‘Welcome everyone to another episode of Lagos Na Wah! We have an exciting show for you tonight. Here with me in the studio is Mr. Kwesi Owusu. Folks, you may have heard of him.’
The host smiled and paused to look at the audience. Some of them had been whispering amongst themselves, guessing the identity of the guest on the stage, arguing ‘it is him, ‘it is not him.’ They erupted into claps and laughter. Just the reaction the host wanted.
‘For the sake of those who are not familiar with Mr. Owusu,’ the host said, bringing the rancour down, ‘he is the marine biologist who was rescued by mermaids here in Lagos.’
He paused again and the audience laughed louder than they clapped.
Kwesi shifted in his chair. He had watched the last episode of the show when the invitation came. Nana asked him to turn them down, just like she asked him not to tell anyone the story he told her when he woke up in a hospital bed and she was by his side. But he had made an amazing discovery, something that would change the textbooks. To allow fear of ridicule prevent talking was selfish and unbecoming of a scientist. She did not believe him, but she didn’t laugh at him like many others had. Even his fellow lecturers at the Lagos Marine school thought he had gone mad. They who should know better. But Nana allowed him to talk late into the night about the water bubbling like it was boiling under his boat, just before the boat capsized.
It was on the shore that she had found him. The TV station invited her too, but she already told her story to the police, and she told them she had not seen any mermaids. She was returning home to Snake Island from work that night. She and four others had paid for a canoe to take them across the lagoon. On the other side they saw a body sprawled face up on the bank. They thought he was dead. The other women crossed their bodies and wouldn’t go near corpse. The canoe man advised Nana to just go home and not tell the police. ‘They will arrest you,’ he said. ‘They have to arrest someone. If somebody killed that man, they will say it is you.’
They left her alone with the body. Alone in the dark with a man who could be a criminal or the victim of criminals. Perhaps the people who killed him were still around, perhaps they would return to kill her too. But she couldn’t leave him there, she told the police. Something drew her to the man. When she leaned over his face, his eyes opened and she ran to get help.
The host held up his hands to shush the audience. ‘Mr. Kwesi,’ he said, ‘I must confess, when I read about you in the Guardian, I thought the journalists were making up stories as usual. But they weren’t, were they?’
‘No, they weren’t,’ Kwesi said, glancing briefly at the audience and catching himself staring into the lens of a video camera.
‘You really saw mermaids?’
‘Yes. Yes I did.’ Kwesi glanced at the audience again. The beams of the lights facing him made it impossible to catch who laughed.
‘And they rescued you?’
‘Yes, they did.’
The audience exploded in laughter and the host let them be while checking the notes in his hands.
‘Mr. Kwesi, can you please narrate how it happened?’
The audience quietened but Kwesi searched the darkness beyond the glare of the spotlights, suspicious of the silence of the people watching him.
‘I was alone on my boat. I was collecting some experiments off Tarkwa Bay. I first noticed that the…’
‘What time was this?’
‘It was about eight in the evening.’
‘Please, do carry on.’
‘It was about eight and I was collecting some experiments. The water began to bubble like stew. Like oxygen from a scuba diver’s mouthpiece. It was all around the boat.’
‘What did you think at this point?’
‘To tell you the truth, I did not know what to think. At first I thought I had discovered a vent in the ocean floor, but we are not in a volcanic region and….’
‘So the water was bubbling. When did the mermaids show up?’
‘Ok. Yes. I was studying the phenomena. I decided to get a sample. I lay flat on the deck and lowered a cup into the water then the boat capsized as if my weight made it tilt over.’
‘And then you saw the mermaids.’
Kwesi glanced at the dark void where faces were waiting for his answer, then he looked at the host and searched into his eyes. They all knew the answer already; they were just waiting for him to say it. The host was smiling at the notes in his hands. He was just like them; foolishly dismissing what he did not understand, and ignorantly seeking only amusement where he could have gained knowledge.
Kwesi had decided to go on the show because he hoped his story would go further that way. He had no witnesses, but maybe someone else out there had experienced something similar. Maybe they would hear his story and be encouraged to come out with theirs. It didn’t matter if this audience mocked him, or if the host were goading them, Kwesi was doing this for the sake of science and the advancement of knowledge.
‘Yes. I had an encounter.’
‘Can you describe them for us? I don’t think anyone here has seen what a mermaid looks like.’
‘But don’t you want to know what happened immediately after my boat capsized?’
‘Oh yes we do.’
The audience applauded and for the first time and Kwesi felt he had them on his side.
‘When the boat capsized, I tried to swim but the water felt like air. I could even breathe in it. I was trying to swim. I was kicking my feet and throwing my arms like this, but I just kept sinking slowly, like I was floating down.
‘It was very strange. It did not feel like I was inside water. I wasn’t drowning. But I couldn’t swim back up to my boat. It was dark. I couldn’t really see anything. I was just gently floating downwards. Then I felt hands gripping my ankles. It felt like fingers. On both ankles. I was being pulled up. My head was down. I couldn’t see who was pulling me. I was throwing my hands about but the water still felt like air.
‘Suddenly they let go of my legs and I started sinking again. Then they grabbed my wrist like this, and dragged me. After a while the water became normal and I could swim. At the same time, I couldn’t breathe under the water again. I started frantically swimming to the surface. When I raised my head above the water, I couldn’t see who was holding my hand. I reached down and held their hand with my other hand and we started to struggle. The hand dragged me under the water but for some reason I didn’t let go. I wanted to know who or what had saved me. I managed to wrap my arms around it, and….’
Kwesi had been consumed within his own narrative. He paused when he noticed the unusual silence of the studio. The camera man had also stepped away from the back of his equipment to watch. The room was rapt.
‘I couldn’t see, but when we were struggling with each other, I felt the body of this thing. It had the anatomy of what various cultures refer to as mermaids. It had the hands, and torso of a human; but from the waist down it had a single, streamlined limb that ended in a wide fin.’
The audience remained mute. Even the host stared with interest. ‘Mr Kwesi…’ he said. He scanned his notes and turned a leaf, then surveyed his audience who were waiting for him to continue. ‘You said you felt this thing’s body?’
‘Did you, erm, feel the boobs?’
Perhaps it was the inappropriateness of it, or the imaginary breasts that he squeezed in front of his chest as he said it, but the audience released and the host smirked at the loud, mucking, rupture he had inspired.
Kwesi had made the producers agree that he could stop the interview whenever he wanted to. They agreed on a sign; he would tap his left knee. He began tapping.
His taxi waited for a car to drive out of the gate before pulling into the compound where he shared a flat with Nana. As he climbed out, he noticed that the car they had met at the gate had stopped. He hurried into the building.
Nana was waiting in the parlour, as she always did, sitting tidily in the same corner of the sofa, the TV off, the house spotless, and his supper surely ready in the kitchen. He wasn’t sure if it was for this dutiful disposition of hers that he had begun to resent her, or for the thought that she assumed it was what he expected, or even wanted. Six months after he opened his eyes at the Navy dockyard clinic and saw her staring down at his face, he had begun to forget why he loved her, or whether he ever really did. He was starting to believe that it was misinterpreted gratitude – helped along by the fact that she was also Ghanaian. She found him on the shore that night, and she went to get help. She never said it herself, but everyone claimed she saved his life, and he felt she believed it too. But it was not her who saved him; it was a being with a tail and fins. But it was Nana who moved in with him, bringing with her all the annoying subservience of an illiterate woman, and the irritating comportment of a person like her trying to live up to a person like him.
She believed him at first. People from her background believe such things. She told him he must never go near water again and she asked if his people used to worship a water spirit in the past. It was he who laughed at her then; at the adorable ignorance of the beautiful woman who had refused to leave him to die that night. Weeks later when he showed her the diagrams he had made, sketches of the mermaid drawn from memory of its touch, and he began to talk of evolution and underwater archaeology and missing species, her passable English became prickly in its retorts. But how could she refute that which she did not even understand? She was able to easily discard the myths she had been brought up on: it was the only way to also reject the theories which he laboured to explain to her.
‘How did it go?’ she said.
At least she did not stand up when he entered the room, or fall to her knees the way Yoruba women do.
