My daughter was born in a flood of saltwater, her body still and tangled in kelp. As the midwife pulled my baby out from between my legs, she gasped, her stern pockmarked face turning as pale as the moon.
“Oh god, what’s wrong?” I asked, still delirious with pain. A final agonizing contraction shook my body as I delivered the placenta: a thick, slimy mass of algae and brine. My husband’s hand, which had been steadfastly gripping my own as I labored through the night, grew slack as the midwife whisked my baby away to cut the umbilical cord. She did not cry. She did not make a sound. The room was stiflingly silent, my question hanging in the air unanswered.
There are stories, ones my mother used to tell me as I drifted off to sleep, of women who loved the sea so much that they became it. Women who would go to the shore every morning as though it were their church and offer pieces of their soul in exchange for some kind of rapture. If the ocean deemed them worthy, it would transform them, webbing their toes together, turning their blood brackish, ripping gills into their necks and peeling away their human skin to reveal iridescent scales beneath. Once the sea had claimed them, they were never seen again. Some said that they drowned, others said that their transformations were simply an excuse to begin new lives with secret lovers, but I knew the truth: they were free.
When I was a girl, I used to pray to be transformed like these women. I went to the beach whenever I could, skipping school and sneaking out in the middle of the night just so I could touch the shore and feverishly beg the ocean to possess me. I longed to shed my body, already laden with shame. By eleven years old, I had started filling out into what my mother called a “womanly figure,” unfamiliar curves reshaping my body seemingly overnight. Though I had once been invisible to the world, suddenly I found myself subject to whispers, stares, rumors, and the lingering syrupy glances from men that I didn’t fully understand, but that left me feeling shaken and bare.
I wasn’t sure what it meant to give up a part of my soul, but I would have sacrificed anything and everything to rid myself of my lungs and limbs and legs and hips and become one with the sea. My efforts seemed futile: occasionally, I would cough up saltwater into the sink or find a clump of algae growing in my armpits, but the transformation I so desperately longed for never came. As the years passed and I settled into my new identity as a wife, I stopped my daily pilgrimages to the sea. The time I once spent dreaming was now occupied with housework, cooking, preparing for motherhood. I tucked my desire into my apron pocket, out of sight.
When I found out I was pregnant, I waited almost two weeks before I told my husband. This tiny, strange creature growing inside me felt too precious to share with anyone. As I took my evening bath—the only time I was left alone with my thoughts—I would run my hands along the slight, nearly imperceptible curve of my belly in wonder. For the first time, my body felt miraculous.
The moment the midwife put my daughter in my arms, I knew my childhood prayers had finally been answered. Her black fisheyes stared blankly at me, mouth agape, gills opening and closing uselessly as they searched for water. Instinctively, I unbuttoned my sweat- and blood-stained nightgown and gave her my breast. While she suckled, her tiny teeth gently grazing my nipple, I touched her chubby human leg and counted: five perfect little toes on each perfect little foot. I closed my eyes, content.
When I woke the next day, my husband was already gone. He had taken all of his belongings with him, leaving no note, no trace of his presence. I did not weep: already, his face had begun to fade from my mind into a cloudy memory. I filled the bathtub with warm water and sea salt and climbed in, clutching my baby to my chest. Together, we sank into the water, and I closed my eyes as my daughter kicked her tiny legs and swam around the tub. Soon, it would be like he had never existed at all.
I loved my daughter so fiercely I began to fear that all that love might break me. It welled up inside me until my ribs ached and my stomach swelled. Every night I would fall asleep in the bathtub holding her tight, and every morning I would awaken with my fingers and toes wrinkled like shriveled-up raisins. Occasionally, I did find myself wishing that I could brush my daughter’s hair or buy her pretty dresses, or that she had a hand for me to hold. But I cherished every part of her: her velvety soft fins, her knobby knees, the way her shining grey scales seemed to melt into her smooth flesh.
Though she could not speak, we learned to communicate in other ways. When she stamped her feet or splashed her fins, I knew that she needed to be fed or cradled or put to sleep. Fearful of the neighbors’ loose lips and judgmental stares, I did not dare bring my daughter into town or enroll her in school, but we were more than content to have just each other. I spent hours telling her stories, the same ones my mother told me and new ones that I made up just for her. I told her of the ocean, which I had begun to think of as her other parent. Like me, she enjoyed those stories the best, listening to them in enraptured silence. Unlike me, the ocean had already chosen her. It was already running through her veins.
On her eleventh birthday, I finally took her to the sea for the first time. In truth, I do not know why I waited so long—perhaps I was afraid the ocean would try to reclaim its gift from me, or my daughter would choose the freedom of the sea over the confines of a porcelain bathtub and her mother’s suffocating love—but something in my gut told me it was time. She toddled beside me on the sand, still clumsy on her human legs, as we made our way to the water. The other beachgoers made no effort to hide their whispers and stares as they gawked at her, but we paid them no mind. Our world had long ago shrank to just the two of us; everything else was white noise.
At the shoreline, I anxiously watched my daughter, unsure of what would happen when she finally touched the ocean for the first time. Though she had never seen the beach before, I could tell immediately she knew she was home. With an air of solemnity, she lay down at the edge of the water, digging her toes into the sand. I wanted to reach for her, to pull her back into the safety of my arms before it was too late, but I stopped myself. As I held my breath and waited for the tide to come in, I looked into her eyes, as still and black as a saucer filled with ink. Her mouth opened and closed as though she were trying to speak, but she did not make a sound. At that moment, a wave crashed onto the shore and engulfed her body, pulling her out to the sea.
The wave receded, leaving only seafoam where my daughter had been.
Ally Ang is a gaysian poet and editor based in Seattle. Their work has been published in The Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Find them @TheOceanIsGay or at allysonang.com.