by Kathryn Kania
Content Note: this story includes medical trauma and the commodification of disabilities
This is you.
Long brown hair and eyes to match, with olive skin and a smile that takes up a large portion of your face when it appears. Your fingers are long, your belly is soft, your laugh is loud so you don’t laugh often. You find it a bit embarrassing. You don’t like attention. From the waist up, you are “normal” but from there down, you are a mermaid.
You are one of 35,000 babies born over a three month period of time with a rare lower limb deformity. This condition causes the skin of both legs to fuse together and toughen up as well as causing a thinning of the feet, forming a flexible, fibrous appendage at the end of your legs. Though medically, individuals born like this were said to have had a hox gene error that occurred in utero causing an ectodermal ridge malformation, they became known as mermaid children and then as they aged, just mermaids.
The first known baby was born in Japan, but it was rumored that there had been more before that, quietly hidden, never to reemerge. The first month, there was fear and a scramble to cure. Limbs cut open, legs sculpted, forced into shape, but flesh did not regrow. Feet reconstructed but unusable. So much physical trauma that many did not make it. Those that lived through their various surgeries did not succeed in becoming the average baby their parents had hoped for.
In the second month, much had been figured out. It was better to keep the legs as is, keep the feet, which look like fins. The chances for survival skyrocketed. Parents worried that their children would have a harder life, but they at least knew their children would have a life to live. An interest grew surrounding these children. Mermaids, actual and whole, here before us. These babies are the lucky ones.
This is you. A lucky one.
In the third month, disdain and avoidance. Many fetuses were tested in the womb and aborted. Many of the families that gave birth gave the children up to care houses, specially designed to raise these children. It’s a burden to raise a mythical creature, after all. Who expects a mermaid?
You are now 29. There have been no other mermaid children born since those months almost three decades ago. No scientist has been able to explain the emergence or the disappearance of this phenomenon, either. There is no throughline; it hit all races, genders, many different countries. Some of you have not made it this far. But some of you have truly thrived, somehow.
The world is still curious about you. There have been documentaries. Some of you have become influencers, documenting your entire lives on the internet. Millions of people watch videos of a few mermaids. The ones of them swimming perform best. There is a hot debate over whether this is good for the community or not.
Some of you avoid the spotlight. Finding jobs, starting families. Some of the kids from the third month become specialized therapists for the rest of you. Finding a mermaid-informed therapist is hard. And of course, no buildings really adjusted for mermaids. Hell, there were people that use wheelchairs before the mermaid children came along, why would anything adjust just because of a few babies born over a three month period. But you find places that you fit, if you don’t mind the questions.
You find a place you fit, if you ignore the looks.
It helps that the community is close-knit. Spaces on the internet to meet up and chat. Big cities have in-person hang outs. There’s even a yearly meet up for everyone with scholarships for those who can’t afford to travel.
Many of you try to squash rumors that those of you with tails and fins are better in the water. That really, you truly are mermaids. It makes the stares, the objectification worse. But you can’t deny how wonderful you do feel once you’re in the ocean with your friends. That’s why the convention is always at a beachside hotel.
The ocean feels like coming home. Splashing feels like talking. When you smile, it feels genuine, amongst people who truly understand you.
This is you. Belonging.
You always talk about buying a house nearby, with a bunch of you living together in it. Forgetting the outside world, just being happy together. Nothing much ever comes of these chats, but still you dream about it.
Then you go home.
It can be tough, that period of readjustment, remembering how to talk to non-mermaids. How to fit a public smile onto your face. But eventually, you always do. Your hair smells of saltwater for a month, that usually helps calm you down while you remember how to dodge the uncomfortable questions. Everyone so concerned about how, exactly, you fuck.
Then one day, an invitation arrives in the mail. A museum. One dedicated to oddities. You roll your eyes. Museums aren’t usually the most accessible. They’re very dry inside, for one thing. Your tail (you think of it privately as a tail though you refer to it as your legs in public) has skin that needs moisture most of the time. The dry museum air cracks the skin.
You put the invitation on your fridge with a magnet, thinking you’ll get to it later. You’re hungry and have things to do. There are a few editing projects you’ve been putting off. So you make tea, disappear into your office, and forget all about it.
The day flows past you like a river, you find a rhythm, teasing out the best in the words on the page, what the person who wrote them truly meant. You find this easiest. To take something someone else created and make it better. You’re good at finding the intent in things. Secretly, you think this comes from years of watching those around you as they pretended to not watch you. You had to find who intended well and who did not.
This is you. At peace.
Sitting in your office, as the sun sets around you, you type away, listening to soft music.
Your phone rings, an hour past when you told yourself you’d stop and make food. Still, you swear as it breaks your concentration. But it’s Daphne. You always pick up for Daphne.
“Did you get the invite?”
Your mind scrambles. Invite. Birthday? Is the convention coming up? What did you miss?
