“Mermaids?” she repeats with a different inflection.
“Mermaids,” I mimic her accent.
“Why not?” I chuckle. “I was browsing online to see if I could find something to pull me out of this slump, and look…”
I open the article I found about this little fishing village in Northern Denmark where apparently mermaids are usual visitors. I watch as Nixie reads it with skeptical eyes. Her frown deepens the further she goes. When she’s done, she turns to me with a blank stare.
“Mermaids, Daniel, really?” she rolls her eyes. “We’re a serious, respectable production company.”
“All the more reason to do it!” I insist. “We can put a spin on it, make it into some sort of dramatic in-depth view of people that live in isolation. Or something.”
“Or something?” she snorts.
“Honestly, Daniel, of all the bonkers pitches you’ve brought in over the last months, this is the worst one yet.”
I sigh. I’m not sure what I was expecting to accomplish with this. I just know that I need a big break — either something genius or shitty. Anything to make people stop talking about the last documentary I’ve made.
Here’s one thing nobody ever tells you about success: the pressure you feel to keep riding the wave. Once society deems you’ve ‘made it’, they hold you against higher standards. They pay more attention to you. They discuss and scrutinize every aspect of your life, looking for reasons why you achieved what you achieved or clues of what might come next. It’s exhausting. Also frightening.
What if I have peaked? What if Waiting for the Artist is the best I’ll ever make? Worse even, what if it’s the last?
“It’s not the last,” Nixie says out of nowhere as if reading my mind. Granted, she’s the one that has been listening to my moaning for the last year.
“It might as well be since you’re vetting all of my ideas,” I complain. I know it’s unfair — my ideas have really sucked lately.
“Daniel…” she sighs, as an annoyed teacher does to a brat student.
“Please, Nix,” I lean over her desk, “I need this.”
“How will I explain the award-winning documentarist who made Waiting for the Artist flying to the end of the world to shoot mermaids?” she raises one perfect eyebrow.
“You won’t have to. The work will speak for itself.”
She raises both eyebrows now. She closes the laptop in front of her and leans over the desk, her sharp face menacingly hovering just inches away from mine.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” she says, calm but severe.
“Help me figure it out.”
I wake up with the sun beaming through my thin curtains. That’s no indication of the hour, though — the sun beams at all times of day here at this time of the year. I wish I knew this before coming. Maybe Nixie was right, maybe I don’t know what I’m doing. Yet, I’m here.
I roll over on the bed to find out it’s three in the morning. I have only two hours until I’m trapped in a small fishing boat sailing out to open sea in what will be our first attempt at seeing a mermaid. I found out pretty early on that it would be better if I just went with their story.
According to the locals, merpeople — which is the correct, inclusive term — have lived among Nantuk villagers since the 15th century. In 1472, a fisherman caught a mermaid in his nets. Instead of panicking and killing her, he brought her to the village and nursed her back to health. Villagers helped, surprisingly not finding it odd at all. They then returned her to the ocean. Turns out, that mermaid was some sort of ruler and her people were so grateful, they started to bring gifts to the fishermen. They started to befriend each other and learn about their different cultures. Some merpeople found ways to become human and live in the dry land, some humans found ways to become merpeople and disappeared into the ocean. It still happens, apparently. But, of course, it’s a super secret, difficult, and irreversible ritual, so when I asked if I could witness one, the answer was no.
To my utter surprise, Nixie is the one most interested in this part of the story. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying out the human study approach. What makes these people believe in such a myth these days? Where the original story came from? Why isn’t this village the talk of the world? Nixie, on the other hand, keeps mentioning how interesting the mermaid thing sounds, arranging interviews with alleged former merpeople that became human, and even this sightseeing trip. For someone who was so skeptical before, she’s really digging this. Maybe my next approach should be: what kind of drug they put in the water?
“Ready?” she bounces into place when I step out of my room.
“Jesus, Nix,” I sigh.
“Have you got the camera?” she asks, immediately snatching my bag and rummaging through its contents.
“You’re scaring me,” I joke.
“Sorry,” she smiles sheepishly. “I’m excited!”
“I can tell,” I laugh as we start to make our way to the shore. It’s such a short path, it’s ridiculous. “And to think you didn’t even want to come.”
“I know,” she smiles. And says nothing more.
We walk in silence and I can sense her eagerness increase with each step. Nervous energy seeps out through her every pore. It confuses me but also delights me. She looks like a little child on Christmas morning.
We greet our guide for the day, Soren, a middle-aged fisherman who speaks poor English and was the only one who seemed to be willing to take us out to the ocean. We shake hands and Nixie hugs him. He’s caught off guard by her gesture, giving me a weird look. I just shrug. She’s excited, what can I say.
