by Dawn Sperber
This bridge drips rain in my hair, cold drops that wind down my scalp, cold snakes.
It’s still a good home. Shade over my head and the rushing creek down below. This creek winds all through the woods and feeds into the pond. It tells me tales, unheard secrets. No one knows all the water stories I know.
No one else has escaped the mermaid’s teeth.
Makes you charmed, I’d say, to touch an iridescent face, feel their soft lips (how do they not bite their lips?), to see their razor teeth and get away.
I’ve seen them eat dogs before.
• • •
Beware of those mermaids, I told Elise. Turns out a child like her doesn’t hear an old woman like me. Have you seen her in the papers? She’s been on the front page for a week.
“Did she run away from home? Do we have predators in our neighborhoods? [Continued on page four.]”
Love is what’s happening, Mr. Newspaper Man. You won’t understand anything about this — too focused on what’s probable, aren’t you? The facts. I’ll write your front-page story for you. Sit down and take that pen cap out of your mouth. It goes like this:
“Six days ago, down at the Woods Pond, Elise Franklin, 13, was eaten by mermaids. Numerous times, she had been warned not to go there by the Wise and Unheard Miss Rose. HOWEVER, the child was fool enough to ignore warnings. You see how that goes.”
It was love, you know. Why she went there. When it comes to mermaids, it’s always love. That last day she came across my bridge, she was silly, beacon-eyed, in full bloom. We’ve been having talks since she was little, five or six, Matthew’s age, and she was never like that. She was a good girl, obedient, pretty. That’s what she’s known for, her prettiness. That’s why she got on the front page.
I was in the creek doing laundry, and she came waving this twiggy branch, singing and full of love shine.
She said, “Miss Rose, you know what? You’re wrong. Everything you told me is a lie.” Her branch tapped the bridge rail. “You said they were monsters. But I went to the pond and saw them. One with lavender cheeks sang a song just for me.” And she stroked her neck.
I shouldn’t have yelled. But I did. “That’s just the beginning; don’t you get it?”
And I threw my dress, soaps and all, into the creek and waded toward her.
“Most of your life, I’ve been warning you about them. Remember the lost hunter? I watched him slip down their throats. Each of the five, swallowing each of his limbs. And the one who ate his head, that was my mermaid. But no, you can’t hear me. I don’t get to spare anyone else from my life’s lot.”
I didn’t stop there. I wish I would have. Instead, “I’m stronger than you,” I said. “I got away. But for the life of me, I don’t think you would!”
Of course, she took it as a challenge. I am not easy to get along with. And there they were with lavender cheeks, singing siren songs. Elise scowled and whipped her branch across the water.
“They love me like they never loved you. Who could ever love you?”
Her feet clattered across the bridge. I stood dripping on the bank, watching her sleek long blond hair sway side to side as she ran out of reach and turned a corner between the trees.
You see the part I played.
• • •
It makes a woman wonder, what’s the point? Of warnings, friendships, confessions about the scars on body and soul.
Have I showed you my scars? Take a look at my skinny hip. Mm-hmm. You see the teeth-marks, don’t you? This purple crescent moon scar shapes my left hip. Bet you’d think I’d hate the monster that did that to me. Yet here I am. The farthest I could get away was this bridge — a mile and a half’s distance from the pond, following the creek. I have to protect myself and stay away, but we’re always connected by this water. It may be the bite-marks that keep me bound to them. Maybe there’s a chip of tooth under my skin, trying to get back to its owner.
Here’s what I never told the children who visit, not Elise who’s gone, not Little Matthew who returns like a boomerang each time I shoo him: I escaped that mermaid over 40 years ago, but a trade occurred. I became an unfinished puzzle. My empty spot matches the shape of her teeth, and she’s got my side. It’s like a marriage, the way we fit together. And from that day on, I’ve been filled with secrets and paradoxes, and the fury of loving the ones who wish to devour me.
I never told Elise I love the mermaids, too. Maybe she would’ve listened better. What do you think, Mr. Newspaper Man? Do people want the whole truth, or edited-for-time-and-clarity truth? Don’t answer, just think. How many paradoxes have you trimmed down? How many lives could you’ve saved by being brave enough to give unclear answers?
