by Jennifer Hudak
I was born with a secret. When I was a girl, I hardly noticed it—just one more mild irritation, one more bit of friction. Gran taught me how an oyster builds a pearl, turning a grain of sand into something hard and slick and heavy. As if she knew about my secret, which I imagined nestled in the darkest depths of my body, glowing and iridescent. As if she knew how the secret grew, layer by shiny layer, the longer I kept it. The way she spoke made me wonder if she was born with a secret as well.
Every summer my mother shipped me off to Gran’s house on the coast of Maine. In the morning, we’d walk to the beach, and in the evening, we sat on her porch, drinking sour lemonade and knitting.
“Why does mom never come here?” I asked her once, while I struggled with my needles and yarn. My mother had grown up in this very house. She’d walked to school in sight of the coastline and gone to bed each night with salt on her skin. I took a deep breath of briny air. I couldn’t imagine why she ever left.
Gran covered my hands with her own and guided me through the motions: needle in, yarn over, pull through. “She gave up on the ocean. It was her choice.” She took her hands away and watched me work the next stitch, and the next. A scarf grew from my needles the same way the secret built itself: row by row, layer by layer.
Beach roses, busy with bees, lined the footpath to the water. As soon as pavement turned to sand, I took off my shoes and let the beach pumice the soles of my feet. Near the water, the sand turned colder and firmer. I tumbled into the waves, emerging with seaweed draped like a shawl over my arms. The water stung, so icy and salty, as if it were trying to work its way inside my skin.
Gran told me not to go out farther than waist-deep, even though I was a strong swimmer. She told me that the riptides could yank my legs out from under me when I was least expecting it. If I stood still, I could feel the tide suck the sand away from beneath my feet.
Gran usually stayed out of the water, but every once in a while, during the hottest part of the summer, she’d join me, wading in only up to her knees. When she trudged back on to the sand, her legs would be red and lumpy with angry hives.
“I love the ocean, but it doesn’t love me,” she said. The tide hissed and frothed around her ankles.
I dipped my hand into the water and splashed some on my arms, where it ran in cool rivulets and nestled into the crooks of my elbows. The ocean seemed to love me just fine. I licked my lips and tasted salt, briny and bracing.
I was wearing my favorite bathing suit, the one decorated with a smiling mermaid. The water beaded on her sequined tail, and it sparkled in the sunlight. Gran glanced at it with an expression I couldn’t parse.
“Did you know that the first sailors who said they saw mermaids were actually looking at manatees?”
“Manatees?” I’d seen pictures of them in some of the books Gran gave me. Pale and large, rounded and wrinkled, with friendly bulbous snouts. I looked down at the mermaid on my suit, with her flowing hair and long eyelashes, and frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why not? Any mermaid who swims in this ocean is going to have a layer of blubber instead of a little bikini top.” She bent down and flicked some icy water onto my sun-warm skin, making me shriek and giggle. “Don’t you think?”
At Gran’s house, the rhythm of our days was like the rhythm of the tide. Each night we cooked and ate dinner at her half-circle kitchen table, washed and dried the dishes, and then carried our lemonade onto the porch with our knitting. My fingers were still clumsy on the needles, and I huffed in frustration at another dropped stitch.
“Undo it,” Gran said. She’d taught me how to work the stitches in reverse until I could pick up the dropped stitch and start the row again.
“It takes forever. When will I stop making mistakes?”
She must have seen the incredulous look on my face, because she set down her needles and picked up a blanket that was draped over the rattan love seat, spreading it over my lap so that I could see, right in the middle, a single twisted stitch. A tiny mistake, but it stood out in the otherwise smooth expanse of the blanket.
I ran my finger over the stitch. “Why didn’t you fix it?”
“By the time I realized I’d done it, I’d put in too much work to unravel it all.” She folded the blanket back up. “Some mistakes you just choose to live with.”
We knit until the sky turned from blue to lavender to shocking orange-pink. When the colors faded to dark and the stars appeared, Gran set down her knitting. “The sun is asleep,” she said, “and that means it’s time for us to sleep, too.”
