Excerpt from The Mermaid Handbook
This book is for mermaids, and for everyone who loves mermaids, and for everyone who secretly wants to be a mermaid, deep down. It’s for all those who hold conch shells to their ears to hear the ocean and its secret messages; who love the soft iridescent beauty of a shell’s interior; who have a special affinity for pearls and sea glass and aquamarine; who stalk beaches for a perfect washed-up treasure gleaming from the sand. It’s also for those who love the feel of salt on their skin and in their hair and who dream of swimming—tail stretching out behind them—in the open ocean, alongside manta rays, whales, and dangerous, glittering creatures who could pull you to the ocean floor without a thought—and you’d almost let them.
I wasn’t always one of these people. I wasn’t a mermaid person and I never secretly wanted to be one, though I loved fairy tales. Like almost every other girl of my generation, I’d grown up loving Splash and Disney’s animated film The Little Mermaid. I’d spent most of my life avoiding the ocean, though: I’m not only too pale for the sun but also have an abiding love of rain, cold weather, and generally nonoceanic terrains. When I visited the Arctic a few years ago, it was a dream come true. Plus, the ocean is terrifying. Who knows what’s right there, below the surface?
I wrote my novel Mermaid, a reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid,” almost by accident. In 2008, a British publisher approached me about buying the UK rights to publish my novel Godmother, which was set to come out the following year in the United States, and asked to see what else I was working on. I detailed a few works in progress and then made a somewhat random dream list of other ideas, including something about a children’s book about a mermaid. The publisher bought that idea, to my surprise, but wanted an adult novel instead. I wasn’t opposed to the idea—who wouldn’t want to write about mermaids? I thought—and spent some weeks trying to settle on a concept before my agent pushed me toward the Andersen tale as a source of inspiration. I loved “The Little Mermaid” but thought it was far too depressing—beautifully so—to do anything with until one day I had this image of the human princess come to mind. Although her character is barely in the story, she’s the one who marries the prince, leaving the mermaid brokenhearted. I imagined the princess standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean and seeing the mermaid for the first time, an almost-drowned man in her arms. That would be the kind of moment that changed a life, I thought—and I could imagine a whole book unfurling from that moment.
I began writing that book in 2009, and that’s when I started seeing what had been invisible to me before: mermaids are everywhere. They peek out from subway posters, blink up from Starbucks cups, and lounge treacherously in the guise of statues, plaques, and murals in cities all over the world. When friends (and strangers on Facebook) learned I was writing the book, they sent me photographs of mermaids they came across, too: painted on a door in Santa Fe or on the side of a boat in Germany, sculpted out of snow in Alaska, and, in the flesh, posing in an old-time mermaid tank in Portland, Oregon.
I started a blog, I Am a Mermaid, to capture these mermaids from around the world. That’s when I realized how powerful mermaids really are, how they have held humankind in their dangerous but incredibly glamorous thrall in one form or another for millennia. Through the blog, I slowly became aware of a whole culture of people who love mermaids. More than that, I became aware of a whole culture of people who are mermaids; who, when they put on a tail—and there are many dazzling, handcrafted, realistic-looking mermaid tails available today—literally and figuratively slip into a new skin. As I met them, as I interviewed them, as I watched their videos, I realized that something wonderful and wild was happening behind all the flash and kitsch. Women were tapping into some mystical, primitive part of themselves, something powerful and dangerous, even awe-inspiring.
I heard many wonderful stories, like that of septuagenarian Vicki Smith, who began swimming at Weeki Wachee Springs in 1957 and who performed for Elvis Presley in 1961. She told me that returning to Weeki Wachee in her sixties was a transformative experience—getting in that water, being weightless and free, made her feel seventeen again. Bambi the Mermaid, who’s attended every Coney Island Mermaid Parade for more than twenty-five years, described how being a mermaid helped her during her bereavement after her husband’s death. Plus, mermaids “never worry about their weight or growing old or become bogged down by insecurities,” she said. And Raina the Halifax Mermaid told me how her mermaid persona strips away her usual shyness and insecurities and gives her confidence and daring; the powerful mermaid was, she realized, the outward expression of her true, tamped-down inner self. Mermaid after mermaid spoke to me of freedom and power and a feeling of pure bliss under the water, and the stories kept coming.
It’s hard to talk to all those sea-loving ladies and not fall in love with the sea, too. Eventually I heard the siren song myself. In 2011, three months after Mermaid was published, I attended mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee Springs. While I was apprehensive and awkward at first, and deathly afraid of the mossy-backed turtles in the spring, my first swim in a tail ended up being one of the most magical days of my life. I’ll never forget the wild manatee that swam in from the adjoining river and spent all afternoon cavorting with me and a dozen or so other ladies in tails. I found that it’s easy, and fast, to swim in a tail with your feet in a monofin, which propels you along, and I loved being in a community of women and immersed in the pure beauty of the spring. A few months after Weeki Wachee, I went snorkeling for the first time, in St. John, and was amazed at the array of fish and the way the warm light streams underwater, illuminating everything. Later that year, a friend and I planned a trip to Nicaragua—and she agreed to get scuba certified with me there on Big Corn Island, off the country’s Caribbean coast.
Scuba diving was not something I’d ever thought I’d do—willingly get into the open, sharkfilled ocean, especially with gear strapped to my back. When my dive instructor told me to sit on the side of the boat in my full scuba gear and just let myself fall into the water on my back, I thought she was nuts. “Be a mermaid,” she said, seeing how scared I was. “You are a mermaid.” For a moment I was stunned by the coincidental metaphor—until I realized it was what she said to all lady divers. So I grabbed my respirator and let myself fall, semiconvinced I would be snatched up by a shark in the process.
When I opened my eyes, I wasn’t sure where the surface was. A swarm of transparent, ghostlike creatures surrounded me. Disoriented, I thought it was the light at first. I froze, alone in the water as these ghosts danced all around me. When I realized that the creatures were real (medusas, aka jellyfish, I’d later learn), and that they hadn’t hurt me and weren’t going to, I exhaled and looked down below, at the reams of spectacular coral stretching out along the ocean floor. My instructor appeared then, giving me the “OK” sign, which in scuba diving is a question: “Are you okay?” I made the “OK” sign back to her, and we descended, jewel-covered schools of fish darting past us.
Everything seemed to break open then. I was weightless, flying through the water, as this new, silent world enveloped me, with its swaying seaweed, glittering fish, tiny floating medusas, the white rocks and reefs thick with coral. It was like being in outer space, except that it’s right there, under the surface of the sea. I understood the breathlessness of all the mermaids I’d spoken to over those months, the profound experiences they’d had in the water, and I cried in my mask as I experienced all that otherworldly beauty up close.
I went on to scuba dive in St. Lucia and even dove with black-tipped reef sharks on a weeklong live-aboard diving trip with a boat full of mermaids in the Bahamas. I never would have imagined I’d be forty-one years old and diving with sharks and mermaids, but the world is like that sometimes, full of beautiful surprises.
I hope you will find some of your own beautiful surprises inside this book, which celebrates the mermaid—goddess, fashion icon, muse, kitschy entertainer, seductress, and destroyer—in all her guises. Perhaps if you hear the sea calling, it will help you tap into your own inner mermaid, too.