The Little Mermaid,” written by Hans Christian Anderson and first published in 1837, is a fairy tale about a young mermaid who longs for a human soul, and the love of a handsome prince. In pursuit of her love, she gives up her home under the sea, her identity as a mermaid, and her voice. When the prince breaks her heart, the mermaid has a chance to reclaim her life, but must kill the prince in order to do so. She can not bring herself to kill him, even though he has broken her heart, and so she dies instead.
Beth uses both hands to twist the wire in front of her away and up, so that the pale blue glass hanging from it catches the sun and reflects itself subtly onto the wood below. She steps back to look at the sculpture. It’s by far the largest she’s ever begun. The driftwood she gathered for its base is huge and gracefully gnarled, stretching itself upward like petals on a wooden tulip; she has built it up with smaller pieces, drizzled it with sand, and attached bits of smoothed beach glass to it with curls of wire. She loves it already. Beth closes her eyes for a moment, and the sounds of the lake outside, quieted all morning by her preoccupation with work, rush into the room. Beth takes one deep breath, lets it out slowly, then another, listening to the softly splashing waves, the aching cries of the gulls. She does this until she feels herself dissolve, until there is no difference between her and the lake outside. It’s been a long morning, and it’s time for her to stop working. She looks out the window at the lake, quiet today, a gentle expanse of blue. Time for a swim.
Giving one last look at the sculpture, Beth brushes her hands against each other, loosening many hours’ worth of sand and dried glue. She locks the door of her studio, and walks slowly up the gravel path that connects it to her house. She realizes she’s left it open again, and silently chides herself. The house is unguarded now. Its silence unsettles her, and she longs for the throaty barking that used to greet her, the rush of breath, of raw animal energy and warmth. She shakes off her thoughts as she changes into her blue bathing suit.
The sand is warm and lazy under her feet, but she knows that this early in summer, she wouldn’t have to dig far into it to find the chill, damp sand of autumn. She walks into the water without hesitation; she knows that some find it too cold for swimming, but she’s always loved the quick shock of chill, the first greeting of the water that quickly dissipates into a more gently cooling embrace. Beth runs through the shallow water, dives in when it reaches her thighs, and swims in controlled, powerful strokes until she is far enough from shore; then she rolls over onto her back, blinking slightly at the too-bright sunlight, and floats lazily in the water, allowing the gently rolling waves to nudge her back to shore. She repeats this ritual a few more times before regretfully leaving the water. She needs to go grocery shopping. She pauses on the sand as she runs her fingers through her hair, damply gnarled by the lake water, and watches the lake for a few moments. Her grandmother, the one who had lived in this house before her and willed it to her, had always claimed to hear voices on the waves. She’d sit for hours, just listening. Beth smiles at the memory. It’s easy to remember her here. Beth has tried to hear the voices, half-seriously, but has never heard what her grandmother did. Beth turns away from the lake and walks back to the house.
It’s only the first week of June, but as Beth eases her Jeep down Main Street, there are already obstacles; too many cars for the narrow streets, clusters of tourists standing in the doorways of stores, pointing, considering their options, deciding where to have dinner. She gets out of her car, and sure enough, they’re in Dean’s Groceries buying picnic food: fruit, cheese, bread, local wines. She moves swiftly through the lingering strangers and puts her basket down on the conveyor at Karen’s checkout. As usual, Karen is full of bubbly chatter; she has heard that the Tilston girl has called off her engagement to Jeff Langdon, the son of one of the wealthier families on the peninsula; that Harper's Cookery, damaged during a kitchen fire, is not planning to reopen. Beth laments the early arrival of the tourists. Karen reminds her of the increased trade they bring, and she’s right, of course. Beth will sell enough during the summer months to keep her afloat for the coming year, and any catalog sales that come later, during the fall and winter, will likely be tourists who’ve made their minds up slowly. Beth tries to put her distant, vague irritation into real words.
“It's starting to feel like a performance.” Karen looks confused.
“Our lives, our town. It's like we're putting on a pageant every summer.”
