Wednesday 31 August 2022

A Matter of Scale by Ann Richardson, iced water

It’s an old story, but each day someone new hears it. It goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a little mermaid who wished to become a girl. A witch gave the mermaid legs but demanded an offering of life in return. Instead of murdering the prince she had come to love, the little mermaid killed herself instead.


The Lord offered her another chance at life if she served him as an angel for three hundred years. She, having no better options, agreed. Consequently, God stationed her in the heavens to keep watch over kind children.


The three-hundred-year sentence is finally over. God has allowed LM to return to earth and live as a young human woman.


Once again, as a twenty-one-year-old on earth, LM feels an intense need to touch others and improve their lives. Like many saints and figureheads before her, LM believes this is her divine purpose. That’s why she’s become an ‘influencer.’


She awakes at 9:03 a.m. and puts a soft headband with floppy white cat ears over her hair. She purrs an anti-capitalist soliloquy into her rose gold iPhone 13 while applying strokes of rust-colored liner to her eyelids.


Today she is sharing the story of how she scavenged through the sports section of a local Goodwill to find the vintage marina blue leotard of her dreams. It is long-sleeved with a deep-V neckline, and more than one hundred gold stars shimmer incandescently across the bodice and sleeves.


‘Hello, water babies,’ LM says, as she glides the tail end of a horsehair makeup brush across her cheek. ‘First thing’s first. It’s time for my #OOTD! Do you like this 1960s gymnastics leotard that I thrifted at Goodwill? I love the gold stars, and Marina Blue has always gone with my eyes. Let me know what you think in the comments below. But remember to be nice! ‘


LM winks at the end of each sentence as the corners of her mouth reach for her earlobes, and then, just as quickly, they recoil back. As her hand casts a shadow over each warm eyelid, her words bake inside her mouth until each is ready to be delivered to the table of her hungry audience. She is highly skilled in the art of dropping each syllable like a crisp breadcrumb. The first bite is the appetizer of her arrival at the thrift store; the last sits on her tongue until it is time for the sparkling finish of her sartorial discovery.


She cocks her head to the right, points the makeup brush at the camera, and coos. And that’s when I saw this long-buried leotard staring back at me! Ready for resurrection! ‘


LM looks up at the ceiling as she delivers the last line, out of respect for the sheer spirituality of the moment. On a good day like today, LM regales her audience with tales from her past. Even after three hundred years of philosophical reflections, from inside her white, one-room studio apartment with a purple square on the wall that she uses as her background, she likes to keep it simple.


She’s not just an old human soul. Her soul is also part fish.


This is a complicated idea, and she has learned that complicated ideas confuse people. And when people are confused, they tend to swipe left or up. Therefore, she’s kept her past mostly to herself.


Depth of any kind muddies the waters of today’s content. And when a viewer must pause to reflect, if you will, on some type of life-altering insight, the likelihood they will hit that like button or share it with a friend precipitously decreases.


And that’s what LM’s new life is about: likes, shares, subscribes—and sponsorships.


Welcome to her channel.


This is a place where you can live on forever. So long as your story is out there. And LM intends to turn her legend into a legacy before this third life ends.


It is her fish self from which she is the most removed. But sometimes she’ll feel her former mermaid self fighting with her human self. Each personal question triggers more than 117,165 days’ worth of memories of those few days she spent wrapped in scales and fish nails—neither of which she can touch or smell anymore.


When she’s not on camera, LM often tells and retells her cat, Sinko, her three-hundred-year-old secret.


She’ll nudge his forehead with her nose and say, ‘Sinko, I don’t even remember the prince. I spent three hundred years as a servant to heaven for someone whose face and name I can’t even recall. ‘


While she holds him, she finds herself scrolling through TikTok, swiping past a video about popping an oversized blackhead to a video about making toasted tapioca balls.


Sinko purrs and lovingly strokes LM’s nose with his paw pad. He doesn’t care about the prince or social media. He hungers for shrimp, chicken, and liverwurst.


Sinko reminds her of a time when she appreciated simple things too. While stroking Sinko’s chin, she remembers a time when her entire personality didn’t revolve around camera angles or ring lights.


That’s why she has accepted an invitation from the Galleria de Mere. The invite requests her to be part of a live-performance art exhibit that features today’s most influential influencers. The exhibit is called ‘Two-Sided: Where Private Matters Meet Public Spaces.’


Each participant will have two days to show an ever-changing audience their public and private self within the confines of a three-by-five exhibition space.


No cameras or phones, just 100% raw, in-person content.


All nine influencers invited to be part of the exhibit will show the world a private side none of their followers have seen.


This means one thing for LM: It’s time for the world to know who she really is—or rather, was.


Because the distilled story you’ve heard was told by a man who didn’t know or care for LM. His aim was to use her tale as a cautionary one, and to achieve that goal, he thought nothing of making LM a martyr. LM was the protagonist, but she didn’t have any input into the script.


She knows that her past is a drop of water, and every drop of water can be swept away by other drops if you don’t protect it. And there is no single pair of hands that can hold an ocean back.


LM is thinking of this when she enters the Galleria. It’s a gallery space in a loft that’s part of a collection of lofts in a downtown building. It’s two-thousand-square-feet of exposed brick and black paint, with four thick cement pillars supporting a thirty-foot ceiling.


For her entrance, she wears a dress made of blue and turquoise taffeta with red high heels and a golden chain necklace. She is newly empowered by the magic of her golden chain, having just struck one more deal with the sea witch.


