Fiction — From the December 2009 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
The mermaid washed up on our public beach in the early morning of June 19, at approximately 4:30 a.m., according to the most reliable estimates. At 5:06 a.m. the body was discovered by George Caldwell, a forty-year-old postal worker who lived two blocks from the water and was fond of his early-morning swim. Caldwell found her lying just below the tide line; he thought she was a teenager who had drowned. The body lay on its side among strings of seaweed and scattered mussel shells. Caldwell stepped back. He did not want trouble. He immediately called 911 on his cell and stood waiting in the near-dark some ten feet from the drowned girl until two police cars and an ambulance pulled up in the beach parking lot. The sun had not yet come up, but a band of sky over the water was turning pearly gray. “I thought she was a high school girl,” Caldwell later told a reporter; we read it in the Listener. “It was still dark out there. I thought she was wearing some sort of a dress with the top torn off. I could tell she didn’t look right. I didn’t want to get too close.” The body was taken to the Vanderhorn Funeral Home on Broadbridge Avenue and examined by the coroner and three local doctors. The initial report stated that the body “had the appearance of a mermaid” but that further tests would have to be conducted before a definitive statement could be issued. Two marine biologists from a nearby university arrived a few hours later and confirmed the accuracy of the initial examination, stating in their confidential report that there could be no doubt the mermaid was authentic.
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.
It wasn’t long after her appearance among us that Rick Halsey, captain of the high school swim team, told a reporter standing near the display case that the mermaid was the best thing that had ever happened to our town and that he was going to throw a pool party in her honor. At the back of his parents’ house was a large in-ground swimming pool where he and his teammates liked to practice at night. Halsey was an easygoing young man with a wide circle of friends; the party was well attended. Girls arrived in mermaid bathing suits composed of bikini tops and long skirt-like bottoms that tightened at the ankles. Many of the lower halves glittered with sewn-on scales made of sequins. It was later said that a few female guests dispensed with tops and covered their breasts with nothing but their long hair. The party was reported in the Friends and Neighbors section of the Listener, with a color photograph of two laughing mermaids stretched out in lounge chairs by the poolside. The idea caught on quickly; mermaid parties sprang up all over town. Diana Barone, a local seamstress, created for her daughter the first bottom that concealed the feet and spread out in the shape of a tail fin. The wearer had to walk with her feet pointed to the sides. The new constriction in walking, which resulted in little mincing steps, proved surprisingly popular among high school and college girls.
It was only a matter of days before mermaid suits began appearing at our beach. Girls would take off their T-shirts and jeans to reveal the triangle tops and string bikinis of last season, only to reach into their beach bags and remove the new fishtail bottoms, styled in glittering scales of many colors. A local store offered an array of new suits, of which the most popular was the Mermaidini: a skintight scaly bottom with zip-off tail fin, and a bold bikini top with a realistic breast and nipple printed on each cup. Even bolder was the cheveux-top, or Mermette, which consisted of clip-on hair extensions designed to cover the bare chest. All over the beach you could see them, the mermaids of our town: lying on their stomachs on beach towels, with their scales glistening in the sun; sitting on the rocks of the jetty and combing their long hair; laughing wildly as boys scooped them up and carried them wriggling down to the low waves, where they threw the mermaids high out over the water— for a moment you could see them hovering there, in the blue air, the shining sea-girls of summer.
Such changes in public fashion do not pass unnoticed in our town. From the first day, protests had arisen against the creature in the display case, who, whatever else she might be, was also a naked teenager indecently exposing her breasts in public. The protests intensified as the new styles erupted on our beach. Mermaid suits, it was said, encouraged women to display their breasts for the delectation of male voyeurs; the constriction of fish-bottoms at the ankles caused women to walk in a new, provocative manner, more suitable for the bedroom than the beach. The tight-ankled style, moreover, disabled women in a backward–looking way reminiscent of the corset and the hobble skirt. Defenders of the new costumes pointed out that the scaly bottoms covered the lower body entirely and were far more modest than the string and thong bikinis they replaced, and that the printed breasts, which some found so disturbing, concealed the real breasts far more completely than the skimpy tops of recent fashion. Even the much criticized cheveux-tops were broad and thick and protected the breasts from view, at least when the women were out of the water. As for the issue of constriction, the defenders yielded no ground: the tight fishtails, they claimed, were worn in a spirit of play, of sheer fun, even of bravado, which narrow-minded ideologues bound by crippling dogmas were incapable of comprehending.
