“I missed my deadline.” It’s the first thought.
“Hey.” The sound is thick. “Welcome back.”
“How are you feeling?”
I missed my deadline. Again.
“Can you tell me your name?”
Ocean glass. Blue-green.
“I know it’s difficult, but can you wiggle the finger on your left hand?”
“Great,” you say. “You’re doing really great.” Warm and soft, the way I love. “Now can you tell me how you feel?”
“Like the ocean,” I murmur. "Without the waves." I stretch my left arm and flex the fingers, swirling. I stretch to the right, but it’s all wrong. Stretch left, stretch right – nothing. “Something’s wrong.”
The scrape of a chair. “Naia, listen. There’s not much time before we need to send you back, so I’m going to explain quickly, OK?”
“There’s been an accident.” You clear your throat and start again. “You were in an accident, but you’re going to be OK.”
“Back where?” I reach again, but everything is ocean. “Why can’t I see?”
“It’s part of the process. Just one of the stages of regeneration.”
I wince. From somewhere deep.
Thirty seconds, says a voice.
“I’ve got it!” you call.
“Where am I?”
“You’re at the center. We’re just running a few tests, but you need to listen –”
“The lab?!” Why am I at the lab?
“Naia,” your voice is hard, like I hate. “There’s been an accident, and we’re doing everything we can to fix it. We’re trying to put it back, but it’s going to take time.”
“Put what back?”
“We lost it, but we’re going to try to grow it back.”
Five seconds, four…
“Grow what back?” Reaching into nothing.
“We’re doing our best, honey, OK?”
“Wait, Jess? Wait, when can I –”
I will remember none of this, so I’ll tell you how it was. It is removal. Just a step between here and there, no sense of the waiting that comes with the passage of time, just the welcome void of a thousand years. A thousand nights of silent mountains and a thousand pink mornings.
Three masked faces staring down. Your eyes, damp with worry.
“Naia, can you hear me?”
There is something in my throat. I point.
“Gentle,” you whisper. “Give it time.”
I shake my head. I am breathing through a plastic bag. I glance to one side, and everything is water. I whip my head to the other side, heart sloshing in my ears. Liquid sunset, all around.
Three sets of hands move around me, lifting. Your eyes.
The air presses against my skin. A cage around my chest.
“Breathe,” you whisper. Holding me.
The first breath is convulsive, just a reflex, and when it comes, it’s flour and molasses in Granny’s porcelain bowl, stirring. I clutch and reach.
“Breathe,” you insist, and remove your mask, to show me how.
The second breath is my own, the sound of rainwater in a drainpipe. I raise myself against your arm and lean, and when you reach under my ribs and pull me up against your chest, brine pours from my mouth. I heave, coughing and spitting, but the taste is not bitter. I want it back.
Finally: “How long?” I cough, and look up at you. “How long was I out?”
You motion to the others. The faces withdraw.
“You can see,” you smile.
The sound of nails tapping on tiles. A bark.
I close my eyes. “Kabob?”
You nod. “He’s here. The whole time.”
That damn dog. My love. I raise my head and see him wagging up at me on three legs, and that’s when I understand. I’m in the big tank in the middle of the lab. The test tank. Nickname: Mama Bahama.
I crane my head and struggle against you, trying to see. “Let me out.”
“Shhhh.” You stroke my hair and move my body to rest against your chest. “Sweetie, I need you to listen to me, because there’s not much time. We’re going to check on you like this from time to time, just to ask you a few questions. It’s not good for you to come in and out too often, it disrupts the process.”
You glance at the others, and one of them appears with a steno-top, old school paper to screen. He starts scribbling away at it, and you go on. “You’ve made a huge amount of progress in a really short amount of time. Already, the first layer of skin has grown over the site of the wound, and even though it doesn’t look like your old skin yet, I have every reason to believe it will.”
You nod, and keep right on talking. “We’re waiting on the next stage, and once the bump has appeared on the clavicle, the blastema cells will be right behind. And if all goes well, they’ll proliferate like mad.” You’re so excited, you’re practically out of breath, and you know, this really does sound familiar, but I just can’t place it. “Now if we can just get you through the next stage, it’s the one that’s a bit less dependable, especially if the wrong gene switches on…” You glance at my right side. Your face furrows.