‘Do you want to see me before you eat, or eat before you see me?’
See me. She offered sex like she offered food. The doorbell rang and he was spared the feeling of shame that would follow, when he chose one or the other, his appetite for either making him an accomplice in this passive abuse of a person. It didn’t even jar him anymore that she would not or could not use the word ‘sex’ in her language or in any other language. See me.
‘Please, don’t go,’ she said. But still she sat, perfectly arranged like part of the furniture. He loathed her.
‘What do you mean?’
The doorbell rang again.
‘Don’t answer them.’
‘Who?’ He had turned to go to the door. ‘Wait, do you know who it is? Is it the people I passed on the way in? Are they reporters?’
‘They will just say you are a mad man.’
‘Did they leave a message for me? Were you going to tell me?’
He opened the door to two white men and an African lady whose skin was like an albinos and whose hair, black as the night, went all the way to her waist.
‘Good evening. Are you Mr. Owusu?’ The woman spoke while the men stood by her sides. Her accent was not from Nigeria, but it wasn’t American either and that was what he expected from her tight jeans and the equally tight men’s shirt she wore tucked into the jeans, as well as the rolled up sleeves.
‘Yes, how may I help you?’
‘I’m Fay. Fay Hathaway. These are my colleagues, Jeremy Nadine and Alex Harvey. We are from the National Geographic.’
‘Oh my god. Please, come in.’ He stepped away from blocking the door and caught the back of Nana as she left the room.
‘We couldn’t get anywhere with you wife,’ Fay said. ‘A language thing.’
‘She’s not my wife.’
‘But she’s the one who rescued you? We heard you guys are together now.’
‘Yes. I mean, no. Yes, she found me by the water. She doesn’t speak English yet.’
‘Yet? You are teaching her?’
‘No. I mean, she speaks English but… It doesn’t matter. So…’
The taller man spoke. ‘I’m Jeremy. I’m a filmmaker. Alex is a cameraman and Fay is our producer. We’re doing a documentary on the uncharted oceans. We were filming in Ghana when we heard about you. Basically, we want to feature your story.’
Fay took over. ‘It’s nothing big. We already have a description of how it happened from the stories on the web. We would like you to re-enact it.’
‘You want me to tell my story?’
‘Not just yours,’ Alex said. ‘We’ve got other people’s accounts. Fay thought we could squeeze you in, you know. It’s ok if you don’t wanna do it.’
Fay shot Alex a glance and he looked down at his fingers. ‘Mr Owusu,’ she said. ‘My parents are from Africa as well. When I was a child, they told me about Mami Wata and her little children. Do you know Mami Wata?’
Kwesi shook his head.
‘Well, I know Mami Wata. And I believe you met her. We will start filming tomorrow. You still have the boat?’
‘What? Yes. The Navy pulled it to shore. It belongs to the university.’
‘Can you get it?’
‘Yes. I can sign it out.’
‘Cool. Tomorrow you’ll come and meet us at our hotel. My room will be set up for an interview. I’ll ask you a few questions and we’ll record what you say. After that you’ll take us to the place it happened and re-enact it for us. Don’t worry, you’ll do just great.’
When they left, Kwesi wanted to show Nana the contract they had given him to read and sign. But when he turned to go to her, he realised he was neither hungry nor aroused. He had no need for her. He poured himself some brandy and sat in the sofa to read through the contract again, enjoying the experience even more the second time round, and then he gazed at Fay Hathaway’s face in his memory.
The first thing Fay did when Kwesu arrived at her room was to take the signed contract and flip through it. She nodded at Nana who insisted on coming along. Kwesu had asked Nana not to say anything. He would speak to her. When he crept into bed the night before, she said that the woman with the white men looked like a mermaid. A moment after she said it he wondered if she meant that she looked like the folklore half fish, half beautiful woman, or whether she meant that Fay was in fact a mermaid.
