CW: Child Abuse
My first memory is of orderly rows of human skulls placed on glass shelves. Little white cards that I cannot read rest in front of each. My parents had taken me to the Museum of Natural History as a means of expanding my educational horizons. I remember gazing up at the rows of vacant bone faces with a confused sense of horror and fascination. Who had these people been? How had their heads ended up here? What crime had they committed to deserve being displayed without the protection of their skin and muscle?
In truth, these questions probably only took the form of vague distress. I was only a little over a year old at the time.
My unease intensified when I noticed that some of the skulls had black patches on them. I understood something was wrong. Skulls are white. Everyone knows that. I remember asking my mother about them. The garbled message I received was that some of the skulls had once been women. My tiny child’s brain leapt to the conclusion that the black-blotched skulls were women’s skulls—that underneath my face my own skull was stained. It was the first time I understood that who and what I was, was wrong.
Of course, now that I’m older, I know those black patches merely indicated specific bones and gender had nothing to do with the exhibit. However, the fact that my child mind jumped to that conclusion says much. That misunderstood message still haunts my subconscious like a warning.
I don’t remember when the nightmares began. They were always there when I closed my eyes to sleep. Even so, I don’t remember protesting the turning off of the bedroom light. This, in spite of the fact that no night-light-talisman fended off the monsters devouring me in my dreams. There was only my sister and the knowledge that I was not alone in my horror and shame. I had no understanding of why I was so embarrassed by the monster’s attention. I didn’t understand why I felt I was to blame for whatever the monster wanted—only that we were girls, and girls had to be careful.
I went to church and learned to cover my head, lower my eyes, hide my body. God didn’t want to see girls or women. It was clear that God didn’t want them to be near his altar. Even Mary, the mother of his child, had to keep her distance. She, too, had to cover her head, hide her eyes, hide her self.
Girls were stained. Girls had to be careful.
Whenever I visited Mary I saw her hurt expression as she huddled within her little alcove. I knew her downward gaze hid the truth. She hated living in her separate place, no matter how many times she was told she was being honored. She wanted to be with her family—her family filled with men who went where they pleased and did whatever they wanted. Men who changed the world.
The church wasn’t the only institution to teach me my place. Television read me my future in the form of advertisements, movies, and shows. It instructed me to be nice and clean. Nice, clean girls were safe. Nice, clean girls survived. Nice, clean girls were protected by men. Bad girls were alone, abused, assaulted, or murdered.
Girls had to be careful.
As a child summertime was both welcomed and dreaded. The warmer weather meant an end to the ceaseless name calling and bullying—the pushes and shoves. The times I had to retrieve my school books from storm drains because a bully sensed my weakness. All the shameful words the boys loved to scream in hate at one another were related to the feminine and inferior. (Cry baby. Don’t be a girl. You run/fight/talk like a girl. Sissy.) Only an elementary student, every aspect of my appearance was analyzed for flaws. I was too thin and too tall. My hair was too fuzzy and too short. My eyes too brown. My skin too tan. My teeth too sharp. My clothes didn’t fit right. Growing fast, my skirts became too short. It wasn’t long before boys’ words took on a more sinister and hostile quality. (Pussy. Cunt. Slut. Dyke. Whore.) I didn’t understand their hate.
Summer meant respite. Summer meant swimming.
I wore the bright, colorful child’s one-pieces that my mother bought in K-mart or Penny’s. They were functional, and I couldn’t swim without one. Of course, I felt vulnerable as I walked to the pool across searing hot summer pavement. Swim suits made for scant protection from boys’ touches on my buttocks, my crotch, and my non-existent chest. (Boys will be boys. Don’t say anything, dear. Be a good girl. Be nice to him. It just means he likes you.) Above water, boys’ threats were inescapable. Their muttered comments and whistles and calls were the price I paid.
The scent of chlorinated water was freedom.
It wasn’t until I was pressured into wearing more revealing swimwear that the cost began to feel more dear. I still don’t understand why I’m encouraged to wear so little, and yet, am held accountable for the effect my body has on boys and men. I’m confused as to why anyone would design a suit that won’t stay on when you dove into the water like a professional diver. And although the world insisted that girls and women must be skinny—I weighed a mere fifty-four pounds in seventh grade—my body still wasn’t right. My breasts were too flat, my knees too knobbly, and my hair was too big. Exposed to sunlight, my skin became more brown. My friends with much lighter skin complained of sunburns and freckles. They said I was lucky to tan so easily and well, but even that was ruined. I was white, and yet, I was called racist names. It made no sense—these ever-shifting rules of being. Have curly hair but not too curly. Have darkened skin but not too dark.
