The Mermaid Plague
It is better to look after a thousand goats than one curious girl.-Tican Proverb
My name is Pluma de la Oso and I am almost seventeen years old. I was born under the sign of the mermaid on the coldest day ever recorded in Tica. Tonight is a big night in our family. We are hosting a dinner for El Diego, our leader and unofficial king, at our house. My maid, Neptuna, reminds me that I have less than a year before marriage as she washes my hair and rubs an herbal paste on my round face. Mother makes her do my two sisters and my hair before important functions so the photographers can capture us at our best. Ticans obsess over marriage, social standing and our dual religions; one from the Vatican and the other from the sea.
I want to go to college and leave the island. Imagining the scandal as Neptuna puts my indigo hair in rollers makes my eyes bulge at the delight of starting my life. Neptuna scolds me for making my eyes even bigger and I quickly resume my thoughts. Nothing too bohemian, I want to live for something else besides picking the next house I will be trapped in. My ancestral house is on two hundred and thirty-four acres with purple ivy that covers it all the way down from the fourth floor. Papo, my father, is president of the sugarcane association. Mother wants me to be a political wife, maybe even the future 86th Noor. Our leader can take two wives which we call Noor which means light. Neptuna scolds me to sit still as the rollers singe my scalp.
I am looking forward to smelling The Diego’s wife, Noor Florianna. What not even my family knows is that my nose can inhale emotions. Anger smells of iron, love is a rose, sickness a wet dog, and sadness has the most beautiful fragrance, like fresh grass mixed with honey. Mother suffers from tremendous allergies, so I am not questioned about my sniffs. Sometimes I wonder if Mother can smell as well I do. We both have green eyes with a heavy curtains of navy lashes that soften their larger size. We also share the same rounded faces, small red lips, and hourglass figures. Looking at her is like looking in the mirror. She has two inches of height on me, but I am thinner by three pounds. I know this because Mother has been with her seamstress all day lamenting her weight.
Neptuna instructs me to wash my face and I walk to the bathroom as my sisters begin their beautification. Noor Florianna is an interesting woman; she does not walk in the streets yet is in every newspaper and tabloid. We worship her as if she was a minor deity. I imagine her to smell like lavender candies or a mango custard. Mother after tonight she will have her pick of suitors for me. I don’t know how to tell her I would be happiest living in a little room and writing for the rest of my life. She would not even consider it and might even deadbolt the library. There are certain expectations of me. I don’t really want to do anything but leave, but now there does not seem a way out besides running away. Ernest Hemingway says to write one true sentence a day and the only rebellion I really have is the truth. So today my sentence is sometimes your life is not your own. I would still choose to attend the dinner tonight however. Mother requested that I meet in her closet for a private chat and to check my appearance. I enter and she lights a candle for the miniature Saint Rocco stature which lives next to her shoes. When I was a child, the statue frightened me. Its eyes seemed to follow my every move and it was taller than me for a few years. I used to think it grew as I did. Mother checks my appearance.
“You are to make polite small talk if our visitors address you, otherwise just smile. Do not touch your nose for any reason and make sure your sisters are behaving. I expect big things Pluma. This is a chance for us to move into the political circles.”
“Yes Mother,” I say.
Mother smiles critically at me and ties my dress bow a bit tighter than necessary. She is still upset about the three pounds.
Around the dinner hour, El Diego’s motorcade pulls inside our gate. Please let me be perfect for him I implore Saint Rocco, adjusting the flowers sown into my hair as I watch from the upstairs window. In a swift, fluid movement, his long legs emerge from the stretched car, then he stands to his full seven feet. His green eyes flash as the evening sun hits his face. His wife Florianna comes out next. I count ten pleats on her purple dress and marvel at the height of her bun. My nostrils flare in anticipation.
I fly down the stairs to take my place in the main entrance hall. Mother shoots me an annoyed glance for not setting the best examples for my sister. Papo opens the door and moves a strand of the ivy out-of-the-way, my two little sisters and I curtsy, then present Noor Florianna with orchids, the same as those in our hair; they match her dress as we’ve planned. My hand brushes hers just enough to pick up her essence, but not arouse suspicion.
El Diego shakes our hands and pulls a flower from behind Clarka’s ear much to her delight. The youngest, Ine, has a coin pulled from behind her curls. He pauses before me.
“Ah, yes, Pluma. How are you? Your father tells me you are quite the writer.”
“Yes, I do like to write and read. I’ve discovered an Icelandic writer…”
“Good, good,” he interrupts. “We need a real writer on the island. Too many critics here with nothing to do besides stare at the Omakis.”
Papo guides our guest to the formal dining room. I had his attention for less than a minute and could not detect a scent. I press my lips together and remind myself I have the Noor’s scent on my hand for later. Under calmer circumstances I can just smell the air to get information, but the excitement is throwing me off. Neptuna summons me to the kitchen where we eat a miniature version of the adult’s feast: braised goat in pickled bloodberry sauce and the traditional five side dishes. Ine and Clarka try to convince Neptuna that The Diego is magical. They hold up the torca and flower as proof that he can conjure objects out of thin air. I agree he is more magical than Papa Christmas. Once we have eaten more than Mother would usually allow us, Neptuna leaves me in the kitchen as she leaves to prepare my sisters for bed. I assume my favorite vantage point by the staircase, to see how the visit is going. In Tica, it is considered good luck to house a chinchilla under the main staircase of the home. Any noise can easily be dismissed as being made by the creature. I make sure to feed it plenty of sugar when no one is looking so that it likes me.