Karen nods, smiles distantly, goes back to her gossip. Beth is still dissatisfied. She hasn't explained herself properly, to Karen, or to herself. She can now sense a person behind her in line shifting impatiently.
Beth looks behind her, and feels a wash of irritated guilt as she realizes that the man behind her is, in fact, a tourist. Definitely from out of town, and dressed in an aggressively relaxed fashion, khakis and a red shirt and sandals that must have been right out of the box. His basket carries the requisite local food, bits of cheese and fish, and a jar of Parry's Honey. He seems as though he is not at all comfortable with the normal pace of this grocery store, and is looking from side to side, hoping for a faster register. Beth smiles to herself. Good luck, stranger. She turns back to her own transaction. Karen seems to be out of talk for a moment; Beth shifts her weight from one foot to the other and looks behind her again. This time, the tourist is looking right at her, and their eyes lock. Beth’s surroundings - the beeping registers; the voices, both familiar and strange; the rustling bags; the traffic on the street outside - all hold their breath. Beth feels an almost irrepressible desire to step closer to him, to see if he's really that tall. To see what he smells like. His eyes are the exact color of the lake outside her home in the very early morning.
“Beth?” Karen’s voice is suddenly abrasive, unwelcome. Beth turns, her face burning, to take the bag Karen is holding out to her, gathers the other bag onto her hip, and mutters a goodbye.
She stows her groceries in the backseat and leans against the car for a while, chats with some friends who have come out of their coffee shop to say hello, waves them back into work, all the while feeling slightly disjointed, as if there's a blurry space between her feet and the sidewalk.
And then, the man is there, on the steps outside the store, a plastic bag dangling from his hand. Karen must have really disliked him, if he got out of the store that quickly. He hesitates, and Beth finds herself hoping – for what? But she knows, of course, without admitting it to herself, and then he does walk in her direction, after looking briefly up and down the street, his new red shirt shining like the sun. He asks her if she’s local, which they both know is a dumb question. She says something about the early summer weather being kind to the tourists this year, and he smiles, and says he appreciates it.
A pause. Beth says a tiny prayer, but it goes unanswered, and she can still think of nothing else to say. He really is beautiful, with those blue eyes, and an indefinable openness to his face. As if a wind had brushed back his hair, and all the care from his expression, and it had stayed that way. And there’s intelligence there, she can feel it, a kind of mental alertness. What could she possibly say to this man? He seems to be having the same difficulty. He eventually asks her for restaurant recommendations.
This is easy, and she gives the standard tourist dinner ideas, and then, before she can stop herself—“If you like art, I mean, if you’re interested…” and she hands him a card from the gallery. He smiles, gives a little wave, and backs into the sidewalk traffic. She gets into her car, drives home. A normal day.
The next day, while she is back with the giant sculpture, she has a sudden whim, or inspiration, and attaches another piece of driftwood to the side of the sculpture, near the top; it is a dramatic piece of wood, with one smooth surface and one that is covered with long, thin bumps. She attaches it so that the smooth part faces into the wind that trails in through the open windows of her studio. The piece is so large now it feels as if she’s dancing with it, as she reaches up to twine a new piece of beach glass through the bumpy side of the new driftwood. Outside her studio windows, the lake is calm today, and the song of the waves meeting the shore is muted; but a rush of water fills Beth’s head, and the lonely calls of the seagulls, and the smell of the lake, and the wind in the pines, slowly pour in through the open windows until the studio is full. When her light starts to go, Beth is disappointed, but contented too; an afternoon thunderstorm would be lovely. But when she steps back from the sculpture and looks out the windows she is surprised to find that the sky isn’t just clouding over; it’s settling into night. She’s been working all day. It’s been a long time since she’s lost herself in her work like this. She thinks a little about the tourist from the day before as she packs away her tools.
