“You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Like resignation to the end, always the end”——Someone I Used to Know — Go Tye
I watch as you set sail this morning. So close to me; mere yards away still in my line of sight; I could swim to you so quickly, yet you’re so far away. I’m frozen here, suspended in this sea, a suspension of salt and tears; I’m gliding through wave after wave totally unseen by you. I watch in horrified silence as you pull up anchor for the last time from this vast ocean. This dark mysterious element that’s taken many a strong man down, condemned for having had the will to wrestle it. Yes, it’s swallowed the souls of brave and strong, timid and weak–all meeting, perhaps some seeking, the same fate: deep silence.
Yet you are one of the lucky ones. You’ll leave this sea for the same reason you came to it: Escape. This singular concept has captivated you and countless other men over the centuries. You will ultimately abandon this sea, and those that remain here. Yet I know it will never completely leave you. Its waters course your blood now.
Escape has a magnetic pull all of its own. Combined with the pull of the moon, this sea has tempted then swallowed men from all continents for eons as it whispers: Come set sail with me. Ride me; and I’ll give you a highway with no one on it. And to a few who hear incorrectly: Tame me. I’m yours.
And then there’s me. Seen only by the rarest few I choose to allow, I bare my soul, my body, always with hope—this incessant, plague-ridden hope that there will be a way other than death to make you stay. Never! The sea denies me. Never!
Haunting. That’s the word you said to me when you first saw the endless deep in my eyes. I’ve heard it in other centuries by other men, but from you it suddenly meant well–more. Arrested you said as you described your heart around me. Soft as sea glass were the words you used when you caressed my tale. Then suddenly you’re: Gone. When I leave you, I’ll lie to myself: what you leave behind you don’t miss anyway.
My tail is anchored to me as much as it is separate from me; for it is a tale as old as time itself. The tail of a mermaid is worshiped and cherished by the fraternity of the sea as a symbol of freedom and of wanderlust–the sea’s mysterious ways, and yet I know differently.
For it is not a tale of freedom, but a soft and gentle enslavement. A craving to be bound to a soul that equally yearns to be anchored to no man, to no ideal, to no promise, no permanent residence. Certainly to no woman. My tail is my story; it is a part of me as much as it is about me. I can’t remove it, though God knows sometimes I would if I could.
I don’t know if God purposed this tail to assist me or to curse me; perhaps it was to protect me. Either way, it is mine and mine alone. Never will I feel the Italian leather strap wrapped around my ankle propping me up like the land women you always return to but never give your heart to. Even when I gave you my body, I knew it was only half of what you needed. I would never be enough. I have the potential to swim for miles, yet I stay anchored always to drifting in the same circles, hiding, avoiding danger, and cursed above all: waiting in silence.
I’ll never take to the skies and fly across the continents like your land women do. Never will I be adorned with a diamond or a ring of gold. Yet once you placed a string of pearls around my neck. I laughed at the irony. Why I could get those anywhere! But your heart was pure that day. I cupped my auburn hair to my right shoulder and let you clasp them around me as I felt your hands wrap around me. You touched me where I was vulnerable, the parts of me that other men spend countless hours laboriously carving, sanding, smoothing, painting, while silently worshiping me more and more in the process of trying to recreate me. It’s odd, these figureheads of me mounted like a sacrifice to adorn their ship’s bow in order to ward off evil spirits, as if that’s where their protection lay.
When I felt your warm touch on this sacred part of me, I immediately felt electrified, like an eel. Did you know then what you were doing to me? What you were touching? Were you aware of this singular moment in time? Rareness. One in a hundred million. Exquisiteness.
I forever remember the night I met you Captain. With your steely legs and arms bursting with enormous strength, yet a conscience as fragile as fine porcelain. You awoke, drowing in my blue sea Captain. Do you remember how? I watched from afar as you emptied in futility a brown bottle of spirits, tossing it afterwords carelessly into the sea. You kept looking over the starboard as if looking for the lost part of you in some magic mirror. Did you forget who you were?
Intuition is such a curse. You always know what’s going to happen next.
I could almost hear you pleading and doubting. Jesus. Could you take the time to throw a drowning man a line?
When you jumped into the soothing warm depths I understood. We all want to escape that which haunts our soul and terrorizes our ability to move forward.
You were in the black. You couldn’t see or be seen. And so you fell, drowning man. You went down, down, down. I waited a moment as I watched, mesmerized, momentarily paralyzed by the last trace of your beautifully illuminated face as it quietly slipped away under the moonlight. It was then I risked discovery as I propelled towards you like lightening. My sea sisters shook their heads as if to say, ” No! Don’t!”
It’s a lesson my heart can’t wrap its tentacles around. “ Don’t you know,” Father Neptune once told me, “The moment you start to save them, you begin to lose them?”
I couldn’t believe then how this could be true. But I understand now. It’s so hard for man to maintain belief in something he can’t see, much less prove to others. This cognitive dissonance you possess, this incredible ability to love me the deepest and believe in me more than you do yourself, and yet in the span of a singular sunrise leave me, forgetting me, sometimes for a very long while. This! This is the scourge of my soul, the reason for my tears.
I dove straight down until I found you. I didn’t have a choice, but to lift you up. So I did; I lifted you up with my tail. I carried you away. I wanted to keep you, just for me, if only for a little while. My arms embraced you. My hands, though small were strong enough to pull you up and out. I pulled you towards me. I blew the breath of life into you, until I could feel your heartbeat against mine, until we were in sync, co-existing, two hearts that beat as one.
