Our heroine, my grandmother, longed for the sea. When she was a young girl growing up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, she watched the water with wild eyes, dreaming of anglerfish, and jellyfish, and sea dragons, and spider crabs, and octopi, and giant squid, and sperm whale, and kelp, and the algae that created the very air she breathed. She thought of how, if she could swim out farther than the limits of her young unmuscled body, she could swim into the sunset and end up in Mexico, or Guatemala; she could find herself washed ashore like a drowned sailor on Copacabana Beach, lost in the fjords of Tierra del Fuego, or even adrift like an iceberg off the shores of Antarctica. My grandmother’s name was Ariel Pescado, and in her youth her deepest longing, the hope that lived in the red flesh canyons of her heart, was to become a fish.
Ariel did everything she could think of to make her dream come true. She wished upon every star in the night sky. She closed her eyes and prayed to God when she blew out the candles of her birthday cake. On lonely nights she lay in bed, the cars outside sounding like gentle ocean waves, and she imagined herself with a new body, armored in silver, or emerald, or the colors of sunset, sleek and strong, with gills carved into her throat, enabling her to breathe underwater. Nothing worked. Hope failed her. One day, as a teenager, Ariel was desperate. She went down to the pier at midnight, to meet the man she thought to be her last, best hope: The Devil.
His eyes were filled with thunderstorms, and his dark cloak fell about him like the shadow of death. His eyes were red burning coals, and his feet wore the golden chains of slaves. The Devil grinned carelessly when Ariel approached him. He remained silent, and waited for her to beg.
“I want it,” Ariel said, falling to her knees. “I want it more than anything. Please.”
“What will you give me in return?”
“I’ll give you…” Ariel stuttered, a list of the things most precious to her running through her mind. “I’ll give you a pearl.”
The Devil produced from nothing a contract and a fountain pen. Ariel signed, the ink her own blood, and the pact was made.
The next day Ariel woke up gasping. She lay in her bed, thrashing about, her muscles firing wildly. She could not breathe. She was a gray snapper, and she was drowning in the air.
Her mother, Priscilla Pescado, opened Ariel’s door to see what all the commotion was about. She frowned and shook her head when she saw the fish. Her only daughter, a teenager, was always doing rebellious, stupid things. She sighed, and grabbed the fish by its tail. “She could have at least killed the poor thing,” she muttered. She went to the tap, filled a bowl, and dropped the snapper in. Ariel shuttered to life. The mad involuntary thrashing ended, and she breathed, for the first time, the free water.
Priscilla dumped her daughter into the Gulf unceremoniously, as one of the many chores she had planned for her day. Ariel swam about in circles, panicked, having no clue as to how she should behave as a fish. Let instinct take over, she thought, and in time she settled down. She did not think that the Devil would make her a simple fish, and in her haste she had not read the contract. She thought she would end up a mermaid, or a dolphin, or a goddess of the sea, but now she saw that the Devil had tricked her. I must find that pearl, she thought, and she swam into the infinite blue, seeking a mollusk and a miracle.
She encountered a lively kelp forest just off the shores of Clearwater, Florida. She found barnacles studded to buoys, and clams on beds of soft sand, but as a gray snapper Ariel discovered that she did not have hands with which to pry open the shells of mollusks. I’m doomed to die a fish, she thought, and then, lying on the sea floor in her darkest moment, Ariel had an inspiration.
She swam about until she found a driftwood twig, and bit it with her weak fish mouth. She carried the stick to the shallow waters near the beach, which was loud with the sound of humans. Ariel knew Clearwater Beach. Her mother had brought her there as a child, and even as a fish she recognized the pier with its red roof, and the blue tents set up on the sand so the people could hide away in the shade. She found a dead sand dollar, and used the sharp twig to scrawl a message into the calcium. After half an hour of scratching, she had managed to write, in big capital letters, the words “HELP I’M A FISH!” She pushed the sand dollar as far into the shallows as she could, then found another sand dollar, and carved another message. “MY NAME IS ARIEL PESCADO,” she wrote on one. On another she scrawled: “CALL 555-456-3895, TELL PRISCILLA HER DAUGHTER IS A FISH.” Ariel ate when she was hungry, mainly crustaceans and smaller fish. She no longer had to drink. When she was tired she found shelter and floated still, dreaming the strange dreams of a fish. She did what was needed to sustain her gray snapper life, and with all the rest of her energy and time she carved messages into shells and sand dollars, dragging them to shore, hoping beyond hope that her message would be discovered, and understood.
Ariel worked like this for three years. In the end no help came. She despaired, and was a depressed fish for a time. Later she managed to accept her new life. She explored the oceans for another three years, meeting with others like her, with salmon and sea bass and carp. Together they spoke the secret language of fish. Mid-way through her new life (she would now live for a maximum of 21 years, and had already passed six), Ariel decided to marry. She found another gray snapper, and they mated. Of the 30,000 eggs my grandmother laid, one grew up to be my mother. And one of the 30,000 eggs my mother laid, one became, well… Me! That’s right, dear reader, I’m a fish! Glurb blurb blub blub!