by Alberto Chimal
translation by Julia Rios
A girl listens, ecstatic, to tales of mermaids. On its own, this is a lovely image. Mothers and fathers like to see their little ones’ delight when they talk to them about those “sweet, kind beings, with green hair and bright tails.”
If you go to the sea, they say, maybe you’ll see them.
And there is no malice in this. Adults only want to preserve children’s innocence, and they believe they can succeed through their narrations.
But this is how the truth about mermaids has been forgotten, so today only a few people know and preserve it.
It is the mermaids’ fault that this happened. In the 18th century, when all the magical entities retired from the material world, the mermaids took care to leave behind only innocuous legends, flattering stories about themselves, created to beguile the incautious, telling only of their beauty. In time, fiction imposed itself over direct testimonies, which grew increasingly rare.
Meanwhile, the mermaids elected to inhabit the realm of dreams. In this infinite environment that human consciousness can barely glimpse, they swim as in the primordial ocean before the emergence of life, when in fact, there was nothing but dreams… and the dangers, the accidents, and mere banalities of our decomposing world don’t reach them. Giant fish don’t devour them from below, seagulls don’t defecate on them when they surface. Ships don’t run away from them, but neither do they — be they ruled by lusty or bloodthirsty sailors — go full speed ahead to meet them. They don’t get stuck in nets or floating debris; they don’t drown in oil slicks.
The only thing missing in this refuge is, of course, food, which cannot be extracted from the luminal matter of dreams. Nevertheless, the mermaids have stayed alive in the same manner as other exiled creatures: if a human mind dreams of them with sufficient clarity, the narrow conduits leading from the dream to that mind are widened. Then the mermaids can pass into that unprepared consciousness and invade it.
There are few specialists capable of treating these infestations, and those who suffer can go several years before noticing that they are being attacked. A typical case: in 2004, after mounting work troubles, the engineer Alejandra Benítez, from the city of Morosa, went in for an examination, and it turned out her psyche harbored 4,703 different mermaids: they made their nests in fears and aspirations, they went out to play in urges and fantasies, and they ate, voraciously, the professional skills the engineer had acquired, at great expense, over the course of five years of study at a polytechnic institute.
It was impossible to protect her mind, which the mermaids had worn down to the point where they could enter and leave even while she was awake. Already too incapacitated to do her job at a software company, Benítez became completely unable to understand it and had to look for other, unskilled work (she was an attendant at a toll booth on the highway for a while; they reported that she was calm and happy). Worse still, when the mermaids had finished with all of her professional education, they began to eat other portions of her memory.
Today, confined in a hospital, this victim of numinous forces has lost almost all her memories: she believes herself to be a girl, small and innocent, and she is fascinated by mermaids, by their green hair and brilliant tails, which appear before her, floating in the air, even when her eyes are open.
© Copyright 2019 Alberto Chimal
Alberto Chimal is a writer and professor of creative writing. He has won several literary awards in Mexico and was a finalist in 2013 for the The Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize, one of the most important awards in Latin America. In 2019, his children’s book, La Distante received the Cuatrogatos Foundation Award. In 2020, his first novel to be translated into English, The Most Fragile Objects, was published in the United States, and two of his translated stories appeared in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy. He hosts a digital anthology and writing exercise website at http://www.lashistorias.com.mx/ and also has a YouTube vlog (https://www.youtube.com/AlbertoyRaquelMX) with his wife, writer Raquel Castro. He has taught courses and workshops in Mexico, the United States, France, and other countries.
Julia Rios (they/them) is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Their editing work has won multiple awards including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We’re Like This, a podcast about the movies we watch in childhood that shape our lives, for better or for worse. They’ve narrated stories for Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. They’re @omgjulia on Twitter.