Photography by Marketa Novak | Model: Marie Kružíková Renčová
Temptresses from the deep, with beautiful faces and seductive voices, luring sailors to their death. Wicked profiteers who pick a shipwreck clean of its riches and line their lairs with fallen crowns. Not-quite-women who surrender themselves entirely for a man’s love … Really?
No. Not anymore.
“I want to be a mermaid,” says Freja, a nine-year-old girl from the land of Hans Christian Andersen. “I don’t really know why … I just think they are special. They can do anything.”
A new sort of mermaid is the quintessential 21st century woman—and literary heroine. Freed from some of the less pleasant conventions of old fairy tales, she owns her body and its power. She is a lover of beauty, a free spirit, and a member of a society where women govern themselves. Perhaps her allure can’t be entirely defined, but it can be celebrated for a new generation.
If you want to capture mermaid life on the page, as I did for my recent novel, Mermaid Moon, you’ll have a lot of mythology to sort through and a lot of poems and novels and self-help books. As long as land dwellers (let’s call them the landish, with merpeople being seavish) have pulled a living from the water, they have yearned for the marreminder who live in it. That means almost exclusively mer-maids; the male counterparts may have had a moment with The Shape of Water, or in the coats of arms of some hypermasculine noblemen, but it’s the girls who fascinate us.
Columbus spotted three in the Caribbean. Henry Hudson saw one in the Arctic, and (according to legend) Blackbeard tangled with a bevy of them in the West Indies. They are the femmes fatales of western Africa; the fallible Princess Suvannamaccha in Thailand; maybe even related to the catlike Chippewa lake monster, Misshepeshu.
“For me, mermaids are rebirth,” says Krishna, who moved to seaside Florida in her fifties. “I’m different in the water. I swim far from the harm of humans.”
So why would a mermaid come to land? For love, sure—or because some of her blood is landish and she wants to explore that connection, just as Krishna unites her blood to the saltwater.
One thing is certain: The modern mermaid delights in her body. She loves its difference, the fact that it is never entirely one thing. To landish humans, this body might be unsettling; to her it is practical. She glides like a fish in the water and crawls like a seal upon land, if she doesn’t enchant her way into a convenient pair of legs.
Marreminder aren’t always physically beautiful by landish standards, but that doesn’t matter. Even the 19th century hoax known as the Feejee mermaid, a grisly patchwork of young monkey and sizable fish, drew audiences around the world for more than twenty years. (And the true mermaids must have laughed.)
Who can say, really, how a mermaid looks? The world is large and species are varied; her body doesn’t have to mimic the statue in Copenhagen or the redhead in Disney. Myths and legends report women with one or two tails, fins up and down their bodies, or just a pair of powerful flukes, laying eggs or giving live birth, sometimes furred rather than scaled. Some have gills; some can hold their breath long enough to surface just a few times a day. I propose that the mermaid exhales through a blowhole in the back of her neck—not entirely elegant, perhaps, but efficient when swimming long distances. Especially when her arms are needed for towing nets full of treasure or elderly members of her clan who otherwise would be lost.
And I am sure of this: Swimming as much as she does, diving deep, and sifting through wreckage for treasure, the mermaid’s body must be substantial. A skinny waist would snap in two; a few yards down, the weight of water would crush an ordinary human. So her body is naturally thick, and her fingers have callused from gripping rocks and splintery boards.
I think she might still grow her hair long, though, because she likes how it looks when it swirls through the water.
A mermaid’s tail is both a mystery and a proof of her self-sufficiency. It helps her swim fast by pushing the water; it signals to the landish, You don’t know who I am.
These days, if someone born spiritually mer- but physically landish wants a tail, she can buy one custom-made from silicone or off the rack in cost-effective spandex. She’ll find her group—her school, her clan, her pod—at one of a half-dozen mermaid conventions held nationally each year, or basking together, flukes outstretched, on a local beach. Maybe she’ll perform behind the glass of a water show, or only for a lover, or herself, at home.
How do merpeople make love—either with each other or with two-legged humans? This mechanical question has baffled the landish forever, and it was one of the first I got when
I mentioned that I was writing this novel. Her tail was the problem to solve.
My theory: the seavish parts are in front among her scales and fins, and bodies twine around each other like DNA strands.
Isn’t love always a bit of a mystery, even when we know how the parts work?
It is said that in 1563, while the Swedish Duke Magnus of Östergötland was supervising construction of a castle, he spotted a hafsfrun in the moat and hurled himself from a window to join her.
This story cannot be confirmed. But it proves that even without trying, the mermaid enchants anyone tied to the land, luring them to peril.
This is her nature, not her fault. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot writes, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, by sea-girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown—till human voices wake us, and we drown.” It’s not the magical marreminder who are dangerous. It’s the everyday humans.
The landish have always feared the power this creature has to seduce them. Which is why, in the old stories, when a mermaid comes to land it is because she wants to mate with a man. Men have turned the story around so the mermaids want them instead.
In Danish folklore, poetry, and sculpture, land-born Agnete leaves her farmer husband and children in order to live as a mermaid. She gives birth to mer-children—then chooses to return to the farm, to be mourned forever in the sea. Heinrich Heine’s Lorelei lives in the Rhine and waits for a landish lover who will never come back. And the most famous Dane of all trades her voice and her tail to walk on land and sigh over a prince already in love with somebody else.