“Uhm…” You try to fill the silence as you clutch desperately for information.
“To the exhibit. About us. At that oddities museum.”
Ah. Right. You had already forgotten about it.
“Oh yeah, I did. Why, is it actually something I should pay attention to?” Then your mind catches up. “Wait, about us?”
Daphne sighs. She is forever patient. And she has learned to recognize when you’ve just been taken out of a state of perpetual work.
“Ok, go get food and I’ll tell you about it.”
You’re heating up leftovers as Daphne tells you about the museum. They’ve apparently had an exhibit on people with the hox genetic error for months now. But because it’s in a building that does not have elevators, it’s never been accessible to the actual people they’re talking about. There has been mass protest about this.
You’ve missed out as you like to stay out of activism. It’s not that you don’t care, but you just don’t like the attention that comes. You quietly donate to your friends, of course, but mostly, you keep your head down.
But now the museum is inviting all living mermaids to come to an outdoor exhibit of the “Largest Collection of Information Available On The Mermaid Children Phenomenon” as a concession.
“It’s bullshit,” Daphne swears in your ear as you bite into your dinner. “It’ll be temporarily outside and we get free admission, but it’s just an excuse for others to gawk at us looking at our freakishness on display.”
“So we’re not going?” you ask.
“Of course we’re going, they’re offering free lunch!”
You don’t really need convincing, you really do just follow Daphne wherever. Even if you didn’t, your curiosity would end up winning out. You think about yourself a lot. You’re your own hyperfixation, obsessed with knowing where every thought comes from and what slot it can all fit in. The chance to see what a bunch of archivists and scientists think of you is irresistible to that part of you. Daphne has never been like that. She said that if she had answers, it’d be less fun. She’s just going for the free lunch.
So it is a week later that you both are at an airport and Daphne is fighting with security. You duck behind your hand as people film her yelling:
“Oh sure, I’m FAKING this. I really love the attention. I glued my legs together for it, in fact.”
You’ve always wondered why people think you’d lie about being a mermaid. But you wonder a lot of things about the two-legged humans that surround you. You doubt you’ll ever truly get satisfying answers.
Eventually, you’re ushered through onto the plane. You hate flying. Aisle chairs are uncomfortable, the straps feel silly. You’d rather use your arms and move like Ursula on land towards your gate. When you lift yourself into the airplane seat, you try to hold your tail as still as possible. Daphne does not have this problem. She flops like a fish and then orders a drink. You’re both in aisle seats, next to each other. It’s just easier that way but it does mean you can’t really talk until everyone’s on board and seated.
When you reach your destination, the hotel is full of other mermaids. Not everyone came, it was short notice and also, as Daphne pointed out, a very distasteful event. But curiosity got the best of a lot of you. What exactly do you look like to non-mermaids? It’s too hard to resist finding out.
The event is the next day, early morning for you. Normal time for most people. 10 am. But you work from home and deadlines are at midnight so you’ve gotten quite used to late nights. You stay up late at the hotel bar, mingling with those you wouldn’t get to see for another six months otherwise. It’s not the same as swimming with them, but it still relaxes your shoulders.
Daphne wakes you up the next morning by slapping you in the face with her fin. You hate when she does that. You groan, tasting last night’s alcohol in your morning breath.
“Come on, time to go put on a show.”
You both know that even though admission is free, the price is to be the exhibit for outsiders. It’s open for just mermaids today but there will be others there. It’s outdoors, after all. It makes you shudder to think about it.
Still, you dress well. A turquoise, shimmering button-down, with faux black pearl buttons. A flowing wrap around your lower half. Your hair slicked back and nails painted black. Daphne is gorgeous, as always, in a crop-top and tight fitting, custom tailored denim. You wonder, not for the first time, if she would ever be open to making out. Maybe tonight you’ll finally get drunk enough to ask.
As you arrive at the museum, there is security. They usher the lot of you into two lines. Despite how many of you there are, it goes quickly. Eventually, you’re into the garden area.
You’re struck by how impressive the setup is. Movable walls line the walkways. Glass cases that you don’t even really understand how they got out here are set up at intervals. Nothing looks slapped together. In fact, it’d be hard to believe this wasn’t the exhibit in the first place. Daphne is already wheeling along towards the first case but you stop and look at the papers framed on the walls.
It begins how you expected. The news story of the Japanese baby, Mizu. You’ve never met him but he does well enough. Not one of the influencers, but he’s interviewed often enough by them that you know his story well. And you’ve seen him at the conventions a few times. Daphne is acquainted with him. You’ve never felt like bothering him with your presence though.
Pictures of more babies as they are born. Some pieces of early papers on how to try and find a cure, possible causes, etc. You roll quickly past some of the more gruesome pictures. Why anyone wants to look at them is beyond you. Maybe it makes sense if you were a doctor but in a museum? Yuck.
