. The issue was urgent; already there was talk of a disturbing odor. A team of biologists from a research lab in New Haven proposed a method of arterial injection with a newly developed non-formaldehyde solution that preserved organs and prevented shrinkage; in this way the mermaid might be kept on display for several weeks or more. A debate ensued about a suitable location for such an exhibit. Some suggested the town hall, others the library, but quite apart from questions of space it wasn’t difficult to find persuasive arguments against the display of a half-naked sixteen-year-old girl in public institutions meant for business or study. It was finally decided to house the display at the historical society, which had a small room for temporary exhibits. Objections were raised by those who felt that the body of a mermaid washed up on a beach had no place in a building dedicated to the history of our town, but they were outnumbered by those who argued that the historical society was the closest thing we had to a museum.
A custom manufacturer of museum display cases was hired to construct a tempered-glass case, eight feet high, in which the body of the mermaid was to be kept in a clear liquid preservative intended to prevent desiccation and permit easy viewing. Inside the glass case the designer placed a large boulder, closely resembling one of the black basalt rocks of our jetty; on it the mermaid was seated. Her torso was upright and her fishbody lay stretched across the rock, where it was held down by concealed grips. At the bottom of the case grew several water plants with long, spiky leaves.
The exhibit opened on June 26 at 9:00 in the morning. Within days it proved to be the largest attraction in the eighty-four-year history of our historical society. Cars with out-of-state plates lined the sycamore—shaded street, with its shuttered eighteenth-century houses and its new steel-and-glass recreational facility. Mothers and daughters, groups of wisecracking high school boys, visiting Girl Scout troops, grandparents stooped over canes waited in line for nearly an hour before they found themselves face-to-face with the mermaid in her glass case. So many people reached out to touch the glass that one morning a blue velvet rope appeared, suspended between brass posts two feet from the display. She sat on her rock with one hand resting by her side and one arm partly raised, the forearm lying on a bit of green netting stretched over small steel uprights driven into the stone. Her long hair was carefully draped over each breast so that it concealed the nipple and most of the breast itself, though there was only so much that could be hidden and complaints were regularly made. Her green eyes were open, her lips closed in what some thought was a faint smile. Her cheekbones were high, her air reflective; she might have been a local girl sitting in the ice-cream parlor except for something vaguely foreign in her look, perhaps a slight narrowness in the ears, or something about the forehead, it was difficult to tell. Children pointed and whispered, older boys made coarse jokes—all this was to be expected. What no one had foreseen was the way she stayed in our minds long afterward. Day after day we returned to stand before the glass case and stare at our mermaid. She looked just to the right or left of us, or a little above, as if she were gazing off at a place we could never see.
Steven Millhauser ’s latest collection of stories, Dangerous Laughter, is now available in paperback from Vintage.
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