My mother was a mermaid. Still is, I suppose. She left when she found her red cap, which gave her back her tail, so she could return to the sea. Everyone else says she skipped town. But I know the truth.
I go to the beach once a week, on Saturday, like we used to when I was small. I hated it as a kid. Just walking along the sand, having the grains squirm their way into my shoes and socks. There was grit between my toes within 10 minutes on the beach. She would pull me along and shush any complaints I had. Then, she would get tired of that and tell me to sit and wait for her, before continuing on her own.
I once collected seashells and empty crab husks while I waited for her. When she came back, I presented my finds to her, my cupped hands filled to the brim. I asked if we could put them in a jar at home. Her face curdled like the sourest of milk. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me back to the sidewalk to march on home. Her grip hurt my wrist. I lost the shells to the sand.
She and Dad argued that night when our house was usually quiet with unspoken thoughts. She came in to tuck me in that night and to, I assume, apologize. She looked down at me with tired eyes, “Don’t take the Ocean home with you, son. That’s stealing.”
I wanted to protest that no one was using any of the sea shells or crab parts but I was worried she would still have the energy to yell at me. I let out a tiny “Okay.”
Today, it’s the usual Humboldt County forecast: cloudy, windy, with a chance of rain. The ocean is a few shades darker than the sky, rolling out breakers that create a fine mist. I taste the sea salt when I lick my lips.
The surfers aren’t out today, the waves are fierce but not large enough to ride. So, the beach is mostly clear, except for some oceanography students from the local college. And then there’s the guy who is drawing in the sand up ahead. As I get closer, I notice it’s Dennis, the new guy at school. I only notice because it’s a small school, where the middle school and high school are combined, and no one moves to this town this late in high school.
I walk over.
“Careful!” Dennis yells. I jump back. He points to the sand in front of me: there’s a line of disturbed sand from a stick carving through it.
“I don’t want to have to start over,” Dennis says absently. He has a long wooden staff that he’s using to create the lines of whatever he’s drawing. Behind him he has something that looks like a push broom except the horizontal bar has no bristles, just a slanted, flat piece of wood.
“Hello to you, too,” I said. I walk around the lines to stand behind him. The arches and shapes didn’t look like anything from this angle either.
“Why do you draw these every weekend? This is the third Saturday I’ve seen you here.”
“I do this every day,” Dennis clarifies. He stands and grabs the bristle-less rake to smooth the sand where he kneeled.
This dude was weird. If anyone in class caught wind of this, he’d become the social pariah of the entire school. It would be one thing if this was art, but it most certainly was not. Just arching lines of shapes and squiggles. Dennis looks over his shoulder at me. He checks left, then right as if the beach has a significant number of people on it who might overhear whatever he says next.
He cups a hand around his mouth and stage whispers, “I notice you walking around every Saturday. Are you looking for something?”
So weird. His thick-framed glasses (which looked fake and just for show) highlight the large whites of his eyes. The pale gray irises make the whites unsettlingly large, as well. His short, black hair hangs with moisture like he stepped out of his house fresh from the shower without blow-drying it. In fact, his skin always has not so much the appearance but the suggestion that it was damp.
“No,” I replied harshly.
He hums, as if considering the validity of my answer, “Funny, you look out toward the water when you walk here. I thought you were looking for seals or something.”
“Or something,” I mutter, moving away to walk on and hopefully forget this conversation.
“Are you looking for mermaids?”
I stop. Turning slowly, I look back at Dennis. He’s busy writing in the sand.
He continues, “By your silence—that is, if you’re still there—I’ll take a guess that means I hit the nail on the head. Or you think I’m a loon. Either is possible.”
After a few moments, I find my words again. “Yeah. Could be either.”
I told him about my mom. He told me about his sand writing—as it was, in fact, writing. It was a relief to talk to someone about my mom, particularly because he sounded crazier than I did.
It was a week later that we spoke again.
I sit facing the ocean and Dennis writes behind me.
“My foster mom works at HSU with the Fisheries Biology department,” he babbles on. “We moved here for her job. Plus, she thinks I’ll make more friends with a smaller community. At the very least, I’m glad I’ve found a first-person witness to cryptid existence.”
“Do mermaids count as cryptids?” I ask. It seemed a bit demeaning to call my mom a cryptid.
“’Cryptid.’ Referring to the term cryptozoology. From the Greek ‘Krypto’, meaning ‘hide’. Making cryptozoology the study of ‘hidden animals’. The suffix ‘-id’ denotes a singular being with—”
“Never mind,” I pipe up. I’m glad he didn’t try to talk to me during the school week, otherwise he’d be info-dumping on me six days a week. I could handle one day a week, especially if no one saw us talking together.
