Raising Water Girl
by Emily C. Skaftun
What happened was probably my fault.
Dad was gone a lot on some kind of “business,” so it fell to me more than it probably should have to raise my sister. And the main thing I did was tell her stories.
Most little girls relate to princesses, but Leona went nuts for them. She was very young when she interrupted one of my stories to tell me, “My tower is upside-down.” I knew just what she meant, too. She wasn’t stuck high in the air like Rapunzel, but she was just as much a prisoner.
See, Leona breathed water. No one knew why, because she didn’t have gills, or fins, or anything like that. She looked like any other girl, or at least she did if you caught a glimpse of her without a distorting layer of liquid in between.
She was born when I was six years old. Mom wanted to have a home birth, so they put a tub in the living room and we were all there—dad and me and mom’s sister from Chicago and the midwife—when Leona came kicking and screaming out of our mother. It was the scariest thing any of us ever saw. Of course, I’d never seen a birth before, so even a normal one would have been disturbing—I had only the barest notion how reproduction worked. That it involved blood and tears surprised me; that a whole little person could fit through a hole between my mom’s legs seemed impossible (I knew I didn’t have a hole that could do that, but guessed it would grow in later). But I’d been warned about those things. What happened was something else.
For one thing, Leona literally screamed. Babies aren’t supposed to be able to make noise until all that inside-the-womb junk gets flushed out of their lungs, but she screamed. Mom screamed too, and breathed heavily, and splashed in her little tub.
When Leona was halfway out everyone started relaxing. But Leona got scared, and I swear to god she turned around, thrashing, and tried to go back in. The midwife finally got ahold of her and pulled her into the pool but she’d done her damage. Mom looked white and she shook and the water in the tub turned red like a scene from Jaws.
Later they would say that mom had torn and bled out. They would say that it happened sometimes, that it was no one’s fault, that nothing could have been done.
At the time I didn’t know what was happening, and neither did Aunt Therese I don’t think, or she would have taken me out of the room. But dad did. He saw that Leona had killed mom and he wanted revenge. He grabbed that baby before the midwife could even lift her from the tub and he held her down. We’ve never spoken of it, and he’d deny it to the death now, but I saw what I saw: he tried to drown her.
And I guess the only thing I can say about that is that the joke was on him. She kept crying and crying, underwater, until my aunt finally realized what was happening and pushed my dad away. The midwife lifted Leona out of the water and held her upside down, and Aunt Therese ran to call 911, and dad stormed out of the house dripping with red water, slamming doors as he went.
The midwife tried to coax the water from my sister’s lungs. Suddenly Leona choked and gasped, writhing like a fish at the bottom of a boat. The midwife shouted medical things toward my aunt and started CPR, poking Leona’s little chest with two fingers. She would have died. But I took her from the midwife, supporting her head like mom had told me—I remember being surprised by how heavy it was!—and put her back in the tub. Immediately she relaxed and let out a big bubbly sigh.
The midwife and Aunt Therese looked at me with their mouths hanging open.
Leona, lying at the bottom of the birthing tub, reached up one tiny hand and caught me by the finger.
Once the paramedics had come and gone with mom, and Aunt Therese had cleaned up the living room, and I’d settled Leona into the bathtub to sleep, dad came back all sheepish and sad and wild-looking, clothes stained pinkish from the water. His rage had passed. On his way in he handed me a big piece of blue sea-glass, rubbed so smooth that it had no past. He said he wanted to hold his daughter, and I knew he didn’t mean me.
When he saw her lying under a foot of water in the tub, sleeping with a little smile on her face, he laughed and laughed. He lifted her out of the water and she panicked; he set her back in and she relaxed. He did it over and over until I yelled at him to stop. Then he climbed into the bathtub, clothes and all, lay down, and held Leona to his chest.
He’s loved her ever since.
