Hector & the Mermaid
Hector didn’t know anybody in the big city.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true: he knew his grouchy landlord. He knew the surly fry cook who lived across the hall and was always smoking on the shared balcony. He knew his coworkers at Apartment Gorgon: Dirtbag Joe and Brittany the Cheerleader and Rhonda Steelheart in HR.
He just didn’t know anybody he liked.
Hector was new in town. He’d only been here for a month. On his first day at Apartment Gorgon (“We turn the competition to stone!”), Rhonda had handed him his lanyard and looked him up and down with a skeptic’s experienced eye.
“Try not to look so frightened, sweetie. Real estate’s a fast-paced, quick-n’-dirty, cutthroat kind of business in a big city like this. You have to be ready to swim with the sharks.”
Hector had swallowed. “I’m, ah, I’m just a cameraman.”
“Hon, I don’t care if you’re the janitor. Be on your game or you won’t last five minutes.”
Needless to say, Hector didn’t hang out with his coworkers much.
Hector rode the train all around the city with his camera bag. He’d be shown into apartments ten times nicer than his own—a run-down old studio next to a cemetery way up on the north side—and he’d unload his out-of-date Canon and his wide angle lens and his stabilizer. He’d shoot the living room, the bathrooms, the floor-to-ceiling windows and the outdoor balconies. Sometimes the leasing agents would hover over his shoulder; he could always smell their perfume.
This is a new construction, stainless steel appliances, five-burner oven. And pet friendly!
Sometimes he’d see fifteen apartments in a single day. Then he’d wait on the train platform with his equipment, his shoulders aching, until the train came and he could sink into a seat and pull out his phone, releasing his tired mind into the world of the AV Club or Vanity Fair or /r/movies.
Hector hadn’t intended to go into real estate videography. Like everyone else with a DSLR and a dream, he’d gone to film school with the hopes of making movies. His blu-ray collection—he still bought blu-rays—was organized by director, and his bedroom walls were covered in movie posters. He loved Edgar Wright and David Fincher (but not Benjamin Button). When Whiplash came out, he went to see it three times, and the third time he took notes.
More than anything, Hector wanted to tell stories with pictures. The real estate thing was just a gig. A placeholder. Temporary.
At least, that’s what he told himself every day on the train for the next month.
At the end of the month, after shooting a particularly ritzy condominium, he met Adriana.
She sat across from him on the train. She had long green hair that came down to her waist, held back on either side of her ears by what appeared to be clusters of clam shells. There was something foreign about her, a slightly fishy smell, and when she sat down the woman next to her wrinkled her nose. But Hector was intrigued. In fact, he thought she was quite beautiful.
Hector spent the next two stops working up his nerve. Then he put his phone in his pocket and cleared his throat.
The girl blinked at him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve never seen anyone do their hair like that. Are those hair clips or…?”
The girl frowned. Hector swallowed; he’d offended her. She probably thought he was trying to hit on her. Which he was, sort of, but not in a creepy way.
Then the girl laughed.
“Oh, you mean these?” She pointed to the shells. She had a thick accent that he couldn’t place. “No, no, these are clams.”
“Real clam shells?”
“Yes. They help keep your hair clean in the water.”
Hector stared at her. She said it so matter-of-factly. It occurred to him then that this green-haired clam-shell wearing stranger was possibly the most interesting person he had ever met.
Her cheeks turned red. “You’re looking at me funny.”
“I’m sorry, I—”
“No, it’s okay. It seems like I’m always making humans look at me funny. I don’t know why; I’m afraid I’ve only been in the city for a month now.”
“Really? Me, too!”
“You have? That’s great! Where did you come from?”
“Just a small town about a million miles from here. No place you’ve ever heard of. I just finished school.”
“Really? Me, too!”
“No way! What school?”
“No place you’ve ever heard of.”
They both laughed.
Hector asked. “Where are you from?”
She said: “Oh, from the ocean.”
“Yes. Didn’t I say? I’m a mermaid.”
“Yes. It’s my gap year.”
“Don’t you humans have gap years?”
“Sure, sometimes. I think they’re pretty common in Europe.”
