In the middle of the Pacific Ocean the Gyre turns in a great lazy whorl. The current carries with it the trinkets of civilization: bottle tops, cigarette lighters, barnacled gym shoes, and Ziploc bags clear as jellyfish. Lost fishing buoys trail tangled nets, which in turn haul their unintended catch of dead fish, shredded Mylar balloons and schools of water bottles.
She spent her days collecting the most unusual items as they drifted past. Her hair, dark as kelp, brushed against her powerful cetacean tail as she moved through the water. She carried the things she found in a little flock of plastic bags. Plastic was all around her in various states of degradation. Their original shapes transformed under the agitation of the waves into a confetti that caressed her with its tendrils as she passed, decorating her hair, sliding past her shoulders and breasts, her hips and tail.
She hung the bags off her elbows and moved through the crystalline sunlight. Adrift, they looked ephemeral, but inflated with seawater they felt heavy, solid. Her favorites were the ones with the big red letters. The words on the bags said:
Earlier that day she had found a plastic doll, naked and missing an arm. She’d seen dolls and parts of dolls before, but this one was different—a miniature man. He rode in the bottom of a bag along with a pink, plastic flip-flop and a round container top decorated with the face of a pig-tailed girl.
She stopped, fished the tiny man out of the bag and looked into his still perfect face. Biceps stood out on his remaining arm. Bifurcated legs grew from his hips like the arms of a starfish, except bulgy and muscled like the rest of him. His limbs were jointed like a crustacean. She tried to put his legs through what she imagined was a walking motion and giggled. They must look ridiculous, these creatures, stomping around on land.
She hadn’t noticed the boat above, as a pod of whales had recently passed overhead, but its shadow lingered. Rising, she saw a long pole with a small net at the end reach into the water and scoop up a glinting potato chip bag. The pole receded into the sunlight and disappeared beyond the edge of the boat.
She drifted closer. The pole returned, trolling through the water for another item. She searched her bags and pulled out a toothbrush with bristles so curled it looked as if it were facing into a strong current. She pushed it toward the seeking net, which scooped it up. As the pole retreated, the silhouette of a head and broad shoulders leaned out and over the boat’s edge. A second head appeared, and together they examined her gift.
She lurked in the shadow of the hull and watched them collect more items from the Gyre. She could just hear their voices, wavering and garbled, punctuated by staccato laughter.
Day faded to evening, but the ship did not leave. Only after the first small points of starlight appeared did she break the surface to get a better look. Lights twinkled along the mast. The bags drifted around the crooks of her elbows. She held the man-doll in her hand, not wanting to lose him. The ship’s engine gargled quietly as it had throughout the afternoon. The slick taste of diesel lingered in her mouth.
Three people moved about the deck talking and laughing. The man with the broad shoulders poured a dark liquid from a bottle into plastic cups the others held. She swam closer, keeping her head low in the water. He picked up a curved container made of fine wood and began moving his hands across the strings stretched along its length. She drifted along with them, enthralled. The sounds were both complicated and soothing. The notes progressed forward, then circled back as if to find something that had been left behind.
When she was a child, living among the vast estates of junk the merfolk collected in the bioluminescent twilight of the deep, an old aunt would put her to bed in a broken Plexiglas yacht that rocked on the sea floor. She told stories of the people who walked on the land: how their lives were comically short, but, in exchange, they possessed a soul hidden away inside them. Instead of turning to sea foam when they died, their souls would live on forever.
She asked her aunt how she knew this, and her aunt replied that long ago one of them had fallen into the sea and that her sister, the girl’s very own mother, had eaten it.
“The human?” she asked, incredulous.
“No,” her aunt laughed. “Just his soul. The rest of him she left for the fishes.”
At the time she believed this explained her mother’s absence, which none of her relatives would discuss. She remembered being immediately jealous, thinking her mother now possessed an eternal soul. But the old woman explained that, no, she didn’t have it — because she had eaten it.