“Was your mother white or Persian?” Dennis enquires after a few minutes of quiet.
“My dad’s white, she’s Persian. Why?” I pull my knees up to my chest and hug them.
Dennis is sitting next to me now. He hands me his writing staff, “Draw the hat you found.”
“I’m a terrible artist.”
“An approximation, then.” He is looking at me now and the whites of his eyes are creeping me out. I grab the stick, so he can look at my drawing instead. He inspects the drawing.
“You’re right, you are terrible.”
“Shut up. I told you so,” I grumble. I shove the staff into his hands.
“What was the material like?”
“I don’t know. Wool? Felt?”
“Felt is wool.”
“Okay! It was wool!”
Dennis hums, a sign I recognized as his mental motor working, tapping his staff against his head gently. The hum tapers off.
The water is calmer today with barely any wind. The area feels heavy with moisture.
If it was warmer, the humidity would be unbearable and I would jump in to the water. Would I instantly regret it once I was enveloped in the unforgiving chill? Probably. But a lot of things in life are unforgiving or regrettable, and we just have to accept them.
Dennis speaks up, “The longest recorded brooding period of any animal was an octopus who spent 4.5 years protecting her eggs. It is believed that she did not eat during the entire time she did this. Over the years of observation, she lost her vibrant purple coloring, her eyes became cloudy, and her skin turned slack.”
“Okay…?” I trail the questioning tone. He glances at me as if he expected a different response.
“Anyway,” he says, changing the subject, “It’s interesting that your mother has the typical mermaid/selkie narrative of Gaelic or Scandinavian origin but your mother was Persian. There were mermaid depictions in the area around Mesopotamia but I’d have to look into it further.”
I shrug. He rattles on about Mesopotamia and its iconography.
The following Saturday, I talk about my mom some more. I figure if I have to listen to him drone on inanely, he should listen to me muse about my mom.
I tell him about her mood swings, how she could be smiling and affectionate one moment and in the next, cold and indifferent about everything. How she would lay on the couch for hours gazing out the window at the sky, her eyes unfocused, like an open-eyed comatose.
Her love of seafood made her the most animated. She would prepare it early in the day, so she and I could have dinner right after I came home from class, leaving dad the cold remains.
With two spoons she would crack open the top of purple sea urchins with gusto, revealing the yellow flesh within. The spines would undulate from muscle spasms with the invasion but she paid no mind as she scrapped out the flesh to wash in ice water. I ate it with soy sauce and a fork, she would eat it plain and by hand. The first one was always eaten in haste, like it was her last chance to eat it before someone snatched it from her. Then, she would look up at me like I had caught her in the act, instead of sitting across from her the whole time. Her face would break into a smile, like she was holding back a laugh, before letting out a chuckle. I laughed, too, because she was laughing and I didn’t get to hear it often.
She never ate cooked seafood. Only raw. Sea urchins, oysters, roe, salmon, tuna; all raw.
She had had a lot of strange habits. Things she did or normal things she did in her own way.
“But she wouldn’t go in the water, despite the fact she loved the ocean,” I say to Dennis. I watch the waves. He sits beside me.
“That follows,” Dennis notes.
“Mermaids and selkies that have their magical items taken from them can’t go back in the water. Without their item, whether it’s a pelt or comb or a hat, they lose their ability to swim. They drown if they try to go back,” he explains as he cracks open a baggie of dried seaweed. He pulls out a square sheet and examines it.
“Do you think this would taste any better if I dunked this in the water?” he asks.
I bark a laugh in surprise, “Are you seriously going to run down to wet that stuff in the ocean?”
“Rehydrated seaweed, extra salty,” he says in a way that can only be deadpanned humor.
I press a hand over my mouth to stop my laughter, but my shoulders still shake with mirth.
“First time I’ve seen you smile,” he says. I can hear the smile in his own voice.
Of course, it’s next week that it all breaks apart.
“Orcas have been recorded to stay with their mothers for the entirety of their lifespans. Sons do not join their mate’s pods, they go back to their mother’s pod. There has even been documentation that orca mothers will feed their sons into adulthood, despite the expense of—”
“Look, Dennis, this is interesting, sure, but I’ve been listening to animal mother facts for the past half hour. What is that about? Are you trying to say something? Or is this just info-dumping?”
Dennis stops his writing in the sand. He straightens up and looks across the arcs of words to where I stand. He leans against his staff.
“Animal mothers are extraordinary,” he says then pauses. After a sigh, he continues, “Beyond belief. Beyond reason. In our view, it’s extreme.”
