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A quarterly international literary journal

I Dream of Mermaids, Memories, Shapeshifting and Serpents

/ First Place, 2024 Plentitudes Prize in Nonfiction /   




Imagine my mom as a preteen in Ghana, bursting brown and just beginning in her body, sleeping on a mat on the floor. Let’s call her Garnet. The sun wants her to rise, glowing bright through the window. But Garnet persists in keeping her eyes sealed, glued shut by the weight of sleep.


Notice that something stronger than the sun is shimmering in the corner of the room. That something is sparkling across from sleeping Garnet’s mat like a hundred tiny stars pulsing in unison. Its brightness inspires a song that rises in volume as the glow magnifies. It is soft and sweet and otherworldly, a melody only remembered in dreamyness, sounds too delicate to mimic.


Garnet turns slowly in her mat as her eyes become butterfly wings, finally fluttering open to greet the glow. What she finds is so startling and beautiful that it transfixes her in place. She won’t believe herself at first, she will think she’s still dreaming.


The glowing stars reveal themselves to be a hazy mermaid, glittering into existence, carrying a long tail that winds around Garnet’s room. Their copper tail, speckled with maroon scales, leads to a translucent bronze fin that waves at the half-awake girl. They bare a smile of chicklet-white teeth and four golden fangs.


The entity has fluffy, nappy black hair full of cowrie shells and ivory crystals. A serpent wraps around their waist and rests its head between their breasts, an emerald necklace. The mermaid’s skin is dark and smooth as distant space. A pointy-toothed comb in one hand, an oval shaped mirror in the other.


The mermaid vanishes as soon as Garnet rubs her eyes to get a better look. Imagine that’s all it took for Garnet to keep this moment locked away in the grooves of her brain.




Remember me as an eight year old, playing with Barbies in a coral and turquoise bathroom, the drain plugged in the sink, the sink filled with water to create a mini public pool. I hide the toothpaste and the hand soap. I transform the faucet and knobs into beach chairs. Place the Barbies there, ask the one with the head that keeps popping off to dive underwater, no clothes, just a smooth angel with perky nippleless boobs. The blonde Barbie joins her. I force them to scissor inside azure tides, creating ripples in the water with their hyper elongated legs.


A fight breaks out near the beach chairs because special events Barbie is jealous. The one Ken doll I own comes over with his dickless energy. He gives her one of those impulsive, nonconsensual kisses straight people do in 90s romance movies. Special events Barbie's eyeshadow sparkles as she pulls back from their lips tackle, a permanent smile stuck to her face.


The Barbies in the pool gaze at each other with adoration, their stiff middles locked in place as they surf in sapphire. Ken comes into the water and they don’t kick him out because this sink is big enough for all of them. Remember no knock on the bathroom door, just my dad—we’ll call him Fifi—barging in, his square glasses fixated on the girl in the mirror. Fifi scrutinizes little sexual marine biologist me with equal parts judgment and amusement as I test my theories on creation and pleasure. He doesn’t say anything. Closes the door. We never talk about it.




Maybe Ariel didn’t like the sound of her own voice, didn't mind throwing it away for the chance to walk on land. Maybe she’s tired of the volume that is lost underwater, of all the words that go unheard.




Mami Wata likes to shapeshift. Sometimes they’re a mermaid, with a tail ten feet their upper body. Sometimes a Serpentina, lower half the longing, lengthy coils of a snake. She thicque like an anaconda. Sometimes a femme, legs painted satin brown, so lush some confuse it for earth after rain.


No wonder there is no singular vision of her that we can collectively point a finger to. The more I see her in my mind, and through Garnet’s eyes, the closer yet elusive she feels. Close like a watery whisper dripping into my scalp while washing my locs, or the misty steam in the shower that holds me tight in an airy aquatic hug. Elusive like a memory I keep chasing, a ruminating thought I’m at peace with following me, but can never resolve.




Whenever I ask Garnet about her meeting with Mami Wata, her answer shapeshifts over the decades.


