I believed, when I was a girl, that a mermaid lived in the little grotto that formed in the bend of the dark, slow river that ran behind my house. The hill past the little back yard dropped severly, and was covered in verdant trees and mossy rocks and tall, wild grass. The little grotto was shaded and secret.
I always swam there in the humid heat of an East Tennessee summer. The cold water made me shiver even in the hot season. I always sang to her, knowing that mermaids sang to people to keep them to come to them. I called out to her that I meant her no harm and I was her friend. She never came, though I always knew it was because she was shy.
My bedroom was in the back of the house, my bed right against the window. We had no air conditioning so in summer I always slept with my window open, hoping for a cool breeze to ward off how stuffy and sticky the air felt. And in those summer months, as I drifted to sleep looking up at the sky full of stars and shepherded by Mother Moon, I’d talk to the mermaid, down in the little grotto. I could tell her anything, for she loved me and used her magic to protect me. I always knew she was there for me.
I am a grown woman now. My daughter is asleep, curled up in a little ball of pink and bows on the couch, cartoons running mindlessly on the TV, though mercifully muted. She holds the stuffed mermaid I gave her close, her best and truest friend. I didn’t even realize what I was giving her when I bought it for her. A mermaid protected me; a mermaid would protect her.
All the windows are open in the living room, but the air is still and the day is hot and even just sitting still on the couch I am sticky with sweat and finding it hard to breathe, like I need gills to breath this wet air.
I decide to go for a walk.
I leave my daughter sleeping and walk to the back of the house and down the wild, unkempt hill to the little grotto. It’s not as dark and hidden now, as blight and insects have killed several of the trees that shaded it. There are still patches of shade, and they are soothing.
I walk to the very stone edge of the grotto and sit down. The stone is cool and I feel it on my skin beneath the seat of my jeans. I feel overwhelmed now, back in the secret place that nurtured me as a child, through all the hard times and wanting to escape and hiding everything inside and smiling brightly like a good girl should. This was my Eden, Neverland and Narnia, my place beyond the world.
I sing. I sing to call the mermaid up from the dark cold waters. I sing to call back something I’ve lost and that was precious to me. The sense that there was magic in the world, and I could slip between the cracks into something wonderous, and that my mermaid really did watch out for me. That someone was watching out for me.
“Over dark seas and endless days,
over starless dark and devil’s ways,
over lost moon and the hope of sunrays,
to know at last heaven’s tattered ways.”
I sing those words, that mantra that called her into my mind, that let me know she was there and that her magic kept me alive and safe when everything went all too shambles. I sing them and I don’t see her and my heart crushes into itself and I hang my head and my hands start to weep. After everything that’s happened not this too!
I start to get up again, and walk back to the house, and I hope compose myself before my little girl wakes up because I will not let her so me cry, when something in the water catches my eye.
It’s her! My mermaid! Her golden hair a halo and crown, her beautiful aquamarine face looking up from the depths. And she smiles at me.