• • •
Here’s some confusion for you. They used to be purely wonderful, in the way of all addictive and otherworldly love affairs.
Knowledge needs to be shared, so I tell Matthew, “Here’s a history lesson. Cop a squat.”
He brushes his hair sideways across his forehead, sits down on the bank in a tidy pretzel knot, and looks up. I pace the length of the bridge as I lecture, my hair swinging against my cheeks.
“Long ago, mermaids started out the angels of the sea,” I say. “They found lost sailors and castaways, breathed in their mouths, kissed their open lips, and loved them strong all their days.”
Matthew swivels his head like an owl, watching my course.
“Then the world changed. Navigation improved, also communication. The offerings of the lost went away. So, the mermaids moved inland to small bodies of water. They waited and waited for someone to rescue, and their love got frustrated, and their teeth got sharp.
“They hungered until love became a goal, not what’s shared. Now desire owns them, and all they want is more love to fill them. They’ve lost the understanding of Other — now they’re so hungry, they believe they deserve more than anyone should ever get.” I stop and raise an eyebrow. “They’ll kill you, seriously. Just like they got Elise.”
“What happened to Elise?” he asks, which is frustrating because here I’ve been explaining.
But he’s only six, so I spell it out. “Elise went to the pond, where the mermaids swim and sing. They called her close, they pulled her in, and then they ate her.”
Little Matthew stops jiggling the stones in his hand, stops everything, and stares at me with fish eyes.
I tuck a tangled gray lock behind my ear. “It’s true,” I say and flick some dirt from my fingernail.
He funnels his hand and pours the pebbles through, then sweeps the pile flat. “Miss Rose,” he says with scrunched mouth, “my mom said if you lie, you go to hell.”
This gets me laughing so hard, I’m hacking. I have to spit before I can answer, “I’ve seen hell already, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m trying to tell you the truth. One realm of hell is having no one believe you, especially when what you have to say is important.”
Matthew ambles over to the creek. Bent like a turtle, he pokes a stick in the muddy bank and makes a neat pattern of holes.
“No one knows what happened to Elise,” he says. “My brother said all week she hasn’t been in school, and she’s not the runaway type. If they don’t find her soon, they’re going to send out a search party.”
His holes line three feet of the bank. He straightens up, admiring them.
• • •
Matthew doesn’t believe me about the mermaids. He never has. He’s six, young, and still confident that he knows everything. Elise was 13. Thirteen, now, that’s different. At 13, a girl enters a crossroads, and the various arms of the world reach for her from every direction. But at six, a child is master. He has not yet been swindled by life; he isn’t desperate for something better.
• • •
Months ago, Little Matthew found a whole collection of teeth on a slick algae stone. He thought they were from a prehistoric fish that lived in the great age of dinosaurs, back when real monsters existed everywhere, even in our backwoods pond.
He tied up the teeth with yarn and tape and made a wind chime. When their razor edges clinked together in the breeze, high-chiming like faeries, he was dazzled. He hadn’t yet heard the mermaids sing like an intoxicating dream, songs that make you yearn, bring you to your knees, and make you wish you never had to return to the dissonant world again. (And the mermaids can arrange this.)
I told him his finding’s origin, as the ivory baubles flashed.
“You see, mermaids grow layers of teeth, replacements. When the new rows come in, for a while they have two sets, like sharks, till the old ones fall out. Their little teeth are razor-sharp triangles, and some are chipped from biting through who knows what, a metal dog collar or someone’s molars.”
I pointed to an uneven one.
He giggled, like I was telling an old woman joke, pulling his leg with a faerytale. I gestured the jagged rows of teeth in a mermaid’s mouth, and he chortled like a percolator, shaking his head.
“Mermaids are beautiful,” he said, sitting up straight like a schoolteacher. “They have long hair, and a fish tail, and sing on the rocks out at sea. And they’re nice. They don’t have monster teeth.”
He touched the wind chime to make it sing and cut his finger on a tooth.
“Ah, but they’re ravenous,” I said, swabbing iodine on his finger. “From a distance, so lovely. Up close … Well see, there you go. The ones who know are here no more.”
He admired his red finger, before he faced me. “Then how do you know?”
