When the baby popped out, the doctor spanked her blue bottom too hard. It was not his fault that he overreacted, however, he had never seen a mermaid before. Or rather, the semblance of a little baby girl's legs formed and misshapen in the womb into a mermaid's fin. Her skin on her lower half was a pale shade of blue and microscopic gills were on the sides of her neck. Her mother cried when she saw her child's conjoined feet almost in the shape of a fin, and her father could not bear to touch them the first time he held her, but it proved to be the kind of shock at life's surprises that passes in a few moments instead of years. Her parents were not those in a fairytale, indifferent and cold, although she would wish they were at some importune moments when she wished to discover things herself, like her first apple pie or her first dance at prom.
They took her home and fed her, only to learn that she needed a concoction of tuna juice and milk, after a few tries and a few nights of persistent screaming and babble, they wished they could understand as they rubbed the dead flakes of their tears and dream sand they obtained after only a few hours of sleep.
After a few weeks, they learned that water would always be a necessity around their odd shaped daughter. At first, they dipped her in the sink every couple of hours stemming the cracks and dryness of her blue and purple scales, quickly growing up her conjoined feet from her tiny toenails. Her parents decided quickly never to consult doctors for surgery on their baby girl, but treat her as handicapped, a bit odd and a bit different physically, but a person nonetheless. They named her Hera, for if ever there was queen she was theirs, though their hands were like raisons at all hours, and their house stunk of fish.
After she grew to be toddler and her fin was nearly fully formed her mother carried her to the bathroom, gave her a rubber duck and a plastic pirate boat and sat beside her on the toilet while she floated on her back, clumsily in the tub. When Hera was six, they bought a kiddy pool and put it out on the back deck, under the awning. It was then, in the cool of autumn when Hera's mother put her in the pool of warmed water, that she realized her daughters left fin had never grown in like the right one. Hera however, did not seem to mind. And yet, her mother stood over her more fervently then before as she watched Hera roll and splash in the tiny pool, her hair clinging to her back. She watched the right fin struggle harder than it should without its sister.
Hera's parents bought a new house with a sunken in, dried up pool in the backyard when she turned thirteen. She was too heavily to carry now, so they brought home a wheelchair the second night they stayed in that house. Hera and her parents tried to disguise her abnormality, but her gills flapping open and closed on the sides of her neck were distracting. Summer scarves only offset her oxygen mask that she received for her eleventh birthday, though they covered her gills, now fully grown. With the mask she could stay inside longer, out of the warm water to watch M*A*S*H reruns late into the night and eat fish tacos.
When Hera was fourteen, watching the Boston Marathon with her single fin dipped into round bowl she took off her oxygen mask for moment and told her father: "I want to run."
Her father told her wheels and her fin in the water would have to be enough. She thought a moment, staring at the normal lanky runners, pumping their fists back and forth as they charged on, trying not to feel sorry for herself. All she had ever been able to do was crawl.
She asked her father if mermaids in stories had ever flown before. He said slowly from his high back chair that he did not think so.
She thought about the neighborhood kids, her friends who could run and jump and wrap their legs around trees and shimmy up to the highest, most dangerous branches. Her neighborhood friends still visited sometimes, though more and more irregularly as they grew up. A girl in the chair with the mask and the odd legs was never the greatest thing to bring to parties, to dances. Yet Hera knew she could do better than go to few drunken dervishes.
She got her mother to take her to the tiny airstrip on top of a long hill the next week, surrounded by the forest. On the ride up the hills, she had spent the entire time trying to control her breathing, to stop her slight shaking. She felt an adrenaline rush seeing the tiny airplane ready to take her up, and her stomach dropped. She was excited. The pilot stared too long at her mask and her straight thin hair, but Hera soon forgot his stares and felt her heart sing as they lifted into the air in a tiny yellow airplane. She clung to her seat as they pitched low over the river, and glanced at the sky, too blue and deep even to look at for long. It was there, then, that she first longed for the sea.
When she arrived home, she wheeled herself to the edge of the pool and slipped into the water. Her mother left fish sticks on a plate and she ate off the rough edge of the cement, pretending it was the side of cliff, or smooth boulder. She made whirlpools and danced, imagining happy sea creatures around her. She never left the water. She watched a few feet from beneath the water's surface while thunderstorms raged and shook the water like a rag doll and sprayed cold rain on her face when she leap half-heartedly for flashes of lightning.
When Hera became a woman, she made a promise to find the ocean, and to find another like herself. Just one. Someone to listen to the whales' songs she dreamt of on the pool floor. A companion, a friend. Hera got out of the pool for the first time in months, found a map in her parents closet and trailed her finger on a route from her pool to the sea, charting a bus route. When her parents had gone to bed for the night she left quietly. Her mother found the map and a letter, and sighed. This part always happened in the old stories, mermaids and selkies both. They always went home to sea. But as her mother scanned the map for a trace of handwriting or a pencil trail, she wondered if her daughter with one fin could survive the ocean as she was, half complete and half undone.
A/N End of Part One. Comments and questions are always welcome.