When she is sad or angry, her tears fill the basin of the lake near our home, and the power of her emotion fuels wicked storms. The fishermen and sailors beg her for mercy, but she is the snake mother then, and she whips her tail in agitation. The men know to remain ashore and use the time to sit near the fire repairing their nets or stitching new sails.
They tell stories of my mother’s worst tantrums, but their voices are full of respect in equal measures as the fear.
“I remember,” the oldest man says, “that when conquerors tried to cross the lake and take our village, the Water-Mother used her snake tail to whip their weapons from their hands and push their ships back with her well-placed waves.”
When my mother is feeling happy, the skies reflect the bright blue of her eyes, and the waters in the lake are calm. She takes a fish-tail then, swimming alongside the fishing boats and guiding them toward the best catch.
She likes to play with the children on these days, and while I was not the first or the last to wrap my young arms around her neck and let her carry me over and under the surface, coming up for air always at the exact right moment, I am the one who is never afraid.
“The Water-Mother is our protector,” the other mothers tell their children. “And it is an honor to be invited to swim with her.”
Sometimes, though, the Mother of Water must take human form, trading tail for legs, and walking on the land. She did this once to find a mate, and that’s how I was made, but she also comes to shore whenever one of the elders passes out of this life.
In those times her tears are salty, and she cries them over the graves of those who have left. She wraps her silky hair around herself like a cloak and keeps vigil over the bones of the dead.
The old grannies cook for her at those times and leave pots of food and jugs of water to sustain her while she sits in silence. She might sit for two nights or five, or even seven, but when she leaves, it always seems she takes our collective grief away with her.
“Death is part of life,” she reminds us, as she returns to the lake.
Unlike the other girls in our village, the Mother of Water is also my mother of blood. When I am older, she tells me in her voice that ripples like a stream, I will learn to shift my form, to take on the snake tail when I must be fierce and the fish tail when I am being playful, and legs when I am ready for love.
Sometimes she visits in her human form, just to spend time with us.
“Did you love my father?” I ask her.
“I did,” she says. “I do,” she adds.
And she walks on legs into the candlelit depths of our house and shares her joy with the man who raises me. When she departs after those times, her eyes are dry, but my father’s face is wet with tears, and so is mine.
The Mother of Water has many moods and many forms, but in every one, she protects those of us she calls her own.