New Irish Writing, the competition that has fostered generations of leading Irish authors, returns to the Irish Independent on Saturday, September 26.
Every day this week, we have been publishing a story by a celebrated previous winner on Independent.ie.
Today’s is ‘Grow a Mermaid’ by Marina Carr, who won the Hennessy Award for Best First Story in 1994.
Marina Carr published her short story ‘Grow a Mermaid’ in New Irish Writing in 1994, the year in which her third play, The Mai, was first produced. This was followed by a succession of plays including Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats, On Raftery’s Hill, Ariel and Hecuba. Now recognised as one of Ireland’s greatest living playwrights, her plays have been translated and produced around the world and her many accolades include the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize 2017, given for her body of work, and The EM Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Grow a Mermaid
The child leaned across the blue Formica table and read the advertisement, her grubby little fingers leaving snail tracks under the words — GROW YOUR OWN MERMAID.
The child looked at the words in amazement, read it again, slowly, more carefully this time. The same. Underneath the caption was an ink drawing of a tiny mermaid in a fish bowl, waving and smiling up from the page. Behind her was a sea-horse. He too was smiling. The child, bewitched by the mermaid’s smile, smiled back and waved shyly to the tiny beautiful fish woman. Send 25 cents, the advertisement said, and we will send you mermaid and sea-horse seeds. You put them into water and they grow and can even talk to you. The child imagined waking up at night and going to the fishbowl for a little chat with the mermaid. What would mermaids talk about, the child wondered.
The child’s mother stirred beans in a pot over the cooker, her black corseted behind moving in one controlled sway with the spooning motion. Over by the range Grandma Blaize was fossicking for some long-forgotten thing. She was pulling it out of the air above her head with her fingertips. The child looked at her and then the child’s mother turned to watch as well, still stirring the beans, sideways now. Both mother and child watched as Grandma Blaize pulled some invisible treasure to earth. She saw them looking at her and gave them a quick smile, a dart of old gums and leathery tongue, before her face took up that careful concentration of fossicking and pulling again.
“Ara stop it Grandma Blaize!” the child’s mother snapped.
Grandma Blaize ignored her. Tonight or tomorrow she’ll have stepped into the other world. Once the fossicking started she was on the descent. The child liked her best at this point, the moment before going down. The child imagined that Grandma Blaize was pulling open a door with a magic thread, a door on somewhere else, anywhere but away from here.
“Mom look,” the child said, holding up the picture of the mermaid. The mother left off stirring the beans and came over to the child.
“Oh that,” she said, glancing at the magazine the child was reading.
“Grow your own mermaid,” the mother read. “Did you ever…”
Her voice trailed off as she too was bewitched by the little mermaid smiling and waving from her fish bowl.
“Well I never heard the likes o’ that,” the mother said, sort of dismayed, but still looking at the mermaid.
“Can we Mom?” the child asked.
“Can we what?”
“Can we send away for a mermaid?”
“We’ll see.” Her mother sighed and returned to the burning beans.
The child’s mother was building a house on the lake of the palaces. From the end of the field of their own house they could look across and see the new house. It was halfway there now. The child’s mother said it was a secret. The child wasn’t to tell any of the Connemara clique because they’d wonder where the money came from. The money was borrowed from four banks, the child’s mother whispered, and when your daddy sees this house he’ll fall in love with it. especially the music room. and he’ll come back, for good this time. Some nights they’d talk for hours about how they’d decorate the house. “Windows, windows everywhere,” the child’s mother whispered in the dark. They slept together a lot since the child’s father had gone. “And your room,” the child’s mother whispered, “will be all in yellow, with a yellow sink and yellow curtains, yellow presses and a yellow carpet.” The child didn’t like yellow but said nothing. She wanted her room blue and green, like a mermaid’s room. It didn’t matter, she’d pull blue and green from an invisible string, the way Grandma Blaize did, and then the mermaid would arrive. Some nights the child’s mother held the child so tight she couldn’t breathe. The child grew sticky and hot as her mother whispered into the quilt about “that bastard!” and “all I’ve done for him” and “this is how he repays me”. The child would try to put her hand outside the covers to get a bit of cool air on it and the child’s mother would grab it and pull it back into the slick heat of the bed. “My little darling,” the child’s mother would croon as the child lay there soaked in sweat, with her mother’s damp face on her neck. The child fought back a scream. Down the hall Grandma Blaize sang ‘The Connemara Lullaby’: she was in the other world now and would speak to no-one but herself until the end of spring. The child lay there in the dark, growing a mermaid.
