Mermaid stories and selkie stories, mother Eve stories, they always start the same way: with curious girls who want to know. So they leave their homes and lose themselves, but only for a time. Mermaid stories and selkie stories, mother Eve stories, they always end the same way: heads bowed, hearts heavy, they go back. They go home.
Polluted water laps at my feet, less offensive in the dark, almost lovely with the lights of the boats and yachts on its surface, like bright scrapes of a palette knife. Ship masts, long black strokes. Furled sails, smudges. But still, the lights, just a few, peeping out from inside hulls and behind little windows, gazing out at their wayward reflections.
I pull the drawstrings on my sweatshirt tight around my face, keeping the bugs out. My rump is sore from sitting on the concrete dock for so long. I was watching the tide go out, enviously, breathing the scent of mussels as the recession revealed their group huddle along the pilings. I lost track of time. My feet are cold. I can barely feel them, but I keep them in the water.
I swat at a gnat.
I need to make a decision. I need to choose. Do I stay? Or . . .
But that’s the thing. That’s what mermaid stories and selkie stories, mother Eve stories, always get wrong. Once you know, once you’ve lost yourself in the knowing, you can never go back. That’s the trick. And there’s no witch to write the rules, no devil to broker a deal with, no fisherman to outwit. There’s not even a husband to blame.
I am not a mermaid or a selkie. I am not mother Eve. I am an impressionist painting, brushstrokes always moving. I am Monet’s Port of Le Havre, his Sunrise, his Lilies. I am his entire palette, yellow and green and cerulean. Red and orange and purple. And I am blue. So blue that I am blacker than black. I am the yolk of a turtle egg. I am a haven, and I am hell. Life-giving and taking. I have held every precious pearl you small things so covet. I am the god splitting mountains with my feet, persuading stones to go smooth with my lips. I am the sound you hear before you die, not a siren’s call, but the unfathomable rushing of the ocean filling your whole head, consuming your body as your hands fly through me. I’ve cradled sailors to my breasts, and ships too, and islands. Pray to your god and He will pray me to stop. But I won’t.
I’ve caught the sun, with him writhing and spitting conflagrations and bucking me, heaving me across the horizon, and held on still. He has lit me afire with a million bursts of his worst, and I have not been burned.
I have made love under the moon. And to the moon.
I have been huge.
And now I am here. And now I am this. And I cannot go home.
If I slip into this water, my skin will not turn into a pelt. My legs will not grow scales. My lungs will not find a way to breathe again. I know that.
I am small. So small.
And the mirror world would break me, would shatter me, would swallow me and scatter me like so many sharks’ teeth. I would wash away. Like dry paint.
Or . . .
Perhaps I would break free. Perhaps I would leave this small body behind, this dam, this paltry bucket, these lungs that cannot breathe. Or scream. Perhaps the soul of me would rise, would dive, would rise and dive and be big again. Be huge.
The tide is coming back in. As it must. The night air prickles. The gnats make a storm cloud near me. Too near me. And I don’t want this skin to itch more than it already does.
So I stay in this body, and I go back to my house.
But it is not my home.
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