Poem: The Mermaid

The Mermaid

I

That smack of the chops the wind does;
there’s blood in the air.
I am called to the sea again.
The black claw beach is a litany of mussels.
Shale slips on itself. Each step is a foot placed on uncertainty.
I perch in the twisted elbow of a drifted tree.
Where are you? I feel your wet eyes.

II

I feel a sinew in me now, hard as a taut rope,
a tensed muscle. They call it age.
But long ago I caught a mermaid,
such a fragile thing, tiny as a chicken bone,
her pewter scales smaller than pins. She clicked
and curled in my palm, spiked with seaweed fronds
and urchin spines; the fork of her tail was delicate, lunate.

I could scarcely believe I held her,
a slipping thing netted in the bars of my hand,
tight, tense little mackerel girl.

At first her porcelain face seemed pained.
She made a birdlike sound in her throat
which must have been a scream.
Then, suddenly, she became calm,
her cheeks smooth and waxy, translucent as wet paper.
Coolly, she met my eye, batted
her tail like a coy eyelash.
Her arms fell to her sides. Supplicant,
she showed her wrists to the stars.

I suppose I could have slipped her back to the rolling froth then,
to the sea, dispersed her to the elements.

But my hands were greedy and I did not.

III

At home I made her a wet bed of cockle shells, whelks,
pebbles, in a little tank, topped up with brine.
Foolishly I ignored the scratching in my stomach,
distracted by my delight as the little creature sat
peeping out from the cool shadow of a stone.

IV

I slept that night as the dead sleep,
without dreams.
In the morning, the pool was empty.
The mermaid had gone, leaving sparkling grains
of blue sand to fall through the water in her wake, like glitter or stars.

I felt a fingernail drag
down my belly, an eyelash flutter in the depths.
Something stirred inside.

V

What I had done. I heard only the spilling of sand.
The mermaid had taken me. I felt her hands
pressing to escape my skin.
The beat of her small heart inside mine was the engine of waves,
the drumming shrill of the sea.

My belly began to swell. I felt full of sweet liquor,
mystical, exultant; the blue of my veins
showed bright on my white skin.
My hands became cold to the touch.

I drank and drank.
Something shifted, stones in the grip of a riptide.
Her spines and fins, her rays and thorns,
pierced and marked me and I began to feel
a desperation of escape.

There was blood in the air, the salt wet tang of it.
The sea sang out, a claxon call
of broken shells on a razor wind.

VI

Later, as the moon was rising,
I gave birth to her on the sand,
a mess of life and blood.

When it was done, she gasped and writhed,
red in her hair and on her hands.
She squirmed to get away from my heat
twisting towards the fingers of the incoming
tide. I reached her with my soft hands, calling,
but she unfurled her butterfly tail,
her white back moonwards,
and slipped into a wave.

She didn’t look back, only swam
with a strong flick and dip to the ever changing sea.

I wondered why she had come.
What she had taken.

VII

So long ago but still I search.
Each breaking wave might hold you, so I watch.
My scars are silver on this old skin,
the blue of the sea cools my blood.
I have lived too long,
my bones as ancient as the granite in my hand.

Every wave comes higher and a little higher,
sweeping up the beach.
I close my eyes.
I need only wait for high tide.

By Rae Howells

An extract from this poem was published in Magma, Issue 73.
No part of this poem may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.

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