Anna Chamberlin

The mermaid’s back is killing her. She wishes she’d been whittled into a less awkward posture—sitting, standing even, not bending belly-up across the fireplace. No breaks for a pretty maple etching, a body stretching over the mantle of polished acorns, curling ivy. Her arms ache from being held above her head for so long, poised in mid-dive. Her joints creak in the winter. Her armpits itch. 

Maybe if the rest of the room wasn’t so goddamn boring, she could bear it. Her fireplace is the only piece of decor worth looking at—no eye candy for the eye candy, just two mismatched armchairs, rug here, rug there, dead plant. There’s a grandfather clock out in the hallway—she tries talking to it every hour or so. 

Another day, huh? She’ll say.

Dong, dong, dong, it’ll respond.

Most days, she just holds her breath and waits for the pain to pass. Hums songs to herself. Counts floorboards.

But today, today is a gorgeous day. Someone kneels over the hearth. If she strains her eyes down, she can see the logs breaking, burning. Yes, yes, she can feel the flames rising as the fire, the fire, crackles below her. 

A deep sigh presses against her sealed lips while she looks on. They’re ugly pieces of oak, the logs—their bark isn’t even stripped, pathetic, really, termite food. But the fire can’t get enough of them. Splinters soften to black as the blaze licks them up, up, up. The timber turns to gold, and she witnesses the alchemy: from those cheap chop-ups, so many embers start to rise. There’s nothing more beautiful than this, she knows, these thousand sparks, these fireflies. Even stars stand still, but the embers pirouette in the air, weightless, twirling to music she can’t hear, a dance she doesn’t know.

Another shot of pain snaps her back, stabs her in the side. She can’t even wince. She wants to throw out her stiff spine, her rigid tail, its neat rows of fingernail notches for fish scales. She wants to shout—no, she wants to dance—no, she wants to be charred, burned, she wants to be splintered and sparked in the darkness, set alight, anew, away, but she’s stuck here with the acorns and the ivy and the man, that shriveled bag of a man, always asleep and snoring in front of her. He’s there now, for God’s sake. She glares at him, melting into his armchair, dozing into his double neck, turkey stuffing in a sweaty bathrobe, dead bird bloating in an oven—

She hears jangling. The old man’s old dog shakes its way into the living room, hauling in a stick twice its size, more like a tree limb, one that fought the fall. It drags the branch over to the armchair, but the man can’t play, turkey that he is, out cold. Only the mermaid sees it, that stick between its teeth, that limb, that lighter. Thorns scratch her as she tries to pull an arm out of the polished vines and reach out. Come closer, come here. The dog waddles over to the fireplace, the stick dragging behind it. Put a match to me. Down below, she hears a log crumble, and it sends another tumbling down to the edge of the hearth, sizzling. The dog brings the stick closer. The mermaid’s eyes start glinting bright.