I follow your gaze, and that’s when I see it – what’s left of it. A ragged, red stump. My best arm.
“What …?!” I begin, but I stop, because someone is screaming. Your grip shifts and when I flail, the lightning sears through me. The sound is a howl, it’s a firestorm of pain, and I understand that the screaming is mine.
“Countdown from thirty!” You call to someone. “We’re going to need to put her out before the pain is too much!”
A light flashes three times, and there’s a buzzing inside my bones. I grit my teeth. Salt swallow. “I’m not going,” I wail, but the words follow the sound, the buzz rises thick around my head, the ocean swells through my pores, climbing. My hand begins to curl, and as the world goes dark, the last knowing is that I am already gone.
Drifting in a sea of stars.
A constellation of grandmothers assemble to comb out my sorrow, and when I am ready, the meetings begin. The bargaining is always the same. “How much longer?" Longer than you want. “But I’m tired,” I insist. Just long enough. They pull out the map, trace the switchbacks with their fingers, point out the places with the coldest beer and the greasiest fries, knowing this small temptation is enough to give it another try. But there is something else, something bigger. I forget now, but when I remember, I’ll tell you. It’s the thing that’s more than enough. The grandmothers send me back with a thousand kisses and a promise. They pull at the corners and tink a hole in the sky.
A pinprick of light.
This time, when I surface, I know where I am.
There are three faces watching, but for me, there is only ever you.
“You know I hate that shirt.”
You blush and look down, yank at the collar. “It was at the bottom of the drawer. I haven’t done wash.” You tuck a strand of hair behind your ear and lean down for a kiss. This, I can feel.
“How long have I been out?”
You shift your eyes to the left, down.
“Just tell me,” I gurgle.
I take this in.
“With the axolotyls, it’s faster, but you know, obviously, they’ve been doing this longer.” From the speed of your words, I see how nervous you are. Pale. Too thin. “Hang on, I’m going to rest you against the tank for a minute.” You disappear and reappear, hook some part of me to I-don’t-know-where. I feel myself shift and latch into place. “That’s better,” you smile, and smooth my hair from my face. “So tell me, how do you feel?”
I stretch my left hand. Reach from the right. The pain is bearable, maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know how. “Not too bad.”
You reach behind you. “How would you describe the sensation on your right side, compared to your left?”
“Lighter, I guess,” I float.
You click and tap away. “Mm-hmm, good. And what about the pain? Do you feel any burning or tingling?”
“Do you remember Pohnpei?” I raise myself with my left arm, and turn.
Your back is facing me, clicking. “In Micronesia?”
“The soft coral farming.”
“We were so young.”
You turn around and grin. “God, it seems so easy now. Just whack off a piece of euphyllia, attach it to a live rock, and just grow some more.”
“We made love twice a night.”
You clear your throat and look around. “Naia, honey, I have to ask you just a few more questions, OK?” Your voice is low. You’re getting impatient.
You lean forward on your hands, and you give me that look. The one that makes me crazy, the I’m-only-putting-up-with-you-because-you’re-sexy look. Me, with my stub and my poached and pruny bits. “We’ve only got another minute before you have to go under again, Nai – I’m sorry. Just three more.”
“It was just so beautiful,” I sigh, but it’s more of a bubble.
“What? The bioluminescence?”
“No, not the bioluminescence...”
Twenty seconds, calls the voice.
“Your face. When you’re onto something. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
You stop. You give me that look. The one.
Ten seconds, calls the voice. The pain’s not so bad.
“All I’m saying…” I say.
“Yes.” You say, holding me. Holding me with your eyes.
“All I’m saying is don’t give up.”
Even if I can’t see you, I know you’re there.
Pull, kick, glide. Just beneath the surface, sunlight bending through blue-green. Pull, kick, glide. Hair streaming, twirling silky green transparence. Pull, kick, glide. This is the only place for me. This is the answer, you whisper, your way to come home.
Pull, kick, glide.
