The Merman

Samanta Schweblin

Translated by: Luise von Flotow

Original text: "El hombre sirena "

Artwork by A.Y. Jackson, The Convoy, 1919 *

I'm in the bar down at the harbour, waiting for Daniel, when I notice the merman looking at me from the quay. He's on the first cement pillar, where the water doesn't yet reach the beach, about 50 meters away.  It takes me some time to realize what's going on, to understand what it is exactly, he's so much of  a man from the belt up, so much of a merman from the belt down. He looks over to one side, then quietly to the other, and then he looks back in my direction. My first impulse is to stand up. But I know that the Italian, the owner of the bar, is a friend of Daniel's and that he's watching me from behind the counter. I pretend to look for the bill among the clutter on the table as though I'm about ready to go. The Italian comes over to see if everything is alright, insists that I have to stay, Daniel is about to get there, I should just wait. I tell him to lay off, I'll be right back. I put five pesos on the table, take my purse, and go. I don't have a plan for the merman, I just leave the bar and walk in his direction. Contrary to our idea that mermaids are beautiful and tanned, this one is of the other sex and very pale. But he's well-built, muscular. When he sees me, he crosses his arms - tucks his hands in his armpits, his thumbs pointing up - and smiles. It strikes me as a gesture that is too cocky for a merman and I wonder why I'm walking in his direction with such assurance, and so eager to talk to him. I feel stupid. But it's too late to turn back. He waits for me to come close, and then he says,


I stop.

"What's a babe like you doing here all alone on the quay?" 

"I thought maybe ..." I don't know what to say. I let my purse slip down, and hold it in both hands, dangling at my knees, like a kid, "I thought maybe you needed something, sir, since you ..."

"You don't need to be formal with me, sweetie," he says, stretching out his hand in a gesture that invites me to climb up. 

I look at his legs, or better, his shiny tail that is dangling over the cement pillar. I hand him up my purse. He takes it, and puts it down beside him. With one foot on the quay, I reach for the hand that he's offered again. His skin is ice-cold, like a fish out of the freezer. But the sun is high and strong, and the sky an intense blue, and the air smells clean, and when I settle close to him, I feel the freshness of his body fill me with vital happiness. I am embarrassed and move away. I don't know what to do with my hands. I smile. He fixes his hair - he has quite an American quiff - and asks if I have any cigarettes. I tell him I don't smoke. His skin is smooth, without a single hair on his whole body, and covered in powdery little white spots, hardly visible, maybe from the sea salt. He sees me looking at him, and tries to shake them off his arms. He has powerful abs, I've never seen such a stomach before.

"You can touch me," he says, stroking his abs, "there's nothing like this downtown, is there?"

I move my hand closer; he grabs it, and presses it between his hand and his abs, that are also freezing cold. He holds me like that for a few seconds, and then he says,

"Tell me about you," smoothly letting my hand slip free. "How is everything?"

"Mama is sick, the doctors say she's going to die."

We both look out at the sea.

"That's bad..." he says.

"But that's not the problem," I say, "what worries me is Daniel. Daniel is not good and that doesn't help."

"He can't accept what's happening to his mother?"

I nod.

"There are two of you?"


"At least you can share things. I'm an only child and my mother is very demanding."

"There are two of us, but he does everything. I can't get excited, I can't allow myself strong emotions. I have a problem, here, in my heart; I think it's my heart. So I stay away. For my health ..."

"And where is Daniel now?"

"He's late. He spends the whole day running around. He's got a real problem organizing his time."

"What's his sign? Leo?"


"Ohh! What a sign."

"I've got some menthol candies," I say. "Want some?"

He says yes, and hands me my purse that was over on his side.

"All day long he thinks about where he's going to get the money to pay for this, or that. He always wants to know what I'm doing, where I'm going, who with ..."

"Does he live with your mother?"

"No. Mama is like me, we're independent women and we need our space. He thinks it's dangerous for me to live alone. He says it straight out: I think it's dangerous for a girl like you to live alone. He wants to hire some woman to keep an eye on me all day long. Of course I've never agreed to that."

I give him a candy and take one for me.

"Do you live close by?"

"He rents me a little house a few blocks away; he thinks this neighbourhood is a lot safer. And he makes friends here, he talks to the neighbours, to the Italian, wants to know everything, control everything, he's really a pain."

"My father was like that."

"Yes, but he's not my dad. Papa is dead. Why do I have to put up with a papa-brother when Papa is dead?"

"Well, maybe he's just trying to look after you."

I laugh, sarcastically; that comment almost kills my good humour, which I think he realizes.

