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Now all the little mermaid can do is open and close her mouth, open and close her mouth, open and close her mouth. It looks good for a blow job and nothing else. The sorceress sea-witch Ursula has stolen the slutty sardine’s voice so say au revoir to sweet underwater arias, those scaling vocal improvisations ripe with pre-pubescence, say bye-bye, you clammed-up ginger sea-cunt, say bye-bye to saying what you want.
We all know how she got here. Want. Desire. All the poor little mermaid’s ever wanted is legs, to split open like a lazy mollusk revealing its tender bits; to break the surface and live within the world on the other side of it. So the sea-witch promises her a set of skin-stumps in exchange for her voice. Mermaids have the most beautiful voices, surpassingly more beautiful than any human voice. It is a well-known fact that the singing of a mermaid has been known to dislocate poor sailors hundreds of nautical miles. Remember Odysseus, plugging his men’s ears with beeswax, instructing them to bind him to the ship’s mast and not to undo him no matter how desperate his begging?
Where are my legs? is what the little mermaid says to the sea-witch with her eyes, though it comes out the mouth soundless now, a lonely shape; a sphere, a bubble, a ball of gas. Weightless, it rises to the forbidden surface.
She can no longer make a sound! boasts Hans Christian Anderson from his cedar casket, meters deep in the cold, brown earth, lying in his own boxed-in underworld beneath the narrow streets of Copenhagen where, up above, the statue of himself attracts the selfies of visitors. Even though he’s a dead virgin Hans can make a sound. Each time some tone-deaf twerp attempts Part of Your World, Hans grumbles the tongue, the tongue, which the witch was supposed to cut. He explicitly narrated the castration of mer-muscle from mer-mouth. Regardless, the freshest batch of children have been taught that what the sea-witch extracts is no longer the tongue itself, but quite surreally, the voice belonging to it. These new children are so soft, with their Post-Danish-Golden-Age bullshit, Hans whines from his death nest, but he is dead, and dead men have no choice other than to let things go. These new children are all so lazy, outfitted in oversized metallic jackets labeling them “Supreme,” lolling around with green tongues, watching themselves in those screens so intently it’s as if they’re waiting to see if they actively do something in their life. Childhood was different back in his day. Back when young Hans had spindly legs that hadn’t quite yet grown to fit into the caps of his own knees he, each night, knelt in a dingy corner, cloaked in his deceased father’s coat, just praying to god, begging him for a better life, for banquet tables overstocked with Smørrebrød and tarteletter, god, to be of a better world, god, please. For beauty, he looked to the garden blooms his mother planted at the lunacy asylum (she took him to work alongside her often, the asylum slop was much better than the lack of food at home), plus there he could stroll along hydrangeas and tulips; rows of purples and yellows like butterflies paused mid-flight, hanging backwards from the ground by their green-stemmed straws. All he ever wanted was someone to talk to. Children today? They barely care to speak at all. A complete sentence? Rare. Maybe a syllable, a frustrated move. They just let themselves get dragged around from monument to monument, their mommies and daddies stuffing their little mouths with empty crunching foods that reek of oil to keep them full and quiet.
No, they know nothing of what it is to be a hungry child waiting for free pea sludge. Hans remembers inside the asylum so distinctly he can still smell the reek of iron restraints in the hallway, and this one particular afternoon when from her enclosure a naked madwoman enchanted him with her singing. Her song was so pure it was alien, unaware of the notion of precision, drowning in its own breathiness. Upon hearing her, all he wanted to do for the rest of his life was listen. But the moment she’d caught his ear pressed against the food slat of her cage, the otherworldly melody switched to a sharp cry of pain, she seized her opportunity, reaching through the slat, grasping the edges of his frock with her lunatic fingers as if desperately trying to glean something of his that she so urgently wanted; his youth, maybe, his sanity; most likely, his freedom to come and go. Everyone desires freedom, Hans and the little mermaid agree.
Dead Hans is relieved by his own immortality, for at most moments in time, in living rooms and slums at any pin on the map, in the imaginations of small children, because of him, a mermaid loses her ability to speak. He’s the one with the tale that’s been translated into every modern language, so Hans still has a voice. Hans still has a voice, though the little mermaid does not. Hans still has a voice, even though he’s been dead for decades, so what does he know, the mute mermaid thinks, of what it is like to be me?
