Translated from the language of whales by Anna Maria Johnson
Syntax borrowed from Gabriel Garcia Marquez
By the evening witching hour, the child Maris had been so long in the tub that her mother went into the silent bathroom to investigate. Next came a dismayed shout, for the mother saw that her girl now had a fishtail in place of legs. Tail and fins were an iridescent pearl-white, and the strands of her hair, which normally when wet hung in dark-blond ropes, had become the greenish color of tarnished pennies in fountains. The sinking sun was at such an angle through the window that as the mother stared into Maris’s face, alarmed, she could see something gleaming. A luminous jewel glittered in the girl’s forehead. The mother breathed deeply to calm herself. Maris, despite her radical change, didn’t complain, too delighted was she by her newfound mer-body.
Aghast at this nightmare, Vera, the mother, ran to alert Fisk, her husband, who was cleaning out the family’s enormous aquarium. He was rather fond of the weekly chore. She took him by the hand into the bathroom. The two gazed at their changed daughter with mute horror. Maris was swishing her tail absent-mindedly. Long, seafoam-green hair cascaded over most of her upper body, and her strong piscine tail, opal in the fluorescent light, filled most of the standard-size bathtub. When they ventured to speak to her, she answered with an unfamiliar accent in a voice deep and flowing like water. They delicately skipped over the question of how this had come to pass. Privately, they concluded that she had inwardly been a mermaid all her life but had only now developed a physical body in accordance to the truth within. They invited their neighbor, a farmer who knew everything about flora and fauna, to see her, and all he needed was one look to show them their error.
“She’s a changeling,” the farmer said. “She must have been intended to resemble your real daughter, but the fairies who made her were confused by your aquarium fish.” He glared significantly at Fisk, whom the farmer thought was overly devoted to his pet fish. Fisk ignored him, as he did not choose to believe in fairies.
By nightfall everyone in town knew that a flesh-and-blood mermaid lived in Vera and Fisk’s house. The farmer opined that changelings were trouble-bringers, evidence of fairy-stolen children, and this one ought to be lain outside on the ground until she grew desiccated. But Vera and Fisk did not have the heart. Instead, they transferred Maris to their large aquarium with the pet fish.
First thing next morning, as Maris showed no sign of returning to her pre-mermaid shape, Fisk, who was a carpenter, constructed a wheeled, wooden cart to go under the aquarium in order to provide the mermaid with locomotion. He then went out and purchased a second aquarium to hold the fish that had been crashing miserably against her tail in the tank.
A few days afterward, the school year began and all local children were mandated to attend regardless of shape and form. The parents were apprehensive for their mer-daughter to begin junior high school in this embodiment, and decided to take her to the local beauty spa for a full treatment to assuage their fears before she embarked on the trials of being regarded as an oddball in public school. When they hauled her downtown on the wheeled aquarium, nearly half the residents were present with aquatic gifts such as pearls, coral and conches. The hairdresser refused to touch scissors to the verdant long hair, as if she feared secret powers might spew forth.
Maris’s father pushed the aquarium to school followed by a procession of supporting townsfolk. Principal Pomeljeck arrived before eight o’clock, shocked at the strange news. Those who’d presented generous gifts were making all manner of conjectures about the mer-girl’s fitness for public school. The simplest among them thought that she should be captain of the swim team. Others, of rigorous academic bent, felt that she ought be trained as a naturalist in order to learn the intimate ways of all marine mammals, since it was thought that she could easily gain their trust. Some visionaries hoped that she could be bred with Hollanders in order to create a race of specialized peoples to populate flood-prone regions. But Principal Pomeljeck, before becoming an educator, had been a charismatic preacher. Standing at the double-doored entrance of the junior high school, he asked the crowds to part so that girl in the aquarium might come before him. In it, Maris looked more like a majestic sea princess than a school girl. She was leaning out of the water-chamber, elbows propped over one side, her new strings of pearls flowing in concert with her hair, which was decorated with coral combs. Unused to being singled out for such special attention, she lifted her sea-green eyes and sang something low in her watery voice to encourage herself as Principal Pomeljeck approached.
The former preacher suspected demonic possession when she cast down her eyes and sang a tune with unrecognizable words. Then he noticed that up close she was far from human. She had an unbearable odor of the briny sea. In her forehead, the jewel, placed like a Third Eye, emanated light from within her. Nothing about her indicated that she was content to spend days at school gossiping with peers and evenings doing homework. He turned to the crowd and began to preach.
“Beward the dangers of demons, crystals and half-human anythings! The devil and his minions inhabit the bodies of people, and even inanimate objects, in order to gain a foothold in our town. If the devil can trick a schoolgirl into exchanging her rightful legs for this fish’s tail, then there was no telling what he might promise you in exchange for yoru precious souls!” Nevertheless, he promised to initiate a correspondence with the Association of Religious Seamen in order to discern whether anyone during his days on the high seas might have seen a creature such as this.
