On late summer afternoons, when the water gets real still the mermaids surface, the spines on their backs rising out of the lake. My brother says he’s gonna catch one, even prowls the shore with a hook he’s fashioned out of an old broom handle and some coat hangers. He hauls a plastic trash can with him to keep a mermaid in once he’s caught it. What he plans to do with her after that, I have no idea. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, cuz they’ll never let him near them. They don’t show their lovely faces to him, only their fearsome backs. Why would they? He’s loud and impatient and likely to hit anything that startles him, and his imagination is sorely limited.
I wait till he gets bored and goes inside and then I wade along the shore, pulling up long green lake grass to braid into a crown. It’s quiet, air heavy over the lake. I hear a splash behind me and turn, nearly slipping in the mud, and there are two of them, smiling at me with glinting eyes and needle-pointed teeth. One has dark hair tangled through with weeds and algae. The other is bald as a fish, skin the same golden green as the bass my brother leaves gasping in a bucket after he tears them off his fishing hooks. Seems like this would make her ugly, but the scales suit her, all shimmery in the sunlight. She wraps her arms around her tangle-haired sister and they bob there for a minute, watching me, before they flip their tails up and slip below the surface.
If my brother means to catch one he’ll have to deal with those fins, sharp enough to cut a grown man’s rough hands. With the spikes on their backs and all their many teeth they’re fearsome, it’s true, but I’m not afraid. I sit so still in the water to watch them, not minding the minnows that nibble at the freckles on my knees.
The mermaids are never alone. I’ve seen as many as five at once, jumping and racing each other across the lake. I wonder what it’s like to have so many sisters. I try swimming like they do, flipping my legs up, going for a leap, landing with a flop. By the far shore a few heads surface and their laughter echoes over to me, high and skittery. I crawl outta the water and flop on the grass. Red and gold flash behind my lids as the sun dries me and the shame of my clumsiness melts in a drowsy haze.
Later, I steal one of Mama’s leg warmers out of her dresser and pull it over both my legs. I practice hopping down the carpeted hall in my new tail of burgundy wool.
“Stop flopping around like a dirty animal and walk on the two legs god gave you,” Mama says when she catches me.
The next day I sneak down to the lake with my wool tail anyway, but it goes loose in the water and tangles up my legs. I pull it off me and practice holding my breath instead, diving deep with my eyes wide open. Mama would yell if she knew I was doing it, tells me the dirt and germs will make me blind. But what are eyes for if not for looking, and I’ve never seen anything as gorgeous as the light coming down from the surface, how it shines through flecks of mud and algae and turns everything around me to sparkling gold.
At the surface the water is warm, but slip down only a few feet and the chill creeps in, colder the closer I move to the center, to the heart of the deep. I map the bottom with my hands and toes and water-stung eyes. If I go down far enough I’ll find the place where the mermaids live. But my body won’t cooperate, my limbs betraying and scrambling me back up to the surface.
A mercrowd gathers nearby. I hear them giggling. Swirls of cold water brush my sides as their tails swish past me. I try again and again, coming up to gasp for air before I flip back down and kick toward the bottom. I can feel how close they are around me, closer than they’ve ever come before. Slick fingers touch my arms, my hips, my toes. Their knotted hair clouds my vision. I can’t tell how many there are. I burst to the surface to gasp for another breath. The mermaids circle and I look around at them, blinking water out of my eyes. Their faces look so human that, like a fool, I imagine they might start speaking.
When I dive this time small hands grip me. I open my eyes in the murky water. There are mermaids grabbing onto my arms. They smile their toothy smiles and tug me down. They’ve seen how hard I’m trying, and now they wanna help. Mermaids hold my legs and sides, the swish swish swish of their tails troubles the water. A bubble of panic rises in my throat and I try to pull my arms away, but their grip is fierce. We’re deeper than I’ve ever made it — the light doesn’t filter this far down, the cold grips me, my lungs strain. I open my mouth to scream and water pours in but, strangely, doesn’t choke me — flows in and out like air. And there is a light now — it’s coming from below. We are headed toward it, headed home.
Something small and hard pings off the back of my head. Without warning the hands are gone and I am suspended in a flurry of writhing fins that slice and sting as they graze my skin. Somehow my face bursts to the surface. I cough up water and suck down air. More sharp little pings catch me on the shoulder and cheek.
I jerk my head around and see my brother on the shore. He tosses another fistful of gravel and the mermaids move around me in a disoriented swirl.
“Get!” he yells, his voice carrying clear across the water. “Get on out of here you little demons!”
“Stop it!” I yell back at him.
Most of the mermaids are gone now, but the two that first smiled at me still bob in front of me, beckoning with their hands, glinting and gleaming all lovely in the sunlight. They swim closer and put their cool fingers on my face, making little chirps and titters in my ears. I wanna know what they’re thinking and I wanna see what they could show me and I wanna go with them but I can already feel the sinking in my stomach. It’s their faces, how they look so human – it tricks you into thinking they’re something they’re not.
When the rock catches her right in the side of her shining bald head her eyes go dull in an instant. Her sister screams, lunging toward the shore, and my brother scrambles up the bank and runs for the house. I reach for the floating body, gather her in the crook of my arm, and swim for the bank. But when I haul her out and lay her on the ground it’s clear she’s already dead.
Mama’s come out of the house, roused by all the commotion. She walks down the hill and kneels next to me, shading her eyes with one hand. My brother trails behind her with his head down, kicking at the dirt, avoiding the glares I’m sending his way.
“What a beautiful creature,” she says, touching the tip of the mermaid’s nose. She cuts her eyes towards my brother, “what a shame.”
He snorts defiantly. “They were trying to drown her!”
“They weren’t,” I say, “they just wanted to show me something.” I look around for the other one, thinking maybe she’ll be nearby, crying for her sister. But the lake has gone still as glass again. The breeze on my damp skin makes me shiver.
Mama clucks her tongue. “It’s impossible to tell with wild things, but at least you’re safe.” She gets to her feet and picks up the mermaid by the neck, dangling the body at arms length. The head rolls loose, fin dripping slime, eyes as empty as the high blue sky. “No use wasting good meat,” she says, “I’ll make us a stew for dinner.”