Full Custody

by Latifa Ayad

My father had warned me not to dive alone at night. Not because of the suckers and the epidemic, no. Back then we did not know that they could swim, thought we were all safe here on the island. We blew the bridges and pretended everything was fine in spite of our dwindling resources, the hospital still running on a generator because we wouldn’t risk letting the relief come in after the hurricane. The beeswax candle lady from the farmer’s market was suddenly wealthier than even my father, head surgeon, and at night the island was lit by flickering flame. 

No, it was that my father knew, with my mother dead for only a month now, that I was prone to rash behavior. It was never safe to dive without a buddy, but especially not at night. It was too easy to lose your bearings in the black water. In the dark, people panic. But with my best dive buddy dead for a month now, and my dad working late at the hospital, I set out for the reef alone. 

I pulled on my BCD with the tank strapped to it, my flippers and my mask, and heaved myself off the ground. It was a full moon. I waddled to the shoreline, my flashlight strapped to my wrist. As soon as the water was up to my knees, I swam. My stomach scraping the bottom, I pulled myself along with my hands. As it got deeper, I let a little air from my BCD and dove, taking slow, hissing breaths through my regulator, exhaling longer than my inhales to help myself sink faster. Even with the full moon, the light did not reach far. It was dark, the warm water swishing over my skin. I knew my way to the reef. I shined my flashlight on my compass and set off due northeast. 

If my father had known what I would find out there, would he still have warned me not to go? He had not wanted the divorce from my mother, and when she got caught up in the epidemic on the mainland it was further proof that it was wrong, all wrong. We burned her things in place of a funeral, keeping only our favorites: her hairbrush, her gardenia perfume. My father burned her journal but kept the pages that logged her pregnancy with me. And now here she was, phosphorescent skin like a jellyfish, sweeping through the water towards me. 

We did not think they could swim. The infected that fled to the water had sunk like stones, never to surface, falling faster than those who remained on the beaches with the National Guard closing in. But here was my mother, it was certainly her, her black hair in a halo around her head, her glowing skin casting light on the remoras swimming along with her as if she were a shark, their wide mouths attached to her lean shoulders.

My words, “Mom, Mom, Mom,” came out in streams of bubbles through my regulator. I had never before cried while diving. I could feel myself wasting the air in my tank as my breath came in sharp gasps, my buoyancy all off, and as my sobs thickened I felt myself rising too fast in the water. My mother’s hands pulled me down.

No one knew exactly what started the epidemic. Something that blew in with the hurricane—tainted water, maybe. There was no hope once you were bit. You would lose all your teeth, grow a row of fresh, tiny incisors, and bite all you met.

What my mother did to me felt more like a kiss. Her mouth found my bare shoulder. I was still crying, “Mom, Mom, Mom.” I felt her unbuckle my BCD, watched her glowing fingers inflate it so my tank slid from my shoulders and flew to the surface, my regulator trailing behind it. She covered me with kisses, my cheeks, my neck, my back. In the light of her skin I saw the tiniest wisps of blood coming off me, like the nick of a razor in the bathtub. I clutched at her, still crying, “Mom,” my words floating away from us. I watched them go with the vague recognition that I had just let the last air in my lungs float away from me. And my mother was pulling me down to the edge of the reef, where the ocean floor dropped away, and far below I saw pinpricks of phosphorescent light, beckoning me home.

Latifa Ayad is a Libyan American writer currently holed up in the Midwest. She recently earned her MFA from Florida State University. For a complete list of her publications visit latifaayad.wordpress.com.
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