"On Golden Sands"
The mermaid washed ashore on a Sunday. Bridget was only aware of this because she had the time to comb the beach at all, as she had the day before. She might have assumed that she would have been excited about such a discovery, but in the situation’s reality a sort of businesslike efficiency took over. She lifted the creature from the shore, laid it over her lap, and wheeled her special beach chair off towards the house with what amounted to a perfectly calm speed.
“You won’t believe what I found,” Bridget said as she entered the house. Coco was reading, as she so often did in her rare fits of free time, sitting on the couch in the living room. They had come to live by the beach to suit Bridget’s career, but Coco was quite a fan of oceanside living. It had been a serendipitous, mutual decision, as many of their decisions in married life had been.
“I can see it from here!” Coco said, peering from the couch. “My, you might want to get her in the tank quickly. Did you pluck her from the ocean?”
Bridget gave a bit of a cackle, wheeling herself over to the small elevator that took her to the basement. “Very funny,” she said, carefully balancing the mermaid so she didn’t slip from its precarious placement on her lap. “She was beached. Just laying right there in the sand.”
“Poor thing,” Coco said as she put down her book. “Hope she’s alright.”
“Ah, she will be,” Bridget said dismissively, configuring her chair into the elevator. “Merfolk can sustain themselves for a good while on land. It’s how they got to be so humanlike. And more importantly, I’ll have something to write my next paper on.”
Coco watched as Bridget lowered the elevator down to the basement, where much of her work was done. The walls were lined with tanks of various water levels, fishes big and small swimming about. The largest tank sat in the corner, the only place where it could really fit in the admittedly limited space.
“Can you give me a hand, baby?” Bridget said, wheeling herself beside the tank. Coco came down the short staircase and helped her wife lift the mermaid out of her lap and gingerly into the tank. The mermaid splashed down gracefully, lolling in the water with its eyes shut as if in sleep.
“Beautiful girl,” Bridget remarked, wheeling back to take a better look at the creature’s full form. “Bet some of those assholes down at the lab will be real jealous of this one.”
“I just hope she’s going to be okay,” Coco said. “Did you check to see if she was breathing?”
“Nope. But it should be fine. If not, I’ll take care of the disposal.”
They stood there, watching the creature float in the tank with its special water temperatures and careful maintenance that Bridget held in high importance. Bridget smiled away at the sight, eagerly anticipating the discoveries that would no doubt come of it.
The mermaid slept for one day, and woke up halfway through the second. Bridget had nearly forgotten about her, eating lunch in the basement and toiling over her desk examining some notes about snappers. The only reason she noticed was the sound of water suddenly sloshing about behind her, and Bridget turned to find the creature halfway out of the tank, leaning over and staring at her.
“Ah,” Bridget said, wheeling away from her desk, “you’re finally up.”
“I’m Thessa,” said the mermaid. “Are you my rescuer?”
“You could say that,” answered Bridget, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I assumed you were beached, so I got you into some water."
“Ah. Then we must wed.”
Bridget’s eyebrows raised, but the shock of this declaration didn’t go beyond that. Instead, she wheeled herself over to the tank and got a good look at the girl. Her eyes were big and black, and scales rippled up and down her body. Her fingers were long and clawed at the end, and a slick, dark mop of what looked to be hair was on her head. It was a standard mermaid, not unlike the kinds that Bridget had heard discussed at exhibitions and symposiums. But this one was in her basement, able to speak to her.
“Well,” Bridget said, “I have some bad news for you. I’m already betrothed.”
Thessa pouted, if one with so little in the way of lips could pout. “Well, that won’t do,” she said. “It is the nature of these things, you see. When one of my kind is rescued from the shores by a human, we are bonded for life in love. We really must wed.”
“Not gonna happen,” said Bridget. “What do you eat? Anchovies? Krill?”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“No,” Bridget said, “I’m helping you accept that I don’t adhere to merfolk rules. And trying to keep you from starving. You haven’t eaten in two days. Maybe more, I don’t know.”
Instead of answering, Thessa submerged herself in the water once again, staring out at Bridget through the thick glass of the tank. She pressed a clawed hand up, eyeing her with something that looked like defiance.
“A hunger strike, eh?” said Bridget, wheeling back to take in the sight of her. “Well, that’s fine. I’m not marrying a fish. But you, my friend, will have to eat at some point if you want to keep kicking. So let’s see how long it lasts.”
It didn’t last long. After a matter of hours, Thessa had sheepishly informed Bridget of the seafood medley that made up her diet, and Bridget made a trip down to the local shops to find what was needed to sustain her new fish fiancee. By the time she returned, Coco was home and in the basement getting a look at their guest.
“So you must be from very far away,” Coco said.
“Oh, yes,” said Thessa with a nod. “I come from the shores of Greece. In truth, that’s my home. I only ended up here through a lot of swimming. I’m actually a distant relative of Poseidon, you see.”
“Sure you are,” said Bridget, unloading a bag of raw shrimp onto a table.
“I am!” Thessa said. “I can’t remember the exact lineage, but all merfolk in that part of the world are.”
“Well, either way, I’ve got your dinner,” said Bridget, getting the shrimp into a bowl. “I hope that you two have been having a nice chat. You know that she’s trying to break up our marriage, right?”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said Coco. “She’s a nice girl.”
“She’s a fish,” Bridget said. “One that hasn’t eaten in days. Here, hand this off to her.”
Coco took the bowl and lifted it to Thessa, who grabbed it a bit too quickly for someone who had been rejecting a meal by choice earlier. She began to eat the shrimp whole, tails included, and surveyed her new human companions. Bridget didn’t take notice, instead using the brief respite as a moment to light a cigarette.
“Those things are awful for you,” Thessa said through a mouthful of shrimp.
“So’s talking while you’re eating,” countered Bridget. “Don’t see me telling you off.”
“We see them all the time in the ocean,” Thessa said, unabated. “Cigarette butts for miles, clogging up our water. You know, the water that we breathe.”
Bridget wheeled over to the desk, cigarette still between her lips, and took out her notebook. She poised her pen over the nearest sheet of paper, in an empty space between some illustrations and shopping list items.
“Would you say that pollution is a big issue for your species?”
More shrimp munching. “Isn’t it an issue for yours?”
“Honestly, Bridge, she’s eating,” Coco said. “Let her have a minute before you go into ichthyologist mode.”
“I’m always in ichthyologist mode,” said Bridget. “It’s my job.”
“It’s a shame that your wife wasn’t the one who rescued me,” said Thessa, picking a bit of shrimp from her long, sharp teeth. “She’s quite a wonderful woman. I’d much prefer to have to marry her.”
“Do you see what I mean?” Bridget said, pointing her pen at Thessa. “A homewrecker.”
Coco frowned. “Oh, Bridget.”
“This is only a temporary measure,” said Bridget, lifting Thessa into the bathtub. “I have to keep the tanks clean. Can’t have you swimming around in dirt and getting sick.”
“It’s awfully snug in here,” Thessa said, trying to get a feel for her new space. “I’m just glad I won’t have to stay in here when we’re married.”
“I keep telling you, that’s not going to happen,” Bridget said, lighting up another cigarette.
“You’ll have to quit those, too,” said Thessa. “You know, for health reasons.”
“Now you’re really living in a fantasy world,” Bridget said, wheeling back from the tub and taking a drag. “Isn’t marrying a human difficult anyway? What happens if you get rescued by someone who doesn’t have a tank in their basement?”
Thessa smiled, leaning over the rim of the tub. “Oh, no. It’s so much more lovely than that. We have two options: be rescued by a human, like I did, or fall in love with one and have it returned. When we’re partnered with a human, we become like them. Legs and breathing air and all that.”
“Huh,” said Bridget. "I always thought that was a myth."
“Not at all!" said Thessa, “My cousin Hali. Oh, what happened to him. He found a lovely man off the shores of the northeast. They’re living together now, in a cozy little cottage. It’s like a dream. I’m just glad it’s my turn.”
“Again,” Bridget said, “not going to happen. I’m not divorcing my wife, who I love, just to get you a pair of legs. This isn’t a cartoon. I’m going to do a bit of studying while you recover, figure out some stuff about your life, and send you back to the ocean.”
“Send me back?” Thessa said.
“Yes,” said Bridget. “You’re smarter than the average fish, and I’m not in the business of keeping prisoners. Besides, I need the tank.”
Thessa looked dejected, her big eyes crinkled with distaste, but she didn’t say anything more of it. Instead, she adjusted herself in the tub, careful not to let any of it spill out. Her and Bridget were in something of a standoff, silence falling between them as neither knew quite what to say.
