THE VILLAGE OF THE MERMAIDS *
Small houses line a narrow street ending in a cove. A still sea. Mountains pierce a colorless sky. In front of every door, a mermaid on a straight-backed chair, long hair parted down the middle, hands folded in her lap.
Our car streams through rain to the museum. Everything licked by liquid wind. A girl in high heels crosses the street. A man stares at me through the splattered windshield, rain dripping off the rim of his black umbrella.
High-necked gray dresses flare over tail fins; breasts beautifully rounded beneath the heavy fabric. Such quiet in the painting. Identical faces sculpted like figureheads. Bare eyes. Each gaze stunned.
I race up the steps, through the archway, past the Degas ballerina. Forgotten, my mother follows. My race to the painting all I know or care about.
Chair-bound mermaids. Empty sea. I know the fairy tale by heart. The mermaid’s fatal barter for princely love. Tongue cut out, tail split in two, her silence rippling out around her.
* Oil on panel. Paul Delvaux, 1942
Chicago Art Institute
First published in The Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine