Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV Fiction |

Mother Water, Mirror Mother

Yemi remembered when the scales first appeared. She was sixteen. Eczema ran in her family, so she thought she just needed a stronger moisturizer for her legs, but then the flakes started appearing on her knees and pelvis too. Ano, her brother, told her to stop eating junk food because it was clogging up her pores and messing with her hormones, keeping her fat. She drank fruit smoothies for a while, and when that didn’t help, she ate more kale, spinach, and other leafy greens. No luck. The scales persisted, silver and turquoise. More appeared. When she tried to peel them off, they resisted like little shields, protecting whatever it was they were creating.

Yemi googled pictures of mermaids and found statuesque white women, their long, silky hair filled with water lilies. When they were not white women, they were otherworldly creatures with lightning-stripe eyes. Naked, their silhouettes displayed each line of breast and back under a celestial sky inviting harps to play. Meanwhile, Yemi’s lines were bloated and overflowing, swiveled into awkward ends. The mermaids in the pictures online also reminded her of the white and biracial girls who attended Bruegger High, Emory Hall, and other schools on the good side of town. They always rolled their eyes at her, pressing in on themselves just to get a few more inches away from the unfamiliar smell, skin, voice, curve, and pedigree. As soon as the basketball games were over and they climbed back onto their bus, they’d forget that this side of town existed because there was no need to remember what didn’t affect them. Yemi learned a long time ago that being stuck underwater wasn’t the only way to drown.

……

When Yemi’s feet started webbing together, she went crying to her mother, who examined the shiny new folds of flesh as if they were an old friend.

 “I didn’t think this could happen,” her mother said, shaking her head at Yemi’s scaled knees.

Yemi froze. “Do you mean . . . ?”

Her mother frowned at her with a look somewhere between that of a stranger and that of someone betrayed, then left the room.

Yemi pulled her pants up, wondering if she had done something wrong, if her body had failed her family in some way or revealed a secret she wasn’t supposed to know.

Later that night Yemi heard her mother arguing with her grandmother, Ouma, in the backyard.

“I thought it was just a folktale. Not something that we could actually become.”

Ouma’s voice remained calm, wrinkled as her skin. “You knew where we came from. What your great-grandmother was. It could happen to any of the women in our family.”

“Is there any way to stop it?” her mother asked.

“It’s beyond us. All you can do is tell the child the truth and prepare her for what’s next.”

Her mother’s voice thickened with grief. “I’m not ready to lose her.”

“Who said anything about losing her? We’ll still be able to see her from here on the coast.”

Yemi had heard stories of women in their family turning into water spirits, or lwas, but never thought she was special or cursed enough for it to happen to her. Sixteen was too young to be ripped away from her home. There were friends, violin performances, maybe a boy or three in the future. There was still so much for her to walk into, and she was being told to lie down and be carried off without having any say. Water couldn’t offer her the life she’d known, especially not the filthy Gulf. With all the industrial facilities that dumped chemicals into its mouth. And the fracking waste that pooled onshore like a sickly child with nowhere else to go. What kind of home would a vat of poison be?

Instead of fretting about how Yemi’s body was making jewelry of itself, her mom took her on the short drive down to the beach. The scent of brine, sand, and fish tails blew through the windows and lingered in their hair. Bells from the neighboring harbor rang, calling all the boats to rest for the evening. It was still light out, gray with no clear horizon, and the pelicans disappeared into distant fog. The ocean left the air wet and noisy as it crashed into itself, unable to make up its mind between the colors algae and nimbostratus.

“Do you know how long I have?”

Her mother shook her head. “No. Just that it’s irreversible.”

“Do you think it’s lonely out there?”

“I hope not. But we’ll visit you when we can.”

When we can echoed in Yemi’s head. A phrase of good intentions and forgotten promises. When other priorities cropped up and replaced any face from the past. Her mom was already busy working as a CNA, struggling to cover Ouma’s medical bills. There were other questions blowing in the wind, but none would bring Yemi’s body back, lessen the fear, or make the water more familiar. Of course, the ocean was a body unto itself with its own community that ate and smiled and screamed, but she didn’t know if she’d learn its language.

……

One of Yemi’s first memories was of a hurricane. The water had been so angry, starting with the rain and howling winds. Evacuation warnings had gone out the past week, but many families had nowhere else to go. They did what they’d always done. Boarded up their windows, filled the tub with fresh water, pruned trees, kept radios or TVs turned onto the news, placed emergency kits nearby, packed away loose items, kept important documents on their person, gathered two weeks’ worth of nonperishable food, bought batteries, and charged generators. The drills had been drummed into her head for years. Those who could afford to leave did, those who couldn’t prayed and drank their way through it.

It was the first time she’d seen water take flight, fish caught up in its wings, moving as though it wanted to wipe out civilization and start over, beginning with the poorest wards. And all the poor Black folks who dared survive its wrath asked, What did we ever do but live? Many died, their houses ripped open, and the soil sobbed with the ocean and land remains.

