In Greece, there were stories about Poseidon; in the Roman Empire, there was Neptune. Before that, there was Ea, Babylonian god of the sea. Even earlier was Atargatis, the Syrian goddess of fertility who was half-human, half-fish. There was the belief in ancient times that every land animal had its match in the sea. Like so many protagonists in young adult novels, I often felt I was in the wrong place, the wrong time. When I was a child, I was sure I was magic, that I’d get my letter to a supernatural boarding school in the mail, learn to levitate, or sprout shining scales and take to the sea.
A few weeks before I turn twenty-eight, I sit down to dinner with my dad in front of the TV in his living room. We’re watching Splash (1984) waiting to see Tom Hanks fall in love with a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah. The movie opens with a little boy on a boat dropping pennies to create an opportunity to look up skirts. The boy’s brother peers over the side of the boat at a girl in the water.
As the camera scans the waves, my dad asks, “You always wanted to be a mermaid, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I say.
When I fall asleep that night, I slip into the ocean of dreams. The current is too strong. I tumble beneath the waves, push below the surface again and again, drag down the shoreline. I realize I don’t know the way back. I question if anything exists beyond this rise and crash.
I ask myself, how did I get here?
When I was young and woke from a nightmare, my mother would sit me on the couch and put a familiar VHS tape into the VCR. When faced with the bright colors and wide smiles on screen, the monsters creeping through my mind were forgotten, though I’d cover my eyes when the sea witch snapped a ship with ease.
But before the sea witch unleashes mayhem, The Little Mermaid (1989) spies on Prince Eric from the dark water beside his ship. Ariel trades her voice to the sea witch for three days as a human. She signs a floating contract and sings, her voice glowing like a moon in her throat, rising up and out of her mouth then into the witch’s hand. If the prince does not kiss Ariel by sunset on the third day, she will belong to the witch forever.
When I was a child I sang Ariel’s song. I held my legs together and bent my knees when I swam so I could practice being a mermaid. For Halloween, I wore pink plastic shells glued to a sweater and a shiny teal tail with painted-on scales. I knew who I wanted to be.
My mother was trying to convince me to play with baby dolls. Even as a child I recognized babies for what they were—work. I preferred directing sprawling soap opera storylines for my Barbies.
Mom tells the story of a day when I played with my Barbies concertedly, and she asked what my dolls were doing. I explained that Barbie was going to a dance, but Mermaid Barbie was not.
“Because Ken doesn’t like her,” I said.
Why doesn’t Ken like her?
“Because her legs don’t open,” I answered.
Mom cautiously prompted, why would that matter?
I was as busy as any make-up artist or costume designer backstage, arranging and rearranging these beautiful women, brushing their hair, and assigning them outfits. I was slightly exasperated with my mother’s questions, but I took a break from prepping my girls for the dance and answered, “Because she can’t wear the pretty dresses.”
Mom was relieved. I imagine Mermaid Barbie was too. Her friends spent night after night pinching their eyelashes in cold metal eyelash curlers. They nicked their legs while shaving. They burnt their hair in the shape of ringlets and squeezed into Spanx. And then they walked on tiptoe to a wall, where they’d stand and wait for Ken to choose them. Mermaid Barbie spent her days and nights adventuring, and it’s probably for the best that her tail didn’t fit inside a ball gown.
I didn’t want to marry and I didn’t want biological children. Both seemed like inevitable fates. When I fell asleep, I sometimes dreamed of being a mermaid living under the waves where the expectations of others could not reach me, where time was liquid, and I could spend my life free from everything that made my palms sweat on land.
I watched comedian Iliza Shlesinger’s stand-up and flinched when she said that mermaid fantasies weren’t anything more than escapism, and if women wanted to escape their lives so badly they should find a cabin in the woods and make jam. “You wanna be a mermaid? That means all of your achievements in life are gonna lead to you being a fictional fuck toy for a horny sailor.”
I guess she has a point.
In Ariel’s first moments as a human, she chokes on saltwater until her friends, a fish and a crab, pull her to the surface and buoy her to shore. Since she is naked from the waist down, a seagull styles Ariel in a discarded sail and rope.
From afar, she looks like a statue, stiff and alert. As Eric approaches, she springs into motion, nervously smoothing her mussed hair. Eric gasps, and we see her as he does. She has a tiny nose and peak nineties eyebrows. Her mouth is as red as her hair. The sail she’s wearing isn’t visible in the frame. Her bare shoulders peek from beneath her long, heavy hair, and she looks as she might after waking up in his bed, which is to say, she is a fantasy.
You seem very familiar to me, he says. Her already-wide smile widens until her face is hardly anything besides lips and shining eyes which offer his reflection. Soon, he’s folding her hands into his and leading her to his castle.
In that much older tale by Hans Christian Andersen published in 1837, the little mermaid has no name. She has no soul. What she does have are eight oysters affixed to her tail because, as her grandmother warns, pride must suffer pain. Still voiceless in this rendition, she must convince the prince to marry her or else she will die.
Her transformation is painful. Her new legs are cumbersome. This time, the prince dubs her his “little foundling” and she sleeps at the foot of his bed. Still, he does not marry her. As she faces imminent death, her sisters bring her a proposition and a knife from the sea witch. If she kills the prince in his marriage bed, she can cheat death. She throws the knife away.
