How to Give Your Toddler a Tail

by Amanda Helms


Your daughter is three and a half years old the first time she tries to drown herself in the bathtub.

You return after thirty seconds away to fetch another towel (later you’ll discover she’d only hidden it in the under-sink cabinet), and there Kadence is, lying still under the water, her black hair coiling around her head in ringlets, the tip of her nose poking out of the water.

Screaming, you hoist her out of the tub, lay her on the floor, curse yourself for not taking another child CPR class except for the one the hospital suggested while you were still pregnant—

—and realize that her mouth is open and her eyes are open and she’s screaming too. 

You sag against the cabinets while your heart still thuds in your chest, hard, and stare blankly at your daughter while she glares at you with the impotent rage of a thwarted three-year-old. “Mommy! I’m being a mermaid!”

Out of a mouth suddenly dry, you manage, “Oh?”

She nods, and stalks back to the tub, and has already swung a leg over the edge by the time you recover yourself and go to help her.  Later, after lotion and jammies and bedtime stories (three), you hug her and say, “I love you, Kadence, so so much.” 

Eyelids drooping, she smiles, closed-lipped, and strokes your cheek. “I love you too, Mommy.” She rolls over in her bed to face her wall, covered in unicorn and ninja decals. She’d picked them from one of those random shops on Etsy. You hadn’t known such a thing existed, but Yasmin’s moms were both capable artists and had painted their daughter’s room with ninjas and narwhals, and when you commented you had no such skills, Cherise had touched you on the arm and said, “Well, you can find anything on Etsy.” 

Kadence picked the ninja and unicorn decals herself. 

“Mommy,” Kadence says, “I need to sleep.”

“Sorry, honey. Good night. I love you.”

You turn off the light and exaggeratedly tiptoe out, like always. Kadence—rolled over to face you again—giggles. Gently, you shut the door, and lean against it.

Kadence didn’t choose mermaids for her wall three months ago, and didn’t mention “being a mermaid” again after the screaming and the (supposed) salvation from drowning. 

Nevertheless, it’s time to call Dad. 

~

You call him next day, sitting in your car during your lunch break at work, an uneaten chicken artichoke sandwich in the passenger seat. 

Your father listens quietly as you explain What Happened last night, and you picture him standing beside his bay window, where he has a small view of the marina. Houses built up around his in the intervening years, so that now he has to stretch his shrinking back to peer through the upper left corner, where he can make out the masts of sailboats and, very occasionally, the blue-green water of the Gulf.

“Well,” he says, when you come to a lurching stop in the story, “I guess you want me to talk to her?”

Your exhale echoes back to you through the earpiece. “I mean, yes, but in person? I think we’re due for a visit, anyway. Kadence probably doesn’t remember the last time she saw the Gulf.” Eighteen months ago. Aside from the occasional video call—which your father has always found unpleasant and for which he continuously made excuses, to the point you gave up and stuck with regular phone calls—you, and Kadence, haven’t seen him since your last visit to Galveston. 

His silence this time is longer than the first, and for several seconds you think he’s going to say no. 

But then: “I guess a weekend visit might be all right.”

It’s something you’ve come to appreciate about your father, that he always states his boundaries up front. A short visit, then, where he can perform his grandfatherly duties and retreat back into his personal life.  

“We can get a hotel room, too.”

This pause is longer than the first, shorter than the second. “No,” he says finally. “I can set up the guest room.” For the first time, a smile enters his voice. “Makes it easier to share pancake breakfasts.” 

“Okay,” you say, unashamed to let the relief, and small amount of joy, enter your voice. “Maybe in a couple of months?”

After the careful negotiations where you agree to research flights and suggest a weekend—which you establish as Friday to Sunday, or maybe very early Monday—you hang up. 

Neither of you said “I love you,” but that’s okay, because some things you just understand. 

~

The weekend of the visit arrives. Kadence has flown before, but was only two then, and so views everything through the lens of novelty: the airport, the plane, the rented car with rented car seat.

Your father. 

You arrive at his house—a bungalow with a dormer window in the front, painted a sunwashed mint green—at three in the afternoon. Kadence napped a bit on the plane and even in the car, a small mercy. She stares at your father, taking in his eyes, the color of kelp, and his hair, the color of driftwood, and his skin, the color of wet sand. He wears thin-rimmed black spectacles—that’s what he calls them, rather than glasses, and it’s a word that’s stuck to him—and a blue plaid shirt. His pants are gray, and the weave of them has small repeating arches. Like scales.

“Moira,” he says, looking at you. Then, down to Kadence, who has his same kelp eyes, but your black curls. “And Kadence.” A smile splits his face, and everything about him turns bright, like the sun glittering on the surface of the sea. “I believe I’m supposed to say something about how big you’ve gotten?”

Kadence frowns. “You saw pictures.” She pushes past him. “Mommy said you have cookies?”