The first time, Garnet said she saw the deity in her adolescence in Accra, gleaming within the bathroom mirror before vanishing into dust. Back then, I was a little cut out of her, with eyes wide as seashells as she replayed the memory. I scooped her words within my palms like liquid memories . My fists squeezed tight, refusing to let it spill from my fingers.


Years later, when I asked her to tell me the story again: she denied it, said I was lying. I was too hurt and confused to argue.


I asked again, I don’t remember when. Maybe I discarded the date to protect myself from Garnet evading the question. That time, she told me Mami Wata helped her as a child, gave her guidance and showed kindness. She wouldn’t elaborate how.


I am full grown the next time I inquire, too many years under my eyes to not question the words people say. Garnet tells me about the visit in her childhood bedroom in Ghana, and I know this is the memory I keep. I hold onto her words in my mouth, let it lubricate the walls of my cheek. Absorb it like my own saliva.




Sometimes Mami Wata likes to plant little seeds for a family to find: aquatic heirlooms for them to use as tools for prosperity and transformation, teleportation devices, time machines, truth serums, or warnings to take heed of outsiders. Her favorites are the comb, the mirror, the seashell and the scales.




Remember the first time I went to the Coney Island Aquarium

in elementary school. This memory splits itself in half


Like a giant shell opening for Black Venus to rise

dividing the shell into alternate realities.

Memory is a liminal space, my internal spiral.


In both storylines, the teachers bring us into the gift shop

after a long day of meeting otters, crustaceans, jellyfish and stingrays.

 A friend and I spot a rack full of plastic charm bracelets.

They flash ecstatic shades of ocean life - magenta, turquoise, cerulean, indigo

Charms of fish, turtles, octopus, starfish and seashells dangle in harmony.

My friend and I are hype and hypnotized.


We linger by the bracelets, both excited to have found such a cool ass

piece of jewelry to stunt on the other kids with, and disappointed

that neither of us have enough money in our pockets to afford

the five dollar price tag. Garnet gave me that exact amount

this morning to buy lunch. I been spent it

on a turkey and cheese sandwich

and a Caprisun from the corner store.


“Look at how cool the seashells are!” I say.

There’s multiple in the bracelet I pick up:

a pink shell that reminds me

of Ursula’s spiral necklace caging Ariel’s voice

and another that spreads itself wide as a church fan

There’s orange starfish and violet octopus

and a jade turtle, all waiting to be wrapped around my wrist.

This charm bracelet is a family.

I have to have it.


This is where the memory cracks, where my inner child walks two different paths: 


My friend and I decide to steal the bracelets.

We slip one each into our pockets when no one’s watching.

Once we are back on the cheese bus

we pull the bracelets out to marvel

at their kaleidoscopic beauty.


A young teacher, close enough in age to remember the urgency

and wonder kids feel when they find the best thing in the world

spots us eyeing the bracelets. He does a rare act of asking us our opinions

Our tongues spill with the wonder of the charms.

Amused, the teacher buys them for us.

We renew our belief in magic


Later that night

when Garnet sees the trinket,

 She asks me how I bought it.

“A teacher got it for us!” I exclaim.

Garnet doesn’t push it




I am a bone from the skeleton of Mami Wata’s tail, with a soul full of sand and secrets.




In high school, at the peak of puberty, I had terrible eczema. Rough, rashly patches bubbled and itched along my arms and legs. They left behind hyperpigmentation, splashes of black scars where the active eczema once was. I saw a dermatologist, but he prescribed me a cream that lightened the skin where I applied it. I stopped using it immediately after I noticed, and my true color returned.


After graduating college, acne rose all over my forehead. Big, juicy pimples that refused to pop. It was like I was thinking too much, and the only place my thoughts could escape was right on my face. I was working two jobs at fast food restaurants and barely got any sleep. One at Wendy’s, the other at a grilled cheese shop in the city. Whole time I wondered why I got myself into massive student loan debt just to end up making milkshakes and sandwiches for uppity white customers who treated me like a ghost serving their food.


