She emerged from the surf, her shoulders wreathed in foam. Reluctantly, she rode the waves landward. Adam watched her from the shore, a woman or a porpoise, a creature from the sea rising and falling with each mighty breath of the Pacific.
From above, a team of gulls greeted her with their high-pitched screams, white crescents gliding across a darkening sky. Their shadows streaked the sand below them, dark shapes cruising over the surface of the emerald shallows. Far beyond the birds, the agitated waves, the mythical beauty that swam among their angry wake, the sun lay recumbent on the western horizon, a brazen drunkard, swollen and bright. It blinded Adam with its reflection on the water. It turned all before it into featureless silhouettes. It covered the land, the sea, the woman that seemed to be a part of them both. It bathed every inch of her flesh in warm, amber kisses. It drowned the world in a veil of marmalade, turning commonplace coconuts into over-large, prize-winning citrus.
Adam shielded his eyes to better observe the mermaid. As she slithered across the wet sand, he gasped and held his breath. She filled her lungs and sighed, frowning at the swell of sand where the ocean depths conceded to dry land. Seaweed clung to her scrawny shoulders, tangled in her rainbow-colored hair. She looked up and down the beach, unimpressed, morose. Her sea-green eyes sparkled in the dying light. They met Adam’s gaze and settled there. In them, he drowned, failing to tread their fathomless depths.
Adam felt his heart beating. He watched his t-shirt rise and fall, a lively pulse, like raging waves. He was prone to falling in love with strangers. But this was new. Before, his amorous affliction had always surfaced in the presence of land-bound women. Now, a fishtailed female surfaced from the water to ignite that familiar feeling, an urgency of affection that seized his very soul. Infatuation struck him, merciless as a typhoon. Adam fell hard and fell often, but unlike all the others, this one was truly one of a kind.
She crawled, hand and fins, over the soggy sand. Crabs scattered from the pockmarked beach, wary of her transition from sea to land. Her nails were long and elegant, alternating blue and green. One popped off in the sand, and she cursed, failing to retrieve the lost artifact as the ocean reclaimed it for its own.
Adam searched her neck, her collarbone, her breasts. He scanned behind her ears, looking for gills. He studied her hips, where her scaled tail met human skin. When she labored further onto land she wrung out her hair and turned upright to sit, facing the sea and sun. In her navel, a crystal shone, refracted light from sea glass or jade. Then the illusion began to fade. The magic, a mere illustration, like the countless tattoos cascading her exposed limbs and back.
Even as she tugged and grunted, the sand adhering to her back, her thin limbs and wiry muscle flexing to remove the synthetic tail, Adam knew that puppy love had struck him like a coconut dislodged in the wind, harder and larger than any prize-winning citrus. It left large welts and deep impressions. It branded into his heart. His very soul.
He watched a mermaid die in the sand and give birth to a land-dwelling woman. Her feet, pale and pruned, slipped free from the deep pocket of platinum cured silicone. A gold toe ring caught the vestigial sliver of sunshine before the ocean drank the last of its light. Adam flinched in the glare but forced himself to look on, memorized and unashamed. The mermaid tossed aside her scaled paraphernalia and flexed her toes. Like a snake that had shed its skin, she tested her new form. As if from a fairy tale, a wish to become human having been granted, a mythical beast emerged from salt and foam to walk on the sand with a pair of fully-formed, functional legs and feet.
Adam craned his neck to follow her footsteps. He counted the small pools of water that formed in the depressions left by her heels pressed among the sand. He tallied her tattoos: one, two dozen, three or more. Pink coral and clownfish on bony ankles; dolphins at play among roaring, blue waves; rainbows and orca whales; a constellation of many-colored starfish suctioning to her back. A great, purple octopus draped over the nape of her neck, four tentacles curling downward across her front, the other four falling down the length of her spine. A seahorse nestled behind one ear, air-bubble hearts trailing its tail.
Her own tail, now dragged behind her, left a long line in the sand as she walked past Adam down the beach. She looked his way but didn’t spare a smile. Apathetic, she grew heavy while out of water. She turned away from her admirer, neither moved nor bothered by his fixation. As her outline grew smaller and darker, Adam watched her turn away from the beach. Far off, her wet fishtail glinted among the tiki torches that lined the entrance of a wooded path. Rising above a canopy of banyans that swallowed her, a princess’ castle rose skyward to scrape the clouds.
