Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. Thanks for joining us for our summer reading series. We're joined by guest host Candice Mayhill, who we last heard in episode 19 of season two. For this series we've asked members of the AACC community to read excerpts from their original writings, specifically texts and stories that enlighten and inspire. Our readers will also share what led them to write their selection, what they learned, and of course, how they redefined themselves. We hope you enjoy the series and return for season three beginning this fall.
ELI: I’m Eli Jacobs. I’m an Anne Arundel Community College graduate. I majored in creative writing, and I will be reading for you today from my unpublished novella, "Guppy."
She was tangly-haired, talkative, and eight, when her mom woke her up in the middle of the night. Gil was curled up in her bed, the brightly colored sheets keeping her warm. She woke up from a hand shaking her by the shoulders. She blinked up at Mommy sitting at the foot of her bed. Confused. She was confused, because the world outside her bedroom window was still dark. Mommy’s long hair was neatly brushed, and it looked so soft and silky in the moonlight. Gil reached out and touched it as she sat up, wrinkling her nose sleepily at Mommy.
“Whats goin’ on?” Her mom was dressed in a white cotton nightgown that made her look like she had walked right out of a moonbeam.
Mommy kissed the top of Gillian’s head with a smile and spoke very softly. “I wanna teach you something, Guppy. Something my momma taught me when I was your age.”
The idea of that excited the little girl still half under her sheets. She bounced up onto her knees. “What is it, what is it?” Gil asked, at full volume.
“Shh, it’s late. Let’s not wake up Daddy or Kip, alright? This… is just for you and me. Ok?” Mommy stood from the bed and gestured for Gil to follow her to the door.
“Like a secret?” Gil asked, lowering her voice, and following her mom.
“Yup, a special secret.” Mommy took her daughter’s hand as they both tiptoed, barefoot, down the stairs towards the living room, where the fish tanks burbled.
“But how come it’s a secret? Why can’t we tell ‘em? Kip tells me e-ver-y-th-ing! He’s five now, that’s pretty big, so I think he could not tell nobody! And Daddy is super good at keeping secrets because he didn’t even tell Mrs. Grover I didn’t have a dog to eat my homework when she called, he said it was true and everything, so I think we should do it as a whole family, Mommy. Secrets aren’t no fun if you can’t share them with anyone, right?”
At the bottom of the stairs, Mommy turned and knelt down so that their eyes were level. Gil’s own green eyes were reflected back at her, as if instead Mommy’s eyes, she was looking into large, mossy pools encircled in dark rings.
“That’s very sweet of you, Gillian, but this is gonna be just for us girls, alright? I just want it to be special. Is that alright with you?”
Gil thought about it. She nodded, yawning. “I guess so. What are we gonna do anyway Mommy?”
Gil’s mom led her into the living room. It was a cozy room, each wall packed tightly with tanks of fish, large floppy couches and chairs, and rows and rows of bookshelves.
“I’m going to teach you how to swim!” Her mother said, smiling. There was an excitement etched into the wrinkles starting to form on Mommy’s face. It made Gil’s toes tingle with a sense of mystery and adventure.
“Uh. I already know to swim, remember? Daddy taught me when I was little!” Her confusion made Mommy laugh.
“No, honey, not that kind of swimming. Not the kind where you wiggle around your arms and legs, anyway. It’s… a little hard to explain. Come here.” Mommy had a stool pulled up next to a big long rectangular tank, brimming with brightly colored aquatic life. She stepped up onto the stool, and carefully lifted off the lid, the lamps, anything that was impeding the way for her to stand completely in the tank, her toes burrowing their way into the neon pebbles.
Gillian stepped up onto the stool, watching, but not climbing into the tank alongside her. She peered through the glass at Mommy’s big toes, which poked out of the pebbled floor, wriggling almost like they were fish themselves. She giggled. “You’re not big enough to swim in there, silly!”
“Mhm...” Mommy nodded, but her eyes were closed. She seemed to relax into the dark shadows cast by the blue tank lights. “Guppy, watch closely okay? This is what I am going to teach you to do.”
Her mom knelt down on her knees, her white nightgown billowing out around her and then flattening out as it was weighed down by water. Then, Mommy started melting. There was no horror in the sight. Her whole being just seemed start flowing, melding, with the water. Bit by bit, until even her red hair had turned to liquid and all that remained of her mother was a little blue fish.
Its large, black eyes stared up at her. Unblinking. It was smaller than Gil’s pinky finger, and it swam around it a little triumphant circle. And she knew, without a doubt, that this little blue fish was her mom. That there was no difference between the forms for her. No disconnect. Gil jumped up and down with glee, clapping her hands together.
