Even if I knew why I had driven down that long and uncomfortable road from the Great White North to Hernando County, I still found myself confused as to why I was standing in the middle of a parking lot, staring at a white plaster re-creation of a pair of web-footed dancers. The statue looked like some tacky piece of faux rococo shit. To be fair, it didn't just look it – it was tacky faux rococo shit. Behind the pillar of dancers, eternally frozen in that clichéd monstrosity, a massive faded sign declared the property as "Weeki Wachee Springs Park". And under that, in slideable letters, I was given to understand that "Daily Live Mermaid Shows" occurred within.
Sighing, I put on my shades and stumbled ungracefully out of my rented jeep. Despite the hot noonday sun, I shivered a little as a cold breeze whipped through the parking lot. Sure, it was the sub-tropics, but it was still winter, even if it wasn't the cold and ice of Toronto. Regardless, it was as alien to me as Toronto, a city that still doesn't feel like home, no matter that I have been there longer than I care to tell. The constant change in the architectural landscape doesn't quite help.
Down in Florida, I walked right up to the ticket booth, trying to ignore posters that had been stuck between yellowing plastic sheets. Posters that were filled with smiling faces staring out at me from another time. I fancied them to be souls stuck in an outdated tourist trap, forced to exist in a purgatory of passing visitors who came to witness the slow death of a theme park.
Call me morbid. I've been called worse.
I couldn't stop myself though, from becoming rooted in one spot when I noticed one particular face that grinned at me. If I had a beating heart, it might well have stuttered in that moment. Had there had been a moment when I had wondered if it were a fool's errand I was on, I knew then that I hadn't wasted miles and time, coming all that way. Strangely, as I turned towards the ticketing booth, I couldn't quell the urge that arose within me to turn and run on my two feet back the way I came, even though I was certain at last that I would find what I had come looking for in the first place.
As I approached the ticketing window, the woman behind the cloudy glass window peered up at me, her eyes squinting against the glaring Florida sun. Her dark hair was as improbable as her white smile; her crimson lips were stark against her pale skin. It was like meeting an overweight fairytale princess wearing an outdated pantsuit, whose castle had been foreclosed on.
"Welcome to Weeki Wachee Springs." she greeted brightly in a sunny drawl that I couldn't help but find amusing, even though it was how everyone seemed to speak around there. "Tickets are thirteen dollars for adults."
"Interesting number," I said to her as I pulled bills out of my wallet and handed over my money.
She shrugged, accepting the cash.
"Don't think we need to worry about any more bad luck than what we've already had around here." She said, her smile shrinking, her hard edges peeking out as she printed my admission ticket.
"I don't suppose you do." I agreed amiably. I had no quarrel with her.
"If you're here to see the live mermaid show, that doesn't start till one-thirty." She informed me as she handed me my ticket and receipt. "We've got a café though, and a boat ride of the springs if you want to find something to do while you're waiting."
"I'll certainly think about that." I told her, privately thinking that I'd rather shoot myself in the foot before I did any of that stupid tourist nonsense, or ate their thrift store hotdogs.
Of course, the moment I crossed the threshold of the wrought iron gates and into the park itself, I realized belatedly that there truly wasn't much else I could do to burn the hour I had before the mermaid show. The place was largely empty, with the occasional elderly couple strolling along the neatly paved walkways. A sad looking structure calling itself the "Enchanted Ballroom" stared silently out at the world through windows that were dark and shuttered. Slowly, I meandered the pathways, past the garishly decorated Mermaid Theatre and onto the small strip of boardwalk bordering the fresh water spring.
The sight of massive sea-cows grazing placidly within the frigid waters greeted me. For a moment, I felt a horrible pang of something that may have been homesickness. Still, it was nothing like what I had felt, standing on the seaside the day before.
On the other shore of the narrow spring, a deserted theme park waited, for what I did not know. The slides looked old and rusted, the deck chairs broken and forlorn. Truly, this was a strange and haunted corner of the world, and it filled me with an ever increasing sense of unease.
Turning away, I kept to the well-manicured path, only to find myself stopped short by a statue of an undersea king and his mermaid consort. The artist had favoured bright pinks, purples and greens, but despite the cheerful paintjob – which was peeling off in great flakes - I grimaced at the general grotesquerie of the set-up. Where there ought to have been faces, there was nothing but space, holes for visitors to push their faces again, for cheap photo opportunities. It was as if someone had brutally carved away the bodies of these creatures, leaving only their outer shell behind, still shaped to almost lifelike proportions.