We board his precarious boat and immediately sail off. I have a hard time balancing myself with all the rocking back and forth, but Nixie and Soren seem to be right in their element. I take the camera out, getting it ready to only press a button if we see anything. Not that I’m expecting to see anything. I know we won’t.
Soren keeps reciting monosyllabic facts about our whereabouts, which makes the whole experience even more boring. I’m almost asleep in my corner when Nixie gets up abruptly, making the whole boat shift.
“Oh, it was there!” she points to a rocky formation a little ways to the left. “It was there where she first appeared!”
“Who?” I join her, looking out to the dark, pointy rocks.
“Ahti! The first mermaid!” She’s beaming. I’ve never seen her like this. It’s like someone in the village swapped souls with her.
“How do you know that?” I ask after staring at her glowing face for a few seconds.
She seems to come to her senses a little bit. She frowns, looking at me as if the answer is obvious. She glances at Soren, but he seems to be lost in his own world.
“I’ve been studying their maps,” she says at last.
I just nod. I don’t know what to say. I already told her she’s frightening me, I don’t think it’s fit to call your boss crazy twice in less than an hour. So, I don’t.
We round the ‘first rock’, as it’s called, in silence. I hold my camera and we scan the water carefully. The ocean is clear and calm, the summer wind is mild and cold, and there’s no sign of any life outside our little vessel.
Soren guides the boat towards some other spots where he claims mermaids usually hang out, but we find nothing. We spend a couple of hours going in circles until Nixie finally agrees to call it a day. I put the camera down, dismantling it and cleaning the pieces, regretting the hours lost here when I could have been writing. I know better than to say it out loud, though. Soren is a scary dude, and Nixie looks the most disappointed I’ve ever seen her. She’s even… crying?
“What’s wrong?” I stop what I’m doing and go sit beside her.
“Nothing, it’s just…” she sniffs, looking out at the still water. “Nothing. I was hoping we’d see something.”
“Nix,” I lower my voice, hoping Soren can’t hear me, “these things aren’t real. Mermaids, merpeople, aren’t real. You know that, right?”
“Yes, of course!” she turns to me indignantly. I’m amazed by the way her mouth is saying something her eyes are clearly denying. “Of course.”
She looks down at her hands, studying her fingers as if she’d never seen them before. There’s definitely something in the water here.
I have arranged a session with the local witch to perform the mermaid transformation ritual. I don’t even know how I managed — I was at the bar, chatting with the sailors, and one of them told me the witch owed him a favor. He could use his advantage to make her do the ritual on me. I accepted because why the hell not?
I’m really frustrated. I was actually hoping this would turn out to be a genius story. It’s not. It’s the shitty one. It’s the one that will make me look like a one-hit-wonder. Last night, I went over some of the footage we have and it’s all so bleak. These people all look like nut-jobs, there’s nothing I can use to support my premise. There’s nothing that resembles human nature or even some kind of collective delirium. They’re all just very weird people. That’s why I went out drinking. That’s why I accepted to undergo the ritual. If I can get footage of that, at least I could turn this into something spooky or haunting.
So, I wire myself with hidden microphones and put some cameras in my clothes and bag. I just need to put them in the right places and voilá, I’ll have a semi-decent horror documentary.
I head out at dawn to meet this so-called witch in her shack at the edge of some cliff. I regret not bringing my actual camera because this view would make a hell of an opening shot. I’m received at the door by a young woman, someone I suppose is an apprentice or something like that.
“Sit down,” she demands with a very heavy accent.
I obey, carefully placing my backpack over the table. I try to turn around in a semi-circle so my lapel camera can film the environment. It’s nothing like you’d expect a witch shack to be, everything is just plain and normal.
“Drink this,” she clanks a mug of fuming liquid in front of me.
“Are you the witch?” I ask incredulously. She doesn’t look like a witch. Then again, witches also don’t exist, so whatever.
She doesn’t reply, so I take the mug and start to sip. It’s herbal tea. Like mint or lemongrass. It’s very, very sweet, but I drink it all.
“Now what?” I ask, handing the young lady the empty mug.
“Now we wait,” she says aggressively as she takes a sit right in front of me.
She stares at me intensely with big, round blue eyes. It makes me uncomfortable.
“Can I make a few questions while we wait?”
“Silence,” she replies.
I sigh, but something in her expression doesn’t let me disobey. I start to regret this. What the hell am I doing here?
The silence and the warmth of the tea start to make me sleepy again. I wonder whether there was any drug in the thing I just drank. Maybe that’s the ritual? Drug people to make them believe they’re seeing mermaids? Is this witch person going to transform into a mermaid right in front of me?
I don’t feel drugged, though. Just tired. Tired and frustrated. I sigh again. And then the woman stands up and snaps her finger right in front of my face. That makes me wake up.
“What was that for?” I ask. She leans closer, looking into my eyes. Not looking at me, though. She’s looking into my eyes but not looking at me. It feels weird. Then she blows on my face and it feels even weirder.
“There,” she says. She’s suddenly even closer than she was before.
“Next step, you go into the ocean. Only works if you go into the ocean,” she says, heading to the door and opening it.
“That’s… that’s it?” I stutter. What a joke! “I’m a mermaid now?”
“Only after you go into the ocean,” she repeats.
“Right,” I say, hesitating to get up. “So, I leave here and go for a swim and become a mermaid?”
“Ya,” she nods once.
“Well, that was easy,” I get up, angry with myself, and gather my things. “And how do I become human again? Let me guess, I get out of the ocean.”
“You don’t,” she replies. I raise my eyebrows to her. “You never get out of the ocean.”
“Oh, right,” I nod, remembering part of the myth, “it’s irreversible.”
She narrows her eyes to me. It makes the hairs in the back of my neck stand. It’s so eerie. I hope the camera got that.
I thank her for her time and leave. I run to my room again, eager to review the footage and see how scary I can make it look. As I’m plugging my things into my computer, someone bangs desperately on my door. I open it to find a frantic Nixie.
“You can’t do it!” she yells, stepping inside.
“Do what?” I frown.
“The ritual! You can’t go through with it!”
“Oh my God, Nix!” I run both hands through my hair.
“Promise me you won’t!” She grabs me by the shoulders, startling me with her strength. “Promise me!”
“Nixie, this isn’t real!” I snap.
“What if it is?” Her wild brown eyes are scarier than the witch’s blue ones.
“It’s not!” I disentangle myself from her.
“What if it is?!”
“Okay, that’s it, I think it’s time to go home.” Now I grab her by the shoulders.
“What? Why?” she asks surprised.
“Because you’re losing your mind!” I yell again, my professionalism long gone. “You’re acting like this thing is serious! It’s not! Mermaids don’t exist! Rituals to become mermaids don’t exist! This place is messing with your brain and I think we should go before it does any permanent damage.”
She stares at me with her mouth gaping open. I think I’m about to lose my job but then she starts to nod.
“Okay,” she says quietly. “You’re right. I don’t know what’s going on with me, I’m sorry. But you’re right, this place is messing with me and we should leave.”
“Okay,” I sigh with relief.
“Now,” she continues.
“Now?” I raise my eyebrows. “Like right now?”
“Yes. Come on.” She fishes my suitcase from under the bed and starts to fill it up. When I don’t move, she turns to me with that desperate expression again. “Please.”
“You’re still afraid of the ritual,” I frown.
“Please, Daniel!” She plunges towards me. “Please, don’t do it!”
“I’m sorry, I…” I shake my head. “I already did it.”
“No…” she gasps, her eyes filling with true horror. I’m legit scared. “Okay, it’s fine. It’s fine. It only works if you get into the water, and you’re not doing that. We’re leaving, right? We’re leaving now.”
“How do you know that?” I ask slowly. “How do you know it only works if I go into the sea?”
“Is this some kind of prank?” Realization starts to dawn on me. “Are you trying to teach me a lesson or something?”
“Well, I’m going to teach you a lesson!” I say and rush out of the bedroom towards the docks.
“Daniel, no!” Nixie tries to hold me but she’s way too small.
I run from her, stripping off my shoes and shirt in the way.
“Wait, please!” Nixie grabs one of my arms as she catches me on the edge of the water.
“What?” I bark.
She’s crying. She’s full on crying. I had no idea she could be such a good actress. I look around to see if I can spot the rest of the crew, the hidden cameras, anything. I can’t.
Nixie hugs me. I can feel my heart pounding fast against her body pressed tightly against me.
“Tell her I miss her,” she whispers in my ear. Then she lets me go and takes two steps back.
I take a last look around. These fuckers are going to pay me. I’m not going to forgive this joke.
I turn around to the clear, blue water under us. I know it’s going to be cold, I know going forward will not prove anything. They’ve already got me. Some part of me is already believing it and scared shitless this is not a prank. Or, maybe, I’m panicking because that girl really drugged me up. Maybe I’m tripping. Whatever. There’s only one way to know.
So, I jump in.
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