The Mermaids of Austin

By Melissa Wiley

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I touched my fingers to his arm shaped like a fin, and sparks flew between us, a mermaid and merman, the last of their species until life underwater again becomes our only option.

During the early 1960s, more than 10,000 children were born with arms so small they resembled fins of flesh. Their legs too were unnaturally shortened. Only half survived their infancy, and those who did were termed teratogenic, or “monster forming,” a word reflecting how these newborns must have initially struck their parents. While still floating in amniotic fluid, their bodies had contracted into a shape better suited for a world made of water alone, for a life spent among mermaids and mermen. Had they only been allowed to swim throughout their lifetimes rather than being forced to negotiate sidewalks and indoor flooring, they may ultimately have been better adapted for a world with a warming climate, a world with rising oceans. Had their stunted limbs only meant other processes too had been stunted—if these children only kept rather than lost the tail that grows in utero from each human coccyx before it falls away as an atavistic remnant—they might have emerged a new iteration of our species, if one still evoking creatures of legend. As it is, doctors later determined this string of birth defects resulted from the drug thalidomide, widely prescribed at the time for morning sickness. In addition to undeveloped limbs, unintended consequences to the fetus included a high incidence of blindness and deafness. That the only man affected by this condition I have ever met is also immune to electric charges is only coincidence.

I sat beside him on stage at the Museum of the Weird, a modern curiosity cabinet, not long after my husband and I had finished eating Easter breakfast down in Austin. Chosen as the performer’s assistant, I sat swinging my legs while facing several families with young children who were waiting for a man born a merman to close his lips over wires live with electric current. Before performing this feat, he explained that no one else should attempt to do the same under any circumstances. If any of us made similar gambits, we would die of the experience. As he spoke, I watched his small arms gesture with the extravagance of a lifelong showman.

A couple minutes before I found myself on stage beside him, my gaze had fixed itself on what a nearby plaque claimed to be a yeti skeleton. I had looked away on purpose when this man asked for a volunteer from the audience. A boy behind me raised his arm as he panted, desperate to be chosen. But I had worn a dress the color of seafoam and cut low in the bodice, a dress fanning out from my waist with the longing of a thousand river deltas emptying themselves into the ocean. I had also bought shoes the color of sand to match it, and the showman was a merman, one who likely missed the nearness of the sea. He had no choice except to pick the woman dressed like a mermaid, he explained to the boy’s parents. This man whose arms mimicked the fins of something more aquatic than human must have imagined me still with the tail once fallen from my coccyx, which in another lifetime would have enabled underwater movement.

Mermaid silhouette

The day before, my husband and I had been walking near some street musicians, when he lingered to hear another song and I walked ahead, browsing Day of the Dead skeletons. Soon a policeman pulled up and stopped his car beside me. Leaning toward me while unrolling his window, he asked if I was working the district. I bent over and squinted into his sunglasses, trying to read his expression. Seeing nothing beyond my own reflection, I told him I was here only for the weekend. As he nodded in a private silence, I walked on, absorbing his implication. He said no more to me, I imagine, because I looked better from a distance. Because I was once a mermaid, he a merman, though he had long forgotten our origins.

I was wearing a skirt I’ve had since college. I’ve grown no taller since I bought it, though in recent years it had seemed to shorten. My husband occasionally remarked on its dearth of fabric. Pleated from faux leather, it suggested I may have once been a cheerleader when I have always been anything but this. We had come to Austin, though, because of the warmer climate along with the pleasure of seeing a new city in the early spring, when Chicago still evinces traces of winter. We had come for the sun and city’s claim to weirdness, for the spectacle of witnessing the country’s largest urban bat colony fly out to feed at sunset as well as the food trucks, the musicians. The skirt had seemed appropriate when packing my bag back in our apartment, but after the incident with the policeman, my husband confirmed my suspicion when I asked him whether I looked like a sex worker wearing it, even if my legs are pale and scar-ridden, even if I’m no longer a young woman.

I kept walking I until I reached an antique outlet, whose window ledges were littered with more human skulls, many with flowers and spider webs painted across their foreheads. I noticed the female skeletons all had scarves wrapped around their faces. All of these dead women, signaled by their longer eyelashes and lipstick, preserved their modesty, while the male skeletons bared their teeth, happily naked. Though the weather here was warmer than predicted, I realized the scarves may have done more than hide the females from too much male attention. These women also must have wanted to disguise their ugliness. The scarves looking prettier than those behind them hid them from the intrusion of male gazes, from their dismissal and assessments.

But my skirt would have to go. This was now decided. Once the skirt was gone, other things would have to go with it. First the skirt and then my legs hanging beneath too little fabric. Afterward, my feet then would go and with them the toenails I had painted the azure of the cloudless sky blanketing all of Austin. This would be only the beginning of a lifelong process, one of returning rather than evolving away from my origins, one that meant moving away from beauty and toward something closer to monster forming, closer to pre-human. You cannot transform back into a finned, primordial woman without losing everything in your closet. Whenever I take time now to think of Eve and Adam, I no longer believe Eden was a garden. The paradise we were once cast out of as a species must have been an ocean instead. Of this I feel almost certain, if only because all life evolved from the sea, including humans.

