Bartering with Mermaids

by Natasha Suri


When I was eight, I asked the mermaids to make my father well again.

I should have known better. I knew that answered prayers came with a price attached. My grandmother taught me that. Your mother should have been born a boy, Nani told me once. But before she was born, I prayed night and day to God to give me a daughter. I wanted a good obedient girl to take care of me. She shook her head and tutted, the way grandmothers the world over tut over the tragic fate allotted to womankind. It is your poor mother’s bad luck that he granted my wish.  

My poor mother indeed. The role of obedient daughter fit my mother like a dress a size too small. She wore the role well enough, but sometimes she would look a little like she couldn’t breathe, like she wished the seams of her life had a little more give in them. I bet sometimes she considered ripping the seams apart entirely, throwing the dress in the bin, and fucking off to wherever it is that women go to when they aren’t mothers or daughters or wives anymore. But she never did.

My grandmother’s lessons always came in stories told off-hand, as if they didn’t mean much. But they taught me everything I needed to know. The story of my mother’s prayed for birth taught me that gods are untrustworthy, even when they give you what you want; that gifts can come with unexpected claws; and finally, that being a woman can be a terrible business, an exercise in heartache that shapes you from the outside and seeps sadness into your skin and your bones. I didn’t understand that lesson until much later, when my grandmother was long gone. Far too late to thank her for the forewarning.

But when I was eight, I thought I understood the lesson my grandmother was trying to teach me: Don’t pray to God. You won’t like his answers. So I didn’t pray to God in any of his forms: I prayed to the sea instead.

Nani loved the seaside. I can’t say that the seaside was her temple - the temple was her temple, after all - but the sea had its hooks in her soul, and it drew her back over and over again. An avowed vegetarian, she loved the smell of frying fish, and basked in the sharp tang of vinegar on chips fresh from the deep fat fryer.  Even in howling rain, she’d walk up and down the beach in her salwar kameez and her cardigan, chomping down stubbornly on a ninety-nine flake. In better weather, she’d wade into the water and stand in up to the ankle, her salwar hitched up to her knees.

I didn’t love the sea for the reasons Nani did. At that age I was obsessed with fairytales. Every night my father read them to me, and my favourite was The Little Mermaid. I thought the sea was full of mermaids exactly like the illustrations in my storybook, with pale blue skin and shining scales and dark hair. The idea enchanted me so strongly that I believed mermaids had to be real. Sometimes I stood in the surf with my grandmother, clutching her hand tight, and imagined sinking deep deep beneath the water to a kingdom made of coral and glass and wearing a crown of mother-of-pearl in my hair, just like the best mermaid in my book.

When my dad got sick, when he moved into the spare bedroom and I was told not to touch him for fear of hurting him, my dreams changed. I dreamt of asking the mermaids to fix my father. I dreamt of their soft smiles and benevolent eyes. I dreamt of their voices as fragile as bubbles of glistening water.

Of course we’ll make him better, darling. For you.

On one visit to the seaside I took my storybook with me and threw it into the water. I watched the water gum up the pages, swallow the ink and the paper and the inside cover where my dad had written Happy Birthday darling daughter! in his spidery lefthanded script. Nani scolded me for my foolishness, and I wept and wept, but I’d thought the book was a big enough price to pay, that if I gave the sea something I loved and let it sink deep, deep down to the coral-glass kingdom, I would get my father back in one piece. It was child logic, but also logic as old as time, of blood and sacrifice for a boon from a higher power.

When my father began to get better - when he began to stand again, and hug me with his thin arms, and eventually walk me to school without even a cane to support him - I felt vindicated. I’d asked the mermaids to save him, and the mermaids had answered. I had my father back.

But you know this story. You’ve read fairytales too. You know - as I now know - that the book wasn’t enough. Someone must offer up their voice, or cut out a heart. Ask a myth for a favour, and it will make you pay in silence or in blood. Stories are full of lessons like that. Listen to any grandmother’s stories, and you’ll see that it’s so.

I had my father for a while, and then I grew into a woman and discovered that being his daughter was worse than a too-small dress. Being someone my father felt able to love was like trying to breathe underwater. It crushed my lungs, it left me floundering with my hands around my neck.

I had given the ocean my heart, you see. I thought I had given it a thing I love, but instead I’d given it my love, and it had kept it. Now my heart was wild and strange, a black ocean crashing against my ribcage. I couldn’t be the daughter he wanted, the one who would marry a good Indian boy and have beautiful, bright-eyed children. I only had room in me to love soft-eyed women with dark hair.

I tried to convince myself I could do what women had done since time began: wear the skin of the good daughter, the joyful wife of a husband, the loving mother of his child. I almost managed it. But at night I still dreamt of the mermaids, and woke sure that if I ran a fingernail over my knees my skin would part to reveal scales that gleamed like mother-of-pearl.

My father is - and was - a proud man. When I told him about my first girlfriend he looked over my head, at a fixed point in the distance. He didn’t cry. He was so quiet that I could hear the sound of my mother’s cleaver hacking through onions in the kitchen. Snap. Snap. Snap. He left the room without saying a word, and we never spoke of it again.  

If I’d known his love was the price I would pay to make him well, would I have paid it? I’m a grown woman now, and although I remember the feel of my grandmother’s hand holding my own and the chill of the sea around my feet as clear as if it all happened yesterday, the way my father used to love me is sodden ink. He never abandoned me, and I never abandoned him. The tide simply came between us. So it goes.

But I’m trying to tell my own stories, these days. I don’t like the lessons this one imparts: that love can be bartered, that love is fragile, that there is something glittering and monstrous inside me that alienates the people who once loved me.

I think next time I’ll tell a different story. I’ll tell you about the first day my dad took me to school, after his illness. I’ll tell you how it took him half an hour to slowly, laboriously pull his duffle coat over his pyjamas; how it was agony for him to cram his feet into his shoes, but he did it because I was watching him hopefully in my pinafore and my tie, my school satchel clutched in my hands. I was already late for school by the time we left the house, but I didn’t care. The sun was shining, and my dad was going to be just fine.

I love you Dad, I said.

He placed his hand on my head and smiled at me. It was an unbearably tender smile. His hand was warm and felt like it could hold the whole world inside it.

I love you too, beta, he told me.

I went to the beach today, and stood in my boots in the surf. No pale hands came to drag me down; no kingdom emerged from the water, all coral and glittering glass. The salt just ruined my shoes. The rain started, pelting down hard, but I didn’t let it send me home. I bought a ninety-nine flake and ate while stomping along the shoreline in my wet shoes, because I am my grandmother’s good granddaughter, stubborn and full of tales. I am exactly as I was always meant to be.