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EARNING HER tail

It's not easy to become a mermaid, but it was Morgana Sheldon's childhood dream. Now, she's part of the Weeki Wachee sisterhood.

In the cool belly of the darkened theater, 5-year-old Morgana Sheldon squirmed with excitement. After a hot morning watching bird shows and eating candy, the waiting was over. The little girl was about to see her first real mermaid.

As the curtain curled up over a row of windows, a bluish light washed across Morgana's upturned face.

In the clear depths of Weeki Wachee Spring lay a world of magic. Sunbeams sliced through the water, and sea grass waved in a dreamy dance. A wooden chest spilled its treasure.

Morgana caught her breath. Creatures with curvy women's bodies and shiny fish tails glided past the window. They grinned and sang with the music, bubbles issuing from the corners of their mouths. Their hips swayed in unison in the crystal water a dozen feet beneath the surface.

One mermaid caught Morgana's attention. This one had two legs and swam in high heels. Why doesn't she have a tail? she wondered. How can that be? Maybe she's half mermaid, half human. And if so, Morgana told herself, then someday I'm going to be a mermaid, too.

Mermaid in waiting

Fourteen years later Morgana gasps as she hits the water, a cool 74.2 degrees year round. It's late August, and she feels anything but graceful at her audition to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid.

Senior mermaids twist their legs and point their toes to show Morgana and two other try-outs how to flip in the water. Morgana sucks in a mouthful of air and ducks under.

Oh, Jesus, she thinks as water rushes up her nose, and she pulls through a sloppy backflip. How bad was that? This is harder than it looks.

Morgana passed the park a thousand times while she was growing up in Hernando County. Her parents are divorced, and her mom raised Morgana and her sister on her own. There wasn't much money, so Morgana, 19, saved for college and a car by working as a waitress. She found it dreary work.

Morgana wanted to do something fun and glamorous before night classes began in the winter.

Weeki Wachee kept returning to her mind.

For most of the past century, the Weeki Wachee mermaids captured the imagination of an entire country. The legend of the state's elusive fountain of youth was embodied in the picture-postcard mermaid, bubbles rising from her smile. Elvis Presley mugged with them at the park. Miss Universe posed for pictures with them.

Now Weeki Wachee struggles to stay relevant in a Disney world. Mermaid shows number just two a day, down from nine in the park's prime. A thatched hut where monkeys used to play now sits empty.

Still, with its trickling brooks and squirrels scampering under fat oak trees, Weeki Wachee retains its Old Florida charm. In the back of the park, patrons wander like Huck Finn in covered boats down the Weeki Wachee River, pelicans hitching a ride on the roof.

For Morgana, Weeki Wachee means mermaids, the creatures of her childhood fantasies.

Becoming one seemed a simple dream as a child, on the side of the glass where things are clear and breathing is easy. Now the cold water fogs her vision, her lungs hurt, and she feels disoriented and scared.

In time she'll see that a mermaid doesn't just get a tail. She grows into it.

Waiting for the siren call

After the audition, Morgana wraps herself in a blue towel and walks into the office of Beth Thomas, the person responsible for hiring mermaids.

"Cold?" Thomas asks.

"Yeah, but after a while it's okay," Morgana says. Her hair is dripping, but her dark purple lipstick and blue eye shadow remain intact.

Thomas, 30, still looks the mermaid she was 10 years ago. Now boss of the mermaids, she fills in when a swimmer calls in sick. Like everyone else at the park, she calls the mermaids "girls."

She tells Morgana the drill: All new hires take out the trash and clean the grime off the 19 theater windows. They earn $6 an hour. The grunt work can last a year as the trainees learn CPR, get scuba certified and practice underwater routines. Trainees and mermaids also greet people in the park and pose at festivals.

The last step for a trainee is her first underwater performance. After that she becomes a regular show swimmer and eventually a senior mermaid. Thomas has 15 mermaids on staff and five on call.

"In our sorority we have here, being a mermaid is significant," she says.

Senior mermaids can make about $10 an hour.

She mentions the occasional promotions, including stints in Key West _ "That's so cool!" Morgana says _ and posing in the tuna aisle at a local Winn-Dixie.

