When I was twelve I learned about mermaids from my sixteen-year-old cousin Danny, who was staying at our beach house on the coast of Delaware with his mother, my aunt Nora, the summer my parents’ marriage fell apart. He waved a Playboy magazine in my face and showed me pictures of beautiful women in silver gossamer tops. “Mermaids,” he assured me, and grinned knowingly at photographs of two women resting on a large rock, combing each other’s long flowing hair. “Too bad you’ll never look like them.” He snickered and flipped through the pages. “Emily, how does it feel to be skinny and flat-chested like a guy?”
“Mermaids,” he assured me. “Too bad you’ll never look like them.”
“Let me see,” I said, and grabbed the magazine, and then stared in awe at a page of photographs. Beautiful women embraced under the title “Mermaids of the Atlantic.” They seemed to drift in shallow water along the tide line. Scales on their rainbow-colored tails shimmered as they curled against each other amid rocks, sand, and pink shells. Their faces were in shadows, but their graceful necks were like those of swans I had seen at the park near my house in Baltimore.
“Don’t tell anybody I showed you this.” He gave me a menacing look.
I shrugged and feigned no interest. I hated the way Danny treated me. “Those women aren’t real, Danny. It’s all faked with makeup and feathers.”
“Who cares? They’re sexy.” He seized the magazine, folded it and tucked it into the back pocket of his jeans, and retreated to his room.
That summer I became a proficient swimmer, astonished by the growing strength of my scrawny arms and legs as they propelled me through the cold, uneven waves off the shore. Although my mother had forbidden me to swim alone in the ocean, I swam daily, not in the nearby pool, as she supposed, but in the surf about a mile down the shore from our house. My mother was too preoccupied to notice how I spent my afternoons. I plunged into the cool surf and swam against heavy waves. I practiced slipping into the sea from sunny rocks.
Afterward, I lay on warm concrete bulkheads and imagined myself with a sleek, glistening tail. The pictures from the magazine lingered in my thoughts as I wandered the beach at sunrise and sunset, straining my eyes for a glimmer of a mermaid’s scales. My dreams took on a new vitality that later I realized was the nucleus of desire.
In the late afternoons, I walked along the shore and measured my distance from home by the flagpole in front of our beach house. The house rippled in lines of heat from the sun, and from a great way off the house seemed to float castlelike above the sand. My father had inherited the beachfront property years earlier from his uncle.
At one time, the two-story pink house had hunched over sand dunes three streets from the tide line. Several decades of fall hurricanes had sucked two rows of oceanfront houses into the sea, leaving the bulk of my father’s legacy listing on stilted legs, like a roseate ibis, leaning into the wind. The closer one drew to it, the more the house seemed to stumble and catch itself at the ocean’s edge.
Waves lapped against the pilings under the ocean side of the house at high tide. In the light of the full moon, the screened porch creaked as whirling waters tugged at the house, whispering seductively, testing the tenacity of the sloping floorboards. Summer evenings I sat on the floor stroking the cool wood planks with my hands, tantalized by the hazards of splinters. With no one my age to amuse me, I listened to the mutterings of the house and watched the waves, vaguely aware of a dull, prodding unease I supposed was loneliness. Sometimes my mother played cards with me. The television, broken the previous summer, remained dusty and ignored. My mother preferred the silence.
She was tall, blond, willowy, and increasingly remote when my father was around. That summer she developed dark circles of worry around her eyes. I heard her sometimes walking about the unlit house late at night, banging into furniture, crying out softly. She sat each morning drinking coffee on the screened porch, her hands tightening around the cup as she watched the ocean’s daily attacks on the underpinnings of our house.
My father, a criminal court judge, stayed in Baltimore during the week and came out only on weekends, a visitor in his own home. He arrived most Friday nights around eight, splendidly pressed in a white shirt and dark suit in spite of the heat. “Muriel, my scotch,” he would say, ordering a triple Chivas on the rocks with a twist, with a wave of his hand, as if he were in a familiar restaurant. My mother always rushed to accommodate his request, as though she had not anticipated it.
He rarely spoke to me except to inquire whether I was reading books from the summer list he’d posted on the refrigerator and which included two of his favorites: Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I lied that I was. Perhaps he knew his simple inquiry would lead me to a hasty retreat before he could question me.
He liked politics and had begun to talk about running for governor. He did not seem to like being at the beach. He never went swimming, and only once do I remember him walking on the beach with my mother. Even then, he wore his suit and hard black shoes, and only removed his tie. Most of the time, he sat on the screened porch smoking, sipping scotch and reading court briefs. In the evenings, after dinner he and my mother argued quietly behind the closed door of her bedroom while I worried about our family.
