Meagan Cass

Borrower Pond Mermaid

It was my best friend Marissa who told me the trick with the borrower pond. We were in the band practice room during lunch, eating our hash browns and chicken nuggets from Styrofoam trays. I’d told her my secret in a rush, my voice a dried reed cracking. In the room next to ours, I could hear a younger clarinetist practicing the same passage I’d been flubbing for weeks, her sixteenth notes crisp and clean.

“Yep, right in your big backyard, just like Ranger Rick always told us,” Marissa said.

I laughed despite how cold and nauseous and outside myself I felt.

It had something to do with the chemicals in the water, Marissa said. The ones they use for the corn. They would make you sick in a certain way. A soccer player in Jacksonville had done it, and a girl in Taylorville too, a violinist. They’d walked out of the ponds with a dizzy feeling; within an hour, the clump of cells had passed. Marissa’s mother does wedding hair, so she knows everyone’s secrets.

“Okay,” I said, and took deep breaths. “Okay.”

“But it has to be early on. Otherwise it won’t work as well. And there’s some risk.”

She folded her empty tray in half, making a cracking sound. “They say some girls just get sicker. And some girls disappear. There’s this rumor. They change. They become, these kind-of-water-monsters.”

“Ooooh, spooky. Why don’t you put a flashlight up to your face?”

She didn’t laugh. “So you might want to keep it. I could help you—”

“I’m not having it,” I said, my arms and legs numb, a metallic horror surging through my stomach and throat.
I opened my clarinet case, stared at the shiny pieces of body, closed it again.

“Well, I can’t be there with you,” Marissa said at last. “They’re arresting girls for stopping it now, and anyone who helps them. I’m sorry.”

I’d heard about the rehabilitation center, Fresh Beginnings, a grey building on the edge of town. They had a stretch of re-claimed prairie in the back where the girls were encouraged to heal, to reflect on their “violation of nature.” Mostly, they did data entry for the state. No one knew when they would be let go.

“I understand. Of course, yeah,” I told my friend, though there were splinters in my chest.

“Do it late at night, and come over after. We can listen to that weird music you like. I’ll dye your hair if you want. My mom got some purple from the city.”

“Oh sweet. I’ve been dreaming of purple.” I felt a little better.

We talked about how one day we would live in the city, how I was going to be in a band of experimental musicians called Ice Planet and she was going to run a punk hair salon called Roy G. Bitch, how we would have corgi dogs and dress them in matching argyle sweaters, how we would form a family of other weirdos. The bell rang and we stood. She gave me a tight hug.

♦ ♦ ♦

I hadn’t swum our borrower pond since I was a little girl. Back then, it seemed huge and beautiful. I would put on my raspberry bathing suit and my father would throw me into it, my body hitting the cool with a smack. My younger brothers would stand on the wooden platform anchored in the center, sword fight with foam noodles taller than their bodies. Our mother would knit on the metal swing perched on the shore, our Pioneer corn growing slow behind her.

Then the flooding started, south of us by the Sangamon River, then in other places too. They wanted the corn bigger and faster, to make up for the lost land. While we slept, planes sprayed a special mist over the stalks, a new weather that tinted the silos and shelterbelts blue. By the time it happened, the pond had turned an oily green and we weren’t allowed to go in anymore, not even to dip our feet on hot days, of which there were many.

My mother would not look at me. “I’m sorry. You should have waited like me, this is what God wants, I’m sorry,” her fast knitting and the creases on her forehead told me.

“We don’t have money for that place in the city anyway,” said my father, who isn’t as religious.

“She’ll be like that teenage girl in that movie. The one with the hot dog phone who gets knocked up,” my brother Julian said.

“She’s not as cute as that girl. And she doesn’t even have a boyfriend,” my brother Jeremy said.

It was true I wasn’t in love. He was a boy from the trumpet section, sweet but kind of boring. We were at a keg party in his family’s fields. All night he’d been telling me about bridges, how soon we’d need far more of them, how he would go to college for engineering and be ready. He listed off his favorite bridges. Tappan Zee, Mackinac, Tacoma Narrows. I liked the shape of his arms.

It was surprising what he knew to do beforehand. I wasn’t prepared for how much I wanted him, how that want burned through every fear. They’d never told us that part. Or any part, really. In fourth grade they separated us girls out, told us to keep our legs shut, to stay away from the fields at night, to wait for marriage. Then they talked a lot about the baby, the “natural miracle.”

For years after, I had nightmares in which unlikely things got me pregnant: the gleaming, pointed ears of Pioneer corn, the sunflower seeds my mother still fed the sparrows, the ferns our science teacher, who could not tell us why we were bleeding, kept on a window sill, their hairy tendrils creeping toward our desks. “You don’t have to be afraid of those things,” my mother said, and laughed, but wouldn’t say more than what the school said. Wait for marriage.

Girls said it couldn’t happen the first time. Girls said especially not that week after your period.

“You’ll be a great mother,” my mother said now, a steeliness in her voice.