In the animated rendition, Eric and Ariel marry. When Ariel regains her voice, I wonder if the prince will like what she has to say. I wonder, how old is this little mermaid? She’s the youngest of her sisters, rebelling against her father. Her mother is long gone.
Ariel is sixteen. I was much younger than that when I sat in a car seat, watching the passing lakes, trees, and gas stations and pretending I was a princess of the sea. Before I had the words to express myself, I sang the tune to her story. My mother fondly recalls my small, sharp voice floating from the back seat, singing aah ah aah the same sound Ariel makes when she trades her voice for a chance at love.
I wanted so badly to believe. I watched mermaid conspiracy videos on YouTube, one after the other. In one grainy video, a figure which, if you squint, might pass for a mermaid, turns to look at the cameraman, then slithers off a rock and into the water. I was tipsy, night was becoming morning, and for a second I believed.
Then came the nagging suspicion. I asked myself if a mermaid would move her tail side to side or up and down. I watched the video a second, third, fourth, fifth time. Her tail moved side to side. I crawled on the floor and tried to approximate her movements. My legs moved side to side. Yes, the figure in the video was likely a human masquerading as a mermaid. I’d seen plenty of videos of women in mermaid costumes posing on the beach or swimming in the water.
When I am drunk at social gatherings, I ask innocent bystanders if they believe in mermaids. Then I pull up Google image results for “beluga whale knees” on my phone. I lean in too close and say, “Don’t you think you might mistake that for an abdomen and thighs if you were lonely enough?”
Whale song is not really a song so much as a series of clicks, squeaks, squawks, and screams, but what was the siren song rumored to sound like?
There are journal entries of Christopher Columbus from the late 1400s writing about his admiral’s sighting of three mermaids, reported to be manatees with long, flowing seaweed locks. Columbus remarked, “They are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits” with little thought to the wonder of their existence, intent instead upon judging the efficacy of their feminine wiles.
How to say this next part delicately? A band of bros on Reddit and TikTok are convinced that tales of the Kraken are based on sightings of whale penises. Waving in the air above the waves, fleshy and pink, like the biggest tongue you’ve ever seen, the member strikes a stunning resemblance to the squiggly legs of cartoon aliens.
In the olden days, scraps from harpoon ships were sold as artifacts of mythical beasts. Back then, a whale’s penis could easily pass for a Kraken’s tentacle. An adult blue whale’s penis is typically eight to ten feet in length, and just one of its testes weighs more than I do. For reference, Google provided me with a photo of taxidermies on display at the world’s largest penis museum in Iceland, which houses 283 preserved penises from 93 species of animals, by the way. Yes, there are human specimens on display too.
Who knows what the truth of the matter is? I know that if I was sailing and saw that rise above the water, I would be about as afraid as if I’d seen a Kraken.
If I’m being honest with myself, sexual undertones have always been at work in myth, and my mermaid stories are not exempt. We first knew Ariel when she appeared on that rock, with the waves rising in foamy ecstasy. The tip of the leading lady’s tail dips into the cool water. Beneath the surface, two leering eels and Ursula, the matchmaker preying on unfortunates in search of love.
In revamped imaginings, you might see the red-haired beauty gazing into the murky light above. Her bust barely contained in the purple seashells she sports, her waist tapers excruciatingly into her slick, emerald tail. Mom recounts a time when I was watching Pocahontas (1995) and Dad walked through the room, saw the animated princess, and exclaimed, “What a rack!” In the marketing materials, Ariel’s breasts are center frame, highlighted with accentuating white lines. I wonder, who is this story being sold to?
The oldest version of this scene is said to be worth something because it includes the phallic pillar of King Triton’s Atlantian castle. I was skeptical. I looked at photos of The Little Mermaid (1989) cover online and thought no, it can’t be… then I found a diagramed version and zoomed in. The dick was undeniable. It was there all along in the story which chased away my nightmares and fueled my fantasies, though I suspect they were never my fantasies to begin with.
I wanted to watch The Little Mermaid in reverse, with Ariel escaping the castle, shedding her huge, heavy wedding dress, and taking to the sea. I wanted mermaidhood to be a safe haven, but the closer I looked at my mermaid stories, the more I saw those leering eels.
I once had a lover I routinely accused of being lazy and selfish in bed but continued to sleep with because I figured he’d change if I gave him enough chances, and some part of me just wanted to please him even if I received little in return. The women in my life tried to convince me to demand more, though I’d seen them make the same sacrifices. Honestly, I was strung out on his withholding and he knew it. One day, I confided in him about my mermaid conspiracy theories, and he said that beyond thinking manatees were mermaids, he’d heard that sailors of yesteryear would rape manatees. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him, in this or any regard, but more than that I wanted to find a way to keep a younger version of myself from ever learning any of this. In much the same way my parents tried to delay the Santa Claus talk, I wanted to preserve the myths of mermaidhood that I built as a young girl. I wanted to keep telling myself these stories and ignoring the eels. I wanted to protect the land of make-believe where I could exist just as I’d like, and spend my days in the cool waters without anyone making demands, no one’s pleasure to worry about but my own.
Brooke White is a Michigander with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Entropy, Superstition Review, Iron Horse, March Xness, and Honey Lit, among others. She received her MFA from the University of Minnesota. She’s currently at work on a book of literary nonfiction about desire, transformations, and fairy tales. Her latest ponderings and delights can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @brkthewriter.
Cover Design by Karen Rile