Chlorine and Salt
By Kyla Stan
I don’t consider myself a genius, but I know I'm not dumb either. I just know I learned a lesson, one of the most important lessons that all humans need to learn— and I mean real quick. Wild creatures need to be free. Sure, mankind loves to take things that don’t belong to them and shove them in boxes full of chlorine. But you don’t understand. They need the salt. They need freedom.
I'm an old man, so you gon’ be patient, ya hear? I’ll tell you from what I remember. I got so caught up in my selfishness that everythin's a bit blurry….
Livin’ in the country of South Carolina is all I was raised with. Ain't no city folk where I come from. Sometimes, this can get pretty boring, but fishin' is what kept my mind occupied when I wasn’t busy workin’ on cars. I had just turned twenty-five and spent my birthday weekend alone. Don’t you feel bad for me. I see it in your eyes. I chose to be that way. I packed my tackle, favorite fishin’ pole, and loaded the car up with beer. Drove down to my favorite spot. Ain’t gon’ tell you where that is, though. A man needs his alone time, and I don’t want it swamped with tourists that come ‘round these parts.
The day was cool with just enough dampness in the air to remind you that it was October, and a cold winter was on the way. I parked the truck, got all my stuff, and headed down a wooded path that lead to a nice quiet beach. I walked the length of the small boardwalk with the trees castin’ shade down on me. ‘Nough to make me pull my jacket tighter around me. Just as I walked out of the woods, I turned and noticed this thing layin’ on the beach.
‘The hell is that?’ I asked myself. It looked like a beached whale, but I knew I was in a small lake. Ain’t no way a whale comin’ in these parts. I hopped off the boardwalk and placed my stuff on the sand. Walked over nice and slow, just in case the thing was dangerous. I leaned over and saw it was a girl. Not an ordinary girl though… she had a tail. At first, I almost had a heart attack. Stumbled back like a dang fool, almost tripped and fell. I thought I was just seein’ stuff again like the time I drank myself stupid. But once I rubbed my eyes and squinted, I realized there was no gettin’ ‘round it. I crawled over real slow.
“Hey, you ‘right?” I poked her with my hand, still stained from car grease. I felt kinda bad touchin’ her with my hands all greased up, but what was I supposed to do? I didn’t know if she was dead! Her eyes fluttered open and they were the brightest, clearest shade of blue I ever seen. Her lips parted as if she was tryin’ to speak, but I could tell somethin’ was wrong with her. She had a paleness that I knew deep down meant she was sick. The water 'round those parts wasn’t exactly clean. Lots of runoff from farms had caused those nasty algae blooms, ‘specially in lakes. Some were even toxic enough to kill you and your dog too if you let it.
“Hang on there. I'm gon’ help you out.” I lifted her in my arms and couldn’t believe how damn heavy she was! Her tail was silver and slick as hell, like a catfish. Her hair was pale silver too, and so long that it almost dragged on the ground. She looked to be ‘bout my age at the time, but I couldn’t guess right with a creature like her. As I carried her to the car, I realized with a blush that she was naked but beautiful. I’m no knight in shining armor, but I’m a gentleman and kept my eyes steady and forward with the mission in mind.
I laid her down in the backseat and touched her cheek. She was so beautiful, and I felt this sense of purpose like I never had before. I never felt much useful, ‘specially when I drank myself into loneliness. Now I had a chance to prove I could do somethin’. Save a damn life. I didn’t know if I was the only man in the world who had seen one of her kind, but I knew I was gon’ do whatever I could to help.
“Hang in there, gorgeous. I’ll get you home safe.”
Her eyes opened slowly, and I was still stunned by those big ole’ blues. I hurried to get my fishin’ stuff then started the car and headed home. Every time I stopped at a traffic light, I looked in my rear-view mirror to check on her. She looked like she was in real bad pain, and it crushed me that there was nothin’ I could really do. I hoped a nice soak in clean bathwater would help some.
“Don’t you worry. I got you.” I don’t know if she understood me, but she seemed to relax when she heard how calm I was. Inside, I was shitting a brick.
What was I doin’? I was bringin’ home a wild creature that belonged in a little girl’s princess book and Saturday morning cartoons. How did I know if she was dangerous? Well, I didn’t. And I didn’t care. She needed my help, no discussion.