Adam looked up to find the seagulls had all fled. The orange diffusion that blanketed the world had ripened to the color of bruises. The stars came out, one by one, to occupy the vacancy of blackened sky. Like precious gems, they glittered upon the crown of a giant, an island resort looming stark, white, and expensive. In the dark, the waves filled the silence to provide ample song. Then, moments later, steel drums and reggae usurped the ambiance of night. Friendly advice echoed in a lonely man’s ears: “Don’t worry. Be Happy.”
A red and gold mermaid tail stretched out over beach towels that had been laid across the back seats of Mariana’s Civic. As the apparatus dried, the sour smell of sweat filled the car. The salt of the sea, too, became apparent as the aromas embedded in the silicone permeated to fill the small, enclosed space. Mariana reached for the air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror. She held the small, tree-shaped cutout close to her nose and tried to will the scent of Caribbean Colada from its long expired value.
In human form, her legs stretched out before her, the balls of her feet grazing the pedals. She reversed, driving faster than she should in a resort parking lot, accelerating to double the signposted limit. With her windows open, she weaved through the narrow lanes of unoccupied, stationary cars. She tried to fan away the smells, the heat, the humid summer air that made her drying curls go large, frizzy, and wild.
She parked again, returning to the same spot under the low, horizontal bough of a banyan tree. The small birds within its branches routinely shat on the navy blue hood of her vehicle, the white specks on the dark paint as if a reflection of the stars in the night sky above. Mariana sighed, as she often did throughout the long hours of the day. Bored, she unearthed a pack of Newports from under the passenger seat and smoked without pleasure. She wedged her shins between her chest and the wheel, resting her head on the scuffed patches of denim that exposed her bare knees. Her rainbow-colored hair fell down her face and she closed her eyes.
Mariana did not sleep, but she dreamed plenty. Visions of the sea, its unknown depths, its myriad of life and countless wonders filled her idle mind. One cigarette after the next, she attempted to smoke out time itself. In a cloud of menthol-scented ectoplasm, Mariana awaited the incoming tide of evening entertainment. Nearby, steel drums invaded what little peace was on offer. Reggae songs transpired, repeated, and at long last, her phone alarm indicated that the wait was over.
In the resort lobby she read the decorated whiteboard sign, its festive text and many colors: Mariana, the Star of the Sea! Local Mermaid Swimming tonight from 8:30 to 9:00! There were starfish drawn in each of the four corners, a dolphin at the base, and directly in the middle, a hurried scrawl of a penis with a cartoonish grin and sunglasses. Mariana noted the teenagers outside by the pool and wondered if they had been responsible for the not-so-original graffiti. She thought about erasing the smiling genitalia, but walked on, choosing to ignore it. She entered the hotel and was assaulted by heavy air conditioning. Shivering, she thought of her childhood, of winters in a suburb of St. Louis, of the long queue to The Little Mermaid that stretched out the doors of the cinema and left Mariana stranded in the late November chill.
The tank in the middle of the restaurant was cylindrical, tables and chairs haloing it at 360 degrees. It held 210,000 gallons of water, hosting a carpet of live coral, wavering kelp, sharks, stingrays, and fish as variable in color as Mariana’s nylon hair extensions. The dinner menu at Neptune’s Banquet ranged from fish sticks and popcorn shrimp for kids to abalone, caviar, and bluefin tuna for those with sophistication, deep pockets. The menu for its entertainment: slot machines, pinball, and Mortal Kombat in the games room, the aquarium and its many off-menu fish, and a local legend, the star of the sea, Mariana the mermaid.
The aquarium was colder than the sea. Even through the silicone tail, her legs and feet felt the bite of chill water. As a child, Mariana fell through the ice of a lake nearby her home. Her Labrador chased a rogue tennis ball that bounced across the thin film of frozen water. One moment, the dog lolled out its tongue in playful glee, the next, it was under the ice, silent as the windless, winter day. Mariana went out to save her dog, crying out “Max” over and over. The dog’s name escaped her lips in words cloaked in vapor. The repetitive cry carried over the snow-covered back lawn to her home where Mariana’s father read the paper and sipped hot coffee. He set down his beverage and looked out to his daughter, crying out over the dark aperture in the ice.