• • •
Right away, our house was transformed. Dad had a basement dug under our existing house, which for months was jacked up on huge pilings like a pier. The neighbors hated us, and from the start the city government was involved. It was Key West, after all, and they had an image to protect. But when they found out about Leona—Water Girl, they called her—they decided dad’s plans would work just fine with their image. I mean, we’re talking about a town that celebrates the sunset every night. We’re talking about Hemingway’s polydactyl cats stalking free-roaming families of chickens, and banyan trees that straddle sidewalks. The eccentric rich, and the beach bums, and the homeless by choice—street performers who make our island a veritable circus. Water Girl, and her Water House, fit right in. So we all became freaks.
The basement was only half underground, because Dad wanted Leona to have windows. The remaining height was reinforced like those walls at city banks, only much thicker. She had more windows than we did, that’s for sure. Then, in what used to be the backyard, he had another swimming-pool room built. And finally, after more than a year of construction and poor baby Leona stuck in bathtubs and wading pools and the occasional fishtank, the original house was dropped onto the new basement, and we all lived in a split-level, half-flooded home. The basement was filled within a couple feet of the ceiling, the old house was dry, and the backyard room was filled to about three feet.
As a final touch, dad rented a power saw and cut holes between the main floor and the basement, so we could communicate between levels. He built platforms into the underwater rooms so that he and I could stand there, or set chairs on them that would keep our heads above water. He furnished it all, even before Leona learned to talk, with a real bed and a desk and a dresser, and pink curtains that blew eerily in the water’s current. He made the backyard room into a den, with a sectional sofa half on platforms and a big TV mounted above the waterline. He was a little nuts.
Our house became an attraction. People walked past it really slow, peering in through the aquarium windows at the front of the house for a glimpse of Water Girl. The neighborhood kids especially loved it. They all wanted to see Water Girl, some of them badly enough to pretend to be my friend. For a while, I was popular.
When Leona was young, she didn’t spend much time in the deep room, so the gawkers were often disappointed. But when she did go out there she’d give them a show every time. She was almost six years old before we could get her to wear clothes.
When she was about two, the city’s tourist map labeled our house as the home of Water Girl, and traffic increased. Some of the jugglers and buskers from Duvall Street started performing on our lawn. A big bearded guy set up a table selling T-shirts with a cartoony picture of a mermaid on them, along with frozen bottles of water for the overheated tourists. I hated going outside. Our front porch—now high above street level—was a stage, and Water Girl’s sister heading off to school was like the sound check at a concert. I don’t know why dad never made them leave. Maybe they were giving him a cut of their earnings.
• • •
Once I made the mistake of showing Leona the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, and then it was all she wanted to talk about. I should have known better, but I was only a kid myself, maybe twelve years old. Leona was convinced she was the little mermaid, despite her lack of a tail or any obvious musical ability—and after she saw the movie, oh, how she tried to sing in her slow, haunting voice. She couldn’t wait for a prince to fall in love with her. She’d stare moony-eyed at the people who came to gawk through her aquarium windows, brushing her short hair with a fork.
I didn’t think this was healthy. After all, I could hear what passers-by were actually saying. Believe me, they weren’t in love with her. “Don’t ever give up your voice,” I told her. “Especially not for some man.” She didn’t listen. “Don’t you see how superficial their love is?” She would just roll her eyes, or roll her whole self over in the water like a whale, splashing me where I crouched on the edge of one of the den’s un-submerged chairs.
I don’t know if Leona realized it, but she did kind of have her own prince. One boy spent more time than any of the others looking into her windows. He was different from the other little monsters: he never walked on our lawn, or threw eggs at her windows, or pressed his buttocks up against the glass while a gaggle of friends laughed like hyenas. He also never said a word, as far as I knew. Whenever I tried to talk to him, he bolted like a startled bunny.
I started reading her the old versions of fairy tales. They gave better lessons, I thought, and didn’t make her so crazy. “See?” I asked, after reading the original version of “The Little Mermaid.” “She gets turned to sea-foam. How’s that for happily ever after?”