She wanted to know where these souls went when they were through with the bodies they’d inhabited, but her aunt was impatient by then and claimed neither to know nor care, and that, in any case, she’d heard that men’s souls weren’t very filling.
Before leaving her alone in the sunken boat, her aunt softened and told her that, according to legend: a wish you make after eating a person’s soul will come true for as long as the soul survives within you. She lay awake for hours that night, thinking of all the wishes her mother might have made.
The people battened down the boat, tittering and unsteady on their feet. She watched their silhouettes, trying to imagine the souls confined within them like the fish swimming obliviously inside a net before it’s hauled up. When the people disappeared below deck, she sank beneath the surface and slept, drifting and dreamless, trailing her bags of treasures, which she’d tied around one wrist.
The next morning the ship was out of sight. She swam in concentric circles hunting for it. Clouds covered the sun, and it took some time to pick out the outline of the boat against the gray sky. She started for it, but stopped when she saw him below her. He’d attached large fins to his feet and a tank to his back. Wobbly bubbles trailed up behind him. Curly, golden hair floated freely around his facemask. She watched his legs kicking languidly, separately. He too collected the objects that floated all around them, choosing a plastic bottle and a shredded vinyl purse. Her aunt had told her that people only took living things from the ocean.
She descended and crossed his line of sight. He stopped what he was doing and stared at her with an intensity that made her skin flush. She continued sinking into the dim cool below. She knew that her kind could attract people. Had her mother attracted her sailor so? Her heart pounded as he turned and followed with a kick. Then he pulled something from his belt and trained a powerful light on her. She threw her arms up too late; the beam left a purple smear across her vision. Frightened, she turned away, powering her dive with strong strokes of her tail. The light made a halo around her as she swam through the dark, wavering tunnel of her shadow.
The light faded and she turned, hoping he hadn’t broken off the chase despite her fear. He floated above, the light now pointed away from her face. She swam closer. Without taking her eyes off him, she reached into her bag and found the little man, holding it up for him to see. He moved the light to it and, with a kick of one foot, drifted closer. His eyes, through the mask, moved from the doll to her face.
He pointed to it then to his own chest. She nodded, as the current drew them together. He reached out and let some of her long hair flow through his fingers. When he exhaled, bubbles danced between them. They drifted along together for some time. He handed her the light and kicked his legs out in front of him so that she could inspect them. She reached out and touched the end of one of the flippers. He bent his knee and took it off, revealing a pale foot decorated with five little appendages, like fingers only stubbier. She laughed with delight. Replacing the flipper, he smiled, releasing more bubbles.
Tentatively, he ran his hand past her hip, feeling the thick muscle of her tail. His eyes filled with disbelief and delight. She reached up and traced the line of his jaw with her fingers. She held his gaze until he took the thing he used to breathe out of his mouth and kissed her. His mouth was warm and tasted of rubber and salt. She dropped the light then and pulled him to her. She thought of the soul hidden inside and thrust her tongue deep into his mouth. He responded, caressing her neck and breasts before wrapping his strong arms around her waist. When he broke away his eyes were unfocused, but he didn’t take them off her.
Below them she could just see the light’s beam slowly careening away, but he didn’t seem concerned with that. Putting his breathing device back in his mouth, he pointed at a gauge on his wrist, then toward the surface. He held out his hand. She took it and they started up. It was a fair distance, and they moved quickly.
She watched him as they swam up into the light and thought of her mother and the sailor, gone so long now she was hardly more than a fairy tale herself.
This man was so strong and fine. She couldn’t imagine he could possess something so delicate it would not survive inside her. She decided that she didn’t want a wish, especially a wish that wouldn’t last any longer than it took to digest a meal.
He stopped swimming. His hand clenched hers painfully, then he began thrashing. She grabbed the straps that held his tank and hauled him up, kicking with all her strength. They ascended, slowly at first, then gained speed, racing to the surface.
