I began to grow my gills one week after my first menstruation, right on time.
My father was horrified, but my mother flexed her own gills nestled behind her curtain of curls so like my own, and he went as silent as the nighttime sea.
“Par for the course,” she told him, not bothering to hide it from me like she never bothered to hide anything from me. “This is a child of mine. You knew that when you stepped into my fjord. When you bathed in my song long ago. You’ve always known.”
My father mumbled something unintelligible into his beard and headed into his workshop to bang his tools around loudly enough for my heart to twist inside my chest.
Years later, I wondered if their divorce somehow began in that moment, with me growing into my mother, but I never thought too much about it.
Not until I had a daughter of my own.
“Am I a fish?” My daughter’s red-rimmed eyes stared up at me, and her words were muddled with how badly she was chewing her lip. “I don’t want to be a fish.”
I crouched down in front of her where she sat on the edge of the bathtub, kicking her sock-clad feet at my knees. I grabbed one of her ankles and held fast even as her eyes skittered away from mine. “Have you ever thought I was a fish?”
Her startled eyes snapped back to me. “No.”
I smiled. “Then why do you think you’re a fish?”
It took a couple of seconds, enough for the whirring ventilation fan to grow bold and abrasive above us, but then Rory’s teeth peeked out from behind her lips in a hesitant smile.
I clung onto my memory of that smile, months later, when she nearly drowned a hiker in the fjord. I was folding laundry when I heard her song in my bones. Not her normal song, but the song that she and I shared, written on the inside of our skin, marked in blood.
I ran out of the house without second thought, my own song blooming hotly inside my throat, compelled by my daughter’s. I made it to the fjord just in time, heaving Rory’s casualty out of the water while she herself stood on the edge of the pebbled-strewn fjord, song still trilling from her gills.
The song only stopped once I had the hiker’s unconscious head in my lap. This was the moment when reality descended on my daughter. I saw it on her face, creasing every fold and slant. I felt it too, cleaving my own chest apart, because I remembered my own first time all too well. It hadn’t ended like this.
“I was just singing,” she hiccupped minutes later, her gills fluttering erratically inches away from my face where I held her close. “And he—he—”
“You mustn’t sing.” I stroked her hot cheek. “Not near the water.”
Rory floundered, her eyes going in and out of focus in a way that pinched my midriff tight. “Then why do we live here?” Her voice softened with confusion. “With all this water?”
“Because we need it.” I paused, unsure how much of the truth I should unload on her. My own mother had always unloaded it all, but I wasn’t my mother. I was Rory’s mother. In the end, however, I said what my own mother had said to me: “Because it makes us happy.”
Rory fell back from me, shaking her head slowly. She was no longer looking at my face, but at the face of the unconscious hiker. “It only makes us happy if we can sing.”
The words escaped her mouth like underwater seagrass undulating to the currents of the fjord. Each syllable carried a levity that didn’t belong to my sweet daughter, but to the age-old song in her bones, tethered to the song in my bones, to the song in my mother’s bones, to the song in her mother’s bones. The bones of all mothers.
“This is it. We should move to the city,” Harald said later that evening, once we had gone to bed, his hunched profile haloed by the bedside lamp. “She almost drowned a man.”
I steadied my voice before speaking. “But she didn’t.”
“If she wants to sing somewhere, anywhere, then the city is—”
“We live and die by water. This water. Our water.” I heard the seagrass in my own voice, the same as Rory’s earlier that day. “It’s not a choice for us to make, Harald. You were there for my mother’s death. You saw the water bury her true form. This is how it is.”
The water was the important part. Not the song. We just needed the water. We could do without the song. It was possible. I had done without the song ever since my mother died.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Harald sighed and smiled sheepishly. “Yes, you’re right. Of course. You always are. I should just listen to you from the start, shouldn’t I?”
My heart swelled too large for my chest, pressing against my ribs, thankful I had found someone worthy of my love, unlike my own father who had turned tail before my gills were even fully grown.
Harald had his own limits, however, and this became apparent two years later. Unlike my father’s limits, though, I could understand my husband’s. After all, it wasn’t every day that your daughter tried to drown you in your backyard.
He didn’t make it into the water, thankfully, but the damage was done.
I had one hand wrapped in his shirt when Rory’s song stopped. As if I could’ve held him back from wading straight into that water. Ahead of us, through the pines, the fjord gleamed beneath the sun. Rory was a dark pinprick, waist-deep in the water.
I felt that water around my own waist, my skin shivering with the remnants of Rory’s song so hard that I feared my teeth would chatter and splinter. Her maturation had opened up its own can of worms for me, unspooling lies that I had told myself throughout the years.
