A Legend for Children and Other Adults
By Robin Morgan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1991 Robin Morgan
All rights reserved.
Once upon a time that may or may not come again, there lived a Mer-Child.
He had pale green skin translucent as sea-foam, and his body sloped to a tail that glittered like a prism in the sun, each scale reflecting a different shimmer of the rainbow—crimson and cobalt, lilac and gold. His hair was surf white, ringleted as the froth that crests a wave. But his eyes were the strangest of all: they were speckled and whorled like the spirals of the sundial shell.
He was very beautiful.
His mother was a mermaid, his father a human. Long, long ago, they had fallen in love. For her sake his father, a mariner, forsook his own kind and entered the depths of the sea. His comrades thought him lost. The sea folk, in turn, forsook the mermaid, pronouncing her lost, for mermaids were not supposed to love mortals. The sea folk would not even own the mermaid's child, because it was half human. Only the dolphins pitied the lovers, and remained their friends.
Still, the mermaid and her mariner had one another. They loved their child dearly, of course. But their suffering had made them forever grown-up, and they were now a special kind, complete unto themselves. The Mer-Child had no one of his own.
He was very lonely.
Sometimes he played with the young porpoises, leaping along the surface of the sea, stitching together air and water with one long graceful thread of motion. Sometimes he sang with the great whales. Sometimes he joined in the favorite game of the whiskered walruses—in which you deliberately entangled yourself in seaweed chains and then tumbled through the depths, bouncing lightly against the coral reefs and bonking into one another.
But the Mer-Child was, after all, not a young porpoise. Or a great whale. Or a whiskered walrus. He never quite belonged.
And he was very lonely.
He had tried to play with human children. The first time he ever saw one paddling about in the water, he swam right up and, not knowing what else to do, bonked playfully into it as he would into a friendly walrus. The child screamed and darted back to shore, where it babbled about sea monsters and was cooed over by laughing adult humans.
Another time, there was a tiny girl. She was not afraid, but she tried to catch the Mer-Child and drag him up onto the beach. He barely escaped.
Once, he saved a child from drowning, bearing him to the shallows and peeping from behind a rock while he staggered safely onto land. But when the child blurted out what had happened, his parents didn't believe him, and they forbade him the water again all that day for telling such a "tall story."
Still another time, he came across a group of girls and boys all giggling and splashing—but they quickly covered their astonishment at seeing a Mer-Child by throwing stones at him and yelling, "There's something fishy about you!" and then screeching with laughter.
One summer, the Mer-Child actually did make friends—he thought—with a boy about his own age, a boy who seemed fearless, and almost as at home in the water as the Mer-Child himself. But a day came when the boy insisted on racing him. Even though the Mer-Child refused again and again, and even though when he finally gave in, he then paddled as slowly as he knew how, still he reached the finish point long before his human companion. The boy turned on him, eyes aglow with hate, and sputtered,
"Who cares, anyway? Who could be jealous of you? If your mother was a mermaid, then she lured your father to death, that's what. Mermaids do that to humans, everybody knows they do. Your mother was a murderess and your father was a dummy. Or maybe your father tried to catch your mother and fry her for dinner, huh? Either way, it makes me want to throw up, it's so disgusting. And you, you're not a person or a fish. Freak! You don't fit in anywhere!"
"That's not true!" cried the Mer-Child. "My mother and father loved each other! How could you ever, ever understand them? He never tried to capture her and she never tried to drown him. You're lying! All your stories about the sea folk are lies!"
"Oh yeah?" sneered the boy. He clambered up on some rocks and stood with his legs planted wide apart and his arms folded. He wiggled his toes. He bent his knees in a deep squat and then straightened up. He kicked out first one leg and then the other. He balanced on his left foot and waggled the right foot in the air defiantly, as if it were a flag.
"Lemme see you do this, Scaly-Tail. Race me on land and see who wins. You're not a real boy. I bet no self-respecting fish plays with you, either, else why're you hanging around people so much, huh? Where's all your fishy friends? Or are you mister special hot stuff, the only Mer-Child in the world?"
"What if I am? I mean—" the Mer-Child stammered, "there are lots of other sea folk! Ondines and naiads and tritons. There are water nymphs and river sprites and mer-ones. And—and—they all love me! They play with me whenever I want and do whatever I ask them to!" He fell silent, drenched with the shame of his lie.
The boy was not impressed. Still jeering, he danced off further inland. But his taunts floated back to the Mer-Child in a singsong snarl on the wind.
"Fish-boy! Fish-boy! You and your squid-kid pals! You're not even real, I made you up, you never existed at all!"