Swimsuits made hiding my inadequacies impossible. Thus over the years, swimsuits began to mean exposure and shame. Still, I was determined to not give up. I would pay, if it meant I could swim.
The first time I submerged myself beneath the surface of the water a feeling of peace surrounded me. Unlike my mother, I had no fear of drowning. I adored diving into that comforting silence. When I think about it, silence isn’t an entirely correct word. Sounds still travel beneath the surface. There is never really any escape from boys. I could still hear the screams and taunts, but there was a safe distance from their dangerous jibes. My hair—thought to be ugly above the surface, floated around my head in graceful, dark waves. I enjoyed its gentle but heavy tug on my scalp. At the pool, I spent more and more time under the water, learning to hold my breath for longer periods of time—swimming away from the monsters. Hidden. Safe.
The oldest of two, I taught my sister, Alex, to do the same. Swimming became our baptism. It washed away (almost) all stains. Under the water, we were whole creatures. We could imagine existing without the constant threats and jibes. It was no surprise that we wished with all our hearts to remain in that safety. We hoped for gills like a fish. More than anything, we told one another, we wanted to be fish.
I never told Alex that I secretly wanted to remain a girl too. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t resolve the two desires. Still, I prayed. Please, God, let me grow into anything but a woman. Anything. I don’t want to be that—blood—stained thing.
And then I found the images of mermaids in the book of fairytales at the library. Myths and fairy stories weren’t allowed at home. My father never wanted us to believe in anything untrue. Nonetheless, mermaids captured my imagination. How lovely it would be to breathe underwater—to swim with my sister, safe from the terror, and live in a palace made of coral and pearls?
I became obsessed. Alex soon shared my interest. We read everything we could find. We bought volumes of stories and hid them away from our parents. Most of the myths portrayed mermaids as evil (sluts) seductresses, but the illustrations told a different story—like Mary, the truth was in their faces. I could see serenity in their eyes, in the way they held themselves—their grace and beauty. The confidence of their naked breasts. I coveted their fierce, fearlessness. Men who touched them, threatened them, and called them names didn’t end well. Their attackers drowned or went mad.
I was ten when I read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The story left me heart-sore for an entire month—an eternity for a child. To this day I can’t think of it without a specter of grief nestled in my chest. Of course, I didn’t dare tell Alex why I’d torn the story out of our book of fairytales. I left the pictures, though—the only evidence of my transgression. When she asked about the story, I gave her my version. In it, the mermaid falls in love with the Prince, and the Prince returns her love. He doesn’t need to hear her words. He looks into her eyes and hears her soul. He believes her. He believes in her. And because he does, he yearns to live free in the water as she does. The mermaid goes to a kind old mermaid who is also a powerful witch and asks for help. The witch gives them both a potion, and with it, the Prince grows a tail. After that, the couple live happily ever after in the sea.
You, like I, know the real story, of course.
Alone, the questions grew urgent. Why didn’t the Prince know and understand her? Why didn’t he believe? Why didn’t he love her? It never occurred to me to question why the mermaid wanted to spend her life with a Prince who could be so selfish, or even why she would want the love of a man so utterly obtuse. I never asked why she couldn’t be single and happy either. Wanting to marry a man was an expected thing, a normal thing. Men—(Boys will be boys. No means yes. You like it, I know you do.)—were unobservant creatures, after all. They didn’t notice when girls and women were in pain. They were confused by simple requests. They didn’t understand when they weren’t wanted.
My other questions were worse and more secret. Why would God let such an unfair thing happen? My throat ached with the need to scream—(Shhh. Be quiet. Don’t tell your mother. It’s just our little secret.)—but even more so it ached in grief and bewilderment. Why would a mermaid give up her beautiful fish body, her freedom, for legs?
That question grew even more potent when I understood what a cunt was and why boys and men were so intent upon it. My sister and I had always lived under an unnamed, shameful threat in the dark, but I had no clear idea of what any of it meant … that is until I went to public school. I learned the facts of sex and violence via a chalkboard made of bathroom tiles. I learned that boys—(and fathers)—could throw you against a wall, kiss you, grab you, hit you, rape you, do anything they wanted to you—even kill you, and there would be little to no consequences. Like the Prince in The Little Mermaid, they would sail into the sunset and live happily ever after. And with that knowledge, I yearned more than ever to be free from it all.
