The tide was high and the mermaid was hovering in the water by the shore. She floated lightly, tail parallel to the surface of the water, forehead raised slightly above. She waited like this for hours. It wasn’t always hours. Sometimes the waiting was just minutes, and once she had missed it entirely. That was a hard day.
She did not know why the girl appeared every night on the shore, but she was the only person the mermaid had ever been able to see from such a close distance. The mermaid could not come near the shore when the sun was out- it burned her pale skin, and the clear water would not hide her from the people who frequented the shore during the day. Anyway, the tide would be low, and she could not get close enough to the shore to see a person.
She had touched one once. She was very young and fought her fear with curiosity. The tide was out, but the waves were high and people were standing on planks, coasting through the water like she did further out at sea on clear days, riding cool waves high into the air with shoals of fish. A person had come close to her, far out where the water was less clear and she was concealed by the swirling sand in the water. Her muddy green tail blended into the green water, so the person did not notice her when he fell from his board into the sea. She brushed across his chest with her tail and saw his panicked bubbles, which frightened her. She did not know that people could breathe air into the water like small whales.
After that, she had to know how people could drink the air and brave the water, while she could not raise her neck above the surface for more than a few moments. She did not frequent the land; instead, she clung to the sandy floor of the sea and imagined what it would be like in the air instead of in water.
The girl never entered the water. The mermaid wished she would. She wanted to understand how people drank air, but her fascination with the girl was something else. She was filled with a yearning to touch her dry, smooth skin, so unlike her wet scales. Her hair, long and flowing in the sea of air, was unlike anything the mermaid had ever seen. Her own head was smooth, and she never imagined anything growing from it like a forest of sea-grass, but she wanted to touch the girl’s.
The girl sang sometimes, and the mermaid was bewitched and confused. Whales sang, and the deep water of the ocean had currents that sang. How could people, drinking nothing but air, far from the sea, make such sounds? She craved the knowledge of their bodies deeply, wanting to know how their mouths were used for more than eating.
The mermaid was accustomed to the girl’s movements on shore. Her legs lifted alternately; her feet pressed into the sand. The mermaid had memorized walking. She knew the theory very well. Bend the knee up, then put the foot down. However, she did not understand how this moved the person forward, or how they could steer without a tail to guide them.
The outline of the girl appeared against the sky and the mermaid exhaled through her gills. The girl moved to the shoreline and stood, arms twisted around her torso, staring at the moon as it drew the ocean back and forth. This, too, was usual. The mermaid watched her for minutes, occasionally refreshing herself with water, until the girl turned away from the water. The mermaid never watched her figure disappear over the dock- the first time she had done it, the pit in her stomach hurt like eating an unhusked crab.
A second figure broke the skyline. Immediately, the mermaid slammed her body down against the floor of the ocean. Her gills pulsed. She had never known the girl to have a companion, and here was a second person, flowing through the stand with those mystifying legs, drinking the same air that the girl drank.
The girl and her companion stayed for a long time. The mermaid felt the pit in her stomach again as she watched the two break the edge of the waves with their feet. Of all the times she had imagined feeling the movement, the distant warmth, of the girl’s feet in the water, she had never imagined that the moment would be polluted by another person. She watched the companion’s dry hands become wet as they reached into the water for a seashell. The girl smiled and laughed, a sound the mermaid had never heard her make. The two made many noises, but the noises the companion made were not like singing. They broke the smooth air and she could feel the reverberations in the water. The girl lips touched those of her companion, and the mermaid felt the pain in her stomach twist, like the time she had swallowed a fish alive and whole, just to see what it felt like.
She watched the two as they walked away from the water and onto the shore, loathing the way she craved the girl’s warmth and the sound of her voice. This time, she watched their figures cross the banks of sand. She floated in the gentle waves until the sun warmed the edge of the ocean.
The next night, the girl came alone. The mermaid had briefly considered staying away, fearing the gnawing sensation the companion had brought out in her body, but knew in the end that she had to see the girl regardless of how much she touched the companion.
The girl was singing this time, softly, and the sounds carried over the water. Her feet touched the cresting waves and the mermaid thrilled at the untainted sensation of the girl’s movement. The happiness was quickly followed by alarm as she realized that the girl was walking further out into the water than she had the night before.
The waves brushed around the girl’s knees, stroking the backs of her legs with a freedom the mermaid craved. She watched the girl’s eyes close and her chest expand. She was drinking air, the air that fed her singing. The mermaid could feel every motion of the girl’s feet in the swirling sand. She understood walking, which was remarkable because, listening to the girl’s voice and feeling the heat radiating from her skin, she was moonstruck. The mermaid, in a dreamy haze, released herself from the floor of the ocean. She gently undulated her tail as she moved toward the girl. Just a touch would soothe the yearning in her chest. Just a moment to understand the girl, to understand how she could turn the harsh air into a sound like the deep sea.
The girl made bubbles too as the mermaid pulled her into the dark water. The mermaid was intoxicated with happiness. She could feel the silkiness of the girl’s hair, like the soft silt of the beach, and her skin, smooth and tender as the flesh of a mollusk pulled from its shell.
The bubbles stopped long before the mermaid reached the outcrop of rock that jutted between the shallow and deep sea. She converged upon the girl’s chest, seeking answers that were not there. Her body was filled with blood like a common fish, and there was no air hidden inside.
The next night, the mermaid swam to the shore out of habit, longing for the past, when there was the possibility of understanding these people. To her surprise, there were many people on the beach. They carried with them lights like small moons and called loudly in strident voices. The mermaid burrowed her tail into the still-warm sand and felt the pain in her stomach subside, the way it had when the fish she had eaten finally died. She could try again tonight, and tomorrow night, and maybe under the light of some moon she would find the answers she sought.