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nature, society, and the human experience

Mermaids

While icing the cake for a party at Chuck E. Cheese, a child asks her mother probing questions about certain fairy tales.

By Kelcey Parker

 

Nothing gave her so much pleasure as to hear about the world above the sea. —“The Little Mermaid,” Hans Christian Andersen

I

 The birthday girl begins her day with a question: “Do wishes really come true?”She is using a plastic knife to spread blue icing along one side of her cake.

The birthday girl’s mother, at work on the other side of the cake, wonders why she asks.

Because the birthday girl doesn’t think they do. For she has wished upon stars and eyelashes and last year’s birthday candles and pennies in the fountain, and she has not told anyone (except for her doll, Annabelle, and her unicorn, Chloe) her wish—it is always the same one—and it still has not come true.

“Do they?” she asks again, pausing from her work.

The birthday girl’s mother says that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t and that it just depends.

The birthday girl wants to know on what it depends.

The birthday girl’s mother looks at her. “On how much it costs, on whether it’s even possible—that kind of thing.”

Which brings the birthday girl to another question. She plunges her knife into the icing container. “Are mermaids real?” she asks.The birthday girl’s mother hesitates. Between them on the table is a plastic figurine of Ariel, the Little Mermaid, whom they will set atop the cake, iced like the bottom of the sea. All over her daughter’s room are images of Ariel, with her red hair and green fish tail and eyes the size of the shells on her breasts.

For some time she has wanted to tell her daughter not that mermaids aren’t real—that would be too simple—but that Ariel isn’t real, that there is another, better mermaid story. She has thought to tell her daughter that what the real Little Mermaid wanted was not the prince but an immortal soul. That the real Little Mermaid never even married the prince. That when it became clear the prince would marry another, she could have killed him to save her own life, but she tossed the knife into the sea. Strangely, instead of dying, she was taken by the Daughters of the Air, who spread health and the perfume of flowers around the world. The birthday girl’s mother has wanted to tell her daughter that the real Little Mermaid became a Daughter of the Air, able—unlike her merman family who would live for three hundred years and then turn to foam—to earn an immortal soul.

The birthday girl challenges her mother’s silence with a statement of the evidence: Mermaids are in stores and movies and books; here is one in front of them. What could be more real?

They both look at Ariel, her stiff, curvy body tipped awkwardly on the tabletop. Ariel wears an expression of feigned and deceptive innocence, and the birthday girl’s mother wants to diminish her appeal.

“No, sweetie,” she says, looking straight into Ariel’s eyes. “Mermaids are not real.” And then, in a moment that feels like inspiration, she adds, “Besides, mermaids can’t ride bicycles!”

She watches for her daughter’s response. Later today, her daughter will find a bicycle topped with a bow awaiting her in the garage, and the birthday girl’s mother thinks how perfect it would be if she could get her daughter to wish for a bicycle, rather than to be a mermaid.

But then again, she thinks, isn’t it better for her daughter to learn that wishes don’t always come true?

She becomes aware that she is once again complicating something that is actually quite simple. That is what her husband would say. “Stop making things more difficult than they are,” he would say if he were there. That, or, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

But he is out getting the bicycle.

 

She has at times reached out to touch her daughter—stroked her hair, squeezed her hand—just to know she had not dreamed her.”

 

The birthday girl takes another angle. “Are unicorns real?” she asks.

That’s when the birthday girl’s mother realizes that her daughter’s line of questioning is going beyond mermaid wishes, and into, well, ontology. And she suddenly longs for the days of diapers and bottles, which had overwhelmed her at the time with their relentlessness and which she’d been relieved to finally move beyond, and which seemed, now, so mindlessly simple. If the diaper stunk or swelled up, she changed it. If her daughter cried a few hours after her last feeding, she fed her. Now her daughter wants to know if her playmates are real. If wishes come true.

The birthday girl’s mother makes a decision: to keep it simple.

“No,” she says. “Unicorns are not real.”

“Are princesses real?” the birthday girl asks.

The birthday girl’s mother tells her that there were princesses in the past and that there are still some princesses in other countries, but that they are different from the princesses she knows about.

The birthday girl wants to know which countries, but her mother doesn’t know. And she’s not about to mention Diana.

“Is Elmo real?”

She is told he is a puppet with a human voice.

Then the birthday girl wants to know if Michael, the blond boy on Barney, is real.

“He is a real person, but his name is not Michael, and he’s probably twenty-one by now.”

The birthday girl is quiet. She sullenly jabs the cake with her knife, and the birthday girl’s mother begins to question her approach.

See? She finds herself arguing with her husband in her head. I don’t make things complicated. Things are complicated.

But the birthday girl is persistent. She tries again. “Are Pilgrims real?” For she has just learned about them in kindergarten.

“Yes!” her mother is finally able to say. “Pilgrims are real!”

But, no, the birthday girl cannot see one because they were real a long time ago.

“Is the Tooth Fairy real?”

“Is Benjamin Franklin real?”

“Is Scooby Doo real?”

“Is heaven real?”

The birthday girl’s mother looks at her daughter, who, herself, was not real, not even imagined, merely six years ago. And even though the birthday girl’s mother watched her own stomach grow, and felt and witnessed the slick being emerge from within her, and even though she has also witnessed each day of her daughter’s life, the child’s very existence seems more fantastically impossible than that of any unicorn or mermaid. She has at times reached out to touch her daughter—stroked her hair, squeezed her hand—just to know she has not dreamed her.

She reaches out to her daughter now to wipe some icing from her cheek. She lets her daughter lick it from her finger. “Let me finish the cake,” she says. “You go get dressed for your party.”

—————-

II

The birthday girl has chosen to have her party at Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, and at the door the birthday girl’s mother is assaulted by pops and thwacks and dings, by primary colors alight and blinking, by the kinetic energy of other people’s children, and she is relieved to simply receive a stamp on her hand, to smile at the teenager who has stamped her, to push the turnstile, and to release the birthday girl’s hand.

The extended family arrives, and while the grandparents help themselves to slices of buttery pizza, the birthday girl’s mother divvies out tokens to cousins who stand—or bounce—before her in socks, their sneakers hastily crammed into the nearby shoe rack. They are like the parts of the game nearby that pop-up one at a time, and she imagines, for a moment, hitting them over the head with the rubber hammer. She shudders a bit when they call her “Aunt.”

Mermaid of Copenhagen. Photo by Bjorn Kolbeek, courtesy of stock.xchng.

She turns her attention to the cake and gifts. Ariel is smiling up at her from the blue sea beneath the saran-wrap, and she glares back at her before pushing the cake against the wall. The candles and film, she realizes, are still on the kitchen table. She sends her husband, who reminds her of all the errands he’s already run today, to the nearest drug store, and then she stands alone beneath the tunnels of tubes and follows the path of her daughter, who stops at a small window, waves, and crawls away. She admits to herself that she is avoiding her in-laws, afraid, somehow, of their simple happiness, and afraid of ruining it.

But unavoidable are the other mothers, all around her, who look so at home in this unreal place which can only rightly be called a giant mouse cage, what with the children crawling through a maze of tubes, with all the cheese, and with, well, the mouse. These mothers travel in packs, maintaining conversations, and even eye contact, despite the toddlers slung on their sides thrusting sippy-cups in their faces. They carry wipies everywhere they go and remembered to call ahead for their children’s parties, which are now set up at long tables in the adjacent room (and not, like her daughter’s, in crammed booths by the games), and where their children watch as fuzzy mechanical robots jerk their arms and turn their startling faces to the right and left to stripped-down and abridged versions of last year’s pop songs, and where Chuck E. first emerges from his mouse hole to mingle with the children.

She should, she thinks, tell her daughter to ask these mothers her question. They look like women with answers.

The birthday girl pops out of the bottom of one of the slide tubes, spies an older cousin, and follows her back up the climber.

The birthday girl’s mother knows that she cannot continue to stand here, alone amid the darting children, that she must return to the adults, that she must smile. But she feels a headache coming on. The colors, the noise, the kids. It is like too many exclamation points. Why, she suddenly, or perhaps constantly, wonders, hadn’t her own wishes come true? On what had it all depended? How had she ended up in this unfamiliar, even unreal, life? She hadn’t, like her daughter, wished to be a mermaid. She had not wished for the impossible.

Strange, she thinks, how the Little Mermaid—the real Little Mermaid—fell in love with the prince and longed to be a human with an immortal soul. But the poor creature—half-human, half-fish—ended up neither on land nor sea, but in the air. She became a Daughter of the Air, dependent, for her immortal soul, upon (of all things) the deeds of children. A child’s good deed would bring her to heaven one day sooner. But a bad deed would add a day to her mortal trials.

Perhaps this is what happens to all wishes: some partial rendering, some unnatural transformation. It might explain her being here now.

Her eyes begin to burn, and everything starts to look like it’s underwater, like a coral reef, where everything fits perfectly into a system—a school of fish here, a colorful rock there—except her. She was not made for this environment. She cannot breathe here.

But she will not cry. Not about her in-laws (and certainly not in front of them) or about the other mothers or about the birthday girl’s father (who had always and simply been wrong), or about the possibility that this life might be all her soul ever knows.

 

She feels her daughter’s arms around her neck, pressed against the base of her hair, feels the gentle puff of her daughter’s breath against her check, and she feels herself being lifted, up and away.

 

Suddenly Chuck E. is in the main room, and there is the birthday girl hugging and then staring at the six-foot tall smiling mouse, mesmerized. Unable to capture the moment with a photo, the birthday girl’s mother kicks herself for forgetting the film and candles (and everything else she has forgotten and will forget to do as a mother), and prays that Chuck. E., who is rubbing and patting her daughter’s back, is not really a pervert pretending to be a mouse (just as she is a—what?—pretending to be a mother), and she considers, for a moment, whether it would be better to tell her daughter, who will soon make another wish upon her birthday candles, that Chuck E. and his world of tickets and prizes are not real, that this world of people gathering to celebrate her and her birthday is not really how the world is or ever will be again. But then she looks around at the chaos of colors and shapes, and bends down, spreading her arms like wings, to receive her daughter who has come to hug her and to gush about Chuck E., and she feels her daughter’s arms around her neck, pressed against the base of her hair, feels the gentle puff of her daughter’s breath against her check, and she feels herself being lifted, up and away. When she moves her legs, she finds herself floating up faster, effortlessly, as if through water. She does not touch the ceiling, and yet she is past it, in the air, where she can breathe again. She is flying, outstretched, like a gull above the sea. She calls down to her daughter—and it comes out a song.

“Be good,” she cries, for she knows her soul will depend upon it.

This story comes from the author’s new book, For Sale By Owner, published by Kore Press and reprinted here with their permission.


READ MORE

Listen to Kelcey Parker read this short story. [gn_media url=”https://www.iusb.edu/clas/currents/parker_mermaids.mp3″ | height=”100″] Links to more of Kelcey Parker’s work:

Follow Kelcey Parker’s interview series, “How to Become a Writer”

Revisit the original Hans Christen Andersen mermaid tale.

Mermaids aren’t real, are they? After the viral spread of a video spoof, NOAA releases a definitive statement.

 

Kelcey Parker is an English professor and fiction writer, which means she makes things up for a living.

 

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