Later, near sunset, my husband and I stood on Congress Avenue Bridge waiting to watch nearly one and half million bats emerge from beneath where we were standing. Facing the opposite of where the larger crowds gathered, I had convinced my husband to join me in avoiding the crush of so many onlookers. I still felt more exposed than I wanted while wearing the skirt I’ve had since college. Potbellied men drinking tallboys and pedaling paddleboats with the plastic head of a swan between them had gathered on one side of the bridge alone, however, which told us all we needed. They spat into the ripples of Lady Bird Lake and waved up at the hundreds of other tourists facing the horizon.

A man wearing a stuffed bat glued to his baseball cap tapped me on my shoulder. He pulled at his earlobes, signaling his deafness, before I had a chance to speak to him as he ushered us across, concerned we would miss the diurnal migration. Given the hat he was wearing and his easy authority, I assumed he must have worked for the city, helping tourists like ourselves to enjoy an optimal experience. He may have either given tours in sign language or, if not, then identified with another species more than his own in some ways despite bats’ exceptional hearing. Or perhaps it was knowing that bats could hear not only more than he did, but beyond any human capacity, that had invited his awe and an emotional investment that lay beyond my understanding. Urging us to hurry, he forced me into the throng, into the chaotic warmth of my fellow species.

“All of the free-tailed bats roosting below us are female,” a woman wearing heavy eyeliner and nearly as dark of lipstick offered to the crowd at large. I folded my arms over the steel bannister and, because no one else responded, smiled at her and nodded as if she had answered a question I had asked her. Half the crowd was wearing wind breakers. Their hoods were beating the air senseless, bruising ashen clouds and imprinting them with violet blotches as the woman with the eyeliner cleared her throat and emphasized a second time the fact these flying mammals were all women. They too had once crawled out from the sea. She neglected to say that during the course of evolution, they had eventually grown wings to recover their freedom. Their furry tails, once fins, remained with them for balance. All of these bats, unlike those awaiting their appearance, had retained what had grown from their coccyx. Within another few minutes they would emerge in flight, broaching transcendence.

I strained my eyes to glimpse a few bats flying out to forage earlier than the rest. I watched four or five circle a copse of fruit trees overspreading a stretch of parkland, where they stabbed at pendant figs and peaches. Their wings splayed into webbed fingers, looking almost human. A couple minutes later, once the remaining bats awakened, they flew out as a single body, too fast for me to distinguish whether bats sink or swim once their wings eventually fail them, once they fall toward the water in exhaustion. Their flight was too furious for me to see whether any descended back into the same warm cytoplasm where all life on earth began, where these female bats too in time might become different kinds of women.

As the last of the bats left the bridge’s underbelly, I imagined all the mermaids of Austin leaving their mermen. They were now sculling up from Lady Bird Lake’s bottom as the deaf man’s stuffed bat came unglued from his cap and I watched him put it inside his pocket. The mermaids were clambering onto rocks that bordered new condominium developments. They clambered and then they rested, surveying this world’s wreckage. They adjusted the holsters squeezing the scales of their hips, because even mermaids must carry guns down in Texas. Soon they started firing their pistols at random as they watched the little legged men scatter on the downtown streets of Austin. They laughed as they clapped their seashells together. Meanwhile the bats kept flying farther in the distance as their tails flapped behind them.

Walking back to our hotel room, my husband and I passed a miniature golf course filled with families with young children. I pointed toward an enormous statue of Peter Pan flanking the entrance, and my husband ran and stepped between his legs. He grazed Peter where his penis should have been and wasn’t, and I followed him through the gate. I followed with reluctance, because some of the children were screaming and throwing their golf clubs in a tantrum. As my husband took out his wallet, I confessed I didn’t feel like playing. Not in a place with so many children when their world has been ravaged, when all too soon they will have to stop playing miniature golf to dissolve back into a warmer cytoplasm. Not when we have all discarded our scales and fins in the course of evolution for what seems little reason. Not when the collision of species is coming and promises to be orgiastic. All too soon and all too quickly, we will return to sameness, until there is no distinguishing a bat from a fish from a man or woman. My tail will then regrow itself from my coccyx, replicating the process once carried out inside my mother’s body, before my own swimming in fetal fluid remembered all the world has not yet become an ocean.

Mermaid silhouette

The man whose performance figured as the main attraction inside Austin’s Museum of the Weird on Easter morning seemed to harbor as much interest as we did in the holiday, which my husband and I have never celebrated apart from a large breakfast. Though walking inside the museum we had no idea this man with arms falling well above his waist even existed, he seemed to confirm our instincts for coming to Austin for the weekend. By this time, we felt we had largely seen the city—until we walked past this entrance, until we felt drawn by the prospect of carnival side shows, of grotesque anomalies. Inside the museum, the man who had been poisoned inside his mother’s womb struck me as an embodiment of my own private feelings of atrophying in a world and on a holiday made for people who still believed in the renewal of spring, who still derived satisfaction from painted pastel eggs and plush rabbits. People who had no conception we were dissolving back into warm cytoplasm.

