In Translation Short Story

The Muscles of Mermaids

by Mikella Nicol

My sister is dead.

They say that seawater washes sins away. They say that salt from the ocean removes any dirt trapped in the skin’s pores. They say you should gargle saltwater to get rid of nasty stuff, bacteria, things caught on your tonsils. And they say that when you look out to sea, you feel just as tiny as you do beneath the dark sky of night. That you disappear into the vastness of it all. That’s really all we’re hoping for today. To vanish into the dense, liquid air of a white shoreline. Marie is dead.

We drive to the ocean. It’s cold. Cabins by the sea are very reasonably priced in February. We drive to the water that will cleanse our sadness. We’re looking to rest our gaze on its opaque blue skin. We’re looking for its voice, to feel its icy breath against our cheeks. It seems that if we fall asleep on the beach and the tide comes in, we might be swept away by the waves and drowned. It seems that real water from the real sea doesn’t taste like the water you spray up your nose to clean your sinuses. It doesn’t taste like tears either.

Jeanne is driving. I sit in back with Tom. The cooler rides shotgun. We decided to leave Jeanne to her thoughts, alone in the intimacy of her sadness. We’ve a little over five hours to drive. When we started out, as we drove out of the city on the road lined with naked birch trees, I said it was ridiculous, driving all the way to Cape Cod in winter. That the sea would be frozen, like the river that runs through our village, that we wouldn’t even see the waves. The others laughed at me. Tom wrote down what I said in a little notebook he always carries around with him. It seems that the sea doesn’t freeze around Cape Cod. That it’s in constant movement, like our beating heart, like the blood flowing through our veins. It breathes, in and out again. It’s not my fault. I’ve never seen the sea. Jeanne, Tom, and my sister went there lots of times once they were adults. I was too young. “You’ll see,” they said. “Cape Cod smells just like Marie.” I’m still skeptical. Marie was sweet like sugar. Not salty. But now she’s dead, so it’s worth a try.

It was Jeanne who got in touch. For the past month—since the last day at the hospital—she hasn’t said a word. She’s stopped talking. I think she might even be on sick leave, but I haven’t dared ask. All I know is that I can walk along Rue Saint-Charles at any time of the day or night and I’ll see the lights on in her apartment. Sometimes there’s a shadow moving around slowly. One morning she wrote us this message:

I want to go see the sea. To remind me of her. The sooner, the better.
J.

It couldn’t wait till summer, or even spring.

Jeanne’s message, words that get straight to the point. It was honest. It made a change from all the other things they tell people like us, people in mourning. “Take it one day at a time.” The nurse said that, putting her hands on my shoulders. I wanted to shout. Yes! I took my days, all right. I put them in a black cloth bag and counted them. I spat on every one of those days since Marie’s last breath. And now I’m going to empty them into the sea. They’ll be eaten by the foam, broken up in the surf, then dragged to the bottom. Then I’ll wash my hands in the saltwater and no one will ever speak of them again. We’ll forget.

Jeanne drives in silence, too. She barely nodded when she came to pick Tom and me up at the old railway station where we were to meet. But we know it’s important to her that we’re there, that sharing our memories together will be a big help. We accept her silence. The car speeds quietly along the roads, past the fields of snow and the old barns, and there’s nothing to say anyway.

I can feel the weight of Tom’s gaze on me. He spends his time staring at his notebook and pencil. He jots down snippets he’ll use to write about our lives in a novel. But every now and then, he’ll look up and stare at me. Every glance lands like an arrow. Sharp like frozen fir needles. I know what he’s thinking. I’m waiting for it to bubble up inside him, for the words to flood his mind until he has no choice but to let them wash over me. It happens close to the U.S. border. He raises his voice over the sound of the engine.

“I never noticed how much you look like her. And now, it’s crazy, I have a hard time telling your face apart from hers.”

I take my eyes off the road to look at Tom. So that he sees them. Mine are blue.