I left both of those jobs after I reached my goal: saving money to live in Thailand for 6 months. I arrived in Southeast Asia and was welcomed with a life vastly different from my Brooklyn roots. I resided in a forest and ate all kinds of fresh herbs and fruits. Wasn’t stressing about anything except lesson plans, learning Thai and unfortunately, institutional racism. All the risks I made by leaving my first love, NYC, and stretching myself beyond the sea, activated my body in profound ways. My skin became clear, glowing and smooth again. My body had passed through a portal that zapped the ailments away. I didn’t question it, just silently thanked whichever entity kissed my complexion back to normal.


For years after, friends complimented me on how seamless my skin was. They’d ask me how I did it. I’d tell them I drink a lot of water and use shea butter. But I knew it was something else. Something like a snake shedding a layer of skin.




In Megan Thee Stallion’s “Cobra” music video, the hottie peels off her skin in a life sized glass tank, fit for a giant snake. Megan raps with her whole chest about Pardison cheating, the depression she faced after Tory Lanez assaulted her, untrustworthy friends and the suicidal thoughts that drown her mind. Spectators gather around to watch her remove herself, from herself. They snap pictures and gape at her, in awe of viewing such an intoxicating, intimate moment where a serpentina rips herself apart.


Snakes usually like to be alone while shedding their skin. We want to be seen on the other side of ourselves, not in between the shapeshift. It is a personal, although periodic, process. But Megan is beyond privacy. Her traumas are on full display for us to engage with, dismiss, judge or empathize. The sliver in time between transformation of oneself to the next is too painful to endure, but exciting for others to witness.


When Black femmes embrace snakes, the world bows down to us. In the next scene, the spectators drown in a sea of onyx serpents as Megan raps above them. This is their demise for watching her shed and capitalizing on the moment, instead of comforting her through this agonizing metamorphosis.


I am hypnotized by Megan’s skin shedding performance. I feel closer to her through her display of growing pains, because she doesn’t hide from it. Shedding skin is a superpower, the ability to constantly evolve.




Remember me as a little girl with a vendetta against Garnet’s comb. We really didn’t fuck with each other. The salmon pink monster had gap teeth with pointy blue fangs. It racked through my nappy mane like a shark scanning the water for fish, spitting out stray strands of seaweed along the way.


Every Sunday night I sat between Garnet’s legs and she turned my hair into an art piece. Braids, emerging from simple geometric parts, were suspended by bubbles and sealed with clips. But her beautiful creations always came with a price: an inflamed scalp that didn’t cool down until Wednesday.


“Her hair is hard like rock. Rough like grass,” Garnet said, lips turned downward like she just ate a mouthful of Warheads. The tears streamed down my cheeks like a waterfall. I wasn’t sure if my crying was from the physical pain of the comb or the emotional sting within Garnet’s words. We’d end the night exhausted from the labor we just put in: my forced stillness and endurance, Garnet’s arms aching from taming a mountainous mane.


Garnet’s hair assignment for me was to keep it dry. Water was considered an enemy to my kinks, coiffed into tight braids. To keep them fresh, I covered my hair with shower caps when I bathed, was extra careful during water balloon and water gun fights in the summer, and worst of all, rarely took bubble baths. Garnet told me my hair was unmanageable for her when it was wet, that it tangles and morphs into a shrunken, impenetrable mass.


Imagine my delight when I discovered the power and playfulness of these traits, after I went natural in my 20s, and even more when I started freeforming in my 30s. Water activates my hair’s powers: it becomes stronger, more energetic. My hair repels combs, it is her kryptonite. And it needs water to grow, like a sea plant floating from my skull.


What if the comb Mami Wata carries is not a vanity tool for her flowing tresses, but a symbol of all she’s overcome to know her hair. Maybe it holds her reflection just as much as her mirror. A trinket reminding her that transcendence means refusing to tame her true nature.




Mami Wata’s mirror is a portal. Gaze into it and you will see all the past and present versions of yourself. Do this only when you are absolutely ready, when all the water in your body is mature enough to not only carry the memories of yourself, but the memories of those before you.