First the water from the lake of the palaces, then a Tupperware box, then pour in the mermaid seeds and stir it all gently and the next day a mermaid would be floating on her back, smiling at the child. And the child would say, “Hello little mermaid.” And the mermaid would sing a song for the child about the sea, about castles and whales and turtles and whole cities and families who lived under the sea. And the child would tell the mermaid all about school and her friend Martina, who played with her sometimes, and about the time they saw a balloon in the sky and chased it for hours. The child would tell her about Pollonio, the fairy she never saw, but knew lived down Mohia Lane. To make it more interesting for the mermaid, the child would pretend that she often met Pollonio. The child slept as the mermaid grew away out in the dark at the edge of the child’s dream.
Grandma Blaize lay in bed fighting with the ghost of Syracuse. Propped by pillows, pulling on an opium pipe, she snarled at the ghost of Syracuse. “Gorgin’ ya’ar gut was all y’ever done, ya stroinseach ya!” She takes another puff to calm herself down after this exertion. The ghost of Syracuse was the husband who stepped out the door one day “to get a breath of fresh air” and never came back. That was thirty years ago. The child watched through the keyhole. He’d sent her a postcard from Syracuse, “Weather lovely, skies purple most every night, try it sometime.” Grandma Blaize had it covered in plastic and punched it at regular intervals. The child rocked with laughter and banged her nose on the door knob.
The child ate sweets belonging to her sick brother and the child’s mother ordered the child into the black and red parlour. The child waited. After what seemed forever the child’s mother appeared in the doorway with a wooden hanger.
“Now strip,” the child’s mother said and watched while the child took off everything. Afterwards, lying on the sofa with welts as big as carrots on her legs, the child slept and dreamt of a man with a pitchfork who lived under the sea. “How long?” the child whispered.
“Soon, soon,” the man with the pitchfork answered. The child woke to find her mother standing over her. “Have you anythin’ to say to me?”
“Sorry Mom.” It was an ancient ritual between them.
“And you’ll never do it again?”
The child wavered, looked away.
“Will you?” the mother said, a whiff of anger coming off her that would reignite given the least excuse.
“No,” the child half-yielded but it wasn’t enough to appease, the child could sense. Her mother was insurmountable in this mood and the child valued the unwelted slivers of her chubby torso. The child surrendered. “No, never again.”
The child’s mother gathered her up in her fat still young arms. The child counted her breaths, slowly, carefully. They matched her mother’s footsteps on the stairs. A mermaid would die in this house. the child thought.
The child’s father returned and magiced nuts out of their ears and made pennies hop. One evening he came in, wearing his big blue crombie and sat the child’s brother on the blue Formica table.
“I can make you disappear,” the child’s father said.
The child’s brother puffed out his little chest, delighted to be the chosen one. The child watched, wishing it was her.
“The only problem is,” the child’s father said, “you can never come back.” The child’s brother’s face crumpled up as he began to cry.
“It’s all right,” the child’s father said. “I won’t make you disappear.”
The child’s brother still cried, ashamed he was crying in front of his father and his little sister.
“It’s all right,” the father said, “I won’t do it.”
The child stepped forward.
“Make me disappear,” the child said.
“You can’t come back.”
“I don’t want to,” the child said.
The child’s father shook. “You’re too young for this trick.” The child’s father left the room. The child took her brother’s hand.
“Come on around the back and play where Mom and Dad’s not looking.”
The child’s brother allowed himself to be led from the house, his tears forgotten, his childish dignity returning. They played in the ash pit and drank water from the kitchen drain. It tasted of turnip and tea leaves. They weren’t caught that time.
The child got up on Sam Morrison’s tractor one day with her brother and her mother and Grandma Blaize who was fighting with herself on top of the dresser. The child’s father lilted her up on to the trailer and put her on the black sofa. The child’s mother laughed. She wore a new dress and a new hair clasp for her thick dark hair. They drove down the lane and stopped outside the new house at the lake of the palaces. A swan glided by, a pike leaped, the mermaid sang.
The child’s father went away again, in the middle of the night this time. The child’s mother knocked the child’s brother’s head through the glass door. The child counted her breaths, sharp and shallow. Her brother looked at her as the child’s mother held him while the doctor cleaned the wound.
