“Journals!” Santi squealed. “Mommi, it’s Abuela’s journals.”
She lifted the small black book into the dusty sunlight of the attic window. Celia glanced up from the photo album she was looking through and sighed.
“Put them back.”
She spoke in English, which startled Santi so much she almost dropped the book. Never in Santi’s entire life had her mother spoken English in her Abuelo Santiago’s house.
“So, Abuelo is truly gone now, I see,” Santi replied in Spanish and with as much sass as she dared. Spanish was the language they spoke when they were in Venezuela, in Abuelo’s house. Abuelo insisted on it.
Celia scowled for only a moment before the unexpected defiance left her. “I just don’t think we should be reading her private thoughts,” she replied in Spanish, much to Santi’s relief.
The funeral had only been three days ago, and they were nearly done cleaning out Abuelo Santiago’s house. Santi wanted to hold on to him as much as she could before they went to California.
“Nonsense,” Santi replied. “That’s what journals are for. So that after you’ve died, you can live on; so your family can get to know you better.”
Celia still looked hesitant, but she nodded.
“I know you are right but…”
She took such a long pause Santi wasn’t sure whether she was going to say whatever it was she wanted to say. Finally, Celia nodded, stood up, and walked over to the chest of journals.
“My mother told me to read these. She said I need to know what’s in them.”
“You knew they were up here this whole time? We could have read them years ago.” Santi was incredulous. Her Abuela had always been a beautiful mystery. The dark haired, dark-eyed enigma that both Celia and Santi looked exactly like but of whom neither they nor Abuelo Santiago ever spoke.
Celia knelt down and lifted up one of the books with so much care the journal might have been made of sand on a windy day.
The two of them quickly searched through the leather-bound books until they found the journal with the earliest date. Unspoken, as if this was their entire plan upon entering the attic, the women made themselves comfortable and Celia began to read. Abuela Carmen’s Spanish words filled up the musty air around them; the language belonged in the home in a way that brought her back to life.
I need to write this all down. My heart is so full of joy and so heavy with sadness at the same time. I need to work through it all, but no one will understand. I also need my daughter to know. I feel it is important that she understands everything but I can’t possibly tell her. How could I tell her? What would I say?
So this is for you Celia, my precious daughter, may you understand everything.
Celia’s voice caught. She gave a little cough to clear her throat and wiped her eyes before continuing.
I think it’s best that I start at the beginning. However, that’s not where my heart is at the moment. So I will come back to the beginning later because I do want to cover everything, but for now I want to write about this moment. In this moment, in Venezuela, speaking Spanish when I was raised speaking Portuguese, living in a place so strange and so different from where I come from, I want to go back home.
Santi looked up at her mother in surprise. “Where was Abuela from?” She had always assumed it was Venezuela. But Celia didn’t answer. She knew something of the mystery surrounding Carmen and she was keeping it to herself just as Santiago had done before her. Santi scowled but said nothing. She would just wait and find out from Carmen’s own words.
Celia continued to read to Santi from the thick volumes, enraptured, until the sun began to rise and the two women could no longer keep their eyes open. Finally, mother and daughter fell asleep thinking of a woman they were getting to know through her memoirs.
In the morning, they took the third leather-bound book to the panaderia for breakfast, and Celia continued to read while they finished their coffee. Neither of them spoke aside from the reverent lullaby of Celia’s voice and Abuela’s words.
“Wait!” Santi almost shouted. “I didn’t hear you. What did you say?”
“Santee, shhhhhhh.” Celia put her finger to her lips and hissed, “You are yelling.”
Santi lowered her voice. “I am?”
“Yes, I’m very worried about you.”
“Speak up, please,” Santi said while looking intently into Celia’s eyes, hoping to understand the meaning of her mother’s words without being able to hear them completely.
“Last night you kept yelling at me to speak up too. You aren’t hearing me very well lately.”
Santi looked at her hands. Since regaining her hearing in the fall, it had begun progressively getting worse again. Research online had informed her that with a minor tear full hearing should return—as it had for a time—but Santi had done significant damage. Not to mention whatever the Siren’s Song had done to harm her ears further. Her hearing might never return to normal.