♦ ♦ ♦

At midnight, I slipped outside, stared at the pond’s glassy surface. It was late September, the air still July warm. My brothers had outfitted our scarecrows with Freddy Kruger masks and though I couldn’t see them in the dark, I could feel their leering anger pressing down on me.

Marissa had given me no instructions, so I had to improvise. I slipped out of my jean skirt and black t-shirt, took off the purple quartz necklace Marissa made me for my fourteenth birthday; the Irish stone necklace my mother gave me, from her one trip to Europe before she met my father; the vintage dolphin ring I’d found at the thrift store. I left it all on the dry, dead grass like an offering to the abortion gods.

Though it seemed silly, I kept on my floral combat boots. I loved how they sounded in the hallways of the school, loud and bitchy even though I was quiet and shy. They were the land girl I hoped to grow into.

I walked slowly at first—the water was colder than I expected—and then I just dove like I’d done so many times as a younger girl. I’ve never been one for gradual transitions. “You’re so intense,” the trumpet player had said, my mother, my father, my brothers all said.

The pond was deeper than I remembered. I felt the poisons entering my skin, my ears, my mouth, my vagina, burning and cold like the wintergreen oil my mother would rub on our backs when we got sick. The water was heavy on my shoulders. My lungs filled with thick liquid. I sunk to the bottom. My boots disintegrated around my feet. A strange electricity shot through my stomach and limbs. My neck snapped back.

It was tambourines thrown into wind turbines. It was a runaway truck in a hail storm. It was a house made of glass on fire. I remember, through all the pain, praying it was working even though I don’t ever pray. I remember shouting my mother’s name, my father’s name, Marissa’s name. The corn and the scarecrows and the stars went dull and far away.

When I woke, morning light seeped through the surface in grey spokes. Somehow I could breathe. Slits beneath my arms took in water, shifted it to something that filled my old clarinet lungs.

When I tried to move, I saw my legs had fused. Tiny brown and silver scales covered what had been thighs, calves. I thought of the whole catfish my mother fried for Good Friday, felt sick, looked away. I was afraid of my body the same way I’d been pregnant. I stayed still for a long time, waiting for the dream to lift.

Then I heard the muffled sounds of my family getting ready for school and work. A screaming kettle. My brothers fighting over the bacon. “Hide yourself,” some voice inside me said, and I made my way beneath the wooden platform. It was awkward to swim, like trying to dance to pop at school formals. My whole body moved back and forth as I cut a slow, crooked line. Then I heard my brother’s voices. My hearing was intensified, as if they were talking right beside me.

“Do you think she really ran away?”

“Nah. They’re not even trying to find her. And she wouldn’t have left that necklace. I saw mom throw it in the garbage. Something else happened.”

They stood for a moment, close to the shore. Then they were gone. I pictured them walking to the bus stop, back packs heavy on their bony shoulders. I wondered about their grief, if they would miss playing video games with me some Friday nights. But I knew I could not trust them. Every fall weekend they went hunting with my father, and when they came back, they always looked at me like they expected me to cook them something, to do their laundry, to wait on them like my mother.

I ran my hands over my new aquatic body. The wind rattled our all our porch chimes. A quarter mile to the west, Highway 55 thundered with trucks. I felt strange but solid. Alive.

♦ ♦ ♦

All that winter, I stayed under the surface. I swam the entire perimeter, learning the strength of my fin. I collected the pebbles and rocks my father had thrown in years ago to help the pond grow the right kind of bacteria, cold weights in my fists. I piled them beneath the platform, and that’s where I slept, in that half-cave, the silty bottom soft enough.

I was hungry, but every few days one of my brothers would sneak outside in the middle of the night, throw a Tupperware of leftover casserole into the water. When I heard him open and close the screen door again, I’d wait an hour more, then snatch it from the surface, devour it in one or two fistfuls.  It was nice of them.

Still, I was afraid to surface. I was sure I’d get captured, sure they would do to me what they did to any other girl they believed had sinned, and worse. I imagined nets, hooks, a rehab center tank labeled “violation of nature.”

Come spring, the Tupperwares stopped. Had my brothers chosen to believe what my parents’ told them? Or had they just grown bored? My hunger intensified, became more pointed, a quartz shard rattling in my chest. They were all up there moving through the lengthening days, drinking their bright orange juice in the mornings, eating their burgers and fries for dinner, and here I was sucking bits of algae from rocks, grasping at the bluegill we used to fish for fun and throw back.

At night, I wanted to throw my rocks at their lit windows. I craved the sound of breaking panes.

One night, after they all left for some kind of vacation—I’d heard them load up the Astrovan, my mother asking if someone had packed sunscreen—Marissa appeared on the metal swing beside the pond. I heard the rusted joints rocking, then her voice talking to me like I was dead.

She said she missed the music mixes I made her, that she listened to them all the time now. She said the new first chair clarinetist smelled like soup. She said that two other girls had disappeared into ponds, that there were protesters outside the rehab center, but only a few so far. She said she was sorry. She should have kept her dumb mouth shut.

When I couldn’t take any more, I surfaced. “You’re not dumb.”

“Oh my god. Oh my god,” she said. She walked very slowly toward what I was starting to call my shore. “How is that you?”