“It’s so hard to watch them,” she whispers to the doctor. The doctor nods. Later the child’s mother took them into the Oasis for knickerbocker glories. The jelly was gold and green, the colour of the mermaid’s tail.
At night the child dreamt her mother was cooking her on the range and serving her up to the tinkers with homemade bread. The child woke screaming, her mother’s boiling hand slobbering over her. The child preferred the nightmare.
Down in the room Grandma Blaine tears a map of Syracuse into a thousand pieces and smokes them in her opium pipe. She throws in the sea of Galilee for good measure.
The child’s mother sits by the window nightly, looking out on the lake of the palaces. The music room is empty. She drinks Paddy and red and kisses her children. The child heaves at her mother’s whiskey breath. “Any day now,” the child’s mother whispers. “Any day now.”
The child’s mother walked into the lake of the palaces one calm night with the moon missing. The child’s father returned, for good this time. He skulks along the lake shore with his weak old whingy eyes. “He pisses tears,” the child whispers to the mermaid and they both laugh in the silent house. The child’s brother rarely speaks now and never to the child. They exchange glances over banana sandwiches and their father’s runaway eyes. They haven’t drunk from drains in years, not together anyhow.
When they dragged the lake of the palaces for her mother’s body, the child sat in the reeds strumming her tiny guitar. She only knew ‘My Darling Clementine’. C. G seventh. C again. Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine, dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine. Like she was and like a fairy and her shoes were number nine, now she’s gone and lost forever, oh my darling Clementine. The child sang, strumming her small guitar as a pulley raised her mother in the air, then they lowered her till she skimmed along the surface towards the child in the reeds. They didn’t stop until her head was resting on a clump of rushes, a few feet from the child. “Oh my darling…,” the child sang.
From the child’s vantage point, her mother was not unlike the mermaid, bar the pike teeth-marks on her left arm. They’d tasted her and left her to the eels, the dirtiest eaters of all. But the eels hadn’t touched her. Maybe they hadn’t time or maybe eels too had their standards, the child thought. She strummed her guitar and looked away from her mother’s cold heron stare.
“That’s enough child,” a man in the boat said.
The child sang louder. This was the real funeral. The coffin on tick, the procession, the sanctimonious hymns, the concelebrated Mass would all come soon enough. The Connemara clique there, grabbing on to her with their battered claws and defeated lumpy old backs. The child coughed away a titter of amusement at their mouth of the grave mhuire strua antics. She insisted on wearing her blue jeans instead of the black velvet gibble they’d bought her. They never forgave her for that. It wasn’t real, none of it. Strumming her tiny guitar in the reeds was, with her mother skimmin’ towards her stinkin’ of goose scream and the bullin’ moon.
The child’s father took the child and the child’s brother into the dining room.
“In memory of your dear mother…,” he said, the whinge gaining strength at the back of his craw. The child looked at him in disgust.
“In memory of your dear mother I’m going to remain celibate for six months.”
The child blushed.
“What’s that?” the child’s brother asked.
The child knew.
“I won’t sleep with anyone for six months.”
The child ran from the room. Later the child found a box of magazines in her father’s cupboard. All lurid fat women’s gees. The child put them under her bed. The next time she looked they were gone. The child knew who had them. That night she tore one of his eyes out in a dream. The next night she sewed it back in.
One by one Grandma Blaize pulls out her teeth. She lays them on her dressing table. They’re soft as toffee. The child sucks one. It tastes like old knickers. The child crunches down on it with her own strong white horse’s teeth. The tooth slivers like a soft mint. The child spits it in the lake of the palaces and eats a fistful of grass. It tastes of swan’s wing.
The child sleeps for twenty years. The mermaid who never came is long forgotten. Walking down a street one day, the child takes off her mother’s wedding ring and hurls it in a dustbin.
It disappears among old chips, cigarette butts, an ice cream cone half-eaten. The child goes home and sleeps.
The child is in a swimming pool. It seems she will never reach the bottom, then she does. A fortress door creaks open, a flash of golden fin, the mermaid appears. “At last, you’ve come at last,” the child says. The mermaid smiles, that smile of years ago at the blue Formica table. The child braces herself for the watery descent. The mermaid’s tail lights the way.
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to email@example.com. Please make sure to include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.