“I think it’s time you saw a doctor,” Celia chastised. “I’m going to take you when you are in California for Christmas.” She said it with such resolve that Santi knew she couldn’t argue.
“Let’s finish Abuelo’s house and we’ll read these when we get home.”
“That sounds like a nice Christmas.” Santi smiled outwardly, but secretly she was worried. She had hoped to squeeze in a visit to Rogan before she had to return to school, but with Santiago’s death, the doctor visit, and now Carmen’s journals to read, Celia wouldn’t likely let Santi mysteriously disappear again. Celia was still upset that Santi wouldn’t explain where she had inexplicably vanished to for two weeks in July or why she was in Delaware for a month without any explanation. But Santi couldn’t very well tell her that she had been kidnapped by evil sea monsters and then spent time reconnecting with her long lost mermaid friend.
She would think of something; but for now, they only had one day left to clean out Abuelo’s belongings and turn the house over to the realtor.
The next morning as they prepared to leave for their flight to California, Santi said with a catch in her throat, “I think we’re done here.” The two women looked around. Santi breathed in the old wooden house and sea air one last time. They were done. It was time to leave and say goodbye to Santiago, his home, and Venezuela for good.
As soon as they stepped through the door of Celia’s Palo Alto home, Santi flung her bags on the floor and said, “Pull out the journals, Mom. Let’s get back to it.”
“First I wan’ to make joo an appointment.”
Santi nodded agreement and smiled lovingly.
“I’m not sure what I like best: hearing you speak Spanish or your accent when you speak English,” she said.
Celia rolled her eyes and began scrolling through her contacts to find the family doctor. She always thought Santi was teasing her about her accent, but Santi did love it. It was rich and comforting, and she hoped her mom would never try to lose it.
Santi found the luggage that contained the journals—they had to buy another suitcase and pay for the extra weight, but it was worth it to not leave any of the books behind. She began unpacking the volumes and arranging them chronologically. When she got to the bottom of the suitcase, she stopped, surprised. Santi pulled out a small photo in a gold frame, the glass front smudged with fingerprints and dusty with time.
Her abuelo stood tall and handsome—and quite youthful—with his young wife sitting next to him in her wheelchair. Santi knew her abuela used a chair but had never pictured it before; all of the other pictures were not of her full body. On her lap was a small child of about three or four years, and all of them had smiles bright enough to crack the frame. Santi stared at the picture for a long time and felt she could absorb the happiness from the photo and keep it with her endlessly.
At that moment, Celia returned and caught Santi looking at the photo.
“Mommi,” Santi nearly whispered. “I’m glad you brought this home.” Santi had never thought much about it—maybe it was because photos of her mother were too painful for her—but Celia had no pictures of her mother in the house.
Celia gingerly reached out and took the framed photograph in her hands and looked at it silently. She regarded it so intensely, so lovingly, that Santi turned back to what she was doing to give her mom privacy with her emotions.
After a few moments Santi cleared her throat and cautiously asked, “Shall we read more?”
Celia was shaken from her reprieve and answered, “Not now, Santee, my doctor can get joo in right away.”
Santi scrunched up her face but reluctantly set the journal down. She felt like she’d never find out the mystery surrounding Carmen. Why was everyone so secretive? And why didn’t her mom seem as determined to find out the answers as she was?
“Well, Miss Morales,” the balding but young doctor said, “if you are hearing well right now, and you won’t tell me what happened that lead to these bizarre scars in your ears, then I can’t really help you further.”
“Santee, just tell us what happened to joo!” Celia nearly shouted. She had always been a passionate and emotional woman, and Santi’s secret was driving her crazy. “We can’ help unless joo tell us.”
“I’m going to refer you to an ENT,” the doctor said, and then quickly clarified. “An ear, nose, and throat doctor will be able to help you more than I can. This is very unique, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Thank you,” Santi said, hopping off the table so quickly her jeans ripped the tissue paper. “I’m hearing just fine now.”
She smiled weakly. She had never wanted to see a doctor about her hearing, but Celia would not be put off the idea. There was only one person from whom Santi could get real answers on the matter, and she would have to return to the ocean for that. Amed would be the only one who could help her. Her biggest obstacle was going to be getting away from Celia with time left in the break. Celia was already so angry with Santi being secretive, and she expected her to stay until the start of the semester.
