Minthe emigrated from Atlantis to the U.S. right before the quotas were filled. She came with only one suitcase, containing the skirt-suits she’d worn as a young tour guide and her favorite kelp chips (believing that they’d be impossible to find in America, although she’d later be informed they were easily purchased via Amazon). Those were, of course, confiscated.
Her daughter had moved to California thirteen years ago, married an American, and had American children that Minthe had never seen. In fact, she could barely picture what they might look like—would they have gills? Would they be able to swim? The thought that they might not disturbed her so greatly she had recurring nightmares about it. After waking from these nightmares, she would always find herself breaking into a cold sweat—a part of her liked it because it made her feel as if she were underwater again.
The morning before she left, Minthe sat on the foot of her now-dry bed. She walked across the dry floor, her skin making flaky sounds against the marble, and looked out the window at the blue and green buildings peeking out like giant fingers through the water. She watched as older people who had traversed these streets for their entire lives fumbling on still-unfamiliar dry land, watched as the rest looked down at them.
From where she stood, Minthe could see the school she swam to as a girl, the restaurant Nikon used to own, the hospital Ionna was born at. When she squinted, it was almost like she was looking at these places through water.
“Can you name our political parties?”
Minthe drew in a deep breath through her gills and answered: “The Democrats and the Republicans.” Her voice was hoarse, it usually was, and she reached for her glass of water without thinking.
“You said you’re here to help your daughter out, is that correct?” the officer asked. Minthe had said that only minutes before.
“Do you plan on applying for full citizenship?”
Minthe tried to swallow, but her throat was dry. “I haven’t considered it.”
The immigration officer jotted down a few notes, his gaze still fixed on Minthe. “Your accent is flawless, you know.”
“We’re taught English in school.”
“Everyone says that, but you must’ve had a lot of practice.”
Minthe’s eyes traveled past the officer and skimmed along his shelves. He had no books, but several mugs—‘Greatest Dad’, ‘#1 Grandpa’. “We talk a lot over the phone,” Minthe explained. “Me and my daughter. So that must’ve helped.”
“I think you might be the only mother who says she talks to her daughter a lot over the phone.”
Minthe didn’t laugh and the immigration officer pretended not to notice as he handed her a stack of forms. “All you have to do is sign your name on the top form.”
With a shaking hand, Minthe did as she was told.
“It’s that easy, huh?” The officer laughed as he rocked a bright red stamp over her signature, leaving it just barely visible.
Minthe’s room was tucked away in a corner of her daughter’s house. Ionna—she’d long since changed her name to Joanna, but Minthe could never remember—thought it would be best to give her mother some privacy. “To get used to things,” she had said.
“C’mon, mama.” Joanna led Minthe to her room at the end of the dim hallway.
Mama. To be called by that word felt strange to Minthe. She knew what it meant, and the closeness it symbolized, but it was still foreign.
Minthe’s room was plastered with what seemed like hastily drawn pictures of animals and clouds and suns with sunglasses. She assumed the tiny, wrinkly figure depicted in most of them was her. “The kids decorated it just for you. Don’t you like it?” Joanna asked.
“It’s nice,” Minthe replied. She sat on the bed and suppressed a sigh. She had never felt so tired in Atlantis. “Looks like they put in a lot of work.”
“They did. Jonathan wouldn’t stop drawing. I had to tell him there was no more space.” Joanna laughed. “Did you see the pillow Layla made you?”
Minthe grabbed the pillow from its place against the headboard. Embroidered against white lace were the words: ‘World’s Best Grandma’.
“She’s been working on it at school. They’ve got a craft hour.”
There had never been craft hours in Atlantis. “Lovely.”
“I’ll let you sleep for now, mama. You must be jetlagged.” Without waiting for a reply, Joanna closed the door and left Minthe alone in her new room.
“Grandma!” The children cheered as soon as Minthe stepped into the kitchen. The answer of what the children looked like was soon solved: like land-dwellers. Like their father. Not like Minthe.
“Can you make me some cocoa, grandma?” Layla asked as soon as Minthe sat down.
“Where is the mix?”
Layla led her by the hand to the cupboard and pointed out the bright yellow container of cocoa. Inside was a gritty brown powder unlike anything Minthe had seen before. The scent of it was strong, almost overpowering. She poured some of it into a cup of milk she then microwaved—Minthe had never seen a microwave before either.
As soon as the microwave beeped, Layla swung the door open and grabbed the hot plastic mug without flinching.
“What does it taste like?” Minthe asked.
“Chocolate. Want some?” Layla slid her cup over.
Minthe felt her tongue recoil—the milk was hot and clumpy. “Is this your favorite?” she asked, and handed the cup back to Layla.
“Yeah. You made it right, too,” Layla said, smiling. “Mama always makes it too soggy.”
“She means lukewarm,” Jonathan whispered.
“It means the same thing.” Layla bit the edge of her cup and eyed her grandmother. “What does it mean in Atlantis?”
“It means the same thing.”
Layla drank the rest of the cocoa and sighed with happiness. “Told you.”
She’d left everything her husband owned in Atlantis. Sometimes Minthe imagined his possessions floating around the city: some man wearing his coat (the buttons fixed with mismatched thread), or someone else’s daughter wrapping up his pocket watch in colorful tissue paper for a birthday.
