The Exhibit

Students from a creative writing Intersession class write short stories inspired by magical realism reading assignments

A mermaid peeks her head and fin out of greenish waters.

This piece of fiction was written with inspiration from "Mermaid Fever" by Steven Millhauser, in the Johns Hopkins University Intersession course Writing Fantastical Fiction. In each class, taught by JHU creative writing instructor Shannon Robinson, students are assigned to read a selection of short stories and submit a short writing assignment that responds to the readings.


Serena flicked her tail slowly through the brilliantly clear water, watching the fluorescent ceiling lights bounce off the sea-green scales. She scooted farther up the rock, watching visitors wander up to her tank, sweep their eyes briefly over her knotted hair, salt-stained upper body, and long, thin tail, then turn to look across the hall at the stingrays racing in circles around their tank. Some days, Serena hated the visitors for not paying her enough attention. Didn't they care that they were seeing a real, live mermaid in person? Sure, she wasn't beautiful, like in the fairy tales—real mermaids don't have long, flowing hair and perfectly smooth skin, on account of living in the near total darkness hundreds of feet underwater—but surely she was more interesting than the stingrays. They didn't even have faces, for god's sake.

A close-up of cursive writing on lined paper
Read more fantastical fiction

Student-authored short stories inspired by magical realism and fairy tales

Some days, like today, Serena envied the people walking through the halls of the aquarium. Toddlers in strollers, children laughing and running after each other, couples holding hands, old men who hobbled along with canes—at the end of the day, each and every one of them would leave the aquarium and go home to their interesting lives. None of them would ever know the monotonous agony of being trapped in a hundred-gallon tank day after day, nothing to do but swim in circles and sit on this godforsaken rock. They were always there, six days a week, eight hours a day, reminding her of what she could never have, what she would never be. And they didn't even know how lucky they were. Walking around with a freedom they didn't deserve, acting like they were so much better than her just because they had legs. A wave of anger washed over Serena, and she slid off her rock into the water.

A group of New England Aquarium visitors began to amass in front of the mermaid tank, staring in amusement at the rare North Atlantic specimen who had suddenly started to execute a graceful series of flips, like an underwater ballerina. She closed the length of her tank in seconds, pushed off the wall and shot off in the other direction, hair streaming behind her. In that moment, each spectator wished desperately to be a mermaid, to move so beautifully, free of the laws and customs of the human race. The mermaid in the tank continued its underwater dance until an aquarium employee came and gave it some food, and then it did not move from its rock for the rest of the day.

About the author

Girl wears jean jacker and smiles while her hand rests on a railing. The city and water is behind her. There are many padlocks on the fencing she leans against.

Image credit: Alyssa Wooden

Alyssa Wooden is a Johns Hopkins University sophomore who majors in public health studies. Wooden said she has always enjoyed creative writing, so the Writing Fantastical Fiction Intersession course was "the perfect opportunity for me to explore and improve on something I enjoy."