“Sorry,” you say, and hold out your arms for a hug first.

“It’s okay,” he says, and encloses you briefly, like seaweed slipping away. Well. Not as awkward as it could’ve been. “Need help with the luggage?”

You accept because Dad likes to feel useful, and you trust that Kadence, seeking cookies, will last five minutes alone in the house. 

It turns out you were wrong, somewhat, because when you and Dad are done unloading the car—just your carry-on and Kadence’s dinosaur backpack—and have gone into the living room, Kadence is sitting in the middle of the wood floor, a blue faux leather photo album in her lap. She’s pulled one picture out of its plastic cover and peers at it with the same level of concentration she displays for building her Duplo castles. 

She glances up at the sound of your suitcase rolling to a stop. “This is Grandpa? And Grandma?”

You already know the photo she’s found, even though you’re eight feet away and the photo is long-faded and small, three by five inches. Dad must already know, too, because he clears his throat and takes a slightly unsteady step back, as if the couple of pounds of Kadence’s backpack have suddenly set him off-balance.

But even though you know, you stride to your daughter and crouch on the floor beside her.

And there it is: your mom, sitting on the edge of a pier with her coiling black hair cropped short, much shorter than most women at the time cut it—beads of water on her face and the tip of her nose, smiling broadly, with her arm wrapped around Dad—

—who is not on the pier, but instead behind it, with his arms braced on its edge, pushing himself out of the lake. He’s shirtless, and because he’s shirtless, it’s easy to see where the skin gives way to shimmering silver scales. 

Though you haven’t confirmed to Kadence one way or another, her eyes are wide with betrayal and her lips tremble, and she wails, “Grandpa’s a merman?” 

~

A few minutes later, the cookies (lemon shortbread) have been retrieved, and your father and your daughter have retreated to the faded brown, threadbare-in-spots couch, their knees bent together like two schoolyard friends sharing secrets. 

Heaviness pools in your belly, followed soon by dismay. For the heaviness is envy. Of your three-year-old.

Who is thinking to ask questions you never did. 

“Why’d you leave?”

And, moreover, you realize as your father’s lips purse and he tilts his head, he’s going to answer.

“I fell in love,” he says, simply. 

Kadence’s eyes are big, like those Disney princess dolls. “With Grandma?”

He smiles, wider than you’ve seen in years. A smile that shows all of his even, white teeth. “Yes. But also with this.” He makes a gesture, meant to encompass not just the living room of his bungalow or his bungalow itself—which, of course, he purchased several years after your mother died, and even longer after you’d graduated college and moved out—but also the whole wide world outside of it. 

Kadence nods sagely. “Like Ariel.”

You think it’s going to make him upset, being compared to that movie—”No magical kingdoms under the sea,” he’d once grumbled on the phone during chitchat about Kadence’s screen time. “We have a democracy that actually works”—but instead he smiles, and his eyes behind his spectacles twinkle. You don’t remember his eyes twinkling, ever. 

Maybe that’s what it is, to be a grandparent. To know that when you have the hard shit to deal with, it’s just a day or two at most, and then you get to hand the kid off for the rest of it. 

Well, fair enough. Your father has already had his share of the hard shit. 

Your thoughts make you lose the thread of what your father’s saying. “… had to get their ideas from somewhere, you know.” Though your father’s explanation of why took less than a minute, it’s enough for Kadence, and she moves on to the question you did ask, “how.” 

Without a word, your father stands and shuffles from the room. It’s the shuffle of an aging man, but you recognize it also from when you, and he, were younger. Stress makes him lose his footing. 

“Grandpa?” Kadence starts to push herself off the couch to follow him, but here you intervene.

Placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, you shake your head and say, “Wait.” 

Kadence’s brow furrows, and she stares up at you. “Grandpa’s really a merman?”

Was, you think. Was. “It was his secret.” Which Kadence ferreted out, but then all that means is she jumpstarted the purpose of this visit. 

Nevertheless, it bothers you, the tiniest bit. The wisdom on infant adoptees, for instance, is that they should grow up always knowing they’re adopted, and there should be no one big moment that they learned it. That instead it becomes a fact about themselves they just know, like their name and their hair color. Should it have been the same for Kadence?

Should it have been the same for you?

Holding an oblong pearl-white box with a sliding lid, Dad shuffles back. Despite its color, it’s not pearl, your father said, but bone from a long-dead deep sea creature. He never said what, precisely, but when he finally told you the truth about himself, you were old enough for your imagination to go into overdrive, even if you were also too old to believe that creature meant something like “leviathan” or “kraken.” 

“Here,” he says to Kadence, handing her the box. And he uses the same words he did when he explained this to you. “I had to give up a piece of my heart.” 

“Oh,” she says. She pets his knee. “That’s badder than a voice.” 