Girls had to be careful. Girls were born to be—blood—stained.
Alex, less practical-minded than I, began to look into the mystical. Surely, she said, there is a kindly witch who would help us like the Little Mermaid?
Unable to tell her the terrible truth, I didn’t stop her.
She took to her research in earnest. Our mother indulged her in the beginning, seeing it as a mere childhood fascination. I don’t know why she didn’t inform our father.
Soon the trips to the library became the need for a journey to an actual address. Alex begged me to go with her. We knew better than to ask our mother, a devout Catholic, to take us. She would ask too many questions and most certainly wouldn’t approve of the use of our combined allowance savings. At first, we decided to take the bus. Since neither of us were experienced in the ways of public transportation, the research fell to me. I was twelve, and Alex was eleven. However, I learned that Houston didn’t have an effective public transportation system. It still doesn’t.
In the end, I gave up and asked my friend’s big sister for a ride. Cassie was seventeen and didn’t like little kids. However, her fascination with the occult swiftly overwhelmed her dislike.
One week later, the three of us loaded into Cassie’s rusty Datsun two-door sedan. I remember the car reeked of strawberry incense and stale tobacco smoke. The hot plastic seats were cracked, and the whole car creaked with every pavement bump. Still, I was envious. Cassie could go wherever she liked, whenever she liked, and no one could stop her. I had an idealized idea of teen life back then.
The address that Alex had scribbled on blue-lined notebook paper led us to a suburban neighborhood in southwest Houston. When we pulled up to Sister Zara’s House of Psychics, Cassie made a disappointed sound in the back of her throat.
“This is it?” She seemed to ask my sister’s note.
The house, like the rest of the neighborhood, had been built in the 1960s. It was a one-story ranch style made of red brick and white painted siding. Someone had added a large, raised porch. It was the only thing that set it apart from all the others. The yard was green and had been recently mowed. Luxuriant potted plants hung from the overhang and had been placed in neat rows on carved wooden shelves near the door. Multiple wind chimes, varying in sizes from tiny to person-sized, quietly sang in the breeze.
“Well,” Cassie said. “We might as well get out. It’s the only way we’ll know.”
It wasn’t until we arrived at the front door that I spotted the black wooden plaque screwed into the wall next to the doorbell. White, professional-looking, hand-painted letters proclaimed: Welcome to Zara’s. Open Noon to Midnight. Enter, Seeker, and be enlightened.
“Now, that’s more like it,” Cassie said with a smile and opened the door.
All at once my nose was met with the scent of musky incense and burning beeswax. Combined with the low bell tones of the big outdoor chimes, I was reminded of church. The interior was dim—the shades were drawn against the oppressive Texas sun. A ceiling fan whirled, assisting the beleaguered window unit rattling on the windowsill. The quiet clatter of the beaded curtain was the only other sound to join the chorus. The room was decorated in religious objects and colorful tapestries from the world over. Ceremonial masks from Nigeria and Mexico hung on one wall. A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe was attended by a mix of angels. Mexican milagros were displayed next to strange geometric patterns. The mix of the familiar and unfamiliar had an oddly fascinating affect. The room held an edge of menace—not enough to overwhelm but just enough to thrill.
A black woman wearing a voluminous cotton dress made of bright greens and blues entered in a clatter-chorus of blue glass beads. The pattern on her neatly folded head wrap reflected the one on her beautiful dress. A sincere expression matched the warmth in her eyes.
“Welcome,” she said. “I’m Sister Zara. What I can help you with?”
Cassie said, “Do you read Tarot?”
“I don’t,” Sister Zara said. “But several of the others here do.” She paused and tilted her head as if considering. “I think I have someone for you. Let me see if she is available.” She turned to retreat.
“Is Sister Helena here?” I asked before Zara vanished beneath the splash of bead-strings. “My sister has an appointment for four thirty.”
Once again, Sister Zara paused. This time she focused on me and my sister. The warmth of her eyes didn’t waver but intensified. “I see,” she said at last. “I’ll let her know. Wait here.”
“Thank you,” my sister said.
It wasn’t long before another woman came for Cassie. She was tall and wore her long black hair in a braid down the middle of her back. She looked to be the same age as Cassie. Like Cassie, she wore a cotton, tie-dyed sundress. Her feet were bare. The ankle bracelet on her left foot jangled as she walked. She wore toe rings, and multiple layers of silver necklaces were draped around her neck. Each bore a mystical charm. Her pale skin was deeply tanned. All in all, she didn’t seem much different from any other teenager I’d seen walking from the school parking lot to the high school in the mornings.