Mariana doesn’t remember falling in, but her father will never forget. He tells the story with a tear in his eye. How he nearly lost his daughter to the frozen water. How her sensitivity to the cold would last her a lifetime after she suffered from hypothermia. How after he brought her back from the brink of death she was never quite the same. How since that day, she didn’t mourn for her lost puppy, but rather, pined for the cold, dark water.
Watching the clock, Mariana scooted her bound legs toward the edge of the saltwater tank. At half past eight, she filled her lungs. Her wiry frame ballooned at her gut as tattoos of marine life expanded outward in colored ink across her flesh. She looked over the edge, adopting a smile, and entered the water.
Contained within walls of inward-curving glass, 210,000 gallons of liquid was strangely constricting. Mariana dove, circled, somersaulted, twirled, and never stopped smiling. Reef sharks eyed her with disinterest. Stingrays floated, living flotsam without an ounce of expression. Coral fingers reached upward, outward, threatening to tear open silicone tails or living, pale flesh. Fish swam. What else do they ever do? Beyond the glass, children gaped, pointed, and dropped their jaws, an array of baby teeth in some, and in others, exposed fish sticks wedged in metallic braces.
Adults remained seated, the rim of cocktail glasses on their lips, eyes directed at the half-naked woman who floundered in the water among the sharks. Mothers looked on in disdain, chewing their crispy crab cakes and tomato butter, eyeing a woman who played at being a fish, a harlot covered in tattoos that resembled a children’s coloring book. Fathers were fixated, frustrated, and amused. They gnawed at their lips along with their food and buried hungry expressions behind their beers. Inside the tank, Mariana saw it all. She smiled and waved. She turned, acrobatic. She cried, unnoticed in the deluge of saltwater.
Surfacing for air, Mariana gasped, allowing her smile to fall, relaxed, into a frown. She hugged herself as she shivered. She waded, alone, a human once more. Beneath her red and gold tail she saw the passing shapes of man-eating fish. Beyond them, she knew, were men at table, eating fish. Families gathered at Neptune’s Banquet. They awaited her return to the water, her smiles and graceful twirls. She looked at the clock and wished she could smoke out the remaining minutes with a chain of Newports, one after the next. She sighed, a familiar sound, and dove downward. Underwater, Mariana became the star of the sea.
Under the many thousands of cold, saltwater gallons, a mythical creature bedazzled with her clamshell bikini and her long, glittering tail. She tapped the glass with her press-on nails, green and gold and blue. She blew kisses to children who giggled, unheard, on the other side of the towering partition.
Mariana turned to a figure to exchange a warm greeting. She motioned her hand to her lips to deliver another amicable smooch. In mid gesture, she did not stop when she saw that she extended affection to a grown man. Slowly, deliberately, she pressed her palm to his face on the opposite side of the glass. Among the open air, his tears were evident. In his moist gaze, Mariana witnessed a mermaid. A tiny image of herself floated within an immeasurable sea of love, devotion, and heartache. In the depths of a stranger’s eyes, she saw the bright star of the sea.
Her hand lingered on the glass between the stubbled cheek of her mysterious admirer. Mariana remained fixed, like coral, before the air unexpectedly escaped her lungs in rising, silver bubbles. Against her will, she swam up to the surface. From below, Adam watched as an angel flew skyward.
Above, with ten minutes remaining in her act, Mariana did not return to the depths of the tank. She had wished to dive again, but seeing her shivering in fits, the aquarium staff pulled her free from the water. Limbs converged to strip her of her silicon tail. Hands came together and hurriedly cocooned her blue body in layers of beach towels. Susceptible to the cold, Mariana thought of winter in St. Louis. She thought of Labrador bones at the bottom of a lake. She thought of the Mariana Trench, and wondered if that was the origin of her name, if that was where her own bones would eventually lie. Encased in layers of cotton, she craned her neck to look down among the graceful shapes of man-eating sharks. Beyond them, she knew, was a single man, a stranger who was eaten alive by desire.
Adam walked the beach at sunrise, the world still gray, the land and water colorless in the shadow of an eastern mountain. He was hungover, still drunk from last night’s rum. But he was also drunk with passion, sleepless and agitated with unmet, wild desire.