Beth spends some time with the new sculpture, walking out to it in the morning, expecting to see something she wants to change. She waits, standing in the shifting afternoon light that pours in through the tall windows of the studio. The sculpture stands in the center of the circular space of the studio as if facing a brisk sea wind, twined with glass and sand, giving off a sense of movement no matter where she stands to look at it. There is no part of it that is static, or dead to the eye. She decides to take it in to the gallery.
Her trailer can’t hold the entire sculpture, even if she had help to move it, so she has to disassemble it in the studio and reset it at the gallery. Dana is thrilled with it and clears a wide, sunny space for it in the center of the main room; Beth protests a little, but secretly rejoices. She is twisting wires into place when the breeze floating through the gallery becomes stronger, blowing the hair back from her face and moving the dangling glass pieces of the sculpture gently, and she hears a voice behind her that she knows.
“You were right. The art here is extraordinary.” His voice is quiet but it echoes somehow. It doesn't quite fit in to the air of the gallery; very unlike, Beth thinks, from the way people around here usually speak.
She lowers her arms, and the blood trickles back into her forearms and hands, making them feel tingly. She smiles at the tourist. “Well, I can't speak for everything here.” She nods her head quickly to the side, to indicate the latest of Seth’s mermaid paintings. As were all of his mermaids, this one is blessed with giant breasts, and fluorescent pink nipples, and is smiling at Beth and the tourist winningly. The tourist chuckles, turns back to Beth’s sculpture.
“Well, I can't look away from this one.” He fastens those clear eyes onto her work as if he's memorizing it.
She's blushing. She didn't think people actually did that. “Is that a compliment? I’m going to assume.”
“It definitely is.”
It’s easier to talk to him today, especially after she turns back to her sculpture, and he stays, and she can talk while she winds the pieces of it back together. He asks about her work. Not just asks; he’s really interested, and she finds herself having the same kind of conversation about her work that she’s been wishing she could have with Dana, who’s great with the business end, less so with the actual art. He says that he feels that this piece, the one she's assembling, is filled with wind. She finds out that he runs a computer software company. He asks her how long she's lived here; she's been in the house on the lake for most of her life. He's impressed by this, as he has moved around all his life, because of work. He's pursued his career, and money, his whole life. He's not sure why he's telling her this. She tells him about Buck, how it's a month to the day since he died; she has to explain to him what a black lab is, as he does not know dogs. The gallery closes, and they look at each other for a long time in the gently fading blue light of evening, and then he asks her to dinner.
Usually after a major sculpture is finished, Beth rests for at least a week, walking on the sand, maybe working a few shifts in the bookstore for some extra spending money. But she spends the next month working almost every day. The lake seems to be participating in her newfound energy, and every day she finds piles of driftwood, handfuls of shells and beach glass. Some days she collects more than she does in a normal week. She builds four new pieces, all of which she sends to the gallery, and all of which sell almost immediately. The tourist purchases the large sculpture for the main office of his company.
Beth has dinner with him frequently; after the first night, she begins inviting him back to her house on the lake, so that he can join her in her evening walk along the beach. After the third night she invites him to stay, and he also sees the sunrise over the water. She laughs all the time when they’re together, he says he can feel himself unclench muscles he didn’t even know he had. He tells her stories about his life in the city, the buzz of energy, the museums, the concerts; and she is interested, curious. She hasn't traveled much, aside from her time at art school, which was close by. He tries to explain to her why he would come here for a vacation but rent a condo so far from the water; he does not swim with her but waits on towels spread out on the sand. She is patient; they walk on the sand, and she waits for the sound of the waves to enter him, waits for him to see.
On the Fourth of July, they meet in the hot air to watch the fireworks. They sit in the sand with the rest of the town, while the fireworks paint the sky. They are barely able to breathe the thick, swampy air, and stick together everywhere they touch. Beth turns her face toward the sky as a huge, golden firework opens above them like the gilded bars of a birdcage.
“I love the big ones, like that,” she says.
“I love you,” he says.
He leaves his condo that week to stay at her house on the lake.