It’s obvious. Hers were almost black. Everyone knows that. It always bugged me, how Marie’s eyes were unfathomable, secretive. Mine blush, reveal everything, my weaknesses especially. But Tom only adds, “You look like her when she was younger.”

He looks at me for an instant longer, then goes back to his notebook. I go back to the road. But I can feel the tears stinging. It’s not fair. I’ve just turned 18. I have a face of my own now. But all anyone ever looks for is the face of my sister, no longer with us. “When she was younger…” Might as well say “before she got sick, before ten years of disappointment, unfairness, and tiredness.” They cleave my identity to my sister’s. I caught Jeanne glancing in the rear-view mirror. I saw a flicker of compassion and I knew she understood. Then she, too, went back to her never-ending silence. I’d like to tell Tom that seeing my sister in my body isn’t going to bring her back. It only brings me closer to death.

With no noise in the car, I wonder what everyone’s thinking about. What else other than the smell of the hospital. The scent the fluorescent pink soap left on our hands.

After we’ve been driving for an hour, Tom looks up. I can make out a little sadness in his features. Only two or three lines furrow his skin, but I can still tell. The same lines have been furrowing their way across my own skin for weeks now, across my parents’, my grandparents’. Tom clears his throat. I hope he’s not going to try to comfort us. That he won’t put his foot in it again by trying to retrieve every last speck of my sister, every memory she would have forgotten on our side of the world. I truly hope, with all my soul, that he doesn’t start quoting the Dalai Lama, or Oprah Winfrey. But when he opens his mouth, it’s to tell us a story. It’s the only means he has of saving us. He starts off awkwardly, unsure of himself.

“The ship had left port more than a month earlier.”

Jeanne and I give a start. Then we realize what’s happening. Because that’s what Tom does. He writes, he makes stuff up. He’s trying to claw back the distances that add up between us. It’s nice of him.

“The short trip should have taken two weeks. But the inexperienced captain got lost the very first week. The sailors were growing increasingly worried at not seeing the coast after weeks out on the water. Supplies were running low, of course. And despite all their efforts to find their bearings—the North Star, the course of the sun, you name it—it seemed there would never be anything other than that damned blue water on the horizon. As if a spell had been cast on the sea, as if it were drawing the boat ever closer to its centre. One day they caught sight of a lighthouse. Right out there on the water. It loomed up out of the fog. The crew quickly changed course for the lighthouse, thinking that, logically, land couldn’t be far away. Smiles gradually returned to their faces. They had hope.

As the ship got closer, the air seemed to grow thicker. The water changed from blue to green; clouds covered the whole sky. The sailors, well used to spotting the signs of a gathering storm, realized this was different. It was strange. But they pushed on. It was their only hope. It wasn’t until they were right beside the rock that they saw the young woman. She was lying on her side, naked, at the foot of the lighthouse. Her body was trapped in a thick fishing net. She was sobbing. The crew immediately forgot all about its fears and suffering, and the men began bustling around, eager to go help the woman. All but one. The youngest, Jack. Overcome by a terrible sense of foreboding, he gathered the men around him.

‘You don’t think she might be a…’

‘This is no time for fairy tales, kid,’ one of the ship’s boys replied.

Everyone moved off, leaving the boy alone with his fears.

Then they lowered a boat into the water, with four sailors in it, and they quickly brought the woman onto the ship. Jack, still suspicious, kept his distance. Two men began cutting the net away with a Swiss army knife.

The whole crew had gathered around the woman, and the captain silently agreed to the rescue. He might have lost his crew, but he wasn’t going to fail in his duty. Breaking the net was hard work. It was wet, thick, and full of knots.

The more the sailors managed to free the woman’s body, the more confident she looked. She had long since stopped crying. The men could see that she was incredibly beautiful. Not beautiful as we might think, not wafer thin with perfectly applied makeup. It was more profound than that. A mysterious face, something of the supernatural in her eyes. She was entrancing.