His wisdom fell on stony hearts. The news of the appealing mer-girl spread with such joy that within hours both the beauty spa and the schoolyard had the bustle of a mall before Christmas. The mayor convinced the governor to issue a state of emergency and invite the state militia to disperse the mobs. Fisk’s forearm veins bulged with the effort of propelling Maris’s aquarium through the junior high. The sight of the school halls filled with so many curious youths, newspaper reporters and tight-lipped teachers inspired Fisk to charge ten dollars of those wishing to have a turn pushing the water-chamber. He designated it a school fund-raiser.
Donations exceeded three thousand dollars the first day. A proposal for cafeteria food to be grown on-site was fully funded within hours of its approval by the school board. The ensuing participant enthusiasm brought forty-five volunteers who broke ground, constructed raised beds and a drip irrigation system, planted the organic garden, and raised a barn for a herd of beef cows, within the week. Following this success, the most obscure after-school clubs came in search of funding: the synchronized swim team requested an underground pool with glass walls and tunnels from which their audiences might observe them; the Pacifism-through-Language Club wanted to have all school books and library references translated into Esperanto; the All-Vegetable Orchestra desired the largest possible gourds and pumpkins with which to carve musical instruments as big as tubas and didgeridoos. Vera and Fisk were happy with relief, for within the first week of junior high their daughter had become as popular as any girl could wish to be.
Beyond the school scene, agents wanting to book musical tours left messages on their home answering machine daily. Maris soon spent weekends traveling through the country, singing her disturbing music while audiences wept and moaned over its melancholic beauty.
Maris responded to the tumult with little apparent emotion, sublimating her feelings into musical sounds. She tried to make herself comfortable in the aquarium, which at twenty-five gallons was quite large for an aquarium but rather small for a five-foot long creature who was half-fish-half-woman. At first, her parents had tried to make her eat raw seaweed, which according to the knowledge of the neighboring farmer was the food most coveted by mermaids. But she rejected it, just as she refused the local, organic garden food now served in the school cafeteria. They never found out whether it was because she was a mermaid or because she was a finicky pre-teen that in the end she ate nothing but uncooked Ramen noodles.
She liked only to sing, but that didn’t prevent her schoolmates from competing in every possible way for her attention. The soccer players raced her aquarium down the institutional hallways, timing the runs to determine who was most athletic, and the pretty girls clamored to braid her tresses in order that they might secure their places near the top of the popularity chain. Even the studious types interrogated her mercilessly so that they might compose the most erudite essays on the phenomenon of girls transformed into mermaids. As a result, the only time Maris managed to have a moment of free of perturbation was when she sang her mournful tunes, accompanying herself with the haunting sound of her tail rubbing against the aquarium glass in imitation of a Tibetan singing bowl. Students hushed, ensorcelled by her unearthly lyrics. With tears in their eyes, they ceased striving to gain profit and status by connection to the mermaid, and instead, communed with their souls. This relief was short-lived, however. Although many believed that her songs were liable to produce salvation rather than enchantment, teachers asked her to refrain from singing during school hours, because the students within earshot would forego classes, homework, reading, and team sports— all the necessary and mundane components of education— so spell-bound were they by her siren’s song.
Principal Pomeljeck tolerated the mermaid’s presence in school for motivations purportedly other than mercenary ones while awaiting a reply from the Association of Religious Seamen in Savannah, Georgia. But the letters he received showed no sense of urgency. The Seaman wanted to know whether the girl had been born this way, whether anyone in her genetic lineage had been thought to have mermaid inclinations, if her song lyrics were glossolalia, or whether she wasn’t just a pubescent girl going through a phase. This correspondence might have continued until the end of time if a providential event had not put an end to the principal’s trials.
Amidst so many extravagant school-related events, a new student arrived—a boy who had ballooned into a hippopotamus after eating too many Twinkies. The donation to ride on his back was not only less than that of the donation to push the mermaid’s aquarium, but unlike the mermaid he was even eager to answer all manner of questions about his pitiful state. He relished telling his story to the nth detail so that no one would doubt his truth. He was a hippopotamus the size of a bus, with the head of a pock-marked boy. What was most tragic, however, was not his horrifying weight but the earnest and eager attitude with which he recounted the tale of his transmogrification. While still a normal-looking child he had snuck out of his parents’ house to go to the corner convenience store where he stole and devoured one hundred and sixty-eight cream-filled cakes. While he was waddling home along side-streets, a fearful dizzy spell overtook him so that he could not see clearly. In his blindness he heard the loud cracking sound of a car striking him. But instead of being injured, he was only transformed into a broad hippopotamus. Now his only attire was an enormous patchwork of blankets that charitable persons had voluntarily sewn into a covering for his body. A spectacle such as the Hippo Boy, full of so much human pain and with such a convincing moral, was bound to usurp without a coup the status of a proportionate mermaid girl who liked only to sing incomprehensible songs and be left alone. What was worse, the few friendships Maris had actively chosen revealed a certain disdain for the school-wide power cliques. Over jocks and cheerleaders, she preferred the stuttering boy who wasn’t strong enough to push her wheeled aquarium but liked to catch minnows to drop into her water, or the frumpy girl who stank no matter how often she showered, or the teacher with the Ph.D. in medieval history who could speak fluent Old English and Gaelic but was frightened of his students. Such reckless associations seemed calculated to mock the prestige that had been so willingly proffered. Therefore, the popular and jealous students rejoiced and felt vindicated when the boy who had ballooned into a hippopotamus reduced the mermaid’s status to virtual ignominy. Thus Principal Pomeljeck was relieved of his twenty-four-hour-a-day prayer vigils, and the school clubs went back to being as unfinanced as they had been before. Maris, meanwhile, was content with her nearly archival status in the schools, and brazenly informed her parents that she refused to perform publicly more often than twice per month.
