The Belle Isle Mermaid and the Rumrunner by Mary Alice Rapas
The Belle Isle Mermaid and the Rumrunner
Deep at the bottom of the Detroit River, far beyond the reach of any tow truck or junkyard, there is an underwater graveyard of cars. Many of the sunken vehicles are recent castaways, intentionally pushed off shore for phony insurance claims or to cover a crime, but some of the wrecks date back to the days of the Prohibition, when rumrunners attempted to drive jalopies full of bootlegged liquor across the frozen river from Canadato Detroit on cold winter nights. Most drivers made it across safely, but others left only a snowy set of tire tracks ending abruptly in a pool of broken ice, out in the middle of the river.
The more successful runs would stop on Belle Isle to drop off liquor at a speakeasy in the basement of the Belle Isle Aquarium. The entrance was on the side of the building, at the bottom of a short cement staircase with a narrow landing that left visitors standing uncomfortably close to the door when they knocked the requisite four short knocks. Inside was a long room with cement floors and brick walls, lined with a maze of exposed white plastered pipes that ran along the ceiling and across the windows, caging the basement in bars of unseen, hissing water whose destination lay a floor above, in the heavy aquarium tanks of captive, pacing fish. Bartenders stood on wooden crates inside an empty holding tank built against a wall to house a three-thousand-pound creature but had gone unused because it leaked, leaving wine-colored streaks on the concrete floor and up the rotting foot of a nearby structural post. One side of the structure was removed to form an L-shaped bar where drinks could be served, and tables and chairs were unfolded and set up throughout the room.
Legend says that besides selling liquor, the speakeasy also had a live mermaid on display, and charged visitors a quarter to see her. She had allegedly escaped from a circus barge in theDetroitRiver, only to be captured by fishermen and then traded to the barkeepers at the aquarium in exchange for bootlegged liquor. She was kept half-submerged in a shallow concrete tank the size of a bathtub, in a poorly lit, partitioned area within the speakeasy. She barely had enough room to turn around, let alone swim, and patches of her fish scales seemed to be rotting, shedding iridescent flakes on the water’s surface that stuck to her skin like glitter. If she became frightened and moved suddenly, her tail would disappear into a murky cloud of sediment which rose from the bottom of the tank, full of chewing tobacco, dust, bottle caps, cigarettes, and pennies.
At first the barkeepers tried to keep the tank clean, collecting the slop with a swimming pool net that resisted and hissed whenever it was raised above the surface of the water. In slow motion, they’d stir up the sediment at the bottom and then sift the water, tracing the sinewy curves of her dark tail, heavy and brooding, more like a snake than a fish in the swampy depths. She was nervous with the net, and because her tail would involuntarily splash the barkeepers as she tried to escape, they eventually left the tank alone.
Someone had taught her to smoke, and she’d sit with her elbow propped on the side of the tank, a cigarette sticking to her damp fingers as water beaded in the hair under her arms and streaked down the sides of the tank to the concrete floor. On the flesh above her elbow was a permanent pink indentation, pockmarked from resting it on the surface of the cement tank while she smoked. She was helpless if she dropped the cigarette, and the still-lit, unfinished pieces would fall and accumulate in a soggy, ash-filled puddle until someone finally swept it away, the broom bristles leaving a smeared black trail to the corner of the room.
From outside the tank, she looked like an emaciated girl dressed in a green skirt, and that’s what most people took her for—a strange girl in a costume who could dry off and go home when her shift was over. They ignored her, except for one love-struck rumrunner who visited her every day. He was partially deaf, and years of reading lips and straining to hear gave him a startled or expectant look when he was spoken to, as if he was trying to take in with his eyes what his ears couldn’t do. The other drivers had nicknamed him “St. Francis” because he was quiet and gentle and always carried stale bread and broken dog biscuits in his pockets for the birds and dogs on the island.
The rumrunner would drop off his deliveries to the speakeasy, then drag a chair to sit alongside the mermaid’s tank, lighting her cigarettes and opening cans of fish, which she’d hold in one hand as she dug out the greasy contents with the other, her long brittle fingernails caked with blood and oil, scraping the last bits of flesh from the corners of the shallow can. Sometimes he brought her gifts which he’d carry in his upturned hat as he walked through the crowded speakeasy. She’d reach into it like a grab bag, pulling out candy, a hair comb with a seahorse handle, a seashell, a silver compact mirror, a good luck penny.