His vacation is over in the middle of August. He waits for sunset, he waits for the perfect night, balmy and smooth, not too hot, and he asks her to marry him. He can’t be without her, he says. Not for a day. She says yes, without hesitation. Every day she is with him, she dreams of new sculptures. She wants a second set of footprints beside her in the sand, something she’s never wanted; even as she watched her friends marry and start families, years ago. It's never occurred to her to feel like this, but she can’t be without him either.
Then he says: “How soon can you move?”
Beth resists, of course, but there’s really nothing to be done. He has hundreds of employees, meetings, conferences; his company needs him. She can sculpt anywhere. She believes this, in the beginning.
The studio he builds for her is huge, made of glass, and connected to his house so she never has to go outside to get there. The windows open, so she can fill the studio with the crisp air of autumn as she works. She unpacks crates of driftwood, sand, beach glass, dried seaweed, feathers, and stones. It’s much quieter than she’s used to, she thinks, even though she’s got the windows open and can hear the wind in the branches, the birds. She gathers her materials around her and sits on the floor, in the center of the studio. She waits. The city is more than she'd ever imagined, and she spends hour upon hour in museums, absorbing the art. She goes from coffee house to coffee house, trying to find a favorite. She marvels at the food stores, the specialty shops, is tickled to find a place that carries the sugary fruit wines that are produced on the peninsula. She embraces the constant noise, the reminder that she is the part of something bigger, the traffic, the voices. Everywhere she looks, there's something new, and she takes it all in until her skin hums, and she waits for the right time to start working again.
She is still waiting as autumn turns into winter, as the last of her things find a place in this new home, her pictures are added to the walls. She decides to take a job to fill the time she’s not sculpting, although it’s ridiculous, her hourly wage in the face of her husband’s wealth. Still, she enjoys it, and it helps her learn this new, busily crowded city, as she rides the train in every morning and then walks to the museum. She works mornings, then walks around the city until she returns home. She finds some favorite places; there are some beautiful fountains in the park, and a small zoo. The thought of living so close to a zoo is exciting, and she often stays until twilight, sketching the animals; the otters, the penguins, the seals. She also enjoys the restaurants, the new cuisines. She loves Thai food, dim sum, sushi, all cuisines that are not available in her old, small town.
The first time she has an attack they are at her favorite dim sum restaurant, a small, indifferently-decorated affair, seated at the table she has come to think of as theirs, next to the odd little fish tank. She excuses herself, goes to the women’s restroom; she is walking back, toward their table, when she suddenly can’t breathe. She feels her lungs working hungrily; she opens her mouth wider, and knows that air is moving into her body, but she feels as if it’s not, and she’s almost immediately dizzy. The room goes dark with moving colored bits of light, and she thinks, hysterically for a moment, that it looks like the fireworks over the lake last July. She looks for her husband, but can’t find him in the drips of light in the room; she takes a step, then another, and then falls to the dusty wood floor.
When she awakes he’s standing over her, as are several waiters, the manager; all the faces are concerned. She insists on rising immediately, despite her husband’s protests. She’s still gasping for air, but leans on him as they return to their table, and as she sits, she takes a deep breath, and feels the air flood her lungs. She smiles weakly; she’s all right, and won’t consider going home. She’s sure it won’t happen again.
She forgets to worry about this incident during the next few weeks as she tries to work. She buys a machine that makes sounds like waves, and seagulls, and closes her eyes, pretending to be outside, to be in her old house, and waits and waits to feel ready to work. She reads, rearranges the furniture in the house, trying to make her mark. She has a sudden idea and orders dozens of art supply catalogs; she spends days circling and noting, and makes a flurry of phone calls.
Boxes begin to arrive, but she lets them pile up until she has everything she’s ordered, and she spends that morning in her studio. She opens the boxes and spills out metals, papers, different kinds of wire, shiny glass beads. She spreads these new textures and colors around her in the studio until she looks as though she’s found a way to nest in a rainbow. She waits. A few hours pass, and she takes a deep breath, to cleanse her stress away, and instantly chokes. It’s like the night at the restaurant; the more she tries to breathe, the worse she feels. She looks despairingly at the long hallway that will bring her back to the main house, where hopefully a staff member will find her, help her. Air is filling her lungs, but she still feels as if she’s drowning; she gasps, pulls more air into her body but it’s like breathing tar. She can feel it just sit in her lungs, not moving.
