When the lights dim and the show starts,
there are three of them in the water, these
half women/half acrobats swimming
in a tank like sea otters at the zoo. The one
at the center has a coral bikini top that’s supposed
to look like little sea shells, and her tail, pinned
together with tiny hooks at the back, is deep blue,
like the color of an actual ocean. She swims
in circles around the other two ladies, fast
as she can with her legs pinned together. The top
half of her body twisting and twirling, the bottom
half doing half butterfly kicks. The other two
tread water and communicate in hand signals,
gesturing along with the recorded story
that screeches on the speakers. They stop
frequently to huff in breaths from the machine.
But the twirling girl never seems to stop and grab
at the dangling oxygen mask, or if she does, she hides herself
behind the plastic sea rock. She must believe in the magic –
that while in the tank, her tail, fraying at the seams,
is a real part of her body, her waterproof blue eyeshadow
a real part of her face. It is only after she gets out
and the recording stops and the stage hand unfastens
the tail from her legs, that she breathes again,
believes she’s human, sees the tank from above.
One morning, my mother says she is mermaid, too,
and goes for a swim in our bathtub.
Each July, she drove us to Weeki Wachee
to watch the mermaids flip and twirl
and twist their bodies into pretzels and zig zags.
We counted the colors of their tails as they swam:
pink, purple, magenta, teal, and rose.
We imagined their stories, invented their princes,
talked forever about the shades of their hair,
how the brunettes seemed to sink
into the dark water, disappearing like a magic act.
I really was, she tells them, I had a tail right here
for legs. The woman sits on her front porch in a bathrobe.
She crosses her legs at the knees, shakes pink slippers
off her feet, revealing toe rings and hairy ankles,
drops of sweat everywhere. But neighborhood children
gather around her like bees hovering around a flower;
she has stories to tell. She says to them, combing her hands
through invisible hair, that she used to be a mermaid,
that once she lived in the ocean with the fish
and made hair ties out of seaweed and tea cups
out of little round shells. The children sigh and circle
her like birds around a carcass.
Photo by Alex Loach on Flickr