Most of their houses filled with water, and the insurance money wasn’t enough to cover all the repairs. When the floorboards rotted in Yemi’s room enough to collapse into the kitchen, their mother finally admitted it was time to move. The smell of bloated corpses and shit-filled water sometimes returned in Yemi’s dreams. Some places remained broken, with no one to reclaim them. Trash remained in the street, on the sidewalks, buried under bushes for years. After seeing everything come undone, people in the neighborhood didn’t know where to start, which parts they were responsible for repairing. Over time they grew used to driving by condemned houses and waiting for FEMA checks to arrive.

Those who had family in other states moved away from the water, but most had nowhere to turn but toward each other. And despite the ravages of the hurricane, the people of the town loved their home for better and worse and clung to the only place they knew. Whether through prayer, the bottle, laughter, blues, or the pipe, everyone had their way of grieving. Vigils were held for the deceased, their pictures hung by candles, on lampposts, on shirts. Many of the missing remained that way. Local activists ran peaceful protests outside of housing corporations and the Department of Health, waiting for them to clean, rebuild, help bury loved ones, but they were met with silence and residue that the floodwaters had yet to wash away. The government’s disaster assistance was slow to reach their neighborhoods and slower to care about its people. Perhaps those up high assumed that because the town’s inhabitants had always struggled and survived, they could do it again, that their people wouldn’t be missed if they were gone, or that the shards of what was left were too sharp, too many to put back together again.

Meanwhile, the affluent, mostly white side of town, which was built higher above sea level, barely turned their heads in the damage’s direction since it didn’t affect their homes and money. Their business owners could repair broken windows with more than cardboard boxes. They could afford to have any ugliness removed from their neighborhood or to stay away from it completely. Their houses were constructed after eighteenth-century manors, with roofs they could sit on and turn into theaters during the storm. No overturned soil or coffins showed up on their doorsteps. Their coffee shops, banks, and schools ran as usual. A few righteous homeowners donated to reconstruction charities for tax write-offs, but for the most part empathy was not an asset for them, so they went about their daily lives. Between the poorer wards’ own residents and news outlets, enough attention had been given, and help would surely arrive from somewhere. No one stopped to consider that a child’s first memory shouldn’t be of how disposable her family was or their inability to do anything about it, even if that was her inheritance.

……

It had been three months since Yemi’s body started changing. She stopped going to school when it became too difficult to walk. Her body ached when it wasn’t in water. Ano spent more time out with his friends to avoid the sight of her and the shimmering light that came from the bathroom. Yemi preferred it that way. He looked at her as an inconvenience, complaining that the bathroom was never free. Since the bills took no days off, neither could their mother. But she did what she could by leaving a few dusty Harlequin romances by the tub for Yemi to read. A few extra water stains wouldn’t make the stories any less soapy. And Ouma spent a fair amount of the day sleeping, watching The Price is Right, and trying not to forget the water she’d put on the stove for tea. It was lonely behind the shower curtain, listening to her family live their lives around her while she was somewhere between invisible and a burden. Unlike in romance novels, there was no strong, handsome force coming to rescue Yemi from her porcelain fortress.

Ouma gave her a locket one day. While Yemi was in the bathtub, her grandmother braided her hair, unraveling old cornrows and scratching away dandruff. Ouma’s wrinkled fingers greased Yemi’s scalp, massaging until goosebumps rose. Sure, the braids would turn out a little crooked, but it was good for the old woman to have some something to do. And it was nice to feel love from Ouma’s tender hands, as her mouth was too tight for such utterings. Yemi leaned forward, hiding her breasts behind her legs, and covered as many of her scales with her arms as she could. The tiny plates had grown up her thighs, which sucked together like magnets whenever she closed her legs. Her eyes had become almost platinum, her nose flattened to slits, almost merging with her mouth. She looked at the family photos on the bathroom wall: one was of Yemi’s mother with Ano and Ouma, and the other was a black-and-white photo of Ouma’s mother in her youth, wearing a stone pendant.

“What do you remember about your mother?” Yemi asked.

Her grandmother closed her eyes. “A quiet beauty. Like a doll. We didn’t ask adults about themselves back then. She stared into the distance a lot, like something was always calling to her. When she held me, it always felt like her hands weren’t meant for me. As a child, I would smell her palms, trying to figure out where she belonged. Then one morning, she was gone. My father did his best to raise me, but usually left me with his sisters.”

“She sounds more like a dream than a person,” Yemi remarked.

Ouma brushed out the ends of her granddaughter’s hair. “I always wonder if I’ll see her when I sleep.”

“Do you have anything of hers?” Yemi said.

The prickling sound of the brush filled the room. “Only the stories she told.”

“When were you going to pass them down to us?”

“I thought if I didn’t give them to you, I could hold onto our family longer. But our heritage already resides in you whether I speak it or not.”

Yemi stares at the scales on her knees. “How do you know your mother went to the ocean and didn’t just run away?”