She made me shower before bed, but still I woke in the morning with salt crusted beneath my fingernails, and sand between my toes.
When I got a little older, Gran took me for walks along the cliffs that jutted out into the ocean. I liked to scamper over the jagged rocks, waiting for the pounding surf to send up a rainbow-edged spray.
“That’s far enough,” Gran called.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “The ocean will catch me if I fall.” I knew this with a certainty I hadn’t yet begun to question.
“You’ll sink straight to the bottom,” Gran said, and I knew this, too. Still, I was cranky when I rejoined her on the safety of the groomed path that led back to her house.
“Why do you even live here if you’re so scared of the ocean? Why didn’t you just leave like Mom did?”
Gran stared out at the sea. “We all make choices.”
I stalked off ahead of her on the path. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks followed me, a persistent whisper.
Summer by summer, I grew. My body, which had once been beanpole thin, had softened and rounded. My mother, frowning, told me I had my Gran’s waist. But Gran didn’t care about the size of my waist, or how I looked in my bathing suit. “Who are you trying to impress, anyway?” she asked, and it was a relief not to worry about it. I let myself get plump with Gran’s cooking, and felt at ease, as though a truce had been called on a war I’d been fighting against myself without realizing it.
Gran had stopped warning me about riptides. Instead, she stood on the beach while I swam. Now my legs were strong as flippers, and my hands stroked the water like a lover’s skin. I felt the pull of the tide, and I imagined giving in. I imagined losing sight of land, of surrounding myself with blue. The ocean sang in words I’d begun to decipher, a tune taking shape. A melody building itself like a pearl, like a blanket, like the clack of knitting needles and the taste of sour lemonade. Like the waist I shared with Gran, and the twisted mixture of sorrow and longing on her face as she waited on the shore.
I stood where I was, a pillar in the middle of a roiling tide. The ocean tried to pull me out to sea one moment, and the next it pushed me roughly away, back toward the shore. “Choose,” it whispered. It called out to me, to my secret, but I knew that the secret wasn’t mine. It never had been.
I walked back to shore, where Gran waited for me on the hot, soft sand. “I know,” I told her. “What we are.”
“What you are,” she said. “It’s too late for me. I made my choice. The ocean doesn’t want me anymore.” But her eyes kept returning to the waves.
“I know what you gave up for my mom, and what she gave up for me. Now, I’m giving it back to you. That’s my choice.”
The moment I spoke the words, I felt lighter, airy and free. I felt like a seagull hanging in the sky. Gran’s eyes widened.
Then her feet sank deeper into the sand. When she picked up one foot, the ocean seeped into the print. Already she looked heavier, more solid.
The ocean lapped at her toes, tasting her, remembering her flavor. When the tide rolled over her ankles, she bent down and cupped the icy water with her hands, splashing it over her arms and shoulders. Gran spoke herself to the ocean, and the ocean spoke itself to Gran, and she began to take shape.
Her legs grew tough and lean and her torso fattened and furred. She turned to look at me one last time before the sand fell away from her feet, before she dove into a wave and let the secret swallow her, let it carry her home.
© Copyright Jennifer Hudak
Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. Her short fiction has appeared in venues such as khōréō, Flash Fiction Online, Apparition Lit, and Translunar Travelers Lounge, among others. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where, in addition to writing, she teaches yoga, knits tiny pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean. Find her on Twitter @writerunyoga, or visit her at jenniferhudakwrites.com
Read the Rest of the March Issue
- Mermaid by Nivedita Sekar
- Til Human Voices Wake Us by Jennifer Hudak
- Lament of the Love Struck Irish Fisherman by Grainne Quinlan
- Interview with Brigit Treux, David Bowles, and Grainne Quinlan by Julia Rios
- Cold Water by Karen Porter Sorensen
- Wake by Sara Eileen Hames
- Underwater Panther by Brigit Truex
- Siren Call by David Bowles
- How to Eat a Mermaid by K. Garcia Ley
- Flow by Baz Kanold
- Getting Our Sea Legs by Julia Rios
- Tracking Treasures by Meg Frank