They breached in a spray of foam. White-capped waves collided with each other, and rain pelted them. He spit the thing out of his mouth with a wheezing gasp. She pulled his mask off and dropped it into the sea. After some fumbling, she unhooked his tank and let it fall away too. Now she could pull him easily, his head resting against her shoulder.
With each swell they rode, she scanned the sea for his ship. At last she spotted it bobbing in the waves. She pulled him along while he labored to breathe, his eyes bloodshot and unfocused. He tried to kick but could no longer control his legs; instead they bounced stiffly against her tail in a motion not unlike that of the articulated doll.
By the time they reached the boat he was groaning softly. The other two were on deck scanning the water. When one pointed at them, she ducked under and pushed him closer, falling away as his friends hauled him aboard.
They told him he’d been in the hyperbaric chamber for three weeks, but it felt like he’d been on this narrow bed his entire life. Every time he looked through the double-paned window he was surprised to see a generic hospital room on the other side. The only difference between the room he was in and the one he looked out on was the pressure and the concentration of oxygen. The other room had a chair, usually empty, his, a gurney.
He slept as much as possible to dodge the suffocating claustrophobia that pursued him when awake. It wasn’t the confinement of the chamber, it was that he still couldn’t feel anything below his waist. Propped up on an elbow, he looked down at the soft sheet, and the topography of his legs under it. With every day that went by, the sight of the still firm muscles of his legs felt more and more like an empty promise. The doctors couldn’t say, in such a severe case of the bends, when, or if, his legs would come back.
Because they never turned the fluorescent lights off in the room on the other side of the chamber, the time he spent awake and the time he spent dreaming fused together. His dreams of the Pacific Garbage Patch were always the same. A blueprint for how things should have gone. He collected samples, and took pictures for Planet Neptune’s Clean-Up Campaign. He never dove too deep, never rose too fast. But also, he never discovered her.
The campaign was just a tax shelter for the amusement park. When the narwhals he’d captured died and the animal rights people got involved, the park’s management exiled him to the swirling garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific. Just until things cooled down, they promised.
He’d spent two months in the North Sea hunting the small whales. They were going to be a real moneymaker for the park. No aquarium had ever kept a narwhal alive in captivity and Planet Neptune spared no expense building a large, beautiful tank. Still, the mammals stubbornly refused to survive. After languishing only a few weeks, they died within twenty-four hours of each other. He’d begged management to let him hunt down another pair, but they sent him to the Gyre instead.
In other dreams she would join him in the chamber, long green hair flowing over full breasts. Her narrow waist widening into the sinuous tail, its flukes trailing off into a gossamer membrane. He would float free of the bed and swim around the small room with her through twisted fishing nets, mateless shoes, and drifting medical equipment. Barnacles attached themselves to the walls. Millions of plastic nurdles filled the seawater like a bloom of plankton, the little, round beads tickling his ears and drifting into his nose. He pursued her until he caught her up in his arms, then held her and kissed her, his tail twined around hers.
She was more real to him than the nurses and specialists who appeared randomly to draw blood or check his vitals, who told him they were scraping something sharp across his feet, or that they were wiggling his toes.
They could do nothing for him, but that didn’t mean he was useless. He would find her and put her in the gorgeous narwhal tank at Planet Neptune. The park had many ways to acquire specimens, but when they wanted something from the sea, he had always been their man. He couldn’t imagine a more sensational exhibit. With her in the park, no one would doubt his ability.
The next doctor who arrived to check on him found him sitting up with his legs dangling over the side of the bed. He told her he was ready to begin rehab.
She cleared him to leave the chamber, fitted him with a streamlined wheelchair, and moved him to a room with a window that looked out on a pristine lawn punctuated by an ellipsis of three scrawny ginkgo trees. He spent his days strapped into various weight machines working on his arms and core. In the evenings he swam laps in the hospital’s clear pool that stank of chlorine, grabbing great handfuls of water, pulling himself forward, towing his legs behind him.
