En caul babies are as rare as giant squid and underwater cairns. En caul means born inside the amniotic sac; a mermaid birth. En caul babies are the luckiest humans on earth.
When you’re old enough to read, you find such facts in books.
You repeat these facts as a mantra, the forced breath tickling your skin, forming a protective bubble around you each time your mother’s shifting moods wrap your ears in darkness.
With this word you pinch yourself clean.
Your mother doesn’t believe in luck.
When you were born, early in the bath, she refused to hold you. One look at your membranous face, your slick features exaggerated in the blood-skin bubble of jelly water, and your mother pronounced you defective, deformed. A black-lagoonal creature. A blue-gilled monster.
She says she didn’t feed you for five long days, not until your howling pierced the milk from her breasts with the weight of a steel anchor. For months she had wished you away with scalding water, gin, and emmenagoguial herbs. But you were stubborn.
On the blackest nights, your mother recounts your flailing limbs, purpling against the white porcelain bath, the pinking water. Her terror. On those nights, she still wishes you were never born.
Lucky, you say. Lucky.
Every winter, Mother takes you to the sea where shrilling gulls dip under seal-gray clouds along the shoreline. She waves you away from the dancing foam, the slick algal stones, the deep drop. She flicks cigarette ash windward and her warning mingles with the slow exhale of smoke. “Don’t fall to your death. Not today. I have other plans.”
You hear what you want to hear. You hear, Don’t die. You hear love prickling at the edges. The salt spray scatters upwards, soaking your face, leaching through your light blue dress and the loose tips of your thistled hair.
When you are ten, the tenuous line between mother and daughter softens and swells. Your mother is in love.
Lightness plays at the sides of her face the way sunlight glances off the sea. These flashes of hope sustain you, like an umbilical tether. You let yourself dream of a father, a picture-book pink house with wide-windowed eyes, and the three of you stretching hand in hand under a sun-smiled sky. You try to tie yourself to this image, but the winter storms wash it free.
Your mother makes more attempts at love. At men.
Now you are thirteen, a miniature adornment of her with newly perked breasts and angled hips. Lucky. Lucky to be so like her.
But at your shifting shape, your mother comes untethered. The darkness takes her in waves, and you’re sure you must be at sea, the ground below ever-moving.
She far corners you, pushes you away—but without a mother, every girl is an island. So you suction yourself. Grip on. Grip to hope. Weave plaits of seaweed and starfish into your hair, try to be more beautiful. When that doesn’t work, you make yourself ugly—fish bladder eyes, sand-pocked skin—so she won’t see you as competition. So she’ll bat her eyes with pity, reel you in again, really look at you this time, consider where you might fit in, consider you.
When the gloam washes the sky red-gold, you walk to the sea. You want her to notice that you’ve gone. To catch you at the black-slipped rocks and say, Not today.
Gulls shroud the air.
You dip your toes sandward, searching over your shoulder for her familiar form, her swinging gait. You imagine her running, calling out. But the path behind you smooths into shadow. She’s not coming.
The truth thunders through you, muddies your mind like an algal bloom. You think of the men, gone, all gone. Her wailing pitch loosening the hinges, chasing after them. You’ll show her. You’ll hide. Worry her. Bury yourself under the sand. Crash yourself under the waves, wait for her to come. To seek, to find. For your absence to weight her heart, to grow new strings.
The icy water licks at your legs, your chest, but you wade further. Sinking into the deep, under the rising bottle-green light, you clam yourself in until your steam dissipates. Your frothed bubbles become prayers. Promises. Tessellated signals.
Are you looking? Here I am. Here.
Each utterance rises in small moons, tiny eggs of hope. You want them to pinch your mother clean.
Lucky, you say, lucky.
Rare as giant squid, en caul babies never drown.
With your mantra you construct underwater cairns. You wait for each word to fracture the surface, pop the sound, wing their way to your mother’s ears, nestle into her soft center and set anchor.
Sara Hills is a Pushcart-nominated writer from the Sonoran Desert. Her stories have been featured or are forthcoming at SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, X-R-A-Y Literary, Reckon Review, Fractured Lit, New Flash Fiction Review, and others. She’s had work included in the BIFFY50, commended in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Her debut flash collection, The Evolution of Birds, will be published in 2021 with Ad Hoc Fiction. Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.