Thomas likes that Morgana has been a waitress; it will help her be comfortable with people as she poses for pictures in a tail in 90-degree heat. Morgana is sure she won't get the job. There's no way she beat out the other women auditioning, including a lifeguard with far more swimming experience.

A week later Thomas leaves a message on Morgana's answering machine. She plays the message twice trying to read something in the inflection of Thomas' voice. Finally she calls back.

"Welcome to the mermaid team," Thomas says. "When can you start?"

Out of her element

A few weeks into the job, Morgana rests at the elbow of an L-shaped tube, 16 feet under water.

She peers 40 feet out into the spring and breathes from an air hose. The L-shaped tube is the secret way mermaids and mermen enter the spring from the locker room without going outside. It keeps the performers warm on cold winter days. It also spares children the shock of catching a mermaid unzipping her tail.

This is Morgana's first day with the air hose, the dreaded device that drives off many would-be mermaids while they still have legs.

Mermaids never surface during a show unless there's an emergency. Instead, they return repeatedly to their hoses for air. They even work the hoses into the dance, whirling them through the water with delicate flicks of the wrist. They sip surreptitiously from the hoses.

Unlike the regulators used by scuba divers _ who pull air into their lungs _ the hoses blast compressed air into the mouths of swimmers. It's like poking your head out of the car window at 60 mph, mouth open.

Morgana sits inside the tube, still wearing a scuba mask while she gets used to breathing.

Finally she is told to take off the scuba mask. Bubbles flood into her eyes. The spring is murky and she can't see. And now she is expected to lip synch and smile without getting water in her mouth.

Morgana's trainer Sativa Smith, in the control booth, orders Morgana into the spring with the hose. The sound system allows her to hear Smith even when she's underwater. The voice tells Morgana: Drop the hose and do a dolphin, the arching backflip that is basic mermaid choreography.

Morgana uses her arms to pull through the flip, then races to snatch up the hose where it rests on the underwater stage floor. But she has set the dial too low; breathing through the hose is like breathing through a straw. Morgana pushes off the stage, fleeing to the surface 16 feet up, where she sucks in sweet air in greedy gulps.

Smith yells at her: You have to breathe off the hose.

Showering later, Morgana is panicked. Did I exhale when I surfaced? Did I come up too fast? Mermaids are warned that if they don't exhale, their lungs can rupture.

Still wracked with anxiety a few days later, she picks up a hose. This time she turns it on too high. The air rushes into her mouth, scratching her throat before she can turn it down. She holds onto the edge of the stage, unable to move.

I can't do this, she tells herself. I can't do it.

When Smith asks her to start her routine, Morgana doesn't move. Smith reads the panic on her face.

"Do you want to get out?" she asks over the microphone.

Morgana nods.

"Okay, get out."

Morgana surfaces and scampers to the locker room.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she says, running by Smith.

Getting in the swim of it

Standing at her locker dripping wet, Morgana feels like a failure.

Don't worry about the hose, 25-year-old mermaid Jenn Huber tells her. I almost quit because of that, too. Try it one more day.

That afternoon Morgana is back in the water practicing World by the Tail, and the day after that, and the day after that. Huber was right. Each day, breathing on the hose gets easier.

In early October, she practices dance steps to the tune of Michael Jackson's Thriller with swimmer Heather Byers of St. Petersburg. All the employees have to perform on land for the park Halloween show at the end of the month.

"Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy," Byers calls out as they slide across the thin carpet. Morgana volunteers: "I look like such a geek."

After dance practice, Morgana takes to the spring to learn World by the Tail, the opening number from The Little Mermaid. She wears a one-piece bathing suit, pantyhose, black flippers.

"As soon as you say "Hello, ladies, hi there, men' you're on your stomach, not on your side anymore," Smith orders from the control booth.

She sings the words: We're the sisters of the ocean. . . .

"River, giftshop, river," Smith calls, using landmarks in the park to direct Morgana where to move her legs. Why can't she just say stage left and right? Morgana wonders.

"We got the world by the tail, now shake it _ one, two, three," Smith says, advising Morgana to bend her knees and shake her legs back and forth.