“Well, when we merfolk finish university we’re allowed to swallow a magic pearl that changes our tailfins into legs so that we can go abroad for a year. The Prime Minister says it’s imperative that we learn about the world of the land-dwellers.”
Hector looked at her green hair and her big green eyes and smelled seaweed and sand. And he found that he believed her. He reached out his hand.
“I’m Hector,” he said. “Hector Martinez.”
“Hello, Hector, Hector Martinez.” She shook his hand. “I’m Adriana.”
“Do you want to see a movie sometime, Adriana the mermaid?”
“What’s a ‘movie?’”
“You don’t know what movies are?”
She shook her head.
He grinned. “Oh, you’re in for a treat.”
That weekend, they went to the movies. Hector arrived half an hour early because he was nervous. He paced in front of the concession stand, listening to the buttery gunshots of the popcorn machine, wondering if he was crazy. What if the girl he’d met on the train had only been a figment of his very tired imagination?
But then he saw Adriana coming towards him in an oversized green hoodie, the clams still in her hair, and his insides soared.
“Hello, Human Hector!” Her smile was dazzling. “This is exciting. I’m very interested to learn about what humans do in their spare time.”
He made sure they got good seats. He’d picked a comedy—something light. Hector thought he’d made a good choice, but fifteen minutes in he began to grow anxious. Adriana sat next to him, munching on popcorn and frowning at the screen. She hadn’t laughed once.
Finally, after a particularly uproarious moment, she leaned over, confused.
“I don’t understand. What is everyone laughing at?”
Hector realized that perhaps he had made a faux pas. After all, Adriana was unfamiliar with land-culture. Perhaps the humor was going over her head. He leaned in to explain.
“Well, you see, that man there—”
“The man in the movie.”
“Yes, on the screen.”
Adriana frowned for a long moment. Then, all of a sudden, she laughed. “Oh, I see what’s happening! How silly of me. I was warned about this. You see, we merfolk can’t see screens.”
Hector blinked. “Can’t see…?”
“Well, I mean, we can see them, but they look blank to us. Like the surface of the ocean on a calm summer day.”
Hector was beside himself. The implications rolled around his head like bowling ball, knocking down pin after pin. What could you talk about with a girl who couldn’t see screens?
“Well,” he said, embarrassed and miserable, “We should probably go, then.”
“What? No! No, I want to learn about this human custom of ‘movies.’”
“But…but you can’t see what’s happening! What’s the point of staring at a blank screen for two hours?”
“You can see it, yes?”
She leaned closer to him, putting her elbows up on the armrest. His stomach did a little somersault.
“Describe it to me,” she said.
And he did.
Soon, they were spending almost every evening together. They were two strangers in a big city, but when they were together, neither one felt so lonely anymore.
Hector showed her all his favorite movies. He showed her Zodiac and The Godfather and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He showed her 500 Days of Summer and All the President’s Men. And because Adriana couldn’t see the screen, he described it to her, in detail. At first his explanations were rambling and unsteady, and he found he frequently had to go back and re-explain things he’d left out. But as they went on he found his narrative abilities improving: he began not only to explain but to tell. He began to feel the pulse of the stories like heartbeats as he unspooled their arcs, setting up scenes and characters, arranging plot points precisely. Adriana would sit, riveted.
One day, at a coffee shop, Adriana asked: “Hector, do you write?”
Hector paused, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. Outside, a light rain was pelting the window. A young man in a suit ran by with a newspaper over his head, and a taxi cab driver loitered by the curb, the embers of a forgotten cigarette between his fingers.
“No,” said Hector. “Not really.”
“But why not? You’re such a marvelous storyteller.”
Hector had never heard a more wonderful compliment in his life. He set down his coffee. “To tell the truth, my dream is to be a director.”
“It’s someone who makes movies.”
She lit up at that. “Yes, this is an excellent idea! You should do it, Hector. But if you are going to do it, then you should learn to write.”
“I’ve never written anything before. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
She looked out at the rain and considered this for a long time. Then she leaned forward with a conspiratorial air. “Tomorrow,” she said. “I will help you.”