Ouma began pulling strands to weave together. “She told me where it started. Back in the home of Mami Wata, a water deity who took many male lovers. In exchange for their loyalty, she granted them good fortune. But many of the men were stolen during the slave trade. Since Mami couldn’t leave her beloved Africa, she peeled scales from her body and turned them into water spirits that followed the ships to the Western world. The lwas helped bury the dead along their journey. Some of her lovers settled in the coastal waters here in the Gulf. Others traveled farther south into the Caribbean and South America. Mami decided to release the men from her spell, and instead to replenish her followers slowly with their descendants over the years. There’s no way to know who will be called, but I’m sure Mami has her reasons.”

Yemi tilted her head upward. “Am I supposed to be grateful for this curse?”

“No one said it was a curse,” Ouma answered.

“Seems fairly toxic that she didn’t ask anyone’s consent.”

Ouma chuckled. “You can’t expect a deity to play by human rules.”

Yemi’s back curved as she leaned against her grandmother’s pelvis. “You never said how you knew that your mother went to the ocean.”

Ouma popped the brush against the girl’s back to correct her posture. “The odor of wild water seeped out of her pores more with each day. It was like the waves snuck in and snatched up what belonged to them.”

It sounded like her great-grandmother’s leaving had been anticipated and peaceful. Perhaps drowning didn’t always mean the end of life, but the sometimes marked beginning of a new one.

“Where do I smell like I belong?” Yemi asked.

Ouma stroked her granddaughter’s forehead. “Home. You smell of home.”

Once Yemi’s hair was done, Ouma got the pendant from her dresser and placed it around Yemi’s neck.

“Your mother’s?” Yemi asked.

Ouma nodded. “It was on my dresser the morning she left. But it’s time it had a new owner.”

Late that night, when Yemi was alone, she fiddled with the pendant and discovered it opened into a locket. One side contained a family photo that included Ouma’s mom, and the other held a mirror, but beneath Yemi’s reflection she saw glimmers of faces with tinted eyes and sharp teeth, fish tails that swam through the water. The images were faint and could be mistaken for shadows, but Yemi recognized herself in the passing shapes. As Yemi shifted the mirror side of the locket, the image shifted and showed only her face.

She ran her thumb along the mirror and asked, “Are we monsters or are we beautiful?”

……

Their goodbye was brief. Ouma was too frail to leave the house, but the locket lay around Yemi’s neck. Yemi’s mother had just gotten off of a double shift, her eyes baggy with exhaustion. And Yemi’s departure would only be a relief to her brother, Ano. The car stank of fish as she laid in the back, sporadically spritzing her mouth and gills. For the last few months, Yemi’s craving for water and salt had grown, both outside and inside her body. Cool air calmed her, breathed new life into her neck. It became harder to leave her baths. Slowly, her scales expanded, nipples inverted, voice deepened to a rumble, and her spine began realigning itself.

Her family awkwardly carried her to a group of rocks near the coastline. How had Ouma’s mother been able to make her exit gracefully? Her mother hugged her for the combined length of time of all the hugs she’d ever received, plus the ones she’d wanted but never gotten. Her mother cried as if she had regrets she couldn’t name. “I wish I could do more,” she whimpered.

Ano and Yemi performed a farewell for their mother’s sake. Strange it wasn’t like this when they were young. It was easier for him to be kind when it was just them, with no peers to measure their looks. They were just familiars who played together, knew secrets buried in the backyard, and shared a bed for warmth. But when they entered middle school, he withdrew his affection more and more, until they only uttered a few sentences to each other as needed.

Only last week he’d stood in the doorway, arms crossed, and watched her struggle into the bathtub to run water over her scales. Yemi couldn’t tell if his stare was ridicule or punishment. She never bothered asking for softness or an apology—it would only make him leave faster.

“You should be thankful I let you help yourself,” he snapped. “How simple is it to run a bath?”

Yemi huffed. “Not very, when your body’s morphing into a mermaid.”

“You’ll use any reason but the truth.”

She wished they could go back to silence, but now that it had been ripped open, there was no way to. “The truth is I didn’t ask to be in this situation.”

Ano sniffed. “Neither did I.”

……

Yemi was beyond the point of tears now. The water was calling—she could feel it on her tongue, more seductive than their last visit. Her mom said she’d stop by the beach when she could, every few weeks or so. But Yemi knew the little time her mother had off was reserved for Ouma’s doctor appointments. Another drowning. They stayed and watched Yemi enter the ocean, waiting to see her adjust. She sank down and felt her body complete its transformation, an armor of scales replaced what remained of her legs, and a fish tail formed where her feet used to be. Her gills flushed open, and she could fully breathe again. She swam deeper into the water and scanned the horizon. When she turned back to her family, they were far away, tiny dots in the distance. She tried to return their waves, but the currents rushed her, drawing her toward her new life. Hopefully the coast would clear a spot for them to meet again.

……

Though the ocean was bright when she set out, it darkened the farther down Yemi swam. Like the back of a throat, the ocean was illuminated just enough for Yemi to see and hear the fish within arm’s reach. Yemi didn’t know whether she should be scared. Since the waves were always so loud, it was odd how quiet the deep was in contrast. How long would it take before she met others like her? Or predators? She swam on. There were no hours to measure here, so she rested when she could, lingering along the ocean floor, making a bed of the sand.

