by Kimberly Glanzman
Fucking mermaids. Ridiculous human word. We’re myaialo: the closest translation would be singing warriors.
But it’s five months later; we lost the war, and only the conquerors write history.
I glare at my sister, Nerissa, from my poolside chair. Her red-algae-colored tail flashes in the water, as bright as her toothy smile imitating the human faces gathered around her tank. She’s wearing a red wig and a purple bikini top, for the stars’ sake.
On the other side of the pool, Jenny holds court: a gaggle of humans crowd around her as she basks — in the sun, in their attention. They stick their hands over the pool wall, sliding their fingers down her hair, along her scales, as if she were a stingray, a pet, a dumb animal. One of the littler humans shakes a Starbucks cup at her, offering an almond-milk-and-kale smoothie. Jenny hates almond milk, but she takes it with a graceful incline of her head.. Two human girls have their hair dyed mermaid-green; the tallest guy has a tattoo of iridescent-blue scales circling his left bicep. He holds out a bag of anemone chips and a little plastic container with what looks like some seaweed guacamole.
I feel as though I’m an extra on a terrible reality show: Keeping Up With the Delphinians. Real Fishwives of the Pacific. 12 Years a Mermaid. At least our human-given names don’t all start with the same letter.
My sister hoists herself up on the edge of the pool nearest me, bending her tail as if she has knees, mimicking that damn cartoon. “Meredith, come on!” she pouts in English, playing her role. She twirls a lock of that stupid red wig. I wish we could still live in the ocean; I’d sing for a shark to come eat us all, save us from this riptide fate.
“I’m fine right here, Nerissa.” I smile, which means the humans are watching because at home a smile means the battle begins.
Nerissa doesn’t break character; she slides back into the water, checks the wig. It’s time for a show. She puts on her own fake smile and dives. Camera flashes flicker from the observation deck below as she tours the length of the glass, probably waving at the kiddos and doing tricks with her gills. Those fucking kids, they love the wig. I want to pluck out their eyes and feast on them.
Nerissa thinks she can change things if she’s a star, like that ditz in Vancouver who does Speedo commercials and campaigns for mermaid rights, wages, the vote.
Rights. Does the moon have the right to escape the pull of the earth? Can the tides disobey the moon? We have fallen into the gravity of the human world, and we will never taste the clean, dark depths of the sea again.
Those humans fawning over Jenny wouldn’t hesitate to demand a refund if she didn’t sing on cue, flip her hair, praise their garbled attempts at our language. What do the crawlers call it? Sea horses? No, show ponies. I scratch at the tracker in my left shoulder.
One of the trainers edges over, squats down next to me. “Are you ill?” He leans in, slides the back of one hand across my forehead, gropes for my pulse with the other. I drown the desire to bite, the impulse to recoil from his invasion. Show pony.
“I’m fine, really,” I grit out, my teeth and tongue tripping over the harsh, sandy consonants. English has no music in it.
“Hmm,” he says, running his thick hands down my yellow-scaled legs. He beckons a second trainer with a jerk of his head. “Mermaid’s not swimming,” he tells his buddy. “Any ideas?”
“I’m sunning,” I say. Pressure-addled bottom-feeder. We were shipped to this aquarium just three weeks ago, and they’ve mostly left me alone up til now, because of the baby. The doctor here is studying us, like butterflies pinned beneath glass.
The blond trainer comes around to the other side of the chair. “What’s this one called again?” he asks the other, inches from my face. I bare my teeth.
The dark one snorts. “I can’t keep ’em straight. They all look the same to me.” He shifts his eyes to my chest. “Wait, this must be the breeding one. Look at those tits. Bet she really needs to be in the tank. Dry land can’t be good for it.” Clearly they’re experts on the gestation cycle of myaialo.
They think we’re talking guppies, reactive coral, pretty birds mimicking our betters; like the caged apes I read about: able to string together a few words and count to three. Despite the fact that one of our best mathematicians, held in China, continues to outstrip human understanding of fluid dynamics and astromechanics; despite my extensive knowledge of twenty-three human languages; despite four decades of cooperation between our species, before.
I can’t be surprised. Humans are adaptable that way. The moment they need to start killing each other, they will manufacture excuses, present their enemies as demons, animals, unworthy, other. Of course it would be easy to do the same to myaialo; we look monstrous to them already: two rows of pointed teeth, webbed hands, scaled spines protruding from our vertebral columns.
Except for the humans who think green is the new blonde, protesting for our freedom with chants. Freedom. Where would we go? Back to a sea full of our dead?
The blond’s hand circles my left ankle, rotating it. “I don’t see any injury to the legs. Should we carry her to the water? Maybe it’s dehydration?”
The first trainer shrugs. “Might as well.”
Even show ponies have their dignity. “That’s alright, gentlemen.” I sneer the moniker. “I can make it on my own.” I swing my legs over the side of the chair and stand, wobbly. Our legs don’t have the same muscles as humans; they’re meant solely for mating in the low tide pools. Or, they were. Now they’re a novelty for humans to gawk at as we stumble around. The ocean’s as far from our grasp as the moon.
The trainers come up on either side of me, sliding their soft, dry hands beneath my arms, helping me hobble to the side of the pool and sit.
The trainers stand over me, arms crossed. “Do you think it can swim like this?”
One leans down, makes little fin motions with his hands. “You –” he points to the water, over-enunciating. “Swiiiiiim?”
My teeth clench. Of course I can’t. I’m growing a kid. My mating legs are as much for swimming as they are for walking.
“Dunno, should we ask the doc?”
I wince. Their doctor looks at me like she can’t wait to slice me open and wear my bones as a necklace. She lost someone in the war. I’d swim naked through the Sea of Livid Ice to avoid her, her metal instruments, the way she licks her lips.
The trainers mumble above me. Feet in the water, I will my cells to rearrange into a long, orange-yellow fin.
The baby jerks below my heart. The anatomy of my fish-tailed body isn’t as forgiving. I should be floating with the rest of the pregnant wives in one of the Polynesian atolls for the next seven months while my husband brings me nets of sea urchin and conch and angelfish. He’d feed me with his mouth while we kissed. He’d sing to the baby beneath the waves. When birth is close and we can barely swim, he would join the other husbands to defend us from the sharks, the orcas.
But my husband is dead. All the husbands are. When the oceans grew dark with poison and we crawled, choking, to the beaches, the humans slaughtered us like a school of tuna. Only a few hundred survived, and here we are: even the orca pity us, singing dirges from the other side of the aquarium. The dolphins teach us how to lie; with our faces, our voices, and even inside our own minds.
Nerissa surfaces next to me, regarding my tail grimly. “I would’ve helped you swim with your mating legs,” she whispers in our language. “Jenny would’ve helped.” Her hand hovers over my belly as I float. “Will she be okay?”
I look around the pool, the gawking humans above and below. The tank reverberates with the orcas’ requiem. I shrug. “As much as any of us.”
About the Author:
Kimberly Glanzman is a current student in the MFA program at the University of Kentucky, where she serve as the managing editor of the New Limestone Review.
She was a finalist for the 2019 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Iodine, Innisfree, Kakalak, Sky Island Journal, Sleet Magazine, Stonecoast Review and Electric Lit.
You can find Kimberly on Instagram @speculativemermaid