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One day, something unexpected washed up on the beach of a tropical country, a young woman with the tail of a fish. Her hair was pale green and resembled seaweed. Her skin was as luminous as the delicate inner skin of a living shell.

Some children found her lying as if lifeless upon the sand.

“What shall we do with her?” the children wondered. And then, in the way of children, they decided to take her home. Perhaps they could keep her in the bathtub.

When they lifted the mermaid, they found her surprisingly light. She wasn’t at all slimy to the touch, but only damp and cool, like a flower petal before dawn. One of the children was a little boy, and he fell in love with her immediately.

But as they carried her in the direction of home, a bizarre thing happened. The mermaid began to fade until she disappeared altogether.

The children gaped at each other. They didn’t know that mermaids sometimes like to enter the souls of men, to live in the world and understand its ways. Sensing the boy’s love, she’d seized her chance, abandoned her concrete form and slipped into his body. Her green eyes shone in the eyes of the boy, whose face had subtly changed.

“Why do you look so sad?” asked his sister. “Is it because our mermaid vanished?”

“I suppose so,” answered the boy, though he wasn’t sure. “She was lovely, wasn’t she? No one will believe we really saw her.”

The third child in the group, his sister’s friend, suggested they form a secret society composed of those who had seen the mermaid. They could meet in the old shack by the ravine. This idea was unanimously approved.

But many miles away and fathoms deep, all was not well. For the lost mermaid was the daughter of the great mer-king of the Pacific region. He was very angry and very worried when he found the note she’d propped against a shell. That normally calm ocean seethed with unquiet currents.

The king’s advisors tried to calm him.

“She will return,” they said in soothing tones, moving their long, elegant tails to and fro. She will soon realize the absurdity of human life and come back to us. We are, after all, the more developed species.”

The king frowned. Knowing his daughter, he wasn’t sure. From an early age, she’d been intrigued by humans. Instead of absorbing ancient wisdom from the oracle of the coral cave, she would wander on the surface of the waves, seeking ships and spying on the sailors.

And now her fascination with that race had drawn her to the shore, right into the midst of human life. But how could she exist in the world of men? The tail which propelled her gracefully beneath the waves was a monstrous encumbrance on dry land. She breathed through fish-like gills. She couldn’t possibly survive outside the sea. Unless of course, she found a human host and lived within him. The mer-king pushed away that unwelcome thought.

Meanwhile, the mer-princess was settling down inside the body of the little boy. It was not an easy transition. For mermen are born as spirits, they excrete their physical substance gradually. Even when fully developed, their bodies are delicate and insubstantial. Within the mer-realm it isn’t unusual to see gliding about ghostly mer-children who hadn’t yet fully materialized. So the flesh of the human child – dense, heavy, and pungent – felt like a prison to the mermaid.

But there were compensations. The earth was beautiful, the boy sensitive and passionate. To share his emotions and perceptions was exciting. The great variety of experiences somewhat neutralized the sense of bondage: bicycle rides, cuddling a new puppy, running bare-headed through the rain, licking cold, sweet ice cream in the summer. As time went on, the mermaid suffered from loneliness more than from lack of freedom. She wished she could speak to the boy, reveal her presence, but she was afraid. To love an exotic mermaid flung upon the sand was very different from hosting an alien creature within his body. So she kept silent.

Then, one day, the boy fell ill. A malignant virus invaded his system and began to prey on him, wounding and destroying.

The mermaid felt desperately unhappy. She wouldn’t die together with the boy. Her spirit would return to the sea. But she’d grown fond of him. There was still so much to experience, to explore.

The mermaid determined to fight. Though only a girl and limited in her powers, she was still a creature of the infinite sea and no earthly virus could withstand her. She fought the illness in organ after organ. Slowly, painfully, the boy recovered.

But the mermaid’s victory was marred by bitter losses. The boy would never be the same again. He’d been left a cripple, clumsy and disfigured. He tried to re-enter the carefree world of childhood, but was treated as an intruder there. Children he’d once played with ridiculed him. Adults were even worse. He hated the false smiles and careful kindness that hid their revulsion.

With each passing year, he sank deeper into apathy and despair. He lived at home, cared for by his parents. After some time, he learned a monotonous skill that brought in a small income and passed the tedious hours of the day. Strong medication provided a few hours of uneasy sleep.

Needless to say, the mermaid’s life had also become stifling and narrow. For the boy’s sake, she endured. But finally she felt she couldn’t bear another moment of sadness and isolation. Surely a mermaid who’d conquered a death virus could instill a little hope in the heart of a mortal.

One morning, a little after waking, she greeted the youth in her most melodious voice. The young man looked around.

“No, no,” said the charming voice, “not there…in here. I’m the lost mermaid. Do you remember me?”

The young man smiled scornfully to himself. What a strange daydream he was having. He didn’t remember at first, but presently the scene returned in all its vividness: clear water, a sunlit beach, a lovely, implausible creature they had carried. What a precious day of childhood that had been.

“I remember,” he said in a low voice, embarrassed to be talking to himself.

“I saved your life, you know,” said the mermaid, “it was I who fought the virus that attacked you.”

“You saved my life?” exclaimed the man, “I wish you hadn’t!”

The mermaid frowned. “That is the illness speaking. I could not rob it of all its power, for it was very strong. But I and the eternal world are stronger.”

“The eternal world?” scoffed the man. His lips twisted in a bitter smile. “I don’t believe in heaven. That’s for babies.”

“I’m not talking about heaven,” said the mermaid.

The young man shook his head, trying to clear it of that odd, enchanting voice.

“There’s just this world,” he murmured, “and it’s a rotten one.”

“You believe only in what you see, in what you touch?” the mermaid teased. “Then what am I?”

The man smiled slyly. “A mirage, I suppose. A delusion. The loneliness is getting on my nerves.”

The mermaid laughed. “On mine, too,” she declared. “I want to see nature, sunlight, people. I’m tired of this room. Take me out.”

To his astonishment, the man was tempted. He hoisted himself laboriously from his chair. Seizing his cane, he limped across the room and climbed downstairs. His sister who was sitting on the couch bouncing her youngest child on her knees was shocked into speechlessness. She stared, gaping, as he struggled towards the door.

The cripple made lurching progress down the street. It was a cool fall day. Torn leaves adhered to his shoes and walking stick. A group of young people passed, laughing and jostling one another. The man gazed hungrily at their strong bodies, their animated faces.

“You think they’re lucky, I suppose,” said the mermaid gently.

The man shrugged.

“Yes, perhaps they are,” conceded the mermaid. “But so are you.”

“Oh yes, I’m very lucky,” said the man, slumping wearily against a tree. He sniffed the air. It was filled with a sweet, revolting smell.

“Is that the eternal world?” he said harshly, pointing to a dead cat on the road. Flies buzzed on the remains.

The mermaid frowned. “Despair is seductive, though it has so few consolations.”

“I suppose that means you’re angry,” said the man. “I’ll just go home and this fantasy will end.”

“Oh, no,” the mermaid said, “I didn’t save your life so it could be wasted. Come, let’s go on.”

They walked, and the mermaid spoke. She described the wonders of life beneath the sea. The man became more and more engrossed. He recalled the mermaid’s beauty and felt himself falling in love with her again.

“I wish I could live in your world,” he said softly, “just as you live in mine. I wouldn’t need to walk there.” His eyes brightened. “Is it the eternal world?”

“No,” laughed the mermaid, “it is only different. We have wisdom humans may never acquire, though you have more developed technology.”

“Yes, like the atom bomb,” said the youth. “How can you speak of the eternal world when very soon nothing may exist?”

“Oh, how immodest,” reproached the mermaid. “Men may destroy the earth, but they cannot destroy all of creation.”

“Are other planets the eternal world?”

The mermaid shook her head. “Other planets are merely distant and unfamiliar.”

Restlessness seized the man. He hadn’t felt so curious in years.

“You must show me the eternal world.”

“That will take some time,” the mermaid said, “but we can begin. Push your hand deep into your pocket and show me what you find.”

The young man did as the mermaid asked and pulled out a scrap of creased and yellowed paper. To his surprise, he saw it was a poem he’d written years before.

“Read it to me,” said the mermaid.

As the young man read, his voice grew soft. “It’s lovely,” he murmured. “A child’s vision of nature, a fantasy.”

“A child’s vision,” said the mermaid, “but not a fantasy.” She stretched a hand out. “Will you trust me?”

The young man stiffened. He really trusted no one. The day had grown dark. The wind was colder. People walked by quickly, eyes averted. A cruel race. A race that had hurt him. The mermaid sensed his thoughts. “One day, you may forgive them,” she said softly.

The youth smiled. Having a friend made him feel a little better, someone who seemed to know him, who understood.

A shaft of pale sunlight broke through the clouds. The young man felt its warmth. Like the most modest flower that shared his planet, he leaned towards the light.


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