Annie is discovering that her mother is sentimental. Nautical charts and weather maps cover her office desk, wrinkled and stained with rings of coffee. Outdated oceanography textbooks and unclaimed student essays gather dust in her cabinets. Not to mention the saltwater aquariums that once held her molluscs: the sea snails and whelks and hard-shell clams. When Annie was a kid, she hated the fishy smell of them. Brine and algae, like the underside of a dock. Now she cringes to see the glass tanks lined up on shelves, empty save for their mysterious hydrometers.
“Don’t touch that,” her mother barks whenever she tries to tidy some of the clutter. When Annie moved in, she laughed at her mother’s hoarding. On the phone with her father, she’d crack jokes about the Plateau condo being a scientist’s time capsule. But now she suspects that the flotsam her mother clings to is an anchor that keeps her from drifting away.
“Lucia has a soft heart,” says her father, Martin, during their weekly phone call. “She hides it well, but it’s there.” His forgiveness is far-reaching, spanning decades.
“Annie, bring me herbata i miód,” her mother commands from her favourite armchair. In some ways, she is exactly as Annie remembers: impatient and authoritative, quick to anger. But her voice softens when she speaks to her tabby cat Baz, and her hands are gentle when she plays with Annie’s hair. “So long now,” she mutters approvingly, her fingers weaving tiny braids. “Like a syrena.” She has landscape paintings in every room: wide-open skies and faraway hills. None of them are Annie’s.
More and more, her mother speaks to her in Polish. When Annie was growing up, her parents spoke a blend of English and French. Polish belonged only to her mother, and while she did try to share pieces through children’s books and nursery rhymes, her efforts were half-hearted, like she knew it would never take. Child Annie was indifferent. Polish was comforting nonsense, round vowels rolled in psht and tch. Now she wishes she’d learned more. Val spends every July in Sicily with her nonna, rolling pasta and flirting with the town’s ragazzos. Jamal, who’s never set foot in Cuba, exaggerates his Spanish accent and spits curse words his parents carried with them from Havana. Next to them, Annie is stunted; a tree with severed roots.
Annie hasn’t told her father how quickly her mother’s dementia is progressing. “Comment ça va, ma belle?” he asks every time she calls. Annie loves hearing his voice, the Quebec drawl of his French. He lives in Vancouver now, studying the ecosystems of bullfrogs. “Ça va, papa,” she always replies with fake optimism. She distorts the truth, paints a picture that will appease his worries. If he knew how bad it was, he’d jump on a plane. Martin is practical, stalwart. He believes in finding solutions and making the best of things. When Lucia became pregnant, it was a shock. They were in their late thirties, tenure-track, unmarried. But her father has no regrets. “You were a gift, un heureux accident,” he says. Annie was six when her parents separated, and when her father filed for sole custody, her mother quietly acquiesced.
At sixty-five, Lucia is still beautiful. Her hair is wiry and ash-coloured, her curls wild around her face. Cerulean eyes, skin pale and crinkled like tissue paper. She has Annie’s long nose and the same crooked smile. She wears men’s shirts, sneakers, and loose-fitting jeans. For now, her symptoms are not so bad. Most days she spends poring over scientific articles, emailing students, and making frantic phone calls to the man who has taken over her lab. Stubbornly refusing to detach from her work. Only a few weeks ago she was still teaching. She could recite her lectures smoothly, but deadlines dropped clear from her mind. Students’ names vanished, then reappeared a few hours later. For months, she compartmentalized these moments of forgetting, refusing to see the pattern.
It’s early October. The days are still warm, the sun soft but bright. Annie has tried to instil a routine. She brings her mother tea with honey and turns the radio on. She washes the dishes, scoops the kitty litter. A nurse visits every Sunday with memory exercises and assessments. A financial planner helps manage the bills. Jamal visits often, toting gifts of cigarettes and beer, and at night they drink on the balcony and reminisce about high school and their carefree youth. But otherwise, Annie is alone.
The phone call came in June. Annie was working at an oyster bar in the Mile End, the kind with twenty-dollar cocktails and mandatory coat check. It was a Wednesday night and the place was dim, quiet. A few well-dressed grad students getting after-work drinks; an older couple picking at their lobster salad. The low buzz of conversations mingled with the R&B playlist. Val was in the kitchen, chatting with the new line cook. Annie avoided the kitchen. The fishy smells made her queasy. Bored, she swirled a rum and coke and doodled trees on a napkin. Weekend rushes were her favourite; she fed off the heat, the electric buzz of the crowd. Most Fridays, Devon would drop by after a late-night band practice. He’d lament about his stoner roommates, his empty bank account. Annie would sneak him free drinks and he’d stay until closing, all drunk laughter and fun energy, and sometimes they’d make out in the darkened, empty bar. It wasn’t love, but it was easy.
