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Authors: Erika Swyler

The Mermaid Girl

BOOK: The Mermaid Girl
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When evening crawled in, Paulina was lying in bed, watching a migraine's oily blind spot drip across her field of vision, remembering the years of hand-stitching sequins. She listened to the waves roll against the cliffs, the creaking of her very old house, and pictured the two boxes. The first was a cigar box in which she kept red sequins for the magician's assistant dress she wore when working with Michel Lareille—a tube with a wire frame buried inside, which gave her a figure before she'd grown one. The second was a hatbox filled with green sequins for her mermaid tail. The absent hat had been her mother's. The cigars had been her father's. The boxes were hers, though she shared the red sequins with Michel. His hands shook too much after shows, so she'd repaired his bowtie and vest. Though it was Michel's circus, later his carnival, it had always felt like hers.

She touched the tips of her fingers together, where years later the skin was still tough from the needle, from the hundreds and thousands of times she'd stabbed herself, drawn blood, and buried the stain beneath a sequin.

The baby was crying.
Oh, God.
Small feet stumbled down the hallway. Simon, running to check on his sister. Nothing made noise quite like a six-year-old boy. The relief that she wouldn't have to get up was matched by the guilt that she'd already trained her son around her headaches. But these were things you did. All the books she'd read said it was imperative to make sure that your older children understood that a baby was theirs, too. That a younger sibling was a gift, like a puppy or a kitten, only better because they'd be there your entire life. Her children would never be alone. Simon took to brothering so well it was almost criminal. The caring in him came from Daniel. The craving to have someone for himself came from her.

When she was eleven, to stop the bleeding, Michel had kissed her fingertips as though they were a scraped knee, frightening the part of her that still believed that age was contagious.

“I sometimes feel like your grandpapa,” he'd said. “Would you like that?”

“You're old enough,” she'd said.

He'd laughed. “So I am. Enough sewing.” He spent the rest of the morning showing her a card trick he called the Four Dominions
He made the kings bounce and slide, and disappear.

She'd wanted that, a grandfather. Someone who would stay. Michel had an eyetooth that turned sideways and she loved it more than anything else in the world. But someone wasn't yours because you loved a tooth.

Now she missed him during headaches, when she was on the edge of dreaming. She missed him when she smelled clove cigarettes and anytime she was in a car. He'd let her ride in the passenger's seat of his panel truck whenever her father was in a foul mood. He twirled the radio knobs until he found jazz. Michel liked 1930s singers, nasal-voiced women, and men who sounded like they gargled marbles. She learned that there were stretches of Route A1A that made her heart buzz like a trumpet with a Harmon mute. During the quiet he smoked to stay awake.

“It's a terrible habit,” he'd said, a cigarette pinched between his thumb and index finger. “If you start, I'll tell your father to feed you to one of the cats. That's a quicker, better death.”

An idle threat. Her father wouldn't risk the cats getting indigestion.

“If it's so bad, why don't you stop?” she'd asked.

“It's not the same for me. I was born to it.”

She'd wondered if smoking was for him like the Russos and their red underwear. The Russo girls had liked to sit on the trapeze and flash everyone their bright red panties as they warmed up. Lucia Russo had said it was a family thing. Tradition.

The blind spot spread and drifted to the side, sliding across the ceiling, and she wondered why she'd never told Michel that she'd wished he was her grandfather. She'd stitched the sequins on his vest, squared the edges on his ties, and watered his scotch whenever she could, because a wrong fall might kill him.

The sequins ruined her fingers. Thimbles might have saved her, but she'd hadn't known about them when she'd started, and by the time she did, the damage was done. She'd stabbed herself enough that her left hand barely had feeling in the fingertips, making touch a negotiation of where she ended and everyone else began.


Daniel was home, which meant it was 5:45. She'd been in bed for an hour and the blindness would soon dissolve, but the pain would sharpen, and within two hours she'd be in the bathroom, throwing up. Enola hadn't been crying the full hour. That was good, better than last time. It had been a nice notion to call her Enola, reclaiming a tarnished name with something as hopeful as a baby girl. But in the years after Simon's birth she and Daniel had forgotten that babies could be like bombs.

Her name, again. She didn't answer. Her voice rattling around inside her head would only make the pain open. As harsh as outside noises were, the ones that came from inside were worse.

