1. Do not stand on the shore and soulfully look out to sea. If you do so, all you will see is a log floating in the shallows, or a silver fish, or a shadow beneath the wave that is neither human or animal. We will glide right past and you will never know we’ve been here, except that your hair and clothes will be so damp you will wonder if you walked through a rainstorm and hadn’t noticed. Your intention, of course, is to find one of us and fall in love. You have been dreaming of us, and in your dreams we are made out of moonlight and water, we call you to us, and you step into the creek in your backyard and are carried along to the sea. We have all the time in the world, and we are cold, we will chill you down to your bones. When you imagine our first embrace, you imagine ecstasy. For good reason.
Crouch down, be humble, do not show us what we do not possess, the freedom of your legs and of your vast world. We are known to be jealous. We can be moody and disappear in an instant. Instead, show us your face. In that, we are similar.
2. Do not carry a fishing pole, or worse, a net. Every man who dreams of us dreams a fisherman’s dreams. We will be caught and tied and taken from our element, we will be yours, in a bathtub, in the dark, without words. Do not be disappointed, we speak, like any other woman, and the truth is, we want what all women want. Someone who will talk to us, tell us stories, make us tea. Our dreams are of beds with clean sheets, bowls of hot soup, cottages where yellow roses grow outside the door. What is simple for you is complicated for us. Merely walking down a street is impossible given our condition, running through a field of grass is what we dream of most. We yearn for a man who loves us as if we were a simple woman and not a dream, as if our long dark hair did not reach to the floor, and our eyes were not sea-green. There is only one net that can hold us, a strand of words stretched out in the shallows: come to me, hear only me, I know you even though you are a mystery, I know love is a simple thing.
Those with nets will only find fish. That is not what we are.
3. Carry salt, which we always desire. Do not forget pears, from trees we have never seen and which we imagine blooming as we fall asleep in the depths on our beds of coral. Bring a dress made of silk. Red is best. In your backpack have a photograph of yourself as a child. Have chocolates and leather-bound books. Pearls are nothing to us. We have treasures you cannot imagine, and yet we yearn for your world, a leaf, a kiss, a front door. You have to draw us to you with those earthly things that make life on land worth living. If you begin to read, we will hear you. Tell us that once upon a time there was a young woman who was lost, say she found her way through cold waters, that given the right circumstances — a vow of true love, and complete devotion — she discovered she could walk. You will be speaking of miracles, of transformations that seem impossible. But we will listen. It is so cold where we are beneath the sea that our flesh turns blue, our scales are silver, but we long for things we can never have: sunlight, bookstores, shops filled with spices, children running to us through the grass, and, now that we have heard you, you most of all.
4. Now we wait for you, in the creek beside your house. We listen to the wrens and the mourning doves in the woods. We can hear the wind. There are ferns and old oak trees and the water is shallow. We bleed on the sharp edges of the rocks. We have to lay flat in certain places where there is a bend so that the water will cover us. My sisters leave at night, dehydrated, disenchanted, sick of the world of men. I stay in the one last deep pool where there are minnows so pale they are nearly invisible. You walk outside. It is July and hot and you come to the creek and crouch down. You put your hand in the water, and that is when you catch me. Without meaning to, without a net, my hand meets yours.
5. My kiss is cold — no one tells you the truth about that. But, if you mind, you don’t say. Love with me is like a dream, you whisper, and soon enough the water around us is hot as tap water. Nothing is cold. I can’t even remember the ocean. What is coral? What are pearls? Nothing but stones in the sea.
People say I pulled you into the creek, but that isn’t true. Nothing could have kept you away. Anyway, the water was shallow.
6. There has never been anyone like me, that’s true. I am a woman, but something more. It is the more that seduces you, but it is the woman you hold in your arms as you tell the story of your life, how you grew up in a city, one of many brothers, how you felt as if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that, we are the same. I am already forgetting where I came from and only think of what I want. That is always a mistake.
7. In August, the creek dries up. You carry buckets of water through a field of ferns. You turn on the garden hose and keep it running. And then one day you bring out a net. I gasp and say nothing when you carry me into your house. The bathtub is full. You don’t mean to trap me, only to save me. And although I listen, I’ve heard this story before.
8. I am paler, ice blue. I’ve cut my aqua-coloured fingernails and painted them red. I wear my hair in braids tied with ribbons. Your friends don’t like me, no matter what I do. They say I think I’m better than they are and when I speak it sounds as though I’m underwater. You tell them how wonderful I am, revealing private information about our lives. You show them the bathtub and how you fill it with water from the creek; the men bashfully scoop up the minnows I bathe with, and blush with the mystery of who I am. When they have dinner parties, their wives don’t invite me. They don’t give a reason but I know it has something to do with my green eyes, with their husbands pleading with them to put ice cubes in their mouths, so their kisses will be more like mine.
9. It is Winter and the creek is frozen. I can see it from my window. There is the pear tree I always longed to see, black and coated in ice. I have soup for supper. I sleep in a bed. You have begun to leave me at home. It is too difficult to carry me, to make excuses. At night, you come home drunk and throw yourself into bed. I try to walk, and soon learn. You applaud me, but you seem disappointed and at night you complain that my kiss isn’t as cold, that I do not chill you, that I am like any other woman, wanting you home in the evenings, crying in bed.
10. At last, you bring me signs of Spring; wavering branches of pear blossoms, a wren in a cage who soon forgets how to sing. The snow melts. When I wear a long skirt, I look like any other woman as I hang laundry on the line. I listen to you, drinking beer in the house and laughing with your friends. But I also hear the creek, which is beginning to rise once again. When I leave, you will follow. For weeks you will crouch on the bank of ferns, reaching into the cold water, mourning what you’ve lost, but you won’t catch me. I’m already gone.
— How To Fall In Love With A Mermaid, by Alice Hoffman.
[Photography by Grant Brummett.]