I discovered her probably in 1954, when I was eight. We lived in one of those wonderful turn-of-the-century homes on First Street just a few blocks from downtown Ft. Myers, Florida. Set picturesquely on the banks of the wide, bright Caloosahatchee River, Ft. Myers was then a clean, pretty little town graced with the Spanish-Moorish architecture so prevalent in tropical Florida in the 1920s.
Within easy walking distance of our house was the small Ft. Myers public library. It was directly across the street from the yacht basin. Every Saturday I walked to the library for a new book. Reaching above my head, I’d push firmly on the bar of the heavy glass door and head straight back to the children’s room and squat before the shelf of Bobbsey Twin books.
One day, instead of returning home along the sidewalk down First Street, I walked the sea wall home. Though I was unaware of it then, the first house I would have passed was the Burroughs Home (the Cuvier mansion in BANYAN), and farther along, the Rea House, two of the great estates remaining from the days when Ft. Myers had been the winter home and playground of millionaire inventors and industrialists.
As I was walking the seawall bordering the Rea estate, I must have glimpsed a bit of white in my peripheral vision, for I stopped on the seawall and turned and saw her.
I don’t think I breathed for a full minute. She was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen in my life. I honestly could not believe what I was seeing. Stepping down off the seawall, mindful that I was trespassing on private property, I approached her cautiously, as to a shrine. She was sitting on a bench overlooking a small gold-fish pond in a tropical garden. The curves of her body were liquid, graceful as cool, slow-curling milk. Her small, perfect face was tilted downward on a neck as gently curved as the stem of a new flower. The thick braid trailing over one soft shoulder was intertwined with a rope of pearls and her dainty white fingertips, pearl-like themselves, hovered just above the teeth of the comb beside her on the bench.
Silently I regarded her, walking slowly around behind her to the other side, my eyes traveling over every fold of her diaphanous gown down to the tips of her bare toes. I wrapped my book tight to my chest with both arms, still young enough to obey the parental edict, “don’t touch.”
She was from that moment my secret “mermaid.” I think I was so enraptured by the pearls in her hair that I missed the anatomical detail of her legs. I began to visit her secretly, always on tip toe, and finally, defying Authority, which dogs the footsteps of children, I touched the pearls in her hair, the teeth of her comb. Her marble shoulders were cool to the hesitant palms of my hands. I glanced frequently toward the house across the sweeping lawn, nervous that the old woman in the house would see me. I could only have assumed that a moldering old woman lived in a house so commanding and ancient, and having grown up on fairy tales, in which old people are always lethal, I feared her.
I grew up, went away, forgot my “mermaid,” returning to Ft. Myers infrequently over the years. Then, in the seventies, I found her again. As if she had materialized from a forgotten dream, she was now sitting in front of the library at the yacht basin. I was astonished, and disturbed to find her in a public setting. I realized that she had been relocated from her original home because the old estate she belonged to was now occupied by rows of apartments built on concrete. But to have left her exposed here seemed an act of callous indifference.
The next time I came home, the library at the yacht basin was gone, and she with it. A new, bigger library had been built. I only had to find it to find her.
I found her. She was headless. Part of one arm and her toes had also been hacked off. For fun? In fury?
In the library I inquired and was shown a pictorial history book of Ft. Myers and in the book was a Ft. Myers News-Press photo of the statue taken in the early twentieth century. I discovered that she was famous in local history and that her name was Lorelei. Admiring her in the grainy old photo, along with a few of Ft. Myers’ elite and famous citizens, including Thomas Edison, was Ms. Evelyn Rea. Who grew old and lived in the house on the estate where I discovered Lorelei. Who probably stood at a window of the house, peering through lacy sheers at the little girl who came ever so often to gaze at Lorelei in her garden by the river. The old woman would not have been able to hear the child singing to Lorelei, but she may have guessed by the movement of her lips that she was talking to her. And she must have smiled and turned from the window to journey, with the assistance of a cane, back to her comfortable arm chair.
I imagine that she leaned her head against the back rest and closed her eyes, remembering.
The following is excerpted from my novella, BANYAN.
No one had used the walkway from our back veranda to the river for decades. The concrete was broken and ragged with weeds. The fountain in the center of the walk had been dry for forty years. Even the green slime that had covered the old fishpond had long ago dried up, leaving only a black stain.
But hidden there in raveling vines, the old vines thick and wooden and the young green ones interlocking tight as linen around her, was my goddess, my Lorelei. A celestial being held captive by jungle vines, soft as sculpted moonlight, her dreaming face aglow under deep sea green. As a child, my fingers had lightly traced the liquid curve of her arm, of her breasts, of her pearl-woven rope of hair. I had not been able to see her from my window for years, but I felt her in the heart of me, at my core.