The Day I Became a Mermaid

by Italome Ohikhuare

 

Artwork by Maia Walcott

One muggy Miami afternoon, my parents surprised my brother and me with an early Christmas gift: an exorcism. They’d flown in a pastor from an African Charismatic Church, a church where in addition to screaming in tongues and running on hot coals, they perform exorcisms on a weekly basis.

The exorcism was primarily intended for my brother who is mentally ill. My loving but superstitious Nigerian family believed that, despite scientific research, his mental illness wasn’t a disorder; it was a demonic curse. Once it was removed, my brother would be ‘cured’ and perfectly normal.

My family also believed needed to be cured. Because, the fact that I was thirty-one, unmarried, unemployed and childless clearly wasn’t normal. And the fact that I made dark and cynical jokes about being unmarried, unemployed and childless also wasn’t normal. When my demonic curse was removed, I’d get married, have five kids and become a doctor or lawyer. I’d be cured and normal, not dark and cynical.

But who could blame me for being cynical? I’d watched my brother, a completely innocent, sweet and smart person, be ravaged by a severe, psychotic illness. And no matter how hard he tried, how many medications he took or how hard we prayed, he didn’t get better. He only got worse.

And then there were my own struggles, which obviously paled in comparison to my brother’s. But I never thought I’d get to be thirty-one without a career or a husband. And I’d tried. Online dating, meet-ups, advanced degrees – nothing had worked. So, I shrugged and said, “That’s life. Life sucks.”

But deep down, I didn’t want to be cynical. I wanted my brother to get better. I wanted to meet Mr. Right. I wanted to have Mr. Right’s kids. I wanted the whole white wedding and white picket fence.

And most of all, I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to make films, TV shows, Broadway plays – any way I could tell stories that would touch people all over the world. But after years of disastrous dates and rejection letters, I had no idea how any of that would happen or if it was ever gonna happen. Hence, the shrug. Life sucks.

My family wasn’t buying my ‘life sucks’ motto. While my parents believed my curse could be exorcized, my relatives in Nigeria had a better solution. They believed my brother and I had angered one of the, like, 500 gods and goddesses they worship. Because, apparently, these gods all have serious anger problems. So, my relatives wanted us to come home and make peace with the gods by performing traditional ceremonies. The ceremony they wanted me to perform was one of the most revered – and feared – in Nigeria: the ceremony for Olokun the water goddess, also known as ‘The Mermaid’.

According to my Dad’s tribe, it was a ceremony of purification. I’d be “immersed in Olokun’s sanctified river, then brought back up, pure and new, cleansed from my wrongs.”

When my Dad told me this, I said, “But I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“It is symbolic,” he explained, “Like getting Baptized.”

“Oh,” I said.

“And you must sacrifice a white goat.”

“Ooh!” I said, “That part’s exciting!”

I asked my mother, “Mum, what’s your tribe’s version of the ceremony?”

“We throw babies in de’ river.”

She said this with a straight face.

“Babies?”

“Yes!” she said, “But only the deformed babies.”

“Right, because it’s perfectly ok to drown deformed babies?”

“They don’t always drown,” she said. “If Olokun pushes the baby back up out of de’ wata, that means it is a mermaid child. It is meant to be deformed. Like a mermaid.”

Even for me, this was one of the darkest things I’d ever heard. But I also found it quite beautiful: the image of a mermaid, saving a child thrown away for being deformed and ‘not normal.’ Then, gently pushing them back into the world. Affirming she had made them that way. That they were never meant to be ‘normal’. But my parents didn’t really believe in mermaids or gods and goddesses. Those were just myths. Demons, however, were very real. So, there I was, in their living room, with this random African man about to drive demons out of me.

I was the real demon that day. I was crude. I cursed. I challenged him on suicide, sodomy, sex-change surgery. Every taboo topic I could think of. Because I didn’t believe in exorcisms. Or demonic curses. But my parents were so hopeful. I couldn’t back out.

“Let’s get this over with,” I mumbled, hoping I’d still make it to my Cardio Stripper class.

I tried not to laugh as the pastor and my parents convulsed and screamed gibberish to the heavens. Then came the worst part: the dreaded ‘laying of hands.’ This was the key moment when I was supposed to scream, or faint. Something big and unexpected had to happen that showed the exorcism was working.

But when the pastor laid his hands on my head – he went silent. He closed his eyes.

“I’m having a vision,” he said.

“Oh great,” I thought.

He said: “You are a storyteller, yes? You write stories?”

“Yeah …”

He said: “I see you sharing your stories and touching the lives of millions of people. Yes, I see it. God is going to use your stories to change the world.”

And then something big and unexpected did happen: I broke down crying. Huge, watery sobs. I cried because that crazy pastor saw a vision of the future I desperately wanted, but couldn’t see myself.

My parents would later swear they’d never told him I wanted to write, but it didn’t even matter. At that moment, he said exactly what I needed to hear to bring me out of the darkness and cynicism. To make me stop believing that life sucks and start believing in white weddings and white picket fences.

As I lay on the floor, crying, I thought, “Ok, let’s say this crazy African is right. How can I achieve this future? How can I become a successful, married storyteller and mother when I’m SO not even close to any of the above?”

Then I felt something push me up from the floor. My parents and that pastor would say it was “my renewed soul, no longer a slave to the demonic curse.”

My dark and cynical side would say, “Yeah right.” Because, two years later, I’m still unmarried and childless. And my brother is still mentally ill. And I still don’t believe in exorcisms.

But now, I believe in God. And mermaids. And I believe God made my brother and me his little, deformed mermaids. And if he made us this way, we must be ok.

And most of all, I believe it was God who pushed me up off that floor. Because deformed mermaids can still be great writers. And wives. And mothers. All they need is a gentle push.

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ITALOME OHIKHUARE

Italome is an African-American writer-filmmaker based in Los Angeles. With her eclectic, cultural background and years working in Off-Broadway theatre, her scripts feature diverse characters, complex, social issues and plenty of drama. Fresh off an MFA in Film from The University of Miami, she wrote and starred in her short film The Mermaid which was acquired by The Mental Health Channel. She’s also a Sundance Institute/Knight Foundation Screenwriting Fellow and a 2018 WGA Feature Writers Access Project winner.