It must have happened to our mothers, and their mothers before them, but still, it stunned us, when we first noticed the wisps of hair at our temples going gray. We looked around and called for our mothers, wanting to ask them a question, but found ourselves alone.
The sailors never tell these stories. To them, we are only glimpses of some fantastic mystery, all youth and beauty. For a time, we must have believed them.
We hope our daughters will see our kind as something more than the myths humans build up around us. What are they to us anyway, we ask them, these men who scoop up the ocean in their ropes, dragging whole schools of fish out of the water for food?
We once thought we could keep our daughters from them, fearful as they were when they first saw a family of mackerel snatched up and drawn to the surface. But they learned the stories, they know the way the sailors seek us out, not to catch us, but just to gaze. They feel the tug of that power, like a current.
We recall our own youth, remind ourselves of the first time we saw our wooden likeness carved into a ship, the fins at the prow grazing the water and parting the ocean for them. No wonder the young ones watch this and feel strong enough to chase the ships, arching out of the water like they might take flight, airborne just long enough that the men might see a flicker of them, before the splash.
We must admit that we, too, once found them fascinating, the men on those great hulks floating at the surface. We rose from the oceans at night and saw the lights of ships at rest, the portholes glowing like a row of suns. In the dark, we could get close, peer inside and see them in the candlelight. We watched them at their bolted tables, drinking mugs of froth and foam, and in their beds of rope strung from the walls, so similar to the nets they used to draw whole schools of fish from the water during the day.
If there were women, we watched them too. Maybe, in the same the way men tell stories about us, we ascribed something special to the women; we saw them so rarely they might have been mirages. But then, we tell our daughters, we saw what the men did to them. Once they’ve seen it enough, we reassure each other, they’ll stop going to the surface.
It’s not that we’re afraid of them. They won’t have our daughters; we know they’ll never split us down the middle the way they do with their women. In the water where everything floats, we never have to lie down, and this, too, is a kind of power.
But for us, the allure of open air is gone, and what sailors would want to see us anyway? Our hair, still long but the color of a dank storm sky, our skin ghostly pale. Even our breasts have shriveled and show wrinkles, and we’ve begun to wonder why we ever needed these cracked-open clamshells to conceal them in the first place. If we dress at all anymore, we prefer to wrap ourselves in swaths of seaweed, covering our stomachs where the skin goes soft and spills over that secret spot at our hips where we fade into scales.
These days, we gather together at the bottom of the sea, away from our daughters. We watch the movement of the ocean floor, and we know where to go when our time is over so that the water will quickly pull the sands across our bodies. The younger ones won’t come this way, enamored as they are with the surface, and they too will be surprised when it happens to them.
Perhaps it still surprises us. Sometimes, we still look beautiful in this ethereal light, our hair floating in slow motion like a fog. From certain angles, a sailor might even believe that these gray hairs are strands of silver, shimmering like something precious.
There’s no chance of being spotted in these depths, but some nights we wonder what the sailors would say about us now. Would they understand us, would they feel compassion, if they saw that we, too, are mortal? Or would they turn cold and bitter if they saw that even the creatures of imagination might grow old and wither?
We have spent too many of our thoughts on these men.
This is what we tell the young ones as they flit across the sea, stirring up so much sand as they chase ships. Still, we let them go, watch them from below as they flash themselves like tricks of light at the surface, their scales mirroring the sunlight. We haven’t forgotten that wooden mermaid at the prow, how she looked like she was flying when she cut the water with the tips of her fin, head high in the open air. The carved swirls of hair, thick as rope, the scales carefully notched along her body. How solid she looked.
Far below the surface, we’ll shroud ourselves in seaweed. When it’s over, the smallest fish will nibble our skin and fins down their delicate bones, and there will be nothing left to prove we ever grew old. We’ll be another piece of ocean, the seabed shifting to cover our remains, and if any of our scales surface and catch the faint light that finds its way to the bottom, they’ll only look like the glint of a sunken coin. A lost bit of treasure from some other sailor’s story, something extraordinary and just as unbelievable.
Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Nimrod, Jellyfish Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and other journals, as well as the anthology Short-Form Creative Writing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival.