She left because the seas were getting colder and she’d heard of mermaids becoming trapped in ice and frozen over. She had never liked the cold and didn’t want to drown, so she decided to travel south, where it was warmer. Her family thought she was mad, but then, they always had. ‘Odd’ was what they called her, or ‘singular.’ They thought she spent too much time exploring and not enough time sitting on rocks brushing her hair. She was not sorry to leave them, and besides, she preferred her own company.
On her journey south there were new sea creatures to play with: she confused pods of dolphins by calling scrambled messages in sonar, brushed sea anemones so they closed in a huff, and was tickled by the fins of lionfish. She slept on white shores where the sand, unlike the prickly ice she had left behind, was cushioning. She followed frigate birds and albatross, holding fish up in her hand so the birds would swoop down, gusting her with their powerful wings.
Eventually, the sea became fickle and threw her against a pile of rocks. She was so tired she couldn’t move, and went to sleep.
When she woke, she found herself on a shore so bright she could barely see. Her hair was knotted around her body and scales flaked from her tail. Squinting, she made out stunted grass and thin, grey trees beyond. By no means did it seem a friendly country, but she was exhausted and the warmth of the water was appealing. So she stayed, swimming beside the beaches. She loved waking to the slap of a tide and birds’ cries from the bush. When the weather heated, shrubs lining the shore erupted with constellations of tiny white flowers. As the sun drew away into winter, she followed the land north and didn’t ever get cold.
Some time later, while she was teaching whale calves to leap in the ocean, she saw people with dark skin rowing in bark canoes. They sailed where the water permitted and carried their vessels where there was land to cross. When they came to the country where she lived, they travelled south. As they observed the land becoming hotter and drier instead of remaining moist with sea air, they put down their canoes and kept walking.
The mermaid didn’t mind their arrival, because a little company is always good, and soon she came to like them a great deal. They were clever people and she enjoyed the sound of their laughter as they sat by their fires at night. The men’s thin spears caught fish from the sea and the women’s fingers slipped into wet sand, drawing out shells. Their children loved water sprinkling upon their skin as they jumped through the shallows. Sometimes they saw the mermaid and waved, and she would play a trick of flicking water into their faces with her tail, then hiding herself deep in the sea. Slowly, she learnt their language, and they accepted her.
Over the thousands of years that they lived together, the mermaid noticed her skin gradually becoming darker, like theirs. She lost fat from her body because she no longer needed it for warmth, and her hair turned from gold to brown. She often wondered what her family would have thought of her if they saw her again. They would probably still call her ‘odd’ and ‘singular’.
One morning, while she was dozing on a rock, she saw a vessel like the ones the dark people had rowed in, but many times larger. It was topped with huge sheets catching the wind like wings. She swam up to investigate and found it encrusted with barnacles. It must have been travelling for a while, then. She looked up and was startled to find the figurehead was a carved, wooden mermaid, and that there were fair-skinned men upon the decks. She had become so used to seeing her dark friends that she’d forgotten about these other ones, who could have been her own people except they had legs and their language was not the same. She watched their muscles as they slung and worked the ropes and wondered if she could ask if things were still frozen in their part of the world. Then she saw him — that man at the helm with dark hair and a billowing white shirt — and her heartbeat disappeared.
She remembered her nanna, the only one who didn’t mind that she never brushed her hair. Her nanna would do it for her, with a tough comb carved out of a turtle’s back, and told stories as she brushed. One of these stories was about a mermaid who fell in love with a man and asked to have legs instead of a tail so she could walk with him. However, the old merwoman who gave her the legs took her voice in exchange, so even though the young woman with legs was very beautiful, the man couldn’t know her because she could not speak. Bereft, the young woman went back to the sea and drowned herself.
‘Never,’ warned her nanna, ‘go near a man.’
But, the mermaid thought as she followed the ship, watching as the sailor climbed the rigging and strode upon the decks with confidence, her nanna had never mentioned this desperation to be held by a man.
