The house sat alone in a patch of swamp in a world her husband called Louisiana. When her son finally came to her there it wasn’t as she had expected. On the screened porch that looked out over the water, frogs called like poorly suited sirens under the midnight moon, and she crouched beside the camp bed like something hunted. A profound loosening, and the baby slid into her waiting hands. She leaned against the bed and clutched him to her, lay him, wet and wriggling, across her swollen middle. She watched, mesmerized, as he dragged himself toward her breasts like a fish out of water. She gathered him up and brought him to rest on her shoulder.
I know just how you feel, she told him.
Her husband clamped and cut the cord, snatched the baby up and held him high, whooping and hollering like he did when she led him to a spot of ocean where the shrimp exploded from the sea beds like confetti. The baby’s legs kicked, one two, they curled like parentheses. He swallowed a lungful of air like it was the most natural thing in the world.
A new pain ripped through her body and something else slid from her while her husband paraded the baby—squalling now, and red—around the empty house. This was her husband’s concession, to let her labor at home. No hospitals, no certificates—on this she’d been firm.
For you, he said smiling, and handed her the baby to nurse.
It had been eighteen months since her husband caught her in his net. She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins. Her legs revealed themselves, came unstuck from one another with a sick squelching sound and a smell like fresh-killed fish.
Shock, her husband told her later. Shock was what got you, and it was me that saved you; brought you straight home and warmed you up.
The next thing she remembered after being hauled from the sea was this house on the swamp, a slender band on her newly un-webbed finger. Her gill slits closed up, just faint pink scars beneath ropes of hair. Her mind and mouth crammed full of words.
Even before her belly swelled, her husband took her out on the water only when he needed to: at times when he had taken the boat out and dropped his test trawl in ten, twenty, thirty spots only to find nowhere worth unfurling his nets. Shrimping was bad, he told her, and getting worse; she saw guilt in his eyes when he said this, oceans of it. Still, at those times he decided it was necessary, he slathered her with sunscreen, sat her in the bow, and followed her directions.
Again and again, she led him straight to a patch of water where his test trawl came up overflowing; he came to trust her, even as she led him deeper and deeper out, even as she struggled to trust herself. Perched at the fore of his rusted boat, she imagined wrestling him over the edge, holding him as his body shuddered and stilled. She tasted salt and her mouth wetted. The longer they were out there—waves smacking the boat, ropes groaning, their own shallow breath whistling through their chests—the more her husband tensed, watched her from the corners of his eyes. She gazed loosely at the horizon and pretended not to see. Always, he filled a couple bags at the place she led him to, then marked the spot on a map and ferried her home. He took his crew back out to finish the job. This was a waste of fuel, but he didn’t like her out on the water, he didn’t like it at all.
She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins.
In that way, she lived with the man who called himself her husband. When he left on his boat for days or weeks at a time, she walked the mile each day to the public library. She sat in a cool dim room before one of the computers. The glow of the screen like underwater. Her varied names spelled out before her: Atargatis, Thetis, Sirena, Thessalonike, Merrow, Selkie, Rusalka, Ariel, Undine. Each got it wrong but the wrongness failed to matter; each tugged a bit of her to the surface and toward the sea. She read the stories, and before came to her in a flush of blue and fractal light. It came to her in an undifferentiated swell that broke across her skin in goosebumps and hummed deep in her chest, something those stories and their thin words couldn’t touch, but in their proximity, wakened. By the time she reached the driveway to her husband’s house, the feeling faded. She turned, invariably, and went inside, nameless, powerless against the tides that moved her.
When she learned that she carried an infant in her new and awkward body, she ate hamburgers and milkshakes and swelled to a shape that she had to remind herself was acceptable—there was no need to be streamlined here; there was nowhere she was trying to go. She felt the child flip and flutter and paddle around in her belly, and she ate while her husband worried over money, over the state of the shrimp. He was too scared to take her on the water with him, scared for the baby. He admitted to her, his face twisted with guilt and regret, that he thought it was nearly over for them, his whole family’s livelihood for generations: Would there be anything left for their boy? He looked her in the eye as though she could absolve him. He told her the truth for once: He’d poisoned the water and stripped it bare.
