Andrew crosses the gap when the tide pulls out. He doesn’t offer me his hand and I don’t ask for it. I follow him barefoot, clutching the rock, bleeding slightly by the time we reach the perch. It is sharp, wet, and covered in barnacles. Obsidian is the least forgiving stone. I wrap my T-shirt around my feet, lean gently on the needled edge. The horizon line is flat and blue and it’s hard to believe anything exists beyond it. I can see why so many people feared sailing off the edge of the world.
Andrew’s arm is around me when the first whale breaches, close enough to study the white ridges on her chest. Yes, I say pointing. A single, unequivocal word. The ocean is alive with them, three skinning the surface, another two to our left. My body repeats the word over and I stand up, teetering on my hurt feet with the wind blowing hard against me. Yes.
It’s a calf that keeps breaching. She’s smaller than the rest and is thrusting herself out from chest to tail. Learning her body by the way it crashes. Look at me, she says in adolescent glory, until her parents usher her on.
Andrew laughed when I told him why I wanted to come here, what I was looking for at the Mermaid Ponds. It’s just a name, he said. But past the edge of the cliff, I can see something new moving in the water. Another person would call it seaweed, barracuda, shark. They would be content to have seen the whales, and lean back in Andrew’s arms. But I am not another person.
The ocean is an unknowable thing. We might skirt its edges, but no hand has touched its bottom. We’ve stood on the moon, but not in the depths of our own planet. There are things we only know through faith. Some beasts come close enough to make us shiver, and the body says yes. Others only appear through the artist’s hand. Deep water photographs, fisherman’s tales, drawings of the imagined fin. I have never seen a giant squid, but I believe in their existence. I have never seen a mermaid, however.
If you go looking for the origins of mermaids, you will learn the same thing over and over. Sailors mistook the shape of manatees for women. It seems like a reasonable explanation. But then we have to ask: how many sailors? How often did they make this mistake, and how far did their stories reach? Because these creatures are as old as the gods. Sirens, selkies, nereids, merfolk. The world over has believed in a woman beneath the sea.
Our faith is its own kind of evidence. A thing we can turn over in our hands, in the absence of a body. Somewhere, right now, a man considers what a forgery would take. A girl looks in the mirror, trying to find Ariel’s body in her own. A writer shapes a tail, gives the mermaid a long braid and language. Each lives in the company of the imagined, and the imagined shapes them in turn.
This is the mermaid I am hunting. Not Ariel, but the mouth that says her name. Not the silver glint beneath the waves, but the part of us that wants to believe that what’s glinting has breasts and tail. The part of us that has wanted this since time immemorial.
My hunt started before I got on the plane, returning to the Big Island for the second time in a year. Back home in Vancouver, I’d seen a blog post: Mind-Blowing Mermaid found at the Beach of Hawaii. The photographs of the corpse took hold of me. I spent my last week in Canada picturing her long tendoned tail as I folded my dresses and packed my tent. Despite the domain name, viral-next.com, I couldn’t look away from what I’d seen. Pale and swollen, dead on the shore. If a mermaid were to beach herself, this seemed a likely place: the black bank of the Kilauea Volcano, where fire flows into the heart of the Pacific Ocean.
The other possibility was no less moving: a forgery was underway. Whoever the artist was, the creator had been meticulous, utterly committed. Her knotted tail was sad enough to believe in, ugly enough to be real. Likely built with Photoshop, the toolbox of contemporary myth. And yet. The depth in the picture, the sand grave, my own willingness to believe. I was convinced that the forgery—if that’s what it was—had been done by hand. I couldn’t stop picturing the artist huddled over her body, slaving for years.
Can you see him?
