My Motherís Tail
by Jennifer Moore

 

Once upon a time, before she met her Prince Charming, my mother was a mermaid. But love changes people. Dad shaved off his beard and threw out his Iron Maiden T-shirt. Mum traded her marvellous singing voice and tail for a pair of legs, long and shapely at the start, a little thicker around the ankles and heavier on the thighs after I put in an appearance, but a fine pair nonetheless. I loved her on those legs.

She still liked to bathe and comb her hair but by the time I came to suspect who (or what) she really was, Mumís mermaid days were little more than a memory. She made do with a dip in the swimming pool twice a week after work (until the doctor told her she couldnít work anymore) and a fortnight splashing about in the sea in a pink pearlescent bikini with scalloped cups. Sometimes she looked a little wistful, staring out of the upstairs window across the rooftops like she was scanning the horizon for a glimpse of ocean, but mainly she just got on with the usual things like cooking the tea and ironing Dadís shirts. Whenever I asked about her watery past she just smiledóthat funny turned-down-at-the-edges smile≠óand ruffled the top of my head.

A week after my sixth birthday the call of the sea grew too strong for her. The doctors at the hospital prescribed sandy toes and fresh ocean air so we packed up our lives and followed the removal lorry up the motorway, on through grey-looking towns and dozing villages to a shabby house on the coast, which smelled of seaweed and sadness. There was a small garden at the back, where the gulls and mussel shells grew in disorderly rows, and a wavy path that led all the way down to the sea.

The thin strip of sand that ran along between the pebbles and the ocean at low tide was a beautiful dusky white, while the sea changed its clothes to match its mood: sometimes it wore neatly ironed blues and turquoise, vying for brightness with the cloudless sky above. On dingy days it dressed in dull dragon green with undulating folds and ruffles. But when the sky brooded and wept the sea whipped itself up into a grey, foaming fury, lashing at the rocks with its white-cuffed sleeves. At night I lay restless in my new bed, listening to the changing patterns of wind and waves, straining my ears for a single snatch of mermaid song.

I thought Mum would be happy there but she wasnít. While I ran splashing and yelping into the icy edges of her beloved ocean she sat in a striped blue deckchair on the beach and wept softly for her lost tail. While I conjured crumbling fairy tale castles up out of the sand she stroked my hair and sighed for the songs she used to sing. Her once bright eyes were a dull, brooding grey.

Dad pretended to be happy enough for the both of them but as the summer slipped into a stormy September the too-bright smile slid from his face. While the wind rode wild horses across our roof and the sea roared its angry lullabies at the sleeping sand, I heard the clink of a bottle on the kitchen table and low, broken sobs splintering the night. It wasnít how the story was supposed to go.

The doctors at the latest hospital thought they knew the story better than any of us. They shook their heads sadly and said that a fine pair of legs was worth more than a few songs. They needed the rest of her voice as well. They put Mum to sleep for what felt like a hundred years and when she woke up all her words were gone. She could only croak like a frog. Dad and I kissed her and kissed her but it was no good. Nothing happened.

Even then it wasnít enough, the doctors warned. After Mum came home she lost her hair as well, combful by long golden combful. Her land-legs began to betray her now. She grew seasick, staring out at the ocean as she rode wave after wave of nausea. Dad bought her a pink silk scarf to wrap around her poor pink head and she smiled and croaked and we all pretended she looked beautiful. She sat in the window watching wistfully while I paddled my toes in the bitter sea and collected shells and glass pebbles with Dad. But by the time I brought my glossy jewels back up to the house for her they were little more than mottled white lumps.

I dreamed of shipwrecks the night she went, slipping away under the cover of darkness as she had come up from the ocean all those years before. I dreamt I was swimming through the creaking timbers of a once great ship, with corralled treasure chests and a starfished hull. And all the while I was weaving through forgotten portholes, twisting my new streamlined body beneath the great broken mast, my mother was zipping up her legs on the edge of the water, shaking out her poor pink head and singing one last silent song, full of goodbyes and forevers. She was swishing her long silver tail, the muscle movements still hardwired into her memory after all those years on land, and then, with the tiniest turn of her head back towards the house, towards the bed where I lay dreaming, she was gone.

Dad took me to the church to say goodbye. We stood in broken rows of black, like lines of empty mussel shells washed up by the water. The priest talked about suffering and heaven and the red-eyed woman at the front wept like a muted gull. But I didnít cry. I pressed a shell from my pocket deep into the flesh of my fingers and imagined Mum down under the waves, plucking glass jewels from shipwrecks for the tide to carry to the shore, her long hair streaming out behind her like ribbons.

 

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Jennifer Moore is a Cambridge University English graduate with an MRes on Witchcraft in Literature from the University of Strathclyde. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Guardian, Mslexia, The First Line and Short Fiction. She was the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2009 and lives in Devon, England.