01 Feb I Found a Mermaid in the Swamp, and It Ruined My Life
You know, I never thought I’d have the chance to fall in love.
Not in “love,” anyway, not the kind people write sonnets about, not the kind that dominates movies and books and the Top 40. Not because I don’t want it, or because I’m not capable of feeling it, but because I’m not exactly the type of person people fall in love with. And that’s, uh, kind of half of the whole deal, right?
Don’t get me wrong, people like me. I had plenty of friends when I was young, guys and girls. I’m nice, I’m easygoing, I’m low maintenance. I never got in anybody’s way, so nobody felt any need to harass me.
But I’ve never been the type of person that anybody would love romantically, the type of person that someone could feel an active attraction to. Sure, some people might think I’m sweet, or helpful, or a good friend, but I promise that nobody’s fantasizing about my dumpy ass.
I’m gross, is what I’m saying. Greasy. Lumpy. Asymmetrical. A real stage-five uggo.
I wasn’t born with any specific deformity, not that I’m aware of, unless “chronic goblinface disorder” exists. My head’s huge and knobby and blunt in all the wrong places. My eyes are small and beady and prone to bags. I have wide, clammy lips and crooked teeth and a pretty nonexistent chin. And that’s just the stuff above my shoulders, I could go on and on about the little hunch in my spine or my spindly arms or my waxy skin. But I think I’ve painted enough of a picture, you get the point. I’m ugly, and not in a way that three days a week at Planet Fitness could fix.
It was hard at first. My teenage years were the worst of them; the feeling of exclusion was sharper back then, more persistent. People around me were blossoming, discovering what it felt like to want and be wanted, and I was relegated to the sidelines, forced to either watch in envy or slap my gross hands over my gross ears and shut it all out.
It got easier, though, just like everyone promised it would. I got good at being on my own. I know that sounds depressing, but I swear it’s not actually as sad as it sounds. I made it work. I’m actually a little proud of it, my independence.
A few years back I moved into a secluded little cottage on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, just far enough away from lights and roads to make sure that nothing disturbed the solitude I’ve gotten so dependent on. I’ve worked odd jobs for a while, mostly night shift stuff, which means that I never have to interact with anyone I don’t want to. I spend most of my days off fishing in this gorgeous patch of bayou outside my property. I’ve found a lot of happiness, perched at the edge of a stout little dock with a cooler of Coke and a bag of sunflower seeds.
And for quite a while this whole routine was fine. It worked. I spent so long alone that my need to socialize dried up. It calcified and withered into something vestigial and forgotten, and then I was happy alone.
At least, that was what I told myself. Really, my “happiness” was an illusion, a contrivance, a convenient narrative. I was lying to myself, and I didn’t know it until the night I met her.
I screamed the first time she appeared. I couldn’t help it, she startled me. When I drew back to cast my line for the hundredth time that night and caught that fateful first glimpse of a pale face beaming at me from under the water, I screamed. I dropped my rod in the bayou and fell backwards out of my chair in surprise. I think my first thought was that I’d seen some woman’s cadaver, a body that some wandering murderer had chucked into the swamp. I scrambled to my feet and, after a few seconds of deep breathing, my curiosity outweighed my fear and I returned to the dock’s edge to check again.
She was still there, waiting for me, peering up from her side of the water’s surface. It’s stupid, but I remember literally gasping at the sight ofh er: she was almost unbelievably beautiful. Her big, curious eyes with their dark eyelashes. Her wry, knowing smile. The halo of black hair that framed her delicate head in the water, floating in a wreath of gently swaying tendrils.
She was floating on her back, maybe a few inches below the surface. I remember how she tucked her hands across her chest, sort of like an otter.
For a while I stared, transfixed, my whole body rigid with surprise and incomprehension and something else that I can’t place, something sort of like reverence. She was so ethereal and so radiant and so clearly unnatural, I didn’t know whether to start crying or start running. We shared wordless, electric eye contact for what could have been seconds or hours. Then she blew a bubble at me, waved, and swam away. The spell was broken.
You wanna know something funny? She was the first person to really look at me, to make, like, real, intentional, direct eye contact with me, in maybe half a decade.
The initial feeling of that, of being visible, was intoxicating, but the instant it ended I was changed. I couldn’t be alone anymore. A wave of need, the fruit of years of self-imposed isolation, flooded me. It crashed into me like a tsunami and receded, leaving behind an all-consuming craving in its wake. I *needed* to see her again.
I came back every night, and she appeared every night, sooner or later. She was a playful, sprightly thing, a fast swimmer with a penchant for well-aimed splashes and raw fish. She let me talk to her, and she would listen, appearing almost rapt by even my most mundane little comments and stories. I’d talk, my voice crackly and weak from years of neglect, and she would hang on to every word. She never spoke, I’m not sure she knew how to speak, but she sang. It wasn’t a noise, not a physical one. She didn’t even need to open her mouth. The music emanated from her being whenever she willed it, clear and silver, like a chorus of bells chiming in perfect clarity. She sang to me every night, and I would walk home at dawn with her alien melodies playing in my head.
It became a routine. I brought her food and played her music and told her stories. She danced and ate and laughed her soundless, underwater laugh. Those nights were the best of my life.
Now, I’m not stupid. I knew this was too good to be true almost from the start. There was a reason that, in all my visits, I never got in the water with her. She’d make her coy little come-hither gestures and bat her eyes in invitation, and I’d always politely decline. Because I knew what she was. Or, at least, I had a pretty good idea.
Plenty of cultures have their own stories about gorgeous women drawing lonely men to the depths, and they always end the same. Tales of mermaids, naiads, *ningyo*, *iara*. Every corner of the world has its own version of the same story, each with the same moral: don’t believe the women in the water.
And, every once in a while, whatever illusion she was hiding behind, whatever magical disguise she employed, it would slip. Sometimes, when the water rippled wrong or the moon dipped behind a cloud, I’d get a glimpse of a different version of her. Her gaping mouth and the dozens of obsidian-chunk teeth that lined it. The jagged gills, like black axe wounds in her muscular neck. The dead, doll-like eyes set into her head, suddenly devoid of the life and warmth that normally danced just behind her retinas.
And besides, even if I hadn’t caught those little glimpses, I would’ve known. No beautiful thing would ever pick *me*, not without an ulterior motive. I’m a worm, I’m a louse, I’m a low thing. I’m built for dirt and shade and isolation, not light and warmth and love. And because I’ve known that my whole life, I saw almost from the start that she was lying, that she was trying her best to trick me.
And yet I loved her more for it. Knowing how hideous her true form was should have terrified me, should have set me running for the safety of land, should have kept me from ever returning to that lonely dock. But instead it comforted me. It made her relatable, even if she was a predator. So I keep coming back, and she keeps making her flirtatious little offer.
And, if I’m being honest, it’s a tempting one. I know what she wants, I know what’s going to happen to me the instant I lower myself into the swamp. I know exactly what her touch is going to feel like, and it’s not going to be the gentle caress that I’ve spent every night of the last month fantasizing about.
But my other option is to leave her. To ignore her, forever. To go back to my hermit’s existence in that drafty cottage, with my bi-monthly paycheck and fish breakfasts and empty bed. And somehow that sounds more painful than a double row of fish teeth in my neck.
I have a choice to make tonight. Should I live, safe and quiet and alone? Or should I die and finally know what it is to be embraced, to be truly wanted, by something so much more beautiful than I deserve?
I can hear her singing now, in my head, and I know what I’m going to choose.