“That’s so cool! I wanna try! I wanna try!”
Mommy seemed to rise up out of the water, as if she was standing up from a much deeper point. She was absolutely beaming, fish swimming in circles around her ankles. “Well then get in here, Gups!”
The young girl clambered over the side of the glass. It felt like trespassing. This was a home for her pets, but not for her. Normally, she would never be allowed to stand in the warm water, with her flannel pajama bottoms clinging uncomfortably to her legs.
She nervously shifted around, getting used to the feeling of the pebbles beneath her feet.
“What do I do now?”
“Close your eyes, and take a big, deep breath.” Mommy placed a hand on Gil’s shoulder, guiding her so that she was crouching with only her head out of the water. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus only on the sound of her mom’s voice.
“It’s not working!”
“Just relax. Let the water wash over you. Don’t think about it as your enemy, don’t think about it as something that is going to hurt you. You have to work with it. Forget that your body and the water are two separate things.” Mommy’s voice was so soft and airy. It drifted around Gil as if from a dream.
She began to feel a strange tingling at the tips of her fingers as she imagined herself melting. It was sort of like feeling each part of her body fall asleep at different times. Like slipping into unconsciousness, while somehow remaining awake. She lost feeling, slowly, lost track of where her face was, where her arms were- forgot the shape of her elbows, the feeling of air moving in and out of her lungs.
Her eyes were forced open, and she forgot how to blink as they took in a whole new world. She could see Mommy, looming large above her, most of her body a distorted image wavering along the surface of the world. Gil’s body now was something else entirely. Sleek and scaly and iridescent. Her fins were the vibrant red that her hair had once been, now more useful, more powerful. She swam in circles around her mother’s legs, shimmering in greens and golds. Then she moved beyond, gliding from one end of the tank to the other, burbling out little bubbles of greeting to her fellow fish. Gleefully she flitted, drunk on this new feeling. It felt like she was flying, it was so easy to move. Each flick of her body was a way forward, washing water over her gills to fill herself up with the energy needed to keep going. Every part of her, every miniscule pulse, was free. Was new. Was unconcerned with the world beyond the glass.
Gillian could have forgotten she was ever human at all. But then a pair of giant hands plunged down and scooped her up, and the touch of skin made her remember. Suddenly panic gripped her, at the thought that she had almost forgotten. Forgotten that she was not a fish, but a little girl, that she had a Mommy, watching her, and a Daddy, and a little brother, and his name was Kip, and both of them were fast asleep in their beds. She had almost forgotten that she loved them. What it felt like to hug them, to hold her family close against her human body.
Gil sprouted out from the little fish body in a frenzy of flailing limbs. She cried out as she splashed back to life, her chest heaving to draw air back into her lungs. Mommy reached for her and pulled Gil into her arms, holding her tightly against her chest.
“Shh, Guppy its okay, quiet now, don’t panic. You did absolutely wonderful.” Gil relaxed into the embrace and looked up at her mom to see that Mommy was crying.
“What’s wrong? Why are you sad?” She asked, twisting around to hug her mother back.
“I’m just so proud of you.” Mommy said, but Gil could tell that was a lie. Something ached behind Mommy’s eyes. Something about seeing Gil learn to “swim” made her not just sad, but in pain. She saw for the first time that there was, and had always been, as long as Gillian had been alive, a piece of her Mommy missing. And she didn’t know why. She lacked the words, the wisdom to ask.
CANDICE: Eli, Thank you so much for joining us for our last episode of the summer reading series.
ELI: Awesome, thank you for having me.
CANDICE: What inspired you to write this piece?
ELI: Well, I think it started off as like just something I was writing when I was a teenager and it kind of over time became a much different project. It went through a lot of phases over my time at AACC and over my time in my four year school, until it ultimately culminated in "Guppy" which is the name of this piece. There was no like direct inspiration it just kind of formulated over time. I would say that a big inspiration that kind of came in late in the game would be "The Little Mermaid", it's kind of got a lot of relationship to that original piece of work by Hans Christian Andersen, but in a way that I don't like I don't know if everyone will get or if that's just kinda something that was I the back of my mind as I was writing it.
CANDICE: I love that. And how long have you been working on this and what challenges have you faced in your process?
