Little Mermaids

Susann Cokal's novels are The Kingdom of Little Wounds (winner of several national awards), Mirabilis, Breath and Bones, and Mermaid Moon. Her prize-winning short work has appeared in venues such as Electric Lit, Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, and The New York Times Book Review. Her website is

When my mother died, my grandmother told me it was the saddest thing imaginable, a child dying before the parent. They had had a difficult relationship, but of course a mother must grieve the loss of her daughter.

I took a spoonful of the ashes to Denmark, where Mormor lived and Hanne was born. I put them into a cardboard box, the kind in which you sometimes receive a brooch or a ring. I picked some orange roses and my aunt Gunver drove us to the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, by the promenade called Langelinie. That was where we had decided to leave the ashes.

Hanne had told me she wanted to become foam on the sea, like Hans Christian Andersen’s famous character. She loved mermaids because her middle name, Agnete, came from an old song about a farmer’s wife who leaves her children behind in order to live with a merman; she has children with him too, and then some years later she abandons her new family to go back to the land. Both families grieve for her.

I once saw Mormor cry when this song came on the radio. My mother left for the U.S. when she was twenty-two, and that is where she fell in love and stayed and had children.

I climbed over the rocks to empty my box around the base of the statue. A few dozen tourists watched me do it; they took pictures and so did Gunver. Then we went to dinner at Langelinie Pavillonen, a nice restaurant from the atomic Sixties. It is the place for which the famous Scandinavian artichoke lamp was first designed.

While we ate, we looked out at the statue, who looked out at the harbor, and the orange rose petals still floated nearby. Mormor and Gunver told me about the times they had been to Pavillonen before. Once was my grandparents’ silver anniversary, for which Mormor made herself a cocktail dress out of dark red illusion. She was forty-four and had had three children and retained her beauty. Gunver had been to Pavillonen for a birthday party. She piled her blond hair high on her head, and a talent scout invited her to travel to Greece as a model.

We did not talk about Hanne at dinner, because we are Danes and do not discuss our feelings in public. But that night, when Mormor and I were alone, she told me what Langelinie meant to her. It was where she first felt alive.

She met my grandfather, Jørgen, on a city train when she was eighteen. He was working in a shop and renting a room near the promenade, and she, Mormor, was living with her mother. Her parents were divorced, which had been a scandal. One night she said that she had to work late in the office where she was a file clerk, and Jørgen sneaked her into his room. Afterward, she walked home past the Little Mermaid, feeling she really knew what life was and how she fit into it.

They married a few months later. She wore a white satin dress and a veil seven feet long, and she was menstruating and worried she’d stain the dress. ‘Your poor grandfather,’ she said, because her cramps were too intense to make love.

Hanne was born just after the Nazis moved into Denmark. She was a skinny red-haired child with blue eyes, and she played in the street because it was the only place to play.

One time my grandmother had a period so heavy and painful that she had to be taken to the hospital. Perhaps it was a miscarriage. While she was there she got news that a bomb had exploded near their apartment on Amager, something to do with the Resistance and a secret printing press. She tried to get out of bed, and then her appendix burst and she was in the hospital for several more days.

Lying there, she thought she would die if something happened to Hanne. She faced the fact that her children would leave her, because they were going to grow up, but she could not accept the possibility that they would simply vanish.

As far as I know, she never went back to the Little Mermaid after that night. She was old and didn’t like to go into town by herself. When she could, she sat beside a water closer to home, and watched the wavelets sifting the sand.

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