That evening, while Celia decorated their Christmas tree, Santi finally got to dive back into the journals. As Celia lovingly filled the pine with the ornaments of her childhood, Santi read. She was in the middle of a passage when she stopped.
They were deep into the fourth volume, and Santi had begun putting clues together: Carmen missed her home and talked about how she could never return; she was in a wheelchair but no one ever talked about why; journal number one was dated in 1978, just after Celia was born; Carmen hadn’t learned to read or write until she was an adult; and now Santi had just read a passage about the importance of making decisions with her heart. Santi wasn’t sure what it all meant yet, but she felt she was on the cusp of something just out of reach.
Carmen would skip around in her writing, switching between making a record of her life with her husband and daughter to talking about her past when she was a child herself. The latter entries were fewer and farther between but they captivated Celia the most. Carmen hadn’t talked much about her life before meeting Santi’s abuelo, and after Carmen died, Abuelo Santiago had seemed determined to keep Carmen’s secrets as well.
Santi reread the passage that made her pause. It was about how Carmen had been conflicted between leaving behind her family and everything she knew to be with Santiago in Venezuela. Carmen talked at length about the perils that she faced if she went back to where she came from. Santi reread the passage to herself several times.
I miss my family and the Najilian. She looked up at her mother and chewed her lip in concentration. She recognized that word. Najilian. Where had she heard it before? It must be a Spanish word.
“What does Najilian mean in English?” Santi asked her mom.
“I don’t know this word,” Celia responded. “It’s no’ Spanish.”
Santi closed her eyes. Najilian. She knew the word. If her abuelo hadn’t said it to her, then where…?
Then it hit her.
Her eyes flew open. Rogan had used the word before. The Najilian was a Clan. Santi didn’t know where it was located, but she was certain she was correct.
Slowly, she lowered the book and set it on the coffee table before she said, “Mom… was Abuela Carmen a…”
She stopped. She couldn’t very well ask her mother if her abuela was a mermaid. That was ludicrous.
Celia looked at her expectantly and Santi nearly whispered, “A Serra?” Santi used the word Serra instead of mermaid to see if her mother knew more than she had let on. Celia’s response would tell her everything by knowing that word.
Santi waited anxiously as she watched her mother’s reaction, but Celia gave away nothing. Her face was calm, though Santi could see her eyes go through a range of emotion. Of course she wasn’t a Serra, Santi though, chiding herself for being too imaginative.
Finally, Celia’s eyebrows furrowed for a moment before her face went calm again and she slowly and carefully replied, “Jes, jor abuela Carmen was a Serra.”
Santi’s mouth widened and her eyes flew open so that all three were making perfect circles.
“I did not remember that word Serra until joo said it just now. But jes, that is what she was.”
Santi felt a confused lump in her throat. Anger and sadness swirled within her and queasiness overtook her stomach. She froze in that position, too shocked to say anything, her mind reeling. Questions raced to her lips, but none of them broke the seal. She was completely incredulous. This changed things for Santi, though she did not know exactly how just yet.
Mostly she had an uneasy feeling of deceit. How her mother had kept something so remarkable a secret her whole life? An anger towards her mother returned that she hadn’t felt since she was a child, when Celia spent all her time working. It was uncomfortable yet familiar. Santi had spent a lot of time with these feelings, hating her mom and thinking she was unimportant to Celia. It wasn’t logical, but it came back to her effortlessly. It seemed in that moment that everything had changed between the two of them and that so much had changed about who Santi was.
It took her a full three minutes to regain control of her voice. When she finally did, she spoke fast but with a clipped anger in her tone.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything? That’s why she was in a wheelchair! Didn’t you ever see her tail? How did she meet Abuelo? Why don’t you have a tail? This means I’m part Serra, too. Do we still have family down there? Do you remember me telling you about my friend Rogan when I was a child?”
Her line of questioning kept changing direction. She wanted to know everything. And anger boiled in her for having been in the dark about something so huge. So many more questions swam through her mind that she didn’t even have a chance to speak them all out loud as she kept throwing questions at her mother.
“Did Abuelo know? Did she ever go back and visit the other Serras?”