“Are you Cassie? Hi. I’m Sula,” she said. “Follow me.”
Before Sula left the room, she turned and winked. “Helena will be with y’all in a moment.”
Alex and I sat on the sofa a few minutes before Helena appeared. She was older than Sula and younger than Zara. Her unlined skin was deep tan, and her nose was pierced. Her thick black hair fell down to her hips in loose waves. She wore a dark blue sari skirt with silver trim and a matching short sleeved blouse that bared her stomach. Something about her reminded me of the mermaids we adored.
“Are y’all Jill and Alex?” Helena asked. Her voice was throaty and authoritative, and full of Texas.
Awed, we both nodded.
Helena led us into the fenced backyard. The grass looked and smelled freshly mown. Like the front porch, a multitude of flowers bloomed in pots and plant beds. An old camper-trailer stood at the farthest corner. Its rounded sides had been decorated with bright, lacy designs, and the windows were covered with beautiful, fringed silks. The door had been left slightly open, but the screen door was closed. We followed her up the wooden steps.
The interior of the trailer was cool and dim like the house, and it too smelled of incense and candle wax. I got the sense of lived in clutter—photographs, cards depicting fairies and ghosts, little porcelain statues, and pillows lined the walls. A window unit purred from the back of the camper.
Alex trailed behind me. Now that we were here, she’d lost her nerve. Helena seemed to sense this. Once we’d settled around the small table with its obligatory crystal ball, she paused.
“Let’s bring in a little light on the subject,” Sister Helena said with unexpected humor. “This place used to belong to my mother. And I keep it for her sake. She was right. Sometimes people expect a certain … atmosphere. But I can see that y’all are different.” She smiled as if we were in on some secret. Then she threw back the curtains. She seemed less foreign and unknowable.
With the light, I was better able to see the line of what I’d taken for statues were actually sports trophies. Each little figure held a sword.
Helena looped her hair over her shoulders. She looked much younger now. “Want some soda? I’ve a couple of cokes in the cooler.”
I nodded. Alex was too overwhelmed.
With the coke poured and ice chiming in the glass as it was placed on the table, Helena once again settled in the chair opposite.
“Let’s talk for a while first,” she said. “What’s really going on?”
I glanced at Alex. Alex simply bit her lip. It was obvious she wasn’t going to say a word. Now that we were here, the whole matter seemed ridiculous. It was up to me to speak, but my words bunched in a tight knot in my throat.
“You’re in pain,” Helena said. “You’re frightened too. I want to help. I really do, but you need to tell me what’s going on first.”
I stared at the ice melting in the pretty cut crystal glass in front of me. My great grandmother had glasses like that. Can’t you guess? I thought. You were a girl once too.
“It’s too hard to talk.” The kindness in her voice was heartfelt.
My vision blurred. Somehow, I managed to force out a few words. “We-we want to live in the water.”
“Like mermaids,” Alex whispered. “Not like mermaids. We want to be mermaids.”
“You’re going to tell us we can’t, and it’s silly,” I said. The backs of my eyes burned. Tears traced cool trails down my hot cheeks. “Mermaids aren’t real.”
Alex frowned. The betrayal on her face made everything worse.
I sniffed. “There’s no … there’s no … escape,” I whispered. “You can’t help us. Nobody can.”
Helena blinked. “Oh, honey.” She reached out and gently touched the back of my hand. All at once she jerked back. Her beautiful face went a little grey. “Oh, goddess.” She bit her lip. There were tears in her shocked eyes.
Then she wiped her eyes and jumped to her feet. “I think this is a situation that calls for cookies and tea. Do you like chocolate chip?”
I didn’t move. The itch in my sinuses and the pain in my throat had become too much. But Alex nodded.
Coke refills and several cookies were consumed. Then Helena placed her palms on the table cloth. “What we do here is more like therapy than anything else. I help people solve their own problems. Yours is serious. If you were adults, we’d talk about shelters and divorce. But you’re not adults. You’re children.” She took a deep breath. “I have to call the police.”
“What?” The question burst out of Alex’s mouth.
“No!” A smothering shame choked out the rest. My face grew hot.
“Honey,” Helena said. “The solution isn’t within you. This isn’t a matter of being born in the wrong body. You aren’t safe in your own home, and you should be.” Anger crept into her tone at the last.