“I got away,” I said, and twisted the iodine cap on tight. “I’m the only one I know of. Here’s the proof; look at my skinny hip.”
I pulled up my dress hem to show him the bite-mark.
His small eyebrows shot up, and he squinted at my wrinkles. My ragged purple scar didn’t surprise him. “Ah, that’s just ‘cause you’re old,” he explained and looked away.
“There’s some sharp eyesight,” I said, pulling my hem back down. “Little boy. Believe whatever you want. Just remember the warnings.”
And I left him alone with his compliments, because I had better things to do. I figured he’d follow, the boomerang. I picked up the tall bucket I’d prepared for the wolves that morning and pushed past a thin branch at the trailhead.
“Ow,” Matthew whispered when the let-go branch caught his face. “Where are we going?”
I filed past the red-skinned young willows lining the path, then waded through the tall meadow grass to the clearing. With my perfected technique, I shimmied the fish from the bucket evenly across the low, flat boulder. My steps donked the empty pail as I walked to a stump out of the way. Matthew sat like a pretzel at my feet, and we watched.
When the first wolf ambled in, he spotted us and crouched, ears back, ready to run. Matthew squeezed my ankle tight but didn’t say a word. After a minute, the dark wolf trotted to the stone. He was devouring fish by the time the next two wolves, with black and white markings, entered the meadow — so silently emerging from between the trees, I didn’t hear a leaf break. They met our eyes, dropped their hindquarters, and froze.
In Matthew’s vise grip, I could feel him counting, three wolves, and two of us. The newcomers stayed stock-still, and then the fishy smell convinced them. Noses twitching, they joined their brother at the feast, and quick-right ate every fish scrap. Then they turned around still chewing, shot us a piercing look, and loped away.
Back at the creek, Matthew jumped in and kicked high fan splashes. “We’re friends with the wolves!” he yowled at the sky.
“I wouldn’t exactly say friends.” I threw a stone at a floating leaf and both sank out of sight.
He kicked again. “Why?”
“Really, we don’t know the wolves, and they don’t know us. But I gift them fish. They’re honorable creatures, loyal to their packs. Me, they recognize and trust enough to eat in front of, but I can’t swear they’d call me a friend.”
“Because I’m not a wolf. So, I’ll always be different.”
Matthew frowned. He kicked around in the water some more, whispering to himself about wolves. When he got bored, he collected his things at my bridge.
“Well, I’m friends with the wolves!” he called as he slowly walked away, holding the wind chime by its string’s top loop, careful to keep it away from him.
• • •
Elise wasn’t abducted, like Matthew read on the front page; she ran away. She’d risk losing family and friends for one good dose of the love the mermaids have to give. Because when they said, “Let our love make us one,” they meant it. One body, filled with the other one.
In the woods, Elise was a cloud-singer, head back serenading the sky, dancing down the trails. I’ve heard that in town, she went to dances, helped at fairs, making friends while she sold peach cobbler.
You might wonder why she’d risk it all for love when it seemed like she already had it. But there are different kinds, of course. Elise had people telling her they loved her hair, or her smile, or the way she baked them treats.
That’s different from being with someone in a world of privacy, with a being made of magic, who loves you because you are you and no other, one who sings praises of You, You, You, and Us. And the rest of the world could evaporate, but this beautiful creature would still be looking in your eyes, delighted.
I think everyone longs for that. To be taken seriously. To be taken. To trust another so much that you hand yourself over for their safe-keeping. It’s an intoxicating dream. And dangerous. It makes you shut your eyes and float, like in your mother’s arms, and anything can happen then.
I started out in the city, like most people. I was good and normal, with a job at the dry cleaner’s. From ages 14 to 18, I worked the counter. And I had a family that played a family game that never seemed to stop. It involved keeping to a script and smiling, but I was never very good at it. I wasn’t abandoning much when I wandered here into the woods. No one noticed me much unless I lost a phone message or the dry cleaning was late.
On the other hand, the mermaids didn’t even have clothes. They were naked with iridescent scales, long hair, and eyes that loved me, that didn’t ask for anything, except my most essential life.
And if you are going to ask someone for something… After a while it’s an insult to only be asked for what anyone could give: change for a dollar, to listen and obey. In a way, it’s an honor to be asked for your most precious parts that only you could give.