* * *
The night their child was born she swaddled him and placed him in a basket beside the marriage bed. She had fed and settled him and cleaned herself up, had drifted almost to sleep, exhausted, when her husband whispered, his breath hot on her neck:
Tell me about before.
Her eyes snapped open.
She reached behind her and picked up her husband’s hand to buy time, rubbing her thumb across his palm in a way she knew soothed him. What could she afford to give him? She’d lost so much in the first invasion, the onslaught of language that came to her whole cloth, chafing her memory.
Since then, she’d only lost more.
She could never afford to give him, for instance, the seam in the water where it’s weight overcame you, the depth at which you begin to fall rather than float and, in so doing, take flight. She would never give him the midnight zone, where she used to spend days at a time, drifting, listening, holding out her tongue to catch whatever floated past, unseen. The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved. Even diluted by naming, these things were among the most precious.
She had been quiet for too long but lay there still, frozen.
I heard stories about you, he said, breathing heavily now. When I was a boy. I heard stories I figured weren’t half true, but then—
The baby squawked and quieted, and they both flinched at the sound.
She took a deep breath and began to speak. She painted a picture of grottos, colonies of merpeople, chaste interludes with fisherman lost at sea, bits of the stories she’d read and now braided into a rope for her husband to follow, sated, into sleep.
She waited a long while, then nudged him gently to quiet his snoring. He grunted and rolled away from her. She gnawed her fingernails and spit them on the floor beside the bed.
In the days after his birth, she checked the baby, with neither forethought or expectation, for signs of gill slits in his neck. She turned his face on his weak and spindly neck this way and that. She cradled him in the crook of her arm so that with her free hand she could stroke the smooth skin below his seashell ears: had ridges or rifts emerged there? But there was no sign, nothing except the webbing between the big toe and its neighbor on his left foot. Inconclusive at best. And here again was the unexpected, because her love for him was untouched by his deficit; it blossomed in her chest like a wound; it grew.
Weeks passed. She tried once to go back to the library, but the baby cried; he wouldn’t settle. She sensed he didn’t like the cold and sterile air, acclimated as he was to their swamp. People looked coldly at her until she took him outside.
On the long walk home the baby grew hot and red and squalled like an abandoned bird. With all the strength he had, he produced a sound at once meager and overwhelming. She walked faster, breasts and eyes leaking. The skin on his soft skull burned to a livid red and in the days that followed, it blistered.
So she spent her days in the house, sandwiched between a wooded yard and a swamp that spread to the horizon, teasing her. The swamp was briny, and alligators basked with their eyes and pebbly skin showing above the surface. Herons stood on stalk legs or took off, lumbering over the cypress trees and out of sight. Tadpoles swarmed the shallows, and none of it moved her.
She slept when the baby slept, curled at her breast; together they dreamed of the sea. She dreamed the two of them alone, the baby contracting his body, propelling himself through the water, clutching handfuls of her hair, clasping himself to her to nurse then flitting away again. In the dream, she broke the surface of the water. The baby in the waves beside her, and when she looked around there was nothing else in sight: no land, no boats, no men.
On those past occasions that her husband took her out on the water, he blindfolded her for the drive to the docks. When he seated her at the bow of the fishing boat, he tied her to the railing, ever so loosely, ever so gently, with soft strips of cotton he tore from old towels. He was afraid she’d drown, he told her. So overcome was she by the sight of the ocean, she might dive back in and forget her new body: she’d take a deep breath and never emerge. She knew better. She knew that was not the shape of his fear.
