Today's lesson was supposed to cover ways to describe your eating habits in foreign countries, and we were headed quickly down the list of approved roots and cases, Goidelic, Greek, Latin, and Planetary alike, when it happened. She raised her hand imperiously. Not again, I prayed silently. I ignored her as long as I could, because she is always disruptive, always causing a problem with her outlandish answers. Finally, I had taken answers from as many other students as I could and was forced to let her speak. I asked, "What would you say to someone who doesn't speak your language, Alhambra? What do you think the best description would be?"
She smiled and said "Librivore," and I sighed. The class carefully avoids looking at her. Even a sidelong glance is enough to get you splashed. Alhambra's tank is only four feet deep and her tail is almost that long on its own. At the beginning of last week's class, a girl named Evin muttered something to a friend about the tail and ended up with black water staining her face and mossy, scummy spots on her dress. No one will take a chance on snide looks or comments about the mermaid now.
"Librivore, Alhambra? I know that Marinids have different diets, but I have read that they mostly consume sea vegetation. Some tribes have been documented as...well, not cannibals, but fish-eaters. Are you sure that is the appropriate root?"
Her smile widened. It is hard to look away when she bares her teeth. They look like black freshwater pearls, oily and gleaming. They are not sharp, but somehow I always remember them as fangs. The ink patterns around her mouth scroll madly with her expressions, looping and swirling just under the skin as I try to remember the thread of the lesson.
"Yes," she says, "I eat words. I smear their ink into my mouth. Fiction tastes like vodka and honey but is sharp like rosemary. History tastes of gin and breaks into soft, gummy chunks that reek of lemon peel and fall gently into my throat."
Here, I tried to break in, polite and professional, with a dismissive air. She continued--as she always does--as if my words were nothing more than the whine of a fly, somehow trapped in the room.
"Once, a man wrote me a poem. It was lovely and bloody, reckless and meaty and wild. Every perfect sentence, every precious turn of phrase, I lick dry and then I devour it as fast as I may. I swallow stories and they change to stones in my stomach. Librivore."
I know I should stop her as fast as possible but honestly, she fascinates me. It causes problems in the classroom, I know, but who else has heard such stories from the ocean tribes? My grandfather told me when I was very small about his grandfather, who ran away to the sea as a boy, and I have wondered ever since I learned to speak what he found there. Who he found there. So when it goes like this, even if I know better, I let her confound us all. I wonder if it is a habit of all mermaids, or just this particular maddening one?
"I eat words that change into stones and then I bruise in text. I met a priest who wanted me to say only godly things. He hit me when I twisted them and words rose from my flesh like fish in the dark. Lay your hands upon me, I said, say the word and I shall be healed, O Noun! Baruch hashem adverb. O Eternal Gerund! I do not think he liked my answers. A story is only a synonym for god, you know. Gods are only stories. Of course, the opposite is just as true: stories are only gods. Ceaseless and changing and eternally renewed.
"If someday you wake up hungry for answers, for the story you know didn't end where the author left off? Behind your back, somehow you hear the story going on, infuriating, just quietly enough that you can no longer make it out? Let me help you now. Gather books and stones to hold down their pages. Pile poetry in drifts around your bed. Lessons and script and stories to fill your larder. I say this to prepare you now, because that is how I got here. How I arrived in this place, with this tank, in this class and in your way. The tail, though, and the tank, that is another story."
No one responded. She wet her face casually and smoothed her dripping hair away from her sharp-not-sharp teeth and scaled brow. I knew I should do something, but the silence persisted. It always persists. The bell rang, and I dropped the chalk to the floor. The sound of it breaking, shattering into three pieces, brought the spell to an end. Yet I barely recognized my own voice as it said, "Tomorrow we will review the dative case...and pick up where we left off today. Dismissed."
She smiled at me again as I edged out of the classroom, avoiding the grim puddles around her tank. I don't know what she sees when she looks at me that way. I dream of her black-tattooed face and wake, restless, to write it down.