The white doctors clatter into Suma’s village every Saturday in a dust-smeared van. They bring cures, pills and sticks, and leave condoms and glossy pamphlets in their wake.
Mama doesn’t believe in their magic, but she has been wrong before, so she takes Suma to the doctors one Saturday, just after her tenth birthday.
When she asks Mama why she needs to go, Mama says, “You’re vulnerable.”
The white doctors operate out of their van, the back doors thrown wide. Suma sits on the floor, her bare feet dangling a foot off the dirt. The doctor’s stick hurts as it enters and Mama’s face tightens as Suma cries.
Afterward, in the village, a passing fisherman smiles at Mama and offers Suma a sweet. Mama hesitates at the unknown man’s kindness, but when Suma begs her, she relents.
Suma hopes that the doctor’s magic will bring her memory back. She doesn’t know why it went away. When she asks her mother, her mother shakes her head.
“Some curses are blessings,” she says.
Without her memories, Suma feels like flotsam from one of the fishermen’s ships that blink in and out of her world, gray silhouettes on the horizon.
Walking along the beach one afternoon, Suma notices a piece of driftwood floating upright, half-submerged. It disappears after a moment, not a log at all, but an arm. As the creature it belongs to slips deeper, his tail fans the surface.
Suma crawls onto a large rock and watches the sea, waiting for the merman to come back. He doesn’t return that day, but Suma believes the merman, like her memories, will come back eventually. They just need time.
Mama has the fisherman over for dinner. She tells Suma to play outside. Before long, the merman’s tail flicks across the water and then his head crowns, water pouring from his tangled hair. Suma wants him to come closer, but she knows he won’t come unless he wants to. She watches him play, the foaming surf curling over his brown chest, watches him stretch his idle muscles.
His fin is deep purple-green, Mama’s favorite colors, and glistens brighter than the water in the boiling afternoon sun. His long arms, stretched out on either side, are dark brown and his hair shines like black seaweed.
When Suma gets back home, Mama is alone, humming quietly as she stirs a pot of soup.
Mama takes her to the village sometimes. Suma likes to look at the trees that grow along the road. They twist, branches twining with other branches, growing thick and knotted like Mama’s knuckles. “You can see a tree’s history in its branches,” Mama tells her.
Suma examines her own hands, pressing her arms together, winding them around each other, and wonders about her history. The scars running along her arms are small and scattered, tiny stars that form their own constellations.
When she asks Mama how she got them she says it doesn’t matter. But at night Suma hears the mumbling of ghosts outside the door of their hut. They gather like vultures and Suma wonders whose ghosts they are, hers or Mama’s.
Suma wonders, too, if the merman has his own ghosts, slippery wet things that sink to the bottom of the ocean beneath their own heaviness.
Suma still doesn’t remember, but she thinks she’s getting closer. Sometimes she stares at the sun until her eyes hurt. Then she closes them and sees a blinding mirror of the sun like an orange on the insides of her eyelids. When the second sun fades, she can almost catch a glimpse of her old life.
“Is the fisherman coming back tonight?” Suma asks Mama on wash day. Mama plunges the clothes into a soapy tub filled with water while Suma wrings the clean garments out and hangs them on flat rocks to dry.
Mama takes her time answering, moving steadily in the rhythm of her work. Eventually she clears her throat.
“I think I can be happy with him.”
The fisherman comes that night but he’s not alone. Another man is with him, a younger man, and they’ve been drinking in the village. Suma listens to them sing as they walk, their voices rising and falling in the dark, like the waves crashing into the beach.
When Mama steps into the doorway, filling it behind Suma, her smile disappears.
Sand scratches Suma’s ankles, she runs so fast. She runs half-blinded by the wind, pausing only when she stumbles over a rock. As she picks herself up, she realizes it is not a rock but the outstretched arm of the merman.
Lying halfway in the water, tail submerged in sea foam, the merman’s other arm is thrown over his face. A twisted length of fishing net cuts into his throat. He doesn’t move when Suma touches him or when she lifts his arm gently.
His face is beautiful. His eyes are closed and delicate down to each wet lash, and the soft line of his cheekbones glide across his face like water on oil. Suma is struck by the beauty of it, struck by the history written even in the blankness.
Suma presses her palm against the merman’s chest. She feels his heart, feels the weak beat like a butterfly’s wings against his skin. She tries to push him back into the water, but he is too heavy. Suma sits with him, half in the sea and half on the wet sand of the outgoing tide, and holds his hand until it is over.
M. M. Pryor is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. M. M. graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an M.F.A. in Fiction in 2014, but since Starfleet doesn’t exist yet and pterodactyl rider stopped being a viable occupation about 65 million years ago, M. M. settled for drinking a lot of coffee and writing tiny stories.