When I pulled up to my house, I checked to see if anyone was workin' their fields that day. Lucky I lived in a wooded area. Everyone kept to themselves and minded their own business. City folk today can see right through your window, watchin' you have evenin' meals with your family. Anyway, my hands shook like a leaf as I wrapped her up in some old blankets from my trunk. I nearly broke my back rushin' her in the house. Her eyes got real wide and white like a caged animal, and I could’ve sworn she was about to attack me. I stopped walkin’, and we just stared at each other, not sayin’ or doin’ nothin’. I knew when a critter ‘round these parts get stuck in a fence or somethin’, you gotta be calm.
I looked her right in the eyes, spoke nice and quiet like. “S’alright, darlin’. Ain’t nobody gonna hurt you now.” My hands were shakin’ from carrying her. She growled once, bared her teeth and tried to snap at me, but she musta been feelin’ some bad pain ‘cause she just stopped and leaned her head on my arms.
I cradled her as I walked down the hall to the bathroom and smoothed her damp hair, tryin' to comfort her. “Don’t you worry now. Everythin’s gon’ be fine.”
I laid her gently in the bathtub and turned the cold on. At first, she flopped around like a fish comin’ back after being out of water for so long, but as the water got deeper, she kept her head under. Her hair floated around her like she was some kind of goddess, and I couldn’t help but stare at her.
A mermaid in my fuckin’ bathroom. Who woulda believed me?
That night I went to a local fish market and got some cheap tilapia filets and a coupla cans of sardines. Yeah, she was a mermaid, but she wasn’t gettin’ no lobster dinner. Didn’t have the money for it even if I wanted to. I remember she liked when I kept the bathroom light off, and I lit a single candle just so I could see what I was doin’. As I watched her in the candlelight, I swear, she just mesmerized me. Her silver tail caught some flickers of the fire and changed color as she wriggled around. I wished I learned how to paint or had enough money back then for a camera. It used to be such a bright memory, but it’s gettin’ dull with time.
She smiled when she saw me, and I could tell she was gettin’ some of her natural glow back. I’ll never forget that singin’ voice of hers. Sounded like one of those big whales on TV. She would purr and coo when she saw I had fish, like a cat with tuna. I sat on the floor and just listened to her sing for a while. The most beautiful voice…damn. Time is ruinin’ the clarity of it. She wasn’t keen on canned junk, like imitation crab or tuna, or those sardines. Loved her some real stuff. I remember openin’ the bag of tilapia fillets and she almost flipped herself outta the damn tub. She would squeal so loud for food, I was scared the folk next to me would think I was killin’ someone!
“Easy girl, easy!” I raised the tilapia into the air until she calmed down. She tilted her head like a dog tryna concentrate and blinked at me all innocent like.
“That’s a good girl. Here.” I was a bit nervous as I tossed the fillet into the bathtub and hoped she was okay with cheap cuts. She pulled back her lips. I will never forget that mouth. Full of shark teeth that cut through the fish like a sharpened steak knife. She grabbed that single fillet in her webbed hands, turned to me, and hissed like a banshee. I stumbled back and closed the bathroom door.
I wish I coulda warned myself.
Wild things belong in the wild.
I started callin' her Mara after my mother who passed on. I gave her a little sardine every time she looked at me when I said her name. It was fun. And I think she enjoyed my company…for a while. A week passed by and she was startin' to look ten times better. Every time I came home from work, she sang me these real nice songs, sounds straight from the deep ocean. I could sit there for hours, forget about my life.
Sometimes she would get sick of singin’ and sink below the water.
“Sing some more,” I pleaded. But her eyes were blank. She had no clue what I wanted from her.
I splashed the water. “Come on, now. Just one more song!”
Mara came up so quickly that I jumped back. Her eyes got all black like a demon and bared her nasty teeth.
I left her alone and closed the door. I knew she was ready to leave, but I wasn’t ready to let her go. The way she looked at me… like I was the best person in the world… it made me feel good. To this day I’m not sure if I loved her and she loved me back, but it’s possible we had some kind of bond. I’m not sure if her kind understands what that means.
Yeah, she was vicious, but she had her cute moments. Listen now, I don’t wan’ go into detail ‘bout this, and I don’t need you tellin’ anyone, but… she filled a void for me.