“He’s like a Lost Boy,” Val would joke. “Living in Neverland.” She was a psychology major, driven and unwavering. Before a shift, she’d lock herself in the bathroom and draw eyeliner around her puffy lids. She wore unflattering hoodies and never small-talked with the regulars. “I can’t wait to have a real job,” she’d sigh, dragging a rag across the counter, and Annie would smile stiffly, wondering what real meant.
It was almost eleven when her phone buzzed in her back pocket. Seeing her mother’s name made her lightheaded, like she’d just done a shot of tequila. Lucia never called. Annie stepped into the kitchen, where Val was ooing over the line cook’s consommé. The poor kid flushed and stammered into his shirt.
“Val, watch the bar for a second?” Without waiting for a reply, Annie slipped out the back door into the alley. The night was dark and melancholy. She brought the phone to her ear, shivered, and lit a cigarette. A few yards away, a man retched between his knees.
“Annie, sweetie.” Her mother didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was thin and strained. She hadn’t called her sweetie in years and the word sounded manipulative, superficial. “I need to tell you something.”
“Okay.” Annie sucked in smoke and waited. A breeze whipped her hair back, giving her goosebumps. It had been months since their last text exchange. Before her mother spoke, she knew it was going to be bad. She listened as if in a trance, not yet understanding, watching the drunk man teeter off into the darkness.
November. Outside, frost has crusted over the yellow grass. Lafontaine Park is quieter now as the summer tourists dwindle. The air is frigid, the days short and dark.
Annie’s mother is changing. She’s lost weight; her appetite waxes and wanes. Sometimes, if Annie doesn’t pay attention, she forgets to eat altogether. When she’s hungry, she asks for food Annie has no idea how to make, like cabbage perogies and beet soup. Meals from her childhood in Warsaw. Annie does her best, combing recipe blogs and borrowing cookbooks from the library. She applies the bits of cooking knowledge she’s gathered from working around restaurant kitchens. Her mother is comforted by the textures and smells. Annie dislikes it all—the fermented, sour flavours are alien to her—but often finds herself stabbing at the leftovers, choking down mouthfuls and wishing they tasted familiar.
Every morning, Annie gives her mother her pills. They’re round and white, easy to swallow. “It should ease the symptoms,” the neurologist had said. “Restore a kind of balance.” They’d helped through the summer; her mother had fewer memory gaps and could string together whole sentences. It was Annie who struggled to speak, to converse with the stranger who was her mother. After the divorce, their relationship had lapsed into something casual, tinged with resentment. They lived in the same neighbourhood but never saw each other. Every few months, Annie would send her a spontaneous text message and wouldn’t receive a reply for days or maybe weeks. Sometimes all Annie got was a picture, some stunning shot of a turquoise beach or rocky shoreline, of night sea waves white and black. If Annie was drunk, she’d reply with a picture of herself and her father. Amazing day with my #rolemodel, she’d caption, for added provocation. Winner of the #bestdadaward. To these, her mother never responded.
By autumn, the pills lost their efficacy. Lucia still swallows them without protest, but when Annie talks to her, she no longer tries to conceal that she’s elsewhere. The only topic that rouses her is her research. Nothing that interests Annie—indie films and art exhibits, the latest song by Thom Yorke—can hold Lucia’s attention.
“Low tide,” she exclaimed one morning, as Annie spooned honey into her tea. “It’s wonderful. You can see the pools appear, mikrokosmos of anomeones and… and mięczaki, even tiny fish. Everything visible.” She stared out the window in a kind of bliss. “Then, the tide comes in and you watch them go, the pools swallowed whole. For a while it’s like they never existed at all.”
Lucia’s mind is more and more like the sea. Every day, the waters rise and recede. Her memories sink and surface with the cycle of the moon.
“Why don’t you hire someone?” Jamal asks. “Your mom’s rich, isn’t she?” They’re sitting on the futon that doubles as Annie’s bed, drinking Boreals and chewing on stale popcorn. Baz is purring on Annie’s lap. Jamal cracks open the window and lights a cigarette. He’s wearing after-work sweats, his dark braids gathered into a velvet pink scrunchie. Frosty air seeps into the room. It’s late, after midnight, and Lucia is asleep.