More stories about more babies. Pictures of families holding their newborns, strained smiles. All stuff you’ve seen on the internet in a late night google search of your own self. Why would people pay for what they could just search for? You’re glad your parents never allowed themselves to be interviewed.
Daphne has already gotten lost in the crowd. You’d figured she would. It’s nice, though, this crowd. You’re all at the same height. It’s sort of relieving to not accidentally be looking directly into someone’s groin when you turn around. As long as you ignore the people on the outside of the garden fence and some of the museum guards, it feels like it could be a world of just your people.
Slowly you make your way through. Perhaps it’ll be a quick visit. Nothing is particularly new or interesting. All the same old stuff, the same conclusions. You have a mermaid tail, no one is sure why.
You come upon a large gathering. Normally, when there’s this many people, it can get quite loud. But there is only an uncomfortable silence, you can hear as they shift, a squeaky wheel, a sniff. You look up and see what they have come to.
This is you. Strung up for the world to see.
A body, naked and plain. Pale skin, eyes, probably glass, staring out at nothing. A preserved mermaid. One of your own. On display.
Their tail hangs long below them, parts open and labeled. You are fascinated, staring. That is what you look like inside. This is what you are, boiled down, bare bones, exposed, truly.
This is you. How they see you.
A flash goes off in your periphery. You turn along with a few others. People are watching you, taking pictures. They are watching you all look at yourself. Suddenly your fascination turns sour.
It’s a freak show. They want to see what it’s like when they show a dead monkey to other monkeys. You’re less than human in their eyes. You’re just mermaids, mythical creatures, less than them because you are different. Something to be marveled at but not respected. You curl your lip and sneer at the crowd of people standing and looking at you from the other side of the fence.
You knew that the world thought of you as something strange, but to be commodified so blatantly is striking. Have you really been hiding your head in the sand that much? The fact that it is an oddities museum might have been a tip off but it didn’t feel weird to call you odd. You are odd. A rarity. But this made you into a collector’s item. More than a curiosity, less than a sentient being. Something snaps in your mind.
Somehow, you make your way up to the glass of the case. The little plaque inside says the body was donated by the parents. You wonder if the mermaid in there even had a choice. If this is what they would have wanted. Looking around at those of you here, the look of horror on everyone’s face, you doubt it.
Before your brain catches up with you, you are out of your chair, using your arms to pull yourself up on the small gate in front of the case that keeps you a modest distance away and with a swift motion, you flip your tail over it and into the glass. The sound surprises you. It is both louder and more musical than you expected. The guards try and reach for you but the crowd behind you surges forward and you are swallowed by them.
This is you. Lifted up by your siblings.
You are being carried away and so is the mermaid who was on display. The chaos around you is deafening. You look around and see Daphne, her smile wild and wide.
Somehow, eventually you end up back at the hotel, but it is still a rush. No one is sure how much trouble you are all in and someone, somewhere is still carrying the corpse. You get word that those who live closest to the area, there seems to be a small community here, have a van and are coming back to pick up as many of you as they can. Others are simply calling in favors. The influencers are livestreaming, calling on their followers to get angry, to create distractions for them.
The hotel staff look scared. You feel adrenaline pumping through you. Daphne has your bags and you both book it outside. The sun feels good on your face and you realize that you are laughing. Maybe the news tomorrow will be about the mermaid riot. Maybe you’ll get arrested. Who knows. But there is no longer a mermaid hanging up dead in a museum. And you feel good.
You feel like you.
© Copyright Kathryn Kania
Kathryn Kania is an author and librarian living in New England. You can find them being bossed around by their tailless cat on most days. They believe that believing in ghosts, aliens, demons, and mythical creatures simply makes life more exciting. You can find them on twitter @Katykania or on Goodreads.
Read the Rest of the October Issue
- The Ossuary at Ocean’s End by Marisca Pichette
- Elemental by Marlan Quade Cook
- portrait of a girl in water by Ashley Bao
- A Thousand Souls by Marie Brennan
- Seafloor Skull by Inkshark
- The Ghosts of Mermaids & The Answer Atop Mermaid’s Rest by Coral Alejandra Moore and Cathin Yang
- Awoken by Elyse Russell and Miranda Leyson
- The Abyssal Architect by Ori Jay
- One Last Shriek by Umiyuri Katsuyama
- Merfolks as a Passage from My Thoughts and Doings by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto
- This Is Your Home by Stefan Slater
- Mermaidsong by Csilla Kleinheincz
- Fish Out of Water: How Mermaids Represent Disabled, Queer Folk Like Me by Melanie Jayne Ashford
- “a sea-like condition” by Felicia Martinez
- This Is You by Kathryn Kania
- Before You Go in Search of Spirits & The Truth They Hear in My Heart by Cathin Yang and Coral Alejandra Moore
- Dreams of Another Life by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers
- Charting the Next Adventure by Meg Frank