And then I wrote it and I had nowhere else to put it except here, so here it is. It doesn’t have a title yet. Though it might be “Ariel, altered”.
Looking up through the blue-green mirk, she could see sparkles on top of the water. The sun was shining up there, but down here it was chilly, dim, always. Whatever was up there didn’t concern her: her life was below. She had all day to do what needed to be done, but here she was rushing at the last minute. Her little boy would scold her, as only a serious four-year-old can, for not paying attention to her duties. He was off looking for shiny glass and pieces of metal dropped by those above, tossed away because they’re no longer needed, done with. Down here nothing is ever done with. It goes on. It stays until it’s nibbled or floated or rusted apart, but it’s still here, just in a different form.
Her heart was weighted, not bouyant like the little boy’s. He was the sort who would have bobbed up to the surface with sheer exuberance if biology had only let him. For her, meandering along the bottom was easy. She never said she was unhappy with her life, but she felt as if she’d come to the end of the new things, and she hadn’t done anything, and when would she ever?
Her long hair surged slowly around her head as she prepared the food, getting in her eyes. She didn’t have a spare hand to push it away, and it would only come back again anyway. No hair ties for mermaids. Even a braid was frowned upon, after a certain age. The man wouldn’t like it, though he didn’t like hairs floating around his dinner either. “You should have thought of that before you came down here and found me,” she said when he wrinkled his nose. So fastidious, she thought to herself. Men shouldn’t care that much about their food, they should just eat it and be grateful they didn’t have to catch it themselves.
She skewered the small fish with some sharp bones to keep them together, tied a wide ribbon of seaweed around the larger ones, and anchored the whole thing to the rock with a couple of round, white stones. “It’s ready,” she called out, but her words were whipped away by the current. She bobbed there peacefully, working at not minding. The food wouldn’t go cold. She flicked a hand at a curious catfish to keep him away. “Find your own, this is taken.” The small boy rushed down from the middle waters, grabbing a few mouthfuls and dashing off again. “Can’t you stay here a while and have a civilized meal with us?” she asked him. “What’s so urgent up there? Have you been snacking? You’ll ruin your appetite.” He was already gone.
She remembered playing with the shafts of sunlight at that age, watching the fry weave in and out, silver and black, silver and black. Flipping over and over with a friend, doubled up with giggles at the pure hilarity of life. He would take on the heaviness soon enough; let him have his fun now.
The man came, at last, neither fast nor slow. He asked about her day, he admired the dark greenness of the weed she’d found and the tiny sweet fish. He did all the right things, but her smile stuck in her throat. See me! she wanted to say. See me! Not the things I did, but the mermaid I am. See all the things I’m not doing because… because I can’t, because it’s too late or too far or too hard or because you won’t let me. He would be baffled. He would crease his forehead and ask what exactly he was stopping her from doing. He would ask how he could help, but she knew the fault wasn’t in him, it was somewhere else.
She ate the food. She listened to his story of work on the river delta. When he asked where the boy was, she motioned to the child tumbling happily in the warmer waters a little way off. They watched his lithe body, strong and fast, well proportioned and growing apace. They were pleased with him, in this moment.
She picked up one of the shiny pieces of metal the boy had collected. She knew it was sharp on one edge, because it had hurt his hand and they’d put it away in the cleft of a rock, carefully. She used it sometimes to cut seaweed, if they needed tough seaweed to bind something. She turned it this way and that, marveling at the rippling, ever-changing picture on the flat side that was some sort of a reflection of herself.
“Cut my hair,” she said suddenly to the man. She gathered her locks together at the nape of her neck, catching them with two hands spanned and then circling them securely in one thumb and forefinger, and gave him the knife. Do this thing for me, she thought, to show that you know who I am.
He took the blade and looked into her eyes. She nodded. “Do it. I want to be new.”
So he did.