"Oh no. It's not a question of looking after me, it's more complicated than you think."

He keeps looking at me. His eyes are light blue, very light.

"Tell me."

"No, trust me, it's not worthwhile; it's a beautiful day."


He puts the palms of his hands together, begging with a funny little grimace like an angel who is about to burst into tears. Sometimes when he talks to me the ends of his silvery fins undulate a little and rub my ankles. The scales are rough, but they don't hurt me, it feels good. I don't say anything, and the fins keep coming closer.

"Tell me..."

"The thing is that mama ... She isn't just sick, the thing is that the poor woman is completely crazy."

I sigh and look at the sky. The blue sky, absolute. Then we look at each other. For the first time, I notice) his lips. I wonder if they're freezing cold too. He takes my hands, kisses them and says,

"Do you think we could go out together? You and me, one of these days ... We could go for dinner, or to the movies, I love the movies."

I give him a kiss and feel the coldness of his mouth wake up every cell in my body, like a cold drink in the heat of summer. It's not just a feeling, it's a revelatory experience, because I feel that nothing will ever be the same. Although I can't tell him that I love him: not yet, that needs more time, we have to go step by step. First he has to go to the movies, and then I have to go to the bottom of the sea. But I've already made a decision, an irrevocable one, nothing will ever separate me from him. All my life I have believed that you live for a single love, and I have just met mine on the quay, next to the sea, and now he takes my hand for real, and looks at me with his translucent eyes, and says,

"Don't suffer anymore, babe, from now on nobody's going to hurt you."

A horn sounds off in the distance, in the street. I identify it right away: Daniel's car. I look over my merman's shoulder. Daniel hustles out of it and goes straight to the bar. He doesn't seem to see me.

"I’ll be right back," I say.

He gives me a hug, kisses me again - "I'll be waiting for you" - he says, and gives me his arm as a rope so I can get down more easily.

I run to the bar. Daniel is talking to the Italian and sees me. He seems relieved.

"Where have you been? We said at your place, not in the bar."

It’s not true but I don't tell him, it's not important right now.

"I need to talk to you," I say.

"Let's go to the car, we'll talk in the car."

He takes my arm, gently, but with that paternal attitude that is so irritating, and we leave. The car is a few meters away, but I stop.

"Let me go."

He lets go but keeps walking toward the car and opens the door.

"Let's go, it's late. The doctor's going to kill us."

"I'm not going anywhere, Daniel."

Daniel stops.

"I'm staying right here," I say, "with the merman."

He stares at me for a minute. I turn away toward the sea. The merman, gorgeously silvery, up there on the quay, raises his arm and waves. Daniel, finally comes out of his stupour, gets into the car and opens the door on my side. I don't know what to do, and when I don't know what to do, the world seems a terrible place for someone like me, and I feel very sad. That's why I think, he's just a merman, he's just a merman, as I get into the car and try to calm down. He can be here again tomorrow, waiting for me.

** Artwork by Jackson, A.Y. The Convoy, c. 1919, National Gallery of Canada - Galerie Nationale du Canada. Web. 5 novembre 2015 

Samanta Schweblin

Samanta Schweblin est née à Buenos Aires. Son premier roman, « El núcleo de distúrbio » a reçu les prix du Fondo Nacional de las Artes et le Concurso Nacional Haroldo Conti. Ses œuvres ont été traduits en plusieurs langues, dont l’allemand, le français, l’italien, et le portugais.


Samanta Schweblin was born in Buenos Aires. She received awards from the Fondo Nacional de las Artes and the Concurso Nacional Haroldo Conti for her first novel, “El núcleo de distúrbio”. Her work has been translated into many languages, including German, French, Italian and Portuguese. 

Luise von Flotow

Luise von Flotow est professeure à l’École de traduction et d’interprétation de l’Université d’Ottawa, dont elle est également la directrice. Elle est née au Canada de parents allemands, et a toujours été fortement influencée par cet héritage. Ayant obtenu son doctorat en Études françaises de l’Université du Michigan, elle travaille depuis, en plus de son poste de professeure, sur les questions du gender en traduction, de l’adaptation, et des effets culturels de la traduction, particulièrement au Canada, pour n’en nommer que quelques-unes.


Luise von Flotow is a professor and director of the School of Translation and Interpretation of the University of Ottawa. She is Canadian by birth, with strong German cultural influences she inherited from her parents. She obtained her PhD in French from the University of Michigan, and has since been working as a teacher and a researcher, concentrating on issues of gender in translation, adaptation and cultural transfer, to name only a few.