Swimming in the Sea
One bright day when they had rowed out upon the sound, Iliana laughed and jumped overboard. She was in love and appeared to be very happy. Perhaps that was reason enough. Henry watched her circle once with the backstroke, then swim beneath the boat and surface twenty yards to port.
“Come in,” she called and waved her right hand and smiled a smile that said he was in danger of becoming boring but that she loved his seriousness, really, and found it a reassuring counterweight to her spontaneity. She had to kick hard to remain afloat in her long dress.
“I’ve got my good clothes on,” he replied. “I’m going to be the president of a bank, it’s dangerous, and I have an appointment in half an hour.”
With a wave, Iliana dove again, kicking the rolling surface with her small feet, and swam out of sight. Henry sat in the boat, smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio they had brought with them.
“She knows I’ve got an appointment,” he complained to himself. “If she insists on staying out this long, she’ll have to find her own way back.”
The callousness was an act, of course. He had always feared losing her. He loved her very much. His mother had warned him not to become involved with her after she had left home to run with the dogs in the hills above the village, but it was this that attracted him to her. The other eligible young women of the village wanted only to bear children by muscular husbands and shop from colorful catalogues and complained of life’s unfairness to each other.
Henry was late for his appointment because he waited too long in the little rocking boat, fearing and longing for Iliana, whom he nonetheless abandoned. When he arrived at the bank he was told he wasn’t punctual enough to be a banker and was offered the opportunity to work as janitor. Afterward, outside the office, Henry put his hands over his face and lied to himself that he hadn’t wanted to wear a gray suit. He alternately blamed Iliana and himself for his failure and then ran to the shore to look for her and tell her the sad news. But she was nowhere to be seen, and he lamented, “I’ve lost in both worlds.”
Iliana swam in the sea. She liked the slippery feeling and enjoyed the caress of the kelp that used to feel so horrible around her feet when she was a girl. Even the sharks appeared content, not the menacing protagonists of stories. Sometimes she missed things such as her telephone. It took weeks to learn to communicate with the undersea animals, and some she never did reach. Schools of fish engulfed her, and she jostled to swim at their center and liked the touch of their cat-tongue bodies against hers.
One blustery day she was caught in a fishing net. Fortunately for her it did not hang from a large trawler but from a little boat that belonged to an old fisherman. His eyes opened wide in surprise when he saw what he had caught, for, of course, her clothing had long since disintegrated, and she was young and very pretty. Perhaps fearing the vision would disappear if he hesitated, he jumped upon her and wrestled to undo his foul-weather gear.
“Leave me alone,” she cried, and thinking quickly she added, “I can bring you pearls from giant oysters and gold from sunken ships.”
The fisherman held her by her slippery arms and considered what she said. He wasn’t sure he could trust her, and he knew the bird in hand is worth two in the bush. And she was lovely.
“Will you curse me if I don’t release you?” he asked, feeling smart to have thought of it.
Iliana had no power to place curses on people and did not believe such things existed. She could see, however, that the fisherman’s apprehension was genuine.
“If you believe so,” she replied.
He let her go. Iliana did not lie or commit treachery, and so although she would rather have swum away, she dove to find what she had promised. She located a giant oyster in a deep canyon of the ocean and struggled to carry it to the surface. Inside was a huge pearl. She put the mollusk into the man’s net and signaled him to haul it aboard. He was so excited by his good fortune that he immediately pried into the oyster when he’d pulled it over the gunwale and onto the decking. But in his greediness he was careless. He leaned inside the half open shell to claim his prize, and the halves closed, severing his head from his body. Iliana closed her eyes and dove back into the blue water.
The fisherman’s boat drifted to shore after several days. His stout wife had kept a lookout for him. When the boat beached on a jumble of rocks she saw the giant oyster and her husband’s body and head and began to keen, but she stopped when the head began to talk. It would not cease:
“Eyes like a dolphin, more lithe than the fish of the sea, a creature of dreams, bounteous, a siren . . . “ and so on.
