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Crusted Nails, Mermaid Scales

I grew up in the shadow of the ocean. It was impossible to ignore its presence. The smell of the water hung heavy in the air, a heavy and salty scent that the candles sold in department stores could never capture. With the ever-present beaches never more than a few hours away, I learnt to swim in saltwater and ocean air, to lean back into the water and trust it to hold me up. It was a fragile balance I could never hope to understand. You must trust the water to keep you floating—the same water that could turn on you at a moment’s notice, dragging you under, wrapping you in its powerful and lethal folds. I loved it anyway.

Summers were spent on golden and white shorelines. Beachmats, ice-cream, sandcastle molds, plastic buckets and shovels and spades were constant companions. I learnt how to cartwheel on hot and heavy sand. Sand also made an excellent replacement for snow. Sandballs in lieu of snowballs; wet sand sculptures in lieu of snowmen. My friends and I found peace in the sound of lapping water, and we would chase each other up and down the shore, kicking up heavy waves of sand and tiny broken shells. In memories of sunshine and laughter, every miserable sand-filled shoe moment afterwards was lost in the high crest of summer-breeze adrenaline. The shadows of memories follow me whenever I return.

The human mind is nothing compared to the swirl of heavy white foam as it laps away at the earth. We are made of 70% water, the pull that brings us back is only natural. Saltwater is smooth against skin, a direct contradiction to the way salt crystals scrape raw. I roll the wet sand between my fingers and feel the grains lodge themselves in the crevasses under my nails and in my cuticles. They cling tight and don’t let go. I’ll find them everywhere in the next few weeks, hidden in hair and clothes and shoes. I wonder how many days and weeks each individual grain of sand I wash down the drain has seen. Most likely more than I have, and here I am, watching them swirl away in tap water for no reason other than their natural and intrusive inconvenience. A product of nature’s millennials lost in a second of human action.

After a day at the green and blue and purple rippling sea, sand is not the only thing scrubbed off the skin of arms and legs. If enough time is spent in a saltwater embrace, after enough hours in the sun afterwards, salt joins the sand patterns, simmering white blending with sparkling gold. A makeshift set of scales, easily shed with a pumice rock or sponge. A callback to our beginnings, when life on Earth first appeared in the depths of a sea we are still too fearful to explore.

I grew up in the shadow of the ocean, in the drifting echoes of fish markets and lingering scent of musk and salt. My childhood memories of the world were seawater tinged and yet still mountain air fresh. They were brilliant and bold. I hid them in the crevasses of my mind, wove them between the white and black lines and space of technology’s letters and keys. I remember sitting by the shore, sand trickling between my fingers like the waist of an hourglass, ever shifting, a thin trickle of gold, a sun-ray solidified.


Crusted Nails, Mermaid Scales by Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai - Arkansas, U.S./Hong Kong


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