Once there was a little mermaid who lived on earth instead of water. She breathed air instead of the sea, and she didn’t know how to swim. She loved the water and would sit on banks, shores, ports and piers watching the rippples and waves, the cross currents and undertows beckoning to her in their own secret language. Come into me, they sang, but she did not know how. Soon the little mermaid grew to be a human woman, and she lived near a dirty ocean where machines pumped for oil and ships came and went. The sea wall made the waves weak, and they no longer spoke to her. And then she moved from the water entirely. Landlocked, she grew old. Her feet, which should have been fins so long ago, ached. Bones grew and changed so that some days she did not recognise her own knobby feet, and she walked with a stick: pad-pad-thump, pad-pad-thump. As she walked past the public pool one day, she remembered the little mermaid she once was.
She watched the little babies in their water joy, bubbling and paddling. Mothers and fathers bent to meet them the warm pool, arms out to this tiny accomplishment. Was it too late for her? She had no one to smile at her, no one to paddle to.
Days passed and she decided. Pad-pad-thump, pad-pad-thump, she walked to the long blue pool. The first night of class they made her wear water wings and gave her a long foam noodle to float with. Unlike the babies, the men and women in the class practiced not being afraid. No one there had a happy story– near drownings, accidents, panics– so they floated together, their gentle teacher pulling them along. The old woman couldn’t not hold her feet right, she could not become the little frog they were to be. Sometimes, kicking and flapping about, she seemed to go backwards, and she felt it was too late indeed.
And then one day the gentle teacher was not there– instead a big, burly bald weight training teacher waded into the pool in shorts and teeshirt and said, “Sally’s not here so I’m teaching you tonight. Right, you’re putting your face in the water, breathing out, and if you don’t like it, you stand up. Got it?” The terrified group held their foam noodles to their chests. The nice teacher didn’t expect them to face the water so soon, and yet this mad man, with his big, dry hands like lichen-scaled stone and great tractor-seat shoulders persuaded the old woman.
She put her face in the water and blew out a water dragon– it’s bubbles and wings, long fine fins brushed past her. She took a breath past the surface, the liminal space she would learn to breathe in, and made another dragon. She saw the other students floating, steady in their refusal. The big man traded her her water wings for a floating board and she rested her side on it and began to kick through the water. She moved gracefully from one end of the tiny pool to the other and then started over again, and again. The little mermaid inside her was flying, and the old woman swam.