• • •
Until Leona came along, I thought I liked water. I thought of pool parties and the other neat things I would do with all my new friends in our giant pool. In reality, the water was insidious. The house was always humid, even upstairs. In summertime the walls and ceilings would drip with condensation. Everything that could warp did. None of the doors closed all the way, or else once closed, they refused to open for any force I could muster. Every book on my shelves was bloated and wrinkled from having been dropped or splashed. The house smelled musty, and things started to grow in unwelcome places. Once I found mushrooms sprouting from a couch cushion. My hair frizzed out like a brillo pad, and my toes and fingertips were constantly wrinkled.
I dreamed of deserts. At a very early age I started researching colleges in Arizona and Utah, and any other land-locked, arid spot I could find.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my sister. But sometimes I remembered how things had been before she came along, when mom was still alive and she and dad would take me to one of the island’s beaches. When we’d eat popcorn and watch a movie, curled up together in a blanket on a nice dry sofa. When every conversation wasn’t about her. When I didn’t have to prepare meals, let alone clear hairballs out of pool filters.
We still went to the beach sometimes, carting Leona around in a motorized tank dad designed. He made me go with him to scuba lessons, so we could go on what he called “family hikes.” We went on a few, but one time I was playing with Leona and I guess I surfaced wrong. I was sick for days, and after that dad didn’t make me go anymore. I was glad.
• • •
“Do you think I’ll ever be able to come on land?” Leona asked me, late one night when we both probably should have been in bed. She was ten years old, and the island had largely recovered from the excitement of Water Girl. Few people walked past her windows anymore, save some tourists and her prince. I looked down through the calm water, wondering whether I should lie. It was impossible to tell, of course, but I imagined she was crying.
I knew how she felt. I was a teenager, and the “friends” I’d once had were long gone. Once they’d gotten inside the Water House and seen Leona they soon realized I wasn’t any more interesting than any other zookeeper. I think even my sister bored them—she didn’t eat raw fish or jump through hoops, and she had boring old legs instead of fins.
I had other friends now, people I’d met in non-Water Girl-related ways. But that wasn’t an option for her.
I chose to lie. “Sure you will,” I said. “Just think how the ugly duckling changed into a beautiful swan.”
“But the duckling didn’t change,” she said. “He was always a swan, and he never fit in with the ducks.” She turned away from me, crossing her arms.
That really got me thinking.
The next day I found the biggest, oldest-looking book in the school library. The librarian didn’t want to let me have it, after what had become of some of their books, but I said it was for class so she had to. I sat by one of the holes—“fishin’ holes,” dad called them—dangling my toes just over the level of the water, and I opened the book. “Have you ever heard of Atlantis?” I asked Leona.
She hadn’t. The tale I pretended to read to her was marvelous: “There once was a glorious island city,” I told her, “much like this one except much farther out in the middle of the sea. The people who lived there had hair like the sun’s own rays,” (blonde, like Leona’s) “and the most beautiful of all was their queen. She was a favorite of the gods, and it was their love for her that kept the island safe above the riotous sea, for it was a floating island.
“The people of Atlantis were extremely gifted scientists and inventors. One day a man invented a flying machine, and gave it to the queen, who was so impressed that she stepped right into it and flew away. She told the people that she would be right back, but she never did return. No one knows what became of her, but without her the island lost its favor with the gods, and the city began to sink. The scientists and inventors did their best to keep it afloat. They used propellers and air-filled bladders. They used magnets and sails that caught only updrafts. But all they did was slow the island’s descent. The people were doomed.
“Yet a curious thing happened. As the island slowly sank beneath the waves, and the people of Atlantis hugged each other and wept, one of the gods took notice. He could not undo the sinking of the island, but he took pity on its inhabitants and allowed them to breathe the water under which they were now submerged.”
Leona couldn’t contain herself. “Like me?” she shrieked. “Are they still there?”
I tried to look impatient, while battling an incipient grin. “If you’ll let me finish, I’ll tell you. Now where was I?” I pretended to look for my place. “The island settled onto the bottom of the ocean, but life went on. The people of Atlantis kept dancing and inventing, but they looked now ever upward, anticipating the return of their queen. Generations were born and died, but still the people waited, for it was prophesied that one day a descendant of the queen would return, and on that day Atlantis would be lifted from its watery home and returned to its former glory, floating under the golden sun.”