At least someone is seeing what you have. At least someone knows the treasures you hold inside. And with what better being to share your wealth than the one who recognizes your value?
All the mermaid did was look me in the eyes and ask for everything.
• • •
Imagine with me. It’s late, and you’re in the woods alone. That’s a full moon above, with quick clouds threading by, like marble. Just ahead, the water’s silver and burbling. New leaves spring under your feet, and the humid air feels enchanted.
You sit on a mossy boulder by the water, open your mouth and then release a song more beautiful than any you’ve sung. In the center of the pond, a head rises. The silhouette woman offers a bell-high harmony. So, you keep on allowing through this song that seems destined to arrive from you. When the clouds pull from the moon, in the new light, she glows like a face on a coin. Your glances touch like static sparks.
Eventually, the spell of a song ends, and a nightingale’s left trilling. Maybe it sang with you all the while. Fog crawls over the pond’s surface, and she dives underwater. She appears inches away at the pond’s edge — hair, long and silvered; eyes, wide and aqua; skin, moonlight-tinted pale green. She stares at you without smiling, and you are so daring. You sit, natural as yourself, and look back. Then she speaks.
“You are perfect,” she says. “You’re just what I’ve been waiting for. Dive in, please, and let me love you.”
She’s not pretending you’re anything you’re not. I deserve this, you tell yourself, so you remove your dress (for you are already revealed), walk through the mud, and drop in. Go underwater and wave free your floating hair; come up seal sleek as she is.
Then she holds you in her strong arms, traces each inch of your untouched body, and she knows. She knows you are beautiful like no one has ever known before. She scatters moth kisses all over your face, as you float and receive.
She keeps whispering, “I love you with everything I’ve got.” Low clouds staunch the moon’s light, and she asks, “Do you trust me?”
Eyes open or closed, it’s the same in the dark, so you shut them and say, “Yes.”
Your word makes her laugh. She fits against you and kisses you with her tongue so warm and soft. And so it goes on.
Till pain is a lightning bolt. Jolting through you. There’s a metal taste, and your mouth is full of blood.
She wipes it tenderly from your chin, and says, “I’m sorry, my love.” Moonlight returns and gleams off her teeth, a mouthful of sharp edges. “I didn’t mean to. Do you believe me?”
When she strokes your head, you dodge and dive away. She’s reaching for you. She’s so strong. She keeps catching you, and you’re choking.
“I can’t help but love you,” she sings, her fingers gouging between your ribs, “with everything I’ve got.”
Her mouth opens, and you see only points. Dart fast, slip free, get to the pond’s edge, and push up on your hands. And then she gives you such a violent kiss. You’re on the bank, guts torn open, shadowed in blood. Roll a few feet from the edge, from where she stays, calling love to you and sobbing through her shark teeth. Try to believe she can’t leave the water, as you keep on passing out.
In the cold dawn, fishermen find you and carry you away to be mended, as much mending as can be done. You don’t want to say what happened, and your split tongue gives you a reason not to. Though later, when you do tell the story, no one will believe a word you say.
No one has ever seen her but you. As is safest. Still, however events turned, she didn’t lie. She loved you more than anyone has loved you, and her loving was like heaven, up until the end.
Thank and mourn, all the years after, the luck that got you away.
• • •
Attack makes a bond. That mermaid fed from me, and part of me lives on in her. Of course she loved me. Why else would she try to devour me? I can’t seem to leave her behind.
Sometimes at night, the pond’s call gets loud, and I draw close and watch them from behind the trees. In a circle, the five mermaids join hands and lift them to the stars, singing about their innocence, these martyrs kept hungry for so long. They grimace and gnash their hundred teeth. I run my tongue back and forth to feel my scar, the one I haven’t shown anyone. And no one has kissed me since to find it.
• • •
I haven’t told Matthew all I know about mermaids’ teeth. Like what happens when you plant one. In 40 days, it lifts a stalk like a fuzzy clothesline. In 20 more days, it grows a bud, big as a grapefruit. This stretches head-sized, and finally it awakens like a lotus. A hundred violet and blue petals curl open and, in the center’s bull’s-eye, rests a silver globe. The plant gets up to six feet, tall as a relative, and gives an amber scent that carries on the wind for miles.
