One night, in my dorm at Harvard, while I waited on the linoleum for the water from the
swimming pool to dry off of me, a documentary came on about a hoax mermaid. Some desperate archaeologist in Peru had put together the bones of old fossils: the tail of an Isurus hastalis, the torso and skull of a Neanderthal woman. He’d planted this collage of errors on the bank of the receding Madre de Dios River.
‘People will do anything for glory,’ said Jack, one of my two room-mates, around a mouthful of dangling pizza cheese. ‘What do you think of this, Addie?’
Jack and Kevin still don’t know how to pronounce my name right. I've stopped trying to correct them. Jack calls me Addie which phonetically means ‘curse’, so I cringe a little when he says my name. Kevin calls me Addai which is a girl’s name in Igbo. They are friendly boys and they keep asking me what I think about things, as if on some subconscious level they expect me to bring a new insight into things, just because I came from halfway around the world; because I come from a different culture, a different place. Most times, all I say is, ‘That's crazy,’ or ‘That's some crazy shit, man,’ and they nod solemnly and it seems enough for them.
But this time, towel in my armpits, I'm staring hard at the hoax mermaid, her scraggly blonde hair and slack prehistoric jaw.
‘What do you think, Addie? Mermaids?’
Halfway around the world, a different culture, a different place, my mother raised us on midnight tales of the merpeople. Her stories were startling for their clarity.
‘I remember they had skin the colour of candle wax,’ she would say, chipping at the dried candle wax on the floor with the open end of a Coke bottle.
I was born in 1985 in the fishing village of Ikanre. My birthplace is a stretch of land in the middle of nowhere, hemmed by a freshwater lagoon on one side and a thick, almost impenetrable forest on the other. How the first of our ancestors happened on that stretch of land, no one knew. Even the cataract-eyed griots frowned, lips pursed in confusion when you asked them.
In my mother's youth, Ikanre was an idyllic little place, unconnected to the rest of the world. The country’s independence, the coups of the first military regime, even the Biafra War swept by somewhere like vagabond wind, oblivious of the village and they oblivious of it. The water and the forests were the amber in which the village was preserved.
My mother claimed that, as a child, in 1959, she had playmates in the water.
‘There was a whole village underwater,’ mother would say, tears welling up in her eyes till her blacks were distorted behind them. ‘People lived there,’ she said. ‘People like me and you, except they were made for the water, as we are for the land. We were not surprised by them as people would be nowadays.’
As a young girl, she spent most of her time in the lagoon. All the other girls her age were behaving properly. Some were finding suitors and getting married. She had suitors too, but whenever they came to see her father and he called for her, she would come racing from the water, dripping wet, her clothes revealing all she had underneath, embarrassing him duly and plunging her bride price. But the suitors came nonetheless. My father was the most persistent of them all.
My earliest memories are of father and mother fighting. Mother is heavily set but her bones are the bones of a woman. In the most vivid of these memories, mother is trying to pull father back into the house. I remember there were men waiting outside for father, chuckling, all of them dressed up with harpoons and nets. Father extricates himself and walks out, laughing. My mother runs after them until she realises that her wrapper has fallen. People are looking. She curses the onlookers, squeezing her breasts at them, before walking back into the house.
I remember mother throwing herself on the ground and pulling her hair. And I remember – or maybe I’m imagining it – mother screaming at me, a toddler, ‘You! When you grow up, don’t be like him. Never be like him!’
But as I grew up, all I ever wanted was to be like father. Father was strong. He used to take us out to the lagoon, lift us up on his shoulders and wade in until the water covered his head and we were screaming, afraid of being drowned. We never learned to swim. It was forbidden.
‘Koi, the sweetest of potatoes, grew only underwater,’ my mother would tell us. ‘Your grandmother would row out to the bamboo post of the trader who sold koi. If the trader wasn’t sitting on her raft, your grandmother would blow into a hollow bamboo rod, which was the merpeople’s equivalent of a storekeeper’s bell. The trader would surface, they would chat a little, gossip and trade; your grandmother would offer a derika of beans or a ripening pineapple for a basket of koi.’
Only my mother talked of the merpeople. It was not a shared memory.
“They were beautiful,” Mother would say, on the nights after her bad days – days she spent in a cocoon of inconsolable sadness.
My brothers were no longer interested in her stories; they said they didn't believe them.
‘Then why don’t they allow children in the water?’ I would argue with my brothers.
‘Because of the water snakes and the crocs,’ Bode would say dismissively, his head buried deep in a book.