ELI: I would say the original idea would have been, god six years ago, but I would say the form that is in now was about a year ago when I started working on my senior thesis for undergrad. One of the most challenging things about it was just it was a very new genre, it's magical realism and I have grown up writing mostly fantasy stuff and so after I kind of got really into magical realistic literature for a class I was taking it kind of became something that I really wanted to try out myself because it's just a really cool way of writing and blending reality with fiction. And it was just really hard to like move from that fantastical way of writing about like magic and stuff and making it more seamlessly blended with reality.
CANDICE: Trying new genres, that's super fun. What did you learn through that process about yourself, about others, about the world or about literature, writing?
ELI: For one thing I learned that everything you write is going to have connections to other people's lives that you don't really realize. After I'd kind of written the finished, the work as it is now because I wouldn't consider it completely finished. As it is now it kinda impacted people that read it in a way that I was really surprised by. I have a friend who's life story ends up correlating a little eerily to the events on the page of kind of a mother abandoning a child, which was really startling but also really interesting to see how she kind of reacted to the work and the experience that the character was going through and could kind of give me that feedback that this was something that was relatable and realistic.
CANDICE: I love that and I love what you said about a work having connections with other people. How do you hope that this piece might help others work on kind of redefining themselves?
ELI: I hope that it kind of says something to the reader about not only the magic that is within their lives, but that the relationships between parent and child change over time. There is no set relationship that's gonna be there and sometimes those relationships are complicated and there's a magic in kind of finding that new ground and exploring how that relationship grows over time.
CANDICE: I like that. And as you've been working on this and you've been working on I for so long and rethinking your ideas, how has this redefined you as a person or as a writer?
ELI: As a writer it's completely changed the way that I write imagery I think. I have always loved like really cool images of like magic and things happening in the world that I'm writing. And I'm not really much of an artist, so those aren't things that I can like visually express, but those are things that I can describe with words and learning really how to make imagery that you wouldn't normally be able to imagine or see come to life on the page was really exciting for me and that's something that was definitely new with this work and something that I'm hopefully going to be carrying forward into my other pieces, fantasy or magical realism or realism.
CANDICE: And I think it's absolutely something that we've enjoyed and listening to and reading your work too. Now we get the fun, English teacher-type questions that I get to ask you. What's something that you're reading lately?
ELI: I've been reading this YA novel called "Gideon the Ninth", it's about lesbian necromancers in space and it's super fun. It's got really, really cool world building that I'm enjoying a lot and I think that's really important too like keep reading things even if they're like silly things. It doesn't have to be high-brow literature as long as I'm enjoying it, which is something that I've had to retrain myself to do because I have spent so much time being a college student. But now that I'm just a person again I have to kind of be like and not everything I have to read has to be Shakespeare in order for it to be valuable.
CANDICE: You get to go off the syllabus, which is great. And I think that's so important of re-finding your joy in reading and letting it kind of draw you in. I love what you said about world building. If I was looking for something that is magical realism so that I could tell somebody what it is, what would you say I should tell them to read other than you obviously? 'Cause we'll tell them that, but other than you?
ELI: Well I would say one of my favorite authors would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His work is gorgeous. He has like a really, really short story I would almost call it flash fiction called "Light is like Water" that's like one of my favorite pieces I've ever read. There is Haruki Murakami does lots of great work. Toni Morrison has a couple of pieces that I would consider magical realism. It's kind of a weird in between genre where there's a lot of overlap with a lot of other things, so really I just encourage people to read things that are surreal and kind of push the boundary between what is fictional, what is real and what is magic and what is... I don't know I like that sort of pushing of the boundaries.
CANDICE: Absolutely and I love that and your work too, it's so fun. What else have you written or you're working on right now that you want to share with us?
ELI: I've been working a lot on poetry kind of a few little things here and there. Unfortunately I don't have anything that is like widely published. I have a couple of things in student journals. I don't know. I would encourage people to just continue reading and doing the best that they can to support small art creators, especially I think that's really important.
CANDICE: Absolutely. Of reading what's online and reading those independent presses is super, super important. I am with you. Thank you so much Eli for being with us and for reading for us today and answering all of our questions. It has been a delight to have you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer and that you're staying safe.
ELI: Absolutely, thank you.
CANDICE: I'm Candice Mayhill. Thanks for joining us for the summer reading series. This is our last episode. Season three kicks off this fall.
Redefine U is production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our summer series guest host is Candice Mayhill. Executive producer is Allison Baumbusch. Our producer is Amanda Behrens. Our writer Amy Carr Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Jeremiah Prevatte, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce, and Alicia Renehan. Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website, aacc.edu/podcast. I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.