And that’s when she started singing. The sailors were rooted to the spot. The melody flowing from her mouth was so pure, so beautiful, so terrifying, all at once. The sailors at last managed to free her from the net. That’s when they discovered what Jack had feared: a long fish tail. But it was too late. As the siren sang, now baring her teeth, other mermaids came out of the green water. Dozens of women’s heads emerged from the depths of the sea, all singing. With their surprisingly muscular arms, the mermaids began to haul themselves up onto the ship, which began to pitch dangerously…”

I’m getting sleepy. Tom’s voice was comforting for a while. There’s something very reassuring about being told a story, even one that ends badly. I think back to when the doctors explained how the disease might develop. Its effect on other patients, both younger and older. Strangely enough, that was when I would close my eyes, my imagination would kick in, my breathing would slow. Today I’ve given in to the fiction, perhaps a little too much. It seems we drove down huge five-lane freeways, where crazy drivers tried to race us. It seems we stopped at a gas station and everyone had a sandwich, except for Jeanne, who had a bottle of mineral water. But I don’t care. I couldn’t care less about all that happened between us and the sea. I want to find the saltwater that scrubs the pain out from where it’s lodged in my organs.

I wake up, lost and disoriented. We’re almost there.

***

Jeanne slams the door and we get out of the car. The cabin is exactly how I imagined it. Pale blue with a white porch. We might not be able to see the water, but we can hear it churn. We throw our bags on our beds. Tom and I are sharing a set of bunk beds. Jeanne has a room to herself. We go outside. We came here for one thing only.

The sand, the water, and the sky are grey. The light is white and blue. There is snow, but only a light dusting. Tufts of tall yellow grass poke through it. In the summer, I suppose, this place must be coming down with young girls in bikinis, well-off families, and white-chested old men. All laughing, tossing a ball, drinking beer, playing music. Today it’s completely empty. We’re the only ones to brave the wind. I turn to stare at the water. So that’s it. It’s more beautiful than I thought, the sea in winter. We’re all facing the water, standing in a line. Waiting to see what Jeanne will do. She was the one who needed to come. She says nothing, as usual. Her black hair whips all around her head. It hides her face, making her sad gaze a little easier for us to bear.

My sister fell ill very quickly. At twenty-five, of course, death always comes too quickly. Jeanne was the first to arrive at the hospital. She drove faster than I did, when the doctors called that last time. Maybe she should have been Marie’s sister. They knew each other so well. The last thing Jeanne said was, “She still had so much to learn.”

Marie had just closed her eyes. So much, but what? I wasted my time watching my sister from afar. I was her younger sister, the one who would never be her equal. I wasted my time taking her advice and never giving her any of my own, listening to snatches of the stories she chose to tell me without asking a single question, trying to smoke whenever she smoked, trying to come home as drunk as she would. Instead of trying to understand what it all meant. My sister’s lows, her rebellions that worried my parents. The Marie no one could touch. Except for death.

Jeanne sits down on a tree trunk lying on the beach. We do the same. We breathe.

There’s something therapeutic about the constant movement of waves. I feel cleaner. Freer. I feel as though I could run down to the water, throw myself in, and swim right to the other side. To the other side that I do not know. To Somewhere Else. I can’t, of course. But I don’t mind. I like the image of escaping from it all. Perhaps I’d find Marie at the end of the ocean. I’d see her unmade-up face. She’d talk to me.

We stay like this for a long while. From time to time, elderly couples or solitary joggers pass by. Tom writes, sets down his notebook on the snowy sand, picks it up again, and writes some more. From the corner of my eye, I can make out a multitude of Ms, their meaning leaving no doubt. Jeanne wipes away tears, but doesn’t whimper or shake or sniffle. It goes on for a long time. And I murmur to the sea: talk to me, talk to me, talk to me.

