The Mermaid By Jean Sheppard

*Featured Artwork: “Wandering Eye” by Nadia Ahmed; mixed media: pencil, pen, watercolors and oil paint.

So I see my mother wearing her good navy crepe dress and the navy crepe pillbox hat with the black netting, her hair in a tidy bun at her neck. She has an inexpensive strand of pearls around her neck and clip-on earrings that match. I see her click open her purse, take out her compact, and powder her nose. She puts on lipstick, a bold red that belies the primness of the dress, and blots her lips on a tissue she folds and puts neatly back in her purse. Then she clicks her purse closed, sets it on her lap and prepares to wait. She will not make a fuss. Even at fifty, she is a good girl, but above all she is a lady—even though she is sitting on the kitchen floor.

Of course, it could not have been that way. My mother was in her eighties when, still living alone, she fell in the kitchen of her house and could not get up. She stayed on that linoleum floor for two days until her sweet and practical papergirl alerted the police. I was many miles away when I learned my mother had been taken to the hospital and then released. When I phoned, it was clear she preferred not to think about it. “How are you?” she asked.

So I have let my mind glance off reality. I have imagined her dressed for church and utterly composed. If I were to picture how it really was, the floor would open, and grief would fang its way out.

Yet now is the time. Ten years after her death I understand that now is the time to try to understand: I need to see her more clearly, not as the mother who ended up folded in on herself in a wheelchair but as a person in her own right, separate from me. I thought I had done that a decade ago, just as I thought I could really imagine what it would be like to watch my youth vanish around a very sharp corner.

When my mother was my age, she and my father had raised a family of five. I am the postscript, separated from my youngest brother by six years. When I think of my childhood, I see her in the kitchen, at the sink scrubbing potatoes or peering into the fridge as she puzzles out the next meal. There was not much money, but there was always tasty food, bright green celery with bright orange Cheez Whiz, salt-dappled, crinkle-cut carrots. There was roast beef on Sunday, and cherry cheesecake.

I do not know what she thought as she cooked or baked or washed. Hers was not a generation prone to self reflection, was, in fact, rather puzzled by the idea that one could change how one felt by talking about what happened. When her children left home and her husband died, however, she must have talked to herself a lot, must have smiled at a silly joke, pursed her lips over a careless word or a delinquent memory. I know she bit her tongue. A lot. She was a lady. She wore pillbox hats.

For those two days, however, the kitchen routines stopped. What caused her fall? How did it feel? There must have been the first astonishment. How did I get down here? There must have been attempts to get up, and frustration when she couldn’t. No doubt there was pain. Did she descend into dream? into nightmare? Did she collapse like a telescope to take up less space, be less real? Did she whimper, call out for Daddy?

I sit here in a big comfortable chair with a blanket over my legs, my fingers hovering over a keyboard. What it was like for her I can only imagine. I can only imagine, but to do that, I must fall too.

* * * * *

I am belly down on rocky ground, my cheek etched with grit. My breath comes in gasps.  Light is surrendering to dark. The cupboards above are ghostly cliffs. To my side, the fridge and stove gleam implacable white. I am on the edge of a shuddering sea, and frightened. I cannot make out my mother, but I can feel her. I know she is stranded far along this shore. I must bring her back.

I brush myself off and head towards where I dream she is. I encounter sandy beach and pulsing waves, but I must also clamber over slippery rocks and wade around squat boulders at the base of cliffs that claim the shore. I am not at home in the water, and my mother is not safe. She could be claimed by the sea.

Sand. Rock. Water. Sand. Rock. Water. Only after I have been forced waist deep into the sea to get by a boulder do I glimpse her on the shore ahead of me. To my dismay, I cannot go past the water’s edge. Something makes me wait. I am shivering, shuddering.

She is lying on her side, her body lost to shadow. I do see her face, luminous but drawn. Her eyes are closed, her hands clenched at her mouth. Her bun has come down, and her pillbox hat clings to her head by a hope. In the half light, I see blood thread down her cheek.

Mom, I say. Mom. I am here. My voice is dry, cracks.

She opens her eyes, raises her head and then drops it. It is you, she says, her words a wisp of sound. Please come no closer.

I hear her pride, her desire to spare me. Tell me what you need, I say. Tell me what you want.

I cannot feel my legs. The air trembles. The tide will take me.

There is fear in her voice, and exhaustion, but something else too. I hear a hint of excitement, but how can that be? My mother wears pillbox hats. I have never seen her in the water, and we have lived on parched land so long we breathe iron and chrome. I have marveled at the sea’s sky-blue beauty, wondered at its treasures, and I can almost imagine what it is like to pitch and dive, to nuzzle the ocean floor, but even with its sharp stones and grit, even with fierce winds and hard rain, the shore is safer than the depths of the sea. We do not belong in the sea.

My breath is raspy. What should I do? Can the power of a wish bring her back with me?

We are silent a long time. She has not the strength, and I have not the words, but for me the silence is not empty. It is full of memories of her sweet smiles, of love’s patient, tender offices, cool cloths in a fevered night, simple food that said ‘I love you,’ simple devotion. I can hear with a clarity I have never had before.

Only when the moon rises do I see it, see her—the glint of silver and then green and silver, the flash of scales. Only then do I know: my mother is a mermaid, and she is stranded on dry land, on linoleum squares. My mother is a mermaid who fears the sea her heart longs for.

And when I see her, when I really see her, whatever has held me at the water’s edge lets go, and I hasten to her side. By the moon’s light, I unpin her hat, touch her cheek. What shall I do? I ask.

She does not move, then, but she does find that smile, the one that always soothed me. I must stay here. It is not yet time.

I swallow to keep to tamp down despair. When I lean over to kiss her, to coax her back, I feel her hand on my cheek, but suddenly I am in my chair in my living room, wool warm, and she has been gone ten years. My tears taste of salt.

* * * * *

After her fall, she lived quietly by herself, by choice, until she took the next fall and could not stay on her own. I know that when she lost her home she lost her mind and, an afghan over her legs, babbled and rocked in a wheelchair for years in a place that could never be home, hands clenched on metal arms, hands clenched in her lap, at her mouth. But I also know that at the end, under white sheets in a pale room, her shorn hair white on a white pillow—I do know that at the end her hands softened, opened, and, palms up, she slipped back without a sound into the sea’s embrace. And I see her when I imagine crystal waters under a brilliant sun, when I imagine the diamond flick of a bright silver tail, when I lift the blanket from my legs and dream.

END

Contributors:

Nadia received a BA in English from Northeastern University in 2015. She received an MSc in Comparative Literature in 2018. Her work has been published in Into the Void Magazine and Inciting Sparks. Nadia currently lives in northern California.

Jean Sheppard is a writer, editor and educator living in Toronto, Canada. Find her at: jeansheppard.com,.

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