Our father came from the water. In his younger years, he looked very different, more fish-like. But over time, spending the majority of his days on land, he came to look like everyone else's father: salt and pepper hair, golf shirts in the summer, a slight gut, hairy legs.
Our mother came from the earth. She was a school teacher who once took a year off to see the world. During that year, she met my father, who was new to land. He was ambitious and had many dreams. He followed her back to the desert, where they opened an underwater themed inn called The Eternal Wave. Our father did not enjoy the desert at first, but he adapted. Because he had great knowledge about water, he helped put the bend back into the nearby rivers that had been straightened long ago, bringing back some wetlands.
Every summer when we were young, my parents brought my twin sister Lucy and me to the lake house. We parked at a trailhead and began hiking at dawn. We carried everything we needed in our backpacks. Mom lugged a big thermal bag containing Saran-wrapped plates of two varieties of dumplings: eggs and chives (my sister's favorite) and pork (mine). She always worried we didn't have enough water or food to get to the lake. We hiked on the trail for a few hours and then, after making sure no one was looking, left it, heading north into the forest. From there, we fought our way through dense brush following the paths left by deer. Alpine lakes glittered before us like a string of pearls. They were clear and cold with no signs of visible life. In this way, we hiked and camped for three days.
The forest gradually shifted around us, the vegetation sparsening, the rocky ground turning slowly into sand. We saw the glow of the lake before we saw the lake itself, and we sprinted the rest of the way. We named it Lake Rose, for its color. Lake Rose was like no other lake in the area. It was pink, warm, salty, deep, and overflowing with life. Sparkling white salt rimmed its surface. We helped Mom set up a tent at the edge of the water. We ate a big dinner of leftover dumplings. Then, one by one, my father, my sister, and I descended into the water.
The inside of Lake Rose was salty. Too salty at first, the water would hurt our throats and lungs until we got accustomed to it. We descended through the blooms of fish, jellies, and pink algae to the dark bottom of the lake where our father long ago had built a little cave out of giant slabs of rock and planted beds of oysters. Our father drilled holes into the rocks forming a maze of chambers and crevices. Coral grew healthily all over our house, and small creatures lived in the holes. Lucy and I had separate but connected rooms covered in sea vegetation and life. We gorged ourselves on oysters and algae.
The last time my family went to the lake house, my sister and I were seventeen. We had matching wavy black hair and long arms and legs, tan from being outside. The water was the pinkest we'd ever seen it. Lake Rose was our haven, a middle ground between the earthly and watery realms, before we had to decide what we wanted to be: a fish or a human.
"We love you no matter what you choose," our parents said to us.
When we were young, Lucy's mouth always moved like that of a fish when she was thinking, no sounds coming out. She often disappeared outside while I played house with stuffed animals and dolls. I enjoyed school while she struggled to pay attention. She was a different kind of smart. We often played a video game about astronauts exploring a martian landscape. My sister once accidentally discovered a controller code that pitched her astronaut into the outer darkness. As I beat level after level and obtained the parts needed to take our spaceship back to earth, she puttered around in space, interacting with aliens and taking in the views of the galaxy. Halfway through our summer stays at Lake Rose, I grew tired of the salt water and joined our mother in her tent to keep her company. We knitted and made jewelry. My sister never came back up to the surface until it was time to leave.
I chose the land, and Lucy chose the sea.
For my sister's departure, we journeyed as a family to the coast. We treated it as one last family vacation. Everything along the coast was so green and lush. Shore birds dotted the marsh. Fuzzy moss necklaces hung from the branches of every tree. We went on long hikes through the marshland and stood where the river met the ocean, watching hundreds of manatees slowly eating seagrass or sleeping.
My sister was visibly nervous. "I should go," she said, "before it gets too dark." I hugged her long and tight, breathing in her scent, remembering the feel of her body in my arms. It was never going to be like this again. We watched her walk into the ocean to start her new life. Our parents cried for a long time. They knew how much everything would change.
Many years passed. I went to college, married, divorced. At first, we received crinkly postcards from all sorts of places around the world: Okinawa, Edinburgh, Venice, Auckland. I looked at maps of Lucy's path and considered traveling to a coast near where she last wrote to us in hopes of seeing her. The dream is alive, the postcards always said, Love, Lucy. At the tops, she wrote: please mail if found, leaving them on a sandy beach for some passerby to pick up and send. After a while, the postcards stopped coming.
"You can't expect her to miss us," Dad explained when I complained to him. He was sick at the hospital with heart failure by then. "She's a fish now. She won't adapt if she's always looking back."
Mom and Dad passed away in the same year. I worried about how to tell Lucy if I saw her again. I took over the family business, which had rapidly expanded. The Eternal Wave had locations all over the world. I frequently visited the other locations to make sure they were holding onto the original vision. The underwater feeling of the inn was supposed to feel authentic, nothing kitschy. The effect was created through simple lighting that mimicked the sun dancing upon the water's surface, sound recordings of the deep that my father once collected from Lake Rose, dusty blue paint on the walls, a waterbed my father patented, and an austere layout without wall art or furniture. I showed up to these locations unannounced and picked rooms at random to inspect. I liked palindromic room numbers, like 2112, because these small things reminded me of my sister. I worked through my inspection checklists and discussed aesthetic discrepancies with the inn manager.
In this way, I saw a lot of the world. I wandered through new streets and tried the local cuisine at restaurants where I didn't know anyone. Sometimes, living out of my suitcase and sleeping in hotel rooms night after night made me feel like a ghost.
