This week, just a short story. Hope you enjoy it.
Bernard was lying on a stone, basking in the sun with his father, and contemplating his future. He had always wanted to live the life of a mermaid. Problem was, he was born into a family of sea turtles. His father was a sea turtle. His mother was a sea turtle. All of his brothers and sisters (and he had more than three hundred of them) were sea turtles. It was just the thing to do in his family, and why not? He had the flippers, the big shell, and the cold blood. He seemed born to it. It was indisputably the career path of least resistance. And yet…
As though reading his mind, his father asked, “So, Benny, any thoughts on what you want to do with your life?”
Bernard cringed. This same dreaded conversation had become a near daily occurrence in his life.
“Your sisters and brothers have been off on their own for years now-practically their whole lives. When are you going to get out there?”
Benny’s customary reply to this line of questioning was ‘I don’t know’, because the truth seemed too absurd to confess, and the status quo too monotonous to endure. This time, he simply blurted it out, “I want to be a mermaid.” The look on his father’s face made Benny draw into his shell.
Several long moments had elapsed before his father spoke again. “You want to be what?” he asked. His voice was not angry, just incredulous.
“Well,” Bernard began again, still in his shell, “I don’t mean I want to actually become a mermaid. I know that’s not possible. But I want to do what they do-to save people from shipwrecks.”
His father seemed to consider this. “Why on earth would you want to do that? People are such pests, always throwing their hooks and nets out in front of us. Why would you want to save them?”
Benny stuck his shoulders out so as to shrug them. “Well, yeah, some of them can be annoying, but have you ever been there when the mermaids set them loose on the beach? They look so happy, especially the little ones. It seems more gratifying than just migrating and mating, migrating and mating.”
“Hey, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it,” his father said.
“I don’t want to try it,” Benny replied. “I want to join the mermaids.”
“Why the mermaids? Why not the mermen at least?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re hunters. Can you see me trying to throw a spear with this?” Benny asked, extending his stubby flipper.
“You’re a sea turtle who wants to be a mermaid, but I’m the one being ridiculous?” his father shot back.
Benny shrugged and a prickly silence fell between them. It was his father who finally broke it. “Have you talked to the mermaids about this?”
The question came as a surprise. He’d always imagined his father rejecting the idea outright. “Not yet,” Benny replied.
“Why not?” his father asked.
Again, Benny was taken aback. Wasn’t it obvious, after all? “Well, it’s kind-of a strange ambition. I guess I was just embarrassed to say it aloud.”
“I can understand that,” his father said, “but you can’t let fear or embarrassment stop you. If you want to try being a mermaid,” his father cringed a bit as he said this, apparently unable to stop himself, “then best just to get on with it. It’ll either work, or it won’t. At least you’ll know. At least you’ll have tried.”
The sheer logic of his father’s advice fortified Benny’s resolve. He nodded. “You’re right. I’ll talk to them today.” Then he sat there. The prickly silence returned.
“What are you waiting for?” his father bellowed. “Go, now, get it over with.”
“Oh, right,” Benny said, and he set off.
A feeling of dread crept into his belly as he swam toward the mermaid’s cave. He’d always enjoyed the fantasy of a life among the mermaids, but what if the reality didn’t live up to the dream? Or worse, what if the mermaids laughed and never even gave him the chance? What then?
Before he knew it, before he even wanted it, he’d arrived at the mermaid’s cave. A young, elegant maid with silvery white skin and auburn hair swam out to greet him. She seemed agitated, almost panicky to see him there.
“Where is it?” she asked, without preamble.
He was stunned. “Where’s what?” he asked.
“The ship wreck, of course,” she replied. “You have come to inform us of a ship wreck, haven’t you?” Her eyes were searching the sea’s surface as she spoke.
“No, no, not at all,” Benny replied at once. “Sorry, didn’t mean to cause a panic.”
Her gaze fell from the surface to him, and her countenance became calm and curious. “I beg your pardon. It’s an occupational hazard,” she explained. “Whenever we have an unannounced visitor, we assume the worst. How can I help you then?”
Now it was Benny’s turn to panic. “I’ve come to…to…sign up,” he said, flashing her what he hoped was a winning smile.
“Sign up?” she repeated. “Sign up for what?”
“To be a…ummm,” he couldn’t bring himself to say it. “To help,” he said at last. “I’m here to help the mermaids.”
