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Sunday, May 23, 2010

How to Tell if a Mermaid is an Imposter

(From Rules of the Lake, the prequel to Ashes to Water.)
Many scientists believe humans used to have a third eyelid--a transparent membrane that moved sideways across the eye from the corner nearest the nose--that protected the eye under water. We all still have a left-over, functionless reminder of it--the small pink fold of tissue at the corner of our eyes, where pap and tears collect.

Mermaids have a third eyelid--if they're real mermaids. That's one of the ways you can identify impostors. When a real mermaid is underwater, the third eyelid closes over her eyes like a window shade pulled sideways from the sash. It has a murky transparency so the eyeball is still visible when the lid is engaged, but the eyeball appears foggy and blurred, like the eyes of a dead fish.

The mermaids at Weeki Wachee were impostors.

Anybody who needs a garden hose to breathe is not a real mermaid.

Maybe they really were gone, the real ones, like the third eyelid I was supposed to have but was born without. Maybe all that remained of them was a fake underwater show with women who wore face masks and fake smiles.

One Saturday, Pamela Hoke”s mother took Pamela and me to Weeki Wachee Springs. It was Pamela”s birthday, and for some reason, Pamela had chosen me as the one friend she was allowed to bring along. Pamela was my age, but that was all we had in common. I thought her stupid and boring. The only reason I put up with her at all that day was because she had a new Instamatic camera which she wore dangling from her wrist by its slender black strap.

A: Hey, Pamela, can I see your camera?

P: No, I don”t think so.

A: Why not?

P: I”m still using it.

A: No, you”re not. It”s hanging off your wrist, doing nothing.

P: Well, that”s where I want it right now.

A: I just want to see it for a minute.

P: Um, no.

A: Ah, come on, Pamela--

I stopped myself. I wouldn't beg.

P: This place is a rip-off. I like Cypress Gardens better. They have peacocks there, and you can pet them and once one of them followed me everywhere I went.

A: That's because you smell like its mother,

Mrs. Hoke shot me a warning glance.

P: And they have these ladies who wear these really big dresses like in the olden days with hoop skirts and ruffles, and my mother is going to buy me one.

A: Uh huh.

Something was going on behind the glass. I turned my attention to the mermaids.

P: And I like DeLeon Springs, too, because you can swim there and the water is clean and blue, not like your smelly old lake.

Man, was she pushing it. I'd wanted to punch her for an hour now, but if I did that, she wouldn't let me look through her camera. One mermaid broke from the underwater routine and was swimming around looking distracted. What was going on?

P: And they have a concession stand there and my mother gives me five dollars, and I can spend it on anything I want.

A: I guess that explains why you're so fat.

Pamela wrenched open her incredibly large mouth as far as it would go like a snake, unhinging its jaw to swallow something bigger than its own head, and the sound that came from her could have shattered glass. It was an amazing tantrum. I was horrified. You would have thought the glass barrier holding the mermaids and the spring apart from us had exploded and vomited its contents in a violent gush, sending fish and mermaids careening, their white bellies flashing as they sailed by us with fins and arms twisted, landing with a wet thud at our feet where they flopped about helplessly and screamed and gasped for air, and all because I called Pamela fat. Her mother pressed Pamela”s face into her belly. I could barely hear myself over her shrieking.

P: I want to go home!

Mrs. Hoke: Yes, I think we should.

A: No! Wait! I apologize! Please, Mrs. Hoke, I want to watch the mermaids! We just got here! Pleeeeease!

But she was already moving toward the exit with Pamela leeched to her middle, and I knew I could yell and holler all I wanted, but it wouldn't do any good.

A: Hell damn fart!

Somebody's father glared at me. I turned back around to face the glass.

The mermaid I'd noticed earlier was engaged in some sort of solo performance, a kind of mime show, but with ballet-like movements of her arms and sudden, surprisingly powerful lashes of her mermaid tail which propelled her slowly and gracefully around the spring.

Though I couldn't see them perfectly, her eye's were open, a little too wide, it seemed to me, and there was about them a foggy quality I hadn't noticed before.

I watched her, mesmerized, as she tried to communicate with hand gestures and mouth movements, and though I had no idea what the specifics of her message were, I thought I knew what she was saying.

She was saying, save me.

She was saying, get me out of here,

and she was talking directly to me.

The dancing mermaid was pressed against the glass, staring directly at me. Her arms were above her head and her fingertips touched the glass, like the tree frogs that regularly suctioned themselves to our sliding glass door. Where was her air hose?

What? What is it?

A family of four surrounded me suddenly and pushed me from my place. I got squeezed behind a tall man and almost fell down. I groped and clutched and elbowed until I could see her again, and just before I lost my grip on the railing, the mermaid blinked.

Her eyelid moved sideways and open, then sideways and shut,

and I let go of the railing.

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