He comes at night, when it’s cool and he won’t be noticed. Three padlocks on the door, and everything around him quiet. She’s covered with a sheet, waiting. The bare light bulb flickering at first, as he pulls off the fabric gently. There’s a light coming from her, the skin almost glowing. It’s the new process he’s using, mixing natural rubber and whale fat, indigo die for the blood in the tail. Three years spent on the original sculpture, before he set the mould. Collecting bones through it all: the ribcage of a small deer he hunted, the skull, clavicle, and arm bones once belonging to an orangutan, and stolen from the cheap museum in town. He bought the barracuda from two brothers, spear-fishers near Kopoho. It was ninety pounds when they pulled it from the water, teeth that could cut leather. He skinned each with care, pickling the bones, leaving the rest to compost in a heap behind the shed.
Daryl Hannah was the first mermaid I encountered. My father laboured to copy Splash off TV, pausing the recording at every commercial break. I watched the movie over and over, holding my breath as it started, waiting for that crimped hair, her naked arrival on land, surrounded by gawking humans. Cut screen to Tom Hanks, young and sad in the city, unaware he’s about to fall in love with a creature of the sea.
I watched nervously as she hid in human legs and department store clothing. Confused and astonished by the world, breaking TV screens with the pitch of her voice. I waited for the moment she would lock the door to the bathroom and sink into the tub, her orange tail unfurling, the look on her face perfectly content. I adored the moments she was alone in the world, but I knew what was coming: Tom Hanks was going to knock down the door and ruin everything. She’d have to thrust her body out of the tub, rub herself with towels, try desperately to make her legs reappear. I could not forgive him. She asked to be left alone. He didn’t listen. He ruined the moment she finally got to be herself.
Young as I was, with my home-cut bangs and inexhaustible imagination, I believed in her story. It was Daryl Hannah’s relationship to the ocean that caught me. How it changed her, leaving the ocean; how it freed her to return. Tom Hanks seemed superfluous, a side note. Who would give up their magic to be with that man?
In the end, it’s he who makes the sacrifice. He leaves land with her, and she helps him breathe underwater. But that didn’t seem right, either. There are some places, my young heart decided, where humans aren’t supposed to go. Some places where only magic gets to live. We can visit, collect evidence and marvel, but we will never belong. Even as Tom Hanks followed her deep into the water, it seemed to me he was trying to catch her. Trying to make part of the sea his own.
Back in the days of Daryl Hannah, I had never seen the ocean. We took the streetcar down to Harbourfront and I pressed myself to the window, looking for a sign of her in Lake Ontario. Even now, I am nervous in water. Surrounded by coral reef in Hawaii, I rarely open my eyes. What lives down there is alien and strange. It belongs deeply to itself. Part of me fears I will find what I am looking for, tangled in the seaweed. Part of me fears I never will.
This fear drives the forger, I think. The filmmaker and the writer too. Art is the only body we can give our faith. We use art to translate and transfigure, give the intangible something with teeth. What we picture often resembles the world around us. Opposable thumbs, bicuspids, bird wings, and fish tails. God made in our own image. But mythic bodies do more than reflect. They reveal. What we value and praise, how we see gender; it all shows up in imagined forms. Zeus is muscled, wise men wear beards, and Mermaids are thin-wasted, big-breasted, cruelly beautiful.
For example, the first known mermaid, Atargatis.
One thousand years before Christ, the Assyrian goddess accidentally killed the human shepherd she loved. In a fit of guilt, she flung herself to the sea, hoping to become a fish. The ocean showed mercy, turning her legs to a fin while the rest of her remained. Atargatis became Derketo in Greece, lent colour to Aphrodite and rumour to the sirens, nereids, rusulkas. Some argue about her origins, debate whether she was the strange body worshipped at Ascalon that kept the city from eating fish. It is possible she wore many faces, swam in many bodies. The question at hand is her age, and the way we shaped her story. We have worshipped her longer than Jesus, but even in the first body: shame and consequence. Over and over, the story of the mermaid is the story of temptation, of gendered beauty drawing men to their deaths. Over and over, the body is to be looked at but not trusted. Seen, but not heard. The mermaid a perpetual virgin, driven mad by lust. Whatever the cost for sex, she will pay it. This is the secret bargain of legs.
When I was thirteen, I travelled with three friends to Denmark. The trip was a kind of luxury I hadn’t experienced, growing up with powdered milk and parents who made art for a living. In Copenhagen, my friend’s father brought us down to the water. A crowd was gathered, looking at a bronze statue. It was the size of a small girl, crouched on her knees, looking infinitely sad. It’s the Little Mermaid, her father told us, this is the city where the story was written. And then he recalled Anderson’s version of the myth.
She gave up her tongue for a set of legs. She danced, even though it was like dancing on knives. For all she sacrificed, she still wasn’t loved. Threw herself to the sea she’d given up, committing suicide, becoming sea-foam. I looked out over the water as he told us the story. I didn’t want to look at the statue anymore, that sad look on her face too much like mine. Young as I was, depressed as I was, experiencing the kind of heartbreak you never recover from. I was trying to make sense of the world I lived in, but how could I? Even then, I could see what this fairytale was—less a moral, more a lens. This is how girls were seen in 1862, human or otherwise. This is how we were still seen.
Anderson named something he couldn’t have possibly understood. When you’re a teenage girl, the world doesn’t have room for all of you. It asks you to show up with part of your body, part of your personality, part of your emotions. To compartmentalize as your body thrums with hormones, fashions itself into something alien and strange. How many girls would give up their voice for a set of skinny legs? How many do, vomiting after lunch in the school bathroom? The loneliness of that age is incomparable; it belongs deeply to itself. We are ready to bargain away anything for a way out. Back then, I wanted to unmake myself completely, to become as insignificant as sea foam. It had nothing to do with love. It had to do with unbelonging, with a sense that the world I’d arrived into didn’t fit. Like I’d grown up with two legs when what I needed was a fin. If there’d been a sea witch to ask, I would’ve made the same bargain, as would most of the girls in my middle school. That day in Denmark, I looked at the bronze sculpture and saw myself. I put my hands in the water and shivered. I tried to get over it, whatever it was. Soren kept talking, and my friends were laughing. But I was alone in the world with her, even when we walked up the street to lunch.
I read The Little Mermaid again when I came home from Denmark. I was starting grade nine at a new school, trying to fit my body into new clothing, dieting, and taking drugs that made me feel like I was underwater. “I know what you want,” the Sea Witch says when the Little Mermaid comes to her. “It is very stupid of you, but you will have your way and it will bring you sorrow.”
I hung a picture of the statue on my wall, in a cheap wood frame. I died my hair dark red. I looked like someone who didn’t belong where I was. Anderson’s an idiot, I thought again. He couldn’t figure out what story he was writing. It had nothing to do with a prince, and everything to do with girlhood:
Before I met Anderson’s mermaid, I met Disney’s. Taken in by Ariel, I wanted more than the VHS, I wanted the accessories. To wear her on a T-shirt, carry her on a pencil, listen to her sing. The Scholastics leaflet that came at school offered the movie soundtrack on cassette tape, and I turned on the waterworks to get it, convinced my father to spend two days of grocery money. I was six at the time, heard my parent’s fighting later, realized what the tape had cost. This is my first living memory of shame. I held onto the burning feeling, saw myself like Ariel, making a dumb, selfish bargain. It eroded the joy of the tape, but I still forced myself to listen to it. Flipped the sides endlessly, playing it for my friends, trying to improve my lot. Life is better, we sang, under the sea. Young and guilt-ridden as I was, I believed it.
I heard that song again, when I was sitting at a picnic table in Puna, on the Big Island, during my first trip to Hawaii. Two sisters broke into a song from The Little Mermaid and three others joined in. I sat there listening, remembering my old cassette tape. Why did so many women know the words still? I chose not to sing. It was almost a sweet moment, the fat moon above us and all that laughter. The song seemingly about the curiosity of a girl. But how can we separate the music from the shape of the girl who sang it? Her waist like a thin wrist, enormous breasts. Each female character surrounding her dripping with vanity, jealousy, sloth. Where were the stories telling us we could make our own decisions? That we should trust ourselves? Why weren’t those the ones that carried forward, that had statues built in their image?