The next evening, Adriana rang the buzzer to Hector’s apartment. He opened the door to find her carrying a large green book, cracked and yellowing from age.
“Sit, sit,” she said, taking off her scarf. “Today, I tell you a story.”
She settled into his big chair and opened the book. To Hector’s surprise, the letters on the pages were not English: in fact, they weren’t from any script he could recognize. They swirled and dipped in long, hooked lines. Spread out across the page, they looked like coral.
“Now listen,” she said.
For the next two hours, Adriana told him stories. She told him the story of a merman who stole a pearl from the tongue of the Great Clam in order to win the hand of a mermaid princess. She told him the story of three mermaid sisters who traveled into the Deepest Depths, where the light doesn’t shine, and spoke to the dead who dwell there. She told him the story of sea turtles journeying through the seven seas, of the exploits of the otter colonies, of the terrible war with the sharks, and of Ferdinand the Swift who felled the Greatest White Shark and wore his tooth around his neck as a trophy.
Hector sat on the carpet and listened.
When Adriana was finished, she closed the book. Hector didn’t speak for a long time.
“These are the stories of your people?” he asked finally.
She nodded. She looked a little sad. “You are the first human to ever hear them.”
“I am? But why?”
“No one has ever been interested before.”
“I know. That’s why I told them to you. I think you should write these stories down.”
He looked at her in surprise. “Really?”
“You must learn to write, Hector, to be a great director. But to write you must read great stories. And these are the greatest stories I know.”
Soon summer came, with all its heat and light, and Hector and Adriana spent every weekend reading. They would get a stack of books from the library and take a blanket to the harbor, where they’d sit eating sandwiches and take turns telling stories. He would check out books on the art of moviemaking and screenwriting and she would get stacks of literature and picture books and comics. When they weren’t reading to each other, Adriana would read in silence while Hector scribbled away in a notebook.
“Are you writing, Hector?” Adriana asked one day.
“Yes,” he said.
Then she was quiet. After a while, Hector looked up. Adriana wasn’t reading: she was looking out at the water. Out over the water, a sailboat drifted, and there was the sound of gulls. Hector put down his notebook.
“Do you miss it?”
A faint smile pulled at her lips. “Every day.”
Hector looked at the water, then back at her. Suddenly he realized how little he actually knew about her. She had seen everything about him and his life; he had seen almost nothing of hers.
“Tell me a story,” he said.
She laughed. “I have already told you many today.”
“Not that kind of story. Tell me a story about you.”
“Yeah. About your home, your family, your life.”
She was quiet for a while. Then she said, “My reef is small. It is filled with coral and urchins and anemone. It is small, but it is filled with life: schools of little fish and darting crabs and creeping sea slugs. At night I fall asleep in a bed of sponges and feel the current all around me and hear the sounds of the ocean.
“When I was little, I had many friends in my reef, many young merfolk. But my best friend was my older sister. We would play hide and seek in the kelp forest. I was smaller than her and if I moved my tailfin in time to the drifting kelp I could stay perfectly hidden until she gave up.”
“When we got older, we would go whale-riding together. The whales would carry us all over the sea while we held onto their fins. One time they took us so far that we didn’t get back to the reef until well after dark. Our parents were very angry about it, but we knew they had done the same thing when they were young. Every merfolk rides the whales at least once. That night, I went to sleep in my sponge-bed and heard the whispering of the fish and I knew they were talking about us and I was happy.”
She looked back out at the water. “My sister had her gap year two years ago. A whole year she spent on land, away from us. The ocean was emptier without her. And when she came back, she was different. Changed. And now that it is my turn, my chance to come ashore, I find that I miss her even more. But not only her: I miss those sounds. The whispering of the fish, the ebb and flow of the current. In school, they taught us all the languages of the sea, from the titter of sardines to the bellow of the Mighty Blue Whale, and when you’re out there in the water, you hear the words all the time. Someone is always talking, and the sound becomes a kind of hum, a comforting blanket that you don’t realize is around you until you come ashore into the blaring car horns and the grind of train wheels. They are good sounds, these sounds of this city-on-the-land. But for me, they are not the sounds of home.”
