The first thing to understand is that we are very beautiful.
Deploy your imagery of choice. Reach for gemstones, for edibles: crystal skin, laughing emerald eyes, hair like gently burnished gold. Peaches and cream. The blush of sunrise staining fresh water. You may mix metaphors. You will be forgiven.
The second thing to understand is that it means nothing.
It means nothing because we have been beautiful for years. And years. Think of the highest number you can count to without your mind wandering. Go ahead and double it. They say attention spans are low these days. Double it again. Square it. Square the square.
You are not even close.
In the beginning, when they said we would live forever, it was a moment of great rejoicing. Surely we deserved this. We were the most beautiful, after all, and now we would be beautiful forever—our beauty a gift to the world that would keep on giving. The universe had looked down and said, yes, you are doing everything right and so I am rewarding you with more. Everything was coming up roses.
And continued to come up roses for the next several thousand years. But slowly, our people got tired. They began to complain. Our lovers died again, they said. The sea just isn’t so crystal anymore. If I have to hear Syrena tell that story about the barnacle one more time I’ll beach myself. And some did: bodies rotting quietly on forgotten beaches in Norway, in Palu Palu. One or two scooped up, taxidermied, displayed in traveling fairs and museums.
Okay, fine, they said, when we went to them with our complaints. We thought this is what you wanted.
Well, yeah, we said. But we didn’t know you meant forever-forever. Forever is a really long time, you know? They rolled their eyes and said, Yeah, obviously, we know, and we all laughed nervously, like, Ha ha ha, no offense or anything, not that there’s anything wrong with living forever; we just don’t think it’s our thing after all.
And they sighed, like they were really disappointed, but finally they waved their arms or wands or whatever and said, Fine, you have the power to shuck immortality and begin aging at any point in time.
And then we die? we asked.
And then, at the end of a natural lifespan, you will die.
Can we be killed? we asked.
Can we become human? one of us asked, from the back, and they all squinted their eyes at us and leaned in close.
You want eternal youth, they said. And you want the ability to flip it off with a switch. And you also want to become human?
Er, I mean, the one in the back said, wringing her hands and blushing like a tea-rose before a storm. Like, as an intellectual experiment, you know? For science. And stuff. Science stuff.
The Greater Powers began to look stormy/dark/grumbly, the way they do, so everyone quickly shushed the blusher and said thank you, and then we swam hastily out into the new terminable eternity that was our lives.
And so we began to disappear.
It took the first of us just eighty years (the tea-rose blusher, who wanted to droop and fawn over a boy she’d seen topside). It felt like a mistake. An anomaly. Graph it and see: one sun-kissed little outlier.
No more mermaids threw their lives away until Mazu in the 14th century, when the Japanese began to seed the sea with crude underwater mines. “It’s only going to get worse from here,” she said. She said lots of things, even on her deathbed: eyes rolling, hands twitching, calling for apocalypses, land invasions, an absent sea. She inspired hundreds of apostles. A minor doomsday religion. Which, in time, also died away.
Faith: just one more endangered species.
There are two of us now. There were three until a week ago, when Merryn chose to go. She didn’t announce it. That wasn’t her way. She was just there, swimming with the dolphins and braiding pearls into her hair like always, until she wasn’t.
Oleana is not taking it well.
“She left us alone forever,” she moans. We’re in a hulking, half-rotted cabin of a Spanish galleon, everything furred with kelp and rust. She’s been swimming around me in circles for an infinitesimal part of forever, and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Small schools of fish float past the portholes, then flash silver away, panicked, as she blazes by.
I can’t stop watching her: the lustrous stream of her dark hair, her weeping sapphire eyes, her wailing lips a supple coral, ripe like a pear. It is difficult and distracting to be near so beautiful a creature. In the past, our large convocations lasted centuries, or were held in the dark.
“We’re fine,” I say. “We don’t know where Merryn went. She’s probably in the Baltic again.”
Oleana shakes her head. Ours has always been a difficult friendship. Difficult in that we don’t like each other. In our infancy, we tumbled together in the waves, capturing bubbles and making up stories about the fairy worlds within. Or so she says. Here is what I remember: millennia of rivalry, of war. There were entire centuries where I stuck to the shallows, afraid of her minions in the depths.
I watch impassively as opalescent tears fly from her cheeks and shimmer a minute before dissolving into the larger sea.
“She’s gone, Bahari,” she says. “And maybe she had the right idea.”
Oleana refuses to leave my side. This is torturous for a number of reasons. We are solitary creatures, some of us more so than others. I never went in for the combing-the-hair-of-my-sisters-on-a-rock thing. I haven’t spent this much time with anyone else since my last human lover died, a shipwrecked Phoenician sailor to whom I brought fish and pomegranates for a few years before forgetting him. It is easy with humans. You sneeze, and they’ve aged into obsolescence.
She gilds my fins with nacre while I sleep. She builds coral forts. She goes through cycles: some days withdrawn, morbid; others boisterous and loud. She studies grains of sand, describes the tiny worlds of light she sees there. “Look, like when we were babies,” she says. “Isn’t the world full of wonder?” The next day she kills an entire shiver of sharks and makes piles of their teeth, weeping.