The only reaction on your father’s part is to close his eyes, briefly. 

A question you want to ask now, because you suspect Kadence doesn’t have the words for it: Was it worth it? 

Kadence has the box on her lap. Her small hands rove over its surface, noting the small bumps and ridges. 

Then she hands it back. 

Your father takes it, with some surprise. “You don’t want to see it?”

She shakes her head. “A heart is private.”

When neither you nor your father say anything, she frowns. “Isn’t it?”

It startles you to movement. You sweep her up and kiss her head. “Yes, it is.” 

You try to meet your father’s gaze over the top of your daughter’s head, but he’s lost in thought, chewing one corner of his lip. 

Because you’re a coward, you leave him like that, saying Kadence needs a nap (“No, I don’t!”) and leaving him alone in the living room, with the pieces of his heart in his chest and in the bone of an ancient monster. 

~

At eight, you tuck Kadence into the guest bed, where you’ll join her later, and where, she repeated throughout the late afternoon and evening, she did not nap and she was so bored

But now she rubs her eyes and yawns hugely. 

“Still want a story?”

“Yes,” she says, and you think she’ll ask for the story of how Grandpa met Grandma or how he gave up his heart, but instead what she asks for is not an actual story. “If Grandpa’s a merman, are you, too? Or a mermaid,” but she’s frowning, like she can’t imagine you and mermaid together.

Well, you never could yourself. 

“Merwoman,” she says. “Are you a merwoman?” Her eyes get big. “Am I?”

“The magic only affected him,” you say. “It didn’t pass down.”

“Mommy,” she says, “the magic made him legs. Grandma already had them. So you got them, too.”

You start to open your mouth—you’d meant the magic that made merpeople to begin with, that you’d assumed Dad had given up, along with his heart. But what if Kadence is right, and the magic, the newer magic, gave him legs, but didn’t change the core of who he was? 

Is.

She yawns and snuggles back against her pillow. Your father uses a lighthouse sheet set for the guest room, and the tip of the lighthouse peeks above Kadence’s head, almost like a hat. Her eyes drift shut, and her breathing evens. 

You ease off the bed. 

But she fooled you, because when you are about to shut the door, Kadence says, “We’re both mermaids.” 

Your heart seizes, a little, but Kadence’s breathing is so even you think maybe you imagined her speaking in the first place. 

Out of the mouths of babes, you think, and stand there a moment more, listening to your mermaid breathe. 

~

When you finally leave the safety of the guest room threshold, you find your dad has vacated the living room for the kitchen. He’s brewing chicory tea, and the coffeelike scent sends you straight back to your childhood, after Mom died, the time when the pot of chicory tea had been left on the stove to keep warm, but started to burn, and so you’d run out to the lake—because your family hadn’t lived by anything resembling an ocean in those days (“Too tempting,” Dad said later), but instead a small cabin by a lake—

—and Dad was there, sobbing, wading out with the water up to his waist, with a white box clutched to his chest, and with his free hand he clawed at his belt—he hadn’t even changed into swim trunks—and where his waistband slipped down a bit at his side, there you saw a silver gleam, as of scales.

You shake your head a little to clear it. 

“Dad,” you say, going into the kitchen, “you know I don’t like chicory tea.”

He glances at you over the rims of his spectacles. “I know. But I still do.” He gives the pot a last stir and replaces it on the stove. “Just a few minutes.” A small hesitation. “You want anything?”

It’s a question that requires you to assess the state of your body. Anxiety always made your stomach churn and your bowels clench, and there was a long stretch in your teens and twenties where your ribs poked out stark against your skin, a mountain range in miniature. 

“Maybe in a bit.”

Dad frowns, opens his mouth, closes it again. Gives a tiny shake of his head. “So.” He clears his throat. “About Kadence . . . ?”

You chew on your lower lip, realize what you’re doing, spit it out again. You spent a good portion of your teens and twenties with a chronically chapped lip, too. 

The only way through is headlong, you think, and speak so quickly your words trip into each other. “I think we should let her try it. See if she can . . . ” Transform doesn’t seem quite right.  “Swim,” you say finally.

Dad goes to the pantry, comes back with a package of Girl Scout cookies. Tagalongs. He pulls out the tray, rips off the plastic, then pushes it toward you. Despite your lack of clarity, Dad knows what you meant, because he says, “You never wanted to try, yourself.”

Your throat is itchy, and maybe that’s why your voice sounds tight as you say, “Yeah, well, I was a lot older than Kadence when I found out.” And how stupid you’d felt, being fourteen, and at an age where, once the grief of losing Mom settled around your shoulders like a scarf, rather than wrapping round your chest like a vise, your major concern, or what you thought was your major concern, was not that such a crucial fact of your father’s existence had been hidden from you, but that you’d failed to figure it out yourself. 

