The ocean would not take me back. The depths had lost their luminescence for me. Now their waters were dark and murky. I fought against the force of the water pushing me up towards the surface, trying to claw and kick my way through with my frail limbs. Even as I struggled to swim down deeper, I could feel the air being crushed from my lungs and the further down I swam the more I could feel the pressure in my ears, around my fragile skull. Saltwater forced its way up my nose, until I was choking on the smell of seaweed and preservation sent me hurtling back to the surface.
I broke through the waves once again, coughing up a bit of sea water, and tossed my sodden hair out of my eyes. I lay back in the water, drifting listlessly, and let the sea shove me back towards the shore. It spat me back onto the wet sand and retreated from my feet with a hiss.
I dragged myself upright and dug my feet into the damp, warm sand and let the earth swallow my feet. The earth would not reject me. For a minute, I just listened to the roar and crash of the ocean, watched the froth of the sea tumble towards me and draw away again, and let the waves unbury and bury my feet in soft sand.
I still hated the feeling of the wind on my skin and the sharpness of the sound in the air. In the water, sound was thick and round as bubbles. Water embraced you, enveloped you. Above the surface, everything was thinner, sharper. Light, sound, even sensation.
But the ocean would not take me back.
I closed my eyes and buried my face in my drawn-up knees.
Cyrena was the one who had wanted to leave the ocean. She was always talking about wanting to go to the surface. I had found her, more than once, drifting just below the curved, bubbling surface of the water.
But we were not sirens. And we knew the rules. Breaking the surface was a forever choice. Breaking the surface meant transformation. Breaking the surface meant never coming back to the ocean.
It should have been her. She had always been drawn to the light, the brightness just beyond the watery veil. She should have been the one stranded on this shore.
It had all happened so fast…
I hadn’t seen Cyrena in hours and I had a feeling, like an electric eel had wound itself around my spine--a tingling fear that she had finally broken through the surface and left us without her. I knew where she liked to linger, her favorite spots, close to the shore, close to the surface, where the light from above turned everything to brilliant crystal blue around us.
Sure enough she had been tempted back to the shallows, floating just a foot below the surface. I remember her hanging there, suspended in a pool of light. For a moment, I thought she might just reach out a hand and break right through.
She didn’t see the net sweeping towards us, a meshy wall plummeting through the deep. I had reached her just moments before the net did, tackling her from the side and driving us both down. She had screamed my name into my face--I still didn’t know whether in anger or in fear.
If she had been just inches deeper, if I had been just seconds faster…
The bottom of the net caught the edge of my tail, entangling me in it. I knew the moment the fibers bit into my scales that there would be no hope for me. I shoved my sister away from me, down into the dark depths. There was no falling in the ocean, but she looked like she was falling--arms still extended to me, trying to grasp my hands again, her hair spread around her face, and her wide eyes pleading with me.
And then I was being propelled through the water, torn away, dragged upwards. Through the gentle deep, through the glowing shallows, through the heaving surface.
The moment I broke through was like being born into another world. Violent, abrupt, seared with light, deafened with the roar of sound all around me.
Transformation was instantaneous. My powerful, muscular tail melted away into thin, fragile human legs. For a moment, I was hanging upside down in the air as the net was pulled toward the ship. But feet are easier to free and I kicked my way out of the net, only to plummet back into the sea.
But it would not take me back. The waves battered me about, tossing me from one to another as I sucked in seawater I could no longer breathe. I flailed about, beating uselessly at the water with my weak new limbs. I tried to dive back down, but survival instincts pulled me back from the deep again and again.
Until finally the ocean had spit me out onto a stretch of land. I lay on the sand, staring up at the sky, letting the tides wash over me and retreat, as I struggled to breathe the thin, sharp air, struggled to stare back into the diamond brightness. I could barely comprehend the heaviness of my bones, the sensation of sand caked on my legs, the roughness of wind across my face.
I do not know how long I lay there on the beach. My mind was numb. If the waves had carried my body back to the sea, I would have drifted endlessly on its surface.
But the ocean would not take me back.
I only roused myself to action when the blinding coin of the sun had sunk in the sky and burned the horizon. I watched the horizon bleed red and orange, and then grow dark.
Night was a relief. I knew how to be swaddled by the dark.
In the following weeks, I barely moved from the shoreline. Beyond the sand rose cliffs, grey and tall as the walls of an underwater trench. And there were plants, trees and bushes and grass. Everything green terrified me. I thought the grass would wrap softly around my feet, clinging to my skin like seaweed. Instead it stabbed the tender skin along the bottom of my feet, scraping it as if with sharp teeth. So I stayed on the sand near the water, tethered to it.
That was how Jonas found me. Wrapped in the torn remnants of my clothing, huddled on the shore, scavenging along the coast for what little food I could find, flinching at the prickle of grass on my toes.
When I saw him scrambling gleefully down the cliffs toward the shoreline, I ran for the first time. But I was wobbly as a newborn calf and I had fallen three times into the sand by the time he reached me.
I could only stare at him mutely, as he tried to pull me to my feet and flooded me with questions.
“Are you alright? Oh no...what happened to you? How did you get here? Did you ship wreck…” and on and on.
He tried to coax me back to his family’s “vacation house,” and when I refused to walk on the grass, he carried me all the way there. His family had stared at me with wide eyes, while I stood dripping in the middle of their living room, afraid to move a muscle in the midst of such a boxy, foreign space full of points and corners.
