Saunter through snapdragons, the cobblestone path
inside his house, into a bath prepared
with Dead Sea salts by a sociopath—
or surrogate, most likely, who would dare
ambush with tea. Porcelain penetrates
chattered teeth, lips surrounds indecency while
you sip herbs in man-made waters, await
elucidation of your fate. Will a child,
with gills, towards silk sheets creep or to tanks
debased in waters deep? Much left unsaid
before you ran away to sunken estates
to hideaway. In plush cotton robe, led
to dry four poster bed, door locked with key.
Tanks also are arid in a dead sea.
Some words about Dead Sea by Gilda Sheen, the sixteen year old gilled girl whose story is told in Girlarium:
By the time I grew gills, I had kept other secrets, from some. I confided my bisexuality and puberty with close friends. Certainly not my parents. I mean, they’re not close minded per se — as far as I know. They’re just never there. They’re providers of things because they work so much. My job is to appreciate what they can do and not make them feel bad about the other.
The emo stuff like periods and sexuality, they don’t have the time to think about it. And the stress? They’re both on medication for that already. So fuck telling them about gills. Can you imagine?
I tried to hide it for the longest time. On the swim team at school, I had access to the pool during the day which kept my gills wet. Thank God for long hair which hid them for the rest of the day. And thankfully I was not a mermaid, so I had no tail to worry with — I would never have been able to hide that. I just had gills that needed, more and more, to be kept a little wet. Bottles of water were great on the go moisture.
For a while, it seemed like doing these simple things, I could breathe enough with lungs to pass at home and at school. Then things changed again, and my gills seemed to require more water bottles than what seemed normal at home. Lips turned blue and even matte lipstick was not covering it enough. I was maybe not going to survive, and meanwhile my parents getting annoyed.
But the worst was that damn swim scout who appeared after I set the public high school swimming record in the 50 Free. God if I could do one thing over it would be to swim slower that one damn day. Magazines covered me and scouts came. A man who pretended to be a scout came, too.
I suppose in some definition of the word he was a scout but not for a team — but the dark part of our government. Some new mission of training underwater spies like me with all sorts of horrible talents I wanted no part of — but this was not the kind of man who takes no for an answer.
Quit the swim team to avoid him, and he still was sending me messages, following me home, more insistent each time. It was clear eventually he’d just take me away, and so I began to make another plan.
It didn’t involve my parents. It actually involved a man I never thought I would ever trust. As it turns out, I never should have, Joseph Youmans of The Aquariums at Anemone. The Aquariums at Anemone is both exactly what you think and not at all. It’s an aquarium full of sharks and sea life that one can tour — yet it’s not really public. It’s in Mr. Youman’s private home called Anemone. Mr. Youmans opens his “private collection” to schools for tours, and this is how I met him. A terrible field trip after I developed gills and saw sea creatures in glass cages in a different way, and Mr. Youmans saw me — gills and all.
That very day, Mr. Youmans began a relationship with me, giving me his card with his email which quickly turned into a Google Hangout chat conversation. He built up my trust, not prying, speaking to me about his collection and all the resources and knowledge he had for the care of marine life.
At first, I only talked to him in metaphors of lungfish and other gilled creatures, asking coded questions about survival. But the harassment of the government agent, pretending to be a swim scout, put me in a vulnerable position. Soon, I was begging Mr. Youmans for his help.
This was what Mr. Youmans had been waiting for. When I asked, he was more than happy to swoop in and whisk me away to Anemone. The day the scout followed me home from school, I knew I was in danger. He worked for an orange president, and he wanted me to as well — to do terrible things on behalf of him, violent things I had no doubt. I tried to appeal to his own humanity, that despite these gills I was a delicate teenage girl and not prepared to be a weapon. He sent me this in text message after, and I knew then if I did not runaway to Mr. Youmans that they would take me by force.
So after a game of what do you wear when you are going to drown? I put on my favorite sea green dress and followed the directions that Mr. Youmans left me. It should have been a warning sign the way that he picked such a remote location to meet. All I kept thinking was that he was concerned for my safety because of the government. I never thought that he, too, would want to keep my remains unknown for his own creepy reasons.
I thought of none of this as I went to the park as he directed to meet a phantom at the edge of the woods. My only thought was surviving this day and not having to hurt people or do things I did not believe in. Oh, and surviving, I thought of that, too. A phantom at the edge of the woods sounded so frightening but it was a car — a Roll-Royce Phantom that took me to my new home, the Girlarium.
Once I arrived at Anemone, I was in a different world of extreme privilege and imprisonment. As the poem above states, written by Kristin Garth, who I trusted to help tell my story, I was taken straight away to a bath that smelled of blossoms. It comforted me at first because they were treating me like a girl — not a sea creature.
You see, I really had no idea. It’s hard to ask a person, “You do understand I’m still a human?” But that’s all I literally wanted to ask Mr. Youmans every day. And I never really was quite sure. I had no idea if I’d be deposited into a watery tank of loneliness where I could breathe — but I would also grieve so much.
Instead, I was put into a bath, and for a moment I laughed to myself at my own good fortune. How could anyone want for anything here? But especially a gilled gill. If I needed some kind of medical attention to survive — if I needed larger bodies of water to swim in, I knew nothing would be denied me. Money was no object here.
Then the maid entered, without knocking, with a steaming cup of tea to hand me, completely nude without even bubbles to hide behind. The fragrant bath salts with calming scents insufficient in this moment to make me forget myself. This is the moment I knew they did not see me as human. Even in a dry bedroom with the most comfortable linens I would ever sleep in and walls the most dreamy seashell pink, I was a curiosity. Anyone would invade my privacy without thought and locked me inside when they left.
It is when I realized that a cage could be dry as well as wet, and that is where I slept on this very night.
If you are interested in more of my story, please follow me on Instagram: @gildasheen where the story continues.