As charges and countercharges burst forth at town meetings and in the local paper, young mothers with toddlers began appearing at the beach in the new costumes; children emerged from cars in gaudy fishtail suits; and even older women soon were wearing modified, looser versions, which, whatever their drawbacks when it came to ambulation, were welcomed as a convenient method of protecting the lower body from the sun’s malignant rays and, in some cases, of concealing varicose veins or fatty accumulations on the hips and thighs.
But the new beach fashions, however striking, were only the most visible sign of a fascination that struck much deeper. We knew that a mermaid had washed up on our beach. Wasn’t it likely, wasn’t it more than likely, that others should be nearby? From the first announcement of her appearance among us, mermaid sightings were reported daily. Each claim was immediately and scrupulously investigated. A second-grade math teacher, Martha Lloyd, was sitting on a blanket on the beach at dusk when she saw a mermaid rise from the water not far from shore; the mermaid looked directly at her before diving under. What struck Mrs. Lloyd was the uncanny resemblance of the young mermaid to the one in our display case—the face was older, but the cheekbones and eyebrows looked so familiar that Mrs. Lloyd was certain she had seen the girl’s mother. The next night two witnesses reported seeing a mermaid sitting on the last rock of the jetty. In the moonlight they could see her slightly bowed head, her darkly gleaming scales. There were more unusual sightings: a mermaid seated on the rim of the rotunda in the duck pond in the public park at nightfall, a mermaid under a backyard spruce tree. Joseph Ernst, a retired building contractor, saw a mermaid in his bedroom one night, but she disappeared when he approached. Eight-year-old Jenny Wheeler ran screaming from her bubble bath when she saw a child mermaid rising from the far end of the tub, but when she returned to the bathroom with her mother, the merchild was no longer there.
Partly in order to verify reports of mermaid sightings, and partly in order to record evidence more accurately, an association of concerned citizens was formed that became known as Watchers in the Night. Members, who ranged from waitresses and yard workers to doctors and financial advisers, divided their time between visiting locations where mermaids had been sighted and patrolling the beach at all hours of the night. Wearing binoculars around their necks, and carrying notebooks and ballpoint pens, they walked along the shore, sat far out on the jetty, climbed onto tall lifeguard chairs and watched the waters of the Sound. From the public beach and the adjacent private beach they gathered long hairs, fish scales, broken mirrors, barrettes, fragments of comb, bits of bone, and turned them over to the historical society, which sent them off to a laboratory for testing; the specimens were invariably identified as familiar seashore debris, except for two of the bones, which came from a dead cat. One branch of the Watchers made it their business to set nets a few hundred yards out in the water, in order to catch mermaids who might stray toward shore.
Along with the sightings, which produced belief and skepticism in equal measure, came reports of a more elusive kind. These accounts were little more than rumors or stories, which drifted through the air like the odors of exotic flowers. It was said that staring into the eyes of our mermaid could make you see things that weren’t there. It was said that Richie Gorham, a college junior who had spent many hours in front of the glass display case, left his house one night to wander down to the beach. At the end of the jetty he saw a mermaid, who lured him onto the rocks and then into the middle of the Sound, where she pulled him down to an underwater grotto. Gorham was found the next day lying facedown in the north woods, suffering from a raging migraine and unable to remember anything about the previous day and night. One woman, swimming alone in the last light of dusk, said that a mermaid had swum up against her and tried to drag her off; she fought violently and escaped to the beach with a bloody scratch along the length of her forearm. People who lived near the beach reported that they could hear mermaids singing at night—it was a high, haunting, deeply sad melody, like nothing on this earth. The singing filled the listener with restlessness, yearning, and a kind of weary ecstasy. One young man, glimpsing a mermaid at night, was so filled with longing that he went to bed and would not eat for days; his joints ached, his heart was heavy, he kept hearing sighs and whispers. Now and then a girl or grown woman would be struck: the victim would hear a mermaid call to her in the middle of the night, and she would rise from her bed and walk down to the water, where she stood looking for a long time as small waves broke at her feet.
