The story of the Little Mermaid begins not at the beginning but at the very ending; when a man tells children a story.
“Can I tell you a story?” the man asked.
From the moment he saw their faces, he knew he had to tell them.
The rain raged down on Chicago, down on the streets and down on the river and almost brought down the glass roof of Union Station. The rain was coming down, drop by drop by drop per second and by a trickle, into buckets that the janitors had to mop up and the train officers had to phone the engineers, all in the case of where the glass roof was to join the rain and come down, down, down intertwined on the train-waiters, in dancing sheets of silver.
The rain came down on Jodi Erikson; it came down and nearly left her soaked, her dark hair sticking to her neck and almost coming undone into frizz and curls (despite her earlier attempts to straighten it). The rain came down on the roof and filled the grand corridors of marble with sound, to replace the words Jodi was looking for (mind your language, remember how damn lucky you are, the social worker reminded her, make a good impression because don’t count on something like this happening again.)
The rain came down on Carlo Washington also; it came down and left Carlo shivering where he was already trembling with the nerves that rattled his insides, blue now tinging the clay of his skin (hoping he cut his hair short enough for today). The rain was coming down and Carlo could only hope that water didn’t seep into his bag of store-brought hormones (as for you, the social worker noted, her voice clipped, it’s best you say little about what and… why you’re taking those things, Carla. At that stage, Carlo was too tired to fight with her.)
The rain was coming down on Chicago; down on the roofs, down on the old streets and gathered in Ned Andersen’s blue eyes, tears gathering and but not coming down; rain making his ankle-foot orthoses sing with each swing of his feet, the rain caught in the strands of his reddish-pale hair.
The rain came down and down and down, wet and pulsating and shining, and filled the silences between the three, those three sitting right next to each other on the bench, waiting for the train to come and take them away.
“Would we know this story?” Carlo asked.
A brief pause. “I would hope so,” the man mused.
“What’s it about?” Jodi sharply said.
He paused, thinking. “About mermaids.”
A light filled Carlo’s eyes. “Mermaids?”
“Like the Little Mermaid story?” Carlo asked
A smile, soft as the down of a bird, bloomed on his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a story about mermaids. And, Mr. Washington, you are most certainly right.” Carlo smiled. “But you’re also wrong.” Carlo’s smile died just a few seconds later; an expression of befuddlement replacing that recently-killed smile.
“How can someone be right and wrong at the exact same time?” Jodi piped, her cheeks now red with second-hand anger, second-embarrassment (everything about her second-hand; the clothes she wore, the hair dye she burrowed, the colour of her eyes – Ned looking at her from the corner of his gaze and seeing his own eyes, a flowing river-colour of grey and silver and dark blue, looking back at him).
“They can be right about one thing,” the man explained, the tone of his voice apologetic, “and be wrong about another thing. Because Carlo is right about it being the story of the Little Mermaid. He definitely is. But, you see, it’s more than just the story of the Little Mermaid. More than the story you’ve heard about, that is.”
“More than the Disney version?” Jodi asked.
“Yep,” Ned replied.
“Then, well,” Carlo asked, his face now wide with questions, “what is it about?”
“It’s about many things,” the man started. It’s about a place that is like Paris but isn’t Paris, a place that is like New York but isn’t New York and many other places. It’s about a time about the 1900s but isn’t the 1900s. It’s about about world that is like this world but isn’t our world.” He turned around, faced them fully in his seat, his sad eyes now meeting theirs (them looking at him and seeing déjà vu; him looking at them and seeing jamais vu instead.)
“It’s a story about the impossible becoming possible," he said, his voice low, warm and sultry, luring the two children in, his voice a siren’s voice reeling in two sailors. “It’s a story about stars and oceans and humans being humans. It’s about mermaids becoming humans, or wooden puppets becoming little boys, or even women becoming men and men becoming women.”
“Really?” Carlo asked (like me, about people like me, was Carlo’s unspoken question, his heart fluttering).
“Oh, yes,” Ned said, “it’s about change, the ways people change, big or small. It’s a story about adventure, about crime and politics and royalty and the poor. About wars and revolutions, exploration and discovery, science and magic, lust and temptation and family.
“It’s about love,” he said. His voice wavered, almost losing strength, as if the rainwater in his eyes was now filling up his throat and stopping the words from leaving his tongue. “If this story, the story of the Little Mermaid, is about anything, it’s about love. It’s about how a mermaid looked up at the sky and fell in love with the stars. How a mermaid looked at the world beyond the sea and loved it, and all the people in it so much, that she decided she wanted to become a part of it and didn’t want to leave it”
The rain was thundering down onto Chicago and, according to the news, would do so well into the night. From what Jodi heard, there could only be sunshine and warmth in Los Angeles, where the train was to take them down the railways.
The rain fell down onto the first day of Jodi Erikson and Carlo Washington’s trip to California; a special treat from Ned Andersen, an author in his 40’s, a man who held of adopting the pair and wanted to spend a little treat on them. A treat regarded as a miracle, seeing their circumstances of age (Jodi being 15 and Carlo 12) and other circumstances.
The rain fell, blue eyes meet two pairs (one blue, one dark).
The rain fell and three souls regarded each other and Jodi and Carlo didn’t want to leave his side; not for anything or anyone.
Jodi and Carlo didn’t want to leave the storyteller until they left knowing the story (even through, somewhere, in the shifting shadows of their skulls, the story dipped in and out, they remembered but also didn’t remember.)
And the man had waited so, so long to tell this story that it might as well have grown as a second heart in his chest.
Southwest Chief, Chicago to Los Angeles on aisle 21 is now boarding. The attendant called out, people rose to their fee, their feet carrying them down to the aisle with baggage in their hands.
“Do you want me to tell the story?” Ned asked.
A pause, a shared look between the two.
“Yes, yes, tell us the story,” Jodi and Carlo said back.
The rain fell and Ned told Jodi and Carlo the story, gathering their luggage, the three heading forward and not looking back. He told them the story as they boarded the train, helping them up the steps and easing them into their seats. He told them the story, as the train rushed out to the open air of the world made wet and silver and new with rain, towards Los Angeles.
Dear reader, be it raining wherever you are or be it not, the story that Ned Andersen told Jodi and Carlo is the story I’m telling you now. Just as the rain fell in another world, in another time, down on a little mermaid when she made her first encounter with a human, hard and fast and unrelenting.
Her first encounter trying to save that human and by that action, went from breaking one rule to breaking more rules until, by the end of the story, she had broken all the rules.
(A cruel coincidence when you understand, that in the beginning, the true beginning, no matter what story of the Little Mermaid by Andersen or Ashman, all the mermaid wanted to do was just bend one rule.)