Sometimes when the water was low and the salinity high in the swamp behind their home, she’d wade in up to her knees and feel the pull of the tide. The baby clasped tight to her chest, his heart fluttering against her own. She’d stay until the sun sank down and the moon shone overhead like a wishing coin. In its trick light she saw the shine of scales at her ankles, where the bones protruded and the skin stretched tight. She’d step out of the water slowly, walking backwards with high steps like the marsh birds. But invariably the scales fell and stayed behind, glinting in the moonlight as they sank to the muddy bottom, vanishing, maybe never there at all.
When the baby was a month old her husband left for what would be a three-week trip. He kissed her on the mouth—My undine, he murmured—and kissed the baby on the crown of its head—My boy. He climbed into his truck and disappeared around a bend in the long dirt drive.
The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved.
Of course, she said to herself for comfort, she could find the marina if she truly tried. She could smell the sea from here, pungent as camellia blooming in their yard. Sometimes she wandered down the driveway beyond the bend; she stood at the side of the road and stared in the direction where she sensed the marina. But always she turned back to the house, herded by an unnamed force.
With the baby in her arms, she stood in the yard until she could no longer hear the rumble of the truck in the distance. Back inside, she lay the baby on a blanket on the wood floor. There was no library for her anymore, no cool click of plastic under her nails, the eerie glow of the screen and the letters arranging themselves into story after story with versions of herself at their core.
It had rained for a week straight and the water outside their back door was weak as winter twilight, practically potable. The baby kicked its legs and made a mewling sound, searching her out with its voice. She went to him and lay down, curled around him on the blanket and watched his hands clench and unclench reflexively. His eyes were still muddy and half-blind, rarely open. When he fussed she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled him to her breast and they fell asleep like that.
One morning as she poured a bowl of cornflakes a bolt went through her heart: It jolted her to the floor where she shook in a rictus of electric pain: She made noises she couldn’t control and drooled over the front her shirt. When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.
She pulled herself to her feet and breathed deeply, filling her lungs to ease the ache in her chest. The sea was three miles south and she could get there easily on foot; she knew this now, knew exactly where it was and how to make the journey. It was as though an invisible net had vanished from around her, and she moved quickly in terror of its reappearance. She lifted the baby from the playpen and lay him, still sleeping, over her shoulder.
Outside it was sticky and hot, and the bugs cried like they did all day. She ran down the steps off the screened porch to where the water mixed itself with marsh grass and mud. Here was a pool of sorts in the shallows, smaller than a bathtub and about as deep, filled with cool clean water from the recent rain.
She peeled the clothes off the baby and he opened his eyes to watch. His breath hitched in his chest like it sometimes did on either side of sleep. She whispered to him, begging, and cradled his head, rubbed her thumb over the smooth skin of his neck. She lay him in the shallow water and held him there, felt his small body float, his gaze almost meeting hers but sliding off and away, diffusing like a puff, a cloud.
When she let go, crossed her arms across her chest, held her breath, the water covered him, shimmering. A bird called in the distance and another answered and together they took flight. Ripples broke the surface, a stream of bubbles.
Her pulse throbbed in her temples and the heat pressed her feet into the mud. She scooped him up. Flipped him onto his belly and thudded him between the shoulder blades with the heel of her palm. A long moment passed, stretched itself thin as fishline—snapped when his cry came, red and angry. She held him like that, letting the water drain from him, patting his back while he wailed in protest.
Inside the house she swabbed him clean, fed and dressed and comforted him. She put on shoes and shouldered a bag of his belongings and made her way to the county road. For the first time, she turned left, toward the water. Their nearest neighbor was a half hour walk, and when she reached the mailbox she turned down the drive. She ignored the pain in her joints and her chest. She breathed heavily: from the heat, and from the slight weight of her child, and the weight of all the things she knew he’d need. On her shoulder, he slackened into sleep. She imagined him growing, unfolding in a proliferation of cells that shaped themselves into a man, a man on a boat, a man with muscle that roped his arms and clenched his fingers around a net. A groan caught in her chest.
