Issue 42.2, Winter/Spring 2022
Dear Mermaid, Dead Mermaid
News of the mermaid’s death comes on a Friday morning. Her photo is slipped underneath our doors. Whoever did it wants us to know, every one of us on the island, to be angry in time for the fish fry.
We two hundred know each other like siblings. There’s the old woman who walks her cat on a leash once a day, the summer boy who combs his hair with a fishbone, the lobstermen, the lobster sellerwomen, the lusty teenagers, the children in strap-on backpacks. We are all different versions of the same, and we are in love with life here on the island, of fish and salt and sky. We are artists, lobstermen, teleworkers, business owners, teachers, volunteer firemen. We have enough trees to last us a century. We have potlucks and parades and volleyball games on the rocky beach. We make baskets out of used lobster rope. We read the same books over and over. We swim in the cold, every morning, no matter the weather. Our eyes and noses are saline clean.
The mermaid died on Red Rock Beach. We recognize the red granite in the photo. But by the time we show up, noon, her body is gone.
We don’t know who did it, but we have a good guess. One of the windworkers. But which one, and why? There are a hundred of them to our two hundred. They wear ugly orange jumpers like convicts. We’ve only seen their faces through binoculars but even from afar we can see their hate. They walk as if they own the world. They sneer at our island and spit at us from a mile away.
We never thought these hideous turbines would come to the coast of Maine. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But it did; the construction workers showed up in early June.
Summer hasn’t ended, and the mermaid is dead. But the wind turbines are still under construction.
The mermaid showed herself to us one by one. Only when we were alone.
Elliot the island drunk heard her scold him sober. Sophia became inspired to join the church choir and find her voice. The mermaid transformed Levi from a mean bartender to a kind gardener; he now brings us compost for our backyard gardens. She came to Tony in a dream, and he never slept again. She told Liam where the lobsters would be. She brought Ally the answers to curing her ailing father’s cough. Violet fell madly in love.
At first, we all kept our sightings a secret, but our secret slipped out bit by bit, with a strange phrase that would make someone raise their eyebrows, then a bit more of a release, a test, to see if the other would understand what the first one meant by “I saw her this morning” without saying who “she” was. Once our secret was shared, we discussed sightings as we discussed the weather. We all saw different things and heard different things. Her voice was described as a high-pitched wail or a low, somber tune. Yet our sightings all had commonalities: She came when we needed time to think. She came when we worried that something horrible would happen. We would be on the rocky shores, bare feet in the water, at dawn or dusk or high solar noon. Stepping with care from rock to rock without looking down, letting the rocks come in the periphery. Our feet walk through the stones with the grace of sea creatures, it’s second nature. What’s the first?
Mermaids were here first. That was the sense we got, each one of us, when this beautiful creature burned our eyes. There are many of them, and they were here first. They were here before the windworkers, before the lobstermen, before us. And now their life is under threat.
Only one mermaid showed herself. She had long hair the color of moss, seaweed, tree bark, and more. It flowed around her chest and back. Her tail, we glimpsed as she swam away—
deep red with black spots, like the tail of a lobster. She was the messenger, the scout. The voice. But we knew there were more. She always said “we.” We knew she had a community, a family, a city, a life. Sometimes we saw the flip of a second fin. But never a face.
She spoke with a voice that sounded like waves whispering in our ear—like a seashell. She said sweet things that made our hearts want to burst. Every single one of us fell in love. Every time we stepped in the ocean, we looked to the horizon, hoping she would appear. She had a beauty that grew with every swell of the sea, a face as smooth as the pearl of a conch, seaweed hair that flowed, a smile that could turn angry in an instant.
She took in our secrets, even though we had none. Our only secret was love for her. With her, we felt completely ourselves, completely human, singular. A rush to the head of joy. A feeling that we knew the entire ocean by heart.
The mermaid watched us as we gathered lobsters and held communion. She tickled our feet while we bathed. Even from afar, she spoke as if her voice was in our ear. She told us about her sisters and mothers. Things we dare not speak or write. Then, one by one, we fell in love.
It’s a bad summer for lobsters.
