In the first story, “Tia Reina Cleans a Fish, and the Predicament that Ensues,” you are at the kitchen table dicing a cucumber for Tia Reina’s ceviche. Tia Reina is at the sink, slicing the skin off of a fish. When she is finished she throws the skin in the trash. She begins rubbing her hands vigorously under the faucet. You ask her what is the matter. In Spanish she tells you that the fish scales have clung to her hand and she is trying to get them off. You suggest she use the rough side of the sponge, as she had advised you years ago on one of her visits, to do when trying to remove persistent grime from the dishes. She grabs the sponge and scrubs the side of her hand, the fish scales falling like confetti to the white of the sink basin.
The second story is titled “Fate,” and is very much like the first. In this story, Reina slices the fish and you chop the cucumber. The fish scales get stuck to her hand. When she reveals her hand you see the scales, plotted along the lines of her palm like cities on a map. One of those cities is Oaxaca, Mexico, where she is from. You know this because you know that where we come from presents itself in us always. You are from California, and it appears in the way you eat oranges: when the juice drips from your mouth, you always wipe it away with ease.
You suggest Tia Reina use the rough side of the sponge and it works. She rinses the sparse scales down the drain and you imagine them traveling down the pipes and into the sewers, and then into the ocean, among other fish. The scales have now been shed from two bodies, one of them to be eaten and one of them to eat. That would be Tia Reina’s fate: a place so high up in the food chain she is granted choice of what she eats. The fish’s fate is the shedding of scales, being served as a traditional Central American dish.
The third story, “How to Un-Fishscale Your Hands,” begins as you are dicing a cucumber (a pepino, in Spanish) for Tia Reina’s ceviche. Tia Reina then tells you of the scales (escamas, she says). You are about to tell her how to most effectively remove the likeness of the fish from her hand, but you hesitate. You think about how to say it, in English or Spanish, or in a first-generation American hybrid of the two. You didn’t grow up with the language like she did, like your father did, like all of your ancestors did (though theirs was an earlier version of the language). You think you can feel those ancestors now, disciples of the mestizo, bearing their judgment on you as you wait in that moment to relay the command of removing fish scales from one’s hand. You think of a new word, “un-fishscale,” which you will never say to Tia Reina because she would not understand it. In those awaiting seconds, you hold the suggestion poised on your lips like a prayer, in a sort of Spanglish limbo. What you conjure is, el otro lado de la esponja, pointing for visual reinforcement. You speak Spanish to her in such a way that your words slant. This would go undetected to the ears of the speaker of any other language.
The following story is called “The Mermaid.” You are slicing the cucumber at the table and Tia Reina is slicing a fish in the sink. When she reveals her hand to you it is decorated in fish scales, shimmering in the light above the kitchen table, or the light shining from outside, or from a light emanating from the cucumber you have stopped slicing. Tia Reina glistens like a mermaid, a glittering sea-woman. She has never been mermaid-elegant, though. She burps after meals and eats with her hands. She hits you on the arm when you do or say something wrong. You think that if she hit you now, some of the fish scales would transfer to your skin and you would become a mermaid. But you would make a very poor mermaid. You can’t even swim.
The next story is called “The Spanish Influence on the Indigenous Cultures and Species of Oaxaca, Mexico.” It begins in this way: you are at the kitchen table dicing a cucumber for Tia Reina’s ceviche. Tia Reina is at the sink, slicing the skin off of a fish.