— Vuong Vu
“For a time I believed not in God nor Santa Claus, but in mermaids.”
— Sylvia Plath, “Ocean 1212W”
When I was a child, my mother told me
she was once a mermaid who left the sea
and never wanted to turn back.
And I recall, there were times,
in the gentle sunlight of my childhood,
when her skin glistened like fish scales.
I found an old photograph of my family
when we first arrived at a refugee camp.
Our faces wore the weight of exhaustion.
Everyone looked away from the ocean.
It was only I, carried in my mother’s arms,
who turned to look back, back into the sea.
Look at my mother in the picture—
her skin, the color of seaweed.
On the sea my mother became ill. Water,
handfuls of rice, nothing she could keep.
I was told that I kept crying, and my mother,
too weak to do anything else, stuffed a rag
in my mouth and sang me to sleep.
At the refugee camp, she found
it was not sea sickness, but morning sickness,
that she had been carrying my brother
for weeks. He was to be the last
of her children, and she never again
ventured out to sea.
Every summer, I begged. Mother, I said,
I’ll bring watermelon, sweet sticky rice.
We don’t even have to go into the water.
We’ll sit in the shade and watch the sky,
the clouds like mounds of rice,
and we’ll look out into the sea.
The sea, my mother said, I know the sea too well.
Looking at me, her eyes as dark as an ocean,
she said, I was once a mermaid.