Back at work, he pulled on his old wetsuit and proved that he didn’t need the use of his legs to scrub algae off the tanks. He took the swing shift, rolling in at sunset, maneuvering around the last sunburned, cranky families as they left Planet Neptune. He crushed popcorn containers and plastic cotton candy bags under his wheels. Grackles quarreled over french fries strewn across the paved paths. Every trashcan vomited crumpled food bags, sticky cups, straws, and diapers. A child’s swim goggles hung from one can. Swarms of bees hovered, feasting on hidden pools of warm soda.
In his spare time, he quietly prepared the abandoned narwhal tank. When it had become clear the whales were dying, management cordoned off the path to the exhibit. Now, the only evidence that they ever existed were their spiral tusks displayed in the gift shop over a basket of narwhal plush toys.
The tank was beautiful, with a coral reef painted on the back wall and a faux-rock outcropping rising out of the water in the middle. From there the mermaid would be able to look across the park, down past the suburban rooftops, all the way to the shimmering Pacific.
While he worked on the tank he imagined hunting for her among all the things people threw away. He would take her from the sea, lifting her into the boat in the narrow canvas sling. On the trip home, he would smear lanolin on her tail and spray her with seawater.
Management knew of his extracurricular activities, but for now his chair bought him a lot of leeway. He intended to use every bit of it. One evening, just as he was pulling himself out of the water, his friends appeared, climbing through the small door that opened onto the molded plastic beach of the exhibit.
They had spoken a couple of times since the accident, but never about what had happened to him out in the heart of the Garbage Patch. He scooted himself up to his chair, pulled himself into it and told them both everything. He could see they thought he was crazy, but it didn’t matter as long as they agreed to his plan. He’d said, “humor me” and let them believe that it would help him accept his new condition. He assured them he just wanted to go back for a look, so that he could put it all away.
They took Planet Neptune’s other boat, the one with the sling for transporting marine mammals, and set off for the Gyre. The trip went just as he imagined. He didn’t dive alone this time. His friends had promised him three days, but the mermaid turned up on the second, a dozen grocery bags hooked on each slender arm.
She swam right to him and pulled out the same one-armed G.I. Joe doll she’d shown him when they first met. He moved to her slowly, carefully concealing the hypo until he was close enough to inject the tranquilizer somewhere around what would have been a thigh. She jerked back, her eyes wide with surprise for just an instant before she began to drift. He caught her in his arms, and they hauled her to the surface.
As they got underway, he busied himself making her comfortable, keeping her tail moist and picking bits of plastic and nylon fibers out of her long, wet hair. The others buzzed around behind him, taking pictures and oohing and aahing in disbelief. When her bags fell away in the water, he managed to grab the doll. Thinking it might comfort the creature, he laid it in the sling next to her.
They docked in the middle of the night, covered her with blankets, and paid off a couple longshoremen to help haul the sling to their pickup, then paid them a little more not to ask any questions. He sat in the truck bed between her and his folded chair, turned the blanket down and tucked it under her chin as they drove up the hill to the aquarium.
The man’s head hovered over her, silhouetted against the night sky. He combed his fingers through her hair and spoke to her soothingly in his language. An engine roared in her ear. Her body, dry and sluggish, was wrapped in something scratchy. Whenever they rolled over a bump the ridged floor jolted against her back.
When they finally came to a stop, most of the stars had faded into pale morning light. The man pulled the blanket off her and scooted away. Someone she couldn’t see pulled her by the tail, out of the truck bed and through a small doorway.
She twisted, clutching at the smooth slope to slow her descent. The little doll skittered down after her. Two people disappeared through the doorway, closing the door behind them; then the relief of the water rushed over her. The doll floated overhead. She grabbed it and looked around the small enclosure.
The crude image of a coral reef decorated the smooth wall behind her, but most of the tank consisted of thick glass. She looked out at a gray path that followed the curve of the glass. Beyond that two low slabs of wood flanked a large round container. The water smelled stale and dead.
