NEA Literature Fellowships

Lucinda Vickers

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from The Natural History of a Mermaid

It seems I was always in Suley’s arms, in Suley’s boat-shaped arms.  Suley carried me, cradled close, to Wakulla, to the river.  She lived and breathed the river, and the river lived and breathed her. From the day I was born until the day she died it was Suley, the river and me.  There was never one without the other.  But then one day I realized the world didn’t begin the day I was born, that the river had been running forever and that Suley had seen the green of the river before she’d seen me.  That she really was as old as hell, that she’d had a whole life before me.  That’s when I looked up and asked her my questions, “What happened to my mama? Why don’t I have a mama?  Why can’t I call you Mama?” 

“Because I’m not your Mama,” she said, and squeezed my hand hard.

I was four years old and Suley didn’t lie.  We were walking to the spring for a swim and then we stopped walking and she told me the truth in the stick straight shade of a palm tree. “You have a mama but she died getting you here, baby,” she said.  She didn’t dip her words in honey. How do you soften a story like that?  You don’t.  Not even bees could do it.

I closed my eyes and imagined Mama carrying me in her arms to this stripe of shade beneath a palm, running out of breath just as she stepped into the shadow and faded into the air.  When I opened my eyes, the sun’s yellow light blinded me.

After that day beneath the palm Suley began telling me other stories.  “Your life began in the spring,” she whispered in my ear as we waded into the cool clear water.  “You were a tadpole, a larvae wriggling in mud.”  Other days, she splashed me, smiling.  “You were a crawfish, a mullet, a gator. A mermaid.”  Fantastic stuff. 

I started making up my own stories.  By the time I was four I was sure I remembered being in mama’s womb.  The blue of it.  The curve of it. The wet and warm of it.  The rocking back and forth, the sloshing sound of water.  I was a fish.  “It was the boat,” Suley said, when I asked her about it.  “That’s what you remember. You were on the water with me three days after you were born.  You just got your memories crossed up.” 

Somehow, even though my mother had moved heaven and earth to get off Suley’s boat when she was a newborn, Suley knew it would be right for me.  So for a minute I thought Suley was right, that I’d gotten my memories crossed up, but then I realized that if she thought it was possible for me to remember being on the boat when I was three days old, I ought to be able to remember something that happened earlier.  I decided I did remember being in the womb because it was the only time I had my mother.  You don’t forget that.

Even though I’d seen pictures of my mother, they were like images from a half-remembered dream.  In one photo she is standing on the deck of the turpentine still at Smith Creek next to a row of wooden barrels.  Sunlight has washed her face out so that it is nearly indistinct.  Her hands are clasped in front of her; it’s as if she knows she’s all she’s got and is holding on to herself.  In another photo, one of her and Daddy taken on their wedding day, she stands tall next to Daddy. His arm is around her waist and she is smiling, but her eyes look off into the distance as if she were too shy to look at the photographer. 

My mother, the one I’d known, had never smiled at me.  She was a handful of stories Suley told me, an image in a stack of crumpled photographs.  But a flesh and blood person could be invented from the thin air of such things, could be made out of a leaf floating down river, a the blue shadows of pine trees, the smell of mullet, the, the tea-colored puddles beneath the oaks, the turpentine scent of my father.  I heard my mother’s voice.  I could smell her.  Still even then, as much as I missed not having her, I knew that not having an actual mother was less complicated than having one.  I wanted my daughter to do the same thing I’d done. To take the raw material I offered and make up her own mother, the way I’d made up mine.  I thought she’d be better off that way. 

Lu Vickers has received three Individual Artist’s Grants for fiction from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.  In addition to the novel Breathing Underwater, she has published books on Florida history: Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids: A History of One of Florida’s Oldest Roadside Attractions and Cypress Gardens, America’s Tropical Wonderland.  In 2012, with former mermaid Bonnie Georgiadis, she put together a collection of vintage photos, Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography. She is currently finishing a history of Paradise Park, a segregated park owned from 1949 to 1969 by Silver Springs in Ocala, Florida. After this, she will be working on her novel, The Natural History of a Mermaid.

Photo by Samuel Cherrier-Vickers

Author's Statement

When I received word that I had been awarded the fellowship, I was literally in the middle of grading 120 freshman composition papers; working on a history of Paradise Park, a segregated attraction in Florida; and raising teenagers. I had started a novel about a Weeki Wachee mermaid but when I met the real Weeki Wachee mermaids, I put it down and wrote about them instead. After a long detour into writing about Florida history—the mermaids led to the waterskiers led to glass bottomed boats—I wondered if I still had what it took to write fiction. This award confirms in a very humbling way, that yes, I am still a novelist. That recognition is as important to me as the funds, which will allow me to take summers off from my teaching job and to do a bit more research into natural histories and Florida springs. The award comes at the perfect time—I will finish my last Florida history (for a while, at least) and this summer I will plunge back into my own mythical version of the Sunshine State—The Natural History of a Mermaid.