There’s been a break in the sneak peeks of Before and Afterlives, but I’m back with the next one, the opening scene to my story, “The Drowned Mermaid”, which originally appeared in the magazine, Realms of Fantasy. This story is one of my few that take place in southern California, where I lived for a short stint in the late 90s. I wrote it after walking along a strip of beach one night, down below a short cliff where these amazingly beautiful houses were perched above with these decks that came out from the cliffside almost like small piers themselves. Down below the decks, though, I noticed groups of people huddle in sleeping bags along the breaker rocks, and asked the friend I was walking with who would be sleeping under a deck in sleeping bags like that. “They’re homeless,” was my friends answer, and I realized I had had trouble placing what should have been easily perceived because I found myself in a different landscape from the one I was used to back in Ohio. I started to think about the people in the amazingly beautiful houses above the decks, and the people sleeping below those decks, in their torn-up sleeping bags, and thought I saw a large tail flip out in the moon-spangled ocean, which all together were the elements that led to the creation of this story.
The Drowned Mermaid
On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned mermaid was washed ashore. She was curled in an almost S shape, her arms thrown over her head as if to block out the glare of the sun. Her skin was pale, rubbery and white. The kind of pale that comes from living either beneath the earth or beneath the sea. Her black hair was twisted with ropes of seaweed, and a bruise, golden brown and purple, stained the skin of her right cheek.
Helena found her. She had woken that morning from another dream of her daughter Jordan, from another night of terror and mystery in which she played the lead role. She’d been in a casino this time, after receiving instructions on how to win Jordan back: “Go to the roulette table, place your bet on black thirty-one, walk away from the wheel without collecting your winnings, and believe me,” a disembodied voice told her, “you’ll win. Walk toward the nearest restroom, but don’t go in. A man in a dark suit will meet you by the door. Take his arm. He’ll bring you to me.”
She’d done as instructed, but as usual, never found her daughter. Never won her, never opened the locked safe without tripping the alarm. Or in another situation, she might be fooled into thinking Jordan was behind a certain door. But upon opening it, she would find nothing but a dark, empty room. As in the shell game, Helena could never pick the one under which the con man had hidden the ping-pong ball.
So she had come down to the beach after waking, leaving Paul asleep in bed. The sun had just risen, dappling the waves with light, and gulls screed in the air, circling and diving over the water.
From a distance the mermaid’s body looked like driftwood, smooth and round, silhouetted by the morning light. It was only when Helena came closer that she noticed the scales glinting in the light; the thickly muscled tail; and after moving one of the mermaid’s arms off of her face, the bulbous eyes, black and damp as olives.
She knelt beside the body and rested her ear against the chilled skin. A sluggish pulse still pumped through those emerald veins: a slow, locomotive beat. Unconscious then, Helena decided. She stood again, turning her head one way, then the other, scanning the beach to see if anyone else had ventured down this way yet. There was no one around at this hour. But that would change soon enough. It was the end of summer. Within an hour the beach would be strewn with bodies laid out for the sun to take. A ritual sacrifice.
Working quickly, she lifted the mermaid’s arms and shoulders from underneath and started to drag her. She pulled her away from the hissing waves that collapsed under their own weight, turning to foam as they reached the shore. She dragged, then paused to catch her breath, then picked the mermaid up once more to go a little farther. And all the while the mermaid’s head lolled on the stalk of her neck as if it had been broken.
It was a long, exhausting journey. But in this way, they reached home soon enough.