It's easy to forget that every prostitute is someone's daughter.
"There's not much historical data about Victorian-era sex-workers, you know," said the librarian who'd just returned from the back office.
"I'm amazed you could find anything at all," the young man replied. An eight-by-ten-inch paperback flopped onto the counter in front of him, and he frowned at the title. "Folklore and Legends on the Eve of the Edwardian?"
"Are you sure you have the right Mary Lewis?"
"She's the aunt of Martin Lewis, the father of your grandmother."
He pointed at the book. "All that is in here."
"I was able to cross-reference all of the genealogical information you provided with the woman in this particular tale." She picked up the book and flipped it to the table of contents. "Page 106: 'The Water Nymph of Tower Bridge.'"
"You're kidding me."
She shook her head. "Why don't you have a read?"
That's how he came to be in London, standing under the Tower Bridge at dusk. He wrote a name on a slip of paper, rolled it into a tiny glass bottle, threw it as far as he could into the water, called out the name, and waited. The next day, he wrote the same name on a slip of paper, rolled it into a bottle, threw it, called out, and waited. On the third day, after the name was called out once more, a silhouette rose from the river without a sound.
"I have never been summoned before," the shadow said. "Why have you done this?"
"I have a question for you, Prudence," he told her.
"Perhaps you could accompany me into the water, and I will provide all the answers you need."
"Why don't you come out here?"
"If it pleases you." As the woman emerged onto the banks, he noted with disappointment that she didn't have a tail, just legs. However, because he was focused on something more precious to him than her nudity, he didn't see glistening scales dissolved into skin with every step she took.
"Do you remember a woman named Mary Lewis?"
"No," she replied.
"According to her, you met over a hundred years ago."
"That is a very long time ago," she said. "And I have been introduced to a great many people."
"She was standing on this spot, shortly after this bridge was built."
"Ah, yes. I do recall meeting someone then. She called herself a 'lady of the night.'" Prudence cocked her head with curiosity. "And what is your interest in Mary Lewis?"
"She's my great-great-great-aunt," he explained. "When I found out she had an encounter with a water nymph, I did some research. According to some legends, you are the spirits of dead prostitutes--"
"I assure you," she spat, "I have never sold my body to anyone!" Her anger then drifted away. "A fate such as mine is reserved for those who have stolen the love of another. Many of that profession are guilty of this."
"That brings me to my question," he said. "Is she with you now?"
After considering this for a few moments, she asked, "Would you like me to take you to her?"
"I know exactly what you're doing, Prudence," he snapped, "and it's not going to work."
A tiny smile grew on her face as she moved toward him. "How can you resist me, standing naked before you?"
He backed away. "Is she with you or not?"
"I have not encountered her," she replied. "How is it she died?"
"She threw herself off of this bridge."
"Then she is not," she said. "To swim with us, one must die at the hand of another."
His shoulders fell with a sigh.
"Why is it so very important that Mary Lewis be immortal?"
"This may seem weird to you," he started, but he stopped and chuckled. "I'm telling a mermaid that something might be weird.
"Anyway, the more I learn about her, the more I can feel her loneliness and despair. I've been almost..." He hesitated, searching for the proper word; "... possessed with this desire to console her."
"I see," she said. "And would this consolation be for her sake, or for yours?"
He didn't react.
She held out her hand. "I can give you all the comfort you seek if you just follow me."
"I've yet to meet a man who can dismiss me as you do. What makes you special?" She leaned in closely to read his eyes. She concluded, "You are one of us."
"I thought you said you weren't a prostitute," he replied. "You were pretty adamant about it."
"You take the love of men from their betrothed."
He snorted. "My johns are senators, ambassadors, businessmen, ministers; they don't love me. They just want to do something filthy to a boy."
"You smell of love," she told him.
"It's not good enough."
He waited before asking, "Will I become one of you?"
"You cannot," she replied. "And you should not wish it. Like you, I've stolen the warmth of countless men, yet I am still cold. Unlike you, I will be cold forever."
Hope then fled him, taking with it the facade of strength he had been wearing for most of his life. He fell to his knees.
A tear tumbled down her cheek and over her lip. "You can do something I cannot," she told him. "You can vanquish this solitude."
"How?" he croaked.
"You could follow your ancestor," she said. "You could fall from this very bridge and die, as anonymous meat and bone. Or you could take my hand, and you will fall asleep in the arms of love, and you will never again be alone."
It's easy to forget that every prostitute is someone's son.