Sunday afternoons the house seemed to exhale with relief when at three o’clock he shoved papers into a black leather valise and left. He backed his Lincoln out of the driveway without so much as a wave. I imagined him speeding across the toll bridge to the city, pursued by my mother’s unhappiness.
I imagined him speeding across the toll bridge to the city, pursued by my mother’s unhappiness.
In July of that summer, my mother invited her sisters to the beach house as a buffer for my father’s visits. Nora and Clarissa were older, less elegant versions of my mother. The sisters had always been close. During the week, they played tennis, sang silly songs, shopped, played cards, and started the cocktail hour around four every afternoon. My mother’s spirits improved once her sisters arrived. She talked about painting again and her eyes grew bright and filled with conviction until the weekend arrived.
I eavesdropped on whispered conversations she had with my aunts and learned more about her sadness. “Morgan doesn’t care anymore.” I heard the break in my mother’s voice as she told them, “I think we’re headed for a divorce, but please don’t tell Emily, not yet.” And so I knew, and wished every day that I did not.
My aunts eased the tensions. Both had majored in literature. Clarissa, the oldest, a literature professor, was reliable and solid, although my father said, “She drinks vats of gin and stares at the tides too long, and she quotes all that damned poetry.”
One of Clarissa’s favorites was Emily Dickinson: “I do not doubt the self I was; was Competent to me. But something awkward in the fit proves that outgrown I see.” To which my mother would reply, “Clarissa, you still make the trains run on time, in spite of your fondness for gin.” As a child I thought Clarissa worked for a railroad.
Nora, four years younger than Clarissa, sang off-color songs and quoted long literary passages that weren’t particularly funny to me, but happily they made my mother laugh. Nora worked with a theater group. Often at dinner she recited bawdy passages from Shakespeare in her best theatrical voice while Danny studied water spots on his silverware.
Nora told my mother that I was an “aftershock of salaciousness on a summer afternoon.” Later, after I had found the word salacious in the dictionary, I felt vaguely embarrassed. I could not imagine my father salacious for even a moment in his life.
My aunts’ husbands had escaped their marriages in different ways. Clarissa’s husband, Rob, was a workaholic lawyer, and though they remained married in name and finances, they rarely saw each other. Nora had divorced Uncle Cal five years earlier, after she caught him with Danny’s babysitter. Danny was Nora’s only attempt at motherhood. She acknowledged his presence reluctantly. Danny bullied me and made jokes about us all behind our backs. He was not inclined to get a summer job and since he had nowhere else to go, he hung out on the beach and at the fishing docks. He and his buddies spent their days leering at girls who walked along the beach. In the evenings they bathed themselves in cologne and swaggered off to play miniature golf.
The week after Danny showed me the pictures, I slipped into his room and found his collection of Playboy magazines under his mattress. The one with the mermaid pictures was on the top of the stack. I hid the magazine in my room, and after lunch I opened it and stared at “Mermaids of the Atlantic.”
Much to my surprise, the magazine had pages of naked women lying about in various positions. Feeling strangely lightheaded, I traced the outline of exposed breasts and hips with my fingers. I took off my warm, wet bathing suit and stared at my body in the mirror. My breasts were small. I did not look like the women in the magazine at all.
I studied the pictures, reading captions under the photographs, as words like erotic and sappho washed over me. My pulse raced with the solid, rapid strokes of an ardent swimmer. I slipped back into my swimsuit, pulled a shirt over it, and tiptoed into the hall. I located Nora’s Dictionary of Myths and Legends next to the Scrabble board in the bookcase behind the stairs. I slipped it under my shirt and walked softly back to my room.
I could not find some of the words at first, but I found mermaids and read, “According to legend, a mermaid never comes to a false heart.” I looked back at the magazine photographs. The pictures left me trembling and weak.
When I heard my mother’s footsteps in the hallway, I closed the dictionary and slipped the magazine under a towel just as my mother opened the door.
“Emily, honey, you’re awfully quiet in here,” she said. “Oh, you’re reading. I thought perhaps you were taking a nap.” She studied my sweating face and glanced at the dictionary. “What an odd thing to read,” she said as she swirled a martini in a frosty glass.
She looked as if she’d been crying. “Will you ride your bike down to the fishing pier and get some shrimp for dinner tonight?” She stood in the doorway. “Your father hates shrimp, but he’s not coming this weekend.” She stared at me closely, appraising my loyalty. “He’s working on a major case.”