“What happens when we die?” she asks.
“Decomposition,” I tell her.
She clings to my arm with alabaster fingers. “Give me a reason to stay,” she says.
I try to shake her off. “Only you can make that choice,” I say.
More math for you: if you are the last two of a nearly extinct race, and one of you is emotionally repugnant, how do you solve for friendship?
Oleana chooses to go on a mild day in the Mediterranean. I come with her. What else am I to do? There’s not another eclipse on for a decade or so, and besides, we are a dying species.
She grows nervous as we near the spot. Her shining nails cut into my ivory palm. She asks, “Bahari, what’s your reason for staying?”
I hesitate. I have had thousands of years to craft this answer. I know what it is that I want: I would rather be the most alone thing in the universe than to be something that is not me. But all I can say, trying not to sound bitter, is, “Someone’s got to do it.”
She says, “Thank you,” and it is impossible for me not to hate her a tiny bit. I close my eyes. She dives.
(In case you are wondering, the way to lose your immortality is this: go out into the middle of the ocean and select a small, pink pebble. It should be perfectly round except for one corner, which may be bulbous. Wait for sunset, for the first star to peek from the night. Lift the bulbous corner to your lips and whisper, “Go.”)
“I feel different,” she calls up to me. “Do I look different?”
“No,” I say, and turn before her pleased smile leaves a line that neither of us can erase.
Then I am the most beautiful thing in the universe.
The sea feels very, very empty.
It is a thing of great responsibility, to be the last of one’s kind. Everything you do is Representative Of The Race. Forget aging out. There’s no head to pass that crown onto. Just you, and you, and you for eternity.
You argue: eternal life! So many diversions! You point to your adventure books, your films. Fall in love with a human! you say. Love is the greatest force on earth!
Dear small thing: I have been in love. I have loved the greatest love that anyone ever loved, and also the love that no one could possibly understand, and even the slightly inadvisable love that makes all of your friends nervous-slash-jealous, and all of them were the big eternal love. And dear one?
All of them died.
Every single one.
And before they died, they got old. They got droopy. They developed saggy little man-breasts and lost their hair and their hearing and their minds. Some became cruel and demanding, but all became ugly, and then gone.
Again, and again, and again.
Can you blame us for drowning so many of you in your youth? Really, we are doing you a favor.
I do not look for love. I do not comb my hair. I swim from one pole to the other and back again so many times that I lose all sense of which is which, and the world keeps turning anyway.
I stop noticing people. I stop counting in years. I begin to look for broader patterns. The weathering of rocks. The dying of stars. The first letters in the names of the heroes who come over to find/fight/fall in love with me. And slowly the universe begins to spell out an answer.
It is all I see everywhere: tucked in the lips of the statues that erode over centuries. In the silvery bubbles that stumble to the surface from the gas vents. One morning I wake up and before blinking it away, see it etched in the shimmering fins of my tail. I swim to the surface, watch the long, dirty rope of sea foam twisting against the shore. Okay! I shout to the universe. It’s here! It’s foam! What more do you want?
The universe doesn’t respond. I don’t even know if I’ve spoken out loud. It’s been so long.
I try new things, to fill the time. I try cruelty once, for an entire century, just to see how it feels. Reaching for the lovers of others with alabaster arms. Drowning children, pets. It leaves me feeling hungry, and terribly small.
Didn’t I ever track down the Greater Powers, try to become human? Consider: do you want to be a mermaid? You may believe you know the answer, but think carefully. Your desire to remake yourself in the sea is a likely extension of your inability to fit in on land. And sweet cheeks, the ocean is just like land, except with no Wi-Fi and more sharks.
I find Oleana one day, in a grotto outside a long-forgotten marina. She is small and withered, her scales milky, indistinct. There are small crustaceans burrowing in the corners of her eyes. She smiles when she sees me, a mouth of brown and broken teeth. “Bahari,” she says, and begins to weep. “You’re so lovely.”
I look at her, insignificant and small and crusted, quaking with emotion, and feel nothing. Her hair is old hair-colored. Her face is face-colored. She is not like me. She inspires no metaphor. I turn to go. She grabs my arm with a hand-shaped hand.
“Didn’t you get my messages?” she asks. “I sent you so many. Sunfish. Eels. Even a sea lion or two. I didn’t know how to find you.”
I think back, and the past stretches empty behind me as an untroubled sea. I say, “I guess I didn’t get them.” I shrug. “I’m sorry.”
She looks sad. She says, “When did you quit seeing the little things?”
I tell her, “Little things are for little lives. I’m the only one in the world who can read the world in eons.”
The singularity of the I’m hits her in the face, and I can see a complicated school of emotions chase after it, so many emotions in a minute. I can’t read them all. I don’t remember how to think in minutes.
Oleana says, “Before you go. Can I tell you the thing I missed the most?”
“Not being hideous?” I ask.
Oleana flinches. She has forgotten what it is like to be beautiful, how it makes you immune to things like being nice.
She says, “Nothing.”
I say, “Liar.”
