An original piece of short fiction written by me, loosely based on the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen.
When her scales grew in at age twelve, Mishell took to them with her mother’s razor. They had grown in overnight, appearing on her legs as suddenly as dew to the morning grass. The scales were rough and raised at the edges, appearing in green patches on her shins and knees. As soon as Mishell discovered them that morning after pulling down her flannel pajamas to use the bathroom, she hated them. She traced her fingers along the cluster of four on her knee, the geometric bumps hard and glassy as if they had always been there, like they had always been a permanent fixture on her skin. Her mother had warned her that the scales would begin to grow in soon, but Mishell had ignored her, slamming the door to her bedroom as much as the rickety white wood could slam. Mishell had grown up wanting to believe that she had not also inherited her mother’s second skin. She was wrong.
Other girls in her class had already started shaving their legs, so Mishell didn’t really see the problem with taking her mother’s razor from the dingy medicine cabinet and doing it herself. She’d seen it in plenty of commercials, the women with smooth, skinny legs that were bare from toe to torso, always ending in a bikini or some athletic wear. Mishell knew she needed shaving cream, but her mother didn’t buy it, so she had to use the all-but-dissolved bar of soap on the ledge of the bathtub. She positioned the razor at the bottom of the smallest patch of scales on her right leg. She hesitated, remembering the drawings in her puberty book that showed girls shaving in upward strokes. Then she pressed down, pulled up, and screamed.
The broken skin flooded the bathtub with blooms of blood like red rose petals. But despite the pulsing pain that erupted from her leg, the green scale remained intact, slightly elevated against her raw skin. Mishell cursed loudly, a dreadful word she had heard in the school hallways spilling off her tongue, and regretted it as soon as her mother burst through the doorway.
“Shelly, what happened?!” Nerissa asked. Her tired brown eyes grew wide at the sight of her daughter, bleeding.
“Go away, Mama,” Mishell choked out without looking at her. She wasn’t so much in pain as she was in shock, the sting soothed as she stuck her bleeding leg under the faucet as if to wash away the constant blood. The tub turned pink with it.
Nerissa sat on the toilet and put a hand on Mishell’s back.
“You got your scales,” Nerissa said with her honey-warm voice warm, trying to coax a smile out of her daughter. Mishell clenched her eyes shut and stuck her head into her knees.
“I said, go away!” The muffled plea plucked at a chord in Nerissa’s heart, and it was as though she folded in on herself, pulling her hand away from her daughter’s back as if burned.
“Okay,” she said quietly. She took a long, lingering look at her daughter before walking towards the doorway. “You don’t have to go to school today, if you don’t want to.” She shut the door behind her.
The blood began to slow its drain from the clipped edge of the scale, the raw meat of her skin peeking out from underneath. Under the running water Mishell thought the scales looked almost pretty, but she tried to ignore the thought. The bottom of the tub was filled with scarlet flowers, a garden of Mishell’s pain. Hot tears bubbled up in the corners of her dark blue eyes.
From her own bedroom, Nerissa winced as she heard her daughter slam her own bedroom door shut.
Everyone was going to see her legs and think she was a freak. Mishell didn’t care how many times her mother said they were “beautiful” or “a gift,” because she knew she didn’t understand. Her mother grew up near the sea. She lived across from the beach and wore swimsuits even in the winter, and she had a dozen faded pictures of her and her friends, and they all had scales, just like her mother. And Mishell knew that these girls did not exist in their town, miles away from even the scent of salt water carried in by a migrating bird, because she had seen them. She had seen their naked legs on the swim team and in the locker room, and not even some of the girls who had gone to school somewhere else and before coming here (like Mishell) had a hint of anything resembling the hideous, awful scales Mishell and her family were cursed with.
The next day at school, Mishell went to her swim coach to quit. The coach – a kind, middle-aged teacher who always had her hair slicked back in a tight ponytail – refused.
“You’re too good to quit,” she said, “and we haven’t even started competition season.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.” Mishell kept her eyes to the ground. She focused on the slight rip in the hem of her jeans, and worried if it could expose her leg at all.
Her coach crouched down, close enough that Mishell could smell the gum in her mouth.
“If this is about a woman problem, a couple of the girls have to deal with that, too,” she said. “It’s not anything to quit over.”
Mishell shook her head.
“I just want to focus on art instead of swimming,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. The final lunch bell rang and Mishell retreated before she could be interrogated again.
And it wasn’t a lie, not really.
She had gotten good marks in art class from her teacher, Ms. O’Brien, who perpetually wore a paint-splattered smock even outside of class. Ms. O’Brien was a notoriously hard grader, but since it was art most of the other students scoffed at the high grades Mishell or others might get. When the chance to sign up for more art electives came the next semester, Mishell took it. She felt welcome at the high-top table with charcoal on her hands as she sketched a still life of something easy like fruit. She felt reassured watching Ms. O’Brien watching the students from the corner of her eye as she drew in a sketchbook, like they were working together on something secret and separate from everyone else. At the end of class she could wash away the black tracks on her palms and scrub out the bits that had gotten under her fingernails. She left class feeling clean, knowing that even when she got her hands dirty, her work was a step above the rest.
When Mishell graduated from junior high the following year, Ms. O’Brien came up to Mishell and her mother, and said Mishell showed real promise.
“And I don’t say that lightly,” Ms. O’Brien said in her deep, scratchy voice. Mishell blushed; she didn’t know how to respond.
“Thank you,” she said. Ms. O’Brien smiled and put a hand on Mishell’s cheek. Her hand was rough and chalky, like she had just come from the pottery studio.
“Any time, my dear.”
As Mishell and her mother left school for summer break, her blue graduation cap sitting in her lap, Mishell thought how beautiful Ms. O’Brien was up close. She was old and sometimes mean, but when she had smiled at her, it was like all the lines on Ms. O’Brien’s face had a story to tell, and Mishell wanted to listen to each and every one.
In high school, Mishell comfortably slid into the clique of art freaks, a term her and her friends came to revere amongst sneers from do-gooder band kids and prim and polished cheerleaders. She could handle the quips thrown her way at the courtyard during lunch, where her friends sat in the grass rather than a picnic table like the rest of the school, because they were being hurled at everyone, not just her. When they muttered “art freaks” as they walked by, Mishell drawing a fake tattoo with a ballpoint pen on the forearm of her friend, it was just noise. Mishell didn’t care what they said; none of them had seen her legs, not even her friends. By now the scales had formed a shiny emerald exoskeleton from her ankles to her thighs, but Mishell knew how to cover them – with thick tights in different colors, boots to hide her ankles from pants that were a smidge too short, long, flowy skirts that dragged across the floor.
When Nerissa asked her daughter why she only wore floor-length pieces, Mishell rolled her eyes.
“It’s just my style, Mama,” she said, adjusting her tightly-wound curls around her face to sit just right. “It’s called eclectic.”
The only exception to Mishell’s freedom in high school was gym.
She had avoided it until her last semester of high school, trying to get a doctor’s note to dismiss her like she had in junior high. But the school – specifically, the grumpy, beer-bellied gym teacher, Coach Grey – wouldn’t buy it. Mishell begrudgingly complied and worked out a system of changing before and after class. She would wear her gym clothes to school, since it was first period, and change in one of the shower stalls with the water running so nobody would disturb her.
It was nearing the end of the semester, Mishell had received a scholarship for a private art school, and she only had a few weeks left of dreaded gym class. Even in gym she felt good – despite her legs, too long and gangly and useless for team sports – she was happy the end was almost near, and she would graduate almost unscathed.
Almost, but not quite.
For the first few weeks of class, Mishell had anticipated the flimsy yellow curtain separating her and the rest of the girls in the locker room getting pulled and unleashing her embarrassment to the world. But she didn’t anticipate it on a random Tuesday during the last month of school, pulling her shirt over her head with only her underwear on, with Coach Grey and an audience of already dressed girls staring, giggling, and whispering.
“You can’t use the shower stalls if you aren’t going to shower,” Coach Grey spat at her. He made a fake attempt to close the curtain as he walked away. The cacophony of laughter and voices that followed wrapped around Mishell like an eel, suffocating her and gnawing at her flesh until the noise stopped and Mishell was just a pile of tears on the dirty and cold tile floor.
It was the first and last time Mishell allowed herself to sob into her mother’s arms since her scales grew in. Her mother had been a constant reminder of it, a facet of her life she wanted to avoid, as though she could avoid her own family as much as her own body. Nerissa stroked her daughter’s hair, and for that night Mishell let her sing to her the songs of the sea that her grandmother had once sang, and for a moment acceptance flowed over her like a wave.
When she walked at graduation, she knew the hundreds of eyes staring up at her were just spectators in a crowd, but Mishell couldn’t help but to keep one hand firmly pressed against her gown to avoid any breeze. She sat down with her diploma and saw Coach Grey looking at her from where he sat in his regalia robes near the stage. The warmth drained from her face and she pulled the gown down around her feet.
Mishell had never seen a naked man before drawing class in college. Sure, she had seen diagrams in textbooks and had creeped behind the couch to see the risqué movies her mother insisted were too adult for her at the time, but seeing an actual, completely naked man mere steps away from her was new.
The only way Mishell could think to describe him was beautiful.
She had heard rumors that naughty boys from the junior college volunteered to be nude models for art class, but Mishell couldn’t see this man being the type. His skin was smooth and white like marble, his handsome face framed by golden-blonde hair. He sat poised on his stool as still as a statue, and Mishell thought it was okay to stare so long as it was for her art.
