It was nothing at all to be endured at first, a faint buzz of something quite unremarkable—neither excitement nor apprehension. It traveled with her to school, read her lessons with her, ate lunch, returned home. Not so much a physical burden like a headache or broken nose as an awareness, a mild discomfort like forgetting something to the extent of not knowing if it is a thing of importance that has been neglected or merely some trifle mislaid. Occasionally the faint humming that existed not uneasily in her head along with a multitude of other things would grow until it occupied all of her conscious thought. This occurred so gradually and gently that by the time she could hear nothing but the remote, cavernous howl as from a great seashell, she was hardly aware that her mind might have been otherwise engaged. In this way she did not feel she had submitted to its claim but knew only that she slipped into this enormous, grave sound. It was, she thought, a little like sleep. She lived with it with unquestioning acceptance and would no more have thought to mention it to another than she would her as yet undimmed sight. Given this placid arrangement it is hard to say exactly how she knew that the benign hum had any relation to what was to follow.
It was a Tuesday the first time she drowned and a deceased fish pressed into the service of science was responsible. The biology lab was always hot in the afternoons and the formaldehyde in which her specimen tilapia was floating increased the torpidity. She was absently poking the dead fish with a pointy instrument when her ribs tightened inside of her. She inhaled deeply, trying to get her lungs to push the ribs back to their normal position. She put her hand to her chest as the first wave of blackness crashed and swept the wooden stool from under her. She tried to get up but the darkness, with a loud approaching roar held her down, pulled her lower, drawing her deeper and deeper into it. Was she screaming? It was impossible to hear anything above the roar. She was cold and wet. I have drowned, she thought, and wondered at this extraordinary event in the middle of a second floor classroom and at the unexpected cunning shown by the dead fish in bringing about her demise in this way.
After that she thought of the hum no more as a hum but the indistinct murmur of the sea. She told no one how the fish had tried to kill her but allowed them to believe that she had fainted. Such a sensitive child; if anyone was likely to take up fainting it would be she. Nor was she in the least surprised that there was no evidence of the attempt on her life. The next day the lab was as always: the floorboards dry, the shelves and counters crammed with jars, bottles and boxes of indeterminate repulsive content. The murderous fish was gone.
Mother was the first to notice that her skin was drying out. The heat, she said, the never-ending dry season. Some moisturizer would set it right. When that failed the dermatologist recommended something that smelled like hospital linens. Her allergies, he said, her atrocious diet. She applied all remedies with the resignation of one who knows her doom but humors her caregivers. In the early stages her skin seemed to be shrinking, an insistent tingling accompanied the sensation that her skin no longer fit. Her constant squirming was not restlessness but vain attempts to re-adjust herself within her newly adversarial skin. Later, the skin that had seemed unbearably taut slackened and lost elasticity. A network of lines appeared. Like a net, said Mother. No, she said, like scales.
It is inconvenient to find yourself turning into a fish against your will even if you have no more pressing agenda than to continue life as a normal schoolgirl and others might think you lucky for the diversion. More irksome yet are the various courses still to be navigated within the pretense of normal behavior. She went to school but could not hear the teachers calling on her because of the sea’s incessant din. For the same reason her classmates’ friendly solicitations were greeted with startled shouts. She spent many hours in detention and developed a reputation for surliness. At home she monopolized the tub, locking the bathroom door and losing track of time as she watched her hands race each other. Doctors confirmed that her hearing was sound and that an obsession with hygiene and secrecy was common in growing girls. And she was in most respects just like any of the other girls in her acquaintance, except they were growing according to a predictable trajectory and she into a fish. She did not question the certainty of this knowledge which none seemed to share but the family cat who regarded her with mingled suspicion and knowing.
The second serious drowning incident (there had been minor ones in the supermarket parking lot and at an aunt’s Christmas party) happened again at school. Math, second period, no aquatic life in attendance. She felt the oncoming darkness, felt its inevitability. She tried to force her limbs to relax. The sea is kind to those who do not fight it, she remembered hearing, she might simply wash up on some remote shore. But with the first crash she was flailing, struggling to breathe, gulping in the dark air when she could break the surface and choking on the cold, salty water when she couldn’t. The pain in her chest was unbearable. The ribs, tightening and tightening like ill-advised sails in a storm, would surely snap. The turbulence made her nauseous. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. She had been bundled off to the nurse’s room. How long had she been there? Here was Mother come to take her home. She tried to speak, driven, finally, by terror to confess the transformation that was underway, but the slurring, heavy-tongued voice that emerged was not hers and Matron patted her arm and told Mother to keep her quiet for a few days. At home, she lay in her bed, her body rocking gently, still feeling the sway of the tide in her veins.
The sheets were warm and gritty, the bed too solid and angular. Even with the curtains drawn the light was a constant agony. Her body began to twitch involuntarily. At least, the trembling, spasmodic behavior was not by her leave. She had come to think of her body as governed by some impulse beyond her control, like the severed tail of a lizard. The incessant movement of her disconnected set of body parts exhausted her but would not let her rest. Her skin, already parched, had become painful. The pressure seemed to come from under the surface, a stretching from within that threatened to rend the brittle surface in hundreds of places all at once. In this unbearable state of desiccation she came to realize that while drowning was hardly enjoyable it was a release. The dark waves bearing down on her gave her body the perfect suppleness that the human frame is only likely to experience in the water. She might writhe and toss and squirm and struggle before being entirely overcome. Underwater she could scream as air alone did not permit—a scream uninhibited by solid objects or frightened faces, a scream that seemed to defy the capacity of her own small body. And when she was completely overcome, a deep velvety sleep fell over her and she would wonder, in those blissful seconds between sleep and wake, why she had fought, what, in fact, she had been fighting. One morning, Mother found her asleep in the bathtub, the water just high enough to keep her blanket and pillow soaked. How peaceful she looked, her breathing calm and regular. She was dreaming. Not of crashing darkness or of a roiling sea but of cool, clear water. It was bright. The light broke through the surface in fine, elegant streaks. She was listening with a hush as for the start of some well-known music the love of which is increased rather than faded by familiarity. But it was not for such a sound that she was waiting, rather it was the anticipation of a great surprise that stilled her and gave a small, hungry smile to her sleeping face. She was sitting in a circle on the soft ocean floor looking up. She pressed the hand of the person beside her. Who was it? She could not see the face for the light coming from above. If the darkness roars, she said as she held the hand to her face, what sound does light make?
—Anu Lakhan lives and works in Trinidad and Tobago where she writes a food column for Caribbean Beat. Her book reviews, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in the Caribbean Review of Books, Calabash, The Jamaica Observer, and The Trinidad and Tobago Review. She will act as editor for Macmillan Caribbean’s series on street food in the Caribbean and has written the Trinidad and Tobago edition. She is currently completing a short story collection.