Santi suddenly realized that she could tell her mom about being kidnapped, a secret that hurt Santi to keep.
That’s when Santi realized that her mom would be just as angry with her about keeping the kidnapping a secret as Santi was about this. She relaxed a little in her aggressive questioning, and Celia seized the opportunity.
“Santee!” A hint of anger in her voice, too. “If joo want jor questions answered, joo have to be quiet for a minute!”
She nodded but frantically wanted to get the most important question answered. She burst out quickly, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And then she held her breath and waited for the answers to her questions.
“I didn’ tell joo because my mother didn’ tell me much. She told me only one thing before she died and that was, ‘Believe in magic, that mermaids are real, and that it’s important to protect the world from bad guys.’”
Santi scrunched up her face, and Celia let out a tiny laugh, breaking the tension for a moment.
“Jes, it’s cheesy, but she was speaking to a little girl. After that, I only got a little more information from her before she change the subject. It sounded so ridiculous. She told me one day to read her journals and to believe everything in them. I was joung and confused, but I believed her.”
“That’s it? She told you that and then changed the subject? Just ‘believe in magic, and mermaids, and to protect the world from bad guys?’ That’s nonsense.” Santi swore and Celia looked hurt.
“I’m just as mad as joo are. Tha’s why I never read her journals. I was too confused and hurt.”
Celia looked hurt, and Santi could tell it was as much because of Santi’s anger as it was her mother’s lack of communication on the matter. That calmed Santi down as she proceeded. “Remember when I was a little girl and I had that friend Rogan? You told me he was my imaginary friend. Remember? You told me that mermaids weren’t real. It turned out for the best because I was told to keep the Serra’s existence a secret. After that, I stopped trying to convince you. But you knew the whole time and you made me feel like a fool.”
“When joo met your friend Rogan, I could have died from shock! I could not believe joo, of all people, would meet a Serra. I think I was envious.” Celia took a deep breath before she went on.
“I was angry that my mother sprang such a big secret right before her death. As a child, I believed in mermaids like I was supposed to. And magic. And I always imagined that I was destined for something important. It was part of the reason I had the courage to move to the United States by myself when I was eighteen. But as I grew older, I became more confused and angry than I was optimistic for adventure. In the end, I grew hardened to anything… fantasty?” She stumbled to think of the right word in English. “Fantastical? …Eventually I forgot about my mother’s words.”
Santi nodded. “And my friendship with Rogan brought back those sad, angry, and confused feelings all over again.”
“Above all,” Celia admitted, “I was envious that joo got to spend time with a Serra and learn about the world my mother had kept a secret. It was like I didn’ get to learn about mysel’ because she kept it from me. I missed my mother—what I remembered of her, anyway—and joo playing with that Serra boy reminded me of all she caused me to miss out on.”
“I’m so sorry, Mommi. I didn’t realize you ever believed me about Rogan.”
“One day when joo were eight,” Celia explained, “I snuck down to the little beach where joo two played. Joo were playing a game that for as long as I watched, I could never figure out.”
Santi smiled, remembering back to those days.
“If I was eight, that means I hadn’t yet gone underwater. We used to play so many silly games.”
“I watched joo two play for hours while I crouched behind a tree. It took me a long time to get control of my conflicting feelings. The sight of that little Serra boy, with his amazing blue tail flicking in and out of the water, made me feel so many emotions: anger, jealousy, envy, regret, longing. And among them, I was happy for joo.
“But my anger with my mother returned. How dare her she keep this from me for my whole life and then simplify it all into one conversation before her death? After watching joo and Rogan, I put that wall up firmly around my heart again. It was too hard to accept the truth of my mother’s past.
“Jears later, when joo said joo never wanted to go in the water again, I was relieved. I gave myself permission to forget about everything under water once more and took the job in California.
“I’m so sorry, Mommi,” Santi said with sincerity.
“I don’ wan’ to be mad at my mother anymore. I wan’ to read her journals and learn to love her like I never did.”
This decided things for Santi. She had so much she needed to discuss with Amed.
“Mom,” She said with conviction, “I have to go to Delaware.”
She wanted to see Rogan during her break, but she had to see Amed.