When we were children, we were mermaids.
In water, in snow, when we are tuck tired in a wet sleep,
in a saturated dream, these are my hands in the sink,
these are my feet in the ocean,
and I’m holding my breath,
with my lungs somewhere in between.
We were always under or in or maybe
just off to the side, intracoastal
water, wander, wanderer.
We needed only carry our bodies
through the waves,
enough that we were too tired to notice
all we left behind.
We were always swimming,
even when we were not, when we
were wrapped in towels,
laid out on the shore,
legs bound in cotton curls of terry cloth
too tired to remember
where we had come from and
where we were going to.
As children, we would find them
deflated sacks flat against the land.
Kicking up the Atlantic
brought moon jellies to the shore,
their tentacles already shriveling
by the air and the sand.
Once, I drifted in those waters
over a grouper lounging
at the bottom of the ocean
his mouth gaped wide.
I still recall the taste
as I tried to get closer
and the water filled the snorkel
that was keeping me in air
I surfaced, choking and sputtering
and by the time I recovered, he was gone.
There is no way of knowing
how these memories may
weigh me down more
than any other.
Another time, I was bewildered.
Ten feet below me a green turtle swam,
his flippers waving, beckoning me closer,
but the current was strong and
threatened to rake me
over fire corals,
and I came so close
but there was a jelly,
it almost brushed my cheek
I lost sight of the turtle
as I righted myself in the water.
It was nothing.
In the V-berth, I was re-birthed.
Every morning, I rose before my shipmates and
went above to watch the sun
appear in the horizon.
Throughout the day, I baked.
Sometimes small pustules formed on my skin,
pearly and taut,
tiny and smart, they broke away
when I brushed my hands over my arms
and felt that small relief of the water,
leaking out and spreading over me
before evaporating. We are all part sea.
Overcoming the tiller, learning the way the lady moved,
I was new. Each day, each different passing landscape,
I was new. Every time we came into port,
I liked to sound out my new language,
One hand on the life line, the other throwing out a rope,
and when I stepped off the boat,
I shook the hands that caught and tied me off safely.
Each time, they were new hands.
And in each port,
I tried new paces,
new swings, new words,
I was moving.
At night, I showered on the deck,
sun heated water in a bag
hanging on the mast.
My shipmates were two strangers
or, one was my father
the other, a lover.
It didn’t really matter.
There was no way of knowing
that could have overcome:
the changes in the water
I was not.
Theater of the Sea
Jumping through hoops was easy:
we held plastic circles high above our heads
seven women, all strangers,
while 800 lbs of flesh leapt through.
He began his ascent so far from us,
and it was over so quickly.
But the second trick was more of a challenge.
I fought to stay still, alone this time,
I didn’t notice when the dolphin appeared.
There was no movement in the water,
no shift in the current,
but when he arrived,
no more than a few inches
from my face, he shoved
his hard snout
into my cheek
This was the kiss
I paid for,
the thrill of making contact
with the strange and graceful beast.
For three minutes,
he held his place
and I tried to hold mine up against his weight
Enough time for the photographer
to capture the moment
as I smiled dutifully.
But we were side by side,
and I could only see his eyes peripherally,
I was in the water, with life around me
pushing up between my legs
and around my chest.
Elizabeth Joy Levinson lives, teaches, and writes on the southwest side of Chicago. She has an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University and an MAT in Biology from Miami University. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Up the Staircase, Apple Valley Review, Hawk and Whippoorwill, LandLocked, and Slipstream. Her first chapbook, As Wild Animals, is available through Dancing Girl Press and her second chapbook is forthcoming in October 2020 from Finishing Line Press.