From Erika Swyler, author of The Book of Speculation—one of BuzzFeed’s Best Fiction Books of 2015-- a short story of a mermaid who ran away from the circus, and what happened when she started a life on land.
Before she was a suburban wife and mother, Paulina Watson was the Mermaid Girl of Carnival Lareille. She traveled everywhere with two boxes: the first with red sequins for the dress she wore as a magician’s assistant, the second with green sequins for her mermaid tail. She'd grown up on wild stories told by wild circus people. Books, she hadn’t had books until she’d found Daniel Watson and stopped moving.
The first time Daniel saw her, Paulina was floating in a glass tank, suspended in water that sparkled like it was made from night sky. She has settled down now, living in a house on a cliff on Long Island Sound with Daniel and their young family: six-year-old Simon and his baby sister, Enola. But if you steal the magician’s assistant from a carnival, how can you know if she’ll disappear?
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|File size:||819 KB|
About the Author
ERIKA SWYLER is a graduate of New York University. Her short fiction has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro, Anderbo.com, and elsewhere. Her writing is featured in the anthology Colonial Comics, and her work as a playwright has received note from the Jane Chambers Award. Born and raised on Long Island's North Shore, Erika learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She blogs and has a baking Tumblr with a following of 60,000. Erika recently moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown, which inspired the setting of the book. The Book of Speculation is her debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Mermaid Girl
By Erika Swyler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Erika Swyler
All rights reserved.
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."
* * *
After the fog of another headache Daniel asked her, "Are the pills not working?" Elbows on the kitchen table, he chewed his lower lip. A line dented his hair above the ears and circled around the back of his head, an invisible crown left by his safety goggles. If she ran her finger over it, she'd have to use the flat or the side to properly feel the shift in the smooth.
"I didn't take them this time," she said.
"I never know how bad it's going to be. Sometimes it's just the blind spot, then gone." It was also good to remember exactly how bad pain could get. Sometimes she deserved it, just a little.
"It's irresponsible," he said.
She smiled like a cat. "Oh, you know me." A nipped tongue, a tug on that crimped hair.
"I do, Paulina. I do."
In bed, he said, "We're leaving. We're getting out of here. I'm sick of the ocean, I'm sick of boats. I'm sick of dirty air."
"Okay," she whispered. It was nice, the moments when they both felt restless.
"I'll sell the boat."
"It's only half yours, and Frank loves that boat. So do you. He won't want to sell. You don't want to either," she said.
Lifelong friends, Daniel knew Frank's difficulty with letting go. "You're right. Fine. I'm selling the house," he said.
"No, you're not."
* * *
She dreamt of a factory flooding. The workers inside were fused to an assembly line; their legs were the legs of a moaning conveyer belt. As the water rose, their mouths became the glass in diving masks, round and clear. She could look inside and see barnacles taking shape on tonsils, each opening like an eye for a tiny fernlike hand to uncurl and filter breaths for sustenance. Every face was one she knew but could not place. A man who stared at her too long when she was in the mermaid tank once, maybe. Someone she'd seen on the street. A clerk from a motel too many cities ago to remember correctly. A boat sailed through the flooded factory. Its sides were rough and translucent, pale yellow and orange, as though shaped from a jingle shell formed for just that purpose. No one reached for the sides. The workers continued adding pieces to the intricate machines they built. One by one, their dive masks began to crack. Air leaked from them and the water turned red.
* * *
She sat with the baby on her knee. Enola was small enough to hold in place with one arm. In the mornings, early, the baby's skin almost glowed. Too young to have been burned up by the sun, pickled by sea, or marked by anything else, nothing was quite like a baby. She rubbed her cheek against the black fuzz covering Enola's scalp. People talked so much about the sweet baby smell, but it was their hair, their skin, the feel of them on you — all the softest things wounded you into loving them. She looked at the rows of cards before her. "These are Mama's. They were your grandmother's, too, though you'll never meet her. That's okay. She was a little selfish. But she would have loved you." She cleared the spread with one hand, using her fingernails to pick them up. Her father had said that her mother felt a spark in them when she held them, that they bit down with kitten teeth. Paulina never felt it. She blamed it on the sequins, on the mermaid tail, and on her father's having been the sort of man who cried every time he had a beer, every time they left a town, and for the entire month of July. She tapped the cards against the floor and offered them to her daughter. "Careful now."
* * *
The first scent she remembered was a pungent mix of Vaseline and big-cat urine. Her mother slathered her legs with Vaseline so they'd shine under the lights. Her father spent more time with the cats than with people, and like them, left his scent everywhere. Later, other scents would work their way in, hairspray, Michel's clove cigarettes, spoiled face paint, cotton candy, roasted nuts, axel grease, and, when they were close to the ocean, salt. Salt washed everything else away, even leopard piss. She'd spent hours sniffing her skin, trying to figure out if she smelled like her mother or her father, or exhaust from the Airstream. And then her mother was gone. Drowned, and nothing smelled of salt anymore. At six she discovered that her scent was the same as a small lacquered box and the deck of cards inside it. She asked her father what that scent was.
"Trouble and misery," he said. He sometimes smelled like gin — rubbing alcohol and pine trees.
Michel said the smell was aging paper, the beginnings of dry rot, and that was mold. It smelled like vanilla and dust, good earthy things. Michel smelled like Wildroot and Florida water. When she was old enough, she Vaselined her hands, her lips, her whole upper body to keep the water in the tank from drying her out. After washing a night off, the scent still stayed with her. She wondered if she'd disappeared into the memory of her mother. She wondered if a memory could consume you until it walked around inside your skin, and you became a coat for it to wear, or a mermaid tail that got stitched up every morning.
Michel told her what the cards were, and how her mother had loved them. She knew that her father never touched them, but refused to throw them out. They stayed in the bottom of a suitcase with a sequined white bathing suit, a stained marriage certificate from Reno, and a picture of her mother and father, so young that she could see herself staring out of them. When her father left with the big cats, the suitcase stayed behind with Paulina.
She was twelve and felt like trouble and misery. She opened the box.
* * *
Paulina carried Enola on her hip, content with how pregnancy had spread her bones, making shelves for her children, and years of swimming had given her the muscle to hold them to her side and walk the crooked staircase up from the beach without bobbling, without fear of dropping them. Simon had run up ahead. She thought he would wait for her at the top of the steps, but he'd gone back to the house. The shadow that stood at the top of the cliff was large, and also familiar. Enola gummed on her shoulder as she walked the stairs.
"I told you not to do this," she said. "I asked you, then I told you. You can't watch me all the time, not anymore. It needs to stop."
"I wasn't, I swear. I was just coming down to go fishing." He nodded to the railing, where a bucket sat with a fishing rod sticking out of it.
"It had to be now?"
"This is when the fish are out. What did you want me to do? What am I supposed to say?"
She didn't know. She leaned against the railing. A splinter gouged her, and her wet bathing suit stuck to the wood.
He looked as sorry as she felt. Almost. Walking away from him without a word would be worse, more suspicion-making than talking. Eventually he walked away. She waited to see if this time she'd miss him.
* * *
"I think we should sell the house," Daniel said.
"You're sick here. I read something in the paper, a story about air quality. We get the worst of it. All the smog from the city, all the crap from Connecticut, it all gets blown out here and we breathe it in. You'd be breathing cleaner air if we lived in a car lot."
Excerpted from The Mermaid Girl by Erika Swyler. Copyright © 2016 Erika Swyler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Also by Erika Swyler,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Daniel fell in love with Paulina when he first saw her in the tank she used for her mermaid act. He’d count the seconds as she held her breath. Now, they are married with two children. He still loves her the same he did when he first met her, but things are different. Now, she shuffles and deals the tarot endlessly. This is a short story about love and change. It is actually the prequel to THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, in which the children are now grown and the subjects of the book. Still, the writing is eloquent and poetic, and Erika Swyler says so much with a few words. Her characters, in spite of the story’s brevity, are well-developed and realistic.
I won this book in a GoodReads Giveaway. I didn't realize it was a prequel to another book by this author, which I have not read. Because of that, I was a little lost. The writing was very descriptive and I loved that, but it seemed like the story jumped from place to place with no rhyme or reason. It made it very hard to follow and perhaps if I'd read the other book first, I'd have had a better idea of what was going on and who these people were.