Horace warns us to eschew hybridity in writing, lest such unions give birth to freaks. Each genre “has its place allotted,” Horace advises in his Ars Poetica, “each is bound / To keep it, nor invade its neighbour’s ground,” or the author risks foolish, monstrous hybrids such as “unions of lamb with tiger, snake with bird” or “a maid above, a hideous fish below.” A twenty-first-century writer might find such combinations more seductive than hideous. The hybrid works that Horace describes frolic, bound, leap, slither, fly, swim, recline on the rocks with fellow mermaids, combing their long hair and singing.
This is a true story: Once when I was young, I was walking along a rocky beach, it must have been in Maine, I must have been fifteen or so, it must have been summer, but it was almost evening, so the air was chilly. I was shivering in my sweatshirt and fleece hoodie, damp with salt air. The beach was deserted. The waves flowed almost to my feet and then ebbed, leaving shiny pebbles and driftwood and yellow foam behind on the wet sand before returning to cover them again. I looked up at the rocky crags above me and there she was: fish scales glimmering below her waist, naked above, her pale skin flushing pink in the rosy half light that lingered after sunset. Her long hair was tangled over her breasts like seaweed. She was humming. Sometimes she sang nonsense syllables: “O-ro-mi-o-ro-mi, sha-la-sha-la.” The light waned as I clambered up the rocks, mossy and wet near the beach. She didn’t look my way, didn’t seem to hear or see me. When I reached the place I’d spotted her, hot and panting from my climb, she was gone.
I didn’t tell anyone. Who would believe me? But mermaids began to populate my dreams and waking life. At school that fall we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Oberon tells Puck he once heard “a mermaid on a dolphin’s back”:
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath That the rude sea grew civil at her song And certain stars shot madly from their spheres To hear the seamaid’s music.
Strolling the beach, Prufrock heard the “mermaids singing, each to each.” Poetry, of course—poets conjure fabulous creatures. But in college I did research. Mine was not the first mermaid sighting in the New World. Christopher Columbus saw three mermaids in 1493, “not as beautiful as they are painted, although to some extent they have a human appearance in the face.” Some claim that Captain John Smith saw a green-haired mermaid off the coast of Massachusetts in the early 1600s, “swimming about with all possible grace near the shore.” Fishermen in Gloucester chopped off the hand of a mermaid clinging to the rail of their boat. Mermaids were sighted off Nantucket Island. A lighthouse keeper in Connecticut almost caught a mermaid off Stratford Point, who hissed at him as she escaped. Elsewhere a sea captain forced a mermaid to grant him three wishes before he’d release her. Maybe I would have thought of that, if she hadn’t gotten away.
I know what I would have asked for, at age fifteen. Awkward, alienated, feeling freakish in my outsiderhood, I would have asked for beauty, popularity, and fame. Or breasts like the mermaid’s. Or tangled seaweed hair. All useless.
Now I might beg her instead to teach me her song. Her hypnotic humming fills my ears, as I puzzle over the words: “O-ro-mi-o-ro-mi, sha-la-sha-la.” Her voice was clear and sweet, but hushed and hard to hear, mingling with the sound of the waves. Perhaps she wouldn’t have heard me at all over the ocean’s insistent rhythms, and would have slithered out of my grasp.
I am left to write my own songs, jumping from rock to rock, navigating the slippery boundaries between memory and desire, lamb and tiger, snake and bird, maiden and fish. Translating the untranslatable into new combinations of words, hideous and ravishing.
I dream of beautiful monsters.
Originally published in Hotel Amerika, vol. 16 (spring 2018).