This time, she did not surrender her voice. Instead, she ripped out her wisdom teeth and wrapped them in silk. She delivered them to the witch’s cave. Her body has not forgotten how to breathe underwater, despite the long-ago loss of her gills.


The sea witch, in return, gave her the golden chain necklace, which is set with a purple diamond. The ring contained the magic necessary to create and recreate the tale of her life.


During the exchange, the sea witch traced LM’s cheekbone with a long fingernail and said, ‘I’m so glad we can be friends now, my darling. The past is the past, and no one will ever forget your name after they see what I’ve empowered you to do. ‘


As she enters the performance area, LM recalls the coolness of the sea witch’s nails, a coolness that fits the sea witch’s underworld aesthetic perfectly. As for LM’s aesthetic sensibilities, her exhibition space has been designed to embody her love of the ornate as well as opulence. A large emerald bed with a framework sits on a wooden stage covered in pink silk. In front of the bed is a water tank filled with saltwater, big enough for a large shark—or even a mermaid.


There are nine ‘bedrooms’ like this for the nine key influencers. Each will show a private audience a side of themselves no one has ever seen.


Before LM’s performance begins, she watches the other performers.


The raven-haired influencer named Drusilla, who is in a white and barren exhibition space, slowly turns herself into a machine. Drusilla replaces her veins with piping and the bones in her hands with nuts and bolts. Her knuckles become washers. Drusilla is twenty-four and tells her audience that by the time she is forty, the transformation into a machine will be complete. The audience gasps and claps, while never considering the fact that surely Drusilla will be dead before she becomes a robot, as no one can self-inflict such a change without leading to their inevitable demise.


The person next to Drusilla, called Persebel, is in a barren exhibit space that contains only piles of sand. He writes his personal history in a cursive font into piles of sand. His plump hands sift through the piles until each letter is perfectly formed. Each pile represents a year of their lives, and each year has its very own word: loss, energy, soulmate, dreams. Each word holds its place for a moment and then is washed away, and a new phrase replaces it. Each day, 29,200 transitions occur. The night is called reincarnation, and the next day he performs the ritual again.


On her emerald bed in her golden exhibit space, LM adorns herself with more thick gold chain necklaces that cover her chest, while meticulously sewing together a tail made of shining green gills, fins, and scales. With each stitch, she pricks a finger, first on accident and then on purpose, because her blood on the ivory sheets heightens the drama of the act.


She stops to brush her hair with a fork, something she saw in a movie once, and while she does this, people clap and tear up. She doesn’t quite understand all the fuss.


Initially, she wears her scales like underwear. Then, as each scale duplicates, the tail that is forming takes on a life of its own. The witch’s magic prevails, and the scales replicate uncontrollably, moving up her spine. Eventually, they crawl up her arms and her neck before swallowing her whole.


At the end transformation, her fingertips crawl across the floor, dragging the rest of her body to the water tank. At this moment, she becomes a rock climber. The left hand reaches for the first step on the ladder, then the right hand reaches for the next. As the muscles in her back tense and relax, her body and its green tail slither up the side until she reaches the top and jumps in.


She swims underwater for an hour—back and forth, back and forth—her neck growing heavy from her gold jewelry and constant motion. Her lungs remember how to breathe pure water in those moments. The salt invigorates her veins but then starts to clog her windpipe and settle in her pupils.


The sea witch’s ancient magic pulsates behind the whites of her eyes. She simultaneously bursts into laughter and cries. She howls at the audience and jumps out of the water like a dolphin.


Then she submerges herself in the water again until it turns from ashen blue to a deep crimson. From inside this pool of blood, her legs re-emerge, and her fins disappear. The audience, having witnessed her wiggling feet, applauds as if they are celebrating her enduring freedom—all the while knowing full well that she’ll swallow herself and outgrow herself again tomorrow.


She becomes more tired with each performance. In fact, they all begin to feel like a sacrifice. Every time she gains a scale, she loses a little more blood.


She calls her manager and asks him if the performances can end, as it is exhausting to rip oneself apart only to put the pieces back together repeatedly.


He requests she increase the number of days she performs —from two a week to ten, then thirty a month, then one hundred a month. And so on. Each time he promises she can quit after they make their first million dollars, get on the nightly talk shows and so forth. Each time she talks to him the conditions change.


She begins to become listless and sees her many numbered days as a performer as a series of overlapping incidences: Entirely similar, but also slightly different, and each somewhat dependent on one another—much like the scales of a fishtail.


Her one consolation is that everyone begins to see, at last, that LM was and is the mermaid from the old story that someone new hears for the first time each day.


During a performance that she believed would be one of her last, she slid her bloodied legs under the covers of the lovely bed they made for her. She closed her eyes and refused to move. She asked an audience member, who climbed the stairs to her stage and comforted her as she recovered, ‘This is who I am; this is who I will always be; when will it all be enough?’


I heard this from someone in attendance, of course. From an audience member who pieced together the narrative and whispered it into my ear at a small get together where I sipped wine and scrolled through my Instagram feed.


They told me LM lay there still, stitching her scales on and ripping them off one by one. They said she’ll kiss your cheek and sing her life story to you while she licks ice made of saltwater.


They said the curators of the exhibit will now braid your hair if you come to watch her, as many in the art world have grown tired of watching LM’s scales reappear and disappear, and the Galleria now needs ways to draw people to what has become a one-woman show.


Of course, this is just what I’ve been told.


About the author 

Anne Richardson likes to write gothic fiction. She also likes cats, dogs, tarot cards—and the people who love them too. 


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