We know it’s the windworkers. We knew this would happen, but it’s worse than we thought. They cut through our lobster nets. They’ve displaced our buoys and made it impossible to find our traps. The electromagnetic waves are throwing the lobsters into disarray. The construction noise has scared them further asea. There are many reasons we’ve learned about how windworkers can harm our lobsters. Which particular one is true matters not. The fact that we’re unable to prove it matters not. Last summer, the lobsters were fine. This summer, they’re not. It’s them.
We still catch enough to feed ourselves, but we are required to trade most of them away. We keep barely enough for the midsummer lobster festival.
A lobster never tastes so sweet as the summer when we only eat one. They bathe in butter and die in screams. They wave their tails like mermaids. We all pick our lobsters from a slow-moving heap, stick our knives through their heads, put them in a hot tub of boiling water, lose track of our own, then find it at the end. When they boil, the dead lobsters scream just as loudly as the living, so what use is there for mercy? We show mercy nonetheless. They say ocean waters are also getting warmer, like the water in our boiling pots. They say that’s why we need the windworkers. To that we ask, who are they? To them we ask, have you felt the freezing waters of a Maine morning in summer? The day our waters boil will be a day of miracles.
We are the first generation of witnesses to the mermaids of Maine. If she showed herself to our forefathers, they never spoke of it, never wrote it, never passed down the tales except in songs of jest. And always the children played mermaids versus sharks, tag on the ocean shore, though the winners tended to be whoever could last longest in the freezing waters. This summer, the game transformed. Mermaids versus windworkers. The windworkers chopped their arms onto the shoulders of mermaids. The mermaids had to avoid the arms and jam their elbows with kelp. A kelped windworker became a mermaid; a bruised mermaid became a windworker. The children played this game so long with no winners—each side getting larger then smaller then larger again — that we had to pull them from the water once their lips turned blue.
No one outside our island knew about the mermaids, however. Until the windworkers came.
We try to stop them, but there is nothing we can do. Some people somewhere decide our water is fair game. We know they’re right. This is what we love about it. The wide and wild sky.
We watch a skeleton platform emerge into the sky, layer by layer. Then the tower, bright red and high. And boats that come in and out every day, bringing in more parts and supplies. The orange jumpsuits sleep on the wind turbine construction platform. They wake early and buzz with saws and hammers in the morning sun.
For now it’s just construction. They have yet to bury cables in the ocean floor where the lobsters hide in crevices. They have yet to chop their blades through the necks of our puffins and warblers. Even so, the noise hurts our ears. It disrupts our lobsters. And they are just getting started.
We can’t charge them with murder. We don’t have a body. Without a body, we can’t alert the authorities. They would think we were mad.
But we know she’s dead. The photo is no fake. The windworkers aren’t as sophisticated as that. More than that, we know it by the way the ocean keeps silent. The waves barely make a sound when they break on the shore. When we walk on the beach, alone, searching for stones with our bare feet, we yell and the noise stops an inch from our faces. The ocean mourns for the loss of its mermaid and it blankets the air in grief. No other sound can break free until her honor is avenged. It is up to us.
How did she die? The photo shows no major damage, just a life-limp body in a position that could not be sleeping, facing up but curved too far backward on a pointed boulder, fins on one side of the rock, body on the other, both dangling down, with eyes closed and mouth agape. Even dead and dangling in a grainy Polaroid she is beautiful enough to put lumps in our throats.
She dies on a Friday, we mourn on a Saturday, and we gather in the communion hall on Sunday. We discuss what we should do.
“We should talk to them. See what they know.”
“They hate us! They won’t say a thing.”
“We should make them leave.”
“There’s no way. They’re here to stay.”
We all feel each position. We want them to leave. We want to know who did it. We want retribution. Yet we feel useless. We worry our efforts would be no more effective than if we tried to stop the daily tides or the turning of the moon. Someone may feel they succeed when the tide goes away, but it will come back the next day without question. But still, we’ll try. We will find out who killed the mermaid and why, and once we know who did it, we will get justice.
Two hundred of us and one hundred of them: two islanders per windworker. Although by weight, we add up to the same.
