This story is titled “The Mermaid”, but it could also be titled “How to Un-Fishscale Your Hands”. It could even be “Tia Reina Cleans a Fish, and the Predicament that Ensues”. But no matter the title, the story is the same. You are in the presence of your tia, who has come to visit from Mexico. In the moment of the story, she has asked you to help prepare the evening meal.
In the first story, “Tia Reina Cleans a Fish, and the Predicament that Ensues”, you are at the kitchen table dicing a cucumber for Tia Reina's ceviche. Tia Reina is at the sink, slicing the skin off a fish. When she is finished she throws the skin in the trash. Then she begins rubbing her hands vigorously under the faucet. You ask her what is the matter. In Spanish she tells you that the fish scales have clung to her hand and she is trying to get them off. You suggest she use the rough side of the sponge, as she had advised you, years ago on one of her visits, to do when trying to remove a particularly persistent grime from the dishes. She grabs the sponge and scrubs the side of her hand, the fish scales falling like confetti to the white of the sink basin.
The second story is titled “Fate”, and is very much like the first. In this story, Reina slices the fish and you chop the cucumber. The fish scales get stuck to her hand. When she reveals her hand you see the scales, plotted along the lines of her palm like cities on a map. One of those cities is Oaxaca, Mexico, where she is from. You know this because you know that where we come from presents itself in us always. It is marked upon us like a birthmark, or a piece of valuable jewelry. Where you are from is California, but the only time anything has stuck to your hands that would signify this is when the juice of the oranges you eat in the summer drips from your mouth. And you always wash it away with ease.
You suggest Tia Reina use the rough side of the sponge and it works. She rinses the sparse scales down the drain and you imagine them traveling down the pipes and into the sewers, and then into the ocean among other fish. The scales have now been shed from two bodies, one of them to be eaten and one of them to eat. That would be Tia Reina's fate: a place so high up in the food chain she is granted choice of what she eats. In this way, the fish's fate is relegated to the shedding of scales, and the detriment of being served as a traditional Central American dish.
The third story, “How to Un-Fishscale Your Hands”, begins as you are dicing a cucumber (a pepino, in Spanish) for Tia Reina's ceviche. Tia Reina then tells you of the scales (escamas, she says). Now, you are about to tell her how to most effectively remove the likeness of the fish from her hand, but you hesitate. You think about how to say it, in English or Spanish, or in a first-generation-American hybrid of the two. You didn't grow up with the language like she did, like your father did. Like all of your ancestors did (though theirs was an earlier version of the language). You think you can feel those ancestors now, disciples of the mestizo, bearing their judgment on you as you wait in that moment to relay the trivial command of removing fishscales from one's hand. You think of a new word, un-fishscale, which you will never say to Tia Reina because she would not understand it. In those awaiting seconds, you hold the suggestion, poised on your lips like a prayer, in a sort of Spanglish limbo. What you conjure is, el otro lado de la esponja, pointing for visual reinforcement. You speak Spanish to her in such a way that your words slant. But this is only a visible slant, one that would go undetected to the ears of the speaker of any other language.
The next story is called “The Mermaid”. You are slicing the cucumber at the table and Tia Reina is slicing a fish in the sink. When she reveals her hand to you it is decorated in fish scales, shimmering in the light above the kitchen table, or the light shining from outside, or from a light emanating from the cucumber you have stopped slicing. Tia Reina glistens like a mermaid, a glittering sea-woman. A fish out of water. She has never been as elegant as a mermaid, though. She burps after meals and eats with her hands. She hits you on the arm when you do or say something wrong. You think that if she hit you now, some of the fishscales would transfer to your skin and you would become a mermaid. But you would make a very poor mermaid. You can't even swim.
The final story is called “The Spanish Influence on the Indigenous Cultures and Species of Oaxaca, Mexico”. But this cannot be the final story. If there are five stories to tell about Tia Reina's ceviche, there are plenty more. “The Spanish Influence on the Indigenous Cultures and Species of Oaxaca, Mexico” begins in this way: you are at the kitchen table dicing a cucumber for Tia Reina's ceviche. Tia Reina is at the sink, slicing the skin off a fish.