I bring up my hands in a shrug, a silent so what?
He focuses his strange eyes right at me, “Are you expecting your mother to come back?”
A lump forms in my throat. I try to swallow the hurt. I glare at Dennis, instead.
“So, what if I am?!” I yell. “You’re doing the same thing!”
“I’m writing for anyone of relation to find me,” his voice is level. “Why would you think your mother would come back to a place she hated?”
“Maybe she didn’t hate it here,” I call over to him. “Maybe she was happy here!” This feels like a lie the moment it’s out of my mouth.
“Then, why did she leave so quickly? Why did she leave at all?”
“I don’t know!” I scream, my voice cracks in middle of it. “I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t good enough.”
I still feel the raw hurt in my throat and in a rash moment of thought, I think it will be better if I hurt him, too.
“But guess what? You’re not too great, either!” I kick sand over the words, I stomp on them, sweep them away. “You honestly think someone’s going to come looking for you? Did you ever think that maybe they abandoned you on purpose? Maybe the reason why no one wants to adopt you is because you are TOO WEIRD?” I enunciate this with a kick. I swivel to look back at him, almost hoping to see a look of devastation on his face. It’s worse than that.
Still leaning on his staff, Dennis just looks tired and disappointed. He surveys the sand, all the words swept away. He sighs and picks up his things.
“I’m going home,” he states.
I’m breathing hard from my exertion. From—and I’ll be honest—my tantrum. I look over the sand where Dennis’ message used to be, the message in four different languages with different script, all saying: I am here.
“Hey,” I say to him. He turns his back to me. “Hey,” I call out to his back, “Hey, I—I didn’t mean that. Hey, wait!”
I move to follow him, “Hey, man. Dennis. I can help you re-write it.”
“Don’t talk to me,” says firmly. He never turns around. I stop and watch him leave.
We had never talked in class, even after our Saturdays together. But the following week, he didn’t raise his eyes off his desk, often just laying his head on his crossed arms with his hood up. He looked like a sad, damp pile of laundry.
I wake up on Friday earlier than usual since sleep has been hard for me after seeing how Dennis has been looking for the past week. Dressing warmly, I bike to the beach to speak to Dennis alone, it can’t wait until Saturday.
The sky is pale with sun just below the east horizon. Spring is finally coming after an extended winter. There are glimpses of the sky from the breaks in the clouds. I reach the beach, but it’s deserted. No one, not even the dedicated surfers, are there. Without thinking, I head to our usual stretch of sand.
I could tell him that I was sorry. Sorry, because it was stupid to yell at the one person who I could talk to about my mom. The one person who was in the same boat as me. I think about how to word this when—if—I run into him. I’m so deep in thought I don’t notice her until she’s a hundred or so yards in front of me.
I see a woman in a sopping wet dress. Her soaking black hair is a dark, heavy thing on her back. I lose my breath. Then, I start running toward her.
She’s facing away, the hair is longer, but then again, it’s been six years.
She edges toward the water and I break into a sprint so hard it hurts my lungs.
I lunge to grab her shoulder.
She turns and her grey eyes widen, making the unsettling whites of them even larger. Her skin is as pale as milk and so damp it looks almost slimy.
I’m panting, still clutching her shoulder. There is no red cap. No tanned skin. No hazel eyes. And as I stand next to her, her hair is too dark: black, not deep brown.
She speaks first, “You are the one who looks at the water.”
“What?” I breathe out.
“When the two of you are at the beach together, you are the one that watches the ocean.” She glances to my hand on her shoulder. I pull it away.
“You. . . You watch us. From the water,” I manage to say.
The woman nods. She utters quietly, “It’s the only time I can see him.”
“You’re his mom,” I say.
She looks me in the eye with such poignancy that it confirms it.
“And,” I continue, “you’re a mermaid.”
She nods. She searches the sands with her eyes.
“I come out to look at what he draws in the sand. But I haven’t seen him or his drawings for a few days.”
“You’ve been out of the water? As in, you could have come up and talked with him?” I find my voice again, my volume raising with disbelief.
She keeps her gaze towards the sand, “I don’t know whether or not he wants anything to do with me.”
“Of course, he does!” I yell. “He writes messages in the sand for you. Every. Single. Day. He wants you to find him. He wants to find you. He wants you to come back for him.” My voice begins to crack near the end.
She turns back to me, “Really? Truly?” She looks back ashore, further inland, a kind of desperate hope showing on her face. She begins to walk purposely up the beach. I grab her wrist. She stops and looks at me, shocked and confused. “Let go. I need to—”
“Do you know a mermaid named Rosana?” I blurt out.