When the sun goes down, Jeanne gets up and heads back to the cabin. We watch her walk at a steady pace, silhouetted against the melting light of the sky. It’s just Tom and me now. We’re sitting side by side. Our arms hugging our legs. Our faces buried in our woolen scarves. The waves continue their to-ing and fro-ing, still kicking up a fuss. The stars are out in their thousands against the black sky. I don’t have the strength to count them. Tom doesn’t look at the sky at all. Or the sea. He looks at his knees. Then he closes his eyes. I know that Tom is handsome. I can feel it in every cell of my body. I can’t stop the idea that’s welling up inside me, the possibility of making love to Tom in the room we’re sharing. I silently ask the sky if that would give meaning to this trip. But Tom is almost seven years older, and he was one of my sister’s best friends. To banish the thought, I ask him, even though I already know the answer, “Tom, how did your story end?”

That brings him out of his reverie. He takes a while to regain his bearings, then realizes he’s on a beach with me. He opens his mouth and says slowly, “All the sailors were devoured by the mermaids.”

He closes his eyes again and tilts his head forward. I want to talk about it some more, but it doesn’t really matter. I want to know if Jack managed to get away. He was the clever one, after all. But I hope not. Most stories have a happy ending that no one saw coming.

A break in the bad luck, the misfortune. But that’s rarely how things work out in real life.

“There’s something I can’t stop thinking about,” says Tom suddenly.

His voice is more assured, deeper too. He’s a man. I can hear all the maturity in him, the maturity I don’t have. I realize he’s talking to me like one of them, that in his grief he no longer thinks of me as the youngest, the child.

“There’s a rule that first responders to the scene of an accident must always first take care of those who might make it. For some, it’s too late, or almost. Whereas for others, the rest of their lives might still be ahead of them. They’re the ones to concentrate on.”

I wonder if he’s still talking about the men who were eaten by the mermaids. I imagine other fantastical creatures coming to save the sailors. Trying to resuscitate those with the most limbs still in place. But Tom goes on.

“I think that’s where we got it wrong. It’s too late for Marie. But there’s you, there’s Jeanne. I’m worried about Jeanne. There’s your parents. And there’s me. I don’t know how to take care of us all.”

Tom gets up. He looks at the ocean at last. He pictures all kinds of images that I can only guess at. Their blurred bodies in the water, perhaps a passing fancy for Marie, a surreptitious glance at her breasts while they’re skinny dipping. He holds out a hand and I pull myself up.

***

I can’t sleep. Tom’s breathing is comforting. It mixes with the sound of the waves, almost just as regular themselves. Together they sound like whispering. Tonight I got closer to Tom. Which means I got closer to Marie. I’d like to know what kind of love they had for each other. The conversations they had down by the water. In the water. I’d like to know if when he speaks to me it’s to say all the things he wasn’t able to say to Marie.

***

“Did you know your sister almost died here?”

It’s morning. We’ve just gotten up. Jeanne is holding a big thermos of coffee and I have three tiny cups. We’re walking along the beach, toward the water. This was all we wanted to do when we got up. See the water. Smell the water. Breathe in the ships passing in the distance, slicing through the air. The wind that pulls all our thoughts out to sea, even the very heavy ones.

I turn to Tom. “Died? Here?”

“Right there, yeah,” says Tom, pointing to a spot somewhere in the shifting grey expanse of the Atlantic.

Jeanne looks up, follows Tom’s finger, and faintly agrees. We keep on walking.

“No, I didn’t know. Tell me.”

“We were around your age. It was the first time we came here. We drove all the way even though we’d hadn’t had our licenses for more than a couple of months. We’d practically never left town before. And since we were young and stupid—”

As he says it, he glances at me to see if I’m offended. I’m not. The story’s like a gift to me.

“One night, we’d been drinking and we went for a swim. Long after the lifeguard had left. It was dark. We got so far apart out in the water that we could barely see each other. Then suddenly we lost Marie. We just started shouting her name, telling ourselves how stupid we were, panicking, when a wave pushed her on top of me. I felt her body slip beneath my feet. So I dived down and brought her up to the surface. Jeanne and I carried her back to the beach. She was coughing up saltwater for nearly ten minutes.”

I imagine my sister spitting up water, tearing her lungs apart to keep on living. I imagine her hands grabbing at the sand, and the thought that runs through her head: “I live life to the full. I always live close to death.”