Annie ignores his question and scratches Baz’s head, enjoying the warmth on her thighs. The subject makes her uneasy, not least because Lucia is covering her living expenses. It was part of the deal they’d struck, but the way Jamal says rich sends prickles of guilt down her spine. He has med school debt, a sister on disability. Annie veers directions. “Are you still dating that guy, the paramedic?”
“Freckles?” Jamal grins in the lamp light. “Yeah, as a matter of fact. But I see what you’re doing.” Ash falls onto the windowsill like warm, grey snow. “I could ask around for a live-in caregiver or something.” He blows smoke out the window. Jamal is a neurology resident and understands the mysterious science behind her mother’s decline.
“Maybe eventually,” she says, shrugging. Her fingers tear at the beer bottle’s label. “For now, she needs help with day-to-day stuff. Paying bills, making appointments.”
“Why you? That’s what I’m saying.” He sighs. “Your mom never gave a shit about you. What about grad school? You haven’t been painting.”
Annie blushes but says nothing. She hasn’t told him about the rejection letter, which she’d immediately torn into strips—bisecting the I regret to inform you, the We appreciate your interest—and flushed down the toilet. Since then, she hasn’t been able to pick up a brush. She expects that the tubes of acrylic paint in her closet have dried up from disuse multiplied by time. If anything, her mother’s diagnosis has given her an excuse, one she clings to now to avoid having to explain.
“There’s this place in Greenfield Park,” Jamal continues. “A long-term care residence. They have a great reputation.”
“I’m not putting her in a home,” Annie protests. Jamal shakes his head and waves impatiently, the cigarette trailing a plume through the air.
“Girl, don’t take this the wrong way. You’re doing a great job.”
The surprise in his voice makes Annie bristle. She gulps her beer and looks out the window. Earlier on the phone, Val had said something similar. “Incredible” was the word she’d used, as if Annie’s adeptness as a caregiver was too shocking to believe. Outside, soft rain is falling mixed with hail, tiny chips of ice tinkling on glass. Everything is dark, the world blotted out. Baz wakes and pounces to the floor, flicks his tail and disappears into the shadows.
“But things can move fast,” Jamal goes on. “Some people start hearing things, seeing things. They wander off, get lost.” He pauses, perhaps weighing how honest to be. Annie tenses her shoulders, braced for a blow. “Basically, your mom is going to get a lot worse. And sooner than you think.”
It’s after two by the time Jamal pulls on his sneakers and lets himself out. Annie shuffles tipsy into the kitchen for a glass of water. A brochure has materialized on the stainless-steel fridge, clamped under her mother’s fish-shaped That’s a moray! magnet. Annie walks over, considers Jamal’s doctor scrawl in the upper corner, then yanks it free. She crumples it into her purse before switching off the lamp.
It’s the longest winter of Annie’s life. Every week brings record-breaking snowfalls, the streets outside pillowy and muffled. Most days her mother spends in the small den—what Annie thinks of as the game room—struggling through crosswords or piecing together simple puzzles. She’s calm, docile. Annie has read stories of dementia patients who get panicked and violent in moments of confusion. Even on her bad days, Lucia seems to accept the blank unknown without fear.
Her memories come and go; high tide can last for days. She wakes up in another season or decade, the space between years fading to black. Some days she thinks Annie is her mother, some days, one of her students.
“Je m’inquiète,” Martin says, his voice crackling on the line. “It’s progressing very fast. Should I come?”
“Non, non,” Annie says, cupping her cell phone to her ear. “Everything’s fine. I have Geneviève, she helps.”
Geneviève is a young, curly-haired nurse that Annie hired after the holidays, on Jamal’s urging. “She’s a friend,” he’d insisted. “Expensive, but good.” She spends most days at the condo, helping with housework and cooking, keeping Lucia fed and safe when Annie is out. Despite her stern face, she’s remarkably patient. Lucia eyes her with suspicion. At least once a week, she pulls Annie aside and whispers that a stranger has invaded the house.
“You’ll tell me,” Martin says, “if things get bad?”
Annie suspects that he still loves her mother, and this is another reason she doesn’t want him to come. After Annie was born, he took a sabbatical. He gave up grants and publications, let his career flounder while his wife’s name appeared in journals like Science and Nature. It took him a long time to accept that Lucia’s molluscs left little space for anything else. Annie remembers their arguments, how they’d yell behind the bedroom door. Her father would drag out the suitcase and threaten to leave, but Lucia always found a way to diffuse his anger. In the end, it was her mother who asked for the divorce.
