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I was a babe in arms when Ariel debuted in 1989. By the time I was old enough to miss her, Ariel and company were “in the vault.” Consequently, before I had Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I had an anime version, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid/Andasen dôwa ningyo-hime (1975), on VHS. My younger siblings and I, we knew this other little mermaid first, her tragic eyes like saucers. The movie’s elegiac, otherworldly soundtrack gave us the heebie-jeebies and expressed an abysmal zone of sadness we’d never known. Our mother popped in the tape when she needed us to settle down. For all she knew, the Japanese were onto something, and how deep it was I couldn’t say, our human condition à la mermaid. The movie began with a caricature Hans delivering the as-blue-as simile to two-dimensional Scandinavian children—we ate it up. Except for changes like a companion dolphin and her name as “Marina” (countenance and diction, a dead ringer for Marcia Brady), this rendition stayed true. It’s how I always knew the ill fate of the little mermaid.
Carsten and I asked around. When we finally located some, the kornblomster were decidedly periwinkle.
Hey! I unleashed my basic Danish. “De er ikke blå, de er lilla.”
Carsten laughed. “What a liar!”
In the future, when I parse Andersen’s lines I think back to that film, imagining it set me up.
The mermaid who resigns her voice and opts for the ultimate backseat through suicide—she’s not the It Girl; she’s the one who gave it up all for the boy, That Girl. Now, I look at Den lille havfrue and think her melancholy is hangdog regret. She has pulled me to her across the Atlantic, but hers wasn’t the luring woo of a Siren. No, I just feel we are simpatico. I’ve recently gotten out of a bad relationship.
I Skyped Heidi, my eyes rimmed with puff, gulping down snot. What now. That girl didn’t have it in her to move to the West Coast for graduate school.
“Chan, come to DK,” Heidi insisted.
Heidi was my host mother in 2005. Or, for lack of a better title, my Euro Mom—firmness in her voice like that of a German frau. Therefore, a visit was slated and I jetted away in August of 2009. Boarding my Dulles transfer, I was so high on caffeine I thought I saw the Starbuck’s mermaid on that last venti dance around, whirling her tail, Whoo-whoo-whooooo! I touched my racing head then and thought, Crazy. I am. But I’d be fine. I needed only to put an ocean between me and the break-up.
Heidi flagged me down at CPH airport with the tote I presented her in 2005. The Little Mermaid is screen-printed on its canvas cheek, Ariel’s sequined tail winking like a collection of third eyes. Disney’s color lab developed a special ink for her animated tail ad hoc and gave it her name, “Ariel.” It’s a limpid blue-green, like Caribbean water. A color I reached for.
“Hej, Chantel!” Heidi hugged me and brushed the bangs from my eyes. “Are you awake, little mermaid?”
It was 7 a.m. I’d forgotten that she used to call me that.
A paper cup appeared under my nose. “Kaffe?”
This tall, angular woman with Viking in her veins, all of her grit bound to rub off, was perfect.
And now I stand looking up at Den lille havfrue expectantly: I want approval. For her to say “You did good, kid.” But she is tight-lipped. The sea witch got her tongue. Projecting, I know—but she’s so easy to make in my image.
Poor child! Poor fish!
In my mouth, a bad flavor—the aftertaste of salted licorice, like briny fennel seed; very Nordic—that I am determined to like.
HJERNE, ELLER BRAIN
Soon after I arrive back in DK my “brother,” Heidi’s oldest son, walks by with a can of paint. No doubt something to do with the technical school he’s attending. But I ask, “Hvad laver du, Morten?”
Morten gives me a wild grin. “I thought we might color Den lille havfrue later.”
We are heading to Copenhagen to celebrate a friend’s birthday in the pubs, and to watch the national team play toward the World Cup.
I say I’ll never let him hurt my darling mermaid.
“I joke.” He laughs. “But Chantel, people do it a lot.”
“They do?” I didn’t know.
“Ja. Then she has to be fixed.”
I march off to Google.
Den lille havfrue has been vandalized time and again. I filter through the search results. It started in 1961: panties and a brassiere painted on, her hair painted red.
She was red-painted again in 1963.
1964 saw the statue beheaded by Situationist artists, and, oh my God, if the city didn’t shroud the headless figure in a big blanket—like a corpse at the scene of an accident—before moving the remainder out for repair. (Her head wasn’t recovered and had to be reproduced.)
Come 1976, painted again.
Her right arm sawn off in 1984. Returned.
A second, bungled attempt to behead the statue in 1990 left an eighteen-centimeter gash in her neck.