I returned to the mermaid theatre quickly, regardless of the fact that it was still about a half an hour before the show started. I did not wish to see more of what that forgotten portion of the land had to offer. Still, I resisted the urge to run back to my car, to drive northwards and inwards, away from all reminders of the sea.
The theatre was a sad place, but it was a relief after the strange disquiet of what awaited outside. The seats were old and unpleasantly soft as I sat down. Overhead, paper mache approximations of sea creatures looked eyelessly down on me from where they hung. As I waited in the dark, listening to the tinny elevator music streaming through the air, a small trickle of people came in, and surprisingly, among them was a child, a little girl who prattled on endlessly about seeing real mermaids. Staring at the worn and age-stained curtains obscuring the stage, I discerned vague notions of movement on the other side. The tickle of anticipation at the back of my mind roared into something that burned. My feet tapped impatiently, as I fidgeted in my seat.
The music overhead changed into a soundtrack that would have belonged quite comfortably in a dated Hollywood film. The televisions began to broadcast a version of Weeki Wachi Springs that hasn't been seen in decades, one that drew young girls from all over, the way the temples of goddesses used to draw virgin acolytes.
The world is not so different even if the faces of the gods have changed, I thought to myself.
The curtains dropped, and in the intervening seconds that felt like a lifetime, I could only stare, transfixed, at the performer who swam into view. Her long golden hair floated around her like exotic seaweed at high tide; her smile was brighter than the sunlight streaming from the surface. In her garish, sequined costumed tail, she swam in front of the glass windows, greeting the audience silently from her side of the theatre.
I wondered whether she could see me as I could see her, but not for long. The question was answered when her eyes fell on me. Instantly, her smile froze and her eyes widened in shock.
The music played on overhead, heedless. I smiled a little, and watched as she slowly regained her composure, and continued with her act, although her smile now seemed like a ruined shadow.
She held court seated on a plastic throne cast like a sea shell, under a once-white gazebo, like a princess fallen on bad times. Patiently, she let the small line-up of visitors crowd her with their questions, their requests for countless photographs. Her smile was worn and fraying.
I waited patiently under a tree not far away, under a gently waving curtain of Spanish Moss. The locals had warned me of the blood hungry residents in its gray lacy fronds, but I had nothing to fear from them.
As the last visitor trickled off into the distance, she called out to me in a language that has never been spoken by the tongues of men.
"Will you stay in the shadows Muirgen, or will you step closer, to speak with your sister?"
It was strange to hear the words of my people spoken out loud, in the open air. It sounded like the sibilant hisses of serpents.
"I'm still not sure I'm ready." I replied in kind, for after all, it was truth. The words felt foreign as they passed my lips. Nonetheless, I stepped out into the open, and slowly closed the distance between us.
She didn't look at me as she lit her cigarette.
"Those things will kill you." I said mildly.
"I highly doubt it." She said. "Did you come searching for me, simply to lecture your elder and your better on her habits?"
"My elder, most definitely." I informed her almost petulantly.
"Is that any way to speak to the woman who would have been your Queen?" She said, a grin ghosting across her features. "I never would have dreamed that I would see you again."
"Yes. It is indeed strange that we should meet here, like this." I nodded slightly.
"How did you find me?" she tilted her head to the side and took another drag of her cigarette.
"You were in a magazine. They printed your photograph." I leaned against a pillar of the verandah. "I thought at first that surely the years had driven me mad. I had to see for myself. And now, here you are. Flesh and bone."
She regarded me with her dark eyes, eyes that reminded me of my father, and so I had to ask,
"It has been a long time Muirgen." She replied, almost but not quite gently, dropping her cigarette in a puddle that had gathered under her throne. "They were only mortal."
Even though I had known this, hearing those words emerge from her mouth felt like a physical blow. I closed my eyes and looked away.
"You and I though, as we are now, we are not human, but we are not what we once were. We are nothing." She said, and I could hear the bitterness in her beautiful voice, a voice that could once have quelled the wildest storms with a single note.
"How came you to these lands, in this form?" I found myself still unable to look at her, afraid that she would see my grief.