See, I tried to raise one once. That was the autumn of the nightingales; they flocked to the woods. By midnight, they’d be drunk and silly from the flower’s charming resin, and their performances lasted all night. It took a while to figure out why their songs got quieter.
It was at this time that I found the infestation of sticky webbing under each of my plant’s wide leaves. I picked apart a web and, in the center, found a silver oval. This seemed the pest’s egg, so I pressed a rock into it, and it crunched. Usually, spider and insect cocoons are soft, so I peeled back the silver lining, and discovered tiny bones.
Nightingales. My flower was eating them, as if it converted trilling birdsongs into sweet haunting scent. The plant ate all of the birds but their skulls and breastbones, which were too thick, I suppose. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, it left alone, even though they flocked to its face and orbited where it grew. But no, the crooning nightingales were the preference of that flower grown from a siren’s tooth.
My stomach churned as the woods, once loud as a choir hall, grew quieter and quieter, and the stalk grew thicker with hidden skulls and breastbones. Death never smelled so alluring.
Now, we all have responsibilities, and I aim to be a protector. So, with the songbirds in mind, I took to my sword. Years ago, its hilt had poked up from the creek bank, and under the mud and rust, I found lilies engraved down its blade. I wielded this weapon over my shoulder, faced off with the horrible monster I’d grown, and struck down on its bright fragrant head.
It cried piercingly when the flower’s silver center broke, a trilling sad song to break a heart. Its lament hypnotized me, as its lotus-like petals spun like a Ferris wheel, violet, blue, violet, blue.
Yet I remembered what I must do. Cheeks wet, surrounded by its soundtrack, I lifted the sword again and hacked at the beguiling flower, chopping it to pieces to end the unearthly song.
Finally, it lay in a heap of ragged ends — petals, plum and navy, scattered on the ground like a kaleidoscope’s view. I reached into the center’s cracked silver oval and pulled out the sharp mermaid tooth.
It wiggled between my fingers like it was trying to cut me, so I carefully pinched it, hurried to the pond, and threw it back in. Butterflies and hummingbirds followed me, bumping against my perfumed hands, mournfully circling the air. They stayed a long time, gyring above the water, searching for the magnet that had controlled their days.
• • •
Little Matthew tells me about the town’s search party. Up and down the highway, he says, troops of local men look for Elise, and each day her picture is on the newspaper’s front page.
Today, the men tromp through the woods with big rifles and little walkie-talkies, orange vests, and camouflage caps. They bark orders and survey the pond, but it’s calm there. Mermaids go underwater on sunny days. They’re more night-beings, like barn owls and cat snakes — and besides, in the sunlight, they’re a pale green tint or blue, shining like mica. If they stood still, you’d never mistake a shape that color for a person’s head rising from the water.
The search party hunts all day, but they don’t find Elise, or the mermaids. Later on that night, the mermaids find me. They come in a dream that isn’t only a dream, but a happening that occurs while I’m asleep.
Improbable beauties crowd around my bedroll. I know I’m asleep because they stand on the tips of their tails, needing no water. Five swiveling ladies reach down sleek arms, and their hands swim over me like starfish, stroking my hair and neck.
“Aren’t you hungry,” ring their bell voices. “Hungry for so much.”
“Your body’s old. It holds you back,” their voices spin. “But we know you’re lovely,” lips moving, words overlapping.
“We know you,” they say, and these last words don’t echo, and then they quietly stroke my loose skin and wonder over my old legs. They take my swollen knees like grapefruits in their palms and stick fingers between my toes. I try to curl up, but they hold my limbs and slowly straighten them.
Each one is stunning in her way. Shafts of moonlight stream under the bridge and paint them with glowing abstract shapes. My mermaid who tried to devour me, she of the wide aqua eyes, bends down and examines my knotted calves and blue-vein thighs.
“You could trade these for a powerful tail, my sweet,” she says. “Walking hurts, doesn’t it. Why struggle when the water can support you?”
“Leave the world behind.”
“Dirty, heavy world.”
And it’s true the world’s weight presses me down. This superficial world under a greedy spell, it’s a steel anvil laid on my chest, and I thrash to get out from beneath it.