She presses play: We're not like other women, the airy voice sings, fighting traffic on the shore. . . .

Morgana makes a wheel with her hose and pretends to steer it.

Tired of going shopping, living lives that are a bore/Don't have to do the cooking . . .

Morgana shakes a finger.

Hardly ever catch a cold . . .

She fakes a sneeze.

Don't know how to clean an oven/And we never will grow old./We've got the world by the tail. . . .

Shake, shake, shake.

Pretty soon Morgana is making excuses to get into the spring, even to clean the windows. She puts soothing music in the CD player and spins in the darkening blue, her ears filling with piano chords and the soothing drone of air as it passes from the hose to her lungs.

The mermaid, high and dry

Through the fall, as the cypress trees turn orange and shed their leaves, Morgana picks up her part in The Little Mermaid. She is becoming an honest-to-goodness mermaid.

Morgana picks out two flippers from the locker room and grabs a shiny purple tail that matches her bathing suit top. (When children ask why her tail is purple, she tells them, "Oh, my mom had a purple tail.") She places the flippers in the bottom of the tail and steps into them.

"Here's the hard part," she says as she sucks in her belly and zips the suit around her hips.

She gives one last tug on the zipper and hops down the steps to a waiting merman. He takes her in his arms and carries her toward the clapboard museum near the spring's edge. There he places her on a seashell the size of a footstool.

Adults and children gather around, staring in silence.

"Hi, sweetie, want to get your picture taken?" Morgana asks a young girl.

Silence.

"Want to get your picture taken?" she asks again. The girl nods. Morgana whispers in her ear as Mom snaps a picture.

"I'll sit down with the mermaid," says a tourist from Pennsylvania, bounding toward Morgana. He wraps his arm around her as his wife chuckles, camera in hand. "This is for the guys back at the firehouse."

There is no shortage of male admirers, the mermaids have seen. A few years ago, one man plunged into the spring during a show in hope of catching a sea beauty with his bare hands.

A tiny girl approaches. Her name is Claire Skinner. She's 2{ and visiting from Texas.

"What's it like to be a mermaid?"

"It's cool," Morgana coos. She puts her hand on Claire's back and smiles for another picture. Claire walks away, but stands at a distance, her eyes on Morgana.

Now she comes back.

Morgana points to a patch of four sea turtles paddling in the spring. "You know what they eat?" Morgana asks.

"Hermit crabs," says Claire.

Morgana bursts into laughter. "Hermit crabs? That's true. But they also eat bananas."

It's time for Morgana to go.

"I bet you if I see you again, I'll have legs," she tells Claire. "If I stay on land too long, I get legs. If I go back in the water, I get a tail."

Morgana waves over the merman's shoulder as he carries her to the locker room.

Claire's family takes her to the gift shop, where she picks out a stuffed mermaid. She names it Morgana.

Finally, it's showtime

It is early December, and Morgana has been working at the park for three months _ greeting audience members, posing outside, cleaning windows. She has practiced the underwater routines again and again. But she hasn't been in a show.

As she practices her routines in the spring, Beth Thomas watches. She is thinking Morgana is finally ready, but hasn't told her because she doesn't want to make her nervous. Without a mask, Morgana can't see Thomas sitting there.

Morgana floats on her side in front of the windows. Her arms glide gracefully above and below her as she flaps her tail, propelling herself across the theater windows. Bread in one hand stirs a trail of fish in her wake.

"The fact she can go from point A to point B is very good to me," Thomas says. "And she's smiling."

Sativa Smith is waiting for Morgana when her head pops out of the L-shaped tube. Smith tells her today's the day.

After lunch, Morgana stands in front of the wide locker room mirror, putting on makeup. She will play one of the Little Mermaid's sisters. Smith, who will play the evil sea witch, joins her in the locker room.

"You scared?" she asks.

Morgana's earlier resolve has crumbled. Her brown eyes widen and she nods.

"You'll get out of your stage fright," Smith says.

Thomas and Smith want Morgana in the water early so she can establish a calm breathing pattern. But she is running behind. Her face tightens as she scurries down the spiral stairs to the L-shaped tube. She fumbles as she slides her feet and legs into her tail; she usually does this inside the spring.

