A curious king of a small ocean territory once sucked a bunch of mermaids into an inland city. Mermen went too—but just a few. They couldn’t find each other. Part of the deal was they lost their tails, which would have made them obvious to each other. And they had nowhere to swim. Community pools and public fountains weren’t allowed. Even without tails they would have given themselves away in water. By their force, their depths, their sheer easy happiness. The modern times they found themselves inside might mint them mer maids-slash-men, but I’ll just call them water people. It flows better.
The city was way too loud for the water people. They went around turning off radios and TVs and vacuums and iphones. They twisted the keys off in the ignitions of so many vehicles. Because they had spent their lives swimming rather than walking, they knew the look of their hands more than land people did. And now they often saw their very familiar hands resting on completely foreign knobs and dials and buttons and switches and keys. Then Here I am! crashed up hard against Where am I?, rendering them fuzzy and dumb. When the water people missed the feeling of their tails slicing a sharp turn, or wistfully remembered the sight of a single pearl stabbed in an urchin, they were also just missing their own shrewd clarity. Being in a new land, constantly stunned, softened their sharp wit to dust. One land person, a very practical one, reported having the unusually strange thought that if he pursed his lips and blew into the face of a certain water person, her features would poof away like powder.
It was so dry, of course. And busy—all motion on land happened at great speed. And again, it was very, very loud. Even when the electric sounds stopped, everyone on land kept talking. The water people couldn’t do anything about that. They didn’t much mind deep or dreamy talk, delivered from soft or slow-bouncing voices. But mostly people spoke in rushed staccato about taking caution, about getting ahead. The water people had no interest in getting ahead. They had been taught from babies to trust flow and currents. They liked to float. They pushed deeper more often than forward. They favoured detours and gliding into watery caves that they knew wouldn’t take them anywhere. So when a land person asked them in one of so many ways, How much ground can you cover? the water people just blinked. They lacked the momentum necessary even to lie about having momentum. Another thing the talking asked, in so many ways, was: Aren’t you worried? But worry didn’t belong to water. It belonged to the sky. Or rather to the signs and wires and lights and buildings buzzing in the sky. Worry belonged to the pavement. Or rather, to the cracks and litter adorning it, to the drills going into it. To all the shoes pounding over it, late already. Some people curled up on sidewalks or benches in the middle of this rush, and these people seemed more akin to them. The water people sometimes mistook on-drugs for dreaming, and plopped down to join. Dreaming felt familiar as a way of swimming. Swimming inside the head.
The land people could see these water people were no more useful than babies, and yet some were oddly mesmerized. A few would even use the words fell in love—but only much later, when it was safe. The water people did move in a flowing graceful way, and some of them sang beautifully. The mermaids wore sequins and rhinestones even to take out the trash, which created a certain allure. The mermen had broad shoulders and long eyelashes and no sign of a temper. And the water people had very strange insights that admirers took for humorous, or even genius. Some smitten land people drew closer and closer and then—upon realizing they wanted to get yet closer—turned and ran for their lives. They knew the water person wouldn’t chase—that if they looked back she or he would be slumped, frozen in confusion, in the very spot where they had started running. Still, they sped up. There was a sense if you kissed a water person you would grow dark and lethargic, like the ocean bottom. You wouldn’t hear anything, aside from occasional muffled chanting. You’d no longer be able to even pretend to act busy, and you wouldn’t want to. For although they were locked inside a city, the water people oozed endless ocean. Even when standing in a crowded parking lot. Even when smiling into their coat collars. Even when sitting cross-legged on a bed in a basement apartment, saying, I haven’t actually been to the ocean. What’s it like? This really happened to a land person. He began to gently caress a graph across the mermaid’s leg as he explained about surfing, about how when the wave summit was x you launched yourself y to follow trajectory xy, and etc. xyz etc. She shifted and sighed and generally acted the opposite of romantic, until finally interrupting in a harsh, exasperated voice, But tell me about under the waves! About way, way under the waves! It could never work. It never did work. Which is a relief really, as the ocean king had not thought ahead to the consequences of interspecies, if the conception of such a thing was even possible from between temporary legs. The water people grew less and less tempting anyway. Their skin began peeling, leaving a small coating of snow on the insides of their clothes. Their hair split and sizzled when it was brushed. Their lips resembled two thin strands of ripped lace. They progressively stood out—not for their watery grace and sheen, but for the opposite. They looked like husks of humans, like other bodies had crawled on and left these shapes behind. And since they couldn’t effectively serve as undercover spies when all eyes were on them, the king had to call for their return. He had people owing him favours on on all corners of the planet, as kings do, so it was no trouble converting a blown conch shell warning to a city air raid siren.
The water people got sucked back forcefully and suddenly, which meant they couldn’t carry any souvenirs. Among the things they might have chosen to take were: flashlights, lip balm, wasabi, pillows, fillet knives, harmonicas, coconut water, Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, disco balls and tube socks. Animal friends who had made their time less lonely could be heard whining and shrieking and mewing softly. But they stopped as suddenly as they began. Except for one favoured dove a water person had been teaching to breathe underwater, who cooed softly all through rush hour. When the water people left it took the land people a long time to realize they were gone. Then remembering them was hopeless, like trying at dinner to recall a dream from the night before. But in certain pockets of the city–spots where the water people had vanished–the air seemed to thicken and hold a person in place. A pedestrian’s worry would grow quiet inside one, and she would forget she was late. Whatever small thing she happened to be looking at–a stoplight or a gutter or a mitten–would suddenly appear immense and original. It would seem at once very close and very far away, like a thing lying all by itself on the bottom of an ocean.