My mom is sick. Again. She gets sick a lot. Dad says it’s because she has a delicate constitution. Con—sti—tu—tion. It’s a strange word. What does it mean? I’d ask Dad, but he never answers my questions.
When she gets sick like this, Dad gets mad. He tells me to stay away from her. Why? Is he afraid she’ll make me sick too? If she did, would he keep me locked up in my room too?
I have lots of questions and Dad has all the answers. I want them, but he won’t give them to me. I guess I’ll have to steal them.
“Cassiopia, I need to go to a meeting. Stay in your room. Be good.” He pats me on my head. It isn’t a loving pat. It feels like someone’s forcing him to touch me. It’s just a quick one touch pat and he’s running away.
So, here I am. All alone in our big two story house. The grandfather clock tsks me non-stop. I don’t know why grandfather doesn’t like me. Always tsking me like that when I haven’t done anything wrong. Maybe he knows what I want to do.
I walk up the staircase. It’s big and long and it takes me a really long time to reach the top. Dad can go up the stairs so fast and easy. Maybe it’s because his legs are longer than mine.
There was this one time he ran down the stairs like he was scared. His face was all wide-eyed and white. I asked him about it later, but he told me that I was seeing things.
I know what I saw. I saw my Dad and he was scared.
Dad has all of the answers. That is true. I stop walking. But Mom knows things too. I get back to climbing the mountain. It’s hard. My legs want to give up on me. But I won’t give up.
I reach the top and walk to my mom’s room. I touch the curved doorknob, but I don’t turn it. I haven’t seen my mom in a long time. What if she’s dead? Well. That’s silly. Why would Dad keep her dead body in her room?
I open the door and peek inside. It’s too dark in there. I think I have the wrong room.
“Cassiopia.” It’s Mom’s voice. “Come here, my darling.”
Why does Mom sound all wrong? Have I forgotten the sound of her voice?
“It’s all right. Come in. I won’t hurt you.”
I look back out in the hall. I’m kinda hoping to see Dad charging to me, but the hall is empty. I can hear grandfather tsking me non-stop.
Her voice still sounds wrong. “Are you my mom?”
“Yes. And I am a prisoner.”
I enter the room and close the door. It’s all dark inside, but it doesn’t bother me. It makes me think of something and that something makes me feel happy. I walk through the darkness over to mom and sit at her feet.
“My dear Cassiopia.” Her voice fills me with longing. I want to hug her, but I stay on the floor. I don’t know why. “Let me tell you a story.”
“Is it a good story?”
“It is a true story. Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived under the sea. She swam with dolphins and sang with sea turtles, but she wasn’t happy. Her heart yearned for something, but she had no name for her yearning. She searched the seven seas, but she did not find it. She dove to the depths and asked the wise sea urchin to name what she longed for. The wise sea urchin did not name it. She pointed upwards, as far upwards as she could point. The girl swam up through the murky depths into the filtering zone into the radiant blue. She did not stop. She continued to swim upwards until her head broke through the water’s surface. There was no water up there for her to breathe. Her gills clenched shut on her.”
Mom stops talking.
“Did she die?”
“She almost died. A human rescued her by removing her skin and transforming her. She could breathe air. She could walk freely. She forgot the sea. She found happiness with the man. She found love. She found what she yearned for all of those years.”
“Is that the end?”
“No, Cassiopia. It is the middle. The end is yet to come. For many years, she was happy. Then, she found her skin. Oh, she would have put it on and run away. But it wasn’t her skin anymore. No. Her husband was clever and cruel. He took her skin and changed it so she could never wear it again. Now, she remembers the sea. Her dreams are full of dolphins and deep water fish. In her dreams, she doesn’t walk. She swims. Oh, how she swims.”
She stops talking again. I can’t see her in the dark. I wonder what she’s thinking..
“There are nights and there are days when the sea calls to her. Its voice is water and crashing waves and crying gulls. Those days and nights she must stay locked up in her room. For if she leaves, she will run to the water as surely as the sea pulls from the shore. She tried to escape once. Her husband ran after her and stopped her. He brought her back here.”
I can hear the secret truth hidden in her words. And all of my questions are answered. “Where did he hide your skin?”
She spreads her hands on top of my head. Her touch is like a loud alarm clock, waking up the truth inside me. I know the answer to my question and I agree with Mom. Dad is horrible and sick and cruel. If he were here right now, I’d tell him all that and more than that to his face. But I don’t think he’d listen to me. It makes me hurt inside, but I wonder if he even sees me as his kid. It hurts even more to wonder if he sees me as a real human being. “What are you going to do?”
“I am going to leave.” She grabs my wrists and pulls me up to my feet. “And you will help me.” She leads me over to the door. “Open it.”
My heart is beating too fast. Dad isn’t home. No one else is here to burst into the room and stop us. This is my decision. My choice.
“Take me back to the sea. It is where we both belong.”
And, in the dark, I hear it. The shushed roar of water. The sea. Calling me home.
I open the door and we leave.
I get into my Civic Accord, close the doors, and close my eyes. The meeting had been nothing but unending jargon and blather and boredom. I just want to go home.
But going home means that I must face all of my lies and wrongdoing. Nothing new there. I’ve had to face them every day for the past several years.
Joyous moments flash through my mind. Her smile. Her laugh. How she loved me. But then she found her transformed skin. She touched Cassiopia for the first time. There are still days of joy and peace and love, but then the sea calls her. And I must imprison her.
I’m so sick of it. I want all of her days to be joy and peace and love. But I don’t think that’s possible.
I want her. But I think I have to let her go.
I look at her and see only what I took from Callista. I touch her and see Callista’s true form. She wants me to pay attention to her, to love her, to answer her endless silly child questions. But I can’t. Her existence is pain to me. She is my unfixable mistake.
Because of her, I can’t release Callista.
And I don’t know what to do.
I open my eyes, start the car, and go home.
Cassiopia will greet me at the door as she always does. And I will avoid touching her as I always do. I will go upstairs and talk to my wife. As if talking can break the sea’s hold on her heart. But I always try. I always hope.
I open the front door. Silence greets me. It is the silence of darkness and shadows. It is the silence of an empty house.
Maybe they’re asleep.
I walk upstairs to Cassiopia’s room and open the door. Her blanket lies flat on the bed. She isn’t there.
I try to squash my rising panic with rational thoughts. She’s in the kitchen. She’s in the bathroom. She’s in the basement. I walk towards my wife’s room, rationalizing the whole way over. I stop outside her doorway.
The door is already opened. She is gone.
And I know where they’ve gone.
I race out of my house and down to the beach. The soft sand sifts past my shoelaces.
I scan the entire beach as I run towards the water. I don’t see them. I don’t see them! “Callista! Cassiopia!” My throat tightens up, but I keep calling their names.
I run into the water in my suit and dress shoes. “Callista! Cassiopia! Where are you?”
The water is up to my knees. “Callista! Cassiopia!”
I stop running as a wet furred head rises out of the water five feet in front of me. “Callista?”
It looks at me with liquid brown eyes.
“Cassiopia?” I start to slosh towards it, but it dives under the water. And it is gone.