We send invites through groups of three—one child and two adults, in a boat with a written invitation to a great festival dinner. The boats sail off every evening. We create one hundred written invitations on cardboard and tie them together with ribbon. The waters are calm. The first boat comes back with no luck. The second boat, similar. The third boat comes back smiling. They did nothing different from the first two, but windworkers are superstitious about groupings of three, so by the time a third boat of three asks the same question, they have to say yes.
It’s a Friday night fish fry. One week after the death of our beloved mermaid, but no one mentions that during the preparations. There are no lobsters to spare but there is plenty of arctic charr. It’s a big beast with a stomach that turns bright red when it spawns, as if it just finished killing someone and rolled around in its blood, but instead of killing, it creates. It is a noble fish. Its back looks like spotted steel. It is strong enough to break a windworker’s sternum.
We collect one hundred for the feast and roast them whole. We set up the dining hall attached to the church with long tables and place two roasted fish on each: one for us, one for them. The windworkers don’t know how to carve a fish, so we show them, graciously. They bring us good liquor. Just three sips each is enough to make our heads collectively spin (and a half-sip for the children), as our guests drink a full glass of the same heartily. We spin and then grab hold of our heads to fasten them back on straight. On each table is a vase of valerian flowers; in our dizziness, these pale white lace-like orbs double before our eyes, then return as one.
They are men with skin of all colors, hair of all textures, but their size is the same, large as a boulder, and their pupils are the same, pure black. We laugh and joke about the tides and storms. We brag about who’s survived the strongest storm, who has seen the most death. We all know someone dead. We all have stronger lives as a result. We can grasp life by the throat. It’s in the air.
We enjoy these windworkers, despite ourselves. Our children ask them stories about life on the mainland. Each of us remembers in particular a man named James; he goes to each table, he has the best stories. James is the smallest of the windworkers, with storm-colored irises, and the only one in the room who does not have a drop of liquor. His laughter is its own liquor, buoyant and smooth. James tells us of the creatures he’s seen at sea, how he’s befriended dolphins and whales and more.
But we do not forget our mission. After the fish have been eaten and the liquor bottles run low, we speak with them quietly, two of us to one of them. And at once, we ask about the mermaid.
They have nasty things to say. They say she sang loudly when they tried to sleep, a piercing that cracked their eardrums. They say she damaged their construction equipment so they had to keep ordering new parts. The crane engines gave out, jammed with seaweed. The cables were twisted into knots that would not be unknotted. The gearboxes and generators and drive trains shriveled up from something that didn’t seem natural.
“We know it’s her,” they say. “Goddamn mermaid.”
We give each other eyes as if to ask, Do they know?
“When’s the last time you’ve seen her?”
“It’s been awhile, I guess. Maybe a week?”
Four hundred eyebrows raise.
So they won’t admit it easily. Time for dessert. Lavender cakes for each one of us; theirs are spiced with valerian root, a powerful sedative, one that brings bears to sleep in the middle of town. It’s the closest thing to a truth potion that exists. On the edge of sleep, truth comes out. The windworkers eat every bite, and we continue to question them as their eyes droop, marking the hours of the night.
“What happened to her?”
“We don’t know.”
“Did you kill her?”
“Which one of you killed her?”
“We don’t know.”
“So it was one of you?”
Their eyelids droop but they do not sleep; they sit at alert. In fact, their cheeks become more peaceful and their eyes clearer as our questioning intensifies. They do not budge in their responses. Then, without saying thank you, they leave.
Every one of them has a motive. Their motive is identical. They wanted to work without issue. They wanted the mermaid to stop her sabotage. They want, eventually, to return home.
The ocean sky captures the stars at night, and we are in it all.
We are glad the mermaid wanted to sabotage the windworkers. She’s on our side. Now that she’s dead, it’s up to us to realize her ambition.
In a mirror-paneled boat, the one that reflects the ocean waves and stars and hides whoever is stowed inside, we go out at night. We propel its quiet motor to the turbine platform and drop an anchor right there. Above our heads, we hear the conversations of the windworkers. Their voices drift down with the wind. There, we listen.
