One afternoon a young woman left the hospital and decided neither to take a bus back home nor to call for a ride as she’d been encouraged to do. Instead she walked through the parking lot toward the retention pond at the north end of the property. The pond went largely unappreciated, almost to the point of being inconsequential, like a painting in the foyer of a well-appointed house. Because the hospital was located on a busy street, the young woman had passed the pond many times and had never seen anyone enjoying its benches or feeding its ducks. That afternoon, however, there was someone near the pond’s edge when the young woman arrived.
The old woman was bent in her wheelchair and was so thin that she matched the reeds and the cattails that likely hid frogs in the summertime. Taking a seat on a bench just behind and to the old woman’s left, the young woman watched as the wind made waves out of both the water and the old woman’s hair, which was long and as white as seaspray. Neither the pond nor the old woman seemed to mind.
“You know what I hate?” the old woman said without turning around. “Being here, in this wheelchair, in the fall. I hear leaves and twigs snapping beneath the wheels when I move. It makes it sound like a bonfire.”
The young woman actually enjoyed autumn for exactly that reason. The smell of smoke was always in the air, and the tops of trees were lit, yellow and crimson. To her, the world looked more alive when conventional talk suggested it was dying. She walked over to the old woman and told her as much.
The old woman smiled. “You don’t just spit back what your elders tell you. I like that,” she said. “What brings you to the hospital?”
The young woman considered what to say and decided on the truth. “I went to visit a shrink my parents want me to see. They think I need medication.”
“Doc and I both say no, but my mom keeps paying for these visits,” she said. “What are you in for?”
“I’m a mermaid who got too close to the shore,” said the old woman. “The physicians believe I’m insane, so now, I’m a ward of the state, though a loosely kept one, it seems.”
“Gotcha,” said the young woman.
The old woman’s laugh was water itself, rippling, filling the young woman’s ears as if she were bathing in it. “I can tell you might not believe me,” the old woman said. “Here. Cup your hands together and bring me some of that pond water.” She bent over further, removed a shoe, and rolled a sheer nylon stocking down one of the legs that hung heavy as stone over the edge of the chair. The young woman did as she was told.
Dangling over the young woman’s curved pink palms, the old woman’s toes looked brittle and white, like pieces of wood left on the seashore to bleach. The old woman nodded, and the young woman lifted her hands to submerge the toes in the water. Instantly they changed. They became a thin, netted skin of pinks and blues, stretched into an arc by a series of ribs that appeared coated with pearl. The young woman stared as the old mermaid’s fin floated on the surface of the pool she held in her hands. When she was finished, she let the water trickle out between her fingers. The old woman’s fin turned back into toes as quickly as the water drained.
“Who are you?” the young woman asked quietly. “Do you have a name?”
The old woman hissed. “They call me ‘Mrs. Triton’ here, part of how they mock me,” she said. “I hate them. I refuse to let them bathe me. It’s doubtful they would react to me well or do anything other than subject me to tests.” She turned to the young woman. “When I tried to tell them my true name, they choked on it. It stuck in their throats and refused to come out.”
The young woman nodded, unsure of what she could offer in response.
“I have to ask you your name, of course,” said Mrs. Triton. “It’s only fair.”
The young woman thought about the matter. She considered telling the old woman the name she’d been using among friends and family for over a decade, but it was small and common, a moniker for a minnow. Having heard the mermaid’s story, she decided it better to speak her real name, her old-fashioned leviathan of a name, and not take the ability to do so for granted. “I’m Hestia,” she finally replied.
Again Mrs. Triton laughed. “Hestia,” she repeated. “Your name means ‘the essence of all things.’ Intangible, impermanent. Like fire. Small wonder they want to medicate you.” She cupped the young woman’s chin in her beachwood fingers. “Would you like me to ease whatever trouble they might be sensing in your mind, my Hestia?”
It was an offer that Hestia wished more people whose sanity had been questioned could receive: a mermaid’s tender blessing in lieu of mood stabilizers. She nodded and closed her eyes as Mrs. Triton’s fingertips rested on her brow.
She was suddenly aware of the idea of colors inverting themselves as her mind spun through a tunnel. In that tunnel, she heard the laughter of the customers she had waited on at the restaurant earlier and saw a glimmer of what might have been her beloved Lucy’s smile. When she opened her eyes, however, there was only the sight of the pond, shivering in the cooling air, and the sound of the ducks in private conversation.
“Everything looks the same,” she told the old mermaid.
“Because nothing inside of you needed repair,” said Mrs. Triton. “People are wary of your job, and confused by your lover, and upset by the very honesty that brought you over to me. They don’t understand what you are. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong.”
The young woman placed her hands in her lap and smiled.
“I’ve done what I can to set you free,” Mrs. Triton said. “I’d like to ask you to do the same for me.”
Hestia looked up at her.
“I can’t get close enough in this awful contraption,” the old woman who was really so much more explained, pounding a fist on the wheelchair’s armrest. “And crawling around on land, I’m too slow. There’s a chance someone might try to rescue me. I don’t want to be rescued. I want to go home.”
Young Hestia stood. “I want you to pretend like you’re fighting me. Hit me, flail around, whatever,” she instructed.
Mrs. Triton nodded. “I hope you know,” she said, “that I would never do such a thing. Except now, I suppose. I’m making an exception.”
The young woman placed a hand on the mermaid’s shoulder.
Even as she acted, words that described her actions became visible in her mind, appearing in boldface as in a news headline: YOUNG WOMAN KNOCKS ELDERLY PATIENT INTO POND. She imagined what anyone passing on the busy road nearby might see if they bothered, for once, to look: the wheelchair being eased over the rocks at the water’s edge, the old woman in the chair growing increasingly agitated and fitful, the young woman kneeling to console her but losing her balance in the flurry of the old woman’s assault and kicking over the chair with the unsteady panic of a person on fire. The young woman doubted that any of the people on the road, if they did see what happened, would trust their minds’ insistence that the old woman had shed her clothes, and her legs had fused and grown covered with scales, and her wrinkles had filled, leaving her skin as smooth as sails that had taken up the wind.
“Help,” Hestia called as the mermaid swam toward a drainage pipe that led to the river, “help!” It was a halfhearted plea. She was sure that neither she nor Mrs. Triton needed the assistance.
Author’s Bio: Most of Sheila Johnson’s published work has actually been digitally restored comic book art produced for the Marvel Masterworks books and for other companies’ reprint collections. She also works as a freelance writer and proofreader, though, and enjoys collecting her stories in handmade books that she binds and sells herself. Her website is www.sheilacjohnson.net.