Echo In A Shell
Being the Personal History Of The Last Mermaid On Earth

by Rebecca Migdal

Once I was a mermaid, lithe and ancient, beautiful, a creature of sinewy grace who could grant wishes.

I had darted, rested, darted in the sea for thousands of years, now singing in our keening, lilting language, now playing a conch shell trumpet in harmony with the fluting of the dolphins. Decoding the distant messages of blue whales whose whistles could be heard for hundreds of miles like sign language conversations across the deep green waters...


This life of dreamy joy seemed destined to continue for aeons in the timeless rhythm of the sea’s amniotic embrace. But at some point a change crept over our minds, gradually but surely: a numbing stupor that we did not recognize for the destructive force it would soon become.

It was first heralded by reports of odd beings with metal shells, descending from above, lit from within and humming.

Around this time we became aware that the murderous ships which hunted upon the glassy heavens had begun to emit sounds that perturbed our dreams.


The sound of machines was spreading throughout the ocean. A nasty whining thrum, it became louder and louder. Ships were crossing this way and that, while others wallowed beneath the waves, shooting explosive missiles at each other. The sound of their engines grew oppressive and their frightening battles poisoned the water.

The mermaids, whales and dolphins could no longer hear the songs the blue whales sang about shrimp and the shapes of rocks, nor the soft lullabies they moaned during their mating rituals: slow, gentle intercourse between gigantic lovers, lasting two or three days, and accompanied by flurries of pleasure song. They could no longer communicate by signals that could reach across the leagues of shivering water. It was all drowned out by the dreadful hum of the machines.


Then one day a loud explosion rocked the sea floor near me. Some human beings were dynamiting a sunken ship, looking for treasure. The shock of the explosion ripped violently through the water. It broke my eardrums, and I became deaf.

One by one the mermaids put down their trumpets and drums. They sat listlessly in grottoes, feeling depressed and bored. One by one they dropped off to sleep, to escape the hideous dullness of a once magical eternal life made unbearable by the awful noise.

But I could not hear the noise. I searched and searched for the other mermaids, but I when at last I found them I could not wake them. I tried to ask the dolphins and pilot whales what I ought to do, but I could not hear their replies. The pilot whales especially are very sensitive, artistic creatures. They were driven insane by the sounds and their behavior was strange. They began committing mass suicides on certain lovely white beaches, just to get away from the horrible noise. I was travelling with a pod of whales when they beached themselves in New Zealand. I hovered near the shore, sobbing and lonely. It seemed that the entire world had gone mad.

I didn't hear the small boat coming up behind me, and then it was too late. A net fell over me and I was captured! Two oafish fishermen had come to gather souvenirs from the bodies of the dying pilot whales. They had discovered something even more valuable in the shallows: an actual mermaid! They wrestled me gleefully into their craft. They breathed unpleasant odors into my face. I was thrashing wildly, gasping for water to breathe. They realized that I would soon die if they took me to the shore. They bound me tightly into the net, and lowered me back into the water, then pulled me to a hidden spot. One of them stayed to watch over me while the other went to gather supplies. They didn't realize that I was magic, that I could grant wishes.

And so I began a new life, one of terrible misery. I was placed in a tank about six feet wide and three feet deep. I was displayed in a travelling carnival. That was not the worst of it though. For a sum of money, a man would be allowed to go into the tank with me after hours. These horrible land mammals made the water taste of sweat and urine, looking more like machines than animals with their breathing tanks on. I became bruised and scratched, covered with sores and lesions. Then the tank visits happened less frequently. But I began to die.



I became very thin and white, like a transparent shell. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. But a few times during my imprisonment, I had caught a glimpse of the sky. I realized that it was an ocean of air. I wanted so badly to be able to swim away in that air. I began to think about it every minute: the clouds are like waves, the air moves so softly! I longed for its touch.

White fibers were forming around my body, slowly encasing me. A veterinarian examined me but was at a loss. Soon the fibers covered my entire body like a cocoon. I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating.

The two fishermen removed me from the tank and put my body on display in a shrine-like case in a museum. I dried out and became light and hollow.