They drink every night. By midnight they lean over the side of the platform and vomit. It lands a foot away from the glass-paneled boat with a muted splash. No one up there mentions murdering the mermaid. But they are all glad she’s dead.
We want to sabotage the equipment, but in truth we do not know what to do. What can we do? We can’t sneak on to the platform without notice; there are too many of them. We consider stealing or knitting an orange jumpsuit, but we don’t have the same black eyes as them, the same boulder shoulders. So we sit in the dark underneath the platform, swaying in the waves, listening, feeling sorry for ourselves.
We are no masters of crime or theft. We are simple islanders trying to save our waters and way of life.
One of us has an idea. He or she—we forget who—takes a boat out to a rock outcropping beyond the wind turbine platform and anchors it a hundred feet away. They swim to the rock and cover themself with seaweed and mud. They pull on a large wetsuit with both legs in one hole, trim away the rest, and put on two flippers.
We, sitting in our glass-paneled boat underneath the platform, hear their cry. A piercing scream. With binoculars we can see this is no mermaid. This person does not grind our hearts in her hands. She does not speak in our ears. This is an imposter. And that makes us smile.
The next morning, someone new takes the mantle of charlatan mermaid. And the next morning after that. The piercing cries bother the windworkers, we know. We hear them complain during our nightly ventures. They cry out in the night. They stop sleeping. They are worried about parts breaking, exploding. They worry and worry. And they drink and drink, then worry even more. One of them hurls himself off the platform and his drunk body forgets how to swim to the surface.
The orange-suited man appears in the morning after a rough swim. He never died when he fell, he tells us. He wanted to escape.
It’s James. He can swim lightly through the roughest waves. He tells us he wants to join us. He wants to help us destroy the rest of the windworkers.
James, too, fell in love with the mermaid, wildly in love. He knows the false from the real. The first time he saw her was in the middle of the night when they first arrived, where all the stars were captured by the sea and moved as he breathed, he watched the moon dance across the water, directly to her, and it changed him, he knew himself for the first time, he knew his father and mother and their fathers and mothers and he knew how they all combined to make him real, and he knew his future children and their future home with a garden and an apple tree. He fell in love with the mermaid because the mermaid brought him to life. He knows the fake tone of our voices at sea. It makes him moan for what was lost. He tells us he doesn’t know who killed her, but he agrees it’s the fault of the windworkers, and now, they would pay.
Upon seeing him speak, we each remember him from the communal dinner. We are caught by his authentic smile, smooth skin, long hair. He is beautiful and pure and perfectly symmetrical. We all fall a little bit in love with him, too.
James tells us how to do it. He tells us we need to stay far away from their lodging platform, to sail instead to the dispersed turbines, to do so before the hours of morning, when all will be in drunken sleep. He tells us to climb up the turbines with ropes. To remove the yaw controls that kept the turbine heads steady. To affix permanent brake pads. With tight brakes and waving blades, a deep friction will build up in the engines. When the wind comes through, the blades will drag the brake pads around a metal generator, a generator running on hydraulic oil, sparking it into fire. With a swinging head and skimming brakes, the engine will burst and the blades will fall away. All of them at once. They will not have the funds to start over.
The first time the windworkers turn on the electric current and allow the blades to spin, it will happen. Finally it will happen.
James is dead. He showed up on the northern shore with a slit neck this morning.
Commotion among the islanders. This is not good. Was it a mermaid? His own hand? Or—we dare not say it aloud—one of us?
No one knows, but we agree to hide the evidence. We tie his body in stones and take it to the rock of the charlatan mermaid, then throw him into a riptide. We know these currents like we know our own veins: he’ll never come back ashore.
My name is Levi. I first saw the mermaid after a three-day drunken haze. I woke up naked on the beach and her face hovered above mine. She convinced me to put away the liquor for good. I served tea at the bar instead, but no one came, so I considered closing up. Then I remembered who forced me to switch from liquor to weak tea, and I remembered the pureness of whiskey, so I drank half a bottle, smashed it on a rock, found her, and stuck the glass into her neck.
My name is Tony and I haven’t slept for more than thirty straight minutes since the first time I saw her. Everything hurts. I killed her in a dream when I realized I had the power.
