THE COLLECTION

Yesterday I caught a mermaid with a halo in the rip-tide. The feathers of dead seabirds adorned her hair and a baby pelican skeleton nestled in the snarls. She was collecting rubbish and washed-up quarters from the tide-pools. A piece of birch-bark from Korea sat possessively at her tail and a dead raccoon lay in the shape of a cello next to her.

Evidently, she collected anything of interest that the sea threw up.

Seeing me, she dove into the rip-tide, arms full of jewel-like refuse. Hovering on the surface of the water, she observed me.

As if she were some small girl-child who didn't know how to swim, I rushed out after her, partly hoping to catalogue and observe before she got away (who would believe what I had seen?), and partly in an unthinking wish to save her life. When I caught her from the side, the rancid smell of rotting octopus filled my nose, along with a sweet woody scent like burning cactus flowers.

I didn't have a chance. It was as if I had been caught in the iron pistons of an irresistible machine. She was inexorably strong. Her fins stung my arms, and perhaps her skin contained some kind of poison, because I found myself numb and leaden, increasingly unable to move.

She heaved my weakened body under her arm and back to the shore, setting me down where she could contemplate me in peace. I sat there shivering, wind blowing sun into my eyes, the Pacific sucking hungrily on my toes.

She made me tell her everything about my life. The time I had influenza. "In-flu-enza," she hissed. "What beautiful sound." She added that word to her collection. I could see far Singapore rehearsing in her eyes. "You are a plunger, yes," she said. Perhaps she could read confusion on my alien face. "One who plunges into the sea and never comes back out." I couldn't answer. Sand hissed over my thighs in a painful rhythm.

"Please," I said. "Don't take me away. I was brought up in a Quaker family, and am now an accompanist. I drive a Volkswagen."

"I can't be bothered with that, orange man," she said. "I am a Pilgrim. I collect frontiers. You'll have to come along."

"I'm sorry I tried to catch you. It's just that. . ."

"I'm afraid it's too late, toothesome one. I'll make you potent with life. You'll never go back to your sour shores again for more than five beats of the tide. You'll never eat whole wheat and sauerkraut sandwiches again. Come now. I don't have much more time. I don't speak languages very well. Perhaps you will teach me more."

"You speak fine. I'm not an English professor. Please, I have a wife and children."

"Don't lie to me. You have no one."

She looked at me, her eyes pink as a bollworm. I remembered the little peach-skinned cotton-eating pests I used to pick out of the plants before I came down from the Southeast. A fine fishy sugarcane-colored frill made an Elizabethan ruff around her throat. It seemed to grow out of her skin. She was unbelievably full of life, and her precision-cut image, hyper-real, made the beach dim into obscurity around her. Her halo cast a pinkish glow over her face and made shadows under her fine small nose. I wanted to kiss her smiling malmsey lips.

Yesterday I was caught by a mermaid with a halo in the rip-tide. I wanted to catch her. I even believed I could. Her sequined pelt grated against my thighs and I could not struggle or escape.

She caught everything. The rip-tide followed her, her halo was tied to her head, and her captured pink light made the slatey water look grainy and full of ruptured sand, like an old black-and-white of my Quaker grandparents holding hands in their simple clothing. I hated her for grasping me as easily as she grasped pink light, slate tide and the colorless sinew of water. I wanted to at least have the dignity of a prize object. Instead I tumbled in her arms, numb in the cold Pacific, uncertain if the limb slapping against her breast was my hand or the raccoon's pitiful dark tail, confusing the glint of quarters with my own cheap drowned watch, my life eternally saved when all I wanted was to give myself up to the water to spite her.

So, to amuse my eternity, I invented small stories in which I tugged her along behind me viciously, a specimen chapped and raw on land, the sight of her sold for quarters.