Alan Rickman and the Mermaids of the Conch Republic
by Megan D. Henson
“The word conch (pronounced “konk”) is used to describe many large shells, but the only true conchs are those shells belonging to the genus Strombus…
The early settlers of the Keys were called “conchs” because of the popularity of the conch for food. Some present day residents of the Keys have declared themselves independent as the “Conch Republic” and have applied for admission to the United Nations.”
– Florida’s Fabulous Seashells, page 71
It’s summer and I lie in bed watching the ceiling fan and listening to the pain pump sewn into my shoulder pump its medicine every ten seconds. I know it’s ten seconds because I count it. Over and over. For five days I count. Sometimes I put in earplugs, so I don’t go crazy. And I listen to the warm sloshing of my brain on oxycodone, daydreaming about my honeymoon when I saw the ocean for the first time, the tide pulling sand from beneath my soles. When the oxy sunshine streams bright into my brain, pain crawls like an arachnid into its cold stone corner and the ocean gapes around me. There are shells and green-blue sea glass on the beach. I smell the fishiness of the water, feel my skin warm—skin wreaking with the oils of anesthesia and pain. I want to put the sea glass in my mouth as it shines like candy, but I know better just as I know that the ocean looks like god, but god is dangerous. There are dangerous things in god’s shark-like brain. the oxy lifts my stomach, makes it feel like it is dangling from a string, and the waves lift, splashing, splashing.
On my honeymoon, I was only there a few minutes, but it was long enough to imagine myself thin with mermaid hair. The oxy feels a little like that—the water and warm sand underfoot.
In bed, I float, but
The oceans are acidifying, and the mermaids have mutated in a single generation. Like songbirds, they now possess two sets of vocal folds. Unlike songbirds, they cannot control them. What once was the sound of a sailor’s siren song is now chaotic clashing waves of sound.
I, too, have mutated. It may have happened in the womb. Or it happened during puberty. whenever it happened, it did not happen when I thought it happened. For instance, the shoulder surgeon asked me, “Where did you go to high school?” I said, “Campbell County.” He said, “Ah, the school known for its band. Were you in the marching band?” Stunned, I said, “Yes, I played trumpet.” He nodded, “Did you have problems holding up your trumpet?” I remembered that year—the pain, the pain-sweat building in my hair until it dripped, the unprecedented exhaustion, the novel I wrote during biology to escape. “Ohhh,” I said. He smiled knowingly.
“Thoracic outlet syndrome is a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib (thoracic outlet) are compressed. This can cause pain in your shoulders and neck and numbness in your fingers. Common causes of thoracic outlet syndrome include physical trauma from a car accident, repetitive injuries from job- or sports-related activities, certain anatomical defects (such as having an extra rib), and pregnancy. Sometimes doctors can’t determine the cause of thoracic outlet syndrome.”
The cat swiped my honeymoon shells to the floor where they smashed and splintered into white powder. As I cleaned up the mess, I thought, these shells could just as easily be oxycodone and I wanted to snort them.
How many times have I looked at a clear blue sky and begged that god’s hand would swipe me from my life? How many times have I felt the moon tug the tides of my moods, my migraines like explosions of music and light?
Now I sit scraping glitter from shell stickers like a child eating paint chips.
The human larynx is a triangular organ holding the muscles, ligaments, and mucus membrane that protect and control a single pair of vocal folds (also called “cords”). Women’s vocal folds don’t fully mature until their middle thirties. In adolescent males, the testes secrete testosterone, which causes the vocal folds to lengthen and thicken. Once this process begins, it is irreversible. Newborns cry an average of 6.7 hours a day. If adults tried doing this, they would suffer permanent damage to the vocal folds.
Many sound engineers believe that the late actor Alan Rickman possessed the perfect male voice. Rumor has it that one of his early acting teachers told him he sounded like he was speaking from the back of a drainpipe.
It took me three years of physical therapy and one year of voice lessons to give in and have the surgeries to remove my scalenes. The voice lessons were more helpful than the therapy. I learned that if I hummed my scales while turning my head side to side the muscles in my throat relaxed. Learning to breathe properly seemed to make room between the muscles and clavicle. Of course, this is anatomically impossible, but someone once said that anything we imagine is real.
Which is why I imagine Alan Rickman speaking to me from his place on the desk—his face on the cover of his unauthorized biography by Maureen Paton. Sometimes he speaks softly, whispers words of encouragement when the writing goes well. Sometimes he admonishes me for quitting early. Mostly we talk about the mutated mermaids. you see, he witnesses things from his place in heaven. From heaven, he sees all dimensions—all the mermaid pods in the world. He says, “For centuries the mermaids of the conch republic were able to keep sailors from reaching their protected island, drawing them away with their songs. Now, they can’t sing a competent note.” He speaks slowly. According to Paton, this is because of a speech impediment he fought—something to do with his jaw.
I relate. In sixth grade, I received bad news from the dentist: my lower jaw was not growing. My profile looked very strange, as though the bottom jaw were scared and hanging back. I wore braces, a power chain, and rubber bands until I began high school, then wore a retainer until I was 18. To this day, my teeth are still crooked. Some things just won’t adapt.
The first Alan Rickman movie I ever saw was Die Hard and I loved him immediately—as soon as he got off the elevator—my little eight-year-old heart blinking in my chest. The movie was released the year I was born—1988. It was his first movie. My mother would not allow us to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers, but my dad would come home from work and turn on Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood shoot ‘em ups. So, this is the way I saw Die Hard.
Alan played Hans Gruber—a terrorist who, as my eight-year-old brain understood—didn’t like Christmas. Alan was 42 years old—a late bloomer in the film industry after a stunning career on the British stage.
Sometimes the sound of a voice is a spell.
Sometimes you’re walking down the streets of New York City jingling a pocketful of change. You go to buy a newspaper and pull out a fistful of little purple shells.
Being a Cancer, I was confused about why the little mermaid wanted legs so badly. And then I realized…oh, she wants a duet with Alan Rickman.
Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.
What did happen was that years later, Alan sang with Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. I felt salted and suntanned.
I ask Alan what island the mermaids of the Conch Republic are guarding. “It’s a tropical rainforest island called Rainleaves, so thick with trees that it’s hard to navigate it even during the day—the dappled sun creating confusing shadows that can cause a person to get lost for hours—until they go mad, even.”
I have been mad for years now, gazing into my dark mirror, scrying while crying.
“Has anyone ever been to Rainleaves?” I ask. He smiles. “Dying is a process. You teach reading; you know that reading is a process. We don’t learn to read and then slap our hands together, set for life. Every book teaches us how to read it. Dying is a lot like that. You spend your whole life learning how to die.”
“I don’t understand,” I tell him.
“Consider your pain. Consider how many times you have felt like you were hit by a truck, then dreamed about being hit by said truck. Think of how many times a day you have thought, I’m going to kill myself. All of those moments prepare you to face conscious dying.”
“What’s the point of living at all?” I ask. I am fed up with this. I want to go back to the subject of ocean acidification and the clashing bells of mermaid voices.
“Death is a grand thing. You’re everywhere and nowhere. You see everything.”
I cock an eyebrow.
He sighs. “You’re 32 years old—little more than a child.
My last thought before the first surgery was:
how hard would it be
to grow a tail made for the sea
how hard would it be
to grow a tail made for the sea