It took weeks for me to speak to him. I hated the way the air rasped through my throat, hated the heat of it as it passed my lips, hated the grating edge to my voice.
His family couldn’t understand what had happened to me, or why I went down to the shore everyday, as often as I could.
More than once they had dragged me out of the water, choking and spluttering from a failed attempt to try to get back home.
But the ocean would not take me back. I could not return home, no matter how much I tried.
I would not stop trying. The hiss of every wave upon the earth was a reminder that land and sea were not friends. I was not made to walk upon the ground. I was not meant to stare out at the choppy, frothing roof of my home. Longing ached in the very core of me for the soft dark, the gentle immersion of deep waters. For the coral and the fish, for the rock of marine trenches and the song of whales rolling through the water. I longed for my family, their hair waving around their heads, their luminescent eyes, for their voices in my ear. Even for Cyrena, trouble though she was. I would forgive everything if only I could see her again.
Night was returning to this teeth-bared world. Jonas and his family are having a bonfire on the beach. I stay far away from the flames, from their heat and their light. There is hunger in its crackling voice that sounds like pain. While they gather around the dancing red tongues, I let the ocean lap at my toes.
Then I wade in, the froth rising to swallow my legs. When it reaches my waist, I can almost pretend that I have lost the frail sticks of my legs and regained my powerful tail again, scales flashing.
I dive beneath the waves. This time I’ll make it back. This time I’ll reach home.
But once again, I can feel the water pushing back against me. Once again, my new eyes cannot pierce the dark. I do not see the lines of the currents or the gleam of fish. My ears are full of the rush of seawater and the throb of my own heartbeat. I try to push through the heaving of the water all around me, try to slice through it like I once did. But the water fights me, and even after all these weeks of working to strengthen my limbs, they are not strong enough. The water is a fist about my body, shaking me, squeezing me before at last it hurls me away.
No. I will not give in. This is my home!
My lungs are burning, and I can feel the pressure around my head like a hot iron band. And then, instinctively, I gasp, trying to breathe. Then I’m choking on seawater, no gills to filter out water from air. I thrash about, blind, losing sense of where I’m heading. Down? To the surface? Where even is the surface?
Then arms wrap around me and I’m being propelled upward. I’m pulled through the heaving water and back to the solid shore. I cough up water for several minutes before I see Jonas kneeling beside me.
“What are you going to do when I’m not here to pull you out again?” he asks me.
I don’t have an answer for him.
“My parents want to keep you away from the ocean,” he says. “They’re not going to allow you near the water’s edge until you are no longer a danger to yourself.”
“No,” I say, as loudly and firmly as I can, but my voice is still hoarse. They won’t keep me from the ocean. From where I belong. I have to make him understand. “I’m not a danger to myself. Or anyone else.”
Jonas is silent for a moment. “This is the fourth time this week I’ve had to rescue you from almost drowning,” he says. “What are you trying to do?”
I drag myself into a sitting position, pulling my knees to my chest. The wind feels like it’s trying to shear my skin from my bones and I’m so cold that my whole body shakes.
“I just want to go home.”
He considers this, watching me with his hazel eyes. “How does diving into the ocean take you home?”
He will never understand this, but I say it anyway. “The ocean is my home.”
“Drowning yourself won’t bring your family back.”
He’s wrong. He thinks my family must have died in a shipwreck or something. He doesn’t understand that they are right there. My home is right there. But out of reach.
But he’s also right. It won’t bring my family to me. I can’t get my home back. It may not have changed. It might be right in front of me, but I am different now. I have been changed--and what was everything to me is now out of reach.
“I can’t go back home,” I say, quietly. “It’s gone.” It isn’t really gone. It’s still physically there. But for me, it is.
Jonas stares out at the sea, waves dipped in silver, reflecting back the moonlight. “My parents sold their house almost two years ago,” he says.
Now it is my turn to watch him while he watches the sea.
“It shouldn’t be a big deal, right? It’s just a house. It’s just a place. But I went back there, just drove past it in my car to see it again. And the whole place was different. The new owner had remade the whole house. I almost drove past it because it was hardly recognizable.”
“It was your home?”
He nods. “I drove away and I cried. I didn’t really know why at first. But it was the place where I had spent most of my life. It was where I was a child. It was where I grew up. All those pieces of me were formed there--tucked away in the corners of the house, in the bannister of the staircase where I had played, in the windows I had gazed out of, in the tall oak tree out front. And now all of those places and memories were gone. I couldn’t go back to them. I couldn’t go back to my childhood either.”
“So...what do we do?” I say. “When we can’t go home. When we can’t go back to those times. When we can’t even go back to who we were?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess we just have to say goodbye and accept that it is the end of a chapter. That book is shut.”
We both turn and stare at the water, heaving and tossing, rushing towards us and away again.
Then Jonas gently tilts my chin up with his finger. “ “Maybe...maybe you need to stop looking at the ocean.”
The ocean is all I ever see, all I ever hear. “What?”
“Look, at the sky.”
I have never looked at the sky at night. It is deeper and darker than even the sea. The expanse is like mud, soft and undemanding. The stars spatter across it, brilliant and glowing in the dark, but with a clear, gentle light. They wink at me, and as I watch them, my heart stretches wider.
“No,” I say.
Jonas frowns at me.
“We always carry home within us.” I will stop looking only at the ocean. But the ocean will never stop calling me. I know this with certainty. The ocean will not take me back, but it will always flow in my veins.