Later, after I bought the shrimp at the store, I pushed my bike along the sandy road home. Thick, salty storm clouds spun their way across the bay and rumbled inland. The pain in my mother’s eyes when she mentioned my father made my throat hurt. I got on the bike and pedaled violently just as huge raindrops spattered the sand into pockmarked grids, splashing over the double plastic bags of shrimp. I didn’t want to go home; I wanted to ride in the rain forever.
I didn’t want to go home; I wanted to ride in the rain forever.
I dropped the bike beside the back door and took the drippy bags into the kitchen. Nora stood at the sink, mixing a large pitcher of martinis. Brine from the leaking bags of icy shrimp formed a puddle at my feet, but she was pleasantly oblivious as she waved me toward the sink. “Glad you’re back,” she said. “I was just about to send Danny out to look for you.”
Danny sat sullenly at the kitchen table removing pickles from a tuna sandwich.
“You’ve been in my room, you little runt,” he said, glaring at me fiercely. He turned to Nora. “Tell her to stay out of my stuff.”
“Danny, your room is such a mess, I can’t imagine anyone going in there for any reason,” Nora said.
Danny’s ears turned red. He stuffed the sandwich in his mouth and shrugged.
I avoided looking at him, wiped off with a kitchen towel, and hurried upstairs. Danny had ransacked my room, but he had not found the magazine hidden in the back of my closet. I locked the closet door, tied the key around my neck with a string, and retreated to the porch to watch the rain that had settled in for the evening. The smell of shrimp steaming in beer in the kitchen filled the house. I felt almost unbearably sad.
After dinner, Danny left to hang out with his friends while my aunts and my mother argued over their card game well into the night. I fell asleep with the mermaid magazine and dreamed of the women I had seen in the photographs.
The next afternoon I paddled our dinghy out beyond the waves and studied the rocky coastline with binoculars. Elation washed over me. Mermaids were sunning themselves just as I had expected, on a rocky outcropping near a wild section of the beach. Rowing and swimming into the area seemed impossible, what with riptides surging. The surf was unsafe for even an experienced swimmer. After dragging the dinghy ashore into a cove farther up the rocky beach, I hiked the two miles down the rough shoreline, climbed over the dunes and down an embankment to the cove. I shaded my eyes against the sun.
Mermaids, I thought, until I moved closer and saw that they had feet and legs, and hips. Three women lay spread out on blankets on smooth rocks below. At first I wondered if my mother and aunts had discovered the cove, but all of these women had dark hair and they were completely naked. Their bodies were wonderfully tan, like the women I had seen in the magazine. Their bathing suits were stretched beside them on the sand.
I sat down in the shadows, a trembling voyeur, as waves plunged over the rocks and sent up walls of spray. Their voices, carried by the breeze, tinkled like wind chimes.
As the sun dipped low in the sky, the women gathered their things. The smell of coconut suntan lotion mixed with strawberry fragrance, drifted through the air. I slipped away and walked the two miles back to the dinghy on unsteady legs.
I returned the next afternoon and the next. On the third afternoon, three bathing suits lay on the rocks, but only two women sat on beach towels, their arms around each other, staring out at the waves. The third was nowhere to be seen. All at once, someone reached around the outcropping of rock where I crouched and grabbed me.
“I’ve got him,” said the woman as she spun me around to face her. “Spying on us, you little jerk.” Her fingers dug into my shoulder. I burst into tears.
The woman dropped her hands to her side and stared. “It’s a girl.” The other two women leapt over the rocks and ran to us. The three women surrounded me.
“Watching us, are you,” said my captor. “You know, that’s really rude.”
“Oh, she’s just a baby,” said one of the women. “Cute. But I’d bet she’s not even twelve.”
“She’s too young,” said the one who had captured me. She leaned forward and looked at my face carefully. “Give her ten years. What’s your name, kid?”
I was embarrassed and yet thrilled to find myself so close to these women. I felt like a specimen pressed under glass. “Emily,” I said, smoothing the rocky sand with my bare foot to avoid looking directly at their bodies.
“Have you told anybody about us, Emily?”
“No,” I said, relieved that I had not yielded to an earlier urge to impress Danny with my discovery.
“Look at her,” said the tall woman, lifting her sunglasses. “She hasn’t a clue, do you, sweetie?” She patted me on the head. “Emily, do us a favor and don’t mention this to anyone, okay?”
I nodded. Off in the distance, storm clouds rumbled along the horizon. “I have to get home. They’ll be looking for me,” I lied.
Inhibited by the women’s sensuality and kindness, I willed my wobbly legs into motion. I looked over my shoulder twice as I climbed the rocks out of the cove. They were putting on their swimsuits. Later, I would regret that I had not waved.
