My daughter was born a mermaid.

No gills or flippers or waving hair. A human tail, smooth, pale-fleshed.

I hold her in my arms, bending to adjust the water temperature. The tub is nearly full, fringed in tangerine-scented bubbles. She does not sleep; she looks at me in quiet study, still blue eyes so solemn for a baby so young.

I dip my foot in the water. The heat pulls upward, coiling in my stomach. I put my daughter on a layer of towels while I undress. First, my jeans and T-shirt, stale with sweat and worry. Then my underwear, my socks, until I stand naked. I free my hair from its elastic and let it fall in twisted waves down my back.

I lift my daughter up against my breasts and step, without making waves, into the tub.

When I looked at my daughter for the first time, the throbbing between my legs cooled, and a rush of awe surged in its place. She opened her eyes and I cupped my hand against her skull, my fingers laced through the soft brown fronds of her hair. She held her arms like folded wings, fingers pinned into her chest, like sleeping petals. I traced the new skin of her belly and looked at her legs. They converged in a V, her feet merged, a pointed-toed ballerina. Her knees pushed up in soft joined mounds, warm rising dough. I kissed the top of her head. My mermaid baby.

I was nineteen when I held a cup of my urine. I counted under my breath, then held the stick up. The urine moved like a cloud over the result window; changing pink to purple. The minus sign morphed into a plus. I held the sink and blinked hard. I smacked the cup over the edge, urine falling in an arc to my feet.

Charles asked if I was sure. I showed him the stick and his face blanched. I counted three shades of white. He took off his gloves and sat heavy in the kitchen chair. I passed him a mug of coffee, took my own place opposite him. He stared at it, but wouldn't drink. I'm not contagious, I said.

At night, Charles climbed in bed naked and held me against him until we were one warmth. He was careful of my belly, lowering his hand to my thigh instead. He whispered that we couldn't afford this. I closed my eyes into his neck and nodded. He said the car needs a transmission and you don't have a job. I found his hand and rubbed his palm, where his skin had scaled. He didn't say anything when I carried his hand with mine, and fastened it to my belly.

I found a job at a grocery store. Charles made me promise to tell the manager that I couldn't lift heavy boxes. I arranged cans of vegetables so their labels made one long ribbon of color down the aisle; corn to green beans to beets, then I moved to the peas and tomatoes. I filled the holes when cans were taken, felt sorry when no one would buy the okra. I ate sandwiches from the bakery for lunch, discounted half price. The bakery lady asked me how far along I was. My hand curved to my belly. It had only risen a crescent; I hadn't thought anyone would notice yet. I told her just three months and she nodded like mothers do. She said I was twice as big as you with my son at three. Doctor thought he was triplets for sure. She gave me a bottle of juice and said she'd pay.

Charles came home dusted in soil. I would take his jacket and gloves, wipe his lips, kiss him with my eyes open. I made spaghetti sometimes, took the recipe from the back of the seasoning packets I'd sorted at work. I made a bean soup. I bought three cans of okra and served them warm. Charles didn't know what it was.

I ran him a bath and washed his back, muscles lined with earth, like a shadowed statue. He told me the names of the flowers he had planted that day. Delphiniums. Amaranthus. Helianthus. Arachnis. He spoke the words like wine, and I lay my head on his back, my hair sticking to his skin, long rust-colored seaweed.

Afterward, he held my body with nervous aching. He centered my head on the pillow and leaned toward me, holding each breast like weighted porcelain. He was wet and cool still, water in droplets running down his back. I found his legs with mine and cooled my skin with his. He lifted me, palms flat, eased me onto him. I watched him backed in moonlight, shoulders angled, his hair so dark it melted into the walls. Sleep found him curved into my hip, one arm slung across my thighs.

I waited at the clinic for a turn to see the doctor, watching women with three children, five children, one with six. Some tried to read magazines, others chattered in unknown languages, grasping for wrists or ankles. Some nursed one child while bottle-feeding another. I laced my hands beneath my stomach and waited for my name.

The doctor weighed me, asked me questions, examined me with latex. He said schedule an ultrasound, come back, I have too many patients today. He made notes on a thin piece of paper without looking up. I nodded, and he asked me to bring my husband next time if we'd like to know the sex of the baby. I said we aren't married, and he handed me the paper. Prenatal vitamins, he said. He looked old, etched lines snaking beneath his eyes. Make an appointment next time. There are a lot of girls like you in that waiting room.

My mother cried when I told her. She said your poor sister's been trying for years. She dabbed at the mascara streaming from her eyes and looked at me seriously. Make sure he's sticking around. Babies scare men. Then she walked to her bedroom and came back with a photograph. She handed it to me. It was me, six months written on the back. I had on a red-checkered dress and an elastic headband. You cried every night until you were three, she said, folding her arms.