The head rhapsodized for hours. In the late night it began to invent poems. Having lost her husband to death and to another love on the same day, the fisherman’s wife was overcome with sorrow and madness and struck the head with a large shovel until it stopped. She then smashed the oyster shell and placed the large pearl on her husband’s shoulders, hoping no one would notice the difference in him—change was not greeted cheerfully in their small community. The ruse worked for quite a long time, but eventually word about the mermaid spread through the village, and the men went to find her. Day after day they were out on the sound in their boats, gesturing with their crotches and telling wishful jokes.
One day a man did see her. Iliana surfaced now and then to sunbathe at a secluded beach on a small rocky island. Sheer cliffs prevented anyone from reaching her by land, and of course she could see if anyone approached by water. She rested there on Saturday afternoons, a time she and Henry often used to swim or row together. Iliana hoped that he would find her there one day. Although she loved the sea she was lonely for him and often called messages into the drain pipes that entered the sound from the village.
The man who saw Iliana knew he could not reach her. Instead he took photographs with a telephoto lens and sold them to magazines. The man made a great deal of money, and the photographs, though indistinct, intensified the search for Iliana. Men from the village looked among the coves and islands constantly in their small boats, drinking from the bottle and telling crude jokes to each other. Numerous false and drunken sightings were reported, and many men lost their lives due to carelessness on the sea. The hunt incensed the women of the village. Even the young and pretty women were ignored by the searchers in the sound. At homes in beds at night, couples lay awake thinking mutually exclusive thoughts. Finally, Iliana swam far out into the ocean, sad that she had never seen Henry again but too exhilarated by life in water to even consider returning to the complicated life lived on land.
Henry had not been able to row or swim on Saturdays because that was the day he mopped and waxed at the bank. He had sunk into deep melancholy several weeks after Iliana had jumped into the sound. He finally sank so low that he accepted the bank supervisor’s employment offer. He had turned into a lonely and foolish figure. The women of the village believed their problems were his fault, and they made obscene gestures at him with their wide hips when they passed him on streets otherwise devoid of men. Henry knew the men searched for Iliana, and it only made him sadder. Often he went into the bathroom of his cramped apartment and closed the door and filled the tub with warm water. Soaking, he would imagine himself with Iliana beneath the waves and sometimes thought he could hear her voice coming from the drain pipe of the tub, but he told himself it was just the hallucination of a depressed man. He would put the razor back in the medicine cabinet and dress in his green custodian uniform. Love, he mistakenly thought, had destroyed him.
After many years he realized he preferred the hallucinations to his life, and soon thereafter he discovered the freedom of madness. He walked about the village giving unsolicited commentary, dressed in rags and laughing sarcastically. Eventually he walked up into the hills. Some say he went to live with the wild dogs, who also lamented Iliana’s departure. They were also more than a little insulted that she apparently preferred fish to them. Henry found a cave in the hills one day and went down into it, never to emerge. He found a cold mountain stream there and paddled in it night and day.
Legend has it that Henry followed his stream underground until it reached the sea and that he met Iliana and found happiness there. No one knows this for certain, however. The only valid historical source was the fisherman with the pearl head. He lived a very long time and seemed to have a deep knowledge of these events. He was the only person to have had a conversation with and to touch Iliana during that period, and it was thought by some that he had never given a full account of their meeting. He cherished his memory of Iliana even though their encounter had been brief and he had not acted with dignity. He did nothing to counter rumors over the years that he engaged in a supernatural correspondence with her. Whether it truly occurred or he simply enjoyed being the subject of such speculation was never known. He lived longer than even the last child born in the village. The villagers had stopped making them, and the streets grew lonelier. After many years the village was abandoned altogether, and except for the fisherman, anyone who had been a contemporary of Henry and Iliana had died. Now living in not unsatisfying isolation, the fisherman would grudgingly declare to his rare visitors, when asked, that it would be nice if Henry and Iliana really had met again, but he was not impressed with Henry and always said of him, “He threw his chance away.” This was, of course, not strictly true, as Henry’s loss was one of omission rather than commission, which is the sadder and argues for endless rowing in the darkness rather than eventual liberation and reunification in the sea. At any rate, whatever remained of the truth passed with the fisherman, who died shortly before the interstate highway was extended to the seaside.
Thanks to the Mythopoeic Society for publishing this in Mythic Circle. And thanks to Henry Badowski for the song that inspired the story.