Our brief interview involved more cannibalism than I would have guessed.
At the river with my kids, on the last day of summer, and my son is picking up rocks along the shore finding snakes and wolf spiders hauling egg sacs. My daughter keeps asking if she can go all the way into the water with her dress on, but gets distracted by berries and the finds of her brother.
As the kids are playing, a tiny river mermaid (the size of a medium crawdad) swam up and asked if I would like to hear a story. I said yes. Her voice blended in with the rapids so well that I suspected that I’d heard, and just not noticed, mermaids trying to speak to me before.
Turns out that mermaids didn’t resort to cannibalism right away, and some never did. They were not, as their half-human anatomy might suggest, all that bright or anywhere near being apex predators. Those were my conclusions, not hers. She suspected, the river mermaid told me, that there must be other species of river mermaids, and perhaps some in the ocean as well.
Here’s the gruesome truth: most river mermaids are pulled apart by crawfish. There are even stories, details of which I won’t share, of teenage fishermen catching them, falling half in love — but these encounters were awkward, sometimes evil, often tragic. There were a lot of ways for a river mermaid to lose her life.
It wasn’t so much a story, what the mermaid shared, as it was a rant, a list of grievances, all kinds of things mermaids (or this particular one anyway) were storing up to share with a human if they ever got the chance. A lot of it felt like the kind of controversies that might be mumbled about in the river equivalent of some kind of aquatic Twitter.
She said she was the last one. The last of her kind. The last Little Luckiamute River Mermaid. She wished she had a better memory. She wished she was a better storyteller, knowing what details to share, what to ignore. She wished there was something she could say now that could turn back the clock and save her species. She wished there was something someone else (it didn’t have to be her) could have said or done to save her species.
“Great stories happen,” the last Little Luckiamute River Mermaid told me, “to mermaids who can tell them.”
I told her that I had heard Ira Glass say that once.
She asked if Ira Glass was a mermaid.
When I said he wasn’t, she said, “then he probably didn’t say it. Or, he must have heard it from my mermaid mother first.” I didn’t know what to say, but kept trying.
I heard my kids say something about dad talking to himself again. They had started to pick up rocks in the river.
I asked the best questions I could, knowing how temporary/odd/special/finite this opportunity was. I did not introduce the mermaid to my children, knowing they would want to keep her, and doubting both our ability to create an appropriate habitat, and the desire of the last Little Luckiamute River mermaid to live in an aquarium in our house.
I thanked her for sharing all that she did.
She said she probably shouldn’t have.
I saw the crawdad approaching, and saw her see it too. She said she wanted one of the last things she did to be breaking one of the big rules. I asked what the others were, but she turned her attention to the approaching claw. I reached in to save her, scoop her up, or shoo the claw away, but she said, “Don’t. This is how I want it to end.” And I watched as the crawdad dragged her under the shadow of a rock in the middle of the river.
“What if there were mermaids in this river?” I asked my kids. We told each other stories, made some guesses. My kids had started to see fish tails under the rocks they had picked up. I asked if they were sure that they were fish tails.
“What else could they be?” they asked.
My son approached the rock in the middle of the river, the rock I had recently seen the crawdad drag the mermaid under. He couldn’t lift it. He asked his sister to help. Together, they could almost lift it. They almost saw. They asked me to help. I said no. I told them that it is okay to leave some stones unturned.
Jonathan Ellingson lives in Dallas, Oregon with his wife, son, daughter, and several typewriters.