Hector looked at her. He looked at her green eyes and soft lips and the hair curling around her earlobes. She looked so delicate, but in reality she was brave, braver than he was. He had moved to a whole new state, it was true, but she had come to a completely different world.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to him.
“I have an idea,” he said, and stood.
That afternoon, Hector took Adriana to the aquarium. As they walked among the big blue tanks of angel fish and lemon sharks and jellyfish, he saw her face glow. It was a look he had come to recognize: it was the same way she looked when she tasted something good or saw something beautiful.
When they came to a very large tank, she grabbed his hand.
“Look! Sea turtles!”
She pulled him to the tank. They stood very close to it, their noses touching the glass. The turtles drifted by lazily, and her eyes were wet and happy.
“Thank you, Hector,” she said.
And, finally, for the first time in many months, Hector leaned down to kiss her.
She drew away.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh, Hector…”
Then she turned and ran.
“Adriana!” he called, rushing after her.
He found her sitting on the steps of the aquarium.
“Stupid,” she said. “I’ve been so stupid.”
“Adriana, what’s wrong? What did I do?”
She shook her head in anger. “No, Hector, no. You did nothing wrong. I’m sorry.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
“These legs…the spell of the magic pearl only works for a year. Don’t you see? After that, I go back to having a tailfin. I go back to the water.”
He stared at her. He had always known this, but now the truth felt like cement in his stomach.
“Couldn’t you…I dunno, couldn’t you swallow another pearl?”
“It is forbidden. But it makes no difference. Don’t you see, Hector?” She waved a hand at the aquarium. “I don’t belong in this world. I belong in the ocean. I have to go back. I want to go back.”
He felt a deep ache. Then a fierce fire of passion leaped up in him. He took her hands.
“Then we should make the most of the time we have.” He drew her lips towards him again. But she pushed him away and stood up.
“Hector, no! You aren’t thinking straight.” She wiped her eyes. “My sister had an affair with a human during her gap year. She knew it couldn’t last, but she thought that if she loved a boy on land, it would make no difference in the sea. But she was wrong. And when she came back, she wasn’t the same.”
She shook her head. “I can’t live like that Hector. My home is the water. I can’t leave a part of myself up here.”
With that, she left him sitting on the aquarium steps. He watched her go, his heart crying out, the scent of sea-salt in his nostrils.
He didn’t see her for a week after that. He tried to contact her, but she couldn’t see screens: she had no phone, no email address, no Facebook account. In the past, they’d always agreed on their next meeting in person. Now, Hector had no way of reaching her. So he did the only thing he could think of: he rang at her apartment. It was a ramshackle brick building on the north side; the landlord was an old sailor who had been subletting studios to merfolk for years, Adriana had once told him. Hector stood outside the door and pressed the buzzer.
She didn’t answer.
He rang her every day for the next week, until finally the intercom crackled.
“Hector, please…please leave me alone.”
“I can’t!” he said into the little speaker. It stared back at him, his only hope. “I can’t, Adriana, I…I love you.”
The intercom was silent for a long time. Then it sighed.
“Hector, I can’t do this anymore. I think we should spend the rest of my gap year apart.”
“We enjoy being together, don’t we? You’re teaching me to write, teaching me about the stories of your people.”
“Hector, don’t you see? I…I think I love you, too.”
He stared at the intercom.
“But I can’t, Hector. I can’t.”
He clenched his jaw. For a long time he stood there, looking down at the cracks in the pavement.
Then he clicked the intercom button: “What happens if a human swallows a pearl?”
There was silence. Then: “What?”
“One of the magic pearls, the kind that gives merfolk legs. What happens if a human swallows one?”
Another pause. “I don’t know. No one has ever done it.”
All of a sudden, a train went by. It shot sparks along the track, and the roar of the wheels trampled the moment into the dust. The intercom fizzed and panicked.
“I have to go, Hector. Thank you for teaching me about humans. Goodbye.”
But the intercom clicked off.