His name was Phillip, she discovered after class. When he put his robe on as Mishell and the other students were packing up their supplies, Mishell looked up from her bag to find him standing by her easel, looking at her sketch.
“How did I do?” he asked, his voice dusky and low from having not spoken for several hours.
“How did you do what?” Mishell asked. Her cheeks flushed as he looked at her drawing of him, as though he was intruding on some inner thought she would never say out loud.
“I’ve never modeled before,” he said. “Well, never modeled naked and had to sit still for three hours straight.”
“I think you did fine,” Mishell offered. She hesitated, then said, “You’re the first naked model I’ve ever drawn, so I’m not the best to ask.”
“Nonsense! From the looks of this drawing, I’d say you’d drawn thousands of naked men before.” He smiled with his entire face, the corners of his mouth reaching the amber of his eyes. “I don’t believe you when you tell me you’re an amateur, Miss…?”
“Mishell,” she said as he reached for her name. She pulled it out as though from the folds of her heart, tucked away until someone had asked for it out of pure curiosity.
Phillip was the first man Mishell has ever seen naked. He was also the first man to kiss her on the mouth, to tell her he loved her, to take her into his arms as though their world began and ended in that small space between them. He became her muse and she became his home, her open arms waiting for him after he came back from rounds. He was going to become a doctor and help the less fortunate, he told her. He’d help babies born with curled lips and people with burns on their faces, so he could make everyone feel more beautiful.
Mishell had seen Phillip naked only that once in art class. She avoided anything too intimate, to which Phillip understood.
When he graduated in the spring, a full-fledged plastic surgeon, he came home to Mishell naked on his bed, her green-encased legs hanging still in front of her.
“Can you make me more beautiful, too?” she asked, trying in spite of herself to not cover her breasts or her legs. Phillip’s eyes narrowed and darkened, as though he had found the one thing he had been searching for.
The operation couldn’t happen for several months, Phillip said, maybe even a year. He had to grow skin to place on the raw flesh, and since he had her whole legs to cover, it would take longer than usual. At night after they made love he would count the scales one by one, admiring each like they were actual gems he could pick off and put into a necklace or a ring.
“It’ll all be over soon,” he said sweetly, one hand on her jeweled thigh and another on her cheek to plant a kiss on her lips.
When the big day arrived, Mishell was beaming with excitement. Phillip and the other surgeons had warned her of the complications, but she didn’t care – any outcome was better than her current situation. As she waited in her hospital gown, Phillip drawing lines in black marker to indicate incision points, she tried to imagine her bare legs, tan and smooth like the rest of her body, just as when she was a child, before her scales had ruined her like weeds. As the anesthesia began to trickle in, Mishell pictured her and Phillip on the beach, two normal-legged humans in love like everyone else.
Mishell awoke in a haze of morphine. Her sight was clouded like a pool of water, the voices she could make out like ripples.
“The surgery was a success,” she heard Phillip say, his voice like syrup, slow but sweet. “They look beautiful. Perfect.”
Mishell allowed the cloud to evaporate from her drugged state. Phillip had other patients to tend to, but told her he’d be back right away. Mishell couldn’t wait – she lifted the thin, scratchy blanket to reveal her legs, wrapped like a sprain from her feet all the way up through her gown. She sat up, grimacing at the slight sting in her leg as she pulled it up to her chest, and began unwrapping from her right foot.
If the heart monitor taped to her chest wasn’t beeping rapidly, Mishell would’ve thought her heart had stopped.
Her skin was stitched together with thousands of tiny wires, the blood in between the seams of skin scabbing up in some places and gelatinous in others. The wires poked out like tiny hooks, and just touching one of them sent a shooting pain up Mishell’s leg. The patches of skin were geometric in some places and circular in others, like the amorphous oval stitched around her knee. It was hideous, patchwork that wouldn’t even be fit for a rag doll or a circus freak. It wasn’t until someone came into the hospital room that she realized her gown was soaked in tears.
“Go away!” she screamed, and in her haste to identify the intruder she spotted a jar on the table beside her bed. Inside were her individual scales, bloody, with flesh still hanging off some of them. Her cries turned into wails as her heart broke for each and every one of them. The door opened again.
“Mishell, sweetie, what’s wrong?”
The voice belonged to Phillip, but when Mishell looked up through her tear-stained red eyelids, she was on the floor of the locker room and Coach Grey was looking down at her in disgust, a burning look in his puffy eyes.
Her voice left her; there was nothing else she could say that didn’t take the form of tears. Before long there were more voices, more haze, and soon she woke up, alone.
Mishell reached for the phone and punched in a number she hadn’t dialed in years.
“Mama,” she said into the line at the sound of her mother’s greeting, “can you sing me that song that Nana taught you?”
And her mother sang her the song of the sea, and it washed over Mishell like a wave, and she longed to be back in her mother’s arms with her hands cradling her hair, but she could only let the song spill over her as she dissolved into foam.