The other two from the boat walked along the path stopping at the center of the window to look in at her. One sat on one of the wooden planks. Then the man joined them in a curious chair with wheels. He gripped the rims with his hands, turning them to roll the chair along the path. His legs didn’t move at all. She clutched her doll and looked around; her bags, all the things she’d collected, were gone. Except for a tower of rocks in the middle, the tank was empty.
In the beginning, the man appeared in his wheeled chair with small groups of men and women who all wore complicated, formal clothes, the men in dour colors, the women in tight skirts that made their bottoms look like tails until the fabric ended at the knee and revealed their dual legs.
Soon, more and more people crowded the path, fat and thin, old and young, some carried babies or rolled them along in little canvas seats. All day they passed by, talking, laughing, and arguing. She had no idea the world contained so many people. They wore hats to shade their faces and held small, metal boxes up to the glass, which released bright, white flashes of light. One boy turned the thing around and, leaning over the railing, held it up to the window. The box held a tiny image of her floating alone in the empty tank.
She and her one-armed doll looked out on them. They drank from bottles filled with dark or bright liquid, used plastic spoons to shovel shiny blue sludge into their mouths, and dug pink fluff out of clear bags with sticky fingers. Others munched on greasy, brown sticks or loops that they carried on paper saucers. They ate and drank all the time, stuffing the empty wrappers and bottles in the round container until it flowed over. They put other things in the container too. Things she recognized. Had he brought her here to show her their origin? The things she collected in the Gyre, they were just the worn out shells of what people consumed with such abandon.
She missed sleeping in the little Plexiglas boat. Since most plastic liked to float, the things she brought home would rest against the ceiling over her bunk, twinkling as they jostled each other in the gentle, constant motion. If only she could climb out of the tank and choose a few items, for company, but the high walls of her enclosure were impossible to scale. When she could bear to look no longer, she swam in endless circles around the tank grazing the glass with her shoulder and fin until the sun set and the crowds thinned then disappeared. Tonight, a child’s shiny plastic sandal lay on the path, bright yellow and tipped on its side, the shape of a flower imprinted on the sole. She wished he would bring it to her.
He pulled himself through the little door every night with a bucket of mackerel and slid down the slope to join her in the water. The fish were already dead and a little stale but edible. Every night after she ate, they struggled awkwardly up onto the rock in the center of the tank, she with her tail and he with his useless legs. Once settled, she would lean against his broad chest and listen to the melody of his voice, looking out over the trees and housetops all the way to the sea, waiting blackly, the stars above unable to touch its surface.
He avoided her tank during operating hours, didn’t want to try to plow through the crowds that clogged the path, didn’t want to see her looking out at him from the other side of the glass. In the evenings, when he wheeled past the last stragglers leaving the park, almost every kid clutched a plush toy mermaid. Management had ordered thousands in three sizes with dark green hair and shiny fabric for her tail.
Still, he could see she was not happy, alone in her tank, nice as it was. The exhibit would be better with a pair. His return to the Gyre, to find a companion for her, had already been approved. If there was one, there had to be more, he reasoned. Management would give him everything he needed: boats, equipment and a crew. In the meeting, the suits went on to discuss timelines and schedules, brainstorm events for the park, but he’d stopped paying attention. The hunt was the hunt. It would end when he captured another of her kind and no sooner.
He picked one of the plush mermaids off a spin rack on his way to her tank. It rode along in his lap next to the bucket of fish as he rolled up the path to her exhibit. In the water she held the G.I. Joe and the stuffed mermaid together in one hand while she ate. She looked almost human, the way she always chewed with her mouth closed, but he didn’t think it was manners. It just made sense underwater.
She took longer than usual, eating a couple of fish then swimming around with the toys before returning for more food. She wrung all the air out of the mermaid’s stuffing so that it would travel underwater with her.
His arms got tired sculling so he swam over to the rock and hung on, legs dangling below. Finally, when she finished her meal, she swam up to him smiled and held the mermaid toy up squeezing the water out with a wheezing hiss. He reached for it but she pulled back, her smile vanishing.