Beth staggers for the hallway, puts her hands on either side, somehow makes it into the house, to the kitchen. Things are turning dark again, but she stumbles to the sink, splashes some cold water on her face, and starts to regain some balance. The water helps, and she takes a few shaky breaths, then plunges her face into the cold stream from the tap. The cold bites through the haze that has wrapped itself around her, and she is able to stand and to breathe normally. She calls her husband, who implores her to see his doctor, and she agrees. He is worried, he'll send a car, and he’ll leave work early to meet her at the doctor's office. She protests. She's fine now, she'll take the train, really, she's happier that way, with no fuss. She'll see him tonight.
The doctor's questions surprise her. He asks little about her breathing, and what she assumes to be the severe type of asthma that is plaguing her. He checks her lungs briefly, listens to her take deep breaths, but then starts asking her about her marriage, her work. In short, it becomes clear that he believes her to be the victim of some sort of panic attack.
“It’s not in my mind,” she insists.
“Of course it isn’t.” He leans forward, old and kindly, making concerned furrows in his brow. “It’s real to you. We just have to find a way to help you manage what it is that you’re feeling….”
But she’s up now and putting on her coat. “Thank you, doctor.” And she’s out in the winter afternoon, under the reddening sky.
She tries her husband’s cell phone a few times in the cab on the way to the train station but only succeeds in reaching his voice mail. She makes her way to her platform but as she’s waiting she’s seized with an almost physically overwhelming need to not go back to the house. She runs from the station and hails another cab, even as she debates wildly with herself about where she wants to go; every place she can think of seems somehow wrong, almost frightening. She suddenly realizes that everywhere she’s gone in the city, she’s gone as a tourist. As she slides across the duct-taped vinyl backseat of the cab, it occurs to her: the zoo. She has spent long hours there, drawing the animals, and just walking, and it seems somehow that she will feel better there. She manages to tell the driver to take her to the zoo, then rests her forehead on the cool glass of the window next to her and watches the city blur by.
When she reaches the zoo, she practically runs for the indoor otter exhibit, ignoring the scattered looks of surprise she gets from the few other patrons who have braved the cold weather. Her inability to breathe is building again; she takes despairing, gasping breaths of air, but it doesn’t help. She collapses in front of the glass wall that houses the otters and fumbles for her cell phone, but even as she opens it, she takes one deep, shaky breath, and feels a tiny trickle of oxygen in her chest. She closes her phone and tries again; another breath, another trickle. She tips her head back to rest on the glass and closes her eyes, breathing deeply and evenly, and closes her eyes, ignoring everything but the air moving in and out of her body.
She is startled later, by a hand on her shoulder. She opens her eyes to see a security guard leaning over her. He looks torn between worry and irritation, asks her if she's all right. She stands, touching the glass wall. Tells him she's fine.
He looks relieved, not for her well-being, but for his time. “The zoo is closing. You’ll have to go home.”
She tries to. She focuses on her breath on the long train ride, trying to make it stay fluid, worrying that for all her anger at him, that doctor could have been right. She stares out the window at the night and thinks about trying another doctor, doing some more research online, that something may really be wrong with her.
Her husband meets her at the station, his face pale and tight with anxiety. He doesn’t say much on the drive home. Beth is expecting him to ask where she’s been, or to demand to know. She really doesn’t know how he’ll handle it. She doesn’t know what it is exactly that they’re about to handle. They ride in taut silence all the way home. He turns the car off in the garage and they sit for a moment.
“I was really worried about you,” he says quietly.
Beth is flooded with feeling as she sits in the silent car with him. She opens her mouth to tell him she’s sorry, that she loves him, but when she does, she suffers another attack, and clutches his arm in panic. Her body is drawing in air, she can feel it move past her lips, but she still can't breathe.