This time, Harald didn’t wait until we’d gone to bed where Rory couldn’t hear us.
“Please don’t defend this.” His voice shook. “You can’t defend this.”
I crossed my arms, feeling cold on the outside, but so very hot on the inside, my bones buzzing with muted song. Rory’s. Mine. I could no longer tell.
“I was the same,” I argued. “I had to learn, too.”
Harald sliced the air apart with one rough hand that nearly grazed my nose. “But your father wasn’t around to be at risk, was he?”
I thought I felt one of my buzzing bones crack, song spilling out from the fissure and entering my bloodstream. Hot, hot, hot. I flexed my gills to lay flat against my neck in a last desperate attempt to keep the song inside. “That’s a low blow.”
Harald’s eyes flashed. Expelling a loud breath, he burst, “And you don’t think I’ve been given any low blows? You don’t think I’ve been given the short end of the stick?”
My father’s face flashed in my memory, blank-eyed and flat-toned, and there was a shift beneath my feet, as if the ground itself moved with me. Around me. For me.
Uncrossing my arms, I leveled Harald with a look that made him stand up straighter. He didn’t fall back from me, not quite, but I wouldn’t have cared right then if he did. “Don’t you call our daughter the short end of a stick. Don’t you dare be as ugly as that.”
His hands clenched and unclenched by his sides. Then he raised his chin at me, fool of a man who didn’t fear the song of a nøkke because he’d shared her bed. “She cannot be my daughter. You have to understand this. She just tried to drown me. How can you not—”
“I don’t have to understand anything you say.”
Harald threw his arms wide, puffing up his chest, but no puny accumulation of soft flesh and brittle bone could withstand my song. “You only want to stay here so you can feel powerful. Not because it makes either of you happy. You only care about this water because it gives you power. You only care about power.”
My father’s face flashed on top of Harald’s, flickering back and forth until I felt dizzy with it. Dizzy with the song that clamored to escape my body, scratching angry, hot lines inside of my ribcage, up my throat, behind my eyes.
“And what’s so wrong about that?” My words made him flinch. Or maybe it was my voice, gurgling with the song that was desperate to escape me. “Happiness is power.”
“But that’s not the power I’m talking about.” He worked his jaw, hesitating, holding back words. “Your father did the right thing. Leaving before things ever got this far. He did the right thing for everyone involved. You know that, too, don’t you?”
I bared my teeth. I no longer had any words. I had only my song, buzzing along my teeth, numbing my tongue, rustling my gills. And it was hard enough to hold that inside, all on its own, so I let my silence speak the volumes I felt.
Harald turned his back on me, walking away.
I locked my knees to stay put. To not lunge.
“Mom?” Rory’s hand slid into mine. “I just don’t want him to kill me first.”
All my song died, replaced by shock so potent that I could taste it on the back of my tongue. Sticky-sweet. Like honeyed bile. “Dad would never do that, bug.”
Her hand clenched around mine. “So why won’t he look at me anymore?” Remnants of her song still clung to her vowels. “He didn’t even wish me happy birthday yesterday.”
The bile in my throat churned, honey turning bitter. “Let’s go home.”
It was later that night, while I lay in bed with Harald turned on his side, facing away from me, that I suddenly remembered what my own father had grumbled into his beard that morning when my gills had popped open for the first time.
But I picked you, he’d told my mother. I never picked her.
Harald shifted beside me, murmuring in his sleep. I almost didn’t hear him. My father’s words cackled too loudly inside my head. It was that same cackle that pushed me out of bed, out of the house, and down the pine-towered path to the pebbled fjord.
I stopped right before the water, my bare toes halfway submerged.
A snicker rolled across the fjord, like skipping stones; it was my own.
Taking a deep breath, I envisioned my bones cracking, one by one, as my song escaped the fissures, pouring out of my gills, until I could no longer hear my father’s cackle. Until I could no longer see his face layered on top of Harald’s. My father had never picked me. Harald had never picked Rory. Or he had unpicked her. It didn’t matter. Because I would pick someone now and there was no doubt in my mind who I wanted that person to be. He couldn’t even look at her anymore.
I strode forward, into the water, and only drew to a halt once water was up to my waist. My gills were so open I could taste the nighttime air.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Turning around in the water, dragging the fluttery tips of my fingers through the velvety, inky blackness that welcomed me home, I faced the path through the pines. Soon enough, a shape approached, stepping into the moonlight. It was Harald.
Catch a bastard by the toe.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
© 2023 A. R. Frederiksen