The anatomy of troglobitic mermaids resembles that of many other cavefish species: blooded gills, translucent skin and scales, no eyes or blinded eyes, rows of sharp teeth adapted to smaller prey. Unlike their pelagic sisters, these mermaids sport tails like the bodies of eels, sleek and strong and dexterous. Their long tresses are host to bioluminescent plankton, bathing them in pulsing cascades of electric blue—the single element of whimsy on otherwise utilitarian bodies.
Over the eons these mermaids have carved a writhing network of tunnels through the earth’s subterranean rivers and caves, a tremendous complex which allows them to travel from one side of the world to the other without ever having to cross through the open seas. They find comfort in utter darkness, in a saline black that wraps around their lives like a narrow night sky. They are afraid of a horizon they cannot see beyond.
My grandmother, too, fears the ocean. There is a difference between those who fear the ocean because one does not know how to swim, and those who fear the ocean for its sheer immensity. She is both. She will enjoy a sunset on the horizon for its aesthetic, but she does not like to think about its vastness, how it would swallow her up if she were to sail into it, back the way she once came. Here, on the shore, in America, we are safe.
My grandmother will also never express any such fears to me. She chooses to feign seasickness each time, planting herself at the center of the boat’s lowest level while I kick downwards through the water, slicing my palms on coral, assembling mermaids that only exist in my own mind.
I have an uncle whom I have never met. This uncle was the oldest of my father’s siblings, and he was shot dead by the Viet Cong before he was twenty. This is terrible, but it is not really the important part of the story. The important part, at least to me, someone who has never witnessed a violent death, is that I did not know about him until I was well into high school. I had seen the black-and-white photo on my grandparents’ altar; I had been forced to attend many death anniversaries; I had never thought to ask whom they were for.
Pain runs deep, or so I assume. I will never know how deep, or if indeed it still runs at all, because I never got the whole story. I have a flair for the dramatic, and so in the absence of fact I envisioned the scene of his death, drawing emotions from books and movies, bathing everything in the colors of Apocalypse Now. I wished that someone in my family would crack and tell me the truth of what happened, lay bare the details, explain the history so I would not have to go digging through the Wikipedia white man’s version of events.
Remembrance is a fickle thing. It exists in secondary sources, but not for all cases. Sometimes you have to hear from people who were there. “How do you preserve a memory? You carve it into your flesh,” said historian and author R.F. Kuang. “You gouge the old wounds open and you make the blood flow again, because you are the generation removed from violence and remembrance is your duty.”
Duty, I have found, is similarly fickle. I am the oldest of my family generation. I respond well to certain calls of duty—the product of both conditioning and instinct—but not to others. For instance, I have recently packed up and flown twenty-seven hundred miles away from my hometown in a move that was startlingly easy, logistically and emotionally. On the other hand, I have spent an inordinate amount of time since then obsessing over my relationship to family history and considering how best to express it in my writing. Sometimes I wonder if these actions are more reconcilable than I think.
In the meantime, my troglobitic mermaids are flourishing on the page. A faction of mermaids encounter a pair of human cave-divers in South America; when their teeth draw blood, the memory of the taste of human flesh, embedded into the creatures’ collective consciousness, comes flooding back. They begin to persuade their fellow mermaids to venture ever upwards, towards the light where the humans live. It has been centuries since their kind has preyed on the apex species of dry land. No living mermaid remembers personally the tender skins, the iron-rich intestines, the sense of false security that makes for easy lures. But many agree with the inciting faction: it is the mermaids’ nature to hunt, to pursue without mercy, and here is history providing them with such delicious precedent.
The only people who speak about the parts of history I’m interested in are drunk older cousins at parties. Unfortunately, they also happen to be the least reliable narrators, on account of their drunkenness, as well as their fondness for exaggeration.
April 30, one of them yells at me from across the room, you know about that?
Yes of course, I say.
I remember the bombs, he says, triumphant in his suffering.
Chú, I ask, weren’t you two?
Several months ago I attempted to access released CIA files about the reeducation camp where my late grandfather was held for most of my mother’s childhood. All of the files had been heavily redacted. The only person who had actually experienced the camp was dead, and the relatives who took the train north to visit him during that time either wouldn’t talk about it or were too young to recall details. I ended up having to improvise some elements and worried, absurdly, that some previously silent authority on Viet Cong reeducation camps would emerge to call out inaccuracies in my fictional work. I worried so much I turned instead to my notebook on mermaids.
If all remembrance was safe, I suppose some of its intrinsic value would be lost. I am not sure how much this potential loss would be worth. To the older members of my family, who have avoided the mine-riddled fields of their own memories for the past fifty years, it must be worth at least something. To my troglobitic mermaids, I think, it must be a negligible amount, for their future spreads ahead of them, not drowned but buoyed by the blood of their past.
JOHANNA DONG (@johanna_ktd) is currently studying economics at NYU, though she was born and raised in Southern California in a family of Vietnamese immigrants. Her short fiction has previously been published or is forthcoming in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and TRACK//FOUR Journal.