The ship dropped anchor and men leapt over the side, swimming to the shore. The mermaid swallowed as the man with the dark hair found his feet and strode across the tumbling waves, his shirt and trousers clinging to his body. Soon they were all fooling and tumbling in the shallows while an older man scratched on a dull, metal plate. When he was done with scratching he attached it to a plank of wood and banged it into the sand. Meanwhile, the men ran into the bush and shot wallabies for dinner.
The next morning, the mermaid swam close to the ship, hoping to see the man. There was a shout, then running, and suddenly he was beside the figurehead, raising a musket and firing at her. She was shocked. He lifted the gun again and she dived deep underwater, catching a current that carried her far away.
She headed south until the water turned chilly and froze into icebergs that edged through the sea. Occasionally they bumped into one another in a friendly way, but the din from their jostling was frightening. There were seals slipping through the water too. Sensing that the mermaid was sad, they raced her, or nipped her on the arm. The water was bitterly cold, but the mermaid bore it.
After watching the icebergs and the seals for a time, she began to feel happier and headed back to the familiar coasts of her country. She swam lazily in the bays and glided up the river with black swans. Sometimes she sat on the riverbank, her tail lost in thin green grass, casuarinas covering her with their hair while flocks of cockatoos blanketed the sun. If the dark-skinned people passed, their children would run to her, begging for a ride on her back in the river. Although she had learnt their language, she liked to speak to them in her old tongue because it made them drop to their knees with laughter.
She was dismayed to find that, in the wake of this ship came another, burdened with men and women who were haggard, their eyes dull. When they staggered from the boats that took them to shore, they tried to look cheerful. The mermaid felt sorry for them as they stared, as if stunned, at the mass of dry grass rising beyond the sand, the scraggly trees and unbearably bright sky. Then they stuck a flag into the soil and sang a dreadful song, so sombre it was like a dirge.
These people didn’t sail on, but stayed. The mermaid thought they would come to love the place as she had done and to live with it like the dark people. Instead they pulled down trees and built roads and huts, then houses of mud that they painted white. They released animals with fur that she recognised from her old home in the north. Some of them bred beyond control and upset the animals that lived among the grey trees. When the dark people became angry at the fair people’s deeds, they were killed. It was a sorry thing to do, the mermaid thought, hovering by the shore and flinching at gunshots in the bush. At length she swam away, disgusted that she could have admired one of the fair people at all.
She remained out in the ocean for a while, but it was lonely, with no one to speak to except an occasional passing whale and odd creatures near the ocean floor that grunted in monosyllables. She missed the company of the dark people and there were no children to play with. Eventually she visited some reefs, for the clownfish darting among the bright coral always cheered her, and she liked the quiet glow of phosphorescence and the haziness of haloclines. Sometimes she fell asleep on a rock and woke to find a turtle sunning himself beside her. She placed a hand on his shell, the warmth seeping through her fingers, and remembered her nanna brushing her hair.
Her body grew leaner still as she travelled, her tail a powerful wedge of muscle, her arms stringy with sinew, while her breasts became small and compact. She didn’t know where she was going, although she often felt as though she were swimming in circles, for she began to recognise the outlines of the coasts. It was at this time that she noticed the boats.
Some of them were large, rusting old hulks, and as she swam alongside them she heard people inside, rustling, talking and hushing their babies. Others were sloops with people huddled against one another, cold from the seawater that thrust itself at them spitefully. The mermaid watched their faces. Some were taut with fear, but in others she could see the blood beneath their skin glowing with hope, so they carried a red haze.
She stayed in that part of the ocean, trying to understand what they were doing. The people in the boats usually had dark skin, like hers, but where her hair was a gnarled rope, theirs was a black river. She wished, then, for her own comb to make her hair sleek.
Sometimes the bigger boats intercepted the smaller boats, and men standing rigidly on the decks barked at the dark-skinned people. They gathered up their sorry bundles and climbed onto the bigger ships and were taken away. At other times the dark people reached the shores of her country and collapsed, laying their cheek against the hot sand. Often, they cried.
One day, as the mermaid followed a creaking, clanking ship, a storm punched the vessel and it fell apart, scattering sheets of tin and people. The mermaid held her hands to her ears against the screaming. The waves were in such a strop they pushed everyone underwater to silence them.
Then the mermaid saw, amidst the maelstrom of thrashing arms and legs, a woman holding aloft a tiny baby. His skull was slick with dark hair and his caramel-coloured skin was tinged with blue. The woman snatched mouthfuls of air, but it wasn’t enough to keep them afloat.
The mermaid swam towards them and took the baby, clasping him awkwardly. His mother slipped below the surface and the mermaid grabbed her, but it was too late.
The baby’s heart fluttered as though a bird were trapped beneath his ribs. If she carried him to the nearest shore, he wouldn’t survive. The next best thing was a ship.
The mermaid moved out into the ocean and listened, turning until she could hear a motor. She swam towards it.
‘Over here!’ She shouted as the rusting freighter came into view. She spoke in the language of the white-skinned boat people, of which she had learned a little before she left.
‘Here!’ She was at the side of the ship. She lifted the boy above her head.
There was shouting, men peering over the deck. Someone fired a harpoon. It narrowly missed her, the rope thudding against her waist. She held the child higher.
‘Help!’ She tried again.
They pointed to a metal ladder attached to the side of a ship. She showed them her tail and their voices rose. Finally, they threw down a rope. She wrapped it around her powerful arms and they hauled her up. She fell onto the deck with a slap and they stood over her in a circle. The man with the harpoon touched her breasts and she bit his hand. He howled louder than the baby.
After that something stung her flank and she fell back, the boy sliding away.
The men who captured her handed her to the army, who passed her onto the scientists. When the scientists finished snipping at her hair, scales and skin, she was put in a glass tank and placed in the middle of a busy mall.
Eyes and camera lenses peered at her. She was talked about ceaselessly and many people would have climbed into the water with her, had security guards not been present. The only joyful part was when children squashed their faces up against the glass and the mermaid made faces back at them.
At first, the people who gaped at her said, ‘Oh, she isn’t real. It’s just some computer-generated model. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as mermaids.’
This made the mermaid sad, for she realised her nanna could no longer be alive.
To prove the people wrong, she decided to speak. She told them of her swim from the north to the south of the world, of watching the dark people come, and then the fair people, and how the country had never been the same from the time a man stuck a plate on a stick.
The listening crowd filled up the mall and the surrounding streets. The mermaid was watched on screens all around the country — in homes, shopping centres, bars and schools. As she spoke, the people’s eyes rounded with absorption, and then they began to frown with dismay, anger and, finally, shame.
One night, someone dressed in dark clothes placed a sign on the side of her tank. In the morning, office workers stopped with their coffees and read the sign. The mermaid watched their mouths.
‘Detention Centre,’ they said.
She could not understand this, but even more cameras appeared. She heard the scientists talking about moving her.
Another night, when the security guards were having a smoko, three more people in the dark clothes appeared.
‘We’re getting you out,’ a woman said as they lifted the lid of her tank.
The mermaid gripped the sides and, to her dismay, found her arms had become flaccid.
‘I want to go back to the sea,’ she said hoarsely.
‘That’s where we’re taking you.’
The mermaid wept and the woman touched her cheek.
In the truck, they wrapped her in wet towels and poured jugs of water over her. When they pulled off their hats she found they had the same sleek hair, oval eyes and dark skin as the mother of the child she had rescued. That made her feel better.
As soon as they lowered her into the water she swam away. She was alarmed by how quickly she ran out of breath and how soon her tail began to ache, but she pushed on until she reached the icebergs. There she was so lonely and unassailable she might as well have been frozen, but the seals remembered her.