“She has tan skin,” I add. My voice is wavering. “She has hazel eyes and deep brown hair. She loves cloudy days. Her favorite food is sea urchin, the fresher the better,” I’m rambling.
“She can crack clams open better than anyone. She’s a terrible dancer but she’ll do it anyway if there’s music on. She can be sad for days at a time but when she smiles it’s the most beautiful thing. She has a red wool cap. . .”
Dennis’ mother now looks sympathetically at me. “Is that why you watch the ocean? You’re waiting for her?” She lays her other hand on top of mine.
“She—she’s not coming back is she? I’m not worth it, am I? I wasn’t worth staying for and I’m not worth coming back to?”
“Oh, honey,” she whispers. The hand on mine moves to my face, she tries to thumb away a trail of tears but only spreads moisture on my cheek. “Don’t say that. Don’t say that.”
“Why else would she leave me? Why would a mother leave her son?” I’m sounding hysterical now. “How could she be so cruel?”
“Hey,” she barks before wrenching her arm out of my loose hold on her wrist and cupping my face between her hands. “Don’t just go saying things when you don’t know the whole story. There might be something you’re missing from the story. Like with me, I—”
She closes her eyes and takes a shaky breath, “I couldn’t keep my baby because he wasn’t safe with me. So, I had to give him up. People think he was just abandoned on a beach, but I left him there knowing how quickly he would be found. I waited and watched as he was found and was taken away from me,” she takes another breath to steady herself. “But I knew it was for the best.”
“But,” I croak. “I wasn’t in danger. She just left me.”
She rubs by cheekbones with her thumbs, contemplating her next words before speaking, “Being a mother is quite a feat, it’s a job with so many expectations attached to it. And we try our hardest to live up to these expectations. Even when they become all-consuming and others forget that we are people behind the name ‘mother.’ People may say we don’t do enough, we don’t do something correctly, or that we right out fail but don’t let it ever be said that we don’t love our children.
“You may think it cruel that she left but outside of being with you was she really happy here?” she implores.
I think about the hours laying on the couch, I think about how she rarely left the house, I think about how she never looked at dad in the face, I think about the yelling between the two of them. I think about the red cap I found underneath a loose floorboard when I was 10 and how when I brought it to show my mom, it was the most shocked and happiest I had ever seen her. I think about her taking the hat, running her fingers over it, and the kiss she placed on my forehead that lingered. I think about her last words to me, Thank you.
“No,” I say. “No, she wasn’t happy here. The happiest I ever saw her was when I found her cap.”
“It must have seemed like permission to leave when you found that for her. Young man—”
“Caspian. My name is Caspian.”
“Caspian, I’m sure your mother loved you very much. You are so loving and kind. I’ve always seen my son wander the sands by himself but you kept him company. And for that I’m so grateful.” She kisses my forehead and embraces me. Her hair feels wet and coarse against my cheek. She smells of brine and warmth despite the coolness of her skin.
I sniff and say, “I can take you to where your son lives.”
She pulled back, “You can?”
“Yeah, come on.” I take her hand and lead her up the beach. I glance back and she’s gently smiling, anxious, hopeful. “You know, he thinks he’s the child of some ancient sea god. That’s why he writes in those ancient languages.”
She looks flummoxed, “That was writing?”
I laugh and nod.
She giggles along with me, “Oh my. Do you think he’ll be okay with being the son of a simple mermaid?”
And so, the new kid became the talk of the school but not for being a social pariah. Instead, he was the center of the heart-warming story of his birth mother coming to town to meet him and falling in love with his foster mom along the way. All the girls in our class cooed and gushed over the story to each other, congratulating Dennis on his luck. He thanked them and started talking to them, breaking his status as the quiet loner.
Dennis stopped writing in the sand but he and his moms take walks along the beach together now. It only hurts a little bit to see Dennis with them but, last week, I decided to stop my Saturday walks.
So, I take a short walk around my neighborhood and make it back in time to meet the mailman.
He gives me the mail: mostly junk mail. I’m dropping it in the recycling when something of stiffer cardstock slips out into view. I pull it out of the pile.
It’s a postcard with the image of a white sand beach with water the color of lapis lazuli. It says “Seychelles” in block letters in the bottom right corner. I flip it over and stare at the handwriting. I feel like a statue, immune and indifferent to everything around me as I read,
I realized we never ate octopus together.
They cook it here, which you might like, but I think it tastes better raw.
Here’s hoping this one message out of many reaches you.
Author: Cheyenne Maier