Of Mermaids and Seaweed: Writing “Rusalki”

March 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

mermaidEliza Fogel, author of “Rusalki” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the power of prompts:

Write your grubbiest experience

This was the initial prompt that sent me chasing mermaids. Nearly a decade ago I was teaching English to children in a touristy town on the edge of the Baltic Sea. The summer camp was an awful concrete bunker with no hot water. No one bathed so we all reeked of sweat and suntan lotion. Our feet were filthy from barefoot runs in the grass and dusty walks on sharp gravel paths. Our fingers were sticky from nightly marshmallow and Nutella snacks. We were turning into wild creatures and the children felt that I should transpeciate into a proper mermaid. They had a ritual. All I had to do was show up on the shoreline at dusk.  I dressed the part in a gauzy cream gown that was so inappropriate for summer camp that this occasion seemed to merit its sole use. My “christening” was full of seaweed, sand in my ears, shells in my underwear, and the loamy dead fish smell of the part-living and the part-dead tucked amid the bobby pins in my hair.

Describe the textures of your childhood

This prompt allowed me to cover the ground between the previous recovered memory and one with much deeper roots. My grandmothers’ warnings about the demon mermaids, the Rusalki, were quickly resurfacing under the quiet stars in Gambier, Ohio. The sky resembled the midnight blue waters that had once rushed the shores of Ustka, Poland.  I kept thinking about the senses of home and found my imagination running to one of the many summer nights spent with my first friend, my sister. At our young age, under the myth-based truths of my grandmothers, we believed we could change into demons, angels, or any sort of magical being. We’d lost our father, in the fairy-tale tradition, so our lives were the stuff of magic and tragedy; and in fairy tales the sisters are always so very different, the true separation is to what degree they can escape their histories.

 Hat tip to the 2012 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop class for a wonderful experience; and special thanks to Kevin Kane, Cyn Vargas, and Christine Caya Koryta, who back home help me count words and write stars.


Eliza Fogel, a fellowship and Graduate Opportunity Award recipient, is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Annual Story Week Festival of Writers and the award-winning literary anthology Hair Trigger. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. All inquiries welcome: eliza@fogel.com.

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