Even now, you can’t help but think you should have known. Somehow.

And because “you should have known,” you wanted nothing to do with it. Or, for a time, with him.

He’s watching you, closely, but you occupy yourself with a cookie, dusting crumbs off its surface. “Well,” he says finally, “you saw how she was with the box. She may not want to.” 

You have no words to explain your bone-deep surety, but you’re Kadence’s mother. Of course she wants to. 

~

The next day, shortly after dawn when there aren’t many people yet about, you stand with Kadence chest-deep in the Gulf. Your father sits on the beach, with his arms wrapped around his legs. All during the walk here, his eyes had a shine to them, and you avoided his gaze. Even after thirty-six years of being a father, he’s not used to letting his child see him cry. It’s a small amount of privacy you can give him.

Because, after all, the piece of his heart is no longer in its bone box, but instead in a baggie in a small red waterproof pouch, and now it hangs around your daughter’s neck. If this is going to work—and you’re not sure it will—it’ll be with that bit of your father’s heart.

Though you retain a tight grip on Kadence’s waist, and she’s wearing a swim floaty that goes around her chest and arms, you remind her to tread water. The sand under your feet is silty, and you dig your toes in deeper. You have her swim bottoms, removed after you got deep enough in the water, in your own (heart-less) pouch. 

“Ready?”

Kadence wipes a thick tendril of hair out of her face. “Mommy, I was born ready!”

You want to both laugh and choke, because while Kadence must’ve heard that phrase somewhere and is only repeating it now, it’s true. She was. “Okay.”

Over Kadence’s head, you look at your father, still sitting on the shore. He catches your gaze and nods. You got this.

And, it turns out, you do: there are no magic words to recite; only the necessity of pulling the heart out of the pouch and out of the baggie, and placing it in Kadence’s hands. It’s dried to a purplish-gray, but has veins of silver running through it, the same shade your father’s scales had been. 

Kadence keeps her eyes closed for this part, because though your father tried to tell her otherwise, she insists that his heart is still private and that while she can hold it, seeing it is quite another thing. 

“Oh,” Kadence says, and strokes her thumb over the surface of the heart. “It’s soft. Like Mew Mew.” The kitten she saw at the shelter one time, when you took her there as a pick-you-both-up after your ex left. 

You wrap Kadence’s hands around the heart, and again glance up at your father. No nods, just patient waiting.

“All right.” And though there aren’t any magic words, it seems like there should be something, so you babble: “Think of Grandpa, and his heart, and his tail. Think of how he’s part of us both.” Your throat starts to close up around the truth of your words. “Think—”

Kadence lets out a shriek of delight as something kicks against your legs. You look down at the water; it’s a little murky, but nonetheless you see a flash of silver.

You find yourself smiling. You’ve given your daughter a tail. 

She barely stays still, as you return the heart-piece to the bag and pouch. But Kadence stops you when you try to put it back around her neck. “I don’t need it, Mommy. You do.”

She’s off, and you shout again not to swim past the line of buoys. She raises one bronze arm in acknowledgment. 

You hesitate, remembering the sight of her in the tub. But—whoever heard of mermaids drowning? And now you understand: she always was one. 

The same, you realize, as you. 

So you wade back to the shore, and back to your father, sit beside him on the beach. He shakes his head when you hold out the pouch. Tapping his chest, he says, “I’ve got enough.”

“Is that why you never changed back?” The question surprises you on its way out, but not enough for you to cut yourself off. 

Dad’s eyes widen a bit at it, but he smiles a smile that turns into a grin. “Yes.” It fades. “Though after your mother— It took me a while to remember it. And for that I’m sor—”

“Don’t. It’s okay.” 

Or, at least, it’s getting better. A little bit better, every day.

Dad’s gaze returns to the Gulf. A flash of tail soon slips under the waves. A giggle rolls back to you, though Kadence is at least thirty feet out, and the waves should’ve drowned it out. But, you’re her parent.

You lean your head on your father’s shoulder. He hesitates, then pat-pats your opposite shoulder. “You know—” he clears his throat. “You could try it too. It might be a bit harder, you being an adult, but. . . .”

“No, that’s all right.” You meet his eyes. “I’ve already got your heart inside me.”

There it is again, that shine in his eyes. You let him busy himself with wiping his spectacles again, but it’s true: 

The magic won’t last forever, and Kadence’s legs will come back, because she’s human, too. But you’re your father’s daughter, and Kadence is yours. 

And your own heart, as it beats underneath the piece of your father’s, is full.


© Copyright Amanda Helms


Amanda Helms is a biracial science fiction and fantasy writer whose stories have appeared in Fireside Fiction, Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, The Twisted Book of Shadows, and elsewhere. When not writing or wrangling her toddler, she can sometimes be found outside, and if so she likely has a stunned expression from the good fortune of feeling sunshine on her face.


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