The Mer-Child watched him go through shell-whorl eyes.
After that, he didn't try to make friends with human children, although he often gazed at them from a distance, longingly. He learned that he could show himself from the waist up, and never too close. Then the children might wave, thinking him human like themselves, or sometimes they might even yell admiringly at him, "Hey! You're some swimmer!"
In the late afternoon, when their parents would call them in from the water to help gather up towels and picnic baskets from the beach, the children would point at him, out beyond the breakers, and whine enviously.
"Look, that boy's still swimming! Why do we have to go?"
"If that kid wants to stay in all night and get blue lips, that's his concern," a father would snap.
"Where are his parents, anyway?" a mother would murmur, shading her eyes with one hand and squinting at the lone figure in the distance. "How can they let a child go swimming all alone at a cove like this where there's no lifeguard? You! Boy!" she would sometimes call, "You'd better come in now, it's getting late!"
But the Mer-Child knew he must swim no nearer. He merely gazed at the creatures bending and kneeling and straightening and wobbling along the sand. At last they would move off, a mother perhaps muttering, "I've never seen such a swimmer! I suppose he must know what he's doing. Maybe he's in training for the Olympics or something." Or a father might scold at his laggard offspring, "Will you hurry up? Stop staring backward and look where you're going. If some crazy kid wants to stay in the water this long and his parents don't care, it's none of our business." Yanking and shoving at one another, they would disappear up the path from the cove.
The Mer-Child would watch them go through shell-whorl eyes. He would watch until the beach was utterly deserted, and then turn his gaze toward the vast unbroken surface of the sea.
Sometimes a sea swallow might fly overhead and drop him a graygreen feather, like a promise of pity.
But he himself was not a sea swallow. Or a fish. Or a person. The sea folk would not own him. The human folk would not own him.
The Mer-Child was very lonely.
Summer ebbed slowly from the cove and, as he had done in other years, the Mer- Child found himself missing even the few encounters, however distant or hurtful, with other children. For as the air grew cold, fewer and fewer humans came to the beach. Sometimes in autumn a single figure might be seen walking along the shoreline. But it was always an adult, and as the air grew sharper, even adult visitors were rare. The Mer-Child bobbed aimlessly on the choppier waves, bored.
One day, as he was wondering whether to follow the dolphins to the southern seas, or go ride the Gulf Stream, or visit the Great Barrier Reef, he heard the overhead calls of startled sea swallows, and he looked up to see the glossy black-helmeted birds dip and swoop their pearlish graygreen bodies out to sea, as if they'd been surprised during their stroll along the shore.
But there, on the beach itself, moving slowly across the sand toward the outcropping of rock, was what seemed at first a bulk with a double head—but which soon became a man carrying a human bundle: what looked like a child wrapped warmly in sweaters and blankets. The man set the child down on a rock and settled himself alongside. For a while they gazed out at the sea, seeming to talk now and then, until the man drew a pad from his pocket and began to sketch. Then, after a while, he lifted the child again, and carried his bundle up the path from the cove.
The Mer-Child was curious.
The next day, the strange pair was back. And the next. Within the week, the man had begun to leave the child tucked safely into a blanketed nest along the rock outcropping, which gave her a fine view of the sea. He would then go for short walks, returning with shells he had gathered, or a drawing he had made of the seascape around the bend of beach. The child meanwhile sat peacefully on the rock perch, sometimes reading a book, but mostly just looking out to sea, often singing a wordless little song unashamedly loud against the crash of surf.
The Mer-Child watched all this through shell-whorl eyes. The human child seemed lonely.
One day, he dared swim nearer. He hid behind a jut in the natural seawall of rocks, in order to see the small human more closely. From his hiding place, he could spy on the odd person who was, he thought, a little girl, although he couldn't be certain. She seemed to him like no other child he had ever seen.
For one thing, she appeared to move only from the waist up whenever she reached for her book, or leaned to adjust the blankets tucked about her legs. Legs which never seemed to move. She didn't scramble over rocks, or run along the sand. Or even walk. And she never swam.
But her voice went places her body didn't. It bounced off the rock surfaces and echoed over the waves. The Mer-Child thought he had never heard anything so beautiful as her queer mournful melodies, although they did remind him a little of the courting songs of the humpback whale. Her singing seemed to draw him closer. He edged in, still hiding.
She was indeed like no other child.
Her skin was not pink like that of many early-summer children who came to the cove, nor was it the rich glazed black of the island children on the other shore, the far side of the sea. Instead, she seemed to glow as if from some inside brightness that flickered through the silvery sealbrown of all her surfaces—the face and hands giving off light like a sun-spotted flounder, the eyes almost greenblack as the ocean floor and shot with the same tawny flecks. Her hair was short, and exclaimed itself in a rush of wiry tight black curls all over the proud head. When the wind touched her hair, that head looked like a sea anemone riffling itself underwater. Or so the Mer-Child thought.
