Once Momma decides something there’s really no arguing, so I crawl out of bed with her at midnight and we sneak away from the dormitory, the other girls dead asleep. The fog of detergent and too many perfumes gives way to a humid swelter of jasmine, fiddlewood, and cherry sage, and I can barely keep up with Momma’s long-legged stride. We edge past the underwater theatre’s bulky entrance, towards the far end of the spring where the water is deepest.
It’s a bad idea, I want to say, it’s not allowed, but even in my head, the protestations sound annoyingly fretful. If only she would turn back at me with a wink and a grin as if we were being naughty, out on a lark, but no, Momma isn’t much for smiles. Her mouth is set in the same purposeful line as the last time we stole away in the night, but back then she’d carried me from my bed to the bus stop, and this time we aren’t running away from something; she’s on a quest like Captain America or Ponce de Leon and needs me there in case “something happens.”
“What if there’s gators?” I finally whisper as we near the cove. She laughs as if there weren’t signs all over the park warning tourists away from the gators and poisonous snakes and eels. Away from the colorful umbrellas and painted mermaid statues the landscape is more impenetrably strange, all the green foliage dark and lethal like ink or old blood. I hold Momma’s towel tight against my chest and jump at every cicada as she sits on a rock by the water and puts on her flippers.
“I have sixteen minutes, maybe nineteen. After that…” she trails off with a shrug.
“After that what?” There was no way I’d be able to jump in and save her. Even in the shallowest parts of the spring, I can only sloppily dog-paddle. Five years with the mermaids and I can repair the breathing hoses and clean algae from any surface but the water resists a body heavy with land and fear. I think of Momma pirouetting and waving to a blurry audience behind the aquarium glass in the underwater silence and feel nauseous.
“Go wake Mr. P, I guess.”
She slips her gaze off me like seaweed, already thinking about the dive. The moon is full enough that I can see fish meandering below the surface of the water, not just a rippled mirror to the heavy sky but a window. The women are uncanny, yes, twisting complex ballet maneuvers in their simple swimsuits, but the water itself really encourages skepticism. Checking tickets or searching the stone floor for discarded candy wrappers I listen to the tourists whisper their doubts—fans are blowing the girls’ hair, surely. The fish are actually swimming in an aquarium built into the glass, a border separating suspended girls from the audience. This murmuring feels almost blasphemous, and always puts me in mind of Daddy’s reaction when a guy from his former platoon sent in the postcard from Silver Springs, back when Mr. P had just gotten it all officially opened—soaking up some sun with the mermaids! scrawled on the back with a shaky hand. The woman hovered at the mouth of an underwater canyon, arms spread into effortless wings. Daddy couldn’t believe that she was actually floating—where were the fish? The air bubbles? The water, his friend explained, is clear as nothing. Daddy squinted at the postcard and searched for suspension strings between swigs of beer. Once he fell asleep Momma hung the picture with a magnet high and center, and the lady looked to be flying out from a hole in our fridge.
Momma considers the sky, considers the water, and the rocks jutting from the surface could roof the same canyon from the postcard. This is especially easy to imagine since the moon washes Momma black and white as a photograph. She’s still as a photograph and I’m afraid. The spring is so deep here that no one’s ever reached the bottom; not even Mr. P, our own human fish. Deep dives for the performances alone take weeks of training to perfect, and the water outside the park’s perimeter is forbidden. Momma has long since shaken away any respect for what’s forbidden. For a while, after she dives I can still see her growing smaller and smaller beneath the surface.
◄ ━ ≪ ⋘ ⋙ ≫ ━ ►
After the war, a paperwork mix-up had announced Daddy dead instead of another man with the same name, and when he eventually came home we called it a resurrection. After that first telegram, Momma’s boss at the auto shop kept her on instead of retraining a man—her hands were so nimble, skilled with small mechanical parts. She wore black mourning dresses out around town and black crescents under her nails at work. When Daddy walked through the front door a few months later Momma didn’t scream or drop the dish she was holding; she was stiff as a flagpole. It seemed at first like the oil and grease wouldn’t ever leave Momma’s fingers but every night she scrubbed and scrubbed in the hot water until her hands were angry red, then clean as if they’d never held a wrench.