The night before, he stood long by the tank, wondering what happened to the last ten minutes of the mermaid show. He had leaned against the glass, watching sharks and rays pass by, a rotund, sea turtle circling the tank in long, leisurely laps. His eyes had fixed skyward, scanning the lofty dimensions of the aquarium, and probed for the star of the sea. His neck became stiff, craned backwards and locked in place. But Adam did not budge. Vigilant, he waited. He waited for the water above to become disturbed, a red and gold fishtail to mar its placid veneer. He waited for a mythical being to break its surface. He waited, growing antsy, as if a child gazing up the chimney hoping to steal a glimpse of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve night.
Behind him, the tables cleared. The families filed out of Neptune’s Banquet. The waiters cleared away plates with lobster husks and half-eaten fish sticks. They wiped the tables. Then they waited, too, and eventually coughed politely, then overtly asked Adam to leave, turning off the lights and shaking their heads.
Adam stood in the dark and watched black shapes with fins and fangs glide, ominous and large. Small fish ventured from coral nooks and rock crannies and darted from one shadow to the next. Eventually, he lowered his neck, lowered his gaze, lowered his expectations of his holiday to the Hawaiian islands. He purchased the bottle of Captain Morgan and lay on the beach. He drank deeply, falling asleep to the rhythm of the ocean waves.
The gulls had woken him before the light. It was still dark when he stirred on the sand, itchy and swollen. Adam stumbled away from the looming resort at his back. He had a terrible thirst. Unbearable, he sought water, tempted against reason to drink from the sea. But in the end, he acknowledged the folly of such exploits. He returned to the resort and plunged his head in the swimming pool. He lapped at the water like a dog, taking in great, generous gulps. He climbed out, soaked and smelling of chlorine, and vomited in the bushes.
Adam returned to the beach. He passed a pair of athletic men laughing energetically, doing the limbo. He watched for a while and wondered how low he could go. He wondered why a much needed vacation had become more sour than the long, overtime hours at a job he could not stomach back home in snowy Cincinnati. He wondered, much in the fashion of many who enter into a certain advancement of years, what he had done with his life. With morose thoughts circulating in his mind, Adam stared at the sand before him and trudged onward down the beach.
Minutes later, maybe hours, an endless repetition of white waves churning to collide with the land, Adam saw a familiar figure sprawled in the sand up ahead near the edge of the water. To his left, a slice of sunlight peaked above the crest of a jungle mountain. Fingers of light caressed the beach, the white sand, the blue water beyond. A beacon lit the world in radiance and budding warmth. A ray of gold bathed a mermaid on the beach, an early morning star by the sea.
Mariana tugged the finned, silicone sheath over her ankles and calves, above her knees, and with effort, across her waist. Stretched out on the sand, she labored to fit the mermaid tail in place, her wiry limbs taut with strain. The low angle of light shining down from the mountain peak caught the sharp angles and deep trenches of her bony frame. Shadows formed in the valleys of her collarbone and elbow joints. Her hair hung limp and wet, a hundred colors: shades of green and blue, like seaweed, pink and yellow as if a reflection of the early morning sky.
Adam paused to absorb the presence of her majesty, the image of her authentic, raw beauty. He marveled at the natural artistry of the woman, her biology, flesh and bone. He appreciated, too, the artificial device, glittering and gaudy, encasing her lower limbs. The juxtaposition of human and fish whispered sweet verses in the deepest chambers of his heart. The myth and magic sprawled out on a white-sand Hawaiian beach touched upon the divine.
Mariana sucked the remaining energy from the dying embers of a Newport stub. She flicked her cigarette into the approaching foam, the incoming tide that licked at her prosthetic fins. She hacked and coughed and spat phlegm into the sea. She sniffed and shuffled closer to the waves. She sighed, a habit repeated throughout the long, warm days.
Adam watched, untroubled by Mariana’s lack of grace. He was devoted to the mermaid, seeing her through a rose-tinted filter. He watched her crawl, serpentine, into the shallows. He marked her transition from land to sea, the way her navel scraped the sand. He studied each stamp of rainbow ink across her flesh, the many jovial depictions of the sea. Adam took it all in, wholesale. He accepted her faults, which to him were the sum of her many parts, elements amounting to perfection. Like a child with his nose deep within a storybook, he willed the fairy tale to become real.