She would stroke my arms and smile at me with that mouth of shark teeth and it was the best to come home to that every day. It almost felt like—I had a purpose for livin’.
I fed her sardines, changed her water, gave her things to play with. I kept her in my damn bathtub like she was my pet. I’m— I’m still ashamed of it when I think back on it. Sometimes, I just feel so damn guilty. Who the hell was I, keepin’ a wild creature in my little tub like that? But it's still important. You gon’ sit here and listen to all this.
Coupla weeks went by and I noticed she stopped singin’ when I got home from work. Stopped eatin’ too. Tried changin’ her water twice as much, but it did no good. She was startin’ to wriggle ‘round real bad. Like she had an itch to get out. I caught her once half out and ready to move, but I sat her right back in. Her eyes were no longer cute and friendly. They started to have an edge to them that made me nervous, like she was tellin’ me I was on thin ice. Still, I tried to feed her all the same. I ignored that instinct that keeps people alive.
But I didn’t stop.
I didn’t learn.
Came home, dangled a fish over her like a dog with a treat. She growled and snatched it out of my hand, then her eyes got all big and black. I swear, I could see my death in them. I left her alone the rest of the night, but then I started hearin’ all this bangin’ around. ‘What is she doin’?’ I asked myself.
I opened the door and the bathroom was a wreck. The shower curtain was pulled off and ripped to bits… water all over the floor. Bottles of meds layin’ all over the counter. And by that point, I had enough. I was feedin’ her, changin’ her water, and she still wasn’t happy.
‘Mara! Bad girl! Very bad!’ Hell, I was such a fool. Scoldin’ a mermaid like a damn dog! I even slapped her… that’s where the fun started.
She grabbed my face and dug her nails into my cheeks. It all happened so fast—give me a minute now—I don’t like talkin’ bout this part…
Mara—she pulled me under the bath water, grabbed my hair and just held me there. I could feel myself chokin’… I punched her real hard anywhere I could, and she finally let go. She was hissin’ somethin’ nasty and tryna reach for me.
I grabbed her by the shoulders. First time I saw her scared straight. “What do you want? What am I not givin’ you?” I yelled.
She growled for a bit like she was tryna speak. She yelled out in this unbelievable banshee screech and said, ‘HOME!’
Tears spilled down her face and mixed with the bathwater. I punched the wall and left a good dent. Turned the lights out and let her sit in the darkness for a coupla days. I felt bad for doin’ it, so when I opened the door, I thought I killed her.
She was just sittin’ there... staring at the wall.
Her skin had gotten real pale. Tail was all flakey and patchy...missin’ scales. I cried when I saw her like that. Hell, I blubbered like a baby if you really wan’ know. I just knew keepin’ her locked up like this was killing her. It’s stupid to admit and I don’t wan’ talk much about it, but at that point…I loved her. I wiped my eyes and picked her up out of the tub, but she seemed to barely notice.
“You goin’ home, baby. Everythin’s gon’ be okay.” But she didn’t care what I was sayin’. It was like she gave up on life and waited for her death. I wrapped her up with some wet towels and put her in the back seat. Drove passed my usual fishing spot and headed for the beach, where the waves would be wild just like her. It was like she could sense what was goin’ on. Her eyes lit up again and her tail flapped like she was already in the waves. She hissed and scratched at the windows, and I had to keep coverin’ her up with a blanket.
Thank God the beach was empty that day. Real nasty out. Cold and misty… fog you couldn’t see through. I set her down in knee deep water. She didn’t even look at me or nothin’. Just rode those crashin' waves back out to her home in the sea.
When I drove home, I just felt so lonely again. It was like she ripped my heart out and swam away with it. Now I don’t know how she got in that lake, or how she got sick. Maybe some damn fool ‘round here captured her and threw her in there. Maybe they were gon’ kill her. As hard as it was to admit to myself, I knew I did the right thing by lettin’ her go.
I flicked the bathroom lights on and looked into the water where her scales were layin’ in a pile at the bottom of the tub. Lookin’ at those scales and how they were broken and chipped made me realized that if you love somethin’ or someone, help it along, but don’t stifle it.
Let em’ live.
Let em’ make their own choices ‘bout life and death.
Chlorine and salt are two different elements. After listenin’ to my old story, what do you think is the difference between the two? Go on now, I’m here. I got all day to sort this out.