So Timothy Schaffert is one of the most gorgeous writers I know, and recently published a story called “The Mermaid in the Tree” in the fairy tale collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. It’s a ridiculously good story, even obnoxiously so (if you’re writer, like me, and a mermaid writer to boot). Just look at the opening:
Desiree the child bride, and her sister Miranda, had gone grave-robbing for a wedding gown. In the north end of the cemetery, among the palatial mausoleums with their broken windows of stained glass where the ivy crept in, was the resting place of a young woman who’d been murdered at the altar while reciting her marital vows. The decaying tombstone, among the cemetery’s most envied, was a limestone bride in despair, shoulders as slumped as a mule’s, a bouquet of lilies strewn at her feet. Though her murder, by her groom’s jealous mother, had been long in the past, everyone knew that her father had had her buried in her gown of lace and silk.
“Can you believe we’re the only ones to have ever thought of this?” Miranda said, her knuckles bloodied from shoveling dirt, as she undid the delicate whalebone buttons lining the back of the skeleton’s dress.
I know. Timothy is amazing, and he has a new novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, coming out next month. Plus this very eve he is hosting a mermaid party for yours truly, after my Mermaid reading at the Oakview B&N in Omaha, and said party will feature mermaid art by Wendy Bantam, inspired by “The Mermaid in the Tree.”
I know, I would be jealous, too.
Luckily for you, Timothy has graciously written a guest piece for this blog about mermaids and the important topic of mermaid corpse preservation.
I hope you will find the following as enlightening as I do:
by Timothy Schaffert
Though I grew up in the landlocked Midwest, I feared drowning. I failed my swimming classes at the municipal pool and had nightmares about being swept out to sea. But I think my aquaphobia contributed to my fascination with mermaids.
In considering how a mermaid corpse might best be preserved for a barbaric mermaid parade in a beach resort town (for my short story “The Mermaid in the Tree”), I consulted some articles on arts preservation and perishable materials. The mermaids would be bled, I concluded, and pumped with wax and plastic. Their skin would be enlivened with a dye concocted from boiled beets, syringed just beneath the flesh.
As a culture, we’ve addressed our mermaid curiosity in various ways. The hoax-stompers among us have dismissed mermaid sightings as the hallucinations of seasick sailors, or to the personable nature of sea cows. Others of us, with the passion of necrophiliacs, have patched together mermaid mummies from monkey skulls and monstrous cod. With this in mind, I offer here mermaid blueprints and recipes.
A writer for the New-York Mirror and Ladies’ Literary Gazette in 1824 questions the plausibility of a local mermaid attraction: “If the skin of a large cod-fish stuffed, with a skeleton of a child’s body put on in the place of the cod’s head, the jaws and teeth of a cat inserted into that which represents the head of the child, and the whole, except the scaly part enveloped in a bladder, or some other skinny substance, and smoked well with burning camphor, can make a Mermaid, then as sure as fish is a fish, or as certainly as Dr. Mitchill is a great philosopher and no witch, there is a Mermaid now to be seen in the room adjoining the New-England Museum, Court-street—where may be seen a great many curiosities for the small sum of twenty-five cents.”
Francis T. Buckland writes of the various mermaid stiffs he’s encountered, in his book Curiosities of Natural History, published in 1868. One mermaid he details as having fingernails “formed of little bits of ivory or bone,” and he cheekily offers fashion advice: “The coiffeur is submarine, and undoubtedly not Parisian: it would, in fact, be none the worse for a touch of the brush and comb.” But another mermaid, “one of the best I ever saw…was about 3 ft long; the body was made (probably) of papier mache, for I have dissected a mermaid. The tail was a hake’s skin with the head cut off, the gill-part joined on to the mermaid’s body. The teeth of the hake had been transferred to the mouth of the mermaid, and a pretty object she was lying in state in her glass case.”
Tid-Bits, a weekly magazine published in New York, featured this confessional from a mermaid manufacturer in 1886: “I had the skeleton of an Indian child that was taken from a grave in Georgia and evidently very old, and I selected this as the foundation, using it from the waist upward. There were no teeth in the skull, so I inserted some teeth that I obtained from a large fish, and over this I drew the skin of an Indian that I had obtained from South America—perhaps you have seen them; the head is cut off, dried and reduced in size considerably. A little way below the armpits I began to put on scales, commencing with small ones and making them larger and larger until the waist was reached. Of course I had to join the fish’s tale here, which I did in a way that would have puzzled anyone. Some of the leg-bones were left, but they looked as though they had become stunted from disease, and I joined the vertebrae of the fish so skillfully and gradually that they actually seemed to grow into each other. … I soaked it in very salt water, so that the microscope showed salt in all its crevices. A few little pieces of sea-weed, of a kind common in the China Sea, were put in the hair, and a dozen or so very small barnacles stuck on, and it was a masterpiece, if there ever was one.” The mermaid manufacturer doctored an affidavit that indicated that a sailor had killed the mermaid with a knife in Hong Kong. “After this I made a number of mermaids; where they are now I don’t know. But they have rather gone out of fashion.”
In an article about taxidermy, published in Popular Science in 1934, the phenomenon of mermaid design is discussed. A taxidermist reveals one particular mermaid as “the lower part of a large codfish, and the upper part of a lady monkey” mounted and sewn together. He “crowned her head with long, wavy locks made from a horse’s tail. To give her a beautiful face and other finishing touches, he called in Carl Rungeus, well-known animal painter. Then he put the finished product in a glass case, garnished with seashells.”
The construction of a more glamorous, less carcass-ridden mermaid is documented in photographs in a 1948 issue of Life, in promotion of the movie Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, starring Ann Blyth: “The most ambitious make-up job ever to be performed on the nether extremities of an actress turned up in Hollywood last month… [make-up artist Bud Westmore] made a mold directly from the Blyth body and filled it with plaster. Then he encased the resulting model in rubber and carved the tail. Although eyewitness descriptions of a mermaid’s physique are both scanty and conflicting, the combination of Miss Blyth’s torso and Mr. Westmore’s tail certainly looks like the genuine article. It should. First budged at $500, the tail’s final cost was $18,000.”