I closed the book and set it far out of reach, before Leona could notice that it was a chemistry textbook. She fell for it, as they say, hook, line, and sinker. The very water she floated in became choppy with her excitement. She had put my not-so-subtle clues together and determined that she was the fabled descendant.
After that, Leona didn’t mope around wishing she could breathe the air. She had destiny about her, and it made her happy to be Water Girl. When her prince walked past her windows she no longer sighed with longing, and she no longer performed.
The only problem was that now she yearned for freedom. The next time we took her to the ocean she made a break for it, and it was all dad could do to grab her and wrestle her back into her tank. She cried that night, no doubt about it. The wailing was a dead giveaway.
This time even dad got into the game of manipulating Leona’s desires. “Don’t you love me?” he’d ask her, looking like an alien insect sitting in scuba gear on the carpeted floor of her aquarium. “Don’t you love your sister? After everything we’ve done for you, you’d rather swim off into the cold ocean?”
He tried buying her love with presents, but because he’d always done this, it had little effect. If it hadn’t been for me clearing them away or stowing them in nets, the surface of Leona’s water would have been layers deep with stuffed animals and other floating toys.
Finally dad rented all the Jaws movies and played them until he was convinced that Leona was terrified of sharks. He also made her watch every show he could find about the real-life monsters that lived in the sea. It kind of worked, or at least it seemed to. It was hard to say, since we didn’t go to the ocean anymore.
• • •
Hurricane season always started at the end of summer. Key West was usually spared direct hits, but even so we’d been through dozens of storms, and thought we’d seen it all. So at first when reports said Hurricane Paige was going to be a killer, we ignored them. As the storm approached, the warnings became more serious: it was a category five and showed no sign of slowing down before it reached us. Some of the island’s inhabitants undertook the long trek up the causeway to the mainland, and then farther still until they were safely out of Florida. But most didn’t. And anyway, we couldn’t go. There was simply no way to transport pre-teen Leona that far. Our house was retro-fitted with storm shutters, we had a generator and weeks’ worth of supplies, and our already flooded basement was fully flood-proof. We were safe.
At first it wasn’t so bad. Our roof leaked, but it wasn’t any wetter inside the house than usual. Leona loved it. She was glued to her bulletproof aquarium walls watching palms blow in the wind and rain falling sideways. The wind intensified, throwing anything that wasn’t bolted down and some things that were: yard art, bicycles, storm shutters. At one point a fish—I think it was a grouper—slapped right into the wall Leona’s face was pressed against; she shrieked like a little girl, surprise mixed with delight.
On the second day our power went out. Dad said we should conserve the generator power to run Leona’s filtration system, so we stopped watching the news reports on the storm. After that we didn’t really know what to expect.
On the third day the waters started to rise. See, as a storm approaches, it pushes water in front of it like wake off the bow of a boat. They call it storm surge, and it happens to some degree with every major storm. When it happens in Key West, the island can all but disappear. Dad and I were worried; we spent most of the day in Leona’s room, ducking our heads under her water to track the progress of the murky water churning on the outside. She was ecstatic, and kept begging us to go for a “hike” outside.
“Look,” she said to me. “Atlantis is sinking.”
But by the end of the day, dad and I felt safe enough to sleep. The water had risen all morning and afternoon, but seemed to peak at a couple feet high. He rejoiced in the watertight nature of our basement and slept soundly that night, while branches and other debris pelted the house. I woke up at two or three in the morning to eerie silence: it was the eye. For a moment I thought of going for a walk, or at least looking outside to see the damage, but instead I drifted back to sleep. I didn’t even wake when the eye passed and the full force of the storm started up as suddenly as a switch being thrown.
In the morning, Leona was gone. The kitchen floor was covered in rainwater, leaves, and other trash, and the storm door was ajar. While dad and I slept, upstairs in our rooms behind opaque shutters, the surge had doubled, maybe tripled. Outside Leona’s windows the murky water was at least three feet high, more than high enough for our little mermaid to swim through.
