"-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"> Frigg | Spring/Summer 2023 | Mermaid | Melissa Ostrom
artwork for Melissa Ostrom's creative nonfiction Mermaid

Melissa Ostrom

There are forbidden words, forbidden acts. Forbidden places, too. The end of the ocean was one of them. The girl had heard of its dangers, how the water’s cold eye would send the winds flinching toward land, where they’d cry and cry and then cities would flood and people would drown. How this water was wrathful to its core, prone to ruptures beneath its bed, quick to slam tsunamis down on poor folks’ heads. How its depths were riddled with killing creatures.

But the witch lived there. Somehow. That’s what everybody said.

And the girl, whose name eventually became an unspoken thing, a curse born of prejudice and grief, wanted to know how the witch survived the beast. Want became need. The girl felt the bid in forbidden, felt it hard—the summons, the possibility of an exchange. She went.

Now, what happened after the girl found the witch depends on who’s telling the story, though most mention the sorceress’s grasping hair, her body like a cornucopia of succulent fruit, and some nonsense about a blue-ringed octopus pet. Many versions introduce a man, a prince, as such tiresome tales are apt to do, as if the pinnacle of any girl’s desire must be a boy, but this introduction is common only because men talk over women and take over the telling. These same versions will ensure the girl must lose something and very likely everything. She has to lose her voice. Her virginity. Her virtue. Her life. Her soul! It is tedious, how often men holler tales about women losing. It’s almost as if they’re afraid of women, of what they might say and do, like get along nicely without them.

Which is exactly what happened when the girl got to know the witch. No surprise there. After all, the witch was powerful. The girl was curious about someone so powerful. Indeed, the girl was pretty powerful, herself. They met. They matched. That is the truth, and the rest of the story belongs to them.

Still. Sometimes that girl comes to my mind. Like in June, when I rise before dawn and flick on the light over the kitchen sink, how one moth, then two, then a dozen fly out of the darkness to visit the glow and pay a hovering homage, their white wings trilling the screen and beating a soft and hungry sound.

Or when I think of my baby nephew, born during this unlucky time, when sickness waits outside the door, how he knows only the arms of his parents and sister, only their kisses, only their songs, and how circumstances have turned everybody, an entire planet’s population, minus these three, into strangers. Oh, my nephew, on his tiny, tender island.

Or when a bad dream jars me awake and my dog, sensing my stirring, presents her silky belly for me to rub. How the touch soothes us both.

Touch in the dark world, this deep-dark world, too many fathoms deep, long stretches of longing. This is what I know: It is bearable if borne with another, if experienced without any expectation of understanding, and if plumbed unscientifically—that is, loosely and by units of love.

Melissa Ostrom’s Comments

I wrote “Mermaid” at the beginning of the pandemic, and of my three flashes included in this issue, this one might strike some as ill-suited to the creative nonfiction label, for it begins with a retelling of a fairy tale. But then, through the lens of that mermaid romance, I glance at the all-too-real, Covid-afflicted world, the suddenness of our separations, the dread and danger—and the beauty, as well. The strange circumstances engendered intimacy and sharply felt love.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 61 | Spring/Summer 2023