Minthe kept one thing only: a sleep mask he’d worn every night. They didn’t need it when they lived underwater, but once the city had risen the light was too much for Nikon. It was cheap and noisy and he had loved it. Minthe didn’t need anything to fall asleep, but she wore the mask every night.
Minthe always went to church on Sunday—she had prayed to many different gods before and didn’t mind adding another.
It was Layla who taught her the prayers. They came fast and easy to Minthe, who translated them in her head. Once she’d spoken the translated version out loud and Layla overheard.
“Can you teach me how to speak like you?” she had asked.
Minthe wrote down a few words and their translations for her. Later she would see Layla studying in front of the television, mouthing the words silently to herself as cartoons blared on in front of her.
A week later, while cleaning out Layla’s backpack, she found the slip of paper crumpled at the bottom. Pictures of airplanes and hearts and people obscured the words. Minthe smoothed it out as best as she could and tucked it inside the pocket of her robe.
Minthe went back to Atlantis once, just two years before she would die. Joanna was supposed to accompany her, but backed out at the last second, worried about work and what they might think if she took two weeks off to go to Atlantis.
“There’s still a stigma, you know,” Joanna said, and Minthe nodded despite not knowing why that would ever matter when talking about home.
While the water-taxi drove her deeper and deeper, Minthe stared out the window, her gills opening and closing and sucking in nothing at all. Everything looked strange filtered through the water—the light, the fish. Minthe rubbed her eyes happily—she liked not having to squint to peer at things. She liked not being able to see for miles and miles.
“Are you going home?” the driver asked. He was an Atlantean, born and bred, and his gills were still.
“No. I don’t live here anymore.”
“But you’re from here?”
“So you’re going home.” The driver smiled. “Welcome back.”
Her mouth crushed into a thin line. “Thanks,” she said, her lips just barely moving.
“What are you going to do first?”
Outside the window jellyfish were floating through the water, their stingers trailing behind them like handkerchiefs. Minthe pressed one hand against the glass while the other one hovered over the button that controlled the window.
“I’ll go for a swim,” she said after a pause.
“You could do that up there.”
She pressed her forehead against the glass and felt the cold. “No. Not really.”
Minthe saved her visit to Nikon’s grave for last. He was buried in the shallow fake grass the city had planted near the center in order to create a park. No one had used it then and so it became a cemetery so that everyone would be forced to use it later.
Minthe placed flowers along the tombstone—“Loving Husband, Devoted Father”. Amongst the flowers she left a small cotton sleep-mask.
“I hope you like the new one,” she mumbled. She knew people often spoke at gravesites, but it felt strange to her and she didn’t want anyone to hear her.
As she stood above Nikon’s ashes, she considered where hers might lay one day. It would be strange to be buried in the fake grass in Atlantis, and stranger still to be buried in America. Perhaps they would throw her in the sea and she could drift between the two.
Every month the family would go to the beach. The kids asked Minthe if she was going every time, but she always demurred. Secretly she’d wanted to go all along, but hadn’t felt welcome. It was only when Joanna’s husband asked that she relented.
They avoided the other families as best they could. There were a few Atlanteans that Minthe could see, tucked beneath umbrellas or crouching in the water. She felt twin urges: to speak with all of them and yet ignore their existence.
“Can you take the kids down to the water?” Joanna asked as she helped her husband set up the umbrellas. The kids ran ahead and Minthe ambled across the dunes, her hands shielding her eyes. She had no idea how hot the sand could get.
“Wait for me!” she called out as they ran into the water, but she made no move to walk any faster.
“Let’s have a breathing contest,” Layla said as soon as Minthe waded in. “Grandma can count.” Jonathan nodded and plunged his head below the surf immediately.
He lasted five seconds, but Minthe said, “Ten.” Jonathan smiled and without fanfare, Layla took his place below the water.
“Eleven,” Minthe lied as her granddaughter’s brown head poked through the water. They did this over and over with Minthe alternating who won.
“How about you, grandma?” Jonathan asked in a nasal voice, his nose clogged with salt. Water poured from his brows.
“I have gills.”
Layla was rubbing her eyes raw and red. “Just try!” she whined.
Minthe waded in deeper, a strange thrill coming over her the further she went. Her caftan trailed out behind her like the jellyfish back in Atlantis.
“Put your head in the water!” Layla said as her brother led her closer to the shore. “Grandma, put your head in the water!”
Minthe did as she was told. She breathed in through her gills and felt the waves whistle past her ears. For a minute she felt as if she were touching Atlantis again. It was only when she felt a tug on her arm that she came back to the surface, Jonathan and Layla wading by her side with matching grins.
“You won, grandma!” Layla said and threw her arms around her grandmother’s neck.
“I counted up to sixty,” Jonathan said.
“Want to watch me do it again?” Minthe asked. Without waiting for their answers, she stuck her head back into the water. She did this over and over, long past the point where the kids grew bored. She did it for so long that she didn’t hear Joanna call to her, asking her whether or not she’d like something to drink. As she held her head beneath the water, Minthe was sometimes grateful for her gills, and sometimes wished them away.