One of the stranger episodes of that summer was the case of Monica Lautenbach, whose story we had partly to reconstruct. Monica was sixteen years old; in the fall she would be a senior at William Warren High. She was quiet, dark-haired, a bit on the short side, a little shy, with a vaguely sullen look that changed to an appreciative openness whenever anyone spoke to her. She seemed tense and a little wary, as if anticipating a rejection that never came. She wore jeans and tight stretch-tops that gave shadowy glimpses of her bras with their smooth white cups that seemed designed to press down and conceal her low breasts. From the very first day the mermaid was displayed, Monica had gone to look at the display case in the historical society. There she stared for a long time at the girl with the green eyes and the perfect hair, the perfect body, who gazed at her and through her and beyond her from her perch on the rock. Each day after school Monica walked the two miles to the historical society, where she gazed at the girl in the glass case, the girl who never had to worry about walking down the hall past shrewd-eyed boys and tall, high-breasted girls who swung their hips and laughed and showed their white teeth that gleamed like little clean dishes. She could feel the mermaid looking into her, knowing her; she knew the mermaid back. A great calm came over her at these meetings, a peacefulness tinged with quiet excitement. At home she would sit on her bed for a long time, thinking of the mermaid, feeling the water against her own skin. In front of the mirror she stood in a long skirt and no top, pulling her hair over the front of her shoulders, staring at her too-white breasts with their nipples like purple wounds. Her plan grew slowly. One day she bought a cheveux-top in a mermaid shop; a week later she returned and bought the bottom half of the suit. One night at two in the morning she left her house and walked the mile and a half to the beach. By the side of an overturned rowboat not far from a lifeguard chair she changed into her cheveux-top and fishtail. The heavy hair fell over the skin of her breasts like hands. Down at the water, low waves broke and washed up onto the wet sand. She stood for a moment before walking straight in up to her ribcage. She paused again, did not look back, and began to swim. She swam straight out into the deep, rocking water, now on her side, now on her stomach. In the note she left for her parents, she said she had gone to be with her sisters. For she was one of them, and they were calling to her, far out over the water; she was going out to join them, in that peaceful place where every gaze was clear. Monica was reported missing the next day. That night, she washed up on the beach of a neighboring town, where at first there was a great deal of excitement about the new mermaid, before the truth came out.
The case of Monica Lautenbach brought home to us the danger of visiting our mermaid, but hadn’t we always known that? The naked girl on her rock in the glass fortress, the visitor from another world who stared off at something just over our shoulders—what else was she if not dangerous? In fact the death of Monica, far from giving us pause, seemed to spur us to deeper reckonings. Of course there were those who deplored our passion, who wagged their fingers and warned of trouble, but on the whole we ignored them, for we knew that we needed to feel our way toward wherever it was our mermaid was taking us.
We now began to hear of more extreme instances of mermaid infatuation. In a new tattoo parlor on a side street off Main, girls laid themselves down on a bright white table, removed their pants and underwear, and under the fierce eyes and sharp needle of a little old man who was said to be a master artist from Tokyo, received, slowly and painfully, over every inch of their lower bodies, beginning just beneath the navel and moving down along the thighs, the buttocks, the knees, the calves, the ankles, and the full length of the soles, a series of perfectly replicated overlapping fish scales. We began to hear rumors of sexual practices so bizarre that they must have been real. We heard of frenzied, unconsummated couplings, initiated by husbands and lovers who said they were no longer stimulated by female legs, which struck them as gangly and spidery, and who required their women to wrap up their lower bodies tightly before lovemaking. One recently married woman, recovering from minor surgery, begged her surgeon to stitch her legs together so that she would be beautiful.
In truth, legs were disappearing from the women of our town. At the beach there were fishtails as far as you could see; on our streets and in our yards, women of all ages wore long tapered skirts that concealed the legs and feet; and in the bedrooms of every neighborhood, mermaid lingerie was all the rage. It so happened that a number of women, angered by men’s demands that they resemble mermaids, but at the same time stirred by feelings of kinship with the visitor they obsessively imagined, took a stand of their own: the male lower body was declared to be inferior to the lower fishbody, smooth and powerful and lithe. Men resisted, then began to embrace the new fashion; and all along our beach, and on the rocks of our jetty, we saw the new mermen, shimmering in the summer light.
It was at this period that the second mermaid washed up on our shore. The Listener reported the full story: the excited phone call, the arrival of the police at four in the morning, the body half buried in sand and seaweed, the thick yellow hair, the long-lashed blue eyes, the graceful neck, the discovery of the hoax. Three college students confessed it. They had ordered a blow-up doll, covered the lower half of the body in a mermaid tail, and left her partially buried on the beach at half-past three in the morning.
The deception enraged us, but fevered us too—it was as if the hoax revealed to us the deeper truth of our unappeased yearning. Over the next few days a rash of new sightings was reported. It was said that a school of mermaids had taken up residence in our waters, just beyond the jetty. They were seen swimming below the waves within ten feet of the beach. As rumors blossomed, and children woke in the night from green ocean dreams, we felt that something more was waiting for us, something that would fill us with the thing we lacked.
Meanwhile, in her display case, our mermaid was changing. Her skin had become mottled, her fish-scales dull; the whiteness of her fishbelly looked faintly yellow. Even her hair seemed different, a little lanker and less vibrant. One of her eyelids had begun to droop; her gaze had grown vacant. We wondered whether we had looked at her so often that she was being worn away by the intensity of our glares. The very liquid in which she was immersed seemed hazier than before. We knew her days were numbered.