Daniel smelled like ride grease, though machine oil all smelled the same. Heavy, sour, and sharp. She knew he understood why she loved the smell of grease.

“Did you take your pills?”



“Fine. Get them.”

Pills were a crapshoot, a wish more than anything, and not as pleasant as a large cup of coffee with two shots of whiskey, a trick Michel had taught her at thirteen, when the headaches first started, after she'd spent night shows in the mermaid tank, living on five breaths an hour. She swallowed the pills and waited for her stomach to roll.

In an hour and forty-five minutes, her cheek was pressed to the bathroom tiles. She squinted and saw Simon peering around the door. Big-eyed, snotty-nosed. Red-stained Kool-Aid mouth. He needed a haircut. Beautiful.


“Just napping.” She smiled and closed her eyes.

*   *   *

For days after a headache, her sleep was erratic. In the dark morning hours, the ritual of paper against paper was calming, even if she couldn't always feel the edges of the cards. Shuffling, cutting, was as automatic as braiding her hair, tying her shoes, or wiping a smudge away with spit and a thumb. She asked questions. Michel had taught her that all cards came with questions, whether reading tarot, playing poker, or doing magic.

Mom, I need to talk to you.

Queen of Cups.

Mom, I need to talk to you.

Queen of Swords.

Mom, how do you get away from water?

Ace of Cups and the rolling water.

“Mom?” her little boy said. Always watching, that one. Like his father, like the water right before a good storm rolled in. How was it possible to want to stay and leave somewhere so badly?

“What's wrong, darling?”

“Can't sleep.” There was too much spit in the S. He'd grow out of it eventually; it wasn't worth real concern, but silly things like that pierced her. Had he no faults, she would miss the soft worries she had over all his imperfections. The joy of children was the worry, the constant reminder that a piece of you was running loose in the world.

“Come here,” she said. Simon folded into her, a missing rib come home.

“What are you doing?” he asked, face pressed into her side.

“Just talking to myself,” she said. She scratched his head lightly with her right hand, feeling each hair in a way that her left hand wouldn't allow.


“Because I'm the best listener.”

“Tell me a story,” he said.

“Dad read two whole books to you at bedtime.”

“Yeah. But your stories are better.”

“They are, aren't they?”

Tucked in bed, Simon wanted to hear about the eel prince again. He liked bloody stories, so this time she embellished. She lingered on how the eel prince's lazy, deceitful brothers-in-law lopped his head off with the sharp edge of a curved sword, and how blood poured from the eel prince's body and turned the whole sea red.

“That's why it's the Red Sea,” she said, and felt clever for it. Though the eel prince was from somewhere else, somewhere far. God only knew who she'd first heard the story from. Maybe her father had told her, before he'd left to find another show. Her father went where the cats went; they'd been more his children than she. It might have been Stella, who sold popcorn and grinned out stories through two broken teeth. Maybe Michel had told it to her, when he was lush with booze. Sometimes, on the odd nights she'd spied a man leaving his trailer, he'd ramble until he fell asleep. He liked a story that was equal parts beauty and gore. Books, she hadn't had books until she'd found Daniel and stopped moving.

Simon rubbed the edge of the blanket against the bridge of his nose, just like he had as a baby. He probably would still when he was a man. It was still a shock to see her eyes and the shape of her face in a little boy.

A shadow passed the door. Daniel in the hallway, waiting.

*   *   *

She was twelve and sitting on the bumper of the Airstream, pressing her knees together to make them kiss, when Michel told her, “I can't keep the animals. The money required to feed them, the transport, it's drowning us. It's time to admit I run a better carnival than a circus.”

“Where will we go?”

“A bigger show,” he'd said softy. “A proper circus. Your father will be fine. There are always places for fearless men.”

There weren't many places for young girls. Not places that would feel like home.

“I want to stay.”

“Good.” It was a simple word, but held infinite comfort.

He told her that he'd had to beg her father and offer him an exorbitant amount of money. Later, Paulina learned from Lucia Russo that her father had asked Michel to take care of her, that he'd offered Michel money to keep her, but Michel had refused it. She'd asked Michel why.

“Because I should have taken better care of your mother,” he said. “And because a man like me doesn't get to have children. But mostly, because men like me must make our families, and I adore you, little fish.”

BOOK: The Mermaid Girl
7.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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