Months passed. Bleak months of bleak routine. Hector rode the train around the city, filming stainless steel sinks and spacious brick lofts. He got promoted to full-time at Apartment Gorgon. Eventually he even stopped ringing at Adriana’s apartment.
Then, one day, he came home to find a package in front of his door. On top was a letter.
When he saw it, his heart sank.
Hector took the letter inside and opened it. It was from Adriana. Her gap year was over, and she was going back to the ocean. She said that she had treasured their time together, and that she was sorry for breaking his heart. Then, in a postscript, she added that she hoped his screenwriting was going well and that she had included a little something for him; she hoped it helped.
Hector tore open the package. It was Adriana’s old green book, cracked and yellowed.
After that, Hector tried to watch movies but he couldn’t. He canceled his Netflix subscription. He deleted his Reddit account. On the train he no longer read the AV Club and Vanity Fair, but only sat and looked out the window.
He wrote. He wrote stories of merfolk battling Great Whites and Kraken. He wrote stories of wise sea turtles and deceitful barracudas. He wrote stories of love and betrayal and sadness.
He began to take walks along the water. Every Saturday, he’d take the train to the harbor. The seagulls would cackle and skitter just out of the way, and the pavement was dotted in Canadian goose droppings. He walked to the old lighthouse and stared out at the waves.
One day, he cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Hello? Is anyone out there?”
The water was quiet.
“I want to talk to Adriana!”
“Can anyone hear me?”
There was no response. Defeated, he went home.
The next weekend, he went to the harbor again. He walked up to the lighthouse and shouted out over the water. There was no response. He did the same thing every weekend for two months.
On the first weekend of the third month, he was just about to leave when there was a ripple in the water.
“You have been calling for us for a long time, human. Your voice echoes under the waves.”
It was not Adriana. It was a young merman, bare-chested, his hair tangled around two large conch shells on either side of his face. He held a trident in one hand.
“I’m looking for Adriana,” said Hector.
“So I’ve heard.”
“If you could just send her a message.”
“I am no errand-boy, human. Our folk have no dealings with the land-dwellers.”
“I know,” said Hector. “I’ve heard your stories.”
“Stories? What stories?”
“The stories of Ferdinand the Swift, and the Great Clam. The stories of the Lost Colony and the Dark Waters and the Long Migration. I know all about your people. Adriana told me.”
The merman’s face wrinkled in distaste. “Tell me your message.”
“It’s simple,” said Hector. “I want a pearl.”
The merman laughed. “Try one of your jewelry stores.”
“Not that kind of pearl. A magic pearl. The kind that makes merfolk grow legs.”
The merman was quiet. The waters lapped up against his bare chest as he bobbed in the waves.
Finally, he said: “Tomorrow. At dawn.”
Then he slipped back beneath the waves.
The next morning, Hector was on the pier. The wind was cold and it made tears come to his eyes.
He waited for a long time. Then there was a ripple in the water. But it was not the young merman. This time it was an elderly merman, with a long beard braided with seaweed. He wore a crown of coral on his head, and his face was scarred. Around his neck at the end of a cord there was a single, pointed tooth.
“You’re Ferdinand,” he said.
The old merman looked at him. Then, with a spray of water, he threw back his head and roared. The laughter was like a tempest.
Wiping salty tears of mirth from his eyes, the old merman reached into a satchel and tossed something to Hector. It glinted in the air as he caught it. He peered into his palm, trembling.
It was a shiny red pearl.
When Hector looked back up, the merman was gone.
The next day, Hector called his grouchy landlord and canceled his lease. Then he called Rhonda Steelheart at Apartment Gorgon and gave notice that he was quitting, effective immediately.
“Couldn’t handle it, huh kid?” she said. “I told you, in this town you’ve gotta be ready to swim with the sharks.”
“I am ready.”
Then he hung up. He even waved to the surly fry cook next door as he walked to the train.
On the docks, there was no breeze. The air had grown warm, and the sun was hanging over the horizon like a ripe melon. Hector took a deep breath.
He took the magic pearl out of his pocket and popped it onto his tongue.
It tasted salty. A hint of seaweed.
Without a backward glance, he jumped into the water.
Story by Matt Mills