‘Why are there no more merpeople?’ I asked my mother one day. I was six, and had just come back from school. She was pounding something in the mortar and she abandoned it for two minutes to beat the shit out of me.
Civilisation came to our village in my mother’s youth by way of the oil rig that appeared on the horizon, and the rapid proliferation of a city nearby. The city of Port Harcourt. That little strip of land, which we'd ignored over the years, began to bustle and grow.
Father worked for a shrimping company on the port, crewing on an ocean trawler called The Titus. When he wasn’t hauling shrimp on the trawler, he went fishing with his friends, mostly at night when the water was calm and the fish were stupid. Father and his friends would wear thick fur and tattered motorcycle gloves. I was dying to go fishing with them from the moment I could construct coherent thought.
But father wouldn’t take me. I was too soft, he told me one day when I dressed up and made to follow him. ‘And you’re your mother's only daughter.’
‘I'm a boy!!’ I screamed.
My brothers laughed. It was true, mother loved me most, but she had loved everyone, until they started going fishing with father. She held on to me as she would a shield and cursed the three chuckling men as they carried their harpoons and guns and spears.
‘One day, you too, you will go with them,’ she'd say eventually, when they were gone, pushing me away.
I didn’t understand her then. I was 13, and had come to see her as other people did: crazy. I hoped to be a doctor when I was older so I could get mother the right drugs she needed to be free of her imagined horrors and sadness.
One night Bode shook me awake on my straw bed. He was dressed for fishing. I leapt up after him, but he held me down, a finger perpendicular across his lips. I nodded, grateful for this gift in the night. Mother was sleeping fitfully in the corner.
My father and brothers and three of my father's friends were pushing out the canoes and the rafts. I wanted to go and thank them, but they didn’t say a word to me, didn’t so much as acknowledge me with a glance. I thought fishing was fun and talking manly and tossing jokes, but it suddenly looked like serious business.
I was given a short spear, and Bode dumped a net over my head that weighed me down considerably. I scrambled in and we started rowing out towards the oil rig on the horizon, towards the city.
Port Harcourt is beautiful in the night. I stared, enraptured by the blinking lights. The wind brought the report of music to my ears, the soft blare of horns, laughter . . . an auditory teaser of a city that never slept. We stopped paddling and the current took us forward. One of father's friends opened a large bucket and carried out a baby dolphin; it struggled in the man’s grasp. He held on to it, fingers hooked under its throat. I stared at the animal and its gaze met mine.
My brothers brought out a mallet. They lay the dolphin on the floor of the canoe and hit it twice, then once more. They broke its back, with a horrifying crunching sound. Its eyes rolled in their shallow sockets. Its pallid skin shook and it squealed whenever it was moved. They lowered it into the water where its screams seemed to spread like ripples. It tried to swim, hurt itself in the process, and shrieked some more. It lay on its side like something artificial, like a blow-up balloon fish, poking out of the surface. Occasionally, it would flap, struggle against its own incapacitation, and scream yet again at the pain it brought to itself. Then it lay still for a while, rheumy eyes roving from one person to another. I thought I could see a plea for death in those eyes.
Soon, slowly, it began to sink. I could see its white underbelly squeeze and ripple in spasms.
‘Pull yourself together,’ Bode whispered. I was crying.
We waited. The howl of the animal was spread around us and it seemed as if the sea itself was weeping. All of a sudden, there was a presence. I could feel it. We could all feel it. The water seemed to move and twirl, like something viscous, like milk.
It was glowing. In all my imaginings of the merpeople, of my mother's stories, I'd always felt they were our size. I was wrong. It was long. The length of three men placed end to end, the size of a war canoe. Yet it swam gracefully, unobtrusively in the water. The scales on its magnificent tail were layered one atop the other meticulously like silver coins, and it glowed in the dark like expensive damask. It emerged from the deepest depth. Its eyes, large orbs in its head, had a bright and intelligent animal quality. Its skin was pale fluorescence. It rushed to the injured dolphin and cradled it, cooing to it like a baby. I was mesmerised.
Suddenly my father and his friends were in the water. My brother struck glow sticks against his thigh and threw them in. Shots were fired. The stench of phosphorus and gun powder. It shielded its eyes with one arm, spun and tried to flee back into the dark depths from which it had come. The lights from the yellow glow sticks brought it out in fresh relief, and I could see the veins running on the underside of its arm, the dings in its umbilicated silver scales. The nets, then the spears and the harpoons stabbing repeatedly, blood gushing in the water, mixing with the froth and suds of struggling, and, over the water, my heart-wrenching screams.