I think resurrection when Momma emerges from the water twenty minutes later. She sits beside me on the rocks and even in the darkness, I can see how flushed her face is. I pat her body with the towel as she takes breath after deep breath of air. “Okay,” is all she says, and holds my hand on our way back to the dormitory. My skin prickles a little with the uncustomary touch of her water-wrinkled fingers in my palm. Momma isn’t much for touching, though even at fourteen she brushes my wispy brown hair every night with gentle strokes that I copy on her own fat, sun-warmed locks—in Mississippi, she would unpin her golden mane from a tidy updo and let it collapse against her back. Here in Florida, I work the boar brush through hair that barely reaches her shoulders. Underwater it curls around her head like a perfect halo of light and her movements evoke this too, her body’s twist and twine. All of the girls are strong and graceful but Momma may as well be made of water.
The mermaids practice their choreography early in the morning and late in the evening to avoid the worst of the heat; they reference the pose-drawings stored in waterproof plastic sheets then incorporate these into elaborate improvisations. They’re training another girl from the nearby high-school looking for some local notoriety to help launch a Hollywood career. Momma catches my eye from the pool and raises her brows; I smirk back—we know these girls never stay long, the ones who yearn to be famous. Of course, being photographed is no small part of mermaid work. Mr. P has always been utterly savvy about promoting his projects and before the park even opened the postcards were pouring into local gift-shops, hoarded in shoe boxes, hung on refrigerators. Momma still has the copy of Harper’s Bazaar she got back in Mississippi with the underwater shot taken at the springs—a model in a white nightgown is suspended, rising or floating, an Ophelia who could be alive or dead but her face is the only part above the surface; it evades the camera. Some people, Momma told me, were uncomfortable.
Mr. P is picking up his daughter from the airport, so Momma and another seasoned performer lead this training session, remind the new girl to be careful about not kicking up sand with her fins. Some maintenance guys touch up the brightly painted statues of large-breasted, finned sirens that bear little resemblance to the actual mermaids in the pool. They sneak glances at the women; I eye them warily. The concrete is still warm on my thighs from the afternoon and I can’t help but sigh waiting for Mr. P to arrive with Eileen, who at only fifteen has more skill in the water than most of the grown performers. Like her daddy, she’s probably spent more of her life submerged than on two feet. The women in the pool dive and surface in quick succession and I imagine my limbs gone buoyant.
◄ ━ ≪ ⋘ ⋙ ≫ ━ ►
Summer is as long as any season. I launder bathing suits, pour kettle corn into paper bags, count crumpled dollar bills. Mr. P lends me books and comics, and our two mermen read me poems about crooked hearts and twenty-eight boys bathing by the shore. The mermaids teach me how to pin my hair into victory rolls, change a tire, repair shoes, apply an even border of lip liner, how to know when a man is lying. I can’t tell when they’re lying. They pass these things along like something ancient. When they tell me about their lives before becoming mermaids they never sound sad; everything outside the confines of the park is a dream. Once upon a time, there was a wedding, a child’s funeral, an angry father, a typewriter. Once a war started and then it stopped.
I hope my brother is doing well. I wonder what I’m missing but have the sense that it isn’t much. It’s hard to want what isn’t in front of me.
Momma climbs from her twin mattress and wakes the mermaids, a different girl each midnight. She wakes the mermen. They follow her through the darkness to the deepest part of the spring.
I tell Eileen that one day I might move to a place surrounded by mountains and covered in piles of clean snow. Eileen tells me about her mother, a former Olympic swimmer who hosts luxurious garden parties with her new husband, and about her high-school, where she learns to prepare meals and change diapers. She flips through a battered biology textbook and explains to me how eels move through the water like snakes do on land, while more streamlined fish with stiff, crescent-shaped caudal fins swish their tails rapidly from side to side, propelling them the way sculling moves a boat. Pectoral fins and pelvic fins are like car breaks and help with difficult maneuvers—when the fish chase prey around corners of corals or take sharp turns to escape predators.
I whisper this information to Momma before bed. She hmm’s when it’s appropriate and stretches her arms, rubs at the tension in her shoulders.
“What did you find at the bottom of the spring?” I ask. She gives me a rare, lazy smile and gestures to her legs curled under the blanket.
“A tail, of course.”
Some of the network executives from California are in the audience and this might explain the feeling of foreboding in the air, or maybe the mermaids are doing this on purpose, casting a sinister spell with arms and legs that’ll let the bigwigs know exactly what they’re planning to purchase. I hunker down a few chairs away to watch the show and glance at the suited men with their notebooks full of small, tidy print. The aquarium light makes their faces weirdly drawn, all sharp lines and wavering blue shadows, and I feel sunk inside a whale’s belly, a tiny angler gazing out between its teeth. Momma and the other mermaids cut through the water slow as sharks, bathing suits lying seamless against their abdomens, ribs slicing forward when they raise their arms. They settle onto large rocks and drink Grapette, eat bananas. I imagine fangs between their cherry red lips.