“I’m taking you to the emergency room.” His voice is afraid but full of decision.
She shakes her head, surprising herself with the force of it, and struggles from the car, ignoring his protests. Her rusty blue jeep from home is next to his in the garage, and the keys are in her purse. She has them out, has the door open, before he can really react. He runs around his car to her. His face is full of fear.
“What are you doing?”
She shakes her head but does not answer, willing air to enter her body through the dam of her clenched teeth as she unlocks the door and gets inside her jeep.
“Beth. Wherever you have to go, I’ll go with you.”
She shakes her head again. He can’t.
“Beth, please. Just stop. Stop whatever you’re doing right now and talk to me.”
If she opens her mouth to talk she’ll drown. She starts the jeep.
“If you leave me I’ll die.” His voice breaks. She believes him.
She maneuvers down the driveway, finds the freeway. Her hands are clenched on the wheel, every bit of her concentration absorbed by her slow wheezes in and forced exhales. She can’t black out, not like this, behind the wheel of a car, and she has hours ahead of her.
It’s dawn by the time she reaches the narrow road that runs behind the line of modest homes along the beach, discreetly spaced, with hers. Tears begin to pour silently down her face as she turns her car along the shaded road, and, despite the fatigue and dizziness that swells in her brain, she observes the traditional speed limit of 20mph, out of respect for the dogs, cats, and children that roam the backyards of the area. She rolls down her window, and cold, wet air pours into her car. She pulls the car haphazardly into her driveway and runs through her backyard, past her studio, to the front of the boarded-up house, and the beach. She throws her coat onto the sand, her purse, stops long enough to pull off her shoes and socks. The beach stretches out on either side of her, bright and cold in its winter glory, but she barely notes it, as her breathing has shut down entirely. She staggers toward the water, but it’s tilting, faster and faster, and her face can feel the sand. She reaches numbing hands forward but when she tries to pull herself along, she only succeeds in pulling handfuls of sand toward her. She digs her feet in behind her but can’t get traction.
She is too late. She stretches one hand, as far as it will go, and touches wet sand. She’s so close. She struggles to keep her eyes open, to see the blue of the water before her, but her eyes are so tired, and her head is filling with emptiness.
She closes her eyes, but she can feel the first hand that touches hers. At last. Its touch is so careful, but urgent; Beth can feel her skin blossom. The touch is joined by another, and another. The sand start to slide under her; no, it is still, but she’s sliding. The sound of water fills her and as her face touches it she opens her mouth and swallows a grateful breath, which gives her enough strength to open her eyes, and raise her head from the cold sand. She smiles, and stands. She will walk the rest of the way in.
He comes to the beach, often, to sit on the sand and stare out over the water. He’s taken to living in her old house, for weeks at a time. It makes her sad, as she swims just past the sandbar, or pulls herself up onto it just for a moment to watch him, but there is no way to get him a message. She doesn’t even speak his language any more. As time goes on, he comes less and less, and eventually a family with children moves into the house, which delights Beth. One of the children, a girl, swims so far out, with sure, steady strokes that her mother stands on the sand and calls to her, frightened, to come back. Once, Beth gets too close, and she’s sure the girl sees her; the girl stops swimming, and treads water right over Beth, with her face in the water, trying to see. Beth stays very still, and the girl eventually gives up, but she keeps looking for the rest of that summer, and Beth and the others are careful to stay away. Still, it’s one of her favorite things to do, watch the children swim. When she isn’t doing that, she works on sculptures on the bottom of the lake, huge, intricate structures through which the fish swim like tiny bits of brightly colored glass.
-Jennifer Dworschack-Kinter teaches writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her poems, book reviews, interviews, and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Whetstone, Many Mountains Moving, The Comstock Review, A Cup of Poems, Phoebe, Blue Canary, Eureka, Candelight III, Aoife's Kiss, and Listen to the Future. She lives in Shorewood with her husband and two children, and they all walk by the lake as often as they can.
-Photograph by Christopher Barrio