Mermaids

11/19/08

           The Pennsylvania turnpike stretches out before her, lonely and sterile. She knows these arterial roads well by now, and the chaotic tangle of exits and ramps that cluster around Somerset County. The gentle sloping ridges of the Alleghenies, undercut by highway and full of bones, are silhouettes in her peripheral. Her eyes focus on the Texas cowgirl boot ornament that hangs from her rear view mirror and sways gently with the car. The curve of the road, set at a fetal angle, desperately curls around the ancient hills. She passes a small cross at the side of the road and knows that she is sharing someone’s last vision. For two hours her world has been headlights and reflective signs. For five more hours it will be the garbled evangelism of AM radio (the FM gave up the ghost on route 51), vodka out of a Gatorade bottle, and road bred insomnia. Yorktown welcomes her, and Greenville implores that she returns soon; Breezewood is the city of hotels, with their cheap sentiments and free breakfasts. She passes it all by in a neon blur. There will be no more false homes for her. The road grows with her headlights and she feels as if she is the only one left alive. Even in the stale coffee world of interstate the sirens call rings in her hazy head; a memory faint and untainted, a scavenger hunt for hope on the east coast. She drives through the night and rain to her end.
           It is false night when she reaches the shore. It is a night of blue flames and neon pollutant. Through the open window she can already smell the sugar of the boardwalk, the sweaty mix of laughter and drink. The smell is foreign and distant to her, it is the organic tang of sea air that makes her sit a little straighter in the bucket seats, her tired eyes longing to see the curve of the earth set harshly against the indigo sky. The lights of the carnival are an anachronism sinking into the sediments of the old world. She has seen the crooked break walls along the roadside and understands the inevitability of the earth pulling every unnatural thing back in to the core. She kills the engine in the back of a Food Lion parking lot and crawls into the backseat with the windows open and the humid air stirring the contents of her ashtray. Sleep is a mystery. She has watched the eyes of lovers flicker under lids and wondered what they dreamed. She has always slept in her own world, even with that superficial warmth curled around her. Tonight her mind is quiet, and her tired body sleeps in beat with the metronomic pulse of the surf.
           As a child, she would tell fellow beach goers that she was a mermaid. The sea always made more sense to her than land anyhow. The coast frightens some people, those that only sacrifice their toes and feet to the surf. She sees them facing the sea up and down the coast. They stand like break walls, legs braced and feet slowly disappearing under sediments. These sand grains were once great boulders, mountains and homes. Her feet sink through them and she wonders what and where she will be someday: a blade of grass, rich soil, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. No. She will never be these dry things. With unfocused eyes she watches the sailboats slip smoothly over the curve of the earth, beyond the horizon and towards prehistoric shores that she will never see.
           She stretches out sinewy arms; calm as a Buddha, pushing the waves away and pulling them back in. In the ebbing light the lifeguard stands resemble monolithic sentries. She stands between two of the giants and feels the solitude that runs deep as the marrow in her bones. She used to believe that she was a mermaid. Of course her legs were flippers, her dull hair the envy of the sea. She ignored the calls warning her of undercurrents and outstripped them all. The origin of life pulsed with the ocean, and that was where she wanted to be. It rolled upon itself and within itself. It cramped against moving plates and it took in the dead and beat against the living. Her young body was aware of the current as she would slide through the waves like a shard of obsidian. Her momentum was in sync with the meters and rhymes of the waves. In her mermaid days she had possessed the velocity and immortality of youth that wound down until her cogs shook loose. She too had created life, that stirring within her beating in a rhythm slightly offset from her own. It had been entirely her own, the only thing she ever truly owned and at the same time felt she belonged to. She swam that current for three months of high and low tides. On a February afternoon in an anonymous town, she let the air in, and distilled that subtle pulse to an echo. It still resonates within her empty spaces, reminding her that she is as hollow as the matrix of bird bones partially uncovered by the low tide.
           Night has a sneaky way of rising out of the water, the dark curve of the earth lengthening gradually and meeting with the tail end of the sun. The shore world narrows to a definite point. It dilates beyond hesitation and outside of the inertia that brought her to this conclusion. Like a sigh the wind turns to the north and her skin ripples with goose bumps. The moon has risen and she knows that the world has ended.
           In a sudden chaos the tide rushes in. It swells to her ankles and then suddenly to her knees. She lets the undercurrent drag her, robot steps at first, and now she’s running. The years strip off like a decayed parchment, caught and twisting behind her. She leaves behind her hollow body, the echo of stilled hearts and empty words; all the dead skin she’s been living with. Gone. The world vanishes in a rush as she spear heads into the waves. There is always that momentary panic when the violence of the waves threatens to powder your bones. She remembers not to fight it; the pulse of the water always rights you. It tosses ashore only the things that don’t belong there, the cracked sea shells, the husks of creatures that have forsaken their old homes. The only evidence of her nocturnal presence will be the discarded clothing; half buried by the surf and glanced at briefly by the morning joggers.
           Mermaids are made every hour. They are as common as sea glass, the lost ones, worn of their edges and gasping with ragged gills on the alien sand. Her cracked nails become the iridescent concave of an oyster shell. Her bones are coral and her hair hides small silver fish whose bellies imitate the sun. She breathes strong and deep and drifts immortal in her origin. On the land a streetlight burns out, a woman strips the sheets off of her bed and the life of the boardwalk pulses in rolling electric orgasms. The land is altered and frayed beyond the realm of human awareness. Above the storms roll in, angry clouds chasing down her beloved horizon, but below all is peace.

Elizabeth Tussey
Born and raised in Northeastern Ohio.