I chose the woods instead of the city’s prizes, this bridge and my moss-stuffed bedroll. I keep a lifestyle where my pace is free. I can watch the sunlight shift and the seasons’ changes and know what I know about the world, without anyone calling me a liar. But it is lonely.
“You are the only one,” their voices ring, “worthy… worthy… hungry… As us.”
Each visitor to the woods leaves more trash, cans and gun shells and oil spills on the ground. Their carelessness unfurls in all directions, riding my shoulders, heavy and unstoppable. It sure would be nice to plunge into water, float, dream, and give in, get filled. I could be a creature of wild desire, too, untouched by age, breathing water and easy to love.
My face stretches with a smile, till, “No!”
I thrash from my own convincing.
Then they’re gone, the ambassadors of the wicked offer. The sunlight’s bright; a chipmunk runs across my foot. I sit up in the next day of the familiar life and rub my aching knees.
• • •
Half a sprite-face watches me from a lilac bush. Matthew rises with a pollen puff in his hair, then sits on the rock next to me, thinking deeply, slouching and breathing loud.
“Do you think it hurt when the mermaids ate Elise?” His hawk eyes pierce the clear sky.
“I don’t know,” I say, and my fingers press the soil.
He faces me. “Did it hurt when they bit you?”
My nerves get a lightning strike. He’s never believed me before.
“She. It was only one of them,” I say. My palm fits against the moist ground.
“Did it hurt?” he keeps asking.
“Yes,” he repeats, like the word is sacred. And he’s quiet for a long while.
I don’t know if this is how I’m supposed to talk to children. I guess most people just tell them good-sounding lies so they won’t cry. But what’s the point of that? It just makes them fall harder when the letdown comes.
Next time I look at Little Matthew, he has his forearm in his mouth and is biting down hard.
“Stop that!” I yell, and swat him.
He bursts out crying and runs away.
I never said I was good with children.
• • •
Two search party men stop to talk to me on their return trip from the woods. “When’s the last time you saw Elise?”
The security guard, Tom, knows about me and my bridge, like the other town folk; my family are his neighbors. People don’t usually bother me here.
I don’t mean to tell him anything. “A little while ago.” I keep up with my work.
The short one, Mikey, his mechanic’s shirt says, keeps swallowing like he just took a pill without water. He clenches his hands, staring at the bowl between my knees.
“When exactly is ‘a little while ago?’” Tom asks.
I sift through the dry grain, pick out a bug, and toss in to the little bug pile.
“The moon went from dark to past first quarter. What’s that? Eight days,” I say.
Mikey runs his fingers through his hair and makes it greasy.
“I haven’t seen the girl since new moon.” When I spit, Mikey flinches hard, though it lands far from him.
Tom clears his throat. “And what were you doing the last time you saw Elise?”
I dig in and grab another palmful of grain.
“Laundry,” I say. “She crossed my bridge on her way to the woods. Told me a song she’d made up. Then she left.”
Tom’s excited. “And did you see her come back across?”
“No,” I say, and I tell him more, but he’s already heard enough.
• • •
Who could have guessed my interview’s effects? Tom uses it as the keystone evidence for his theory.
1. Elise went into the woods and never came out.
2. Something in the woods killed her.
3. A sheriff spotted a wolf pack crossing the road and entering the woods.
4. The biggest local danger, which the men will now eradicate, is —
And so the hunting begins.
• • •
The town’s men enter the land in great snarling packs. Guns fire, creating an audible map of how far the woods extend. Birds stop singing and everything quiets, except for the pack of men. At night they return, and flashlight beams swing through the trees’ branches. Rays of light and bending tree silhouettes steal my night vision.
Come morning, Tom and three others cross my bridge with shotguns. My mouth opens, and I can’t help but yell a heartfelt croaking lecture about how few wolves are left here anymore and how they avoid humans. As the men keep walking, I shout curses. Tom stops for just a moment, when he turns toward me and takes aim.
Little Matthew lingers around my bridge, heavy and serious. His eyes carry dark bags, and he doesn’t play around. When he finally speaks, it’s in a high voice.