Perhaps it was the sense that she was leaving us, perhaps it was the knowledge that we had failed her in some way, but as the summer moved toward its end we surrendered extravagantly to our mermaid dreams, as if we knew it was already too late. We were tired of human things, we wanted more. You could feel a kind of violence in the air. At a dance party on Linden Lane, a group of high school girls stripped the clothes off fourteen-year-old Mindy Nelson, painted her naked hips and buttocks and legs bright green, bound her ankles with duct tape, and carried her writhing and screaming out of the house into the back woods, where they tossed her into a shallow stream; her hysterical shouts attracted the attention of a neighbor. At an adult mermaid party in a ranch-house neighborhood, a costume variation resulted in complaints to the police: through uncurtained windows, in darkened rooms lit only by candles, people in neighboring houses saw men and women dressed in scaly fish-tops that covered their faces and descended to the waist; from the hips down they were entirely naked. In the blue nights of August, groups of boys, wearing no shirts, roamed the back yards of quiet neighborhoods, looking up at second-story bedroom windows, where now and then a mermaid would appear, sitting with her tail over the sill as she combed her hair slowly in the dim red light of her room.
Even the children of our town could not escape the general unease. At Norman Sugarman’s seventh birthday party, Mrs. Sugarman went upstairs to fetch a comb in her bedroom. There she found two six-year-olds, a girl and a boy, sitting naked on the bed. They had each thrust their legs into a single black nylon stocking, which snaked out beyond their feet. Their eyelids were green, their cheeks were rouged, and on their chests they had drawn brilliant crimson circles for breasts, with bright green nipples.
Such distortions and corruptions, unsavory though they were, struck many of us as representing a desperate striving, for we knew in our bones that the season of mermaids was running out. What was it we were looking for? Sometimes we felt a little impatient with our mermaid for just sitting there, for not doing anything. What did she want from us? Couldn’t she see we were pushing ourselves to the limit? It was a time of exaggerated rumors, of impossible stories, which we ourselves invented in order to see how much we could bear. We said that if you touched the scales of a mermaid, you would be struck blind. We said that certain women of our town were mermaids who disguised themselves as human beings in order to lure men away from safe middle-class lives into undersea realms of danger and madness. We spoke of the secret births of mermaids to the wives and daughters of our town. We whispered that if a mermaid chose you, and took you out into the ocean, you would become as a god. We created in ourselves new visions, new gullibilities—we wanted to become children or seers. We could feel ourselves straining at the confines of the possible. We wanted to believe that the time of mermaids was at hand, that our lives were about to change forever. It was as if we were waiting for something from our mermaid, who had come to us from out there, but we did not know what it was.
In the warm summer nights, when the sea-smell hung in the air, you could see us at our open windows, staring out in the direction of the water.
In this tense atmosphere of impossible expectation, our mermaid did something at last, something that made us look at her in a new way: she disappeared. One morning the glass case was gone. A sign on a stand told us that the historical society was no longer able to preserve her properly. We learned that she had been sent to a marine laboratory in New Haven and from there to Washington, D.C., where she was to be examined by a team of scientists before being turned over to the Smithsonian for further study. Even as the facts were reported to us, even as we agreed that it was probably all for the best, a skepticism penetrated our belief, as if words were being used to deflect us from the thing we wanted to know. Before our eyes we had only the sign where the glass case had been. Soon there was not even that.
In the midst of our disappointment we detected the presence of another feeling, one that surprised us, though not entirely. It was a lightening of spirit, almost a gaiety. We understood that our mermaid’s departure was somehow pleasing to us. Had we secretly resented her? Her absence gave rise to our exuberant farewells. Some said that she had been spirited away in the night by others of her kind, who had vowed to return her to the ocean. Others claimed they had noticed small movements in her eyelids and lips; after a long sleep, our mermaid had gradually awakened. Whether she had smashed the glass and escaped alone to the water, or been aided by unknown forces in the night, who could say? The important thing was that she was out of human hands, she was back in her true element. Disappearance improved her. As the old parties ended, and the costumes were tossed into drawers and boxes, never to be looked at again, as legs reappeared and breasts retreated, as we returned to the normal course of things, our lost mermaid underwent a sea change: her mottled skin grew fresh and lovely, her scales glistened, her gold hair caught the light, and like an exiled queen restored to her throne, she assumed again her rightful place in her own land, far in the distance, forever out of reach, out there beyond where we can clearly see.
More from Steven Millhauser: