Would you like to meet the mermaids?
I know you, I know you want to. I know you want what I have to give. So let’s get on with it, shall we?
But before I introduce you, I want to tell you a story. It’s a very short story, I promise, and I’ll get through it as fast as I can because the mermaids are the important part, not me. I’m incidental to the tale, like any good narrator should be. I don’t invent the tale, I just tell it.
So here’s how this goes: I became a mermaid because my parents said I was. I have been the sick one ever since I can remember. My mother refused to let me even walk three houses down by myself until I was ten because she thought I might get kidnapped. She used to lock herself in her room and cry and my sister and I would be trapped in the house with her, nothing to do for hours on end but dream ourselves away. When I became a dreamer, my mother said that made me unsuited to survive in the world on my own. When I was sick to my stomach all through elementary school because of my lactose allergy, my mom said I was faking. When I broke my arm in two places in third grade, my mom refused to take me to the doctor because she thought I was exaggerating. When my parents took me to a psychiatrist in fifth grade because PTSD was firing up my nerve endings, the doctor said I was autistic. When I made friends with “the wrong kind of people,” my parents refused to let me see them and let me believe they didn’t want me.
We become the stories we’re given about ourselves. I became depressed and then bulimic and then OCD and then anxious and then anorexic and then bipolar and of course I had PTSD all the time. I stopped eating and then I threw up everything I tried to eat for a year (not on purpose) and then I didn’t leave the house for another year and then I didn’t have sex for longer than I’ll admit to and then I lied to everyone because sick becomes a state of mind. I made myself so sick that everyone I knew had to see it too, had to recognize what I’d known the whole time: I was tragic, I was lost, I would not survive my life.
Enough of my jabbering. You’re not here to listen to me philosophize, are you?
Let’s meet the mermaids.
The mermaids’ song is a long slow beat of sound, the slowing of the world as it spirals around this one note. I join but you cannot hear my voice because it has yet to be restored to me. If I bring down enough ships and break enough hearts someday it will be, but I cannot make that happen anytime soon. It is my destiny to cause despair but for now, the song that is my own rests between my hands like a rope and I cannot untwine it. I cannot bring myself to harm the unwary even if they are not innocent. After all, they are the ones who came too near. After all, love is only one more net and sometimes the only way to escape is to cast the net of desire off onto someone else instead.
Ruth’s song sounds like the dying breath of a beached Gray Whale. Her fuzzy matted bits of white-blonde hair come out by the handful but she soldiers on bravely, face tilted up to the sky with a beam of approval for the god who made her this way. She fully expects that He is glad to see her adhere so fully to His precepts. Ruth smiles and laughs and talks about riding her aunt’s horses, and it is only when she slips in lines like “but then my doctor told me I could not sit in a saddle because my seat has no flesh on it,” or when she says “if I fall off the horse I could break my back or my knees because my bones are so fragile.” Ruth is the thinnest person I ever met in real life, but from the way she smiles, you would never know she is killing herself.
Devin kills herself. She confesses to me that her friend raped her and that is why she dropped out of college and turned drinking into a profession, which is not a great idea when you are also addicted to pain medication. Devin stands there with her thick ankles crossed and the Sesame Street characters on her calves making grotesque shapes in the moonlight. I tell her to see a therapist get help join a support group read do whatever you have to do. She looks at me with hazy-eyed hero worship and I know I have failed her by not being the goddess of sexual assault healing she wants she needs me to be. I wake up two months later because I know something is wrong. I go back to sleep because I do not want anyone to think I am crazy. I wake up the next morning when the police arrive to carry Devin’s body away.
Cara finds me in the swimming complex of the Y in the middle of nowheresville, Texas. She sits her skeleton-white skin and diamond-shapes bones down next to me on the cracked granite ground, takes my hand and begins to pray with a cool, clear voice, like a waterfall. Through sheer force of will she summons two other women who join our prayer circle. They pray over me in the way only angels can pray, and I am healed. Just like that. Months later I stare at her 65 pounds of determination walking her typical five laps after her typical dinner of raw spinach and carrots. I wonder why I cannot pray for her as well as she did for me.
I pray for Maggie. Because she is as beautiful as a swimsuit model, even though she insists she has gained somuchweight during treatment, I pray for the cascade of selkie-dark curls and naïve blue eyes that is Maggie, whose friendship I fight so, so hard to achieve, whose trust I earn because we both love horses more than we love people, even each other. Maggie turns around and walks to the edge of the stall, and the cream-colored palomino mare ambles after her. Maggie throws her arms around the mare’s neck in delight, and between her forelock of shaggy sable curls and her sparkling blue eyes, it is impossible not to be charmed. Less than a month after that Maggie slides the needle back into her arm and reunites with heroin, her long-lost lover. It is a happy reunion. I think the romance will stick this time.
There is no romance between me and Jenna, even though we are the only two queer women in this entire Texan town. I am terrified of buff, butch Jenna, until one day she listens to my horror story and tells me to throw rocks at the dumpster out back. She says that will channel my anger productively. It works. One day I am summoned to Jenna’s room because she is convulsing in bed trying to resist the siren call of meth. I sit and take her hand and croon and I say all the right things. She tells me that the day before she OD’d. I tell her she will be okay. I am wrong. She sneaks off from her next AA meeting and pours herself back into the life of a drug addict. I lose her.
Margie is my confidante and the woman who gives me shit when I do less than my best. She gives me The Fountainhead and reignites my love of literature, urges me to copy her example and throw myself out of a plane while I am still young enough to believe this is a good idea. She leaves me with Atlas Shrugged after her parents collect her. The official word is that she was kicked out because the staff found her new stash of Oxy. Truthfully, her parents yanked her after staff tore apart her room looking for her stash, and strip-searched other residents looking for the phone Margie stole.
Sofia is one of the two girls the staff strip-searched. She arrives with long blonde hair, a pert nose and an upbeat attitude. Therefore she is my enemy, for three weeks running. One day, she decides we will be friends and makes it happen. I love her and I love her Ipod and I love the room I share with her and I love her warm palm melting against my warm palm. I even forgive her for jumping on my stomach to wake me up from my afternoon nap, which is not a good idea to do to someone with PTSD but she is such a puppy dog that I cannot be angry at her. Sofia loves me back, hard, but loves herself harder. She gets away safe.
H and I refuse to be separated when staff reassign our rooms. We barricade ourselves into the trailer that staff optimistically term “cottage.” We refuse to leave for three weeks in a row, making sure one of us always remains behind to unlock the door for her sister. We become sisters. We win. H walks five miles on a country road in the middle of the night to get to a store to buy alcohol and cigarettes. She is caught. H is sent to drug rehab. She quits the addiction in favor of renewed faith, which ends the day she is sent back here.
P tried to kill herself in her previous location, possibly because her music teacher seduced her and then abandoned her. P was 16 at the time. She is now 17. P cuts her wrists one night and walks bleeding down the side of the road to nowhere. Later I am moved into P’s trailer as punishment and we stay up late talking and talking the way sisters do when they have been long separated. I convince P to report her music teacher. I do something right.
The owner of this property and this business of healing enters my bedroom one morning and throws away my poems while I clutch my sheet to my chest and pretend he is not getting off on stealing my voice. My sisters steal it back for me. They resurrect my poetry and my soul. They sing me back whole.
There are mermaids from Massachusetts and Oklahoma and California, like me. They are my best friends and they die and they want to die and that is what all this is about, is death. Is who will desire take in her own two hands and twist and twist until there is nothing left. Desire and death, knotting up my voice. Taking me taking me. That’s all this was ever about.
This is not about how I became a mermaid, which is an entirely unoriginal and therefore useless tale. I was born. Love demands a sacrifice. I was that sacrifice.
We have all been that sacrifice. I and hundreds of thousands of girls learned to throw up from a book. We starved ourselves to skin and bones and went to bed at night clutching the sharp edges of our collarbones through the first year of college. We told our mothers about our fathers and she told us we were crazy. So we went crazy. So we could no longer keep food down, and then we could no longer eat. So we wound up in places that said they would help us, and they did not. So we stopped being human. So we still are not.
Tails look like legs in a certain light. Tongues work but speak no truth and no one notices. The nervous system recovers, or it does not.
Sex never happens again, but you are not pretty and whatever that loss is to you, it is no loss to anyone else. You muscle desire out the door and close all the shutters and slam down the windows and no one can accuse you of not doing your best to perform your daughterly duties. No one can accuse you of telling others how you feel about them. Of being a person at all, or anything less than a mermaid.
Your destiny is written out for you. You live it out. Like a good girl.
There are stories that end in the middle of a place in Texas you have never heard of. And there is me. There is the story that I am telling but mostly there is the story that is my body. Surviving. And loving them.
If you listen to me sing, that is what you will hear. All the women who have loved me. All the reasons why I am saved.
I know it is unforgivable to speak this way. Our songs are not pretty. We are not pretty, and maybe we are deadly. Maybe we are bad girls disguised as mermaids to trap unwary suitors into falling in love with us till we reveal our true faces.
Maybe we are pretty dead things, and nothing else. But if you leave the answer to fate or to someone else’ narrative, that is all we will ever be.
Maybe I am a mermaid. Maybe I was only ever a monster. Never a girl. Maybe no one ever really wanted me to be.
I want to change all that. I believe the power is in the listener and maybe it is, or maybe it’s in me. Every poem I will ever write is a prayer to the gods to change who I must become. I don’t want to smash ships to bits on the rocks of my own cruelty. I don’t want to tear disloyal boyfriends from their women just because I can. I only want to be happy.
Mermaids are not here to be happy. Mermaids are here to destroy others’ happiness, because being a mermaid means believing our tails are here to stay, and we can never walk on legs like everyone else. PTSD is a diagnosis, a disease—a thing that all the experts agree will be there forever, a neurological disorder, a wound that never stops bleeding. But my physical therapist says the pain in my legs is from muscles that have atrophied, from years of trying to assure myself that my mother kept me inside to protect me and not as a sacrifice to throw in front of my father and throw him off the scent of her. My chiropractor says one of my legs is shorter than the other because of the way I have learned to carry myself, not because of the way I was born.
If I have a tail instead of legs, it is because I curl myself around a bleeding wound between my legs that has long ceased to bleed. I curl myself around pain in my hip that is my right leg trying to remember how to move. I’m not really all that sick, I just lived in a fantasy world because I was denied the real one. Like any kid does to survive the tyranny of adults. Like any little girl does to survive the tyranny of her father.
People do break. But we find a way to put ourselves back together, if we’re ever going to get put back together. And everyone knows that mermaids have the prettiest voices of all.
Ariadne Wolf hopes to finish her speculative memoir by summer 2019. What makes it a speculative memoir? It’s like a regular memoir, but with mermaids. Wolf is intrigued by intersections of queer identity, insanity/madness, sustainability, poetics, and decolonization. Her work explores narrative and form, even though, as her professor is fond of saying, “structure is dead.” Wolf currently resides in Oakland, CA while she completes her MFA at Mills College. She hopes to pursue a Ph.D in English even though she knows this gives her a 2% chance of attaining a decent job anytime in the near future. Like all writers, she creates for passion, not out of hope of financial reward—which is great, because that reward is unlikely to be forthcoming.