“I know you said you’re not friends with the wolves, but you are — admit it. You feed them, and you know they didn’t get Elise. So why do they have to die?”
I say words to explain what can’t be understood. “Those hunters won’t hear me. They’re going to do this.”
“How could they?” he asks.
His heart is breaking, and I’ve no duty to defend those brutes. Yet look at him needing to know.
So, I say, “My guess is they’re scared. They love their kids, and they’re afraid of losing them. They want to protect them, but they don’t know who’s after them, so they chose to kill the wolves.” I say, “Sometimes love makes people do horrible things, out of fear. Do you understand?”
“No,” he says.
“Lord knows it doesn’t make sense,” I say, “but it’s what I’ve seen is true.”
“What do you know?” he says, angry. “You’re crazy, Miss Rose. You don’t know anything and you never did.”
Matthew walks away, hitting each tree branch he passes, believing he is all alone and the first person to feel this way.
• • •
I’m snapping pebbles at a tree trunk when, BOOSH, a heavy wind comes gusting into the late afternoon. My stones fly far off mark. Within the roaring air, I hear a muffled gunshot. A dead branch cracks off a tree behind me, flies by. It misses my nose by an inch, and smacks my pebbles’ tree trunk target, right on bull’s-eye. The branch lands like a tambourine, clattering leaves.
The wind builds to a scream, and you’d never believe it was calm until a moment before. My skin’s lined in goosebumps, my hair stands on end, and I know this kind of sudden bluster.
This is the Wind of Change. You live long enough, paying attention, and you see patterns. The turning wind blows in before weather-snaps, and it gusts just the same before life’s changes — beginnings, endings, births, deaths. Prescience fills me like a fog full of static cling, and I can feel that something is happening, but not what. The wolves?
Little Matthew. At once, I pull toward him (They can’t take another one) like a compass arrow pointing north.
No time for second-guesses. A gunshot cracks the air, followed by a wolf cry. I bustle my long dress and discover how fast an old woman can run in the woods against the wind. Weeds lash my legs, and the world is all rattling leaves and ghostly wind-cries.
When I get to the pond, leaves and dirt pepper the air, and I peer through my eyelashes. The trees surrounding the clearing bow and raise like waves, and the pond is like dented metal. I spot his little brown crown on the far bank, so I race along the bank, strong and furious, and thunder to a stop.
Little Matthew sits away from the pond’s edge, against the wall of tangled growth. And nothing seems to be wrong.
“You scared the life out of me!” I shout, wheezing, and drop next to him in the grass. “What are you doing here? I told you to stay away.”
Strangely calm, Matthew sits, his shirt rippling in the wind.
“I wanted to kill them,” he says, “or do I-don’t-know-what to those mermaids, for eating Elise, and making the men hunt the wolves. I was going to keep away from the water. I heard the guns and the wolves howling. It was loud, and I yelled, ‘Come out, you murderers!’ And even though I’d started believing you, I didn’t see any mermaids in that pond, and I started thinking you were just a big liar.” He slowly shakes his head.
An uncanny shift takes over as Little Matthew tells his story, because the Matthew inside his tale is vivacious and hot-cheeked, yet the one reciting next to me has a face calm as the moon. Expressionless, he watches the setting of his tableau.
I face the churning pond also, imagining along with him:
At the water’s edge, Matthew is little but fearless, a thin boy screaming curses. Then, a mermaid rises from the water, and she tells him, “Shh.” She says, “I hear you.” And somehow, her voice speaks an inch from his ear. The boy stands defiantly on the bank, as two more mermaids rise from the pond. “It’s okay,” they tell him, and they are magnificent, not monsters like I said. Their long hair is in many braids, and their iridescent skin glitters. The boy shakes his fists, condemning the men hunting the wolves, decrying the injustice.
How can he stand it? the mermaids ask him. “I don’t know,” he admits. So, they sing a grace-note melody about running with the wild wolves, and gold sunshine on his back, about being loved. Their voices are high as faery chimes, and it’s the prettiest moment, he says, he’s ever lived. One of the mermaids holds up a red, shiny rock. “Here is our love,” she tells the boy, like their love is a red rock he can put in his pocket. When he bends down to see it closer, a wolf zooms by behind his legs.