Ever so quietly, the little mermaid leaves the cave of the sea-witch, swims home. But so what if the little mermaid can’t talk, she’s still perky in her Shop Bop scalloped bikini top, still pretty, with dead skin cells that grow out of her scalp into hairs that are red, long and flowing. Mermaids never cut their hair. What they are is hairs and singing. Now she stays in her bedroom, lumping on her rocks in teenage distress, marveling at the playthings in her room; sunglasses and busted clocks, thingamabobs and tampax: the swollen and gigantic white-white balloons that she untangles from the tangerine and violet anemones along the phosphorescent reef floor. She loves teapots even though she knows nothing of the fire they require in order to steam, never knowing how one model might whistle while another might scream. She uses the thingy to pour the seawater through her one nostril so it can flow out the other. Nasal cleansing, she discovers, is divine. She’s passionate for toaster ovens, and uses the dual toast slots to store coins, a currency developed by human beings to replace talent. Under the sea all doorways are open, the windows pane-less, so fishes can swim freely in and out, like birds might if we left our windows open. And because she’s never used a door, she thinks door knobs are brilliantly manufactured bulbs, capable of concealing an explosive behavior that humans call privacy. To be a lady! the Little Mermaid thinks. She wants to someday hide her nipples in something called silk and take them for a ride in something called a carriage. Above all else, she treasures the marble statue of the prince she once rescued from a shipwreck. Her forever handsome prince, bent down on one knee wearing human pants. Pants are human. The geoduck-shaped flesh hanging between the thighs is definitely human. A merman could never possibly wear either pants or own what the helpful seagull once told her is called a wang wang. She realized this once upon a time when she was daydreaming, her mind lost in a highly-pixilated interracial fantasy, involving the horn of a sea-mammal and a deep-sea fisherman in a waxy yellow jacket. When she tried to impose herself in the scene of her own fantasy, she found herself unable; as soon as she remembered the end of her own fishtail, the fantasy dissolved. The fantasies always dissolve, break down into particles of unidentifiable debris, to drift off, meld in the muck of marine snow as if the vivid scene had only ever been a part of nothing. In both fantasy and reality, one thing is indisputable, the fin of her lower half would prevent her from properly doing with a human wang wang what a good girl knows she should do with it. She wants so many human things, a dildo, legs, a new hole to go with them, a soul– her prince, her prince, her prince.
The water is the same as it’s been all her life, a very very blue. She feels blasé about the blue, as a human would feel about the translucence of air. She stays horizontal on her bedroom boulder doing very little, waiting for the leg delivery. No news. Another tide passes. Humans believe that tides impose on their coasts, people think the water is pulled by a moon. Over the course of their history they have wasted infinite energy calculating this whole complicated mechanism called time based on their one-sided interpretations of the moon. Mermaids know what’s true; the ocean pulls what looms above it. Her grandmother, the old dowager, told her bedtime stories filled with glorious human misconceptions, reminding her consistently that they were lucky to be of this world and not the one above it. Mermaids have swimmingly long lives but once they are dead, they turn into nothing, they become seafoam, have no grave to mark them. They have no afterlife. Humans on the other hand, if they do right, have immortal souls, go on to thrive for eternity in this golden cloud run by a Hans named God. It wasn’t a rare occasion that the old maid would snap at her and say we are much happier and better off than human beings. The little mermaid has never broken the surface, so she has never seen the thing called moon, but she’s heard it described in the slow moans of whales who have seen it, as they have lungs requiring what is above the surface in order to breathe. The moon, they moan, is a rock that glows like a jellyfish, hangs over the surface world like the lanterns sailors use at sea. Grandmother has told her of lanterns and many other wonderful things about upper-earth, about automobiles, a hot meal on a stick that’s called a Kebob, about the legged pedophiles who shamefully slink through something people call alleyways.
Because it is the way the little mermaid is written, she’s always preferred the mechanical look of human men, who dreamily march on their one side and then the other. She could blame her desire on Hans, but blame would not cease the painful longing for human men, who make her heart swell like a live organ stung by a stonefish. It is said that the men march powerfully through the streets demanding a great many things. Her grandmother has told her what she knows about men, too. The men on land are all princes with their god and their church, tools, rules, intellectual accessories like linear time, and armor, inside each of them is housed a key (wang wang, the little mermaid thinks) that will someday unlock the great gate of heaven. At home their wives sit; doodling meaningless tasks to busy themselves, quiet, obedient. Her grandmother, though she knew everything, gave little detail on the wives, wives never go to sea. But you must find a gentle merman, her grandmother would always warn her, wearily, her withered finger bobbing in the gentle current. But the little mermaid feels nothing for the mermen, who delicately flip around, brushing their hair, worshipping only their aquatic flower gardens, music, and poetry. They know nothing of church bells, wives, Jesus or prayer. She does not like their chanting or their sea-glass necklaces, she does not like their boring shitty sea-flower poems. She solely fetishizes the foreign human objects she’s plundered from shipwrecks, wants nothing more than to split her legs for a key flesh piece to enter her. If mermaids could make tears, she would cry! What wouldn’t she give to have a human prince, live a short human life, die a human death— the little mute thinks as she lovingly cradles a bundle of pillaged dynamite as if it were her own human baby.
Please remember, this is a love story. Without legs the little mermaid might never be able to meet her handsome and deliciously average prince, who is everything she desires with his tucked-in man-blouse and a duck-tail hair-do that was styled for a time when men drove convertibles that they picked you up in, handed you a single daisy before driving you to dead-end lanes to kiss you. Now, every afternoon, her prince does the same thing that my prince once did, when he was my prince; I had a prince once, and he, like her prince, did the very same thing all modern princes do to make use of their limited time. They devote their days to personal quests, a singular and important mission: to rescue old statues of themselves from the ships they’ve capsized. Just watch The News. Someday, were her bedroom to be ransacked by divers, the stone version of her perfect prince could be returned to its pedestal on upper-earth, to glare down at the maids tending his courtyard. My prince, my prince, my prince, the little mermaid thinks. My prince, she sees him in her mind’s eye, so real he has pores, so real it’s like his cheekbones were sculpted in someone else’s dream. How will I ever seduce my prince as a mute? the little mermaid wonders. I know this mutishness, I too have been so alone that my own voice becomes a stranger to me. She cannot tempt him with her baroque improvisations, she can’t walk or talk. Like a real human girl, all she can do is wait. It’s the worst. My prince my prince my prince my prince like a skipping cd my prince my prince she waits my prince and waits.
The little mermaid lies around for so many tides that even upper-earth gadgets begin to bore her. For how many tides have I been mute? the little mermaid wonders, looking into her handheld looking glass. In the reflection staring back at her, she sees something in herself she’s never seen before: a gray hair. Upon seeing the gray hair, the little mermaid turns and leaves her den, now lonesome, closer to becoming seafoam. She doesn’t know where she’ll go, but realizes, as she swims, that her fingers have missed the feel of cutting through her watery depths. As she swims, the blood swims inside her too, warm, and with the return of her circulation so returns her curiosity. She swims beyond the walls of her sea palace, out through the gateway where one thousand oysters display their living pearls, over a slight dune a school of fish seems to be climbing to take a plankton tour of a plastic bag from Duane Reade, when she hears a pssst – a voice! A ghost?the little mermaid wonders, swimming over to the deteriorated body of a flounder who’d once gone by the name of Flounder, but no, this voice is of another register, and a voice is always the thing that defines the soul of the thing, as the little mermaid well knows, now missing her own more terribly. Inside the rotting, yellow and blue striped flesh of Flounder the flounder, a plush white edge prods–wriggles. Hello, little mermaid, says the voice. The little mermaid swims closer to the unidentifiable end, likely a head, though he doesn’t appear to have any equivalent of a nose. This worm is a tapeworm, Morris, clinging to Flounder’s dead guts. The little mermaid’s not the only one waiting to be part of a new species. What fine skin you have, Morris says with the flash of his dull tailend. The little mermaid says nothing as Morris unclips from the corpse, gliding up and away, beckoning her elsewhere with his proglottid.
Who is that? Hans Christian Andersen interrupts, horrified. Morris is not a character, he posthumously groans, even his immortal soul can’t take a rest. Had his eyeballs not been the first things to rot, they would be rolling. If you don’t delete this Morris character, I’m going to blow my stack, Hans says out of human habit, though dead men can no longer blow their stacks, I let the little mermaid know. The little mermaid offers Morris her slender pink hand, and he loosely snuggles up around her pinky finger, leading her away from that part of the ocean with glittering fruits and fine white sand.
Morris guides the little mermaid to a nearby shipwreck, one long ago looted by expeditioners with their flash boxes, the warped banquet tables long ago plucked of their silverware. What remains are the bits of shattered chandeliers and dilapidated velvet curtains studded with barnacles, like a cape made by Viviane Westwood or whatever. This here is a library, says Morris, who turns out to know everything. Upon seeing what is there the little mermaid immediately understands that libraries are brown and unimpressive.
Over the course of countless eras, Morris has housed himself in the bowels of many humans, and what he calls “their beef”, which he describes as sea cows that people murder in gigantic machines to be seared, sliced and served on a fine white edible sand called rice. His immediate segments have inhabited man and beast in every continent so he knows of the many human peculiarities that define a culture. Morris can cry out pain in the voice of any animal, can read and translate nearly all of the human alphabets. Morris agrees to read to her, whatever she likes, for sixty tides, in exchange for the thing he wants; her body. What more is there to take? thinks the mute, nodding her head yes, in promise. Stop talking to Morris, he doesn’t belong, Hans mutters, annoyed with me, but Hans’s voice begins to fade in her little mer-ear. Morris goes on. Morris can read her real human words that were spoken from ink pens held in real human hands; what better way is there, the mermaid thinks, to learn of their world?
When being read a tech manual for something called a microwave, for instance, she learns of important inputs, cords and system preferences, time zone settings. Morris reads the parts he calls excerpts from a book about a kind man named Hitler, who Morris despises, though the little mermaid just adores the logic in his poetry. Hitler teaches her many human sentiments like “words build bridges into unexplored regions” and, her personal favorite, “anyone who paints a field blue and a sky green ought to be sterilized.” Given an opportunity to hold a brush– anything she could paint would surely be blue, she’s only ever seen a world of blue and sterilization is lovely, a condition that means exquisitely clean. She reads a fairy tale about a world where men fly through the air, from city to city on a magic rug that smells like a thing called dust. She gets lost in the stories. Listening to a story can have such an effect, she forgets about her mutishness, her body dissipates, first the fingers melt into water, then the arms–gone, the torso, her fin; until she’s on that magic rug as someone else who is still herself, traveling from human marketplace to human marketplace, or splitting her legs to ride a great galloping beast called a horse. While listening, her limitations erase, the beasts black mane, soft as mermaid hairs, blows into her face, moved by something called wind.
Morris translates Russian to the little Mermaid beautifully, one day reciting a poem by a poetess. A wandering boy plays a flute in order to drown rats in a nearby river. The little mermaid doesn’t know what is a rat, but imagines a rat is a lobster, a fuzzy bug-eyed crustacean with a muscular tail. She likes the poetesses the best, her gleaming eyes say as she listens. Poetesses are the unknown wives of men, and she finds each one reveals a new and undefinable wildness. The poetess wives were women with madwomen inside of them. Once the rats in the poem have drowned, which is something upper-earth legged things do when they go over their heads in her water, Morris says, this poetess lives in exile. She was something called poor. Her husband maybe helped with the assassination of Trotsky’s son, he goes on, in a way that suddenly makes him seem pretentious, he full well knows that words like assassination, words like Trotsky, mean nothing to any mermaid.
Through the poems of wives, the little mermaid learns that there is a different kind of split in human women. Mer-people, unlike humans, all have the same number of tails: one. She wants a madwoman inside of her too, that is what it is to be a human lady belonging to a prince, living under the rules of a god.
Once they’ve run out of poems, she has Morris read their prefaces, though he constantly interjects, reminding the little mermaid that these histories were written in unrelated cities at completely irrelevant times in history. It is in these prefaces, the little mermaid thinks, that she might finally be able to locate the source of a female splitting, with the hopes that someday, she too might similarly divide. The prefaces declare that madwomen often ended up murdering their bodies, e.g. demanding a body to stick its head in an oven. You have come so far and now it is over, said the madwoman of a Sylvia. The madwomen whispered instructions that the bodies string themselves to the ceilings with something humans called a noose or fill their lungs with something called carbon monoxide. One or two of the bodies freed the madwomen by swallowing a brilliant combination of pharmaceuticals with extra-terrestrial names. The names of the pills are so beautiful, the little mermaid thinks when Morris says them, she wants nothing more than to pronounce the sounds out loud herself. They have names that sound like beautiful anemones, Quaaludes, Benzodaizepines. Some poetesses wrote their last poems of goodbye and walked into the little mermaid’s sea to drown themselves and she knows, the little mermaid knows, that just as she so badly wants to be a lady, they so badly wanted to become mermaids. Our tides are almost up, Morris relays, after so many tides. For her remaining stories, she points to pages she wants told to her again. He repeats the reports of their drownings and their suicides. If human beings weren’t compelled to drown themselves, might they live inside their bodies forever?
The little mermaid is a mermaid, with no choice other than to keep her promises. Mermaids are pure, they cannot lie, cheat or steal. Now, she embodies the obedience of a human woman, opening her mouth, allowing the worm to enter. Hungry, hungry Morris floats up and into the hole where her words used to be. She does with her tongue the only thing that it is capable of doing. She swallows.
What is Xanax in Russian? He needs to be quiet for a bit, he says, sucking in, sounding annoyed, meaning I am shutting up for all eternity. He’s very hungry, the kind of tiny beast that goes on being hungry forever. At least she will get thinner, if there is any room left for her to shrink. Inside her, Morris feasts. She is dumb, mute, other than her parasite, alone. My prince my prince my prince. Her prince, she fears, is a fading possibility. She uses her finger, longingly tracing an absolutely gorgeous human wang wang in the mealy gray sand.
The wang wang wangs on the ocean floor. She and Hans both gaze upon it with unbridled lust. I wonder if this story about the mermaid is actually about me? Hans Christian Andersen asks himself, finally able to wonder something he was never allowed to wonder in life. He is suddenly unsure if what he has written is not a mermaid at all, but instead a story about a human, perhaps a little boy, who wanted a prince he could never have. Is the little mermaid me? Hans wonders, removing his human pants. Together, both the little mermaid and Hans look at their lower halves and wonder; with this fin, how might I ever lose my own virginity? Neither of them, in either world, have anyone to ask.
On the day the little mermaid was born, her grandmother declared that she’d one day have permission to rise up out of the sea. Fuck permission. She swims to the surface, like she’s done it a bazillion times, no big deal. As she swims up, the blue loses opacity, pressure loosens– she breaks through to the other side of it. The instant her upper half meets air for the first time, it’s as if a rib gets uncaught, something in her snaps. She gets all up in that surface. An overexposed plane, light so white that at first she thinks the middle of death. What gets breathed in is so thin, it makes her a little dizzy. She looks up towards the place called sky. Up above, a circle torn out from the gray is so tortuously bright that it burns the mermaid’s fair skin. She cowers in the hot of it, holding her mer-body in a flumped U shape until some ominous gray shifts, veiling that circle, a hazy guard, softening the intensity just enough that her eyes can adjust to the new expanse, letting her unfold.Like all desperate longings that are eventually achieved, the surface is exciting for a moment. Pregnant with aimlessness. Then: disappointing. The upper-world is a gigantic divide. No matter which way she spins, the little mermaid only sees the same line. Aside from the seafoam, which is soapy and easy and soft, she’s alone on the line. She looks down into the seafoam for guidance, the same way the poetesses once hunted for meanings in the sky. In the foam she sees the bobbing finger of her grandmother then, she blinks, the finger mutates to an amorphous geometry, drifts away. My ancestors, the mermaid watches as the seafoam travels the edge of water as if being pushed towards an end. There must be an end in some direction, but in which way? The mermaid swims around herself and sees no end in any direction, only light and the flatness of sea, the startling harshness of the divide. She swims and stops, swims and stops, swim swims and stops, finding herself, somehow, at each stop, in the exact same place. Why can she not just be a person and die? You can die, says a voice coming from inside the splitting mind of the little mermaid. It is not the voice of Hans, nor is it the voice of her grandmother, it’s not me, not her prince. The voice of a madwoman, at last. The tongue that is ranting in her ear is the tongue of a stranger. It pleas to a god.
Leah Dworkin lives in New York, NY where she's writing Hey Whitefish, her first collection of short stories. Her stories have been published or forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing, Fence, BOMB, Juked, Hotel, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She’s currently guest editing Manhattan for the Dostoyevsky Wannabe City Series. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Online she goes by frumperella.