Something inside my chest froze. My heart beat fast and a tremble of terror. She knows. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Mermaids aren’t real?” Alex asked. The plea of her voice ripped at my heart.
Helena turned and gave my sister a sad smile. “Mermaids are real. Don’t you worry. But I can’t make you into something you’re not. The price would be … too high. And you’re too young to make that decision.”
Alex stood up. “You’re supposed to be the nice witch! Like the Little Mermaid! You’re supposed to help!”
“I-I can’t do what you want me to do,” Helena said. “It isn’t ethical—”
“You mean you won’t.” My fingers curled into a fist.
“I will. Just not in that way. If you come with me—”
Sobbing, Alex fled. The door slammed behind her before I could react.
“Please don’t go,” Helena said. “Where do you live? We’ll call the police. We’ll get you to a safe—”
I bolted after my sister.
I found her on the patio. Sula was kneeling, listening to Alex’s soggy explanation. Before I got there, Sula pressed a business card into Alex’s hand.
“Everything is going to be fine,” Sula said. “Don’t you worry.”
Alex closed her tear-stained fingers around the card and held it to her chest. “Thank you.”
Something about Sula unsettled me. She seemed a little too eager to help, a little too … guileless. I didn’t get the sense she intended harm. All I knew was that I needed to get Alex out of there before something terrible happened.
The glass patio door slid open. Cassie appeared. “What’s wrong?”
“Come on.” I grabbed Alex’s empty hand. “Let’s go.”
Alex turned her tear-streaked face up to Sula. “Thank you.”
Sula winked again. “Go on with your sister, now.”
By the time we reached Cassie’s battered Datsun, Alex had dried her tears on the inner elbow of her baggy, long-sleeved shirt. She rode in the back seat in contented silence.
“What the hell was that all about?” Cassie asked me. She popped a piece of Trident gum in her mouth after making the obligatory offer to share.
I opened the thin paper wrapper and bit into minty sweetness with a mixture of rage, shame, and despair. Will she call the police anyway? She can’t. She doesn’t know where we live. “Nothing.”
“Fine. Don’t tell me,” Cassie said. “But I’m not getting into trouble for this.”
I shook my head.
“Because, if that happens, I’m telling your parents you came to me.” Even Cassie knew our parents weren’t going to be happy.
“Don’t,” I said. “Okay? Don’t tell.”
Cassie took her eyes off the road long enough to give my expression brief consideration. “Okay.”
After we got home, Alex sprinted to our room and slammed the door. She wouldn’t speak about what happened. A week later, several small envelops arrived in the mail. That came to an end when a hand-inked letter arrived inside a small wooden box. Nestled in a cushion of dried seaweed were two tiny, sea blue bottles fixed to silver necklace chains. Our mother read the return address—(Madam Sula, Fortune Teller and Purveyor of Dreams)—she flew into a rage and threw the entire package in the trash. We were forbidden to mention mermaids or Sula ever again.
That night, Alex stole the little wooden box and its contents from the trash. The accompanying letter detailed a simple ritual that would transform us. All we had to do was travel to a large body of seawater, speak the words, and drink the potions.
Alex begged me to act on the spell at once, but I was reluctant. She wouldn’t—couldn’t do it without me, she said. Unfortunately, my trust in magic and religion had been growing tenuous. The visit with Helena was the final breaking point. Life is hard. The facts are that Alex and I would grow into women. No amount of praying, no magical spells would help us avoid that fate.
But Alex was in a vulnerable place. I couldn’t bear to abandon her, not even in this. Not again. We only had each other, after all.
I convinced her to wait. We would need to travel to Galveston. Mermaids need the ocean, don’t they? She reluctantly agreed. We hid the letter and put the necklaces on, vowing to hide them from our parents. The next day, we asked about going to the beach. Our parents said they would consider it, but both were too busy for a family vacation. And so the weeks passed. Afraid the potion might contain poison, I convinced my sister to wait. Again. Summer became fall and fall became winter. By the time summer returned, the sparkle in my sister’s eyes at the mention of mermaids had faded and then vanished. As far as I knew, she dreamed other dreams.