Out at sea, an ocean star was born. Beyond the shallows, Mariana assumed her true form, became her true self. She dove deep, out of sight, surfacing, minutes later, a dozen meters further out. Her fins crested, glittered, shone, sparkled. Then more fins. Gray fins. Dark fins. Dorsal fins. Dozens of fins. Dolphins, maybe. Sharks, or the seals that tried to evade them. So many fins. They tallied the surface in droves.
At Adam’s back, the sun climbed over the mountain. It rose upward for a better view of the struggle out at sea, the churning water and overactive thrashing. In the distance, a red and gold tail skimmed the sapphire surface. Among the activity, ten or twenty shapes –triangular, gray sails made of flesh– cut the water, dancing in a tight circumference around a bewildered mermaid. Among the writhing froth, the many countless fins, the water bruised, bled, and stained the sea in a localized, crimson smear.
On the shore, Adam held his breath. As if underwater, he neglected to breathe. Rejecting fear, the threat of mortal demise, he entered the water. Without fins to aid him, he paddled among the waves. With cumbersome limbs, arms and legs designed for use on land, he swam outward to the scarlet bloom that stained the agitated surface.
Adam wedged his way into a crowd. He joined the mosh pit. He danced among the fins, the mermaid’s and the sharks’. He dove, searching, scanning, seeing nothing; a blurred vision of blue film, opaque and oppressive. He called out to Mariana, beckoning to the star of the sea. He gasped. He choked. He flailed and sank. He relaxed. He closed his eyes.
Aimless, like flotsam, like discarded swimwear, like a waterlogged carcass, Adam was ushered by the persuasive currents. He drifted, one with the sea. Letting go, he allowed the Pacific to claim him. He held his breath while falling into deeper, darker water. He resolved to hold in the air as long as he could, which wasn’t long. Adam was out of practice. He wasn’t, after all, a merman. He wasn’t, by any means, a creature of the sea.
He felt the cold increasing, the darkness growing beyond his closed eyes. He felt the brush of smooth skin pressing near, closing around him. Unable to see, he envisioned a mermaid, Mariana by his side. He reached out and grazed her passing body. Then blue faded to black, and everything went red.
From the beach, Mariana struggled out of her synthetic fishtail. She writhed on the sand like a fish out of water. Wringing out her rainbow hair, she leaned back to sit and observe the sea. The rare sighting of passing monk seals had been exhilarating to witness. The tiger sharks that hunted them, spectacular, if intimidating. Mariana, for once, had felt alive, even as she had flirted with death.
Back on land, she looked to her mermaid tail, the crescent-shaped gap where a shark had meant to feast on meat. The bite missed her legs entirely, but ruined her apparatus. Beyond the disappointment of her loss, she felt a lively vigor. She had cheated death. She had danced with sharks and raced with seals. She had been a mermaid, if only for a moment. She had been a creature of the sea, a star born of the ocean. Besides, she thought, in the trunk of her Civic was a spare, a blue and silver variation that would see her become aquatic yet again.
The sound of thunder boomed over the mountains. Black clouds formed and gathered to rise out over the sea. Under the veil of a darkening sky, Mariana marveled at the frenzy of seething fins, the fermenting waters churned white with foam. Among the agitation out at sea, a dark stain spread like spilled wine over white carpet. Mariana thought she heard a scream, but looking upward, she found no seagulls in flight.
Her exultation already fading, Mariana sighed, forlorn. She turned away from the water, the ocean waves she thought of as home. She walked down the beach towards the towering resort. She dragged her damaged mermaid tail, which smelled of sweat and sea. She longed for cigarettes and cool air. She longed for something she would never have.
As the sound of steel drums and reggae drowned out the waves and thunder, Mariana faced the music. She went to her car to dry out her tail. She smoked away the hours. She sat. She waited. She prepared herself for yet another performance. In a cold tank, she would shiver and shake. But she would make the children smile. The young ones would even believe what they witnessed: a creature from the ocean depths. A star of the sea.
— James Callan grew up in Minnesota and currently lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand. His writing has appeared in Carte Blanche, Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Mystery Tribune, and elsewhere. He is the author of A Transcendental Habit (Queer Space, 2023).