Oh Captain, how magnificent that moment was. The night your life came back to you, I thought I would burst with joy. I should’ve known from that moment forward a small piece of my soul would be taken with you on each ensuing voyage.
When you came to, you were looking deep in my eyes as if standing on the edge of unbelief. It’s not a mirage of madness I nodded. It’s true. I’m here. I saved you!
We lingered in the water for a while, neither of us daring to move. The crescent moon sliced our water with a bright blaze of wet white light, near to us, yet just out of reach. I let you hold me for a while hoping, praying you could somehow divine what I most wanted. Yet it could never be. You, o creature of land, could never stay here. I knew that too. But denial is a sea where even a mermaid can drown.
Our arms wrapped around one another, my tail gave your weary legs stability as we tread water for a spell, entwined like vines of the sea. I saw a tear begin to fall from your eye. I put my finger to it. You hung your head in shame.
“My sweet angel. My sweet angel of the abyss. How could you save me? For I am an unworthy man. I’ve been dishonest. I bartered my soul in exchange for silver and gold. All my men! They’re sailing their last voyage. They’ve been promised by the arrogant kings of earth treasures of glorious riches, but deep down they know. They’re off to fight the endless wars started by these same wicked kings and rulers whose blood lust is always for more–whose wars were always the choice of the chosen who will not have to fight. More land! More treasure! Above all, more power! My protection is assured; I only have to deliver them to the carnage, pawns of their kings, to their dreadful end. I’ve always had the luxury of returning home. Yet I’ve exchanged many nights of rest for these few days of worthless riches. The only thing more vast than this God-forsaken sea is my sorrows. And now my sorrows have learned to swim.”
I couldn’t take another minute. Why? Why is living on the land so complicated? Where is the love? Why can’t there be peace on earth? And in return one’s soul?
At that moment I put my lips to yours. Your strength was not without humility. You did not know your weakness was actually a treatable disease. You, a mere man who resisted interrogations of all sorts, who fought and won many a battle and overcame some temptations in your younger years, fought me not when I kissed you. You kissed me back. Then you closed your eyes. Were you blinded by the beauty of me and my home in the sea or were you pushing back a life filled with too many lies? Did you savor the taste of my salt-water kisses? Did you carve a place somewhere deep in your heart at that moment reserved just for me? In this garden of the sea, my gypsy heart simultaneously shattered and swooned. The seas swirled; everything was spinning around us. We were kissing, living life true by moonlight, but only for a little while.
It was time to return the Captain of the Gloria. Back to the men who would be depending on you—your fierce courage in adversity, your decisions under pressure, your steady confidence as together you faced perilous storms and unknown futures. You knew. You didn’t fight me when I began leading you back to your ship. A stroke of fate had allowed a sailor on deck to hear you as you splashed into the water. A crew was already in the water searching for a trace of you with their search lights. As we neared your vessel, I propelled you like a rocket, away from me. In a flash I was gone.
I dove down deep, always evading discovery. I’m able to suspend time unlike you. On my way down, the last thing I saw were your feet. I froze here for a moment. For all eternity I will replay that moment in my mind. For the briefest of time you were with me, but I know this to be true. You will walk on. Yet in my dreams, I stay here, always falling– falling at your feet.
Forever my mind will see visions of you, a treasure just to look upon it. Eternally my heart will pine for you. And I will always wonder but one thought: Had I remained visible, would you have returned to me?
The morning after I saved you, the skies were clear. You didn’t pull up anchor. Nor the next. Or the one after. I could not imagine what excuses you used to avoid sailing. And on the fourth day, I saw you then. Your dark hair tossed with strands of silver, and strong arms escaping your white sailor’s shirt.
I saw it then. I followed the curves and lines of your sinewy arms down to your forearms as you hoisted the sails that would eventually carry you home, and away from me. A tattoo. Your first one; your only one. A man your age with virgin skin on these seas was so rare, but during this voyage, you broke ranks with yourself and cut yourself for me, exchanging your blood for the inky green of the sea. I knew. Only love could leave such a mark.
I smiled when I saw this portrait of myself reflected in the mirror of your skin. I cried too. I knew these same arms would deliver Abraham’s sons to their death; collect a king’s reward, and ultimately wrap around the torso of another. Your strong hands would outline the small of a back of a woman who could walk the earth, and say what she meant, though she would know you not. Not like me.
I was overcome as I was left in the water. Waves of regret and waves of joy washed over me. In five years, I saw you three times after the night I saved you. You would share more secrets with me each time. You would kiss me as your adorned me with your pearls, electrifying me with your touch. Each of us would be what the other wished to possess but could never have.
But the last time I saw you, I stayed far away. I could see storm clouds gathering that your eyes couldn’t yet see. Death would be your fate if you were to fall in love with only my humanity. I saw you late the night before pacing from bow to stern checking with the stars and searching with your binoculars for that which you knew, but couldn’t prove. I, the harbor in your tempest, the lighthouse of your soul, will always be here. I know deep down you will come to know this, and yet you will continue to returning to this place until finally you simply believe it.
That is when I will see you no more. You will make your peace with your memory of me and your life with all of its trials and storms and lies and heartaches. You will reconcile them along with possessing the beauty of a woman who walks, a baby who smiles, and men who’ll give their life for you and a few who did, and all the fine things that treasure can buy. Yet I know on the darkest nights, when your soul is in knots and your heart is black and blue, and you’re fleeing again all that pains you, I, the soul of your mermaid will be with you. I’ll be your North Star; I’ll be the one that lights your way. I’ll help you and carry you as you navigate safely home. Always!
*Mermaid Painting on Porcelain Plate: Ruth Price – Artist — Beaufort, NC