The next fall, I attended middle school. The constant barrage of dos and don’ts became even more frantic—even while the touches and words of boys grew more insistent, even demanding. I began to carry my school books in front of my meager chest as a shield. I was nice. I smiled a forced smile. I kept my gaze to the floor. I wore baggy clothes. They called me even more names. (Ugly. Dyke.) That boys thought me unattractive didn’t seem to matter. They still groped and pressed. The fact that nothing I did controlled their behavior didn’t occur to me. I performed the meaningless rituals of purity, nonetheless.
Young ladies were—dangerous—stained. Young ladies had to be careful.
When I was thirteen, my best friend became pregnant with a twenty-four year old man’s child. The twenty-four year old man vanished when she told him but not before he called her a slut and a whore. (Can’t catch me cause the rabbit done died.) The daughter of a wealthy family, she had a secret abortion. Her parents moved her to another—(better)—school.
Some part of me still hoped for a Prince like the one in my version of The Little Mermaid, but I didn’t see even the shadow of him in any of the boys around me. I knew he wasn’t real. I knew about my friend and the lies that she’d been fed. Rock music spoke truth via the radio on the school bus twice a day. (That doesn’t mean you mean that much to me.)
My mother grew concerned when I didn’t seem interested in dating. I didn’t tell her I was terrified. I sensed she wouldn’t have listened even if I had. I began to wonder if something new was wrong with me.
My mother set me up with her friend’s son.
The movie was enjoyable, and he called me afterward just like he said he would. He told me about science fiction and Star Wars. I told him about Star Trek and mermaids. He told me Star Wars was better. His dreams and interests were more authentic, more important. Why would anyone like mermaids? he asked. They’re fish down there. I knew what he meant without his elaborating. You can’t have sex with them. And if you can’t have sex—if a woman isn’t useful to men—she’s nothing.
It was around then that I began to leave my necklace with its little vial in my jewelry box. Three weeks later, my mother’s friend’s son shoved his hand inside my panties while we were in the movie theater. I froze in the dark as I always had, terrified that someone might see. When he finally withdrew I quietly got up and staggered to the bathroom on weak legs, dizzy with violation. I threw up my popcorn and soda.
The movie was over by the time I got my trembling body under control. He had the presence of mind to ask what was wrong. Stunned that he wouldn’t know—(Boys and men are such unobservant creatures.)—I muttered something about not feeling well. Then I asked him how the movie ended. He talked about the film until his mother dropped me off at my house. I turned away from his kiss goodnight. A flash of anger ignited his face. (Be nice. It only means he likes you.) He didn’t call the next day or the next. On Monday, he told the whole school I’d had sex with him in the movie theater.
I didn’t go on any other dates.
When Alex was fifteen and I was sixteen a man in a white, four door Buick began to follow us as we walked home from school. Every day for a week I told my parents the awful things he said to us from his open car window—just loud enough for us to hear but not loud enough to gain attention. My mother told me over and over to keep our eyes straight ahead and ignore him. He’ll go away, she said.
And she was right. He did, but he took Alex with him.
He would’ve had me too, but he grabbed her first. I fought, but I was too small, too weak. Worse, my voice wouldn’t work. All those years of being told to be polite, nice—(Shh. Don’t tell your mother.)—and my screams wouldn’t—couldn’t—gush past that lump in my throat. My cry for help was a small frog’s croak. The moment he had my sister imprisoned inside his car—I saw her frantically pulling at the locked doors—he came after me. I bolted. The relief of arriving—(safe)—at home was overwhelming until it was obliterated by guilt.
He’d gotten Alex because I’d let him. I’d been a coward. I’d been weak.
My parents called the police. I gave them all the information I could, but I didn’t have a license number. In my terror, I hadn’t thought to look at the plates. No one said it out loud, but I knew what they were thinking. Alex had been kidnapped, and it was my fault.
Every day I prayed to God that she would be found alive. I begged him to bring her back and let the man take me instead. My pleas were unheard as they always had been in the dark—(Please, God, not tonight. Please make him stay away. Make him stop. Please—) It was then I understood why girls and women were to keep a distance. I knew why no women were chosen for priests.
God doesn’t care about girls or women.
Several weeks later, the police found my sister’s naked body in a bayou near Sugarland. She lay three feet away from the water. She died with her hand wrapped tightly around that empty blue vial from the chain around her neck. It was crazy, but I knew that if she’d only made it to the water, she’d have been safe.
It was then that I stopped praying. I also stopped attending mass. My parents objected, of course. Girls had to be careful. Girls were stained. But that didn’t matter. My sister had died, and I was to blame. That was a stain that would never go away. In my grief, I told my mother about Helena. I told her about Sula and the vial. My parents were shocked and angry. It was as if they blamed Sula for what had happened. They blamed me for speaking to a stranger about (private) family matters. My mother blamed me for making up stories. (He’s your father. Don’t say things like that.)