“We’re seeing progress,” you call, your voice beneath the waves. “The blastemas are doing their thing!”
I wave to you from my watery home. Point to my shoulder, give a one-shouldered shrug. You motion me to the surface, and I rise.
“All the genetic markers are there,” you say, eyes on fire. “We’re so close! The genes for muscle and skin appear to be working, they’ve taken on the axolotyl compound and they’re doing fine...it’s just the bone material that’s giving us a few issues.”
Wait. I raise my left hand. “It’s fine, I know what to do. It’s what I need to talk to you about. I know exactly what’s wrong –”
“There’s something else.”
“Something else?” I burble, and swirl against the side of my tank. “What?”
You swallow and lower your eyes. “Gills.”
Tentatively, I hold my trembling hand up to stroke the side of my neck. I rub my fingertips lightly along the surface, separate and comb them with my fingers. Slippery, feathery gills.
“I love them,” I ripple. “They’re perfect.”
Pull, breathe, glide. A silver moon beneath the sea. Pull, click, glide. This is the only place for me. This is the answer, you whisper, I am your reason home.
Pull, click, glide.
Your face has been left too long on the sill. Before you can tell me the news, the news I already know because I can see the bump myself, hardened and bulbous, no sign of sprouting. I’m running out of time, even I know that. Especially me.
“Listen to me, Jess. I know what to do.” So very tired.
“Honey, we need to talk –”
“Do you remember that time my shoulder was all jammed up and I wouldn’t go to the doctor?”
“Yes.” You roll your eyes.
“I mean, I let it go so long I couldn’t even carry the groceries up the stairs. After awhile, it just hung there. It was hell.”
You shift your weight. “OK, help me out. Why are we talking about this?”
“So the reason I didn’t go to the doctor is because I was afraid I needed surgery. I didn’t want to do it.”
“You’re so fucking stubborn,” you mutter, not unkindly, and press your fingers against my only arm, massaging. I lean in. I can tell I’ve been out too long. Everything hurts.
“But then you finally pushed me to go, and once he told me it was just a frozen shoulder, I ran out of there and decided I was going to fix it. Do you remember how?”
You pause. Thinking. Your eyes grow big.
“Uh-huh. Only breaststroke at first, because my left arm wasn’t strong enough to pull my head out of the water on freestyle. Even with breaststroke, every time I moved my left shoulder, it clicked. Pull, click, glide…”
“I remember,” you nod. “But honey, you're gonna have to help me out. Where are you going with this?”
“So what I’m saying is, I can’t do anything if my brain isn’t involved. I’m here in this tank, suspended in goo, but I’m not here. I’m not helping.”
“Co-creation,” you whisper.
I nod. “Like you, me and the monkey. The three of us.”
Your eyes fill. “You remember?”
I nod. “Of course. He’s with your folks?”
“Yes, he’s fine. He misses you like nuts, but he’s hanging in.”
I close my eyes, remembering. Willing myself to release.
“In all these years, no one has ever trusted me like this,” you say.
“Until now.” I open my eyes. “Bring him.” And I start swimming. Painfully, one side stretching, writhing my waist, legs and fins.
“Naia, I don’t know. The pain...”
“I won’t let it show.”
“I just don’t think it’s good for him to –”
“Please,” I sigh, so little of me left. “Please.”
Breathe, click, slide, a whirling wave of spinning hope.
Pull, klick, glide, golden sunward, facing home.
Breathe, click, slide, a million ways to grow a life.
Pull, kick, glide, you can be anything you want.
When I raise my head, you’re all there: my furry firstborn three-legged son. And you, my little monkey, who slid like a fish from my ocean into your brilliant mother’s arms.
“Mama,” you call, and press your face against the glass.
“Hi baby,” I kiss, and wave five tiny nubs.
Leigh Hopkins' featured column Secret Circus is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. At a time when government secrets can be revealed in 140 characters and our nation loves a show, Secret Circus blends personal essay with political commentary. In 2010, Leigh left a 20-year career in education reform to move to Brazil, where she ran a retreat center and founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Her writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and at LeighHereNow. Twitter: LeighHereNow