One day I felt the strangest sensation, a tingling all over my body. I was able to move! blood was coursing through me! my bones were like crispy sponges, so light and airy. I was weak, but the fibers that encased me were dry as dust and not an obstacle to my freedom. They fell away and I was inside the glass case in a dark silent room.


There was not enough space inside the case for my wings to unfurl. It was very uncomfortable, and I had to break the glass to get out. A security guard heard the noise and came into the museum with a flashlight. He saw a white, long figure with long pale hair, and enormous, gossamer wings, fluttering slowly, trying to rise into the air. My wings were still soft and not yet full of blood. But the security guard was frightened and went to get help. While he was gone my wings finished unfurling and hardened into their new shape. By the time the police had responded to the the frantic babblings of the guard, I was already silhouetted against the gibbous moon.

I fluttered here and there, keeping to the wild places, the forests and flowered hills. It was not necessary for me to eat, but I drank water. I found that I could hear again, and so I began to sing softly to myself, trying to remember the songs I had once learned from the cetaceans. I was convinced that I was alone, forever. After all, there was no other creature like me.

But curiosity is a strong thing, and magic is stronger. After all, I was a creature who granted wishes, and no one had wished anything from me in a long time, that was in my power to grant.

I found myself searching for something that drew me in a certain direction, and I didn't know why. I only knew what I saw: a walled garden, a little fountain waterfall, a face. After a few weeks I fluttered over just such a wall, and hovered in the air above just such a fountain. There below me was a youth sitting very still. He sat quietly, watching the water. I hovered as silently as I could. Then I flew away, my heart beating wildly with fear. These mammals! What had I to do with them?

But I could not stay away from the walled garden. Each evening I returned and silently hovered, watching the youth who seemed never to stir. Sometimes he was reading, more often just gazing at the falling water. Then one silvery twilight I heard the sound of music. The man was playing a flute of ivory, and the sound was like water. I had to get closer to hear the quiet notes. I didn't think he would see me in the shadows.

I suppose my wings stirred the air in a way that wasn't like the wind. For whatever reason, the young man looked up. He saw me hovering between the tree branches. His face was lovely and sad. He looked at me as if I didn't exist, as if I were a fantasy whose existence was impossible. Then he began playing the flute again.

Fascinated, I lit on the grass near him. I could not walk, for although I had human form, my legs were fused together like a mermaid's tail. I curled up on the grass and folded my wings about me like a gossamer veil, covering my body. I peeked out between the wingtips and watched him in the purple moonlight. I only did this because he never moved. I hoped-- he would not try to capture me. I felt I was safe for now in that garden, and I would not fly away, unless something sudden happened to startle me. I listened to the music. I began to quietly add my voice. I sang the sound of the night wind in the tree branches; I sang the rippling of the waterfall's small pool; I sang the tingling chill of the stars' slow dance.

At last the flute notes descended softly into the quiet dawn, and ceased. There was a long moment when the morning star held her breath. Then for the first time the young man spoke.

"What is your name?" he asked.

"I am Mara," I whispered.

"What?" he said, not looking at me, stroking the bark of a nearby tree.

I spoke a little louder. "Mara," I said. "My name is Mara. What is your name?"


"What do you wish, Tarrell?"

He smiled quickly and fleetingly; the smile left a little blush in its wake. "I wish you were real."

"Real what?" I replied, confused. I fluttered closer to him and looked at his sweet face; he glanced at me sideways from under his eyelashes. He looked down and on an impulse, I leaned toward him and kissed his cheek.

His arms went around me like darting fish, and he kissed my lips hastily. I was too startled to struggle and his hands felt so lovely against my skin, his kiss so soft and comforting, that I found myself surrendering gladly to the embrace.

The sun was high in the heavens before I drew myself reluctantly from his arms and ventured over the wall to find a safe place to nap away the remaining daylight hours.

The following nights when I returned, the ritual would begin from the beginning. I would softly come closer and closer, lured by his quietness and gentle, distant glances. We would kiss in an eternity. His thick, hungry arms would grip me around my tiny waist, and I would arch my back in the soft moss. The hours were inexhaustible nectar.

