I once read a short story in which a young girl living on the coast is alarmed to find scales growing along her body. With each passing day, the reach of the scales expands, like flowers seeding and transforming a field in a season. Reedy, wind-swept green blistered by pollen into a lake of tender-petalled forget-me-nots. By the end of the story, the scales cover every inch of her skin, and the girl is forced into the sea by the demands of the metamorphosis: a sad, unwilling mermaid. I think of the origin myths that cast humankind as a kind of ancient, aberrant fish that stumbled blindly onto land and never again regained entry into the paradise of the ocean. Now we live forever longing for the underwater kingdom, its sequin-lined surf, the swept-up bangs of its velvety waves that conceal the deep-set eyes of the millions of gilled, topaz-colored angels below, buzzing with bloodless mystery.
Imagine that we all retain the invisible coat of scales, an inherited legacy with an oceanic origin, the same way some Greek legends claim we are all halves of a whole. We go through the world lugging them around like a heavy coat. I hold a fallen one in my hand—a half-moon the color of a dull penny— and feel distaste grow into a wave of nausea. It feels like breathing in car fumes and feeling the heady haze of destabilization. To be too close to yourself, both the good and bad, to feel your weakness so acutely, to understand your failure intimately, to recoil from everything you are.
By building relationships, changing locations, writing words, I give away scales. Sometimes it’s close to a sacred act. Other times, it’s transactional. A scale for a scale. An exchange of trust. There are ex-friends, lost to time because of my neglect, who know a part of me, a black-eyed chunk preserved in amber, better than I do myself. Often, the loss of a scale is purely accidental, and this is how there are strangers in other dimensions who hold onto shards of me. The woman who saw me cry in an airport lobby, for instance. The older man who tried to pick me up, at 14, at a Spanish train station.
I have a few scales that I’ve peeled, not without some force, off my body and hurriedly buried in the topsoil of a municipal park. The children’s plastic playground equipment watches me carefully, as I look around in fear, wiping my muddy hands messily over the front of my jeans. Sometimes, the scales reappear, dirty but whole on my doorstep, and pitying myself, I bend down and slot them back into place.
The scales I have inherited from my parents are cracked, veined, soft gold and silver. If I press too hard, I unwittingly leave behind the permanent imprint of my touch. Maybe that’s why the scales feel worn-down to the point of crumbling fragility. They are a family heirloom in the realest sense, the product of touches from many generations, some much less well-meaning than others. A hand-me-down that has known love, pain, truth, threats, and wounds treated with too little medicine. If any part of me is haunted, this is it: the ground-down scale that jangles like keys at my wrist joint, its damaged sheen now closer to urine than gold, manhandled by men I never knew, but delivered with the rest of me at birth like a love letter, packaged in frilly strands of DNA like party streamers.
Some of these dead men visit me in dream, as if trying to repay the debt of their sin. Their arms are laden with gifts, as gilded as the artifacts of lesser gods. They have my mother’s sad, glittering eyes. “It’s too late,” I say, cradling the receiver against my ear with more tenderness than I knew I had. “I’m sorry, but it’s too late.” Their melodrama curdles then, into fury, into the mindless frenzy of a shark scenting blood, whipping cities of coral into pieces. I cast my gaze aside. You think I cling to this bitterness with any amount of satisfaction? You think I don’t wish it were different? I do, desperately. The punishment is as much mine as it is yours.
The most treasured scales are time capsules, not of “better times,” but of memories stripped of meaning, leaving only sensation. Sitting on a train, watching the Pacific fly by. Dancing with my adolescent brother in the kitchen, our cheeks red with embarrassment. Pressing my ear to the curve of a shell. When I die, pale and denuded, some of the scales will crawl back to share the grave with me. They will whisper to me of their travels. I’ll know, then, how far and how deep my soul traveled before returning, on its hands and knees, to me and my polluted seas.