Twice that week I returned, but the women were not there. I awoke in the night breathing hard, as though I had swum a great distance. During the day I walked the beach, numbly aware of the growing tension in the house. My mother spent more time alone each day. Her sisters hovered about, worry lining their faces, and they took trays of food to her bedroom when she missed dinner.
Looking back now, I barely trust my memory of the next few weeks, so much happened. My father did not come to the beach house that weekend or the next. Then he telephoned late one Friday afternoon, and I watched Nora raise her eyebrows when he requested that she give his excuse to my mother. Danny, who admired my father more than I did, pulled me aside. “He’s got someone on the side, you know,” he said. “All men do.” He seemed pleased by this, and I felt the thick anger of betrayal building in the back of my throat.
At dinner my mother sat grimly resolved.
My aunts cleared the dishes and left us alone.
“Emily,” she said finally, “I need to talk to you.” And so, late into the evening we sat in the dark listening to the soft slap of high tide against the porch stairs. “Your father and I are not happy together,” she began, and as she told me what I already knew, the house seemed to roll ever so slightly, like a ship anchored in a shallow bay.
as she told me what I already knew, the house seemed to roll ever so slightly, like a ship anchored in a shallow bay.
I was rendered older in those moments. By the end of it, I felt dizzy and vaguely ill. My mother looked relieved by the telling, as though a great weight had shifted between us. I imagined the house an island. And yet I felt safe knowing my mother could leave my father, but not me.
Later the next day on my way home from a movie, I was surprised to see my father’s picture on the front page in late editions of the Baltimore Sun on the racks outside the theater. The newspaper carried the shocking headline of my father’s arrest in Baltimore for soliciting a prostitute. The paper had used an old photograph of him dressed in what Nora called his Clark Gable look. It was my mother’s favorite picture of my father from his Princeton yearbook. And though I was not sure what the headline really meant, I realized, even then, that such a thing brought a shameful end to a judiciary career.
I raced home on my bike and found Nora on the phone talking to a reporter. Her angry voice echoed throughout the house. “No, you may not speak with her,” she said. “Stop calling.” She hung up the phone and muttered, “The damn vultures are circling.”
Clarissa sat blowing her nose into a tissue. “What a disgrace,” she said. She shook her head when I asked her what soliciting meant. “Where’d you hear that word?” she asked. But she didn’t wait for me to answer. She told me that my mother was in her bedroom. “And please don’t bother her right now.” I went upstairs to my room and heard my mother crying in the bedroom next to it. My aunts moved about the house murmuring, with sturdy drinks in hand. “Nothing shocks me anymore,” Nora said. “I thought he was involved with someone, but this is sad.” And Clarissa agreed.
I longed to escape the creaking sorrow of that house. As I left to walk along the shore, I found Danny sitting outside on the back stairs. He glanced up at me when I passed. “Guess you know what a prostitute is,” he said. “You’d think he could do better than that. You’d think he would have a mistress.” He stopped cleaning his nails with a penknife and stood up. “If they think to ask, I’m out.” He headed toward the boardwalk.
Walking along the shore, I watched the steady ripples of the incoming tide as a sandpiper scurried along the surf’s edge. I sat down in the sand and thought about my parents. I did not know my father at all and my mother only a little. But at that moment comfort came to me in thinking about the mystery and kindness of the women I had seen in the cove. And I felt foolish for even thinking they were mermaids.
Over the years, I have heard a number of versions of that summer. Sometimes I watch this same account in my mind’s eye as if it were a movie about unhappy people I barely knew. My father came to talk with my mother the following evening, and he left her room after only a few minutes. I have been told he asked to speak to me, but my aunts sent him away. I saw him from the stairwell as he passed through the house. He did not look like Clark Gable at all. He looked tired and sorrowful. He spoke softly to my aunts as he let himself out.
We did not return to our house in Baltimore. So much happened so fast. My aunts packed our things. We moved to a small town in Florida where my mother began teaching art. And I entered a new school and discovered a name for the mermaids I had seen. The house was sold in the spring and washed into the Atlantic next hurricane season.
I don’t remember if I saw my father again that year, although surely I did, but I do remember how he smelled of scotch the few times I did see him. He died in a car accident two years later.
But I clearly remember that on the last bright evening I ever spent at my father’s beach house, I walked down to the water’s edge. As the ocean roiled at high tide, the moonlight on the water gave an illusion of the mystery of scales and skin and flowing hair moving just below the surface.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in The Broadkill Review,Third Wednesday, Minimus,Buffalo Spree, Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. An upcoming publication is scheduled for Big Muddy. A recent story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also a story was a 2011 finalist for the “So to Speak” fiction contest. An additional story was nominated for Best American Short Stories in 1997. In 2012 Jan hopes to find a suitable publisher for a story collection.