My name is Violet and I used to not care if I was beautiful, but now I know my face will never be as pearly perfect as the face of the woman in the sea, as a face that was carved out of shell by the watery gods of the deep. I stole my father’s pistol and shot her in the back.
My name is Liam and the lobsters have left and I think it might’ve been her; the waters are too warm and the mermaid brings fires of hell behind her. I killed her with a lobster trap, imprisoned her until she died of dehydration.
My name is Amelia and I agree with Liam about the paucity of stocks. I killed her the most humane way I would kill a lobster: in a freezer until she stopped moving, then a knife in the back of her head.
My name is Ally and no matter what I did to help my father’s cough, he died anyway. I killed the mermaid with a poisonous mushroom.
My name is Mason and she stole my fish comb, the one passed down to me by my father and his father and his father’s father. When I found her teasing me with it one morning, I grabbed it from her hand and stuffed it down her throat.
My name is … I don’t remember, I’m losing my mind, I don’t remember what she looks like or who I am or where she went or why everyone looks so angry all the time. But I know it was to do with the devil from the sea. I might’ve killed her. I don’t remember that either.
My name is Arden. I grow teaberry leaves and collect seaweed and sell it all on the mainland. I take care of my two elderly parents and my young daughter. My spouse left long ago, just after our daughter was born. I take photos every day, but I hide this from the others. They don’t like having their lives captured by film.
The night before we destroyed the turbines, it was my turn to act as mermaid. Someone knocked on my door and left the wetsuit flipper on my porch, so I knew. I put it on at night and sailed to the rocky outcrop. It was a clear night with empty air, not even salt on my lips. I swam and felt the salt massage my eyelids. It made me gasp. I took my place on the rock and turned away from the turbine platform, looking out to the sea. I didn’t know what to say, but I opened my mouth and willed something to come.
It did, a cry, deep in my chest, and I felt it sail to the horizon and back.
I turned my head to the platform and continued to sing. In the distance, orange-clothed men moved around like sand fleas digging in the dirt. I couldn’t bear the sight of them, so I turned back to the shoreline. My sternum throbbed and the cold air pierced my throat, but I sang.
I heard something in response. A faint cry, down the distance, beyond the shoreline.
And a voice in my head.
It was you.
I remembered then. It was me. She was trying to steal our souls. So I killed her with a photograph that stole her soul instead. Then I photographed her over and over and over, two hundred times from two hundred angles, so I had every part of her.
When I returned home that night, I took out my Polaroid camera. It still had just two photos left.
It was all of us. We killed her in a sleepwalking dream.
The windworkers are ready to celebrate. They each pour a thick glass of liquor and stand side by side, looking at their prized work. We watch the windworkers from the shore through our binoculars, with our own celebratory ale at the ready. We watch them watch the wind, and they release the brakes, and the wind comes, and they lift their glasses in anticipation.
After the wind turbines explode, the blades sink into the bottom of the ocean. The turbine towers stand empty, helplessly in rows. The blades, underwater, dig into the lobsters’ crevices and flatten the young broods. The older lobsters lucky enough to escape the flattening, now unprotected by their hiding spots, are vulnerable to sharks.
After this, the windworkers leave. So do the lobsters that survived: they follow the windworkers to colder waters up north, making nests of their cables in the sea floor. The puffins follow as well, feasting on the mussels and crabs that nest on the floating platforms. Porpoises rest on the cables and schools of cod hide between steel poles.
Eventually, without lobsters on the island, without our way of life, we leave too. We pack up everything onto our boats, planning to sail to new islands, or to the empty ocean, to make our peace. We will let our boats reflect the sky and hide us underneath. We will follow the lobsters to colder waters, up the coast of Canada to wherever we can make home. Perhaps some of us will search for the dead mermaid's body, somewhere on the sea floor. Perhaps some of us will join her. We will split apart at last. We will no longer be a “we.” During the goodbye, we hold each other’s hands tightly, fingernails digging into palms, drawing a speck of blood.
Just before we leave, we find two Polaroid photos in the dining hall:
The wind turbines exploding.
The flip of a hundred mermaid tails, waving goodbye.