“To help with what?” she asked.
“Saving people,” he said. “I want to rescue shipwreck victims, like you all do.”
Much to his own relief, she didn’t laugh or reject him outright. But she did seem uncomfortable. “I’ve never heard of a sea turtle helping with a rescue,” she said, “but hold on, let me ask my supervisor.” She disappeared into the cave and re-emerged a few moments later, followed closely by a surly looking maid with dark eyes and hair the color of steel, which was pulled back in a tight bun. The surlier maid glared down at him.
“I hear you want to be a mermaid?” she said, making no attempt to hide her disdain.
“I don’t want to become a mermaid,” he corrected her quickly. “I just want to work for them-for you-I mean.”
“Fine,” she said.
Benny and the younger maid exchanged a look of pure astonishment at the ease with which she’d agreed.
“You can be our scout,” she said.
Benny was overjoyed. “That’s great!” he exclaimed. “So I should just…?” He paused, hoping she would finish the thought. She did not. He tried again. “So why don’t I…umm?” She continued to stare blankly down at him. Finally, he gave up. “What exactly should I do?” he asked.
“Go look for shipwrecks,” she said.
“Right,” Benny said. “Will do.” He saluted the maids and swam off.
“That takes care of that,” the surly maid declared as she returned to the cave.
For more than an hour, Benny swam around, staring at the ocean’s surface. He was so intent on his mission, in fact, that he kept forgetting to watch where he was going and twice bumped into passersby. The first time he did this, he met a young sea skate, who urged him to abandon the hunt and come play with him on the ocean’s floor. But, determined as he was to prove his worth to the mermaids, Benny politely declined.
The second time he bumped into someone, he met an enormous blue whale named Pixie, who told him she’d seen something large and fleshy floating on the surface nearby. “I’m not sure if it’s a shipwreck,” Pixie said. “But you never know. Maybe you’ll get lucky!”
Benny thanked her and swam off in the direction she’d indicated. As he approached the surface, he did see something. He swam closer to get a better look. The person was huge. He’d never realized they could grow so big. He couldn’t tell at first glance if it was a male or a female. It didn’t seem to be in danger though. In fact, it lay so perfectly still Benny began to wonder if it was even alive. Perhaps, he thought, he’d arrived too late. He swam forward and pushed the thing with the tip of his snout.
The large lump turned and gazed at him. It seemed sleepy at first, but at the sight of Benny’s broad shell, which was more than eight feet across, the creature began to thrash and scream. The tiny, inflatable tube upon which it had been floating shot out from beneath its backside and the poor creature entered the water with a loud splash.
Benny was delighted. Perfect, he thought, I’ve found a shipwreck! Only then did it occur to him that the mermaid hadn’t told him what to do next. He didn’t know if he should go for help or try to save it alone.
As though the thought itself had somehow alerted them, several mermaids popped up beside Benny in the water. He was very impressed. “How’d you know?” he asked the closest of the maids. He realized with an unpleasant jolt that he was addressing the surly maid with steel gray hair.
“Are you deaf?” she snapped back. “Can’t you hear her screaming?”
“It’s a her?” he asked, looking at the flailing creature with new interest. “How can you tell?”
“Because the shell goes up past the chest. On the males, it stops at the waist,” she said quickly. “Now get out of my way.” She gave him a shove and swam past him toward the thrashing female, who screamed in terror as she approached. Benny couldn’t blame her. The female kicked the mermaid hard across the face and the surly maid sank like a stone, blood streaming from her now broken nose. The other mermaids looked in panic from the thrashing female to their sinking supervisor.
“You get the female,” Benny yelled. “I’ll get your boss.” He plunged into the depths of the ocean, where he found the surly mermaid sinking fast. He managed to get beneath her and she floated down onto his shell. He swam back with her to the surface, arriving just in time to see the mermaids shoving the doughy female back onto her tiny, inflatable tube. Far from looking grateful, the poor thing looked more terrified than ever. She flipped over onto her stomach and paddled back toward the shore quicker than Benny would have thought possible.
The mermaids cheered, the supervisor moaned, and Benny knew at last the thrill of rescuing someone from a shipwreck. From that day forward, whenever he came within fifty feet of the surly mermaid, she’d shout at him, “Go save someone else!” And he would.