By Teresa Edmond-Sargeant
Nerissa opened her eyes and squinted at a pair of sandal-wearing feet before her. Glancing up, she noticed they belong to a little girl wearing shorts, a rainbow striped t-shirt, and pigtails in her hair. As Nerissa pushed herself upright, sand fell off her front side. She tucked her tail behind her and groaned. Why does it have to be a child discovering her – and a human one at that?
“Where am I?” Nerissa asked.
Nerissa shrugged. “Daytona Beach … where?”
“Florida? Where the –” Nerissa checked her language. After all, she was in an impressionable girl’s presence. “Where is Florida?”
“The United States,” the girl responded matter-of-factly.
Nerissa brought up a mental globe in her head, tracking down the United States’ location in relation to the rest of the world. Now she understood her whereabouts – and how far away she was from home. An ocean away. A storm must have swept her up in the middle of the Atlantic and thrown her off course, she presumed, for that was the last memory she had.
The little girl’s eyes scrutinized at Nerissa’s flopping tail and smiled. “My name is Kelsie. Are you a mermaid?”
“A what?” Nerissa’s eyes trailed to her tail. It swished and swept through the sand, with the scales glistening in the morning sunrays. “What’s a mermaid?”
Kelsie pointed at the tail. “Half lady, half fish!”
Is that what these humans call someone like me?
With her chin, Nerissa gestured to the tall, box-like structures in the distance beyond the beach and decided to change the subject, hoping Kelsie would forget her expectation of an answer. “What are those?”
Kelsie turned to the structures, then back at Nerissa. “They’re hotels,” Kelsie said. “We’re staying in one of them. Maybe you can meet my daddy and stay with us.”
“I don’t know if your daddy would like that. Or your mommy for that matter.”
“Mommy’s not with us. When I was five years old, she said she was going out to buy me a chocolate fudge ice cream cone. She never came back.”
Kelsie sat down next to Nerissa and drew a seashell in the sand with her finger. Silence settled between the two, an untold length of time lost in this stillness. Tears rose in Nerissa’s eyes, and she cursed herself for it, realizing it was a sign she was developing empathy for this human. Kelsie wiped the seashell image away with one swipe of her hand and observed the ocean horizon the rising sun had dyed orange. Sadness had taken root in her eyes.
“I have a waterbed at home you can use,” Kelsie said. “It’s so much more fun to be on than some boring bed. When I’m on it, I like pretending I’m a mermaid.” She smiled, but Nerissa could tell from the sorrow in Kelsie’s eyes that she was faking it.
Nerissa arched an eyebrow. “You really do that?”
“Uh-huh. When I grow up, I want to be a mermaid and swim away from here and maybe find my mommy. I don’t want to be on land and I don’t like being around people.”
Temptation nudged Nerissa to rattle off every sin humans and her species have both been capable and culpable of committing. The idea that Kelsie’s mother abandoned her entered Nerissa’s mind. Yet she minded that her tendency to be blunt at the cost of gentleness might hurt Kelsie more.
“Let me tell you something,” Nerissa said in as compassionate of a voice as possible, “Being – what you call me, a mermaid? – being one isn’t as great as you think it is. I’ve been studying humans and how they’re alike and not like us – their cultures, religions, languages. I’ve been all over the world – from China and South Africa to England. And my conclusion is this: We’re just as bad as humans – maybe worse. You’ve seen that already, and you’ll see more of it when you grow up – whether you’re a human or a mermaid. But you belong here on land, where your daddy loves you and wants you. So do yourself a favor: forget about bringing your father to me. Forget about running away to become a mermaid. And forget you met me.”
“Kelsie! Kelsie!” a man’s voice called from a distance. “Where’d you go?”
Kelsie turned to Nerissa. “That’s my daddy. He’s looking for me.”
Waves leapt onto the shore, wetting Nerissa’s tail. When the next wave swelled, Kelsie backed away. The wave dragged Nerissa into the ocean. She swam against the currents, and when she thrusted her head out of the water, Kelsie jumped on the beach, beckoning with her arms for Nerissa to return to the coast just as a man, whom Nerissa assumed must be the father, approached Kelsie.
Guilt twisted at Nerissa’s heart upon leaving behind such a sweet human girl while diving into the ocean depths, but why allow any guilt to torture her, she figured.
At least she was not the girl’s mother.