I left the picnic table alone, walked down to a tall cliff overlooking the water. I sat alone with the ocean, the Milky Way green above me and the rough current hitting against the rock. I belong to myself, I said. There’s no shame in that.
When I arrived on the Big Island for the second time, my luggage full of dresses and camping gear, all I could think of was the mermaid corpse. I’d only been gone from the island for two and half months. Something called me back, I told my friends and they nodded. What called me back was depression. So deep and heavy, I was in bed for months, beached, unable to slide back into the water, even though it was an arm’s reach away. In those dry months, I relied on other people’s imagination, bad TV, long fantasy novels. I was looking for a way back to faith.
When faith happens, it is difficult to explain why or how. The mermaid looked like something I could believe in. The world had made her, or someone who believed fiercely in the magic of the world, and this knowledge helped me get out of bed. Other mermaids had shaped my girlhood, but she was the first to have a hand in healing. The world is not so simple, she told me. It cannot be categorized into sadness and joy. It is massive, inexplicable, and grows exponentially when we admit how little we know.
For a long time, the coding of the mermaid has been about her upper-half; the full round breast and long hair, how she tempts men with her voice. But the tail tells the story of resilience. Finding a way to exist inside unbelonging. Atargatis moving past the death of her lover, transfigured by loss, but surviving. The unknown magic of the body, its mythic possibilities, much like the ocean. I went back to Hawaii thinking of her. I put down my grief. Found my fin, as I looked for her in the water.
We are limited only by what we can envision. A formula for the speed of light, the splitting of an atom, creatures living in the uncolonized basement of the sea.
What does it take to convince you it is possible? The chance, however slim, of an augmented beast living beneath the ocean, humanesque and haunting. The mermaid forger is a liar, a gift-giver, both. He forces you to confront the rigidity of your faith, offers you a glimmer of the self which once believed.
A half-second, maybe, in that tender gullibility. The soft humanness of it, its untaught beauty.
The forger pickled the bones for years. It took patience, laying them. Filling the mould in increments, letting it set through the day, until there was enough fat in the basin to hold her frame. When he first pulled off the cover, he felt like he’d been punched in the chest. The mermaid was imperfect. She still needed to be filed down and shaped, then painted and dyed, but she was finally and unmistakably, real.
His first attempts, he’d shaped the fin in the expected way. The iconic triangle at the bottom, attached to a long tale. Then there was a day at Kahena when he nearly drowned. Swimming near Tahiti Rock, when a riptide pulled him out, pulled him under. Down there, something oblong, silver in the water. He heard the word swim, and then he could move against the current back to shore. That night, he started drawing. The tail long and wrapped around itself, sinew and vein, bulging in places.
Now she was done. He ran his hands across the fat, marvelled at the indigo dye. He’d go tonight to the Mermaid Ponds. He already knew which corner, which shallow he would choose. Where she’d rest, glistening in the moonlight. The tide crashing over the rock, christening her. Pulling her, maybe, through the opening in the pond, back out into the ocean. Or leaving her there to be found and photographed, cut open to the bone. It was time. He covered her and went to fetch the board he’d fashioned to carry her to the water.
Andrew opens a beer with the edge of a lighter, starts drinking. He doesn’t ask me to sit down. I can feel him watching me, curious but patient. It’s the first time he’s seen whales. It changes a person, to realize what’s out there. I can still see the silver thing, twisting and moving, but it’s swimming farther out. No dorsal fin, oblong like a monk seal, but the wrong colour. It could be garbage, a lost sail or a chain of plastic bags. But it isn’t. There’s a voice in my head that says swim. It’s a twenty-foot drop to the water below me, and a world deep beneath. The shoreline is a wall of sharp rock, there’s no way out once you enter. I lose sight of the silver, then it rises, tail skinning the surface. Glinting, bulbous, and corded with blue veins. Yes, my body says and I point towards the mermaid, close my eyes and jump.
Photo by Flickr user Jonas Bengtsson