They said it was a new treatment. The doctors took long rolls of scales, pressing them to her skin, which was alive with angry, red rashes.
Anna Cabe's beautiful tale—a science fictional parable about pain in one's own skin, adolescence, and about transformation—feels especially important now. Enjoy. -the ed
They said it was a new treatment. The doctors took long rolls of scales, pressing them to Diana’s skin, which was alive with angry, red rashes. The rashes flamed all over her arms and legs, pinpricking her into constant wakefulness at night and screaming if exposed too much to the sun and dust and wind during the day. She had had them for as long as she could remember, and nothing before had made them go away.
You'll be better soon, they said. Brand new. Your skin like a baby’s bottom.
Who wants to be like a baby? she nearly asked the doctors and nurses. Babies didn’t have fine motor skills; it took weeks for them to learn to lift their heads, to roll over. She much preferred being fifteen, diving into indoor pools and holding her breath, volunteering at the library, letting Liam Boyd kiss her after Homecoming because he was nice enough not to comment on the red bumpiness of her limbs, how she only wore long sleeves and pants or tights. But she quieted herself, since she was tired of not going to the beach in itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikinis or baring her shoulders and calves at picnics or concerts like other girls. Her only hobbies were indoors, or being in water indoors, because anything outside hurt her too much, and aside from air conditioning and dim lighting, only water soothed the burning.
The adhesive they used on her skin was shockingly cool, sticky, and she couldn’t help but stare at the careful way they wound the scales around her legs and arms in glimmering ribbons.
After the treatment, she stretched out her arms, marveling at the silver shimmer of them. Careful, they told her. They might crack.
But they felt right on her arms. Natural. She could even swear she could taste salt on her tongue, although she didn’t tell the doctors this. Diana stroked the scales of her forearm. What kind of fish are these?
They told her mumbo-jumbo. They said something about genetic material from a mix of different species for different problems with her skin. They said something about modification. They said, Here are the papers. We told this all to your parents, and I ’ m sure they ’ ll tell you if you ask, far better than we can, if you can’ t understand.
But when she asked their parents, Mom, the dentist, said, I ’ m sure they know what they ’ re doing. And Dad, the pharmacist, said, Trust me, it ’ s the latest thing. You ’ ll be all right, better than ever.
A few mornings later, Diana stretched in front of the mirror in her room, heedless of her doctors’ admonitions, her sleep shirt riding over her belly. She caught a glimpse of silver around her bellybutton. She moved closer to the mirror, her fingers examining the skin. The telltale feel of ridges, of bumps.
It’s spreading, she told the nurses who came running. She lifted her shirt and pointed at her bellybutton.
Hmmmmm, they said.
That’s unexpected, said the redheaded nurse, Cecilia, her favorite one, who looked like a grown-up Little Orphan Annie and told her funny stories about nursing school. She snapped on a glove and probed her stomach.
You’ve never used gloves on them before, said Diana.
This is not a usual reaction, said Cecilia, before another nurse hushed her.
The doctors came to examine her, closely examining her belly for what seemed like hours. Well, they said. We’ ll have to monitor them. But the scales didn’t spread further, and after a week more, they declared Diana fit to return home. She would return to the hospital in a month, to remove the scales. They reminded her not to bathe or swim, to wash herself with damp cloth, as if she were a fine piece of furniture.
At home, Diana began to crave salt. She sprinkled salt over her eggs, her rice, her mangoes, her strawberry ice cream, her Coke. Little mountains of crystal bright against chicken adobo and coffee cake and at the bottom of her coffee mugs. Her lips began to crack, to shrivel from the moisture leaching out.
You’ll give yourself hypertension, said Dad. She began stealing salt packets from burger joints and her high school’s cafeteria. She hid them under her mattress in her room, tearing them open with her teeth, pouring salt straight onto her tongue, shuddering from the prickling contact. Diana threw out her trash herself, so her Mom wouldn’t notice.
After kissing Liam Boyd again, in his car after school, he ran his fingers over her splitting lips. His blonde hair was puffing around his ears.
That feels weird, he said. And you taste salty.
It’s the medicine they’re making me take, Diana said. It does weird thing to my hormones.
Okay, he said but didn’t look convinced.
I’ m not contagious! she said. And he hadn’t cared before, even though she remembered him flinching when he rolled up her sleeves after she returned home, the sudden flash of shining gray. Whoa. Are you a mermaid? He laughed too loud, the last ha cutting high into the air. Mermaids have fish tails, dummy, she said, smacking him and feeling relieved when he didn’t flinch again. When Diana got home, she looked into the mirror, putting her long black hair over one shoulder, the sleeves on her shirt inching down as she fussed with her hair. She tried to imagine herself underwater, how her hair might look floating around her face, how her scales might ripple in the uncertain light of the deep.
She dreamed of the water. Except she no longer dreamed of the YMCA pool. She dreamed of the ocean. She dreamed of jumping off of cliffs. She dreamed of reefs with pink coral and rainbow fish, of trenches deep and dark and cold. Sometimes, she’d wake up on the floor, the blankets pooled around her, her legs kicking and her arms clawing at the air, her scales glittering in the light from the streetlights outside.
