When your mother is a mermaid, no one except you gets to see her before the show starts, poised on a fake rock, tail curled in a spiral behind her, arms above her head and pressed against her ears, ready to dive in. There are four mermaids, but your mother has the most experience. This gives her a special privilege: she has a show where she performs by herself.
Before the show, your mother applies waterproof mascara to her eyelashes. In the mirror, she blinks rapidly, purses her mouth like a fish. You love your mother’s shell bra, the turquoise color. But it’s the tail you love the most, its luminescence, glowing sea glass green. You watch your mother pull on her heavy sequined tail, twisting her hips and peeling it upward. You have a ritual before every show, a way of wishing your mother good luck. You rub the scales on her tail with your hand, gently. It makes you feel brave to do this, like the time your mom took you with her to her boyfriend’s house and he let you hold his pet. The corn snake zigzagged up your arm, pink tongue flicking, body heavy and warm against your skin.
The audience waits. All they see is the large glass window of the aquarium reflecting darkness. Then, the lights above are turned on. During the show, your mother swims past leopard sharks, sea turtles and angelfish. Her body twists next to coral and seaweed and her tail skims the shells on the sandy ocean floor. Your mother is more graceful than a dolphin. She dips and twirls, flips and pivots. She’s not a mother now but a real mermaid. Her long hair billows. The mermaid cups her hands, delighting in the pebbles she picks up from the bottom of the sea.
You love the looks of admiration the audience gives your mother: the oohs and aahs. The flashes from their cellphones or handheld cameras, the jostling of bodies, mothers plucking children out of strollers and holding them to their chest so they can have a better view.
Your mother surfaces. Water beads her bare swimmer arms. Then she plunges down, tail slapping the water. And even though you know how the show ends, there’s always a moment when you panic. Watching silvery bubbles stream from your mother’s mouth, you leave a small, smeary handprint against the glass as a sign for your mother, to let her know she’s been down there long enough, that it’s time to return to the surface.
Candace Hartsuyker has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and reads for PANK. She has been published in Cotton Xenomorph, Heavy Feather Review, The Hunger, Maudlin House, and elsewhere.