Our Atlantis had sunk, and Water Girl had taken the opportunity to slip away.
When we discovered it, dad was frantic. He wanted to get a search party together right away. He had his hat and his boots on and he was about to step outside when I grabbed him by the arm.
“Let go of me,” he said. “I’m going to find your sister.”
In the silence between words I could hear the wind roaring. I thought it said everything I needed to say, but I tried anyway. “You’ll die if you go out there,” I said.
He didn’t care. Or at least he said he didn’t, but when he threw open the door and stared into the wall of gray water and weather that had been our yard, he stood motionless. A yield sign whipped through the air, embedding itself into the side of the neighbors’ house.
“Will you come inside now?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, but he allowed me to pull him back into the flooding kitchen. It took me almost half an hour to wrestle the storm door back into place.
When the hurricane finally died down, we gathered up a party of other die-hards who’d stayed on the island, paired up, and went looking for Leona. My partner was a skinny kid from the neighborhood, a couple years younger than myself: Leona’s prince. I had seen him almost every day for years—as he walked slowly past Water House—but we had never spoken. We still didn’t really speak; he was wrapped in sadness and plastic rain gear.
Wading through the sometimes waist-deep streets of Key West I knew it was hopeless. Even if Leona was out there, if she wanted to hide from us it would be the simplest thing in the world. In my heart I knew she was gone. I didn’t look very hard for her, because I didn’t want to find her. I knew if I did, it would only be her body. But the boy searched tirelessly, sometimes diving into submerged piles of wreckage. After I had to physically hold him back the third time, I wrestled him up against the hull of an upturned boat and held him there.
“What’s your problem?” he shouted to me. He was wild, like an animal. He struggled against me, but I held tight to the shoulders of his rain jacket. “Don’t you want to get her back?”
I did want it, more than I would have guessed. I let the boy go, stepping back from him. I did want her, but it was like wanting a unicorn or a fairy. “We never had her,” I said. “We can’t get her back.”
The boy slumped against the boat, deflated.
“You never even spoke to her,” I said. “What was she to you?”
He thought about it for a long time. Finally he looked up at me. “She was a mystery,” he said. “She was a little peek beyond reality.”
I laughed, bitterly. “No, she wasn’t. She was just a lonely kid. Maybe you should have talked to her instead of just casing the house like some creep. Maybe if she’d had a friend she wouldn’t have run away.”
The boy looked like I’d slapped him in the face, but I felt like I’d slapped myself. Why hadn’t I tried harder to connect her to the world? What good were my stories when she could have had a real-live friend?
“Leona!” I yelled. “Leona, come back! I’m so sorry!” I was sobbing by then, for the first time feeling the enormity of our loss.
We searched until the night was as black as the bottom of the sea.
• • •
A couple weeks after the storm, when most of the population had returned and power had been restored, and the island was shaking itself dry, a girl’s body snared in the nets of a fishing boat a few miles offshore. You couldn’t tell from looking if it was our Leona; it had been out there too long, and was too decomposed, too fish-eaten. And since Leona had never been to a dentist, there wasn’t any definitive way to know. It was enough, though, to allow dad and me to stop our frantic searching. It was a good enough excuse for both of us to let go.
We buried the body on the highest part of the island, next to mom, in a ceremony attended by just about everyone. An enormous gravestone was donated by the community, with a carving of a mermaid and the inscription “Here Lies Water Girl.”
Realistically, I know she’s dead. But there’s a part of me that will never believe it’s my sister in that grave. I prefer to think of her as the long-lost princess of Atlantis, swimming through calm Atlantic waters toward her waiting kingdom. An honor guard of dolphins leads the way and protects her from sharks and other sea monsters.
I prefer to think of her sitting on a wet but glorious throne, adored by all the golden-haired geniuses of Atlantis. From high, high above, the gods smile on her.
Any day now that island will start to rise.
Copyright © 2022 by Emily C. Skaftun