When I came to, they had lifted it into the boat. The canoe was too small for it and part of its tail hung out over the water. Paper-pale arms, lifeless eyes and dilated pupils . . . a partly opened mouth with pink girlish lips. There were lines in his palm like a human and one of his fingers was a healed broken stub. I stared into his lifeless eyes as my family worked fervently on him with the chisel, peeling out silver scales and dropping them on the floor of the boat where they fell with loud heavy thumps. When they had done one side, they rolled him over on his back and peeled all the scales on the other side. His blood was like ours, dripping from the gaping stab wounds in its throat and chest and arms and collecting on the silver coins that filled the boat.
Before they pushed him back into the water, father caught his hand. Father's jaw pulsed, a sadness rippling across his brow. He held the arm like a handshake, and for a moment, father and the dead merman looked like comrades making a pact. Father turned away to the silver coins as the fishermen pushed the merman into the water, into the dying blinking lights of the maize-coloured glow sticks, where he sunk with his hands up in eternal surrender.
Two nights later, Bode’s dry, gloved hand rapped on my cheek and I pretended to be impossible to wake.
‘Sissy,’ he hissed before running off with the rest of them.
‘Why didn’t you go with them?’ Mother's voice in the dark.
‘I hate them. I hate my family.’ I was crying.
‘Come here, child.’
I crept into the curve of my mother's belly and she held me and started to tell the history of our village.
‘When the oil rig appeared on the horizon,’ mother said, ‘the merpeople went first and brought back the news of the ‘beautiful’ things they’d seen. They brought back garbage and raised it up as trophies. Fools.’
‘The best of our men took boats and went to the city. They came back different. It was as if a disease had befallen them from which they could never heal. Soon, the trousers came and replaced the sokoto and then the shirts replaced the bubas and then there were mirrors and trinkets and watches . . . and all the other things we hadn’t needed. Even the hours of the day were suddenly not enough now that we knew how many they were, now that we had taken time and hinged it on the face of a three fingered instrument. Then, one day, someone took the deciduous scale of a merman to the city and became surprisingly and instantly rich.
‘Our corruption came fast. First we asked the merpeople for their scales. There was an amusing dash of people thrashing in the water, looking for fallen silver. When the lagoon had been stripped of fallen scales, all was quiet for awhile. It seemed the amusing brouhaha was over. Then someone ran a spear through an old mermaid's throat and picked her clean.
‘That was the start of the massacre. I was sixteen, 1971. I was distraught. I ran to the water that was pleated with so much blood. I threw myself at the men, tried to pull them away, tried to stand between their spears and the thrashing merfolk but I was only a girl in the face of their crazed desperation. As they brushed me aside I saw: They had no blacks in their eyes, only the luminous glare of silver.
‘In the end, all that silver was not enough. People went to the city and made a mess of their lives. One after the other, they slunk back home. The water became a forbidden place out of our fear of an anticipated revenge. But it never came.
‘I married your father in the summer of '74. I was given to him by my father in the hopes that he would revive in me a will to live. People called me crazy because I was the only one who still swam in the water. The stories had changed by then and we had managed to convince ourselves that we were the good ones and the villains lived in the water. We renamed the massacre and called it a war.
‘I cooked for your father and cleaned his nets and fishing baskets. I simply did what was required of me. I had nothing to say to him. If he wanted me a hundred times a day, I didn’t protest. I just lay down beneath him. At first, he was content, he was happy. It was all that he wanted. But he soon realised that I wasn’t there, and became disgusted with himself afterwards. He tried to make me hold him but my hands were always limp, slipping off his back and falling on the mat. I saw him crying once. He was married to a ghost.’
She lay still and silent for a while.
‘Your father is not a bad man,’ she said eventually. ‘He wants you all, you and your brothers, to have the best education, the best in the world. He doesn’t want you to work on trawlers and haul little shrimp.’
‘Who buys the scales?’ I sniffed.
‘They are pure silver,’ she said. ‘Your father sells them to the men who work on the rig and the men who own The Titus. He sells them for foreign currency.’
‘But our school fees are not expensive.’
She laughed at this. ‘They will soon be. Didn’t you say you wanted to be a doctor?’
‘Not anymore,’ I said.
In my Harvard dorm room, the TV was going. I looked around at the medical textbooks, whose leather bindings matched my sofas.
‘So what do you think, Addie? Mermaids?’ Jack said, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin.
I looked out the window.
‘That’s some crazy shit, man,’ I said.
First published in Australia by Canary Press May 2013
Adelehin Ijasan is a Nigerian writer residing in Lagos and has been published in magazines such as canary press, on the premises, membra disjecta and takahe.