I haven’t seen one of my dear friends for over six years. I’m not sure of all the reasons, but none of them have a thing to do with how much we value each other.
She lives in Tacoma. I met her when she started dating a friend of mine. She enchanted me. Yes, she was intelligent and beautiful but there was something else about her. Something deep and dark, a resonance that is difficult to put into words without sounding a little ridiculous. She had a calm, low speaking voice, the kind that has rivers running in it. Even her laugh was gorgeous.
When I first stepped into her subterranean living space, it was full of treasures. Ornate screens hung with jewelry, candles in sconces, bead-trimmed satin pillows. The walls were hung with framed prints of fantasy and pre-Raphaelite art.
They were all mermaids.
I was a senior in high school in Yakima, Washington, in what passed for an advanced Spanish class. We were playing a game called “Loteria,” like Bingo played with picture cards. My teacher would display the card and enunciate the name of whatever it showed. El Diablito. La Dama. El Borracho. La Sirena.
I looked up, my interest piqued. I had always loved a mermaid.
Ah, the mermaid. She was singing, as mermaids were once thought to do, luring sex-starved sailors to their deaths with her breasts, her siren song. Odysseus lashed himself to the mast to resist the songs that lured his sailors to their deaths, navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
Those songs were sung by mermaids.
Memories and Mermaids
Growing up, I had a children’s edition of The Little Mermaid illustrated with photographs of posed dolls. To my young eyes, the dolls were beautiful, as were the props around them, especially the sea-witch’s undersea lair. The coral, the cauldron…the photos were wonderful enough, but the book also featured a lenticular panel on the cover. It gave a 3D quality to a photo of the mermaid herself, swimming underwater.
The photo pages alternated with text pages, some of which had line drawings in black and white. One of those showed the mermaid right after she’d traded her voice for a pair of legs, lying on the beach unconscious, her hair flowing down around her naked body so discreetly.
As a child I was fascinated by this drawing. I remember so clearly taking my colored pencils and with a few adjustments, moving her hair to reveal a little of her derriere, giving her blonde hair, peach skin. I promise, it was tastefully done.
After I started writing about mermaids, I went on a hunt for my old book, the one with the posed dolls. I saved all my childhood books so it had to be around here somewhere. It took some looking but I found it. I turned to the page with that drawing I’d changed and found it untouched. Had I simply longed to change the drawing so much that I thought I had?
Memory is a strange thing. As mutable and misleading as a mermaid. And this isn’t the first time a mermaid led me astray in my memory. It happened with a present I gave to my mother, who was notoriously hard to please with gifts. If the gift was wrong somehow, it disappeared, or sometimes she just handed it back.
This isn’t as bad as it seems, not to me, because I get it. When someone gives me a “wrong” gift, I feel like they don’t know me. I don’t feel seen. So with Mom, I never took it personally, but a correct gift felt like a triumph.
One birthday, I gave Mom this Danish plate with a line drawing of the Little Mermaid statue. “Oh!” she exclaimed with tears of delight. “I’ve always loved her, sitting in the bay, her eyes out to sea.” She hung it on a wall, so touched.
That plate was a hunch, a six dollar Goodwill gamble. It’s a beauty, but it’s a collector’s plate, and not the kind of item my mother gravitated towards at all.
I wondered why my mother loved it so much. I wondered what she saw when she looked at that statue. I wondered how this particular mermaid made my mother feel seen.
In my memory of the plate, the girl has legs. So I thought she was in her human form, looking out at the ocean, missing her sisters and her life in the underwater kingdom. She’d traded away her tail and gills along with her voice. She was stranded on land.
But I have the plate now, and photos of the statue like the one above make it clear that I was wrong. Look at her lower half. She does have legs and feet, but she also has fins of some kind. And she’s bare-breasted, so she’s definitely in her mermaid form. This means she’s watching the waves, pining for her prince.
Mermaids are supposed to be dangerous, but once they’re lovesick, they’re only dangerous to themselves.
Mermaids as Creatures
Sometimes, mermaids are less woman and more fish. They are scaly creatures of the deep. I’m okay with that. Last year, I read a scathing book by Lydia Millet called Mermaids in Paradise. Imagine you were on your honeymoon at an inclusive resort taking some silly snorkeling excursion and you saw mermaids. Real ones. Imagine what might go on. The collision of greed and conservationism. The danger and collusion. This is a strange and hilarious book, a book like no other.
But there are mermaids. And they are real. And they are creatures.
I found Something About a Mermaid in a thrift store back in the 1990s. It was published in 1978. My oldest daughter has our copy, treasured and worn and hopefully to be read to my children’s children.