“Of course I will,” she lies. “Je t’aime, papa.”
That evening, after Geneviève lets herself out into the wintry dark, Annie pulls her mother’s photo albums from the office bookshelf. There’s a half dozen, each carefully annotated, the pictures sheathed in clear plastic. Most are labelled POLAND and Annie carries these into the living room.
Back in July, when she first moved in, she was shocked to discover an album titled ANNIE. Inside were dozens of photographs. Most were baby and toddler photos taken in their low-slung suburban bungalow. But others were more recent. Neat and square, home-printed on cardstock. All of them were selfies of Annie and her father: Martin’s arm around her shoulder at her college graduation; them clinking beers on a beach in Vancouver. At least a dozen more. Had she sent so many? The captions and hashtags had been carefully cropped out. Annie wanted to tear the pages from their spine. She wanted to spread them around the office and set them on fire. But even that, she suspected, wouldn’t hurt her mother. She slammed the album shut and hid it on a low shelf, behind back issues of scientific journals. It’s been months and she hasn’t looked at it since.
Annie leads Lucia into the living room and points to the Poland albums.
“We’re going to play a game,” she says.
The neurologist called it reminiscence therapy, “a way to trigger deep-rooted memories.” Annie picks one from the pile. She balances it on her knees and turns the stiff pages. Her mother fiddles with her knit sweater, eyes unfocused. “Mom. Do you know who this is?” Annie points to each photograph. A black and white shot of Lucia’s parents on a porch. A faded Polaroid of distant uncles and aunts. She describes the faces and reads the names aloud, waiting for something to trigger interest. Sepia and greyscale prints make way for colour. Uncountable birthdays and crowded Christmas dinners. In one, a teenaged Lucia laughs with a group of friends in Warsaw’s Old Town Square, her white-blonde hair mussed up by the wind. Behind them is a statue of a mermaid wielding an iron shield and sword, rising above waves.
“Syrena,” Lucia says immediately, making Annie start. Her finger traces circles around the statue, eyes suddenly clear. “Did I ever tell you about the mermaid of Warsaw?” A half-smile curtains her teeth, making tiny wrinkles appear around her mouth. “She’s a… a wojownik. The protector of sailors and fishermen. I’m sure I read you the myths when you were little.”
“I don’t remember,” Annie says. “I don’t think you ever read to me.”
“You loved those stories,” she goes on, as if she didn’t hear. “You were very… inteligentna. Like your mama.” She nods proudly and pats Annie on the knee. The gesture is so uncharacteristic that Annie freezes. Finally, she takes her mother’s hand and gives it a tentative, constrained squeeze. Lucia’s fingers feel thin and fragile. Skin like paper, bones like glass.
End of May. The sky is cloudless, the sun hot on their backs. Damp grass and small budding leaves: a study in chartreuse. It’s the first beautiful spring day and the park is crowded with picnickers and sunbathers. The smell of weed drifts in the breeze.
“Our new album is going to be neo-grunge,” Devon is saying. “Like, Nirvana meets Prince. Heavy on the electric guitar.”
Annie pops open her second can of beer and smiles, only half listening. She hasn’t seen Devon all winter. When she quit bartending, she fell out of his orbit, and could only assume he’d forgotten all about her. But that afternoon he showed up at the condo with a six-pack under his arm. Annie, who hadn’t had any real fun in months, was swayed. She’d left Geneviève and Lucia in the game room, huddling over a game of checkers.
They’re dappled in shade, but Annie is sweating. The beer swishes in her empty stomach. Splayed on the grass, she’s sleepy, fuzzy-eyed. She can’t focus on Devon’s story—something about a rat living in his apartment—so she smiles inanely. She savours the weight of his hand on her knee.
Bursts of laughter at the fountain make Annie turn. Lucia is sitting at the cement edge, splashing her bare feet in the scummy green water. Children squeal and stare, their ball forgotten. Annie blinks to dispel the insane mirage.
“Woah,” Devon laughs. “I love old folks. They don’t give a shit, you know? They do what they want.”
It is Lucia, wearing a long yellow dress that Annie has never seen before. Her arms are bone-white, her hair a silver cloud. With a little cry, she pushes herself into the pond. She’s tall, almost six feet, and the water laps below her chest. Ducks swim nearby, paddling through the murk.