Can I go swimming? she asked her mother, already knowing the answer.
Oh, honey, don’ t joke like that. We’ll go to the beach once the doctors okay it. We already got you that bikini.
She hadn’t gotten a yellow polka-dotted one, like Mom pointed out when they went online shopping. She picked a black one, which her mother deemed plain but when Diana looked at herself in the mirror, her scales seemed to gleam more vividly against the fabric. She didn’t even notice the cellulite around her butt anymore, the splotchy birthmark under her right breast. She noticed the way her hair splashed around her collarbone, the swan-like length of her neck, that her eyes were round pools under straight brows. The way the scales rippled up and down her arms and legs.
It fits perfectly, she told Mom.
Can I see?
Diana was about to say yes, but instead she said, After the scales come off. At the beach.
All righty then!
Her mother assumed vanity. Her mother assumed shame. So how could Diana tell her about her dreams, that she wasn’t alone in her dreams, that people, faceless crowds of people watched her as she dove, that they applauded when she revealed her body for the first time and that no one shuddered that the scales covered everything now, that she was silver all over, and she was mesmerizing?
She didn’t have her license yet, so she walked to the beach on the weekends. Lied to her parents and told them that she was getting tutoring to catch up in school. She hiked up a cliff and looked at the water below. She moved as close to the edge as she dared, breathing the salt, watching the water foam against the rocks. No one really watched the cliffs, despite the Keep Away signs. Most people weren’t stupid enough to do anything like that.
It was only there that she would lift up her shirt again, check her stomach again for them spreading. Nothing. The scales had stayed stubbornly whorled around her bellybutton and no further.
What do I have to do? she whispered, though her cheeks warmed. She was talking to her stomach.
She peeked over the edge again, though the ground was crumbling, felt unsteady. The thrill buzzed in her chest, as she smelled the salt far below. Heard the sound of ocean beating against the rocks. If only she could dive—
Crazy, crazy. She got up and brushed the dirt off her pants. She thought of calling Liam, but she had stopped responding to his texts, and then he had stopped texting at all. She had heard that he was now dating someone else, ponytailed Jane who played clarinet in the band, but dating her for real, and felt only the smallest of twinges. She walked back down to the beach proper, and went as close to the tideline as she dared, but not close enough.
It was nearly a month later, the moon fat and almost perfectly circular in the sky. Tomorrow, she would go to the doctors. They and her parents had explained the process to her at the midpoint check-up, two weeks ago. They would use a fluid with enzymes to break apart the glue. The scales would fall off easily. And then the skin underneath would be as smooth and soft as they had said earlier, a baby’s bottom.
I don’t want to feel like a baby’s bottom, she said. That’s creepy.
Diana, honey, Dad said. Aren’t you excited?
Not really, she said.
Everyone in the room gaped at her. The doctors had nothing to say, for once, though she could hear one whispering to another, It’ s all the changes—moody.
I mean, I’m glad everything doesn’t hurt anymore?
That was the right move. It broke the silence, like ice cracking on a pond after the winter. Everyone continued with their plans, chattering, chattering, chattering.
And now it was the night before, and she was sitting up in bed. She had poured out the last of the salt packets on her tongue, savoring the taste, before the crystals all dissolved. Diana checked her stomach again after, and it was the same, the curious little ridge around her lower belly. No change. And the disappointment she felt, not crushing, but heavy all the same.
She had told her parents to let her rest after dinner. Nerves, she said.
Mom nodded vigorously. Of course. Get a good night’s sleep, honey! Long day tomorrow!
Diana wondered now if this would be the last time she dreamt of water. Silly. She would go to the beach in a week or so, after the doctors declared that the treatment had taken. She’d have all the water she wanted. She’d go to the beach, brand-new and smooth. Her skin no longer inflamed, no longer angered by the simple act of moving through the world. Salt on her lips the first time she splashed into the sea.
And what then? She flexed her fingers. The scales on her forearms caught the light from her desk lamp. Make Liam jealous enough to regret Jane? Buy that polka dot bikini her mother admired? Listen to her father and smile as he talked about scientific advancement, never-ending progress?
Diana listened for the sounds of her parents going to bed, the silence after the TV was turned off, the rhythm of Dad’s belly-rumbling snores. She tiptoed to the bathroom, put the plug in the tub. Turned on the taps, watched the water creep up the ceramic. She stripped off her nightgown, saw scales flash on the front of her thighs before her first step in.
She imagined they must have searched for her. Called the police. Her clothes strewn on the bathroom floor, the overflowing tub, the trail of dampness down the hallway and the stairs. The open front door.
But it’s hard to think of her parents now or Liam or doctors or anyone else. Why should she, when she’ll always have the first, thrilling memory of the night she stood on top of the cliff, moonlight licking the silver scales shrouding her back, her breasts, her legs, her arms, her face? Her hair free and streaming behind her when she stood on the edge and then jumped, plunging into the water, the darkness, the weightlessness, the utter freedom. That now, forever, she’ll swim like she did in those old parched dreams—faster and faster, waves rippling behind her, her beautiful scales winking as she disappears into the deep.