Winter, 2013–2014 / No. 31
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

The only reason I could come up with for why I’d given birth to a mermaid was that I’d had unprotected sex in the sea nine months earlier. The doctors crowding around my hospital bed seemed hesitant to accept this hypothesis, but I told them, “Look, sometimes science has to play catch-up. Sometimes clinical trials are designed after the result is already known.” The doctors frowned at me in unison. When I explained that I worked in medical research and had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, this only seemed to make things worse. I rolled over and focused my attention on the bassinet. I didn’t have time to worry about doctors’ opinions—I had a newborn merbaby to care for.

After some deliberation, I decided to name my baby Shiny. First, because Shiny was a name that worked well for either a boy or a girl—I wouldn’t be sure of her gender until after the D.N.A. test—and secondly, because I wanted my baby’s life to be full of luminosity. I imagine every mother wants that for her child.

Shiny was a happy baby, and I felt lucky to be a mother. At forty years old, some people might think I’d had no business having sex in the sea. But what can I say? I was on vacation and Ramón was a very good swimmer. When he’d moved aside the crotch of my swimsuit, I’d felt cold water flooding in to fill the space, and I remember thinking of Russian roulette and how the trigger pull in movies always happens in slow motion. From the beach, a large tanned man who looked like a manatee turned his head and made eye contact. I knew he must have a theory about what was going on under the water, but he couldn’t see us from the waist down; he had no proof.

Returning home from my vacation, I discovered a whole school of words had come with me: chub, plankton, silt, aqueous, biota. I thought of those words each morning as I threw up in a toilet stall at work, and in the afternoons I had strange cravings for them, using them in conversations, searching for them on-line. Clearly my hormones were making me crazy. A chub was a freshwater fish! It didn’t even belong on the list!

My lab assistant, a soft-spoken Québécois man named Guy, tried to be supportive and cover for me when I was sick. We were doing a research project on mitochondria’s role in apoptosis, the programmed death of cells that’s a necessary part of new development. Mitochondria are responsible for letting cells know when it’s their time to die, but occasionally the cells ignore these messages and continue to replicate, even after their expiry dates. I suspected the mitochondria were somehow to blame, but trying to prove this had already consumed the better part of my thirties, and we still had no concrete result. In science however, it’s important to remember that no result is also an outcome. It proves that something isn’t true, which can be equally useful to know. Just not as flashy. Or publishable.

Science journals are the tabloids of the biology world. After Shiny’s birth, I fought hard to keep her out of them. Maybe when she’s older, I told the researchers who called. Even over the phone, I could feel them judging me, fiddling with the point-and-shoot buttons of their cameras. Look, I told them, I know this is a learning opportunity but I’m not thinking like a scientist right now, I’m thinking like a mother. Then I’d hang up the phone and lift Shiny high into the air, spinning her around until she made her happy sound.

Shiny never learned to talk, but she could sing. She couldn’t walk, but she could move herself around in a little wheelchair. When she was two and a half, I signed us up for Mom ’n’ Tot swim classes at the public pool. Shiny loved the water, but after a few weeks we had to stop going to the class. We made the other mothers too uncomfortable. At first they were just nervous because Shiny could swim so fast, but their anxiety got much worse in Week 3, after Shiny grabbed onto one of their little cherubs and dove to the bottom of the pool. The baby was completely fine, but I understand—there’s no margin for error in water safety. I took Shiny back to the change room and promised her we’d go to the lake when the weather got warm. As usual, all of the lockers around ours were empty.

Shiny was having similar problems fitting in at her daycare but, being a single mom, I didn’t have any other option for her during the work week. I tried to make it up to her on weekends. I served her fish-shaped sandwiches and gave her bubble baths and braided seashells into her fine blond hair. We had tea parties and went to the zoo and did everything normal mothers and daughters do. Often Guy and his partner joined us on excursions so that Shiny would have men in her life. The four of us went to the aquarium on Sunday afternoons and sat for hours in the dimly lit rooms watching giant fish, silent and powerful, moving through the glowing green water. The aquarium was Shiny’s favourite place, but sometimes I wondered if it was good for her to spend so much time there. The fish always seemed to be staring at her. When it was time to go, Shiny would wheel herself forward and press her hands to the glass. Then the fish would swim over to look at her as if she were the one in the tank and they were the visitors.