Occasionally cigarette butts, food wrappers, and plastic bags drifted in the distance. It was strange to see reminders of land so far out. But she remembered hearing about water pollution in school. How sewage and land runoff seeped into the waterways. Some areas reeked of waste and chemicals, while other spots were sulfurous. She woke up hungry and found seaweed and kelp to gnaw on but craved meat. Soon, she was darting at fish, mollusks, and crabs, her daggerlike teeth ripping through shell and bone. Her body had rebuilt itself into that of a predator. She gained the instinct to avoid sharks and stingrays. Their most dangerous traits weren’t their bite or sting, but the way they hid in silence, blending into the water until their shadow was beside their prey.

For several days, Yemi navigated the waters in this way, learning to embrace the vastness as home rather than a place of fear. She passed a shipwreck, rusted and fragmented. Occasional schools of tuna and snapper sped by as if they had some place to be. Maybe they did. Cobia used rocky or wooden places as camouflage. Still, she wondered where the other mermaids were, whether they were hiding, had relocated, or were gone. Accepting the fact that she was the only one felt like a true death sentence, so she kept going. With all that time to herself, Yemi wondered whether she’d see her great-grandmother and if either of them would recognize the other in their aquatic forms. Had she had aged, or had ocean life preserved her? Were there more of their ancestors floating nearby? Though the ocean was vast, perhaps they’d want to stay close to home.

She encountered a place on the surface that smelled of oil and rot, the water tainted gray with floating fish decayed open to their skeletons. Yemi did her best to swim around these areas, but her eyes still burned. At the end of the murkiness she found a mermaid. Trash surrounded her body, and a broken net was twisted around her. Yemi couldn’t tell if the corpse was a coincidence or a warning, but she stayed away all the same, horrified by the creature’s blank expression. It hadn’t occurred to her that humans might now be predators as well. From then on, she stuck to swimming in the deep.

……

Another day passed. Yemi saw fish tails in the distance and heard clicking tongues. As she swam toward them, a black-tailed mermaid popped up in front of her, making Yemi flinch back.

“Your reflexes will have to improve if you want to survive here,” the mermaid said.

“Sorry. I come from the coast—”

“Many of us did. There’s no need to explain—we were all new once. Follow me.”

Yemi watched the other mermaids swim ahead. Though she’d been hoping to find company the last few days, it seemed odd to trust strangers. But she’d have to risk trusting them if she wanted to be a part of a community again. Hesitantly, she floated along, watching the mermaids’ shadows shift along the floor. The smaller fish that swam by didn’t seem worried, which was reassuring.

“I was starting to think I was the only one left.”

The mermaid chuckled. “Don’t flatter yourself. We just prefer to keep our base away from humans.”

“I saw another mermaid tangled in a net about a day back.”

“Did you try to help her?”

“No.”

“Good. That never ends well.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s good for new spirits to wander the water alone for a few days. It shows whether they have the instinct to survive. If not, they usually only cause our pod trouble.”

As they swam farther into the domain, sparkling flecks caught Yemi’s eye. There were mirrors tucked into the coral reefs and more shimmering fragments scattered across the stone walls. Mermaids of all shades, sizes, and textures floated around. Their tails were every tone from mountain blue to volcanic red and sunrise yellow. Ombre, solid, spotted patterns, and more. Some of their scales were diamond sharp and others flowed as soft as dandelion seeds. The water spirits moved in their tasks, weaving baskets with reeds or clay, collecting fish, or praying. The chatter bubbled around in various streams, different dialects of clicks and gargles interspersed with words. Yemi listened to how water reshaped the vibrations of words, so she felt the sentences along her skin before hearing them. At the center of their village was an ornate white altar with a sizable mirror, decorated in small turtle shells and fine-tooth combs. As the mermaids floated past, none of their reflections showed in the mirror.

“What’s that table for?” Yemi asked.

“That’s Mami Wata’s altar. Others know her as La Sirène. Some of the spirits pray to her, mainly to go back to their families, or asking to remember their names. But I’ve yet to see her respond to any prayers. There are merfolk who claim to see distant images of her. A pair of eyes, the crown of her head, a smile or a wave. I personally don’t think she exists, but faith is all some can choose to have here.”

The black-tailed water spirit swam so fast Yemi placed a hand along the curl of her tail, realizing what she’d forgotten to ask. “I’m Yemi, by the way. What’s your name?”

The mermaid looked back, her eyes becoming blank. As if her name were a distant detail she seldom used. Her eyes were the same sable shade as her scales. “Cain. I think.”

……

For the next few weeks, Yemi learned the different roles of the pod. How to hunt, how to scout for other spirits, the songs that led them back home, how to escape predators, the smells of oil and boats, and the ocean’s gestures. When it was still, minding its business, when it knocked at her back due to the guests sailing above, when the water was suffocating on a net or foreign objects dropped into it, when a slight growl shook through the ocean’s body and hinted at an approaching storm. There were also calls to the altar, where Yemi learned how to pray and make offerings. If she wanted to. Mami Wata didn’t force faith on those who didn’t have it.