Smith is frustrated that she's doing things differently just minutes before her debut, and says so. Morgana lies on her back to zip up the tail.

"Okay," Smith says, "I just want you to hurry because the show is going to start in one minute."

Morgana slides up to the edge of the tube, tail dangling over.

"Okay, girls," she says to the other mermaids. "Bye."

Into the water she goes.

A member of the sisterhood

Thomas purposely chose December for Morgana's first show because it's cold and the crowds are small; if Morgana messes up, not many people will see. Sure enough, only 20 people are seated in the theater.

On the other side of a white plastic curtain, out of sight, Morgana rests in the spring against the stage, drinking air from a tube. She tries to calm her nerves. Air in the mouth, out the nose.

Thomas, in the control booth, welcomes the audience and asks them to applaud often because the mermaids and mermen can hear them.

The curtain rolls up, revealing the sparkling blue spring.

As a woman's taped voice starts the tale of a "strange, wonderful race of people, half-human, half-fish," Morgana rises into view with a wide smile. She begins her sideways swim to the side of the theater windows.

She makes it down to the next hose and swallows more air. Then she swims to the center of the spring to converge with two other mermaids for World by the Tail.

At times she's a little higher or lower than the other two, a sign that she's not controlling her breathing.

Just before a can-can move, Morgana sips from her air hose but doesn't get enough. She's trapped between the other mermaids, her arms locked with theirs. She begins to "gut suck," her chest convulsing as it demands air.

The move completed, they break and she rushes the hose to her mouth.

As she begins a dolphin backflip, Morgana sees that her hose has fallen into a dark patch of sea grass on the stage.

If Morgana can't find the hose, she'll have to break character and go looking for air. The show would be disrupted. Thomas sees the problem and tells Morgana through the microphone that the hose will be right beneath her when she comes back around. Morgana starts gut-sucking again.

When she comes out of the flip, Morgana glimpses the hose, tugs on it, and the mouthpiece flies into her hand. She can continue the routine.

Next thing she knows, the show is over and the cast is being introduced. On cue, she swims toward the glass. The bubbles break up her smile until she's completely blocked from view.

It's over, she thinks. I did it.

Another little mermaid?

Morgana stands in the back of the theater, where the mermaids first enchanted her when she was 5 years old.

A small girl seeks her out. Christina Fowler is visiting from Louisiana. When her family told her they were going to see the Little Mermaid, it was all she could talk about.

Christina looks up at Morgana, who is wearing a long, flowing sundress.

"You're a mermaid?" she asks Morgana.

Yes, Morgana answers. It doesn't matter that she doesn't have a tail. Christina believes her anyway.

"How old are you?" Morgana asks.

Christina holds up one hand, all its fingers poking into the air. Five.

When they are on land, mermaids need mermen to help them get around. John Summers carries Weeki Wachee Spring mermaid-in-training Morgana Sheldon to her seashell seat on a land-bound deck to meet her public.

As they sit above the mermaid spring, Morgana chats with a visitor, Claire Skinner, 2{, from Texas. Later, in the gift shop, Claire's parents bought her a stuffed mermaid that the girl promptly named Morgana.

While the novice mermaids practice underwater breathing and smiling, they get a visit from divers who have paid to swim in the spring.

Morgana Sheldon, right, wiggles into her tail, while mermaid Heather Byers awaits the final transformation to half woman/half fish. Then both will go down the tube that permits them to enter the water without being seen by the audience. Sativa Smith, left, is Sheldon's trainer.

Learning to breathe underwater with aid from the air hose was one of Morgana's greatest challenges in metamorphosing into a mermaid. When air pressure in the hose is too low, not enough air is available, but when pressure is too high it's like suddenly sticking your head out the window of a car traveling 60 mph.

While Morgana attends to chores on dry land, such as cleaning windows into the spring, she notes the water's changing personality as the day goes by. "See, now it's in a good mood," she says.

Morgana, center, makes her performance debut as one of the Little Mermaid's sisters. Mermaid Heather Byers is at left, Morgana's trainer, Sativa Smith, at right. They can stay at the same depth in the water by controlling the amount of air in their lungs.

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