I was ten and didn’t yet know desperation that last summer on Grand Isle, so when I snuck Mom’s copy of The Awakening off the shelf, reading with flashlight under sheets, I was enchanted with Edna’s walk into the sea. It was a transformation—a magic woman had figured out how to swim off into the land of Aphrodite. Mom hadn’t yet mimicked that walk either, eyes on horizon and stones heavy in pockets and heart so I didn’t yet know what it felt like to vomit emptiness, to stick fingers down throat to purge pain and find that nothing had changed.
The bathwater buoyancy of the gulf in the summer felt so peaceful, a sliding through water that was a slipping into a world apart and made her dark stroll seem like the only thing to do. I had mermaid dreams and talked to Aphrodite and Edna, prayer-like, every night. I’d whisper to them all day on the sand, and at night when tucked into blankets made necessary by air conditioning, even in the Louisiana heat. And I would hold my breath in the tub and in the saltwater shallows until Mom would get worried. I was trying so hard to understand her magic.
Mom came home one afternoon with a swim fin that was a mermaid tail. It wasn’t the shimmering green of my dreams, it was bright pink, but it was close enough. Falling asleep in it so that I could “practice” all the time made Mom laugh, but I still slept in it every night, determined to meet Edna where she lived.
Two small shrines began to take shape, one in my closet, the other far down on the beach in a little alcove of overgrown and blown sea grass. The closet shrine was for me and Mom. A postcard of Aphrodite on a shell, fake pearls, shells, dried flowers, little notes we’d write to each other telling dreams.
The shrine on the beach was a secret for Edna. It wasn’t pretty, it didn’t sparkle—shells and sand and bits of coral that washed up on the beach, bones from birds and fish and animals I couldn’t identify that decomposed in the water. Scraps of sea weed. Feathers. Bits of glass tumbled in the tide. Sharks’ teeth turned black from fossilization, having been transformed by the sea, their calcium leeched out and replaced with minerals from the sea itself, so now they could last forever in that strange marriage. Strings of fake pearls, too, but these I secretly pocketed on our trips to Walgreens. Stealing a pair of scissors one day, I’d cut off small locks of hair from the base of my neck so Mom wouldn’t notice. They were little offerings I’d leave at the driftwood altar and watch whiten in the sun. I’d dip them in saltwater whenever I visited and fan each out again in the space in my “cave” where the sun shone through when at its apex. I used my baby teeth to etch hearts into the wood. Everything lightened like bones.
The shrine I built to Mom in the years after she died is much smaller but won’t ever be washed away by the sea. White scratchings of scars on the insides of my arms. A tooth that had to be capped because it was too worn from stomach acid passing up and through. A broken wrist that shows only on X-rays, a small bright patch. And still everything lightened like bones.
Sheila Arndt is a reader, writer, and Ph.D. candidate living in the Midwest. She cares about the modern and postmodern, critical theory, New Orleans, Americana, saltwater, garlic, canines, old blues, and new dreams. Her poetry and prose have been published in The Tishman Review, Gravel, and Literary Orphans, among other places. Follow her on Twitter: @ACokeWithYou_. Her website: http://www.sheilamarndt.com.