Some years ago — 12 years? 15 years? — I went to visit a distant Karoo town and found that the craggy Meiringspoort Pass through the mountains had been closed because of floods. The floodwaters had brought down boulders the size of a house and new rock pools had formed between boulders and gouged-out earth. News reports said that the stifled and muddy river was to be diverted and eventually a new road would be bulldozed through the pass. A natural disaster worsened by human development and good intentions.
A mermaid had been seen swimming in one of these new rock pools. She had swum around with her wet hair blue-black and glistening in the mid-afternoon sun and then had clambered out of the turbulent water and shown herself to passing farmers, not responding to calls or gifts of oranges or sweets, just humming to herself and sitting on a granite boulder shaken loose from the mountainside. .
The mermaid did not have a tail or scales. She had long useless legs covered in light downy hair and entwined. She wore a blue cloak sewn from discarded blankets and scraps of eland hide, and when approached, pulled back her upper lip to give a little snarl. It seemed to one farmer’s wife that the mermiad had a cleft palate and grey half-closed eyes, no eye brows. An ugly thing, half human, a feral child with gross deformities. She was spotted eating striped fish, raw, and some travellers on their way to the Great Karoo said they saw her hanging over a small waterfall with a hooked length of twine, absorbed and self-sufficient, solitary, Other.
Then the news reports began to remake the mermaid. She acquired a silver tail and pink cheeks. Mermaids had always been known to frequent the deep caves of the Swartberg mountains and were known to smile at travellers and wave to families in covered wagons as they crossed between precipitous cliff faces. The mermaid had the sumptuous perky breasts of a young girl and was looking for a human husband. The mermaid had long golden har and was a a siren luring young men to climb a dangerous waterfall in order to see her beauty more closely.
I lost interest as the mermaid took on a jaded Eurocentric appeal, made over in the domesticated images of Western myths. Isn’t this what always happens to African narratives?
Still, I like to think she is out there basking in the fierce sun and baring her teeth in a snarl at intruders, swimming for her life in turbulent muddy waters.