He climbed up on the rock and waited. Eventually she joined him, her narrow back warming his chest. A nearly full moon rose to preside over the sky, its light bouncing off the ocean below. He ran his fingers through her now clean hair, and explained that he would be going away. He told her he wouldn’t come back until he’d captured a companion for her, maybe even a mate. He knew that was a long shot and he’d told them so at the meeting, but everyone agreed that acquiring a breed pair for the park would make Planet Neptune the hottest ticket in the country.
She sat, petting the little mermaid where it lay limp and sodden in her lap. Finally, she seemed to lose interest in the toy and tossed it in the water where it disappeared into the darkness. She slid in next and swam around. With only her head above the surface, she could be just a woman. She turned to him and lifted her arm out of the water, delicate fingers splayed, beckoning. He rolled off the rock and splashed into the water. She drifted away, arm still outstretched. He swam to her.
When she pressed herself against him a jolt from his lifeless bottom half surged up through his chest. He flushed. He hadn’t kissed her since that first time in the Gyre. He’d wanted to, but it hadn’t seemed right now that she belonged to the park. And she hadn’t shown an interest, until now. What the hell, he thought. He’d be on his way to the Garbage Patch tomorrow. He dipped his head, brushing her cheek with his lips until he found her mouth. She responded like she had before: deeply, searchingly. She swung her arms around his neck and they sank together, tumbling gently through the black water.
Eyes closed against the darkness, he kissed her as long as he could. Only when the air in his lungs was spent did he try to pull back. She responded by wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He tried to get a hand up to push her away. She locked her hands behind his back. Arching back, he could just make out her eyes in the dimness, unfathomable and predatory. He coughed and inhaled, stars burst in his field of vision. She held him patiently. Her mouth found his one last time, and she pushed more water from her lungs into his.
She drifted down with him until they came to rest on the bottom. After the struggle, his soul rushed into her filling her like the bright balloons bouncing on the strings tied to the wrists of the children who walked by the window.
She bobbed up to the surface remembering her aunt’s fairy tales and made her wish. She couldn’t imagine her mother wishing for a pair of legs, but she wanted to go home and couldn’t think of any other way out of the park.
She lost track of time then, the pain was so great, but it was still dark when she swam to the landing area using the curious scissor kick she’d seen him use in the Gyre before his legs failed him.
She stumbled out of the water, clambered up the slick plastic beach and found the little secret door in the wall unlocked. She climbed down and began to walk toward the sea. Each foot swung out in turn and slammed into the ground, every impact reverberated up her spine, jarring her head. The landscape bounced sickeningly.
She cut across the park’s maze of paths, tracking downhill straight toward the sea. The pavement scraped against the tender bottoms of her feet; in the grass, sticks and gravel stabbed them. Gasping in the cold predawn air, she lumbered ahead one foot at a time as fast as she could, her progress excruciatingly slow.
She fell to her knees at the gates and crawled under a turnstile. Even as the sky grew bright in the east, her eyes were failing. His soul dissipated, already tenuous inside her. Taking it had been easier than she thought, but she could not keep it. Still, she didn’t think her body would consume it so quickly. She understood now that there would not be enough time.
She thought of her aunt, who raised her, shooing her every night into the little boat that rocked at the bottom of the sea. Who complained and pretended she did not have time for her, but always stayed to tell her one more story. Her aunt, down under the Gyre, who wanted nothing to do with the people of the air.
Hands and feet numb now, she stood and limped across the empty parking lot. A row of dusty oaks blocked her view of the sea. The last thing she felt was the warmth of the salty tears that ran down her cheeks as she dissolved into a puddle of foam at the edge of the lot.
Later that morning, as the sun reflected off the cars in their ordered spaces, a plastic bag tumbled across the pavement and over the little puddle of foam, which clung to it for as long as it could, until it dried, releasing it to the breeze. Plumped with air, the bag floated up and continued its inexorable journey to the sea and to the Gyre forever turning inside it.
And the words on the bag said: