A few miles southwest of Gainesville, the arching oaks of central Florida loosen into long fields full of beef steer. They tighten up again into the Goethe State Forest (pronounced, hereabouts, as Go-thee), and finally peter out into US-19, a soulless and endless miracle mile of corporate chains from Applebee’s to Zaxby’s, hitting nearly every letter between. In the town of Homosassa, I saw a smiling gray manatee the size of a VW van on the side of the road, surrounded by a sea of yard-sign valentines that someone had left to fade in the March sun. Homosassa is famous for being one of the best places in Florida to view West Indian manatees, those gentle thousand-pound sea cows that are routinely torn up by jet skis and motorboats. Skeptics believe that sailors mistook sea mammals like manatees and dugongs for women, giving rise to the myth of the mermaid. After a few months at sea, one starts to see what one expects to see, and long ago, sirens were a matter of fact, not myth. Henry Hudson reported a sighting of a mermaid and Christopher Columbus saw a manatee surfacing somewhere near the Dominican Republic on January 9, 1493, and noted in his diary that mermaids were not nearly as beautiful as they were painted. True. Manatees are pewter-colored and have faintly hound-doggish heads and platters for fins; they don’t look much like Daryl Hannah. Still, the word manatee comes from the Taíno word for “breast,” and a manatee on her back, with her forefins folded on her chest, can appear to have a goodly bosom. It’s not hard to see how, after months of male company, the sight of one rising from the waves like a massive and fleshy woman could evoke intense erotic yearnings.
Mermaids—which I’m using here as shorthand for uncanny female water spirits—are common wherever human beings rub up against bodies of water. In Japan, there are ningyo, strange woman-faced semi-immortal fish figures; in ancient Syria, the goddess Derceto was described by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as having a fishtail. There are margyr in Scandinavia and sabawaelnu in the Mi’kmaq culture of North America. There are Celtic morgens, aboriginal Australian yawkyawks, Russian rusalki. The Greeks had whole taxonomies of water spirits, from the Oceanids of the salt water and the Nereids of the Mediterranean to the Naiads, the spirits of fresh water. The most famous mermaids in myth—Odysseus’ singing sirens whom he resisted by stoppering his sailors’ ears with wax and tying himself to the mast—were not mermaids at all, but immortal bird-women, with wings, who once sang against the Muses in a competition (they lost and in punishment were plucked). That these creatures have slid from avian to piscine over the years speaks to the sexual appeal of mermaids. The sirens call men with their voices and bodies, water is voluptuous, and there’s nothing sexy about a woman with a chicken’s netherparts.
I think the widespread ubiquity of these dangerous, capricious female figures has less to do with lust and mistaken sea creatures than with a stunning human capacity for metaphor. Water is necessary, urgent, everywhere; it gives rise to life. It is also perilous, subject to its own laws, and contains dark and hidden depths. The makers of myths are the victors, the ones allowed the leisure and education to write (men, in other words, for most of human history). The myth of mermaids both explains and distances woman, that great and confounding mystery. And the appeal isn’t just for men; girls are drawn to mermaids’ wildness and beauty and power. After all, the sea creatures are the ones who get to decide if people who fall overboard will swim or sink.
I grew up as a very serious competitive swimmer on a boys’ swim team and dreamed at night of being a mermaid, of flying in water and breathing as if it were air, and of luxuriating among the sea grasses and seeing the boats pass overhead like clouds over the sun. There was something about mermaids’ ferocity, their danger, their uncompromising strangeness and power, that spoke to a truth deep in me. Every once in a while, even decades later, I still hear an echo of their song and feel compelled to listen.
During my drive to Weeki Wachee, I held the Starbucks siren hot in my hand. The coffee company’s logo is a smirker. (I’ll cop to my dislike.) She’s bi-caudal and holds her split tail beside her head with both fists in a frankly pornographic manner, teasing us with the answer to the age-old mystery of how all those seamen and fish-bottomed women were physiologically able to get it on.
No matter; I was on the hunt for far better mermaids, for high-grade Americana. Weeki Wachee is one of many natural springs that run through the state of Florida. They are its best-kept secret: people think of swampland when they think of Florida, or oranges or theme parks or skittery dance music in some Miami nightclub—not cold, clear rivers on which you can float for miles and never come across a single alligator. From underwater, Weeki Wachee appears to be a cragged mountainside, astonishingly steep. Once the site of Timucua, or aboriginal, burial grounds, it served as a swimming and laundry pool for locals in the 1930s and early 1940s as well as their trash heap.
Walton Hall Smith was a writer (co-authoring a book titled Liquor, Servant of Man) and founder of the Syfo beverage company, and he had long dreamed of developing Weeki Wachee into an underground theater. In June 1946, he paired up with Newt Perry, who was famous for wrestling alligators at Silver Springs, training Navy Seals, and pioneering the underwater film industry in Florida; Grantland Rice called him “The Human Fish.” With a group of investors, they purchased the site from the city of St. Petersburg and began constructing the theater sunk deep into the side of the springs.
The park was first opened to the public on October 12, 1947. The theater was a low building with twinned ramps that led underground, where a curved auditorium looked out into the springs from sixteen feet below the surface, so that one could see much of the chasm and all attendant wildlife: turtles, ducks, alligators, and sometimes even a stray manatee. By the time of the opening, Perry had come up with the idea of bringing in young women in bathing suits to do an underwater ballet for the tourists. In the beginning, the Weeki Wachee mermaids were local teenagers, paid in hot dogs and hamburgers and bathing suits. There were so few cars on Route 19 that every time they heard one coming, the mermaids scampered to the side of the road to lure the drivers in for a show. How startling it must have been to be driving along the scrubby brown fields in the bright and sleepy sunlight, and then, out of nowhere, a line of young beauties in bathing suits. I wonder if anyone resisted them.
At last, Weeki Wachee hove up on the west side of the highway, a strange repository for such an ancient and resonant myth. Even at nine in the morning on a chilly March day, the parking lot was filled with cars and buses. The park itself was half-hidden like an afterthought, low-set in the lot’s northeast corner. The overall aesthetic was one of mid-century painted concrete, graced here and there with nippleless female busts. Before the entrance, there’s a huge fountain, and in the middle of the fountain there’s an erect pillar topped by female swimmers engaged in a move I’d come to learn is called an adagio. Picture one swimmer vertical, fist extended, lifting another swimmer who is arched on her back toward the surface of the water. I was a little surprised by the statue’s lack of tails. It turns out tails on the Weeki Wachee mermaids didn’t appear until 1962: the earliest prototype was a very heavy rubber tail made for movie star Ann Blythe in the 1948 movie Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. It wasn’t practical: it cost twenty thousand dollars and was nearly impossible to squeeze into. These days, park employees or the mermaids themselves make the swimming tails out of stretchy fabric, with zippers on the side. There are also posing tails, with sequins and with zippers on the back, for verisimilitude, I suppose.
John Athanason, the park’s genial, ruddy public relations manager, met me at the gate. John told me he’d been an employee at Weeki Wachee during its lowest moment, before it became a state park, when the private owners neglected the place to the point where there were serious safety issues, some involving fire exits and sewage. The mermaids had to launch a campaign, Save Our Tails, to keep the park from closing down. The small park is bare-bones, though there is evidence of recent sprucing: new plantings of sago palm and bougainvillea, new paint. We walked through a clump of high-schoolers to view the springs from above. Sapphire blue in places, the source is fairly small, the hole itself not especially impressive from our vantage and angle. It looked not unlike a pond, with a wee water park called Buccaneer Bay at its far end. John told me some fascinating information—Weeki Wachee was a first-magnitude spring directly fed from the Florida aquifer; divers know that it goes at least 413 feet deep; 117 million gallons pump out of it every day; the current in the water is five miles per hour, the temperature a constant 74.2 degrees—but I was also distracted by the teenaged boy surreptitiously copping a feel of the tiny teenaged girl on my other side. There was a man blowing leaves off the far bank. There were indolent fish.
John led me down a ramp and into the underwater theater, a large curved space with acoustic tiles and a cement floor. It was dark and empty and smelled a little of moldering eelgrass and feet. The audience sits on battered wooden benches. There is a curtain that automatically slides up to show the strange green subaqueous world where the mermaids perform, emerging from underneath shells that flip up on the large flat stage. The distant domed airlock on the far side of the chasm looks like a 1940s dream of the future. Over everything is a layer of green-brown lyngbya algae, even though, once upon a time, Weeki Wachee water was so clear people assumed a trick—that the mermaids were suspended on wires. This is Florida. People here gleefully cake their lawns and golf courses in nitrogen, then wax nostalgic for a time when the springs weren’t clouded over.
In the dim blue theater with only fish and turtles sliding by, I heard the weariness in John’s voice. Surely he has answered the same inane questions over and over for years, and it must be difficult to maintain a high burn enthusiasm for a place that’s equally worn-down and kitschy. Still, he seemed to regard the park and the mermaids with avuncular pride. I asked if he’d ever considered inviting in a reality television show to bring some money to Weeki Wachee. He said he’s had dozens of proposals, but reality television feeds on interpersonal drama, and the mermaids are employees of the State of Florida, which is not delighted about employees’ interpersonal drama being sprayed about on national television. “And girls are . . . complicated,” he said knowingly. I nodded and smiled, but because I’m complicated, I winced every time John called the performers girls. I’m a product of the politically correct ’90s. When I was a belligerent fourteen-year-old actual girl, with a copy of The Second Sex in hand, I was taught to insist on being called a woman. Some of the mermaids may be very young, true, but many are in their twenties. Some are teachers, some are mothers; all are women. We were rousted from the theater by a white-blonde woman in a track suit, whom I’d later discover is a mermaid, who came into the theater and lowered the curtains over the windows to the springs. It was almost time for the first show of the day: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
John led me into a small room so hot I nearly fell down. This was the tube room, named for the dark 64-foot underwater pipe that the mermaids have to swim through to make their way to and from the theater. The tube room has to be boiling hot because spending half an hour in 74-degree water can make one rapidly hypothermic. The mermaids came down the spiral staircase from their dressing rooms to finish their preparations for the show. The women wore cake makeup and bikini tops, tights and bloomers. They sat at the edge of a fourteen-foot well to put on water shoes and flippers and roll their tails on over it all, then zipped the tails up the side. Dry and off, the tails were a little dingy and looked like t-shirts; when they were on the tails looked pretty realistic, if I squinted. The mermaids chatted and answered my questions when I dared to say something, but after a while it was clear that they were being painfully polite so I let them be. Here is what I learned: Karri is a crabber on her off-days and has a one-year-old daughter. Stayce, who was playing the sea witch, is a bartender at Applebee’s. Tara, who was managing the safety of the mermaids from the tube, is a chipper, very beautiful mother with the kind of wavy blonde hair you think mermaids should have. One by one, they put on face masks to see their way through the tube, which they’d take off before the performance. Then they fell into the water, took the last sip of air that wasn’t going to come from a hose or air-lock, did a little half flip with their tail, and disappeared into the tube. There are air hoses every few feet, but the mere thought of having to swim down an enclosed space with no scuba equipment gave me a case of the sympathetic horripilations.
Out in the theater, the audience had arrived, as if by magic. I don’t know what I was expecting of a mermaid show on a cold weekday morning in March, but the place was packed with retirees in matching visors and tiny children in mermaid costumes. I suppose I’d been afraid of being the only person in the audience. I’d felt a preemptive fear for the future of this weird place; half an hour in the park, and I was already protective of it. The voiceover was careful to be sure we knew we were about to watch “Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid,” as that other theme park in Florida with claims to The Little Mermaid is notoriously litigious and super-powered and humorlessly grasping when it comes to copyright. There was a big blast of recorded music. The curtains went up. Tears stole into my eyes.
Because, god, the show was stunning. A huge curtain of air went up in front of the windows, like giant silver jellyfish bubbles. They cleared to show mermaid Sativa in full-tail, reclining on a log, smiling and relaxed, her hand discreetly holding a pellet of bread so fish swarmed around her. The sun shot through the top of the water and set it all to shimmering with a blue and eerie light. In slow-motion, other mermaids emerged, moving dreamily through the water, their hair licking in every direction. Women who are beautiful in ordinary ways become full-out gorgeous underwater. Flesh, particularly of the female sort, has an underlying lipid layer that buoys what might have sagged on land: breasts perk to hillocks, jowls lift, hair riffles and sways like its own living thing. The mermaids are impressively athletic. When they move underwater, they must take into consideration how much air they have in their lungs: too much and they float too high, too little and they sink. They have to time their breaths in and out to the music, dropping and picking up their air hoses in accordance with the choreography. They contort their bodies primarily with the use of their arms, their legs constrained in a tail. That they do all this with a smile and holding their breath, in a five-mile-an-hour current, almost seems like too much to fathom.
I was so overwhelmed with admiration that, at first, I wasn’t paying attention to the story. Then a creeping dismay stole in and the story began to shadow what I was seeing. Did the voiceover say, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” Was that a calypso song, complete with a cutesy sidekick (in this version a turtle named Chester)? Is the theme here really that love conquers all? And oh my god, is the prince fighting the sea witch to protect the mermaid?
I’m a tremendous fan of Hans Christian Andersen, that genius masochist, and as much as it troubles me, I love his story The Little Mermaid. His world is seductive, all blue and gold and red. The imagery is astonishing: from the bottom of the ocean, “when the sea was perfectly calm, you could catch sight of the sun, which looked like a purple flower with light streaming from its calyx.” I read the story to be an allegory for the plight of the Victorian woman, who was asked to give up her voice in order to lure a man to marry her. It’s about sexual awakening: when the mermaid drinks the potion and her tail turns to legs, “it felt to her as if a double-edged sword was passing through her delicate body.” She sleeps on a cushion at the prince’s door, rides on horseback with him, and the prince kisses the mermaid’s red lips and plays with her hair and lays his head on her chest, which, in a world that Andersen describes as having slave-girls, seems baldly unchaste. The Disney version diverges wildly from the text by allowing the love story to prevail; the prince sees the error of his ways and marries the little mermaid in the end. Andersen’s is far more interesting. It’s not about love, not really, but rather the mermaid’s yearning to attain an immortal soul by getting a human to fall in love with her. In Andersen’s tale, the mermaid watches the prince get married to someone else and knows that in the morning, she’ll turn to sea-foam, and that will be it. That night, her sisters rise out of the ocean and give her a knife to murder the prince in his sleep. If she does so, she can be a mermaid again; like all mermaids, she won’t have a soul, but she will live for three hundred years. She considers, but chooses to spare the prince. At dawn, she dives into the ocean and turns to sea-foam, but because she showed mercy to the human, she rises out of the water to become a daughter of the air, an ephemeral creature who is allowed to earn a soul through good deeds done over the course of three hundred years. There is hope here, but it is a hope deferred and bittersweet, not an easy love of sappy marriage bells and singing crabs. To have the prince—who is deeply unworthy of the little mermaid in all ways—be the one to fight the sea witch takes all the magic out of the story as well as all of the little mermaid’s ferocious autonomy, booting it headlong into the banal.
Now, in the springs, as the prince in knee-breeches and the sea witch fought to very loud and dramatic theme music, a little boy in a camouflage t-shirt stood and screamed with a bloody light in his eye: “Do it!” As in: Kill her!
For what? For having a huge amount of power? For wanting the mermaid to uphold her bargain, as one who strikes a bargain should do? For not being as young and pretty as the mermaid? I’m getting old. I’ve begun identifying with the sea witch.
Even as I was watching, I knew that I was expecting too much; there were kids in the audience, after all. But the heart wants what the head calls unlikely.
We applauded. The lights came on. We shuffled up into the sunlight and chill air and stood like heifers at the salt lick, blinking. I ate a formerly frozen pizza at The Mermaid Galley and wondered at the albino peahens wandering around, then John brought me in to meet the mermaids while they ate lunch. I’ll admit that my hands were shaking; I was meeting the mermaids of my dreams! But they were mermaids in tracksuits and wet hair, eating fried foods from fast food joints down the miracle mile, smiling at me with mildly overdrawn patience. The prince devoured a whole pepperoni pizza by himself. On land, in sunlight, in their puffy clothes, their hair slicked to their heads, it was eerie how much the mermaids resembled a women’s college rugby team after a match. On dry land, the mermaids were all very pretty, but some of their glamour had been left in the shimmering water.
I wanted to suss out the mystery of the mythical mermaids, find some of their bone-deep danger, but John wouldn’t let me talk one-on-one with any of the performers. “It’s not that I don’t trust the girls, but . . .” he said, shrugging, fiddling with his e-cigarette. So I spoke with the lot of them. They answered my questions but did not find them very good. They sighed. They love being mermaids because it was like a sorority; they love each other and are always delighted when former mermaids come back to do shows (in John’s terminology, retired mermaids graduated from “girls” to “ladies”). There was no danger, really, they said: they all looked out for one another down there. They had to go through extensive physical testing, be certified in scuba diving, and have a year’s worth of training before they were allowed to perform in major roles. There were air hoses and air locks nearly everywhere in the deep; there was no real worry about running out of air. John peered at me with increasing suspicion every time I asked another question about danger, sex, or myth. In desperation, having come to the end of my questions, I asked if they believe in mermaids. There was an embarrassed silence; they looked at their food as if hoping it would speak for them. One woman threw me a bone. “I mean, I do,” she said. “We kind of have to. Like, we are mermaids. Right?” Right.
They are mermaids. They’re also extremely hard-working hourly employees of the State of Florida. The state publishes its employees’ wages online; it was easy to discover that one of the senior mermaids makes thirteen dollars an hour, and none of them receives benefits. They work long days, responsible for training newer mermaids, running various mermaid camps, scrubbing the algae, which they call “scrunge,” off the spring-side of the windows, making sure the theater is clean and the costumes are in order, ensuring the other performers’ safety, choreographing routines, and directing the shows and in-water practices from a little podlike booth off the theater. They get to dolphin-kick and smile and make pretty shapes with their bodies underwater, but the rest of the time it’s a job, and it’s a job that requires freezing in icy water multiple times a day. It’s far more difficult than it looks. Their magic is in making it all look easy.
I went back, face burning, to the theater where the afternoon crowd poured in. The children had been replaced by late-middle-aged tourists with sunburned shins and ball caps and bewildered looks on their faces. The next show was called Fish Tails. It began with a video on high-mounted televisions that showed the history of Weeki Wachee, with still photographs from the past; all very informative and clear. I believe the prince from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was the announcer for this one, but I could be wrong. There was a calypso version of Red Red Wine. There was an Enya song I hadn’t heard since middle school, when I was going through a crystals-and-Arthurian-legends phase. Some man behind me complained about his psoriasis acting up. The curtain rose.
And there, again, was the frisson of joy: how beautiful they were, those women in the blue light with their shining tails. My disbelief suspended itself, floated off to the stained acoustic tiles overhead. The mermaids ate bananas underwater; they drank some brownish drink from a glass bottle. They showed us the human elevator move, where they can regulate how high they rise or how low they sink by how much air they take in or let out from the air hoses. A yellow-bellied slider turtle the size of a steering wheel mimicked the mermaids’ ballet moves and tried to nibble on their undulating hair. The mermaids bent themselves into a circle, grasping one another’s tails, and spun. They shimmied and lip-synched.
During the Little Mermaid show, they had lip-synched a song called “We’ve Got the World by the Tail.” It goes:
We’re not like other women
We don’t have to clean an oven.
And we never will grow old,
We’ve got the world by the tail.