A week or two later, I found the letter from Sula. I looked up the phone number. It’d been disconnected. I convinced a friend with a hardship license to drive me to Zara’s. There was a For Sale sign in the yard. It was obvious that Zara and the rest had moved—about a month had passed since anyone had lived there based on the mail left on the porch. Perhaps there was a new listing? I went home and called the operator. No business existed by that name. That was when I gave up.
My life became a blur of acute pain, alternating between icy silence and raging arguments. My father moved his things into what had once been the game room. He spent most of his time away. My mother began to drink. Neither could bring themselves to look at me. I shambled my way through school that year and barely passed my classes. To escape loneliness and grief, I took to reading. And, if I’m honest, my parents’ liquor cabinet as well—not that either of them noticed.
After a while, I devised a plan. Admittedly, it was the sort of plan one comes up with after a steady diet of mysteries found in the school library, but it was better than nothing. I was so tired of nothing. I used my college savings account to hire a private investigator. I thought it wouldn’t take long. That’s how it worked in novels and movies, after all.
A year and most of my savings later, I got possible contact information for Sula.
The woman’s voice on the other end of the line sounded tired. At first I thought I had the wrong number, but she answered when I asked for her by name. Sula wasn’t the bubbly, optimistic woman she’d been. That was fine by me. It felt right that other people’s lives had changed with Alex’s death. I’d grown sick of how everything and everyone seemed determined to forget, to move on without her. I couldn’t. Why should they?
When I told Sula who I was a long silence followed. I was sure she was going to hang up on me.
“What do you want?” The whispered question was hesitant. It was as if someone had ripped most of her throat out, leaving only raw nerves.
The part of me that wanted to be rational breathed—(Fraud. Charlatan. Cheat.)—a silent protest, but I went ahead with the well-rehearsed script. “I want my sister back.”
I heard a small noise. It could’ve been a choked laugh or a pain-laced sob. I couldn’t tell which, and I’m not sure it made a difference to me. It was hard to think past the block of frozen rage.
Sula said, “There’s no coming back from death. Not as a human.”
“Alex is dead.” I was nauseous. No one wanted to speak her name but me. “And whose fault is that?” I spat out the words in defiance as I had all those other times. And like all those other times, they didn’t make me feel any better.
Sula paused. “Fault doesn’t matter. I can’t bring her back.”
“Yes, you can.”
“I can’t. I-I don’t do that stuff any more,” Sula said. “Okay?”
“Magic. I don’t do it anymore,” Sula said and then she added as if an afterthought. “I’m not allowed.”
“Not allowed by whom?” I asked.
Sula wouldn’t explain. The sound of labored breathing on the other end of the line was interrupted by a dog barking.
“Wait a minute. Did you say ‘Not as a human?’” I asked. “Does that mean Alex can come back?”
“Don’t call me again.” Sula slammed down the phone.
Another week passed before I could borrow the car. I waited until my mother was too distracted (drunk) to ask questions about what I wanted the car for. So, I drove myself to school, and in order to prevent more drama, I didn’t leave until after school had let out.
Sula’s new place wasn’t nearly as nice as Zara’s had been. It was in an old apartment building not far from U of H. It didn’t take her long to answer after I pressed the buzzer. She appeared to be waiting for something or someone.
There were lines around Sula’s face that hadn’t been there before. Her eyes were the color of bruises. “I told you to leave me alone.”
I put a hand on my hip. “You said not to call you anymore. I’m not calling.”
Sula rolled her eyes. She was wearing bell-bottom jeans and a loose-fitting, cut-up Peter Frampton t-shirt. Her feet were bare. The inside of her apartment smelled like cigarettes, herbs, and stale pizza.
When I made no move to leave she sighed and opened the door wider. “Fine. Get inside before someone sees you.”
I wasn’t sure who she was worried about seeing me. I was just glad that I’d gotten this far. “I brought money.”
Sula’s face acquired a furtive, hungry expression. “How much?”
“One hundred bucks.” It was the last of my college money. My parents hadn’t noticed it was gone.
“That’s not that much.”
“Sure it is. Particularly for something you should do for free.”
Sula flinched at that. Her gaze darted to the hallway to the right. It was then I noticed the men’s shirt flung over the back of the couch.