The old pattern isn’t enough anymore. As the modern mermaid has found her own strength, she has become slipperier in love. Her amphibious nature—and that tail—are signs of a sexuality that can’t be defined in one way.
It makes sense to me that mermaids fall in love with each other, perhaps more easily than with landish men. Or maybe they don’t fall in love at all.
Alabama-born Emily has fulfilled many of her dreams: a happy marriage to a loving wife, a new baby, a horse farm. Still, she points out, “We are so hindered as people. But mermaids, or sea folk in general, are held back by nothing.”
William, a bushy-bearded city dweller, agrees: “They are free spirits. They are my thing, and they always have been.”Maybe mermaids were once the daughters of mer-kings. But with the power to enchant other creatures and even to choose their own bodies, why would they live by the rules of a patriarchy?
They wouldn’t. They don’t, not now.
The seavish heroine of modern tales is a future queen herself, as in Carolyn Turgeon’s Mermaid, or part of a democracy, as in my Mermaid Moon. She’s as much Elizabeth Warren as Marilyn Monroe. Or, like the mer-girls in Aimee Bender’s short stories, she goes to high school or takes an office job—and finds her own pleasures within the humdrum day-to-day.
Even more than her body, that ability to enjoy life is what attracts humans. We are a melancholy breed who need the mermaid, not the other way around.
“I am a mermaid,” says Freja.
“I am a mermaid,” says Emily.
“I am a mermaid.” Krishna declares, “I am living the life I always dreamed of.”
The mermaid slaps her tail at anyone who tries to tell her who she is. We aren’t supposed to understand her entirely; her thick heart beats far, far below the surface, and she writes her own stories upon the water. Their traces vanish as swiftly as she does, leaving nothing but mystery behind. ♢
Here’s a quick description of the book followed by a lovely excerpt:
In the far northern reaches of civilization, a mermaid leaves the sea to look for her land-dwelling mother among people as desperate for magic and miracles as they are for life and love.
Excerpt from Mermaid Moon
A pile of rocks rises from the sea where the currents are strong and the waves beat a spray as high as I stand. Now I know what I never saw when I was only swimming in these waters: The rocks are the castle. And it must be approached in exactly this way, across an island where landish plants grow in straight lines that lead to a gate.
“Surely you can manage ten more steps,” I say out loud and sternly, for the benefit of my new legs. They are still learning what they are, and how to move in the heavy blue skirts I borrowed from the trunk of a shipwrecked lady. They stumble and trip and feel as if someone has smashed them with hammers and set them on fire, which is not too far from what I’ve done today. But they still obey me and keep going. Ten steps, then ten more.
The castle looms huge. I smell fire, and flowers, and cooking, and people massed together. Ten more steps. And then another ten through the gate, and a long archway, and at last I see them: the landish flok.
My first impression is that there are many more of them than there are people in my own seavish clan. They sit on broken trees arranged within a five-sided bowl of stone, with white flowers on the walls and so much bright metal and glistening food that my eyes are blinded. I smell them fully, and hear them—all at once, overwhelming with sensation, as if smell and sound are tangible things (to us, they are) and can batter a body like waves.
That’s when I fall. In front of all those staring faces, I tumble. Into the white flowers on the walls, into branches that tear at me. They rip my fine blue dress apart, right down to the tender new skin of my legs.
At first, I can’t make sense out of what happens next. It seems the first thorn barely touches me before I’m caught in the vine. It clings to me and I hear a sigh from deep inside. Blood leaks from me—tiny drops, little pearls—crackling as it meets the air.
Then the flowers change. The white of their petals speckles with red. Speckles become streaks, and the vine vibrates and bursts forth with new growth. Red flowers. Which instantly begin to disappear.
They’re being plucked. I hear the snap of stem after stem. The landish folk have leapt up and are stuffing the flowers into their mouths.
They eat magic, I think hazily. I have to tell the merfolk.
The landish use a different word.
“Miracle,” someone murmurs, and others shout, “Miracle!”
The sound bounces off the rocks and melts into the sea spray, and then it rushes into me—because I am the miracle. And they are actually upon me—touching me where I’m wounded, licking the blood.
But what’s just happened is not a miracle. I know this. It’s merely an accident, a misstep in my magic of alteration, which didn’t stop working when my tail split. Or rather, I didn’t remember to stop it, and so it is spilling over with my blood.
There isn’t much room for thinking, beneath the mass of people reaching through and shoving each other away. Not much room for breath either. But just as I am about to drown among these landish bodies, I feel a jolt. In my arm. Like a bite from one of those eels whose mouths carry the same power as a lightning bolt.
It’s a hand, pulling. Somehow it has power to make the others fall away. It draws me up, and the thorns rip at my clothes and skin some more. I scramble to get my feet under myself again.
Then I am standing, blinking, in the sun and wind. Surrounded by a thousand flowers now turned completely red, with a darker, spicier scent. The people have fallen away—or rather, they’re hovering, hoping to dart back for another touch.
For now, they keep a distance.
Because the hand that pulled me from them is still tight on my arm, and it belongs to a tiny, cold woman in a gold dress, with gold-and-silver hair, and a single silver eye boring into me.
For a moment I think it would be better to lie between the rock and all those landish miracle-criers than to face this face.
Because that jolt and tingle came from magic. And my own magic—as well as good sense—says that this woman is not going to be a friend.
“Who are you,” she hisses, “and what is your business in my castle?”