Cain and a few others always swam past the altar as if that part of their community didn’t exist. “I just can’t make a religion of storytelling. And that’s the only time the goddess supposedly shows up, in somebody else’s story. I’ve never seen her for myself,” Cain explained during Yemi’s lesson on tasting the different kinds of dampness. The sky filled their mouths with rain that sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Yemi swam out farther with each day, as if teaching herself to walk, memorizing major walls, sand beds, and caves. She labeled the danger zones of jellyfish, barracudas, and lionfish. She liked the structure of her new body, how her breasts hung freely, her curves as loose as they wanted to be. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying. She wanted to talk to her mom and friends, people who’d be just as excited as she was at the vastness of this hidden world. But she knew her desire could only go so far. The ocean was lonely in that way.

As Yemi tried to get to know the mermaids, she discovered that many of their memories had faded down to their names, as if the water had washed everything else away. Small fragments such as walking on legs, smoking a cigarette, curling one’s hair, eating cooked foods—hot things that existed outside water. But their families were gone, and they could only remember that they loved and were loved. Not even the shadow of those old smiles crossed their minds, no matter how hard they concentrated, or even if they went near land and sat above the surface.

……

Though many of the water spirits had come from Louisiana’s coast, others drifted in from Haiti. Everyone’s most distinctive memory was of the moment they discovered they were destined to become a water spirit. And each spirit arrived under different circumstances. To learn the language of her new home, Yemi shadowed the others.

Mira, a spirit with a rose-gold tail, taught Yemi to build her hut. They gathered pieces of wood and coral for the foundation, then covered these with mud and patted the dome into shape with their tails. Mira explained how humans who worshipped Mami Wata paid tributes of champagne, desserts, and seashells. But the biggest tributes came through dance, gyrating around fires on the coast in the lwa’s name. “She possessed my body and brought me to the water. I heard the song of La Sirène calling my name. Though the song was beautiful above water, it was even more seductive down below, where trumpets followed.” They hung braided strings of seaweed both in and outside of the new home. “My dress fell away,” Mira continued, “and I saw my new form. It was like she turned my bones to music. The farther out I swam, the more I heard it.”

On hunting day, Amber took Yemi to sharpen knives, fashion spears, and sew holes in the nets closed. Once the knife tips were sharp enough, they swam across open water and waited for their meal to appear. Amber’s eyes were fire-colored and highlighted whatever they focused on. The spirits started with small catch like shrimp and crab, but soon moved on to catfish. As they made their way back to the pod, Amber told a story of a woman so desperate to be a mother that she approached the water’s edge and baptized her stomach to Mami Wata. She prayed that the deity would fill her womb with children. The most reverent followers received their wishes if they followed the goddess’s instructions, which she gave them in dreams. The barren woman delivered her baby in the ocean and, with tears in her eyes, gave away her first daughter as an offering to the water spirits, who brought the child to the altar and named her Amber. The woman went on to bear more children soon after. “The first water I tasted was my mother’s blood, the next was the ocean,” Amber said.

No human stragglers were allowed on the waters after dark. Most people knew this, but every so often a drunken fool or two would test Mami Wata. When that happened, the mermaids brought the offenders to her mirror. Jericho, one of the guards, took Yemi on a night run to see after a rowboat. Jericho’s emerald locs were so long she wove a few strands around her muscular neck and arms like ornaments. As her hair shifted, Yemi saw old scars on the guard’s body. As they traveled to the surface, Jericho recalled her genesis. “I first saw the lwa in my dreams, then in my mirror where the deity spoke wisdom. When she saw that I could be trusted, she began to tell me some of her secrets—the names of her lovers. The caves where she christened newborns. Where she had placed gold for me.” Mami Wata, the keeper of women and children, rescued Jericho from her home. When La Sirène sang, the wounded wife escaped, while her abusive husband walked to his watery grave.

Upon reaching the surface, Jericho grabbed a man half hanging out of the boat and dragged him down to the depths until he passed out. She carried him over her shoulder on their way back. “This is the least I can do for the lwa.”

Yemi was beginning to recognize Mami Wata as a goddess of many hearts, loyal to those who were loyal to her, but monstrous to those who betrayed her. A few humans who found themselves adrift along the water alone or at night were taken down to the pod and fed to the mirror that housed Mami Wata. If they were lucky, the human was returned to land several years later with the ability to heal. The unlucky ones were never seen again.

The few souls desperate enough to enter pacts with the goddess regarding love, family, or livelihood had to make sure they honored the agreement. In exchange, she blessed her followers with wealth and fertility. But anyone who stole, lied, or tried to feed sea creatures to the lwa as tribute lost their possessions, or if she was blood-hungry enough, their life. Yemi heard further tales that Mami Wata’s beauty could shift into endless teeth and darkness if she was provoked. All gifts were put through the mirror, but the deity never presented herself to the spirits when they gathered. It was generally understood that Mama Wati’s appearance was a privilege, not a given, and would only occur when she deemed it necessary. The chosen few who claimed to have seen her only had through dreams or when they were alone with a shiny surface. The deity spoke through messengers when she wanted her offerings gathered from the surface or when a human was to be dragged to their end.