They left the hotel two hours later. He signed for his boat at the university and with Nana motored across the lagoon to join the film crew at the agreed spot where the filmmakers had their own boat. He then led the way to the place he had been carrying out experiments the night he had his encounter. The two boats dropped anchors. Jeremy and Alex held the sides of the boats together while Fay stepped from deck to deck, observing the water either side. Kwesi noticed she didn’t look down as she got on board with him and Nana. She was not wearing a life jacket or rubber soled shoes, and she appeared to have no fear of the water.
‘We’ll set up a camera at the bow, and one there,’ Fay said, pointing. ‘Nana can’t be in the shot. Ask her to get on my boat.’
Alex climbed into the university’s boat and Jeremy passed tripods, a mic boom, and a camera to him.
‘She’s afraid to cross,’ Kwesi said.
Nana was standing behind Kwesi, tightly squeezing his hand. She whispered to him, ‘Kwesi, I don’t trust this woman.’
‘Cool. Tell her to get into the cockpit and lay low,’ Fay said.
Nana did not let go.
‘Please,’ Kwesi said to her and led her to the tiny cockpit and lay her down on the side bench. ‘Stay here. Don’t look up.’
‘Kwesi,’ she said, ‘don’t do it.’
‘That woman, Kwesi, she is not right.’
He smiled at her foolishness, her concern, and her understandable jealousy.
Fay was reading from notes and giving instructions.
‘It says here, you were there, then you heard something. Stand there. No, portside. There. Look down into the water. Good. Got that, Alex? Now, here. Kneel down here. One knee. You are still looking into the water.’
Kwesi did as he was told, acting out his movements on the boat that night.
‘Now, I want you to run from side to side looking into the water.’
Kwesi wanted to tell her that wasn’t how it happened.
‘You don’t need to act. Just be normal. You’ve seen the water bubbling and it’s strange, so you’re looking at it. Just look normal, like when you saw what the water was doing. Fine. Alex? Good. One more time.’
‘Are you going to use special effects to make the water appear the way I described it?’ Kwesi said.
‘Sure, sure. We’ll add that in later. Now, I want you to lay here. Have you got a cup on board?’
From the other boat, Jeremy passed a plastic cup to Fay.
‘Use this. Now, lay flat. Reach down into the water. Stay. Good. No, don’t get up. Stay. Jay? Good. That’s it.’
Kwesi stood and straightened his shirt. ‘That’s it?’
‘Yup. I’ve got all I need.’
Alex had dismantled his equipment and was passing them to Jeremy.
‘When is it coming out?’ Kwesi asked
‘The episode? If we decide to use it, in about sixteen months.’
”Could be longer.’
Fay climbed back onto her boat, after Alex.
‘How will I know when it is showing?’ Kwesi said.
‘I’ll send you an email.’
The filmmakers’ motor revved and then threw up spray. Fay didn’t wave or look back as the boat raced off, leaving a foaming wake.
Kwesi stood watching. Something felt odd, then he realised what it was: she didn’t have his email address and had left with the contract. He leaned on the side and filled his chest with a big breath, ready to call after them. He noticed the water below. Bubbles were breaking the surface, getting larger, and making little splashes. It was just like the other night.
‘Hey!’ Kwesi shouted but the other boat was now the size of a matchbox. The surface of the water foamed violently. The deck vibrated beneath his feet. Holding the railing he watched as shapes moved just under the surface. A head popped up. He fell backwards and immediately rolled to his feet. All around the boat, grey heads with black eyes and white sparling hair faced him.
‘Nana!’ Kwesi shouted.
The heads vanished beneath the water. A moment later, water hit Kwesi’s face. He shielded his eyes and tried to see. The creatures were swimming round the boat on their sides, thrashing with their tails. All around, they were spraying water onto him, onto the deck. Then he realised what they were doing. They were sinking the boat.
‘Nana!’ Kwesi ran into the cockpit. ‘Nana, they are here!’
Nana slid onto a puddle on the floor.Kwesi watched as her wet hair turned white and her skin turned grey. Clawing with her hands, she dragged herself past him, the fin at the end of her tail curling around his ankle like an affectionate touch.
At the edge of the deck she raised herself on her hands and turned to look at him. Her black eyes flickered white as she blinked. Then she pulled herself over the side and slipped into the water.
Photo by: Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1819–1881)