Oleana looks at me fiercely with her eye-colored eyes and says, “When your life is small and finite, you see each and every finite thing. You see it all and it all means the world to you. I just lived 87 years of precise and vibrant moments and every one of them burned like a star.”
I run my tongue over my own teeth. For a minute, I permit myself to imagine my body old and decaying. I try to put feelings to the words: ache in my bones. Stiffness of joints. I wind my iridescent hair around my finger and even now, with death so close by, I can’t look away from the beauty.
Old, small, ugly Oleana rasps, “You wouldn’t understand.”
I say, “And you do, but you’ll be dead. So what difference does it make?”
I sit there with her until she is well on her way to decomposition. In the end, it is a different kind of beautiful. Her body is swarmed by rainbows of fish. When I leave, she is a scattering of fins and scales and hair, the bones that were once her fingers spelling whitely on the sand, FOAM.
Races of fishes begin to die out one by one. The corals. The whales. I swim with a bale of sea turtles one day and fewer the next day and then one, and then nothing. The ocean begins to go acid like tea. One day, I sit on a rock and watch as the entire sky goes white. Then dark. Then cold.
I am a mermaid at the end of the universe.
I surface in a world gone so inky black that it’s hard to tell sea from sky. I lift my hand from the water and can see nothing and laugh aloud. The laugh shatters on the icy wind, a regrettable act. It was the only one in the world.
If I were a scientist now, and somehow not dead, I would estimate that just .06% of the Earth’s population is left alive.
I swim for days in the freezing, disembodying darkness, sometimes diving, sometimes surfacing. I follow thin veins of heat to where I think the cities must have been, looking for survivors. I am accustomed to being lonely, but not entirely alone.
I have visions of the Greater Powers, and of Oleana. Of Mazu, the long-ago prophet, telling us that things would get worse. I realize, in my darkest moment, that with the world gone black, I cannot find a smooth pink pebble in the middle of the ocean. There are no stars for me to whisper to. There is no way for me to let go.
No, I think. This can’t be all. I am not beautiful and eternal for nothing.
The universe answers, infinitely: FOAM.
I do not know how much time passes.
I have not seen light in so long that I no longer keep my eyes open regularly. It is a liability. The water burns, these days. The water is full of the skeletons of ruined humans and their cities.
I am swimming near what used to be South America when something presses against my lids. A faint green moonglow on the horizon. I blink, blink again. In every direction, the vast and freezing ink. But to the left, a faint tickle of light. A city on the horizon.
It is not a city. My belly scrapes rock, then sand, and I cry out, surfacing. Stretching out on either side of me, a horizon is delineated in a long, ropy glow that twists and undulates. I reach out, scoop up a handful. Irradiated seafoam.
I close my eyes, nearly weeping. I lie in the foam and wait for the powers, or anyone, to take me away. But there is nothing.
I lift my head to scream at the endless sky, and realize a new thing: I can see the silhouette of my body, black against the gently glowing foam.
I have not seen myself, or anything, for so long.
And then I do weep.
I make a new life in the foam. We drift, sometimes, in the freezing current. We dash ourselves against the shoals of the ruined shores of ruined countries. I make up new names. This one Blackvelvet, this one Death Country, this one The Barrens. Sometimes we are swept into storms, the unseen moon still plucking at the responsive tides. There is a thunderstorm over what was once the north Pacific one day, and in the flashes of lightning I see a stone jutting out of the water, sparkling and mad. Drawing closer, I see that is twisted with the hair of thousands. And then we are swept away again.
I think of Merryn, of the braiding of her hair. I think of Oleana, looking at me with the too-quick flickers of emotions scraping across her face. Her stories of our childhood: fairy worlds in grains of sand. The way she burned and said, you see each and every finite thing.
I twist and look into the foam. I force myself to look past the way it gives shape to my body. I examine it for itself.
It is foam.
It is green, glowing foam.
I scoop a handful of foam and lift it to my eyes. It is made of thousands of tiny bubbles: iridescent where they press together, surfaces of swimming rainbows. From the heart of each a gentle green glow.
I press my face so close I am nearly breathing the foam, and then I see movement.
In the heart of each bubble, a tiny world.
I see earth-children running. I see lovers dreaming in too-small beds. I see rows of coral, carefully tended. I see clouds and sun. I see whales. I see a pink stone nestled in moss.
I look up to the forever-dark sky and blink, but the images remain impressed on my eyes: reverse shadows of impossible tiny things. I wonder how long the world has been storing the true heart of itself out of sight in tiny and forgotten moments.
I run my fingers through the foam and the finite hopes and dreams of everything and try not to think if I am ready to go. In the years of watching everything I love dying, I told myself that after a while you stop loving men and learn to love your own loneliness. I have told myself this so long that it has become its own kind of unquestioned truth.
But life is too long to not ask questions.
I lift the foam to my lips and open my mouth to blow, to scatter it out into the inky darkness like new stars. I whisper, “Go.”
Kendra Fortmeyer has an MFA from UT Austin and edits fiction for Broad! Her work has appeared in PANK, NANO Fiction, Smoking Glue Gun, apt, Forge, and elsewhere.