Sometimes, to his amazement, she bent her graceful neck and buried that head in her arms. Then peculiar sounds came from her, more like the grunts of a sea robin than the whalesong melodies he loved so. When she lifted her head again, her eyes seemed to have rained tiny rivers down her cheeks. The Mer-Child puzzled all this from his hiding place, and did not understand.
Yet she was lonely. That he recognized.
The day came when her father had made certain she was comfortable in her perch and had gone a bit away to set up his easel and paints, and she turned to find her book—but saw, wedged cunningly in the crack beside her usual place, a circle of seaweed, as if woven into a crown.
She smiled, then placed it promptly on her stiff black curls and sat looking out to sea—a small monarch surveying her immense realm. The circlet had dried brittle by the afternoon's end, but she kept it, pressing it in her book.
The next day, she found a piece of driftwood in the crevice, a curve of creamy bark scoured by water and salt into a shape like interlocking wings arched above a double bird-body.
The next day, she deliberately waited until her father was far off down the beach, savoring the expectation. Then she looked. There, in the treasure-crevice, was wedged a shard of mottled blue glass, its edges worn smooth by tidal scrubbings. She peered through it at the sun and saw a horizon bluegreen as if she looked up through seawater into air.
The next day, her father offered to sit with her awhile, but she impatiently urged him to get on with his painting, and only when quite alone did she dare search beside her, down between the stones. Fragile but perfect, a sanddollar lay there, nestled on a cushion of sea moss.
The next day, the shell, strung by its natural hole on a velvet ribbon the color of willow leaves, hung round her slender throat.
Her father would comment in surprise on his return each afternoon.
"The sea must like you, to wash up gifts like these," he smiled as he lifted her into his arms. But privately he thought how well she had learned to see treasures right around her, unlike other children who were freer to ignore their immediate surroundings, given a luxury of movement that let them explore wherever they wished.
She herself said little. But she always took her treasures with her, and once, when a light rain caused her father to sweep her up in a hasty departure, she made him turn back to retrieve the black-and-yellow streaked pebble she had "found" that day.
All this the Mer-Child watched through shell-whorl eyes.
Day after day, he watched her from his hiding place just the other side of the rock outcropping. Hour after hour, the two of them watched in silence on either side of the seawall, gazing out to sea.
It was she who spoke first.
"Thank you," she said simply, in the clear voice he knew so well from her singing. "Thank you for my treasures."
The Mer-Child was so shocked at being addressed directly that he flipped from his ledge by reflex and splashed loudly into the water. He had darted two miles out to sea with excitement before he could slow down and tell himself calmly that she doubtless had been talking to the waves and not to him at all. Ashamed of himself, but unable to keep away, he alternately glided and inched back to his observation place.
The Little Girl still sat on her rock. But she seemed to be smiling to herself, and she hummed softly as she tickled her chin with the sea-swallow feather that had been that day's gift.
They spent the rest of the afternoon in silence—although the waves did seem excessively loud.
The next day, as they took up their positions on the seawall, she spoke the moment her father was out of earshot.
"I'd bring you gifts in return, you know, but I don't get about much. I couldn't gather land flowers or bird feathers or pinecones very easily, you see."
The Mer-Child clung to his ledge for dear life and strained to hear her over the thudding of his heart, which whammed in repeated tidal waves against his ribs. He told himself again, Don't be a fool. She's talking to the sea. She doesn't even know you exist. But then she seemed to twist her upper body toward him and call directly across the rock that separated them.
"I thought of bringing you a book, you know. But I couldn't think whether a child like you would care for reading. Besides, almost all my books are about sea life, which is hardly something you need to learn about."
The Mer-Child's tidal-wave heart seemed to stop, and he found himself seriously wondering whether it would ever start again. But start it did, although from the delightful melting sensation that came over him he all at once realized how a jellyfish must feel. He wriggled a few inches closer. He edged himself up toward the top of the seawall. Holding his breath, he peeked over the barrier rock.
The Little Girl was looking directly into his eyes.
"Anemone," was all he could manage.
"Ann who?" she asked.
"An—sea anemone," he whispered. "Anemone," he repeated foolishly.
"Like your head." Then, overcome with embarrassment, he slid down from his rock and vanished in the next wave.
The Little Girl serenely went back to her singing.
Still, that was the beginning. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Mer-Child by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 1991 Robin Morgan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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