One day, I received a postcard forwarded from our parents' old address that said: Meet at Lake Rose this summer. I hadn't been back to the lake house in a long time and was surprised by the request. I thought Lucy had succeeded in her adaptation to ocean life, letting go of what she knew of the land, what she left behind. She had to be a fish by now. In advance of the trip, I practiced my underwater breathing because I felt rusty. Every weekend, I drove to a nearby lake. I improved at holding my breath until I could be underwater for thirty minutes without feeling discomfort.
When it came time to meet Lucy, I followed the route to the lake house based on memory. It was my first time going to Lake Rose alone. Somehow, I just knew how to get there, the path to it innate. In the heart of the forest, as I made my way through the dense brush, I felt giddy with excitement.
I saw the glow first. When I arrived at Lake Rose, I noticed it had shrunk significantly since our last family trip to its shore. The salt cracked beneath my feet and each footprint filled with water as I made my way to the edge. I touched my lips to the surface of the lake. It had grown even saltier.
Lucy rushed to meet me at the shore. No one would have guessed we were twins. She was disheveled, her hair slick and greasy, her body translucent, lithe, and fishy, her eyes bulging and staring intently at me. She looked pregnant—her belly swollen and bulbous—except her bump had an odd, lopsided quality. I searched for the scar above her left eye from a bike accident when we were young.
"You came," she said. Her voice was hoarse from disuse. She cleared her throat.
"It's not like you left a return address for me to turn you down," I said.
"I'm so itchy," she said. She scratched at herself vigorously. It was a long journey from the ocean. She wasn't used to the dryness.
I pointed at the lump in her side. "What is that?" I asked.
"My lover," she said. She patted it gingerly. "We met when I was exploring the darkest parts of the sea. Strange fish with underbites began to follow me. I couldn't tell if they planned to devour me. But I realized after looking at them more closely that they were larger females joined with smaller males. They moved together as a fusion. They wanted me to join their school. I agreed. One of the lone males ate a hole in me and then hooked onto my belly. It was very painful. Our skin and blood vessels fused over time. It is all part of the mating practice of his species."
My sister paused to let me feel her lump. I could sense a subtle vibration.
"It is his adaptation to slowly degenerate into a lump after reproduction. I've observed his brothers and how they live," my sister said. "After he attached to me, I revealed that I didn't want children. In an act of defiance, he degenerated into a lump early."
The lump looked like a gross cyst, purplish and shiny. "It looks infected," I said.
"Yes," my sister said. She paused to take a breath. "He's been ill recently. I think he's dying."
"What?" I said. "I'm so sorry."
She nodded. "He's been my companion for so long, I don't know what to do when he's gone. We've shared everything: nutrients, blood, oxygen. Want to swim for a bit?" she asked. "He does better in the water."
We walked into the shimmering world below. Fish swam past me in bright streaks and soft jellies floated near my face. There were fewer now than there used to be, but the pink was bright and inviting, like I was inside a body. It felt like home. My sister slipped easily through the water and I followed her.
As we sank toward the bottom of Lake Rose, I could feel the temperature drop. I kept my chin on my chest. Once I got deep enough underwater, I didn't have to fight my way down anymore. The pressure held me there. I felt suspended and light. Then the water grew slightly murky. My eardrums began to hurt as the pressure increased. We descended until we reached our house at the very center of the lake bottom.
It was so dark, I couldn't see on my own. My eyes hadn't adjusted. But I ran my hands over the familiar surfaces of the rocks, now completely covered with vegetation and complex coral structures. My mind filled with memories of childhood.
We swam into my room and then Lucy's room, both of which were filled to the brim with algae that swayed with our movements. "Not our house anymore," I said. "Other things have moved in."
The oyster beds were still there. Lucy and I found a spot between the beds to rest.
"I traveled by riding solitary internal waves," Lucy said. "They're these waves inside the water. Some of them don't break for hundreds of thousands of miles. They are these elegant, smooth paths, like underwater freeways," she explained.
I stroked Lucy's ailing mate, feeling for his slow heartbeat as I told her about the success of our family business and all my travels. "I'm ready for something different," I said, "something more settled. I've been thinking of adopting a child."
We reacted to each other's lives with encouragement and awe.
"And Mom and Dad?" Lucy asked me.
For a moment, I thought about lying. "They're gone," I said in a whisper.
"Oh," she said. Her mouth still made the same movement when she was thinking. "You must think I'm cruel because I never returned."
I shook my head. "They understood."
"Do you understand?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said.
"To be a fish, you can't miss land," Lucy said, "because the ocean is so vast and so empty at times that your mind and your heart would break from missing the land. You have to reconfigure everything to center around a life in water, as if the land isn't an option. It's the hardest thing to do." Her voice quavered as she spoke.
I grabbed Lucy's hand, which was smoothing out into a fin.
I started to feel queasy from being underwater, so we made our way back up to the surface. My sister helped me set up a tent at the edge of Lake Rose, the way we used to for our mom. I slept on a little cot under a heap of blankets. At night, the wind blew over the surface of the water, making it roar.
My sister's lover died that night. Suddenly, she no longer felt the flow of blood and nutrients between them. Extracting him in the morning was a painful process. I had to cut through her skin with a small knife. We buried his tiny bones at the bottom of the lake right by our oyster beds.
"Remember when we put tiny sea worms in these oysters?" my sister asked me afterwards.
I nodded. "I remember."
She slipped the blade of my knife into an oyster and opened it.
"Look," she said. She showed me the pearl hidden in its slimy folds.
For the rest of the day, my sister and I dove for pearls, working our way through the oyster beds. Quietly, we concentrated on the ritual, like it was a form of mourning. We compared our bounty the way we had once compared Halloween candy and shells on the beach. The pearls were a variety of colors—white, yellow, pink, black—with swirl patterns, like marbles. The sun glinted on our backs. We traded for the ones we liked.