My happiness was a terrible thing. In the noontime shade of a tiny cave not far from the walled garden, I would weep, brokenly, until I fell to sleep. It seemed impossible that when I returned to the garden, he would be there. Had not each thing I loved been taken from me? And then at night I would flutter with terrified beating heart toward the garden wall, only to find that it was still true. His eyes would be red with tears also as he fumbled toward me, nervous again.

One day I had an idea: I would give Tarrell a gift to comfort him during the hours when we were parted. I would bring him a token, an echo of the joy I had once known. Perhaps then he would understand my unending sadness.

It took many hours of flight to reach the sea, and many more to return. The night was almost gone when I arrived, to find him huddled miserably near the fountain, his head in his arms. He was shaking. I stroked his shoulder softly.

"Tarrell, Tarrell. I am here. And look: I brought you a gift." He raised his face and I held my hands cupped toward him. I had gathered the prettiest, most delicately hued shells from the sand. I had looked out over the expanse of water into which I could now never return, and shed tears, but had turned back toward the land with an eager laugh. My lover! He was waiting for me. I had darted through the air like the swiftest swallow. Now I sang to him the story of my life as a mermaid.

That night his embrace was urgent, even rough. I felt almost frightened of him. But no. I whispered into his ears words of love never spoken between us before. But he answered me not.

At last I drew away to depart, and he seemed to fall into himself with that movement, to pull deep inside like a mollusk, like a land snail that has touched salt.

"Don't you care for the shells I brought for you?" I asked timidly. "You can hold them in your hand when I am gone. You can put them to your ear and hear the echo of my songs. Don't they please you?"

"I wish you had never brought them. I wish you had never come here!" he cried.

I began to weep. What was wrong? Why did I not please him any longer?

"You know perfectly well that you are not real, Mara. You are a fantasy, an illusion. Now-- now you've ruined everything. Now you will be lost to me forever!" He seized a handful of the shells and hurled them into the water of the fountain.

"Let them lie there'" he muttered, "to remind me what a fool I was to believe in angels."

Angels! Who, what did he think I was? He was turned from me now, not looking at me, refusing to see me. Somehow I knew that he would not look at me again.

"But... Tarrell," I attempted. "I am real. I can grant wishes... don't you have another wish? Please, look at me."

But he had cast himself onto the moss, and buried his head in his arms. He never looked up. I fluttered away, clumsy with pain, and wept the day away. That night I returned, but he never looked up at the sky to see if I was there. I fluttered nearer to him, but he never glanced at me from under his eyelashes. How could I reach out and touch him? Truly it seemed that I did not exist any longer. His wish was made. I found myself fading into transparency.

I lingered sadly near him for a number of nights, each night becoming more and more invisible. At last, with a sigh that kissed his lips one last time, I faded into the distantly sprinkled stars. I was going home.


Mermaids Fast Asleep
Lyrics for a Lullabye

Do you suppose
Way down deep
There are mermaids
Fast asleep?

Wearing brightly colored scales
On their long a curvy tails...
Mer-fathers too
With golden eyes
And hair of blue
Counting fish instead of sheep
Rocking mer-babies to sleep
While the dolphins swimming by
Sing to them a lullabye:
Way down deep
Way down deep
Are there mermaids
Fast asleep?

If I could only
Swim that far
And deep to where
The mermaids are
If I could watch them lay their heads
Upon their golden sandy beds...
Their secret,
O! I would keep
And not disturb
The mermaids' sleep:
Peaceful on the ocean floor
(With now and then a gentle snore)
Breathing water like it's air
Way down deep,
Down deep, down there...
Way down deep
Way down deep
Are there mermaids
Fast asleep?

Are there mermaids
Fast asleep?

Are there mermaids
Fast asleep?

Rebecca Migdal is a writer, performer and artist.
Her work has been supported by grants from the State of New York, the State of South Carolina and the National Endowment for the Arts.

An animated comic version of this story will be published in installments over the next few months.
If you would like to be informed by email when installments come out, please email Rebecca.

More of her work is available for viewing on her Web Site.