|Art by Nilah Magruder|
“The Siren” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (4170 words) [reprint]
No Spoilers: Originally published in Strange Horizons in 2013 (so before I began reading that publication), this work doesn’t exactly deal with mermaids, though it’s the image that opens the story. Rather, it’s the story of Jen, a high school junior, her mother Sam, and the woman Sam comes back from holiday with. Mina. Who brings into Jen’s life a strangeness, a confusing and tempestuous mix of emotions. And something magical. And beautiful. And transforming. The piece carries with it a quiet power and the still yearning of a young woman in a big house that often feels empty. Or at least lonely. But feels less so, after Mina arrives.
Keywords: Sirens, Waters, Family, Queer MC, Wings
Review: I love the messiness of the story, the way that Jen’s father’s death sort of haunts the house, the way that the place sits so largely empty much of the time. Jen is a mess and a delightful one, queer but still sort of figuring that out, having to deal with her mother bringing Mina home and...it’s complicated. And I love the way the story handles that, the desire that Mina feels, the sadness, the distance from other people. The way that her wealth doesn’t do much to bring her connections or healing. And I just like that Mina sort of brings Jen out of that, focuses her attentions and desires in a way that wasn’t otherwise possible. Brings this kind of terrible clarity with her music, with being a literal siren. Shows Jen this very complex and real vision of desire and how dangerous it is, how fucked up it is. I mean, it’s a sensual story as well and there’s this sharp sexual tension between Jen and Mina, who is presumably with Sam, and it takes on something of a mythic feel in that, the way those stories are so twisted around sex and desire. But it gets Jen to see beyond herself, to really understand the tragedy that Mina is trapped by. Her transformation. Her loss. And in trying to help Mina Jen starts to be able to help herself. Begins to sort of grow up in a way that she couldn’t, not with her absent and kinda irresponsible mother and her own confusing and conflicting emotions. She can start to process what happened with her father, can start to repair the relationship with her mother. By helping to give Mina a future, to her control over her own future, Jen sees that it’s possible. Understands that she, too, can start to take control. And it’s fun, chilling, haunting, and just a gorgeous story. Just the thing to pull out of the archives and give some new life to. A fantastic read!
“A Meeting Place” and “Secret Keeping” by Ali Trotta
The first work, “A Meeting Place,” evokes a narrator who is drawn to that place where sky meets wave, the magic of the salt air, the embrace of water. Placed in the context of a mermaid publication, and with that single reference to the impact of water felt fathoms below, the implication I feel is that the narrator is a mermaid drawn up from the depths, from their home likely along the sea floor. Not to leave the waters but to reach into the space where the water ends and everything else begins. Everything might be better down where it’s wetter but there’s still the pull to that nebulous in between place where these worlds collide and where the narrator might find their love. A love who might be a person, who might be of this other world. Or a love that might be simply a state of being, a sensation, a place. Either way, their love allows them a kind of joy that they are always rushing toward and slowly sinking away from. Something new and fresh but with a sense that it’s renewed by leaving, by moving away, by returning home. Some of the pleasure at least to me seems to be the getting there, having it exist at this border where both can reach for the other. Where neither of them are wholly in control, where they are both in their element and outside of it. And in that it’s also possible the story is from someone on land who is yearning for the sea, and for the person they might find under its surface. It changes some things about how the story impacts but either way its this meeting, this space where the characters can find each other, find release from the limitations they might feel at whatever their world is, and find love and joy for as long as they stay there. The partings don’t feel sorrowful, but rather a kind of recharging necessary to make the magic of the meetings, and the meeting place, potent. And it’s a lovely and fun read!
The second poem, “Secret Keeping,” takes a more unambiguous look at the perspective of a merperson, the narrator speaking directly to the sea, to living in it, and to the land, the way people might imagine there to be a pull there. Where the previous piece finds joy in the space between worlds, though, this one speaks very openly about why this narrator would never leave the waves, never want to transform, to give up what makes them suited to the water. In a way, I love reading this poem as linked to the last, the narrator the same or similar at least, because it complicates that joy and love found in the in between by stating in this very direct and final manner that the point is not to move to the land. Even if they had a lover, they wouldn’t give up the sea for them. Because the sea is a part of them, a part that has to be accepted, and without that regardless of the lust involved, the intensity of attraction, there can be no love. That any rejection of the water, of the sea, is a rejection of the narrator, and not something that they are going to do for anyone. And I love how they think of the sea, how they’ve drawn this line and are not going to bend about it. How they respect themself and their nature, their heart, enough to never compromise on something so central to who they are. The sea is a friend and a home, a confidant and a protector, and the implication for me isn’t that they’d make anyone join them in that place, but rather that no one should have to give up something so important to them. No one should have to change that much to please someone else. And it’s a wonderful piece and such a good one-two punch when paired with the other poem. Apart, they explore different aspects of being a merperson, of living in the water. Together, they do even more than that, complicating and deepening their themes, and the rejection of the standard tropes about mermaid stories popularize by certain fairy tales and Disney adaptations. Amazing stuff!
“Aquatic Interlude #1” by Edith Zimmerman
Okay I do have to say something about this little comic strip because it’s delightful and I love it, the piece revealing this mermaid who is a health blogger who, well, doesn’t always follow her own advice. Though short, though rather cute and punchy, there’s something so deep about what’s going on here as well and I can’t just skip over it because I love the commentary the piece is making about aesthetic and happiness, placing the subject, the mermaid, in this place of having to juggle the pressures of being perceived as happy with the fear that she’s not. With the fear that everyone else is more happy, making better decisions because they’re doing the more socially rewarded thing, getting married and having kids, and she’s...not. Out of choice and I will trust that it’s not something she wants but that doesn’t mean there’s not the societal pressure, the insistence that she’s making a mistake, and she pushes back against that by...trying to make other people jealous right back, playing into different pressures about health, about what that is and what that means, and pretending to do it. Just like many of her friends are probably pretending to like being parents but are actually not only miserable but also not great parents and how there’s nothing inherently valuable in any of these things. In being a parent or a health blogger. And none of them are necessarily going to make people happy. And the pressure to do so will drive them all to eating plastic bags or similarly destructive behavior because they don’t feel in control, because the means of being happy has been obfuscated and confused with the having of things, the being of things, and it’s all just fucked. And really I’m probably thinking way too much about a little comic strip that’s just really funny but I love the way it captures it all in this semi-ridiculous manner, while making a few terrible puns and visual gags and it’s just a fabulous work all right go read it immediately!