Matthew gestures the swoop. “Then there was a loud gunshot.” He wakes from his trance and seems a little surprised to see me.
“Did you take the stone?” I ask.
“No, I ran into the woods so I wouldn’t get shot. And I thought if I saw a mermaid? That would be a message that I’m safe and don’t have to worry. But I waited a long time and didn’t see one, so then I came out anyway. That’s when I found the wolf. He’s dead. I wanted to stay with him.”
We sit alone by the pond.
“Where is he?” I ask.
“Right here,” Matthew says, turning around. He stands and searches. “There he is!” He points with a straight arm.
From a gap in the trees, a wolf emerges, and blood mats half his fur from his belly’s bullet hole.
“He’s not dead!” Matthew cries.
Long strands of saliva drip, as the wolf snarls.
“He’s one of the ones we fed!”
Ten feet before us, the wolf plants his feet and howls terribly loudly, three times, like a ritual.
I puff out my chest and try to look imposing. The wolf’s eyes shine with pain, and he yelps, then growls like a nightmare. His unbloodied fur bristles like static electricity, and he crouches, preparing to spring. Then a second wolf joins him, jogging out from the wall of trees. His monochrome twin licks his back, and I recognize her, but not her curled lip or snapping jaws.
I’m already retreating when the wounded wolf leaps. My tripping feet run backward, and then there’s a white blur flying through the air. A cloud of small white triangles glitters past. I protect my head with a bent arm, and when the brief cloud clears, I find the wounded wolf in death throes on the ground. His eye streams blood, and his legs sprawl.
It happens too fast to understand. The she-wolf howls like she’s calling to the gods, and she gives a jaw-snap. She squats, shifting feet, then charges us.
Again, the air glitters with a white swarm. I see pale shards sink into the wolf’s leg and belly fur. The wolf falters but uses her remaining strength for a last leap.
Her paws land on my shoulders, and she stands, staggering, breathing in my face like we’re lovers embracing; our wild eyes meet.
The air fills with shards once more, and the wolf cries, dropping from me with a thump, growl, and gurgle. Then she is silent, a pile of fur on the ground.
I wait beside Matthew, knees bent, but nothing else charges. After three killing swarms of white shards blurring past us, not one touched me. Little Matthew shivers, but he’s unhurt. Arms hugging himself tight, he stands above the wolf and looks down at her death. Her thick fur tosses up and down in the wind.
“I didn’t want them to die,” he whispers.
My hair swirls in front of my eyes like a question mark. I turn to face the wind, and there’s my mermaid. She grips the pond’s rim and watches me with lovely eyes, and I am nothing but inhale.
Then, she smiles, and her lips curve around a black hollow. Toothless, she looks old, like me. She lifts her hand, gentle, to touch her mouth, and when her fingers leave the water, they streak with blood. It was her teeth that killed the wolves, I realize. She broke them out and threw them like a dagger swarm.
“Why did you help us?” I call, my voice sounding unused.
She gives an empty smile and descends beneath the water.
Was it love? Protection? Or jealousy. Could she not stand to see an object of obsession taken by another?
I imagine it’s love, and my chest warms like there’s a palm laid on it. After all that’s happened, she still loves me. Closer I come and peer down into the green, choppy waves. I don’t know how to thank her, so I just bend down and pet the water a little, like it’s her soft cheek. It must have hurt her to break out all her teeth.
But they’ll grow back.
Her hand darts up. Reflexively, I withdraw, and her long nails slash the air. I shuffle back from the pond. And grimacing, she rises, reaching out for me.
“Don’t go,” she sings with her eyes closed. She doesn’t aim to catch me, but she can’t stop trying.
A safe distance away, I sit on a lichen-spotted boulder and watch her blind swipes. After a good while, I clear my throat and say, “I’m here.”
Then she sinks below the water and is gone. I track the dent she leaves in the surface.
“Didn’t you see,” Little Matthew says, touching my back. “That mermaid didn’t have shark teeth — she didn’t have any teeth at all.”
A zephyr blows through, and the gray sky breaks with streaks of fuchsia dusk.
“It was just a little red rock,” he tells me. “Like a pebble.” And casually, he untangles my hair with his small hand.
Copyright © 2019 by Dawn Sperber