Gaze a moment too soon, you’ll stare into the eyes of your own insanity. Truth, the real kind, is a complex and heavy blessing that can destroy the mind. Gaze too late, you’ll be filled with the deep sorrow of regret, and the hyper awareness of wasted time. Peer into the mirror at the right moment, and your heart will collect a map paving the roads back into yourself, to futures filled with the fragrances of forgiveness and self actualization.


Lately, something inside has been itching me to take a peek. I have a knack for guessing the timing of things, for making countdowns in my head. There is a soft serenade buzzing around me, a bright wordless whisper only I can hear. I walk towards it in my dreams.




Every time I roast whole fish–tilapia or snapper, spiced with jerk sauce, lemon, garlic and paprika–I cut it in half for two people to eat. Garnet and Gramma always reach for the head. “Ghanaians go crazy for it, ooo!” they say, in between bites of fish brain and the chiffon skin surrounding the eyes and noses.


I have always gone crazy for the tail. It’s the only part I eat. After all, I’ve been searching my whole life for my own.


Fifi usually opts out of the fish. I’m not sure if it’s his manliness—he would  rather something gamey, like ribs, than the light and delicate fish—or laziness. He sneers at the pan of roasted fish resting on the kitchen table, cooling off from the sauna of the oven. “Too many bones,” he grunts.


“More for us,” I snap back. He’s right though, there’s mad bones. Don’t let their harmless look fool you; take caution when you eat whole fish. If the bones don’t choke you, then maybe the invisible scales will stick to your teeth. I always buy descaled fish, but bones are intimate, forcing you to engage with the body you’re eating, and to care for yourself in the process.


I’ve never had problems picking bones from fish bodies, or stopping them from choking me. The women in my bloodline have sharp, slippery mouths for this very reason. 




In some Caribbean and African cultures, mermaids are dangerous. They can drag you underwater, steal you from the life you knew above shore or end your life all together.


My cousin Pumelo says that for Ghanaians, Mami Wata is definitely fatal. “Once you see her, it’s already too late,” she told me over the phone. I think mermaids are misunderstood. Do they really drag people underwater, or did a lucky someone fall in love with a mermaid and decide to abandon their life on land to be with her?


I feel defensive of mermaids, but I don’t know if this is my ignorance showing up (I’m sure some mermaids are dangerous, just like how some humans are, but not all) or if I’m taking the stereotypes too personal, as if these notions are about me. Many lovers and friends have found me captivating and intriguing in one moment, then dangerous the next. People love to twist their stories when they realize you aren’t what they expected you to be.


Where Mami Wata shapeshifts and multiplies, serpents shed and transform. Where snakes are stereotyped as untrustworthy, evil, and dangerous, Mami Wata too is perceived as perilous, terrifying and full of insatiable hunger.


Last summer, Velvet showed me a video of a “real life mermaid”.  This creature looked ugly as hell. It had the face of a fish-human and was some creepy Loch Ness monster color, a swampy grey-green.


“That’s not real,” I said with my whole chest, offended that the internet got mermaids looking like mutants with no common sense.


“Yes it is!” Velvet claimed that the video was shot by someone on a boat, in the middle of a lake. The creature rises from the water for a few seconds, but it looks dramatic in a digitized way. The people on the boat sound a little too calm to me. I don’t buy it.


Velvet’s disappointment in my skepticism is written all over her face. I’m over here wondering what mermaids would really look like: half human upper body with a fish tail, or half fish torso with human legs? Is the friendlier, human-fishtail rendition of them meant to draw us near? Meanwhile, the internet is tight cause Halle Bailey is the first Black Little Mermaid. They’re used to mermaids who are white and conventionally attractive, not Black and beautiful.


No one can agree on what magical creatures look like or if we’ll be in danger if we encounter one. We don’t have a collective idea of the unseen. We can’t imagine what we don’t believe in.




Remember Gramma is afraid of snakes. But she doesn’t know the exact moment this fear snatched itself in her throat.


Gramma says Ghana is full of snakes: the real kind, slithering underneath beds and bursting out in the middle of slumber, and the fake kind, lurking in families, revealing themselves as two-faced and split tongued. Beware for they talk behind your back and plant venomous potions in your food.


