We are (not) fish tales
She can’t breathe and I can’t breathe because we are underwater. Only she has no gills and I have no fins and we are not fish.
This is not a fairytale. Not a folk tale. Not a story at all.
My girl is a baby with ocean skin. A toddler with bangs that swim into her amber eyes and a laugh that plunges the epipelagic zone. Arms outstretched, legs kicking, her body tunnels through the colors of the sea: aqua, turquoise, drowned, indigo.
She is a child of prismatic light.
Then one day she sinks deeper into the dark, into the water, only we are not in water. We’re in the ocean on the seafloor and it’s spreading, a syrupy lava puking forth and coating us both in its magnetized goo, choking us both in smoke and fumes. Only there are no smoke and no fumes.
I hear a garbled siren song, voices directing a warm current straight toward us. My child spears through the thermocline, frolicking like a porpoise between the layers of cool and warmth, echoing back the music with her own polarized wheezing.
I do not believe in fish tales. In mermaids. In sea songs.
All I want is for her to know oxygen unimpeded, the mammalian in and out of lungs pumping on dry land. All I want is sandy grit between bare toes, a beach towel, terra firma and a daughter who can breathe on her own.
The doctor says Albuterol will help. But I tell him the inhaler has floated away, swallowed by the chevron waves.
We’re alone, on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic and the frigid air oscillates between us, burning my lungs, icing hers. She coughs and sputters.
We tilt our heads up, mouths open, to catch fresh raindrops and drink deeply. I once fed her milk from my own buoyed breasts but over time she drank less and less. Instead she dives down into the striated waters where she can’t breathe again and her skin has blued and her lungs contract and I think I am holding her infant feet, cupped in my palms. But they are not feet any more.
There is a tail and a swish and a splash and she’s a mermaid, scaly and singing, “Mama, watch this,” downswelling where the wet wind is a swirl of sea and storm. Above us sapphire sky soaks to sullen gray and below us billows of steam vent from the fissures in the sediment.
We are not in this ocean. Her eyes do not look at me over the top of the nebulizer and she does not say, “Mama, Mama,” because she can’t talk, because I can’t hear. Because what is swimming anyway, but breathing under water, a fluidity of energy, of water and of song.
Jamie Etheridge is CNF editorial assistant for CRAFT Literary. Her creative writing can be found in Anti-Heroin Chic, Bending Genres, Essay Daily, Identity Theory, JMWW Journal, Reckon Review, X-R-A-Y Lit and elsewhere. She is a Fractured Lit Anthology II prize winner and was a finalist for the Kenyon Review Developmental Fellowship in creative nonfiction. Visit her website at LeScribbler.com.