I told Charles I wanted to be surprised. He said he didn't care if it was a boy or a girl. We made a list of names we loved, and a list of names we hated. Loved: Marion Charlotte. Daniel. Hated: Melissa. Robert. Tiffany. I showed Charles the picture of me and he laughed. He said you look the same, but different. He taped the picture by the bedroom light switch. While he brushed his teeth I stared at myself. My face was full, red-cheeked. I wanted to know if this baby would take my eyes, or Charles' nose, or my hair color. Little baby with dark red hair and blue eyes. Maybe Daniel. Or Marion.

The doctor squinted at the screen, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He had said nothing when I came alone. I watched him, and waited. He moved closer to the monitor, breathed in sharply. Then he left the room, and came back with two other doctors, a withered nurse behind them.

He said, there's a problem.

I looked at the screen, connected dots of white and black.

I could see my baby's hand.

Charles bought a pink blanket. I folded it and put it in with my clothes, nestled against my shirts, and touched the fleece backing with the curve of my fingertips. I imagined her palm pressed into the fabric, touched that ghostly imprint. I remembered the doctor's face, the slow pronouncement on his lips.

I did not tell Charles.

At night, I held my belly in both hands, tried to find the top of her head, a balled fist. She floated. No struggling, no kicking. Home in my belly, suspended in an ocean.

I spelled the word in my head.

Sirenomelia. Siren.

I sang to her, quiet so Charles wouldn't hear.

One night, before Charles came home, I filled the tub to its rim. I lowered myself slowly, water rolling onto the tiles. I buried my bulging belly, my breasts buoyed above the surface. Underwater, my skin was softer, moon-tinted; my clay-colored hair lay sticky against my chest. I remembered taking baths as a child, filling the tub with pink bubbles, maneuvering plastic boats and rubber animals across the waves I'd make by seesawing my body in counted rhythms. I would soak for hours, until my mother forcibly pulled me out and circled me in a towel. I'd watch the water drain to nothing, my toys beached on the bottom.

I sunk beneath the water, held my legs up against the wall. I wanted to speak there, breathe water in and out. She twirled.

I spread my hands against my belly, pushed into my skin. A push back, something hard, insistent. I smiled underwater, tiny bubbles moving past my teeth.

I mouthed: Marion.

I quit my job at the beginning of my ninth month. The bakery lady, Jeanne I knew now, gave me a pink frosted cookie and asked me to come back to let her hold the baby. She patted my stomach.

Charles put together the crib, painted white. He moved it against the wall in our bedroom and spread the pink blanket on the mattress. I sat on the edge of the bed. He rubbed my back in circles until I fell asleep.

At night, I dreamed of waves, high-crested and foamed, lifting me from bed, then sending me barreling underwater, past eels and coral and sandpaper-skinned sharks. I did not resist; my lungs filled with seawater, and I exhaled, serene, setting back into the ocean.

That day Charles ran three red lights, swerving past slow cars and pedestrians. The hospital had no records of me. Charles filled out forms while I paced, counting. A nurse found us a room and Charles thrust the forms at the front desk, guiding me into the elevator, then down the maternity ward. He held my hand, fingers rigid. I smiled into his neck, left a kiss. He whispered, everything will be fine.

I woke, blurry-eyed, rising from a pool of sweat. The room was crowded with doctors and machines, surrounding me like ancient, immovable rock. One doctor cried. Another talked rapidly, excited. A nurse held her hand over her mouth. A doctor said, I'm sorry Mr. Matthews but she will not live long. Bladder is undeveloped. Genitals are rudimentary. One kidney. He held her up in his hands. My baby. She cried out, strong.

I watched Charles' face crumble.

My mother asks me how God can be so cruel. She won't hold the baby. She holds a tissue against her face and cries, her voice angry, high-pitched. When she leaves, she won't look at Charles.

The doctors tell me the operation will be very expensive, and may not be successful. They tell me about steel bones and tubes. Artificial organs. A reconstructed vagina. I watch Marion beside me, connected to machines; I hear a low robotic hum, not her sounds. He says, she can breathe on her own. Her heart is healthy. But she will need dialysis to keep her alive. Surgeries will be necessary for the first ten years of her life. She holds her tail up; I can see her buried toes.

The ward is quiet with breathing. I take her from all that plastic, remove tape and tubes, slowly. Charles is sleeping in the corner. I take his keys. I find my clothes in a duffle bag. I wrap her in blankets and move into the hallway, slipping past the main desk as the night nurse walks to the bathroom. I place her on the passenger seat, swaddled tight, one hand holding her body as I drive, so slow I pray no one will follow behind me.

The water is warm, tingling my skin. I sing her song. Her cheek rests against the rise of my breasts, her chest lifting and falling like the tide. I touch her back, her neck, the smooth underside of her tail. I lower my head, hold hers in the curve of my neck. We slip beneath waves, blinking up at the world, undulating in blue, my baby's skin seal smooth on my belly. Her breath echoes mine, ebbs and flows in our own sea. The only sounds here: breathing, trickles of water, distant ocean swells.

Copyright © Sarah Orton 2008.

Title graphic: "Daughter Dear" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2008.