Aground, Upon the Sand by Jennifer R. Donohue is the Syntax & Salt Fall Flash Contest 1st place winner.
I say I don’t remember where I came from, because I must. After the storm, I can’t go back, and it’s impossible for me to explain what I really am, what my life was. People try to guess where my family is from, based on my oyster-shell skin, my tangled mussel-thread hair, but their guesses are all land-based, England, Ireland. Nobody ever thinks of the water, and after the storm I’m able to slip away into the currents of life on land. After a storm that big, I’m not the only one figuring my life out.
I have to get a job to survive. I get work at a restaurant, where what I need is a smile and a memory and reflexes, and I have those. It gets better when I learn how to read.
“You’re a mermaid!” my new friends joke, my coworkers who form their own family of pasts they don’t want to talk about, who sit down to dinner before service, who go to parties together after hours, who teach me their ways. Waterproof makeup, long unruly hair in a bun. Soft shearling boots; not better than endless water holding me up, but a softness that I appreciate. My skin is so smooth, as though I’ve just been born.
I’m not a mermaid, but it’s what they latch on to. They buy me decorative shells, the scent of the ocean long boiled away. They take me to the beach, hot sand between our toes, and the waves are a too-brief visit home. We hunt the surf for beach glass, which I love; it’s called that because it’s found on the beach, does not come from the beach, and I feel just the same way. My new family and I have cookouts and I learn another deep sadness, the one that is end of summer, when the beaches clear as if they no longer exist. I still go. By October, it’s mostly populated with surfers, the ones who would be at home chasing big waves, but have instead never left New Jersey.
I walk out onto the jetty at high tide and sit on the edge of one of the big rocks to wait. When my sister comes, she’s alone. I’m dead to the rest of the family, and she risks a lot to see me. We don’t talk about it. I can’t return and she won’t come with me, so we meet each other these few times, at the beach where the people found me with my skin torn away, amidst the broken-apart boardwalk, the washed-up boats. They were coming to see if their businesses were intact, to survey the wreckage of homes, and they wrapped me in scratchy blankets, took me to a hospital. Good Samaritans, the nurses called them, and I didn’t know what that meant.
I share bits of my new life with her. There are things I couldn’t bring, like the mist that threads between neighborhood buildings, drawn by the autumn chill in the air. Frost on blades of grass. My neighbor’s decorations, skeletons and bats and a giant hairy spider. The down comforter from my bed, the sound of fake laughter from the television. What I do bring, she examines with round limpid eyes. The boots, which she sticks inquisitive angled flippers into, soaking their softness in the briny water that my toes so readily seek. Candy corn, one of my favorite things, some sweetness in the salt of her life. A trio of leaves: red, orange, and yellow. My work apron, grease-smelling even after repeated washings. A calendar, because time is days and weeks and months here, not the change of the currents and the movement of the birds, the tidal instinct in our bellies that’s impossible to describe and unnecessary to understand.
My sister’s mouth can’t manage a straw, so I pour out some of the pumpkin spice latte for her into a dip on the rocks, also sweet but sharp with cinnamon, something I never knew before my land life, every sight and sound and scent so foreign. So much here is sweet. She touches her tongue to it and immediately draws her head back in alarm, her eyes rolling in dismay.
I still want to go back, of course. But without my skin, my real skin, sleek and gray dappled like a sun-struck wave, I can’t. My skin now prunes if I’m in the water for too long, and I didn’t know before that it was possible to be in the water for too long. I think she’s looked for my skin, as I have, but neither of us have found it. We don’t talk about it.
She noses at my blue-painted nails and I rub my hand over her head once, jealous of how she’s never been without the salt, the ocean, the sound and scent of our family. What I would give to hear my mother’s singing again. Nothing compares, and especially not the music my friends enjoy, or that plays in the kitchen.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, an angry noise that makes me jump every time, and my sister is gone just like that. I slowly gather my things, checking the water over and over, but she isn’t coming back and I need to leave. That was my alarm for work.
I try to follow the rules: be on time, dress the right way, smile. In return I get meals, and the boss pays me in cash, a word that sounds almost like the waves against the shore, though cash is so very different from water. If he had my skin, I would have to listen to him, or that’s how the stories go. I’m not sure if it’s one of our stories or one of theirs. Boss means a person who somebody has to listen to anyway.
Maybe my sister will never come back. Maybe she shouldn’t.
I turn my back on the ocean and walk away.
Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in New York with her fiancé and her Doberman. Though she got a bachelor′s degree in psychology, she has always wanted to write. She currently works at her local public library, where she also facilitates a writing workshop. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mosaics 2: a Collection of Independent Women, the Sockdolager, and is forthcoming in Mythic Delirum. Her previous appearance in Syntax & Salt is currently on the Nebula Reading List. She blogs at Authorized Musings, where she shares fiction and the tribulations of the writing life, and tweets @AuthorizedMusin.