Remember that time I walked home with Gramma after we visited the library, arms full of books and bagels from the bakery down the block. I’m a grown ass femme now and she’s a beautifully aging crone, closer to the other side of the veil. She can see through that veil too. Demons haunt her dreams and threaten to steal her life. She wrestles in her sleep and shouts back to them in Ga, punching the air and cursing voices I can’t hear all night long. I say prayers for her when she fights these spirits.


On that walk home from the library, we saw a tiny garden snake swirling violently on the sidewalk, rushing to move away from us before we accidentally stepped on it. Gramma spotted it first and yelled like the snake had wrapped itself around her neck. I looked down and saw the skinny little thing, camouflaged the color of dirt, and called it cute. Gramma scolded me for complimenting her personal demon.


I questioned why I had the nerve to give sympathy to something that paralyzed Gramma with terror. I held her on the rest of the walk home. Told her that sometimes the things we fear are what we’re meant to face, that they are asking us to confront the parts of ourselves we push away.


Remember that sometimes I don’t listen to my own gotdamn advice. I still haven’t told Garnet that thing that happened to me when I was young because I fear it will break her heart.


Later that night, Gramma tells Garnet the afternoon’s snake story and all the details were inflated into blowfish. “It was so big, oh!” She exclaims. “The size of my head.”


I  both can’t mind my business or keep my mouth shut when it comes to my family. “Netty, it wasn’t that big,” I declare, between chuckles. “I actually liked it. It was cute. But it scared Gramma so much. I had to calm her down.”


Garnet says she’s seen mad snakes since living in this new home. “They are kinda cute,” She agrees. “I saw them when I used to garden with Fifi. They spring from the ground when you dig in the earth. Like they’re saying hello.”


Remember that there is a thin line between superstition and surprises, a grim apparition and a gentle greeting.




Remember the Piscean woman I dated last winter for a few weeks? Let’s go back to that first time on the phone, how our voices danced together deep in the night like we were excavating the bottom of each other’s oceans. She confessed that she loves both interspecies romances and mermaids. I lit up inside—she’s about to fulfill both of those desires with me. When we kissed on our first date, we drowned in each other for a little bit. I came back up for air and saw her mouth was stained bloody red from my lipstick. I was afraid I had sucked her soul, but she didn’t care, didn’t mind that I stained her. She pulled me back in for another kiss while I wiped her mouth with my fingers. She gently kissed each one. It all happened in public, at the bus stop, like two fish in an aquarium making out behind glass. Both inside and outside at the same time, concealed behind a window clear for everyone to see. When things didn’t work out—they rarely do with me and romance—she said I hurt her feelings. Because I didn’t want the same relationship she wanted. Remember how important it is to know what you want and don’t want. I’ve been hurt so many times that I forgot I could hurt someone, even though I didn’t mean to, even though she hurt me too. After, she treated me like a thing to be afraid of, something sharp that could cut her. I learned that superstition is also in romance, not just my family. It was her idea to be friends. But she tiptoed around me, like broken beer bottles in the sand. She wanted to keep me around, a seashell in her pocket. Remember that mermaids belong free, somewhere sitting pretty on a beach rock. I won’t let the tempting memories of her carry me back to her shores.




Mami Wata can manipulate a memory to protect it from her children. They know that memories can weigh heavily on mortal minds. Especially the traumatic ones. The memories rush back to the spirit child when they are ready to confront it. Ready can mean strong. Graceful. Grown. Returning. Ready, as in you’ve learned how to breathe underwater. Finally you can dive deep into the darkness of yourself without holding your breath.




On Gramma’s 80th birthday, she and Garnet remind me of a story I vaguely recall.


Try to remember: one Mothers Day, I took Gramma and Garnet to the Seaport Buffet. The restaurant sits right across from the water, and is a staple from my childhood. A place we returned to for birthdays, graduations and anniversaries. This time, it was just the three of us instead of the whole family, indulging in seafood in the middle of a sunny day.


