Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Mermaid Comb

He carved the hair comb out of a cow’s horn,
A mermaid comb imagined from stories

Given to all of us on star-filled summer nights
In the high desert. The sirenas, they were called–

The sirenas lived inside the water somewhere far away.
They were the opposite of us,

The way we lived without water on those mesquite hills,
These hills that were our waves, very slow

In the distance, slow but big in our ocean of air.
From beyond the horizon to the south,

From the old place that did not have a name,
Someone first brought a comb a little like this one

To be the great-grandmother of all those combs,
Those combs and their stories–

The stories were always about the girls who left
Then got lost, stories with always something of a sad look in the telling.

Nobody could say for certain about the existence of these mermaids,
So they lived very well here where we made a home for them

In our words and prayers, and on our bureaus.
But there was more.

There was the secret of the combs.
This was not a story told to us, nor one we told,

But we all knew it.
It told itself not with words but with small teeth.

I felt its bite sharply with my skin, with the small bumps
The comb raised, not just on my head but my body as well:

When I put water on my hair,
The mermaid came alive,

The comb of her tail moving like sure fingers
Through the moist dark of my loose strands,

Moving up and down, looking finally
For the topmost place to rest,

The place to stay and to see and be seen.
How else for a mermaid to behave?

And there is the matter of modesty,
Which in mermaids is not discusses

But everyone thinks the same thing–
They look and breathe a little harder at what they see.

To wear this comb
Was to breath a little harder, too.

When I went out like this, this comb in my hair,
I thought the sirena and her small chest looked like me.

I thought the carving looked a little
Like looking at myself in a mirror after a bath,

Those two curious paint spatters on my chest, those two
Flat, simple thumbs

Like the dark noses of two small dogs sniffing up
At dinner on the kitchen table.

Nights walking with this girl, this woman who looked like me,
In my hair

The desert–warm enough already¬–grew even warmer.
The feeling was a weight, not only on my head but on my chest,

Unbearable. I could not breathe.
I felt like I myself was underneath the faraway water.

When he carved the cow horn into a mermaid comb,
I know he was thinking of me.

When I wore the mermaid
I felt in those moments with passion

The touch of his hands,
Though he had not touched me.

-Alberto Rios