The mermaid’s parents had no reason to lament. With the money Maris had earned during the days of her wild popularity and success, along with the continued income from singing concerts, albeit substantially reduced, they created a college endowment large enough to provide for many unconventionally talented scholars. Vera and Fisk also built a new home near the Chesapeake Bay, designed to include several room-sized pools in which the mermaid could live, exercise and keep aquatic animals. They went into business giving consultations to other families whose children were shockingly transfigured during the onset of adolescence. Maris, meanwhile, enjoyed cavorting in the Chesapeake with bioluminescent plankton and jellyfish. Her parents, in a moment of insight, hired private marine biologists to educate her in the natural sciences both at home and in fieldwork on such exotic locations as the Galapagos Islands and Coastal Labrador. Once, when one of the tutoring marine biologists suffered an attack by a cold-water shark and lost both his legs, the doctor who treated him was so taken by the mermaid’s tail that he used it as a model when crafting a synthetic tail for the biologist. It seemed so natural to the doctor that he wondered why all humans shouldn’t become equipped with them too. He soon became rich after patenting his synthetic tail design, and thereafter, in gratitude, often sent rich presents to Maris and her family—a sailboat, a raw sapphire necklace, antique musical instruments.
Several years had passed since the neighboring farmer had declared the mermaid a changeling and recommended her desiccation. Maris was now among the foremost experts on numerous aquatic species ranging from desmid to dolphin. She offered professional marine biology consultations interspersed with intervals of singing tours during which she moved her fans to weeping with her mysterious mermaid tongue. But she never fell in love with a human being. Once, while accompanying a boat in the shore-waters of Cape Cod where several researchers were considering the viability of re-introducing codfish, she and her ship were surrounded by a pod of humpbacks that understood her song and came to listen, rapt and enamored. A chorus of them accompanied her in twelve-part harmony on the final refrain. After this experience Maris was often consumed with longing to return to those whom she began to think of as her people. In fact the whales taught her a method of communication unknown to human beings, by which they manipulate the frequencies of sound-waves and are able to transmit messages across hundreds of watery miles. By this means, they repeatedly begged her to join their pod as their equal.
At home on land in the house of her parents, splashing in the many-roomed pools they had built for her, she sang the song of the whales and her music became so lugubrious that Vera, in tears, implored her to cease singing, and Fisk berated the mermaid for her ingratitude after all the elaborate accommodations he had made for her over the years. She had long ago quitted the diet of Ramen noodles and now subsisted on a diet of krill and kippers that had to be shipped in ice-filled crates from distant oceans at considerable expense. As time passed she lost even her appetite for krill, and spent her days listless at the edge of the pool, or in the bay, moaning low the siren song of the whales. Vera combed and plaited the pale green hair and became solicitous for she noticed the cool clammy pallor that had crept over Maris’s face and the lack of iridescence in the white tail, and feared that her beloved daughter might be ill unto death. Not even the farmer, whom they called long-distance from their new estate, could recommend a saving treatment.
One morning Fisk and Vera were meeting with the concerned parents of a teenager who had developed both the appearance and attitude of a sphinx when a sudden rain came so quickly that the streets were deluged up to the first floors. They opened the door to their consultation room in time to see Maris plashing out along the floor and into the streets that had become canals. She’d grown so out of practice at swimming, due to her long convalescence, that at first she merely dog-paddled, dunking underwater every few feet and coming up sputtering. She was on the brink of colliding with every canoe and kayak that had floated out into the flood and might have knocked them over. But eventually she did manage to swim. Vera and Fisk let out a collective sigh of relief when they saw her cut through the current and move at last with the grace of a dolphin in the direction of the sea. They kept watching even as the waters rose over their feet and up to their knees. They watched until it was no longer possible for them to see her. Then they knew Maris was no longer an inhabitant of their home, but a free creature co-habiting with whales on the sea’s horizon.