She doesn’t live alone, I thought.
Sula spoke to the harvest gold shag carpet. “If—if I gave you something … if I sold it to you, will you promise to go away and not to tell anyone where you got it?”
“What kind of something?”
“Wait here.” Sula rushed through the doorway she’d glimpsed at before.
I heard the sounds of opening and closing, of drawers being rifled. While I waited, I examined the photos taped to the fridge—images of Sula and a surly looking man with a thick mustache and long curly hair like Frampton’s. He would’ve been handsome but for the expression. He had no beard but somehow reminded me of Bluebeard nonetheless—the man with the room full of dead wives.
Sula returned. “I had a premonition you’d show up.” A ghost of her former self haunted her sad face. “So, I prepared this.” She held out a used manila envelope, obviously stolen from an office supply closet. It was lumpy and a little heavy. “I wrote out the instructions.”
I took it and peered inside. It contained a few sheets of paper and a bigger vial.
“Don’t open it here,” Sula said. “You need to leave.”
“My boyfriend doesn’t like visitors,” Sula said, heading for the door in an attempt to show me out. “You have what you want now.”
“And what do I want?”
Again she rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid. Just get the fuck out of here.”
I stumbled out of the apartment to the sound of a slamming door. Then I fled to the car. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if Sula was going to take the envelope back from me.
I made it just in time to spot the man with the long curly blond hair as he stepped out of a black van. It was painted with a half-naked woman and dragon. Both were being menaced by a muscle-man with a guitar riding a Pegasus. I watched him enter the apartment building with a shudder. I turned the key on the ignition of my mom’s car and let it idle. When I was certain he wasn’t going to come back I risked ripping into the envelope.
I decided I didn’t care if the ritual was real or not. I was going to execute it. For Alex.
I went home, ate dinner with my mother—my father was working late again, and went to (our) my room. It took me a while to find the box that Sula had originally sent. Then I pretended to go to bed. I laid there, fully dressed under the covers, until midnight.
When I was certain that my parents were both asleep—neither were likely to check on me but I didn’t want to risk getting caught now—I put on the necklace and its little sea blue vial. I went to Alex’s side of the room and collected hair from her hair brush. With that done, I stole the keys to my mother’s big tan Buick from the small hook in the kitchen where all the keys were stored. I thought about my parents and what they’d do when they found me gone.
It was odd, the circle of blame. I blamed myself, my mother blamed my father, and my father blamed me. None of it would bring back my sister.
I know now only one thing can.
I reached Galveston sometime before dawn. I left my mother’s Buick in the parking lot near the sea wall. Eventually, they’ll find it. They may even figure out what happened, but it isn’t likely.
I’m laying naked at the end of the dock and looking up at the moon. It’s almost summer. The splintered boards beneath me are scratching my unprotected back, buttocks, and legs. The stars are set deep in the night’s sky. Galveston’s tourists and residents are snug—(safe)—in their beds, the salt in the ocean air is settling on the back of my throat where the painful lump is—the lump that wouldn’t let me scream, and I am crying. My heart aches for Alex. I am sorry I saved myself and not her. I hope she’ll forgive me. I stare up into the night for one last time before the change. It is penance for my sins.
I’m so sorry. So sorry. I am heartily sorry …
I sit up. I open the jar with the strands of my sister’s hair in it. There are other ingredients—ingredients that had been included in the envelope. I didn’t ask what they were, because I don’t care. The contents of the glass container reek of death and dirt and decay as I pour them into the water. I repeat the words I’d memorized during the long drive. As I empty the jar, I see the glitter of fish scales. I search the lazy, undulating water in the dark and see nothing unusual.
Sula said that would happen.
Then I swing my legs over the edge of the dock and gaze down. I say goodbye to my voice, my legs, and that place between them—(my vulva, my vagina, my clitoris)—that place that boys and men are so obsessed with, the things that make me of use to them, and I say goodbye with relief.
Young ladies must be careful. Mermaids don’t have to be.
Let whatever force that Sula is afraid of have them, I think. I want my sister back.
Then I drink down the contents of that tiny vial—the one I wore around my neck. I think I glimpse movement in the water. It reminds me of Alex’s hair grown long and floating in a cloud beneath the shadowy surface. I can’t make out her face.
“Alex? Is it you?”
Whatever it is shoots under the dock. I pause. I think back to our parents sleeping in ignorance in their separate rooms.
I drop into the ocean, and it washes away all my stains.