Too Far from the Water

Posted on: November 11, 2014

It makes it more difficult, Mica tells me, if you transition into a human family that's too far from the water.

"In a land family," she says, “you'll have turmoil."

"Like the waves?"

"No. Like a world with no waves."

I can't imagine a world with no waves. The pulse of them is all I've ever known. They set our days here. The waves rising and falling tell us when to swim beyond the ocean shelf and when to go closer to the shore to feed on smaller fish.

"You'll get lucky," says Mica. "I have a feeling you'll be born to fishermen."

I know it isn't good to spend too much time speculating, but I hope she's right. I swim behind her as we head towards the reef. The sun cuts through the water and flashes against her scales, which shine silver.


On the day Mica is caught, I swim to the sandy bottom and bury myself in silt, like I've seen the crabs do. Lin finds me and tells me I should celebrate. That Mica’s been eaten by now, and soon will be born as a human.

"How can they eat her, knowing they used to be animals themselves?"

"Why do you eat smaller fish?" Lin asks. "You help them continue on their path. Besides, humans lose all memory of their past once they're born in their final form."

I stay on the bottom awhile longer, then rejoin the others as they swim towards the shallows.


When the net dips down, I try to lock eyes with the fisherman. Remember who you were, I want to say, but my lips move in strange patterns in the air. My gills burn like the time I was tangled in a jellyfish tentacle.

As the fisherman moves the net into his boat, I can hear the muted sounds of my friends below, still in the water.

They wish me luck. Then, they are gone. All I hear are the waves.


The waves change. They usually woosh at a regular rate, but today, they're faster. I can feel a deep thrumming of noise. Until today, the noise has been soothing, sometimes seeming to speak directly to me--but now it's loud and angry. The walls of the chamber where I've been floating expand and press in around me.

When I emerge, my gills burn again, but in a new way. I try to protest in my old language, like in the fisherman's net. But now, the noise comes from me. I am wrapped in a new net, this one warm and soft. I am wiped clean. My scales are gone--in their place, brown skin.

I look up into human eyes for the first time since the fisherman's, and at once, I forget the waves. I am born.


“Don’t you go near that pool!”

I am four. It is hot. So hot, my feet burn on the concrete that surrounds the swimming pool. We’re on a roof deck, and Mom is talking to Jay and Shelby. No one is swimming in the perfect, turquoise water. Women and men lie on chairs all around us. Some reading, some drinking. Some sleeping. I don’t know why you’d want to nap when you could have a pool all to yourself.

Mom is helping Shelby get drinks out of the cooler. I sneak closer to the pool. I can just set my foot on the top of the water. Just enough to cool off the burn from the concrete. Ahhh.

I lose my balance.

I’m part of the water, now, bobbing up and down. Mom and Shelby and Jay are still by the cooler. I can see them as if through a sheer, sparkling curtain. No one is coming. I close my eyes, and when I open them, I see darkness creeping in.

And then, Mom’s in the pool, pulling me out, still wearing her long dress with the pink flowers on it. She’s crying. I’m crying.

On the pool deck, she spanks me, then squeezes me so tight I think I’ll black out again. She spanks me again, then kisses the top of my head.

“What did I tell you about the water? You are not a fish,” she wails.


“What’s your sign?” Michelle wants to know.


“Your sign. Your astrological sign?”

She has a thick purple book on her desk. The pages are rimmed all the way around in silver, so when she closes the book, they shine.

I don’t want to admit I don’t know what she’s talking about. All morning, Michelle and her friends have huddled around that book. I didn’t expect to be included. Mom’s grand idea to move to the suburbs has left me the new kid in the middle of the school year. These kids ride horses and wear name brand clothes. The girls all have miniature leather backpacks that they’ve stuffed with glittery lip gloss and scented lotion. Mom bought me my backpack at Wal*Mart three years ago, and it’s falling apart. I don’t wear makeup. But now Michelle is talking to me. She wants to share the contents of her magical book with me.

“Helloooo? You in there, new kid? What’s your sign?”

“I can’t remember,” I say. “I knew one time, but now I forget.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“March 1st.”

“You’re a Pisces,” she says.


When Mom gets out of rehab for the second time, she takes me on a trip to the beach.

“You hate the ocean,” I say, when she calls me at college to propose the plan.

“I never did enough for you when you were little,” she said. “It can be a fresh start.”

I’m not sure I believe in fresh starts, especially from Mom. For her, it’s always more about disconnection from the old. “What’s past is past,” she’s fond of saying. And when the new is an escape rather than a decision, I can’t trust it to last.

“It’s nice here,” she says. The water is clear and calm. Bluer than I remember. But what memory do I have to go on?

“Did we come here when I was a kid?” I ask her.

“I don’t think so. You never liked the water.”

“That’s not true,” I say.

“Well, we just didn’t. We went to the mountains, though. Remember camping?”

“Uh huh.”

Mom’s taken her sandals off, and she cries out when she steps on something sharp.

“It’s just a shell,” I say, bending to pick it up. It’s shimmery, like mercury.

“Why does it look like that?”

“I think it’s called mica,” I say, unsure how I know this.

“Whatever,” she says.

I put the shell in my pocket, knowing I will have to make my own home.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Vrinda Agrawal

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