……

Yemi looked at the picture in her locket every day so she wouldn’t forget the familiar eyes she came from. She looked around at the mermaids to see if she could find those eyes swimming around the territory. She had yet to find them. Before bed, sometimes Yemi looked in the tiny mirror on the opposite side of her necklace. Some nights, she saw a reflection of Ouma’s bedroom. But when she woke to her own reflection, she realized it could very well have been a dream of what she wished to see. In this way, she lost one world and gained another.

……

Cain tried to convince Yemi to go with a few of them on a trek through the Caribbean and down to the southern regions of the Atlantic. Apparently, it was a yearly trip that a group of mermaids took to visit sister spirits. The trip was a reminder that the ocean was bigger than them.

“You need to get out of your head,” Cain instructed. “Stop looking for something that isn’t there.”

It was difficult to admit, but Yemi was still looking for the life she’d known: her family, school, legs. It all belonged to her. But in the water, everything had been washed away. She was beginning to forget her family’s faces. Perhaps it would be good to allow herself to give into the tide, flow with and not against it.

As they traveled, the mermaids moved close together like a school of fish, pulled through the bottomless silence more by the current than their own efforts. Yemi swam next to Cain.

“What do you remember about yourself?” she asked.

Cain clicked her tongue. “A pair of shoes I think belonged to my father. The creaks of wooden floors. The golden tint of Bible pages and flower dresses. Hardly a life anymore when you put it all together.”

They swam by a reef shaped like the tree of life. The sponges were brain colored, their wrinkles adding to the effect of soft tissue. Algae tangled with the reef and swayed with the water. A few guppies wove between the vines, nibbling at the greenery.

Yemi reached her hand out to feel along the reef. “What did the ocean give you in return?”

Cain sniffed. “Eternity, I suppose.”

The guppies circled around Yemi’s fingers. “Is it worth it?”

“You act as though we’re alone down here. As if we don’t exist together. And that it’s somehow less dangerous on land. We’re less distracted than humans, more in tune with each other and our home. Our lives are simpler, cleaner, more honorable. Whatever was taken away isn’t more than what was given to me. For better or worse, there is no going back.” Cain nudged Yemi’s shoulder, “Try to enjoy what’s in front of you.”

Maybe. She owed it to herself to try.

The water was sweeter around Cuba and Haiti due to the sugarcane. Mango- and palm-colored mermaids danced in patches of clear blue water; echoes of the rumba and conga bumped between their tails. When the water spirits gathered, Mira and Jericho swayed to the music. The bounce of the drums filled the air and everyone’s chest with the beat. Their limbs stretched toward the surface as if the seagulls would join them. The spirits’ tails moved as feet, shifting forward and back. Even their hair fell loose and joined their dance. Cain grabbed at Yemi’s hips and beckoned her to join. Yemi dropped the shyness from her smile, comfortably warm.

They still came across oil spills and trash and, sporadically, graveyards of mermaids with seagulls picking at their backs, plastic bags wrapped around their necks. So many cigarette butts circled like parasites. They also found smaller sea creatures like turtles and fish trapped in plastic soda rings. It was strange to see the filth near the beauty of each island. What the tourists saw and what the ocean experienced were two separate concerns.

The ocean was so clear by Nicaragua it was like a piece of the sun was hidden in the sand. The wetness was so light Yemi felt like she was flying. The Miskito and Creole dialects moved fast through the clicks of native mermaids. Their heads bowed reverently toward their guests as though Catholicism permeated the waves. Shearwaters and tropic birds whined about the heat, but Yemi came up to hear their songs as their tails wrote their journeys in the sky. Still comfortably warm.

The collection of stories along the Guyanese coast was a wonder. The spirits’ lips were tinted moray green from chewing the vines and plantains that drifted into their domain. They told the stories of the Old Higue, Comfa, and Obeah. They peeked their heads up at the beach at night to hear African drums and see land dwellers dancing around broken bottles and eating fire. Supposedly, their movements were the possession of ancestors, the hand-me-downs of slaves. Warmth began to make Yemi’s skin tingle.

Then there was Brazil, where Baroque paintings were buried in deep recesses of the Atlantic. So were rusted chains and bones. They had to be careful of the humans who swam out to look for mermaid corpses. If the corpse was fresh, the locals ate it, believing water spirits would imbue them with long life and vitality. If the body was too far gone, the scales could still be used for clothes or to color artworks. The sister spirits’ breath exuded hog plum and chocolate when they spoke. Their wrinkles were deep, perhaps from the salt or from living several lives in one. The history the water held was thick, full of secrets. Music traveled for miles. Bossa nova, samba, forró. Glimmers of gold and rotting sugarcane roots brushed against these mermaids’ scales.