After we ate several rounds of crab legs, lomein, garlic shrimp, black bean mussels and ice cream, we walked across the street to one of the fishermen. They sold fresh caught fish right from their boats. Gramma bought a whole bag to cook for Grandpa. She’d turn them into a stew and a light soup, then fry or bake the rest to enjoy with dokanu and shitto.


I noticed that one of the fish was still alive, gasping for breath in a bag full of corpses. “We should let it out, return it to the water!” I begged. Gramma, Garnet and the fisherman burst into laughter. Garnet said my eyes widened in horror. “No, dead ass, we should really put it back,” I repeated.


“Most people prefer when the fish is still alive. It means it’ll stay fresh by the time they go home to cook it,” the fisherman said. But this didn’t sit well with me. Maybe I didn’t like the intimacy of seeing a fish mid transition, struggling to survive in that liminal space between life and death. Maybe I felt self conscious, watching it hang in the balance, knowing its future, and wanting to spare it from our bellies. Maybe I believed that since it was still squirming and sucking for water, it was a chosen fish that deserved to live.


This is just one of the many memories that flood back to me, sometimes in waves, sometimes in raindrops, as my body builds itself closer into transformation.




Acne, hyperpigmentation and eczema came back to me as I got closer to 30. Like my body was resetting itself all over again. The trigger was stress, again. Heartbreak. Friendship grief. Tumors. And traumatic childhood memories. My skin is shedding and rebuilding itself all over. This time it feels uglier, and I’m uncertain of when the shedding will cease.




“We need a resolution. We have so much confusion,” Aaliyah sings in the “We Need a Resolution” music video. A humongous snake slides through a portal behind her. A pool of serpents swirl on the ground as a couple themselves around her body. She is a newborn hatched from a snake egg, shining in inky black goo.


“Am I supposed to change? Are you supposed to change?”. I been asking myself this for years.




For my inner child, The Little Mermaid is a story about living outside of binaries, but I didn’t know how to articulate that back then. It wasn’t until reaching the end of Halle Bailey’s version, when she leaves her father and fish community to travel the world with Eric, that I am reminded of what disappointed me about the original story most. Ariel has to choose between two states of being that she loves. She isn’t allowed to be a part of both the swimming and the walking worlds.

King Triton’s trident must have the power to grant infinite shapeshifting, right? But he doesn’t mention it, or know it. Or remember?


Because her ending unsettles me, I dream into the magnificence and multitude of Mami Wata’s mythology, of the mermaid offspring she’s left behind:


Imagine a mermaid’s tail evaporates as she slides her body onto shore. When she moves away from the water, the sunlight dissolves her scales into dark skin, emerging a pair of human legs. She can walk on earth and do all the marvelously mundane things she pleases: pick up mangoes from the market, drink lemonade that stings her tongue in bittersweet wonder, wrap her thighs around girls and boys who find her both devastatingly elusive and irresistible, dance under the moonlight, sticky sand clinging to her flesh like a song on repeat.


Amnesia occurs every time she shapeshifts. While she is human, she accepts this as the totality of her existence, and basks in it. Eats edibles, delights in reading several volumes of poetry, sips tea. While she is fish, she dances underwater with her friends, decorates her locs in cowrie shells, ponders the purpose of combs, watches mirrors like a TV, all the while amazed that life can be this liquid and loving. But there is a call ribboning her thoughts, a wordless chant she hums that rattles her bones awake to their alternate skeleton.


When it rains, her skin tingles with the promise of return. Gills slip out from between the folds of her ribs. Her legs itch as scales materialize from each raindrop’s kiss. She rushes to the nearest bathtub and dives in as her alternate nature unravels.


I yearn to know what it means to walk between multiple worlds, without submitting my whole self into only one. To be a human who can master elements, love, loss and memories, and alchemize the traumas and judgements of my family. To become more than a mermaid, but a myth, who slips into alternate dimensions, knows spirits and creatures, and breathes in any liquid. Who expands what it means to be femme and fantastical for my bloodline. I just gotta learn how to do this in one lifetime.


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