“When we asked her what happened, she couldn’t remember. She said she’d fallen asleep.”

We’re close to the water. Jeanne is the first to sit down, on the same piece of driftwood she chose the first evening. The sun’s out today. Marie had a second life that lasted only a few more years. Huge birds cry out. There are a handful of people strolling along the beach, happy. A woman stretches out her arms and raises her face to the sun. I begin to laugh. What a scene: Marie, nonchalant, carefree, falling asleep swimming in the sea. I laugh. Tom laughs too. He can guess. I see my mom shouting at Marie again, a few years ago when she crawled out of a taxi in front of our house, drunk out of her mind. “When are you going to start giving a damn about something?” A bird gives a loud cry as it flies over us. The shadow of its long white wings passes across our faces.

Jeanne doesn’t budge. She doesn’t laugh. I get up.

“Jeanne! Laugh, would you? Jeanne, say something!”

I jump up and down. Jeanne doesn’t move. Against all odds, Tom gets up, too. He jogs around us a little. His voice joins with mine.

“Jeanne, say something! Say something!”

She closes her eyes. A gust of sea air races at us, envelops us.

“Jeanne, say something! Speak! Laugh!”

We shout louder and louder. Too loud. We’re not laughing any longer.

“Speak, Jeanne. Speak to us!”

We’re shouting at her. Begging her to say something.

“Speak, for God’s sake. Speak!”

She doesn’t flinch. Her gloved finger draws lines in the sand. I turn my back to them, walk away. The sea air is still whirling around me. Powerful, tangible, but elusive. And suddenly I understand. It smells like Marie. It’s impossible to touch, it can’t be captured, just like the ocean revealing itself before our eyes, then slipping away. Like its wind, bringing with it the smell of the freedom we’ll never have. It’s my sister, all the secrets of her black eyes, in life and death. I realize I haven’t been sad since we got here. I cling to the view, to the air. I feel good.

“I’m ready to go home now.”

I give a start. It’s Jeanne. I turn around. Tom has his hand on her shoulder.

“I’m ready to go home now,” she says again.

A strong gust of wind ripples through the yellow grass. Jeanne has found whatever she came looking for. I don’t know if she dug it up from the snow-covered sand, if she saw it floating on a wave, or if she glimpsed it in a seagull’s beak. But she’s smiling. We walk back to the cabin.

We’re sitting on the front porch. It was before my sister moved in with Jeanne, after a fight with our parents. Marie has just finished drawing a long dark line across her eyelids. She’s flapping her hands to help dry her red nail varnish. She looks serious, her hair cut in a bob. She’s staring at a point on the horizon kilometres from here, light years away. Even though she’s waving her hands about, she’s standing up straight, impassive. I’m reading quietly beside her. It’s a July day like the rest, suffocatingly hot, humid. Everything is unbearably still, apart from Marie’s fingers, fluttering against the dark blue sky. Suddenly my sister gets up. She takes a few steps, barefoot on the grass. The nail varnish on her toes is black.

“You’ll see, Sis. One day, you’ll have had enough of all this.”

Her thin arm sweeps across the house, the yard, me. She turns her back to me and raises her voice so that her words reach me over her shoulder.

“All you’ll want to do is get out of there. I dream about it at night. Five years from now, I’ll be far from here, I swear. They say people who live by the sea are happier. It’s a statistic! They’ve proved it! One day I’m going to leave all this behind and start my real life. I’ll live in a tiny cottage, I’ll need nothing. You’ll come visit and we’ll go swimming in the sea, from morning to night.”

She runs toward me, then sits back down with a sigh.

“You’re dreaming, Marie. No one lives like that, with no money, no job.”

“I know. I’m dreaming. It’s all I know how to do.”

Then she leans into my ear and makes the sound of the waves. I gently push her away.

“Anyway, I’m not going to waste away in this town. I’d be better off dead.”

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Translation by Peter McCambridge
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32This story was published in French in Zinc magazine.