They found pleasure and entertainment above the surface, but they also felt the echo of stolen memories from slave ships below. Rich and cruel. 1888. The year slavery was finally abolished was imprinted in each of their minds. Of course, it took much longer than that to become free. Memories were inherited here yet forgotten in the Gulf Coast waters. Why was that? Why did the water get to play god, hold countless lifetimes in its breath, take away one creature’s life just to give it to another?

The water began to vibrate and grow hot. The heat came from more than just sunlight. It started as a low hum that could easily be mistaken for surging creatures, but soon the mermaids sensed that something was off. The water moved in warning, rushing and building itself up to a moving fist.

“What does this mean?” Yemi asked.

“Probably a storm coming,” Cain said, looking around. “Maybe a hurricane.”

“Where will it land?”

Mira held her arm out, feeling the wind along the water. “Hard to tell, but the wind seems to be moving in the direction we came from.”

Yemi’s eyes widened. “Why are you so calm about that?”

Jericho cocked her head. “I’m not, but panicking won’t change matters. Still, we should probably go home.”

“How long before it arrives?” Yemi asked.

Cain started swimming toward the other spirits. “No one can predict such things, but if it were near, things would be more thunderous. We have time to get back home safely.”

Yemi held her locket. “It’s not us I’m worried about.”

Another drowning. Is this why the ocean made them forget their pasts? So they wouldn’t mourn the death of loved ones and their communities when the water grew hot enough to boil over? Perhaps it was a blessing and curse all at once, but still, Yemi had to warn her family. “I have to go.”

Cain grabbed her hand. “Do you really think you can change anything?”

Yemi pulled her hand away. “I enjoyed trying things your way for a while.”

……

Yemi stared into the mirror in her locket, begging to see her grandmother’s bedroom. She attempted to pray, something she hadn’t done in a while—not since she was young and bullied at school for her weight, but now her prayers weren’t selfish. Yemi tried to not be mad at the ocean or its goddess and respect where she was coming from. Please show them to me. Let me help them. Nothing happened during the day, but at night Ouma’s room slowly faded into view. Ano was at her bedside, wiping night sweats from their grandmother’s brow. Yemi tapped her finger on the glass and called his name.

Ano looked around as if he could hear a distant noise.

“Come to Ouma’s mirror,” Yemi said. She didn’t know if he would recognize her voice, but she had to try.

Begrudgingly, Ano got up. When he saw his sister, he flinched. “What happened to you?”

Yemi shook her head. “That doesn’t matter now. Don’t ask me how I know, but a hurricane’s coming. You have to tell Mom and get ready to move.”

Ano’s eyes squinted at her. “What are you talking about?”

“Another hurricane. I don’t know how else to—”

“Do you know how insane you sound . . . and look?”

Yemi could’ve asked if she’d done something to offend her brother, how she could make her existence a little less inconvenient for him. She bit her tongue. “This isn’t a joke, Ano.”

“If you have to swim everywhere you go in the ocean, why are you still fat?”

“I’m trying to help you.”

“No one asked for your help. Our lives have been fine without you.”

“Can you stop being a jerk for once and just listen to me?”

Her words must’ve been more of a growl than a voice because her brother stepped back in fear. Apparently, it took the ferocity of a half-creature for him to listen. A voice that threatened violence. Ano cleared his throat. “There haven’t been any warnings on the news yet.”

“I am your warning. I know it’s hard to accept, but this is bigger than either of us.”

He sighed and looked back at Ouma.

 “How is she?” Yemi asked.

“Weak. Mom’s working nonstop to cover the house and Ouma’s medicine. I just got a job at the drugstore.”

“Don’t steal anything on Ouma’s behalf. It won’t be worth it.”

Ano rolled his eyes at her. “I know how this works. You just stick to playing the Little Mermaid.”

Yemi chuckled. “Can I see her?”

Ano paused as if thinking about it, then walked to their grandmother’s bedside and turned on the lamp. Ouma had aged since Yemi had last seen her. It was hard to keep track of time in the ocean, even with the changes in weather. The wrinkles around Ouma’s mouth were dried out, her eyes were sunken in, and she’d gotten frailer, but her breaths were strong. Her hands rested against the blanket around her stomach. Yemi realized she’d forgotten her grandmother’s hands, how it felt when they braided her hair.

“Hopefully she won’t last much longer. She doesn’t eat much and sleeps most of the day,” Ano reached down and petted Ouma’s thinning hair, “I know she’d want to pass in her home.”

Yemi sighed. “I understand it’s not the best time, but you still have to tell Mom.”

“We’re barely getting by in this place. What makes you think we have anywhere else to go?”

“There’ll be shelters for you to go to. Anything is better than waiting for it to happen.”

“You really think folks outside of here care what happens to us or this part of town? They didn’t care the last time.”

Yemi’s eyes stung. “You can’t think like that.”

Her brother sniffed. “That’s not really your problem anymore, is it?”

“Ano, please.”

He turned off the light and walked toward the door.

It was no use. Though Yemi was disappointed, it wasn’t with her brother, but because what he said was true.

