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There is a legend in my family, that the women came from the sea. That they pulled themselves from foam, toes clinging to stones, eyes wild and dark, with magnificent hair. They fell into the arms of the men on the shore: men who sailed and fished, who had drunk so much salt water their blood ran with it, who had sea kelp wrapped round their ribs and salt in their bones. They gave up the sea for those slender, human arms, hands tough from years at oars.
When I was a child, on the days she couldn’t stand to speak to me, my mother drew me baths, added kitchen dye, and left me in the light that melted through the windows. For years, I lived in discolored skin, softly turquoise, lapis lazuli where the dye could settle–– the creases in my palms and the bottoms of my toes, my navel a refuge of the deepest hue. In the tub, absorbing soap: that was where I memorized myself. The baths became a place to take stock: first an itemization of physical changes–– skin going soft in the places that were meant to go soft–– then a time to search the folds of my mind, the deepest pockets of conciseness, seeking traces of the sea. Our bodies hold collective memories, and I hunted my mind for the wraiths of my ancestors–– the ones who gave up the water–– for the knowledge they stole from me.
When I was not in the bath, I was watching my parents. I watched the way they touched each other, his hand along the bridge of her back, her legs draped along his knees. I watched her pat vivid color on her mouth, then his lips taking it off. I watched them for signs of more than momentary enjoyment, for something that might sustain them through the volleys of accusations, the battering of melodramas. There was nothing, not in even the tenderest touch, that convinced me love was enough. My ancestors made a poor bargain, when they relinquished the ocean.
Now, in the nighttime, while my parents sleep, their land-tethered bodies resting on featherbeds, I walk the long way to the ocean alone. Cliffs leap up on both sides of the path, strangers stalk through the deeper darkness between cottages, and in the winter it is a struggle to pull myself over the dunes, but in the dark no one can see my fingers work at unthreading my mother’s necklaces, or watch me wade past the breakers to return the pearls to the salt water. If I make the requisite sacrifices, perhaps the sea will accept me. One night, when I have gathered the necessary courage, when I sink into the depths and the waves envelop me, do you think gills will grow in the skin that wants to remember them?