In another corner of the theatre, Mr. P tugs uncomfortably at the neck of his starched button-up. He’s short and nuggety, an awkward figure on the shore. Backstage the mermaids have whispered about the investors and their unwillingness to continue funding Mr. P’s show; girls were one thing but apparently, the mermen didn’t help matters, their smooth bodies too young to have fought in the war, made genderless as fish while they handstand and float in the spring. Customers would never keep coming, the investors said, without costumes and acts, without some relevance. The girls toss laughs and glances over their shoulders when they talk about it. They adjust swimsuits the color of their skin and stop a moment to rest a hand on another’s hair.
The mermaids swim together then upwards and apart, what I think of as an upside-down vase, or maybe a mushroom cloud. Eileen dives into the space they’ve left for her, a slow curling descent. In the blue light, she could be a stingray’s daughter. Every summer she tries to teach me to swim and fails spectacularly; but I like the determined concentration on her face, hair unbraided and pasted all over her skin, her hands on my shoulders. I can hold my breath for about thirty seconds before I have to come up sputtering, wiping the water from my eyes. “Again,” she says, laughing not unkindly. The mermaids and mermen are seldom unkind to their own. Their gazes settle everywhere with recognition and ownership. When they’re not performing or posing for photographs the smiles look very different and this is what I wish could live in the places of my body that aren’t filled with deep dives and swimming—or carry away in my chest like a framed picture, wherever away might be.
I’m asleep and then a hand is over my mouth and I’m not anymore—I expect to see Mama but no, it’s Eileen. She’s wearing her bathing suit and a large sweatshirt with her high school's emblem sewed into the front. It takes me a second to realize that the dormitory is empty.
“Come with me,” she says, hand no longer on my lips. I pull on a jacket and follow her barefoot into the damp air.
“Where is everyone?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ve got a hunch. Let’s see.”
She’s grinning like this is such fun and I guess sneaking around in mysterious dark should be exciting for me too but my stomach is in knots. Without the guests and the women splashing and tanning and Mr. P bustling around in his swim trunks the whole place looks like something that shouldn’t exist. We pass the entry sign that screams “WORLD FAMOUS SPRING of the LIVE MERMAIDS” and the emphasis on live unsettles me like there’s a place somewhere I could see world famous mermaids bobbing in formaldehyde or ensconced in a marble sarcophagus. I think of scaly hands black and blue like mold wrapping my ankles.
No full moon tonight. We head towards the deepest part of the spring and I feel like I’m seeing what the earliest explorers might have, picking their way through the landscape with no flashlights or anything. I stumble and Eileen grabs my arm, then my hand. We pause at the sound of splashing and she squeezes my fingers tighter.
“I don’t want to,” I try to say, but she’s already pushing her way through thin branches and hanging vines, dragging me along.
I see Momma’s arms first, the unmistakably broad, freckled shoulders, her long red-painted fingers. She isn’t laughing or smiling, just diving, pushing her body in and out of the increasingly unruly water. She doesn’t look like anyone’s mother. When their tails slice through the surface the limited starlight makes them seem crusted with jewels, then dark again, amphibious. The cove broils with them, water heaving and smacking at the shore. I expect laughter but there is none. Eileen sheds layers of clothes and, before I can try to stop her, dives into the hectic cauldron of breasts and scales. The entrance to the underground theatre is overrun with dense foliage—akebia with burgundy stems, trumpet honeysuckle that fit over my pinkie fingers, indecipherable moss. I keep the plant-life pruned, sweep away dead leaves and other debris from the concrete and sometimes, if I’m feeling especially ambitious, shine the colorful rocks that Mr. P inlaid years ago into the walking paths. He and I ground up a special meal of vitamins and vegetable matter and sugar to toss daily into the spring; although it’s not really necessary it helps us feel useful. Mr. P grows very old, and so of course returning was no choice for me at all. He still swims in the mornings and evenings, huffing his way around the pool, sometimes even diving. One day I know he’ll disappear into the deepest part of the spring and I’ll be alone on shore.
Women and men and those who defy any categorization come to swim in the springs. They are quiet and step respectfully around the main pool, grazing the water’s clear surface with their fingertips. We give them pillows and blankets and lead them into the dormitory for the night, leave warm cocoa by their beds, and in the morning when the beds are empty we launder and fold the sheets. Some days when the sun creeps towards violet evening I sit on the rocks at the park’s perimeter and Eileen surfaces to rest her head on my knees. I touch her wet hair and kiss her wrists. My hands slide across her scales and sometimes, if I’m not careful, bleed.