Like many books from the seventies, the book tries to teach a lesson about harsh life events a child might encounter. This was new in the seventies, writing books about bullying or divorce or other painful realities. Historically, books for children were didactic, but more instructive. Like, eat wisely and be obedient and clean, versus, how to deal with the fact that your parents don’t love each other anymore.
It’s difficult to strike the balance between fanciful and didactic, but this book does it. This little mermaid is wild. What a sweet, otter-like face she has. She doesn’t talk, or sing love songs. Her song is one of yearning to be set free. She is a creature. A wild thing. This book asks children to accept that wild things should be left wild.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Mermaids as Objects
I moved to Yakima, Washington with my boyfriend in the fall of 1975. We stayed at the Motel 6 until we could find an apartment. There was a pool and he had nothing to swim in. “Let’s go to a thrift store!” I suggested. Despite his rough hippie exterior, he’d never been to one—he came from a prosperous family—but he was game.
We went to the Salvation Army thrift store on Main to hunt for a pair of jeans he could cut off. I scanned the shelves, as I always did, and saw a rough little clay statue of a mermaid. She lay on her stomach in the waves, faceless and crude, a student effort at best.
It is hard to believe that once, representations of mermaids were so rare that I paid a quarter for my little clay mermaid, just to own one. What’s even more difficult to believe? I still have her. Especially since mermaids are common, now. They are used as a motif in children’s rooms. They adorn shower curtains and word art.
The decor mermaid is sweet and cartoonish. She has no teeth, her breasts are modestly obscured by clam shells. She holds no threat. Once, on a cruise, I saw a grown woman wearing a t-shirt, claiming to be a mermaid.
I know my mermaids. And you, madam, are no mermaid.
Movies and Mermaids
I’d read my childhood version of the tale to my oldest daughter many times before I took her to see Disney’s “Little Mermaid” with its charming and goofy Ariel. I sat in that darkened theater and I was terrified. I knew how it ended for the Little Mermaid. Voiceless, endangered, flinging herself at the groom’s feet, begging him to understand that she saved him, and now he must choose her or she will die. Her sisters arrive with a sword and a choice.
This didn’t happen in the movie. The happy ending was a surprise. Wrong, mind you. But a relief. Speaking of Disney movies, I didn’t like the mermaids in “On Stranger Tides.” They were underwater vampires. I do love a vampire, but this mermaid seems to take the masculine fear of seductive women and make it justified. I suppose that started back with Odysseus, didn’t it.
It shouldn’t surprise me that female creatures born of male sexual longing have the capacity for destruction. I didn’t see that capacity for destruction in “Splash.” That sweet, hapless mermaid had no teeth. “Splash” set The Little Mermaid fairy tale on its ear. They could never be happy on land, so he leaves it behind and becomes her companion under the sea, completely dependent on her.
We had to wait for a merman in “The Shape of Water,” to show us how powerful and dangerous a mer-creature born of romantic longing could be. Maybe because women know men are dangerous, whereas men only fear that women are dangerous. Del Toro’s creature was far from toothless. He was a god, after all.
I forgave him for eating the cat.
Most children today know the Disney version of the Little Mermaid. They are unaware of the old version with the sword and the choice. I wonder if my daughters remember the original at all. I still wonder about the sword. Shouldn’t we tell our daughters about the sword? I’m still asking myself that, though my daughters are grown. They have already fallen on it.
One of my first published poems is called “Ariel.” It was published by Goblin Fruit, a fantastical and defunct online magazine. Here it is:
I settled for so little, for so long,
rotting muslin instead of a wedding dress,
wet pebbles he bestowed like pearls.
He kept me as a pet, and I let him,
my hair gone seaweed round my shoulders,
my voice bartered away, leaving me
with half-mad shrieks, porcine grunts and
clumsy gestures that amused him
until I performed my frantic pantomime
at the feet of his new bride,
flopping and heaving as if I still possessed
that column of scaly muscle I traded
for the legs I’d hoped to part for him.
Certainly it mattered that he was killing me?
While my secret gills closed in pink-edged grief,
the priest cried demon and the horrified court stood by,
wheezing with scandal, faces puffed and popping
like those furtive, skimming creatures
on the darkest floors of my father’s house.
My three sisters came to save me, and
they wore the shorn heads of disgraced daughters.
They handed me a sword. The story says
I had a choice, to cleave him as I was cleft,
to find within his sundered trunk
my own salvation.
I ran myself through instead,
but not for love.
Wow! That poem is searing, visceral, and brings all the threads of your narrative and what I know of your history to a piercing climax.