Lost in Translation
  Nine Stories by Laura Ruth Loomis
  1  The Sign
2  A Bird and a Picture Window
3  Trying Again
4  Tested
5  The Mermaid
6  Practicing
7  China
8  The Hostage
9  Like Riding a Bike
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2016 Fiction Issue

The Mermaid


“Lights out, buddy.”

“I’m almost done.” Andy doesn’t look up from his book, Magical Tales From Around the World. Andy never liked having someone else read to him; he has to read it himself. He’s already in his pajamas, the blue ones with little rocket ships. I sit on the bed while he finishes the story.

Andy’s eyes widen in dismay. He reads aloud, “She felt her body dissolving into foam. She was back in the sea, where she belonged.” He lays the book down, open across his lap. “The mermaid died? That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen!”

“That’s the old Hans Christian Anderson version,” I tell him, closing the book and setting it on his dresser. “I like the movie ending better.”

“But why did she have to die?”

This would be a good teaching moment, I suppose, about mermaids trying to be human, about trying too hard to become something that you’re not. Except, that’s a subject that I’m trying hard to avoid right now. “I don’t know. Some people like sad endings, I guess.”

“And she never got her voice back! She gave the witch her voice so that she could have legs, and she never got it back. That’s not fair.”

“No, it isn’t.” I think it’s good that he still has a sense of fairness, and I’m not going to lecture him that life isn’t fair. Considering the situation between his mother and me, he’ll know that soon enough.

“How can you give someone your voice?”

“I don’t know.” My life is full of voices, words, making meaning out of vowels and intonation. Voluntary silence does not exist in my world.

Seizing on my latest obsession, he adds, “Why didn’t she just use sign language? Or write the prince a note?”

I try to apply a child’s logic to the illogic of a fairy tale. “Maybe she didn’t know sign language. And mermaids probably don’t know how to write, because the paper would get all wet so you couldn’t read it.”

“Oh. Yeah.” He settles down and closes his eyes. “Night, Dad.”

I give him a kiss. “Night, Andy.”

I don’t feel like going to bed, where Julie is probably still awake. Instead I take Andy’s library book and sit in my den, reading a story I hadn’t looked at since childhood. In the book, the mermaid does everything right by fairy tale standards, sacrificing the things that are precious to her, but the oblivious prince marries someone else.

When the mermaid jumps back into the sea, she doesn’t just die. She dissolves. Like a lump of salt, until there’s nothing left of her. It crosses my mind that dissolution is also the legal word for divorce.

I flip through the rest of the book. It’s an old one, and a few of the stories are pretty harsh. After The Little Mermaid is The Great Bell, a Chinese story about a girl who hurls herself into a vat of molten metal, so that her father can make it into the finest bell in the kingdom. Now there’s a set of misplaced priorities. Most of the rest seem to be more usual fare, children who face giants or mysterious creatures and emerge triumphant.

I wonder sometimes what we’re protecting children from, when we only let them see the Disney version with the happy ending. When I was Andy’s age, I’d already encountered monsters: the car that killed my father, the breakdown that took over my mother’s mind afterward, leaving me to take care of us both. I must have read fairy tales, but I don’t remember believing in them the way Andy does, getting upset over the fate of a voiceless, tailless mermaid who never existed except between the covers of a book.

Still, I move the bookmark, skipping over the story about the bell-maker’s daughter, hoping to spare him the image of a child sacrificed for a parent’s folly.


  © Laura Loomis, 2016


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