Whereas this man looked as if he were in the process of shedding needless length and needless appendages, preparing for a new stage in evolution. Because even as a grown man his body seemed unfinished, because I am aware I will likely die feeling the same despite having been spared thalidomide poisoning, I felt at home in his presence. I felt refreshed while watching him gesture solely from his wrists since his arms were elbowless. He wore a sleeveless undershirt and black pants rolled up at their edges. His long and curling hair, still auburn in his later 50s, fell past his shoulders. From a distance, he looked a raw seafaring man. Up close I saw that his face was sunburned, weather beaten. Of everyone else in the audience, I alone can attest nothing ever shocked him. Inside his mouth, forks of electricity audibly crepitated, though he managed to swallow his bouquet of live wires without a problem.

He explained that as a child he had been struck by lightning. With the bravura of an actor who plays only one role throughout his lifetime, he claimed—almost boasted—there had been no damage. At the time, wanting nothing more than entertainment, I took what he said for granted without stopping to wonder whether he might have cultivated his immunity as a way of earning money through these performances, whether he had lived a life less straightforward than the story he presented. He declared, nevertheless, that to this day, a hair dryer dropped in the bathtub while plugged in could not affect him as he lathered. This gift was unrelated, he added, to his other aberrations. Then, following his instructions, I held a lightbulb to his skin after he sucked on the wires for several seconds. Raging with electric current, his body immediately transformed the lightless bulb into a blistering brightness. Staring at his face, I was almost blinded. Looking out on the audience instead, I found my gaping husband. I concentrated for a moment on someone who had the luxury of a body with normal proportions, someone a head taller than me and who could easily be electrocuted.

The man asked me to do this over and over again, touching the end of the lightbulb to his upper arm so everyone could watch it brighten. For the benefit of those filming from their seats, I touched my fingers to his arm shaped like a fin, and sparks flew between us, a mermaid and merman, the last of their species until life underwater again becomes our only option. Toward the end of the performance, he asked me to fist bump his tiny hand, and a blue charge ricocheted between us. The sound reverberated throughout my own body—later my husband told me he could hear it. The man then asked everyone to clap for me, his mermaid assistant.

While walking toward the exit, leaving the person who made the museum most of its money to shock another audience, we confronted the corpse of a mermaid standing in the hallway. Kept within her glass prison, what remained of her hinted she, too, was smaller than average. My husband laughed as my jaw fell open. We read on a plaque that those mermaids taken from the Fiji Islands by Western charlatans like P.T. Barnum were originally crafted from monkey corpses. Villagers grafted the tails of fish onto their abdomens. Sometimes they glued extra scales on for embellishment. Only before Barnum got hold of his—before he exhibited it across the United States and Europe—poor South Pacific fishermen regarded them as totems, as emblems of something holy and prehuman. As something sacred. They did not design their mermaids as beautiful objects on purpose, because, as the fishermen understood intuitively, fall too in love with a body, and you fail to accept that body changing. You fail to see beyond its surface. Half fish and half mammalian, these mermaids that once horrified Barnum’s public originally were crafted to suggest a reality transcending what it means to be merely an animal, merely flesh overlaid on a skeleton.

The Western audience that paid to see Barnum’s exhibits knew no more of the Fiji mermaid’s origins, however, than pregnant women in the 1960s did of a certain drug’s consequences for their unborn children. In his autobiography, Barnum himself described his mermaid as “an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen… its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.” Yet in any circus or museum, mermaids are only worth the admission fee if you want at some level to be frightened, reminded of something you know have always known inside your bloodstream but have kept quiet and hidden. In the Fiji mermaid in Austin, I felt I recognized the woman I was becoming. Both myself and the mermaid who was once a monkey were easily mistaken for other women. We were both uglier up close than expected. We both were in the process of surrendering to the course of evolution, both preparing to be submerged beneath an ocean. Her mouth, even now, was wired permanently open. She looked, in death, as she were still screaming from the hell she lived in, a carnival creature by virtue only of her isolation, her distance from the lushness of the Fiji Islands. However distasteful to the public, to me she remained holy, symbolic of all our destinies. A way forward that will allow us to return to our origins.

As my husband walked ahead of me out onto Sixth Street, I thought I heard her scream that beneath the sea she is only one of millions. Wearing my dress that conjured the color of coastal waters, I turned around, and she told me how she and other mermaids sleep all day along with the bats hanging beneath the bridge above them. Both are nocturnal species, both with exceptional hearing. Last evening, she had heard the woman in the crowd announce that all the foraging bats were women. She heard, and she understood the reason. Only once her fellow mermaids wake with the setting sun, as the female bats are flying out to feast upon the city’s insects—once they swim up toward the surface and see men staring at them as if they were hardly real and hardly living—only then do they pull their guns from their holsters. They protect their territory, growing shameless.



Melissa WileyMelissa Wiley won the 2019 Autumn House Press Full-Length Nonfiction Contest, judged by Paul Lisicky, for her book Skull Cathedral. She is also author of the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press, 2017), and her work has additionally appeared in places like American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Entropy, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and PANK.
Header photo of Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge by Kushal Bose, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.