"I'm sure you know the story, seeing as you lived it." She laughed without humour. "I gave my heart foolishly to a human man, and followed him back to dry land. I watched him drink himself to death, while his children starved and hated him."
"Why did you not go back to the sea? You had given me the road back, once, with your own hands." I wondered.
"You didn't take the choice when you were offered it. Why not?" she asked sharply.
I drew in an unnecessary breath, remembering with a clarity unfettered by time, the sleeping face of my love as he lay in the cabin of his ship beside the woman he had taken as his wife. He, who had betrayed me so easily. The sharp coral in my hands had been lifted and ready, pointed right above his beating heart.
"I loved him still." I said after a little while. "I loved him too much to spend his blood for my own selfish folly."
I remembered standing by a cliff-side, throwing the bone-white dagger over edge and turning away, my salt tears tasting as bitter as the sea.
"And did you think that my love was lesser?" she sneered, reclining back in her throne. The sequins of her costume glittered brightly in the sunshine.
I could think of nothing to say. The woman before me was a stranger, with a mood and a temperament that was alien to me. The sister I had known was warm and alive, but I could see now that her soul had become as cold and dead as the body she possessed.
"You can end this existence for me." She said abruptly. "I have tired of mankind a long time ago, but I lack the courage to finish this journey for myself."
I gaped at her, like a fish.
"I gave you the life you had thought you wanted on this accursed land." She continued, leaning forward. Her hair, still damp, hung in thick ropes of faded yellow about her face. "It would be fitting for you to give me the death I truly desire, don't you think?"
"Sister, you cannot ask this of me." I said, aghast. "This life we chose is long, yes, and hard, but there is much still to be gained."
The faces of the mortal lovers I had taken flashed through my mind. I thought of the friends I had found and lost along the way. I thought of my tiny apartment, waiting for me with its books and the bottles of fine scotch I had collected.
"These mortals. Their narrowness disgusts me." She spat. "I cannot stand to live in their filth. I cannot take another empty year in their company."
"Oh Muirin," I found myself pleading, stepping closer. "What has happened to you?"
She looked at me, her eyes bright and challenging for a moment. All too quickly, the spark faded. She shook her head and looked away.
"You are useless to me." She said in English, slumped into her seat, a wrecked semblance of the crown princess she had once been. "Leave."
"Leave with me – this place is a tomb, a useless reminder of times dead and gone. Come with me," I replied in kind, ignoring the fact that she had dismissed me.
She said nothing, refusing to look at me.
I stood there, tempted to take her hand, to tug her back into the world with me. She was after all, the only creature in the world who had known me when I was young.
The moment passed. I turned to go.
The sea always looks different in the dark. Under the sun, it can look welcoming, warm and comforting. Under the cover of the night sky however, the endless expanse simply looks cold and dangerous.
I stood at the edge of the world, ankle deep in saltwater. I thought of all the tales I had heard in the years since I had come to the surface, the stories of strange and beautiful women who lived in the deep. The creatures who seduced sailors with their lilting voices, their dark eyes and silken hair; who tore into living flesh with their sharp teeth the moment the men succumbed. Briefly, I recalled a night from the days of my youth, when my love breathed against my neck as our legs and bodies tangled, telling me in broken whispers how he could never give his heart to another.
My feet shuffled into the surf, leaving dry land a little further behind.
It would have been easy to have kept on going. To have kept on walking until my feet could no longer find purchase. The waves would have taken me, swept me into its familiar embrace. Would I have sunk though? Would my body have dissolved into foam, leaving nothing but a pale memory where I had once floated, or would I just have eventually found myself swept back to shore, like so much rejected detritus?
I almost ached to find out. Or at least, I wanted, again, to feel the sea wrapping around my limbs like silk. Like home.
Instead, I turned around, and climbed back onto dry sand. I followed the wooden stairs leading back to my rented car and got in. Closing the door, I turned the key in the ignition. Giving the shoreline one last, long look, I imagined for a moment that I heard the voices of those long dead calling out to me from beyond the waves. My father, pleading for me to turn back; the laughter of my sisters.
As I drove away, before the crash of the surf had faded, I was already thinking about springtime and what that would bring.
But even now, ensconced in my home, with the snows falling silently onto the street below, I still find that I cannot quite ignore the taste of salt in my mouth.