……

Cain and the other spirits swam back home with Yemi, quieter than they had been on their way south. Yemi wasn’t raised religious, but she wondered about Mami Wata, what she wanted from her descendants onshore and in the water. Did the ocean’s rage belong to her or was it bigger than that? Did she care to protect them at all? Their ancestors had survived for hundreds of years in lives they didn’t choose. Why come this far only for family lines to be destroyed? Had human pollution poisoned the deity enough to drive her mad? Perhaps the goddess was only exacting revenge for every follower she’d lost to the slave trade. But if that were so, it didn’t make sense for her to hit the Black neighborhoods. Unless . . . she was mad that her own people were forgetting her.

The closer the spirits got to home, the stronger the currents became, rustling through their hair and blowing smaller fish past their bodies. As soon as they arrived, Yemi swam to the altar. There were always a few mermaids wrapped in white linen speaking to the goddess. Warm water was gathering, and so was the humid air above, humming along the surface. Many who had been here long enough to know what was coming prepared to hide away. There was no telling what her brother would or wouldn’t do, so her family’s fate was left up to Mami Wata and the ocean. Over the next few days, thunderstorms gathered. Gray clouds took hold of the sky like hands around a neck, forming columns that began to circle. The air pressure increased, the cyclone finding its voice.

Yemi and dozens of the water spirits stayed in front of the empty altar mirror, pleading for Mami Wata to show her face. Though Cain supposedly didn’t believe, she agreed to hold Yemi’s hand for support. Certainly, some were just curious about the force that had brought them here and wanted to see their prayers manifest into flesh, to reward their faithful worship. Other spirits like Yemi prayed for those who resided in the memories that remained to them. They understood there was no stopping nature’s force and only asked that their families be spared from the smiting. She repeated their names over and over. Mama. Ouma. Ano.

Yemi considered that their pleas might be denied and wondered where her faith would go if they were. Faith is all that some choose to have. She made up her mind that it was better to believe in something than nothing at all. That something was where her memories, love, and acceptance lived. Her belief in that something was all she could control.

“Whatever your answer is, I accept,” she whispered between her hands.

Yemi felt a pulse in front of her and looked up. A figure was materializing in the mirror. At first it appeared as a bead of gold, but as the figure drew toward them, it expanded into a woman’s body. Yemi wanted to scream, swim closer, tell the others, but found she was paralyzed in place and could only watch silently. The woman’s pearl-colored scales filled out the arcs of her bodice and crown of her head. Her mane was wild, an ocean unto itself. A sleeping serpent adorned her neck and breasts, and her eyes were pure light and greeting. She moved like royalty, as if time didn’t exist on her side of the mirror. Recovering from her shock, Yemi was finally able to move toward the reflection. But she remained quiet as the other spirits chanted, their eyes closed. The goddess’s eyes were filled with more answers than Yemi could ever hope to know.

La Sirène reached her hand through the mirror and stroked Yemi’s face. “Thank you, my love.”

As she moved back, she dissolved into the current, which stirred furiously before shooting up past the mirror and toward the surface. Yemi’s locket snapped off from her neck and fell into the current. She let it go. Maybe that loss was her tribute. Besides, the cyclone had finally arrived. Its eye, the calm center, circled above the mermaids. While the others stayed tucked away below, Yemi swam to the surface to see what Mami Wata’s answer would be.

“What are you doing?” Cain shouted, swimming beside her.

Yemi swam faster than she ever had, trying to stay out of the direct path of the storm but witness where it was going. Had the water snatched her locket away on purpose? Could she get it back? The storm was monstrous in height and sound, circling hundreds of feet above in splatters of gray and white. Yemi could feel Cain swimming behind, trying to stop her. The trees on land bent back and sand whipped at the air. Yemi placed one hand on her bare neck and reached for Cain with the other as they were blown onto a boulder. They watched the spiral take off and comb through the shore toward the seawall. Just as it touched the stone and concrete, the water formed a face and a woman’s back, considering its next steps.

The storm raised herself up like god’s finger and pointed at what she was looking for. She curved up into the clouds and reached past Yemi’s neighborhood. Her rage still shook everywhere, but this time she crashed onto the other side of town, where the buildings had always been a safe distance from water. Where the doctors, engineers, cheerleaders worked and went to school in a quiet existence. It hadn’t occurred to Yemi that even if her family was safe, the hurricane’s fury still needed to land somewhere, that someone still needed to answer for the poison thrown into the ocean. The lwa needed sacrifice and to unleash the destruction the world had given her. Someone would always lose and need to mourn.

How could Yemi have known that some prayers turned into monsters that drowned people? She tried to remind herself of who this had all been for, but her mind, like her neck, was empty. No, a new weight had fallen across her shoulders, one she didn’t know how to remove. Water kept surging through town. The storm was far from over. “I’m sorry,” Yemi cried, “I’m sorry,” but the wind swallowed up every word. The place that had been her home had turned unfamiliar, into a place that would haunt her if she ever returned to it. Now all she had left were Cain’s arms until the storm passed.

Photo of Jeneé Skinner
Jeneé Skinner’s work has appeared in Catapult, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, the Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter @SkinnerJenee or Instagram @jskin94.

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