“Can I ask you something?” Bridget said finally. “Why can’t you marry another merperson?”
Thessa frowned. “Oh, I couldn’t do that. Merfolk aren’t meant to mate with each other.”
Thessa seemed to think on it for a moment, her black eyes wandering upward as she mused. “I don’t know. It’s just the way that things are, I suppose.”
“Hm.” Smoke puffed toward the ceiling. “You ever think about doing it?”
Thessa was silent for a moment, but then the answer came out in a voice that seemed distinctly small: “Sometimes.”
Bridget said nothing, just allowed the smoke to keep flowing upward and eyed Thessa with something that might have been curiosity if it had come from a slightly more virginal brow. The water sloshed idly as Thessa moved within it, and Bridget made no fuss when it splashed over the edge and onto the bathroom tile.
“There was this one mermaid,” she said. “I met here, on these shores. We spent time together, swimming along the coast and dreaming of the day when we made it to the land, grew our legs. But I quite like her the way she is, you see.”
“Mm,” grunted Bridget. “So why not marry someone like her instead?”
Thessa’s mouth twisted a bit, as if it struggled to form a proper answer. Finally, it settled upon one: “That’s just not how things are done.”
Thessa was quite helpful in terms of being observed. She was quite happy to supply Bridget with a wealth of information about where she lived, how she lived, that sort of thing. This had all been predicated on the assumption that, somehow, despite her many eager rejections, Bridget would come around to the whole marry-a-mermaid thing. Bridget, while pestered by these many daily proposals, was a scientist above all else, and would take the opportunity to get her work done however it presented itself.
“I think you’re being a bit too clinical,” said Coco over dinner one day. They were seated across from each other at their small kitchen table, the same way they had nearly every night that they had spent together in married life.
“I believe that’s my job,” Bridget said between large sips of wine. “I didn’t go to school for nothing.”
“Oh, Bridget,” said Coco, watching her from across the table, “think of the poor girl. She washed up on the beach, she’s far from home. I know she’s a fish, but she has feelings. I think you need to have a little more warmth.”
Bridget put down her glass, giving her wife a firm stare. “Baby, she wants me to marry her. I think we both know that’s out of the question.”
“I know,” said Coco, “but that’s just how she was raised. And I would imagine that you of all people would know that sometimes you’re raised to think a certain way.”
Bridget wrinkled her nose. “What?”
“Your mother, darling,” said Coco. “She still won’t even take our calls. She always called me your ‘roommate.’ And we both know she’s not changing anytime soon. I would imagine that next to that, a little bit of merfolk custom is nothing to be so sour about.”
“I don’t think this is quite the same,” said Bridget tartly. “I mean, humans are humans. Biologically, merfolk are still fish. Why should I have to entertain her ideas about what I’m supposed to do? Especially when her idea is getting in the way of our marriage?”
“She doesn’t mean anything by it, Bridge,” Coco said. “She doesn’t mean any harm. She’s just doing what she was raised to do. And whether she’s a fish or not, you and I both know that she’s not just another one of your minnows or flounders. And the poor thing is stuck here by herself, far from everything she’s ever known. Try to have a little compassion.”
“Bridget, listen. You and I both know that there’s more to life than graphs and charts. Sometimes you have to have a little heart.” She paused, looking her wife in the eye. “And I know that the truth is, deep down, you’re better than that.”
Bridget swallowed, staring back at her wife for a moment. There was a few seconds of quiet, filled only by typical dinner sounds as Coco went about eating, allowing some time for her words to sink in. Finally, Bridget let out a sigh.
“Oh, Coco,” she said. “How is it that after all these years you still always find a way to soften me up?”
A smile found its way onto Coco’s face, and she shrugged. “Just my gift, I guess.”
Bridget lifted up her wine glass. “To my wife,” she said, “who after all my studying, shows me that I always have a few things left to learn.”
“Well, Thessa, today’s the day.”
“What day?” asked Thessa, peering at Bridget through the glass. The water garbled her words just a bit, but not enough to make it indecipherable. Bridget had gotten used to it by that point, anyway.
“The day that I send you home,” said Bridget. “I’ve got more than enough information about mermaids to write a nice little paper that I’m sure will impress all the dicks who look down on me at work. So I’m bringing you back to the ocean.”
Bridget wasn’t sure how she imagined Thessa would react, but the contemplative silence that ensued still seemed to surprise her. Thessa cast her eyes downward, seeming to mull over the situation that she had just been presented with.
“So you meant it,” said Thessa dolefully. “You really won’t let me marry you.”
Bridget opened her mouth, ready to hit back with a cutting remark about just how many times she’d turned Thessa down over the past few weeks. But instead, she thought of Coco, and the words that she did say came out quite sympathetic: “I’m sorry. But I can’t.”
Thessa looked back up, her black eyes meeting Bridget’s through the glass. Bridget thought she might have just been seeing things, but she thought that she saw something like inky tears trickling out.
“I understand,” said Thessa. “I’ll go back.”
Bridget rolled her way out to the shore early in the morning, when the sun had barely risen past the horizon. Thessa was in her lap again, this time with her arms linked around Bridget’s neck to keep her balance.
“What do you think you’ll do when you go back?” Bridget said as they approached the cresting waves, foaming over the sand. Thessa stared out at her home.
“Start over,” she said.
Bridget carefully wheeled her chair out to the shoreline, stopping just short of the waves.
“Do you think you can take care of yourself from here?” Bridget asked. Thessa looked at her, then the water, and nodded. Bridget took her into her arms and carefully lowered her down to the water’s edge. Thessa splayed out her fingers, crawling towards the seafoam. But before she could get too far, she stopped short and turned to look back at her rescuer.
“Bridget,” she said, “I never thanked you for rescuing me.”
Bridget waved her hand. “Ah, my motives weren’t entirely pure, anyway.”
Thessa’s mouth opened to say something, but then shut again. She smiled back at Bridget and crawled her way into the deeper depths of the water, until she was finally back in the brine. She submerged herself in the surf that she called home, allowing herself to feel the fact that she had missed the salt as it coursed over her body. She closed her eyes and took in home, starting over.
Bridget sat in her chair for a good while after she returned to the waves, watching out to see if she might come back, if she might need her help still. But no, Thessa was home. And soon, Bridget would be too, beside Coco. So much could change, and so much could stay the very same. But no matter what, the waves on the shore would continue to rise and fall.
Somewhere around a year after Thessa had returned home, Bridget attended one of her many conferences that told of advances and stories in the world of ichthyology. It had been all too typical, filled with the same old faces and the usual borderline braggadocious tales of great discoveries that would allegedly turn the entire field on its head.
Bridget wheeled through the convention center as she always did, saying hello to some and ignoring others. She found herself largely unimpressed by the big news of the day, not hearing word of anything that caught her attention. As the sun crossed the horizon and light dipped into darkness, and the conference began to wind down, a hum of a revelation began to course through the crowds.
Normally, Bridget might have been apt to ignore it. Hype usually implied something overblown in her subjective scientific opinion. But when word got around that this new encounter was about the lives of mermaids, her ear was admittedly bent in curiosity.
As many of the scientists began to filter out of the convention center for the night, Bridget managed to catch the professor whose name had been attached to this little discovery. He politely gave her the time of day, even bothering to exchange pleasantries about how Coco was doing back at the house.
After much beating around the bush, Bridget got to the crux of the issue: "So what is this I've been hearing around the horn about you and some merfolk?"
Bridget's colleague smiled wide at this, wide enough that his white teeth peeked out from behind his lips. Clearly, a big deal had been touched upon.
"Oh, you'd never believe it," he said. "Strangest thing. Merfolk have always been known for their desire to mate with humans like us. They even say some of them sprout legs for it. I don't believe all that tosh, but you know…"
"Uh-huh," said Bridget, eager to cut to the chase. "And what have you found?"
"Well," said the colleague with that same grin, "we've been seeing signs recently that merfolk are starting to mate with each other. It's quite sweet, really. I'm set to do a research trip in a few weeks where I can hopefully talk to some and get details. Isn't that something?"
Bridget stared at him for just a moment before speaking: "It sure is.”
Somewhere, Thessa was at home, swimming in the expanse of the sea. Bridget hoped, in her heart of hearts, that wherever in the world that happened to be, she wasn't swimming alone.
K.G. Delmare is a Brooklyn-born writer who loves game shows, vegan meat and good books. They're happy to be addressed with any pronouns as long as you're nice about it. They currently live in New York City with plenty of stray cats in their yard.