I flashed my fin in the moonlight. She took a step back. I realized I had no idea what I looked like now, if my eyes had become the black marbles of fish eyes, or if my hair was full of muck. My heart was heavy in my chest. But I kept moving my fin back in forth in quick thrusts, the way I’d learned to tread.

“It’s okay. I’m just going through a cryptid phase. You know, like that year I rocked white jeans,” I said.

She laughed, thank goodness. Her old laugh like an egret squawk. “They said you ran away but I figured that was cover up. I thought you drowned.”

“Well, not yet,” I said.

I showed her how fast I could swim. I showed her how I could trap a bluegill in my fist. I confessed that I was starving, that I was lonely. We talked until the moon was high and we both knew her parents would be starting to wonder.

“So what will you do this weekend?” she asked me, like it was a normal Friday night.

Now it was my turn to laugh, a bitterness I couldn’t help seeping into it. “Bitch, this isn’t the ocean. There aren’t royal concerts and hot male mermaids and all that shit. I’m a farm town mermaid. If you could bring me some tilapia from Wal-Mart next time you come, that would be cool.”

She smiled uneasily. “Sure thing, lady. All the tilapia you can eat. And take this. Even farm town mermaids need to accessorize.”

She handed me her quartz necklace. It was like the one she’d given me for my birthday, the stone wrapped in copper wire, hung on a black cord from Michael’s. She hugged me, watery naked chest and all, promised to research how to “change you back.”

Holding the stone in my hand, I felt better than I had in weeks. Like my pond was full of fresh rain, like it might flood at any minute, might carry me all the way to the Sangamon River and then I could course the gushing water, go anywhere I wanted.

Still, it was hard when she walked away and I slipped back into my private dark. It is hard every time.

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s been about a year in the time up there. I know because I hear my father’s combine in the mornings again—he no longer whistles when he walks out to it—and Marissa is trying not to talk about college applications. She has given me special shakes to drink and a homemade ointment to rub on my fin but I know this will always be my body. I know the way I always knew, in that other life, that I didn’t want a baby, not then or ever, that parenting would turn me to a zombie girl craving the bullet, that I’d be gone.

I am a finned girl now, swim and sink and swim.

On Friday nights, when teenagers drive by on Highway 55, their crappy cars streaming bad jokes and flirtation and misinformation and trips to the city and the most boring pop music, I get so jealous I almost wish I’d drowned. I burrow into the bottom, close my eyes, curse this cul-de-sac of water.

Once, I got so depressed I surfaced in the middle of a Saturday. I perched on my platform in the thick, July heat and waited for someone—my brothers, my parents, the trucks—to notice me,  stare at me in horror, call me monster, call me the names they have for the girls at Fresh Beginnings, do whatever they would do.

Instead, no one seemed to see me at all. My parents flitted past the windows as they went about their chores, not looking out. I could see how the loss of me, the hidden shame, had changed their bodies, their mouths screwed into tight lines, their shoulders hunched. Part of me wanted to comfort them, to make instruments out of Pyrex bowls and loose change and marbles and play for them like I’d done as a little girl. “That’s like no sound I’ve ever heard before,” my father would say, and smile at my mother, like I was a strange but pleasant relief from their heavy lives. I also wanted to scream shrapnel at them until their faces came apart, until I had no voice left. They were far and so unbearably close.

My brothers hurried into the Astrovan wearing button up shirts. Did they have dates? Would their girlfriends wind up like me? I called their names but they only drove away faster, joined the oceanic whir going anywhere.

No trucks honked. No one pulled over.

Am I a ghost only my best friend can see? Or do the others see me and choose to not really believe? Do they prefer me as a vague legend, another way to scare girls from night and water? Will they do anything to deny the grief, the scaled muscle of what they made?

My joy is when it thunderstorms. The creek to the south overflows, gusts into my pond, washes over my skin like a hundred wind chimes whirling in a dryer and this is the music I would make if I was a land girl again.

Soon, Marissa will graduate, will go off to the city college. She says she wants to stay local, stay close to me, but I will make sure she goes. I will tell her I’ll be fine on the bluegill and the largemouth bass she introduced to my water. I’ll tell her I need her to bring me more purple from the city, that even farm town mermaids need cool hair. I won’t tell her how much I’ll miss her and her egret voice. It will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I’ll keep telling her my plan. How I hear them in the rain, in the bursts of creek water, other mermaid girls. There are more than you’d think. Their voices seep into my gills at night, girls full of anger and sorrow and desire, girls in cities and suburbs and farm towns, girls growing restless beneath the world’s plodding surface.

Marissa brings me thrifted silverware, broken flutes, heirloom jewelry, old roller skates, scrap metal, rusted hammers. I’m making a new music down here, one that will vibrate all the way to the aquifer. A call only mermaid girls can hear. A map. We’ll dig tunnels toward each other, carve hidden veins. When we connect, we’ll forge a way to the sea, build studios in shipwrecks, protect each other from sharks and clouds of oil and men with nets. We’ll keep each other moving. When the rest of the world floods, you know who will reign.