There was a car in the neighbor’s driveway, and when she reached the front stoop she heard noises from inside the house. She spread a blanket on the concrete slab and lay the baby on it. It was shaded and cooler here. She stroked the fuzz on the baby’s head, fingered the webbed skin between his toes and he flinched; his face screwed up and he smacked his lips before sinking back into still sleep.
She rang the doorbell and left him, hurrying back up the drive. She broke into a jog, sweat coursing down her back.
She ran all the way to the marina, down the stairs to the pier; she sprinted to the end and leapt, swan dived into the oily water and swam with all her strength into the deeps.
When the water grew cold and the flavor of engine oil faded, she allowed herself to slow, drifting on the waves and staring warily back toward the marina. There were boats coming in and out of the docks, and though the closest to her now was at least a hundred feet off, it was likely she had been seen. She undressed, fumbling with buttons and wet jeans.
She went under and relished the saltwater filling her eyes; she stared at her blurred limbs, at her long legs scissoring under the water, painted with light, her pointed toes, her delicate fingers. Then, an exquisite pain clenched her middle, and she curled around it. She felt her face stretch into a terrible grin; had she been able, she’d have drawn a lungful of seawater, but the pain sucked the air from her lungs along with the will to replace it.
When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.
The worst of it passed, leaving a fresh throbbing in her body. She took off through the water, propelling herself with her newly fused legs, a tail again, a lobed fin that sped her toward the open ocean, away from the marina and the sounds of engines that assaulted her. She breathed deep and true. The world beneath the waves was crisp and clear in her new eyes, and nearly empty, nearly all open space.
Soon she had arrived. She was some miles out. Her husband’s fishing boat, some small distance off, muscled through the waves and back toward the marina with all the haste its engine could manage. She saw the men on the deck, her husband’s crew; they scanned the horizon for help that was already too late.
She dove beneath the waves and swam alongside the vessel, listening to the conversations that reached her through the metal hull of the boat. Her husband’s heart had stopped over an hour ago. His body grew chill and grey. And what had that been? the men wondered. When the pain first struck and he struggled to draw breath, what was the bucket he hauled from below deck, full of dull scales, flakes of something dead that he dumped into the sea before collapsing, closing his eyes, his face twisted against the end?
They spoke of these events over and over, repeating them like a spell against the passing of time, the steady death of cells, and as they spoke, she trembled, with rage, with unexpected grief.
How many stories had she read, and never discovered this most important bit of lore? The bucket of her scales, returned to the water, that was all it took to gain her freedom. How many times had she contemplated leading him to dangerous waters, sending him to fish where she smelled a storm on the brink? How many times had she found herself unable? In the end it was this: a simple accident of the body, an inadequate twist and flicker of guilt. She stroked the side of the boat with her webbed hand and then she swam away.
In all the old stories, mermaids are horrible people to have as family. Their only loyalty is to themselves, their whims, the sea; their loyalty is to no body. They kill the men who yearn for them, bring storms upon their villages; they tangle unwary swimmers in their hair and drag them to the depths; they bring destruction; they are destroyed; they bring empty promises hidden in their bodies like half-formed pearls; they bring nothing at all. The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing.
Days passed, then months. The pain in her body never lessened or left; she was poorly outfitted in her new skin, and her misery formed verses in her mind that played on a loop. She checked her torso for evidence of the sucking wound she felt there. She swam slow circles just above the ocean floor, around the vent that was her favorite space, the water here a kind of dark that carried weight, syrupy and cloying. The water so hot it soothed the pain in her joints and her core; so hot it would scald her son’s sweet skin off in an instant. She thought of him as he would be now, of the hair that might have grown and the sunlight that might play through it, of a new brightness behind the eyes, shining through the accordion folds of his iris. She swam slow circles around the vent and wondered who held him at night, what they whispered in his seashell ears; she swam and waited for his coming.