And all I could think was, well, Christ, I don’t have to clean the oven. I resisted the song when they sang it that morning, but the old-timey feel of Fish Tails made me think harder about the young women in 1940s Florida who had few career options beyond marriage and low-level service jobs. How glorious it must have been to be given the chance to shake their stuff in the water and live independently and hobnob with bona fide movie stars like Johnny Weissmuller (who played Tarzan) and Esther Williams, to become celebrities themselves, even though they were from the middle of Podunk nowhere and had little more than beauty and youth and willingness on their side. How seductive such a life would have been; it must have threatened men unused to women living independently. It must have been infuriating to see such lissome, smiling exemplars of feminine beauty through the glass—and to be unable to touch them. The women, knowing they were watched, would have felt their own terrific power. I was falling for the history of the show, for all the many mermaids who’d swum here and made it look glamorous.
The penultimate act in Fish Tails was advertised as a deep-dive of about 120 feet into the mouth of the chasm. Water pours out of the spring at such a speed that one former mermaid described the dive as trying to swim up a waterfall. There used to be enormous catfish that lived down there and an eel that would threaten the mermaids when they hooked their heels into the bar that held them in place. The mermaid disappeared below the lip of the stage; the announcer cannily built suspense by describing what she was feeling as she dove deeper and deeper; at one point she sent up a breath that expanded hugely as it rose, from showercap to bread loaf to pillowcase. Time ticked and ticked. I nearly passed out by the time she came up, grinning and waving. I’d been holding my breath with her the whole time.
And then it was the final act. A super-patriotic country song boomed loud and the mermaids wore red-white-and-blue costumes and held an American flag between them. My patriotism is manifested in finding it a privilege to pay taxes, in voting, and in turning a critical eye on my government. Nationalistic bombast makes me ill. I closed my eyes to this last part of the show until the audience erupted in roars, and we all filed out, glad to be aboveground in the sunlight again. I thanked John for his real kindness and fled.
I came to Weeki Wachee to sound the mystery of the mermaid, to find danger and sex and darkness and maybe hear my own deeps echoed back. Instead I found a polite performance and excellent work ethic and real people who do what they do out of sisterhood and love for the cold springs. This is what happens when you are given a plateful of hot Americana à la mode and expect to taste profundity; my disappointment was a result of my failure of expectations, not their show. I’d brought a bathing suit, but it sat dry at the bottom of my purse. I think I’d hoped the mermaids would recognize me as one of their own and invite me in for a swim. Oh well. I did spend a day looking at beautiful women, a spectacular way to pass the time.
As I drove back to Gainesville, I thought of the Rhinemaidens. The freshwater Weeki Wachee mermaids are closer to nixies than actual mermaids, who supposedly live in the ocean; the saltwater Gulf, the mer of the maids, is miles away from the springs. In Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, the Rhinemaidens are nixies of the river Rhine and keepers of the gold that, when seized, leads to world power. They’re seductive and morally ambiguous and elusive and playful. The gold is stolen from them in the first opera of the three, and at one point later they sing angrily:
ist’s nur in der Tiefe:
falsch und feig
ist, was dort oben sich freut!
According to my dictionary and my shaky memory of college German, this means: Only the deeps hold intimacy and truth; false and cowardly is the surface’s rejoicing.
But the surface is often beautiful; it is often good enough. I drove home in silence, letting my brain decompress. Two weeks later, I’d spend a week at Crescent Beach on the Atlantic coast of Florida, where high school students rent condos and pack them with dozens of hormonal bodies. I’d watch these teenaged girls in their bikinis, braving the cold March wind, perhaps—probably—drunk in the middle of the day, delighting in their new, gorgeous, dangerous bodies, flirting with the boys who eyed them with shielded delight, and I’d think: Aha. Here be sirens. But on the drive home from Weeki Wachee, the long brown fields were tender in the early afternoon light. The blue sky appeared out of the tunnels of water oak and palmetto scrub, the air calm and cool in these last months before the heat descends like a solid fabric. I cracked the window to let in the wind. The daughters of the air were doing one good deed to earn their souls that afternoon. Sometimes it’s lovely to float on the surface of things.
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