The Lost Mermaid
Reading Time: 5 minutes
"The Lost Mermaid" originally appeared in Issue 21 of Tahoma Literary Review. In this short piece from Marzo, three traveling friends consider the potential of magical realism as they move between sea and land and their imagination.
Teresa claimed she didn’t understand magical realism but hoped to figure it out before her flight left the next day. We were standing in the Caribbean, having walked down the cement stairs that led directly into the water. Next to a pelican beating its huge wings, we balanced in our flip-flops on porous grey rocks as the tide knocked against our ankles. The coral, shaped like a dousing rod and wound with a curl of seaweed, fit in Teresa’s palm. She had the idea of it decorating a dresser back home until Caleb pointed out that it was alive. So, she took pictures instead, and now we were bringing it back to the sea. The question was whether to throw the coral far out into the water—which felt aggressive and insensitive, and risked detaching the delicate growth of seaweed—or set it gently into the shallow water, knowing the tide would go out, and the coral would dry up and die despite our efforts.
“If this was magical realism,” Teresa said. “We could become mermaids and wouldn’t have to decide.”
She went with an underhand toss. We stared a moment longer at the cruise ships in the harbor before walking up the steps to Melgar, the street which ran, as far as we knew, all the way around the island in view of the water.
We made it to the top. Tres amigos. The last remaining of our conference. We meandered, not ready to return to the hotel, talking about all the things that were already memories like chocolate with spiced mango chili, lime soup, and imagined staying. Could you see yourself living in that house? What about that one? We had walked at least a mile away from the main road and into a quiet street empty of tourists except us. Boxes of overripe fruit and dustier versions of souvenirs we’d seen everywhere told us they probably didn’t get as much business. The light breeze stirred a pink dress hanging above one of the shops. A dozen dresses on display, only one shifted in the wind—like a beckoning. Inside, clear plastic-protected piles of dresses—vibrant blues, yellows, and whites. We shook our heads many times until the shopkeeper blocked our exit holding up the pink dress I’d been admiring. The front was faded to the gentlest blush of pink. The back, unexposed to the sun, was as vibrant as a post-it. “We may as well take a look inside” had become “You may well try it on.” I liked the way the light pink matched a pink in my cheeks I hadn’t known was there, causing me to break the gaze with my reflection—in dismay. Not wanting to buy anything, I accidentally haggled.
“Now you have to buy it,” Teresa said. Something about the words spoken held the potential of prophecy. I placed my palm against the textured embroidery at my abdomen and then it was mine. Pesos fresh from the ATM meant for food or ferry tickets but “when you wear it you won’t think about what you spent.” Another idea that could be true. With the pink cotton in my arms, a breeze picked us up again.
We looked for dinner in neighborhoods with broken pavement and narrowing sidewalks. Elaborate murals of eyeballs, sea turtles, faces melting into rainbows guided us past a storefront with big windows and a balcony facing the sea. Empty. Se Renta.
“You’ve just bought that building,” Curtis informed us. “What will you open there?”
We were writers and all thought the same thing:
“The island could use a bookstore.”
“But wouldn’t it be funny if we opened a Taco Bell?”
The tourists would flock there, we decided, and wondered what irony had on authenticity, and why should the collision of two worlds be so perilous, anyway? We continued the old game: Would you live in that yellow house? Only if you live in the house next door. Many walls had sparkling points of broken glass sticking up from the concrete.
The first restaurant had white cloth-covered tables and waiters in pressed shirts and black slacks. The menu listed pizza instead of the Yucatan cuisine we were craving. A cat blocked the exit, lengthening before the door as if trained to stop us.
Walking farther and farther inland, our conversation dulled as we moved toward a sharp squeal that reminded me of dozens of Tibetan singing bowls crying out in unison. We stepped directly into the sound. In the place it was loudest, we saw the source—tall trees in the median of the road, the branches filled with birds, black shadows in the dusk—their sound transporting us. We pushed through the noise.
On the other side of the sound, in the now dark streets, we found a cluster of taco trucks. A woman stopped knitting a pink dress to take our order. Hungry, we ordered too much, our paper plates bending under the weight of hand-pressed tortillas and piles of braised meat, al pastor, thinly sliced from huge chunks of pork over a fire. We balanced on aluminum stools at a steel shelf that unfolded from the side of the truck and scooped fresh herbs and salsa with plastic spoons. Our fingers hooked around the necks of glass bottles of Coca Cola.
That’s when we noticed the mermaid taped to the truck. Lost: Mermaid. Bold letters above a photograph of a canvas painting. At the bottom of the poster, a WhatsApp number. “If this was magical realism…” but we didn’t have to say. We all knew the mermaid would be real, and maybe as reluctant to leave this island as she would the sea. We finished our tacos slowly, staring at strings of lights between the trucks, enjoying the warm night.
Next to the taqueria, was a Domino’s Pizza, a fleet of delivery scooters parked outside. Each delivery bike had a sidecar. Teresa said, “IF this was magical realism, we’d get on those bikes and ride into the night, and you’d be wearing your pink dress.” I could feel the cotton hem against my bare legs, the night air on my calves. When I looked down, I was wearing the pink dress. When had I put it on? What happened when we walked through the noise? Maybe because my memory had always been shitty or I wanted to lean into the moment like we did the sound, I went with it, tracing the embroidered flowers before looking at my companions. The bow tied at the back of the dress was so long, I felt it move like a tail when I turned around.
“Let’s go,” I said, sliding onto a scooter. Teresa got on behind me with Caleb in the sidecar. I’d never driven a scooter before but I knew it didn’t matter. We clipped on our helmets and zoomed away, the wind picking up my long hair and the edges of the skirt flapping like wings. I thought we’d drive into the Caribbean and live like mermaids until Caleb shouted over the wind, “This place has swings.” So we stopped and went into the bar for mojitos and brought them out to the swings.
We weren’t there long when Teresa noticed the gate in the shadows with a heavy, old padlock. She said, “If this was magical realism, we’d go through that gate into another world.” Caleb said, “If this was YA magical realism, I’d just happen to have a key in my pocket.” He pantomimed pullout out a key. Teresa and I blinked in surprise, hanging tight to the ropes of our swings. Caleb’s eyes followed ours to the key he thought he was only pretending to hold, the key that glinted in the almost absent light of the outdoor bar, almost as green with rust as the padlock.
We slid off the swings and walked into the shadows. Through the bars in the gate we could see the narrow alleyway that emptied into the street beyond, but a wavering of the air, like rising heat, told us the picture we looked at was not the whole picture. The lock clicked open and, with a clang, we unlatched it. Then we knew—magical realism was everything as it is but also a wish. As we walked through the portal, we could hear again, the electric squeal of birds, and beyond it, there might be mermaids, in the world where they belonged.