“Look at her go,” Devon crows, delighted. A small group has gathered. They stare and mutter. A few teenagers laugh. Annie does nothing. Her head is foggy. She gulps more beer. “Elle a besoin d’aide,” one woman says, cradling her baby, her voice high with concern. She’s trying to get her boyfriend, a big guy in a leather jacket, to jump in. She’s fine, Annie silently protests. Look at her, she’s fine. He is reluctantly taking off his jacket. A couple of teens have whipped out their smartphones to capture his heroics.
“Shit,” Annie says. She pushes herself to her feet. Devon stares. “Sorry, I have to…” The sentence hangs, unfinished. She stumbles down the slope, ignoring his bewildered calls. Almost trips. Pushes past the gawking crowd and crouches at the fountain’s wet edge. Her mother is quite close, just a few feet away. Lucia strokes the surface of the water, eyes closed and face tilted up. In the sunlight she looks calm, almost serene. She submerges her head and for a moment she’s a mermaid: silver hair glistening, yellow dress billowing.
“Mom!” Annie makes a grab for her mother but misses. “Get out. You need to get out now.” Her legs are heavy, her tongue thick in her mouth.
“Oh!” Lucia splashes and opens her eyes, blinking like she’s waking from a dream. As she turns Annie catches hold of her hand, but Lucia shrieks and pulls away. She looks up at Annie and begins to cry. “Who are you?” she sobs. Flailing in the water, arms like windmills. In the sun, her irises are small and dark. “Who are you,” she repeats, over and over. Around her, blood is clouding the water.
Val meets Annie at the hospital. She brings a book of crosswords and oat muffins from the café across the street. Annie is relieved to see her. Jamal would lecture and console and recite his medical textbooks. Val is quiet. She scribbles and mutters crossword clues as Annie chews on stale oats and ruminates on her failures: the hardened paint tubes abandoned in her closet, the strips of her rejection letter decomposing in the sewers. And now, her mother’s wet dress, balled in a plastic bag on her lap. The blood has tinged the fabric a sickly shade of orange.
She had never seen Lucia so hysterical. It took a long time for Annie to calm her down, but eventually she fell back into herself, becoming passive and listless, timid as a child. The concerned onlooker’s boyfriend lifted her from the water like she weighed nothing. On dry land she looked sick and tiny, a skeleton in a dress. Her left foot had been cleaved by some sunken piece of pond trash, a shattered wine bottle or a rusted-out chain wheel. The amount of blood made Annie woozy. She stammered thank-yous as leather jacket tied his girlfriend’s scarf around her mother’s foot, who sat patiently in the grass. Devon was nowhere to be seen. “Tu veux que j’appelle une ambulance?” the woman asked, baby wailing in her arms, but Annie shook her head, not knowing how Lucia would respond to flashing lights and sirens. Her rideshare driver was young, French. He swore at her mother’s soaked dress, at the blood stains on his car mat. Annie was nauseous, unfocused. Her mother’s small, bloody footprints trailed them through the emergency room. There were nurses, doctors, a battery of questions. Finally, Lucia was whisked away for a shower and stitches. From the time they’d left the park, Annie’s mother had said nothing, as if her mind had emptied.
It’s very late. Lucia is asleep. Clean and bandaged, antibiotics on her nightstand. Outside the moon is full, a perfect circle behind a veil of clouds. Annie sits on the futon and shakes the contents of her purse onto the coffee table. She finds the crumpled pamphlet, spreads it flat, and finds the phone number on the back. Tomorrow, she’ll speak to the receptionist and read off a list of questions. She’ll make an appointment at the residence for the following week.
Annie sits at the kitchen table, presses her face into her hands, and cries. It is more violent than she expects, her tears coming in rhythmic sobs and wheezes. When she’s finished, she pulls a beer from the fridge and sits near the window overlooking the street. Outside, the rain is coming down heavy and cold. Leaves and branches collect in the gutters. Annie watches the deluge and thinks about tide pools. How, when the waters rise and the waves come in, they sink into oblivion. Barnacled rocks slip below the surface, along with the seaweed and plankton and delicate invertebrates. Microcosms vanish in the blink of an eye. “But not destroyed,” her mother had said, sometime last summer—a lifetime ago. Fingers tapping the kitchen table, voice earnest. “No, no! They merge with the sea. It’s a cycle, ani dobry, ani źle.” Annie had nodded abstractedly, spooning honey into her mother’s porcelain mug, amber strands swirling and disintegrating. Why had her mind stored this conversation? All those tiny, insignificant details: the crumbs on the table, the smell of toast and oranges. How the light had made her mother’s eyes impossibly blue. Lucia had leaned back, mouth crinkling with some secret, impenetrable joy. Like she knew that everything was right with the world.