Just before Shiny’s fourth birthday, Guy and I made what looked like a breakthrough in our research. We thought we’d discovered evidence that some mitochondria were not just passing on messages to the cells like switchboard operators, but were actually generating their own messages—making prank calls, if you will. As you can imagine, this distinction was really exciting, but I couldn’t help worrying that maybe we’d made a mistake. I wanted to stay in the lab to see if I could reproduce our findings, but Guy reminded me I needed to pick up Shiny.

I drove to the daycare, using extra caution at the intersections to make up for my distraction. When I walked into the playroom, a sea of tiny faces turned to look up at me. None of them were Shiny’s. I spotted her sitting alone in a dark corner. Her lap blanket had gotten caught in the wheel of her chair and the tip of her bottom fin was exposed. She was wheeling herself out a few inches from the wall and then reversing, repeating the motion again and again like a research animal pacing in a too-small cage. Her face lit up when she saw me and I hurried over to re-swaddle her tail and retrieve her from the shadows. Shiny’s life was not going to be luminous, I realized. Not while she was beached at Little Pomegranates Daycare, maybe not ever. The idea snagged me like a bait hook; it hurt and I couldn’t pull free of it.

For several weeks afterwards, I tried to forget about what I’d seen, but eventually, to set my mind at ease, I decided to perform an experiment. It was a difficult choice because I knew if the trial was successful, there wouldn’t be any other babies for me, merbabies or otherwise. As a scientist, I know that we only get one life. As a mother, I know time swims away from us. These facts made me hesitate in the departures lounge of the airport. Shiny was sitting quietly beside me, scribbling away in an activity book. She was working on one of those pictures that only emerge when the whole page has been shaded over.

“What do you think it’s going to be?” I asked her.

She shrugged. She was only finished one corner.

The airline staff had already called our names twice over the P.A. system. I didn’t look over at them, just kept my eyes on Shiny’s page. Her pencil scratched back and forth. There was a line that looked like a foot now at the bottom, or was it a nose? It could still be anything really. The airline staff called final boarding. A decision had to be made. I grabbed onto Shiny’s wheelchair and pushed her toward the closing doors. The activity book slipped from her fingers as we ran down the long hallway to the plane.

When we arrived in Cancún, we took a taxi to the hotel and checked into our room. There was a towel swan on the bed and Shiny sat beside it, petting its neck as I changed into my swimsuit. Then we went for lunch at the buffet and I let her eat whatever she wanted: ice cream, kiwis, mashed potatoes. We had to wait an hour after our meal before we could go swimming. When the time was up, I lifted Shiny into my arms and began to walk with her across the sand.

“You’re getting so big,” I told her. I pretended to drop her and she squealed. Then I squeezed her close and buried my nose in her hair. She smelled like saltwater taffy and I wanted that moment to stretch out forever, but the sand was too hot underfoot. In no time, we were at the water’s edge, and as soon as my toes were wet, all of my scientific curiosity dissolved, leaving me with nothing but the feeling of holding the child I loved above the waves.

Shiny studied my face, then turned her head and looked out to sea. I didn’t want to tease her, so I began to wade into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean where she’d been conceived. When the waves were up to my chest, I took a deep breath and set her afloat, trying to assume an objective, neutral stance. Unlike at the pool, there were no cement boundaries to contain her. For a few moments, she bobbed there, her strong tail churning just below the surface. She looked happy but unsure. I smiled at her and she reached up and touched my face. Warm salt water dripped from her fingers, down my cheek and into my mouth. Then she was gone. I stood there for a long time, waiting to see if she’d come back. I measured the hours by the progression of the sun. Non-empirically, I can tell you it was the longest day of my life.

I spent the rest of the week at the water’s edge, just in case. There was no way to know if I’d made a mistake, no way to ever repeat the experiment. When it was time to fly home, I buckled into my seat. The words travelling home with me this time were different: microscope, efficacy, progenitor, curative, legacy. As the plane climbed up through the first strands of cumulous clouds, I pressed my forehead to the window, looking down for one last glimpse of the sea below. It was so big, and Shiny could be anywhere beneath its surface. I hoped she wouldn’t be too lonely without me. I hoped I wouldn’t be too lonely without her.