Cut Off, Lafourche Parish
Collected by Pat Mire and Maida Owens on September 20, 1993. The following tale is one of the many told in connection with the great hurricane of 1893, which had a devastating effect on South Louisiana. At least 1,500 people were killed in this storm, one of the worst in American history.
Well, it's hilarious -- it's funny. Although it was tragic then, it's funny now.
One man, he was about twenty-four. Not an old man. . . . Maybe younger than that. And he had been given up for lost. And this goes six, seven days after the storm. They'd just about accounted for everybody they'd hoped to find. And a lot of people had gone up on the rooftops into the Gulf a mile or so. But they got picked up. Or they floated back into the beach. But this fellow, no. And nobody had seen him during the storm. Lo and behold, about three weeks later, he comes in -- in one of those freight boats that was hauling ice . . . and food to Grand Isle for these people that'd been hurt bad. He's a passenger and he makes his way back to Cheniere.
"Hey, what in the world happened to you?" [he was asked.]
"Well," he said, "I'll tell you what. I spent seven days on a door and a door frame, floating, lying on it."
"And, well, how did you survive?"
"Well, I kept hearing this singing." He said they had some mermaids or something singing all the time. "And it kept me alive."
And they laughed, you know?
And he said, "No, no, I saw them. They were singing just for me. They'd come there and swim around and sing."
And one day, he was semiconscious, and he heard some racket, and there was a bunch of Portuguese, and the little yard boat was picking him up. And it was a Portuguese sloop that had seen him on that door and stopped. And that sloop was loaded with salted pork going into New Orleans. And that's a "miracle" he got saved. And he couldn't believe his --
And my daddy said, when they tried to talk to him and really get the story out of him, all he'd remembered was the singing. That's all he'd want to talk about. Beautiful. Beautiful voices. And evidently, he lived a nice long life because he moved to Golden Meadow afterwards, bought land, and raised a big family, this fellow. But he never forgot his ordeal on that door.
Here is another tale displaying the helpful side of supernatural beings. In European and American legends mermaids and sirens tend to drown or abduct sailors; the life-threatening sirens of Book 12 of the Odyssey are typical. In coastal Brittany, however, there is a tradition that sirens are lifesavers. Brittany was the French homeland for some of the Acadians who migrated to Louisiana; perhaps that group influenced the mermaid tradition represented in this tale.
Richard Dorson documents a substantial tradition of mermaid tales from African Americans in the South; like the mermaids featured in this tale, those of black legendry often nurture mortal men, but, like mermaids elsewhere, they also tend to abduct their men and live with them undersea before taking them safely back to land.
For more information about this and related tales, refer to the book Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana, published by University Press of Mississippi.