He showed her the comb by first tousling his own slicked back hair with his fingers until it fell onto his forehead in dark locks, leaving a sheen of hair oil on his palm and inside the web of his hand. Then he dipped the comb in the water, and with his head lowered, he slowly smoothed his hair back again, each brushstroke followed by an attentive pat with the palm of his other hand until his hair was lined with even, uniform grooves like the barbs of a feather. But when she tried, her hair was too tangled and the comb kept getting stuck halfway down until she was surrounded by a frizzy nest of matted hair. She held the mirror and quietly cried when she saw her reflection, tracing the hollows of her cheekbones with her damp, wrinkled fingertips.
The mermaid never spoke and hardly uttered a sound until Christmas time, when someone brought a phonograph player to the speakeasy. The rumrunner was sitting with her while the barkeepers played a tipsy, vaudevillian record in which the vocal melody was doubled by high pitched, wavering wind instruments, giving the music a rubbery, loose quality, as if it somehow lacked bones. About halfway through the record, the patrons became aware of another voice, a hollow, unsettling choral part that seemed to have been there all along, gradually changing the clownish song into something that sounded forced and afraid. The eerie singing was getting progressively louder, and several people looked up towards the pipes on the ceiling to find the source of the echoing sound, when one of the lookout car drivers, thinking that it could be police sirens, tore the needle from the player.
The mermaid, now unaccompanied by the watery hiss of the record player or the clink of glasses, wailed and then abruptly stopped singing, exhausted. A feeling of loss and homesickness washed over the listeners and the rumrunner sat back with tears in his eyes, his face pale. The bar was silent, and the people who didn’t go home sat morosely the rest of the night, hunched over their drinks and staring into them with vacant eyes, while the fish upstairs grew anxious, and some even threw themselves out of their tank, beating the floor with their tails in a slowly dying pulse.
After that night, the rumrunner began to look more and more tired, unshaven, with dark lines under his eyes that curved into crescent moons when he’d smile and greet the mermaid. He’d arrive early and stay late, holding her hand while she sang softly to him, and he’d move in closer to hear, his eyes closed, the arm of his suit coat wet from leaning on the side of the tank.
In the middle of January, someone gave the mermaid a few drinks. The bar was still decorated with tinsel and Christmas lights, sagging from the pipes on the ceiling like overgrown vines from a fairy tale, and below it, silver confetti from New Year’s was scattered in unswept fish scales on the floor. When the rumrunner arrived later that night, with a new suit and surprisingly clean-shaven, the bar was almost empty and she was half asleep with her chin in the water, her cheeks flushed in uneven streaks. On her head was a large, soaked Christmas wreath, hovering above her like a dark cloud and dripping water onto her face and shoulders. He sat her upright and lit a cigarette for her, untangling the heavy wreath from her hair and replacing it with his hat. She looked like a gangster and he smiled. The Christmas lights reflected on the surface of the disturbed water, shaking in red and green scribbles and she laughed, trying to catch the reflections with her mouth. Then she cried, and was sick over the side of the tank. He was still there when the barkeepers left for the night, but the next day all that remained was the sunken wreath—a dark crown tangled with long strands of her hair at the bottom of the tank.
The same night they disappeared, a lookout car driver stationed on the Belle Isle Bridge was wondering why the strange girl at the aquarium hadn’t answered him when he offered to take her on a date. He was at the bar the first night she sang, and even though nobody could make out the words to her song, he was convinced she had said his name. He was trying to figure out how to find her alone again when he spotted a jalopy leaving the shores of the island and heading the “wrong way” on the ice, towards Canada instead of towards Detroit. Out in the middle of the river, he saw the car’s brake lights flash, briefly gouging a watery red trail that spread over the ice before the car disappeared in the dark.
Mary Alice Rapas performs a shadow puppet show in Detroit that features the Mermaid along with other characters who secretly live on Belle Isle. Backstage, the Mermaid is just as quiet as her fictional character, but the Belle Isle Wolf Man is a complete diva and requires lukewarm Faygo Red Pop before every performance and absolutely no silverware. Mary is also a musician and has recently returned to writing short stories.