Her first breath above the water comes out part gasp and part sob.
The air above the sea is cold, crisp, and unfamiliar in the ever darkening night. She pulls herself with tired arms and cramping fingers across the beach, sand slipping through her hands with each grasping tug.
For a time she does nothing more than lie there, on her side so the sand doesn’t get in her lungs, though she thinks that may be preferable to this. Every breath is a rasp, until she’s strong enough to let out another strangled sob.
She stays this way until morning breaks over the horizon, until she finally feels her tired body drift into sleep.
“Who do you suppose she is?”
“…yes, naked as a…”
“…don’t think she washed up…”
“Where else could she…?”
The voices drift in and out, and she knows they’re talking about her. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing does. Her skin has dried into a hard crust, coated in sand and salt and sea, but no longer exposed to the air. One of the nearby voices has spread a blanket over her prone form. Gulls cry overhead, a sound she’s never heard this close up before, and she focuses on them instead of the crowing of the women just a few feet off.
Sea water laps at her toes. High tide is coming, she can feel it. Still, she does nothing but lie in the sand.
None of the women want to approach her. There are four, and they stand a good distance away. Only once did any of them come close to her, and then only to cover her nakedness with a coarse blanket, to make sure none of the men on the island saw her.
“What are we going to do with her?” the first woman asks.
“Well we can’t just leave the poor child here. She’ll catch her death,” says a woman who could be her sister or her cousin, with the same dark skin and darker hair.
“But where did she come from?” the first asks. “She could bring about a curse on our people.”
“Superstitious nonsense,” says a third woman, considerably shorter than the other women, with a high forehead and a carved walking stick. “No such thing as curses.”
The first woman scoffs, but the fourth places a hand on her elbow, calming her. The fourth woman looks the most unlike the rest, wearing tighter clothes and shorter hair, with slighter features unshared by the rest.
“We can’t leave her, Anahera.”
The first woman lets it go, but vows to keep an eye on the girl. A close eye.
The shortest woman approaches and kneels at the girl’s side. “Are you all right, child?” she asks. The girl looks up at the woman, and blinks away tears and sand. The woman smiles at her, but the girl still says nothing. “We’d like to get you someplace warmer. Come with me.”
With little other choice, the girl allows herself to be helped to her feet.
It becomes clear as they help the girl clean and dress that she’s closer to being a woman. She’s as plump as any of the rest of them, round and womanly, even if she is pale as the clouds.
It doesn’t take them long to realize that all is not as it should be. But the three women who help care for her determine not to tell anyone about the thin lines on the side of her neck, the ones that opened up just a little when they ran a wet sponge over her skin.
The woman from the sea doesn’t say a word.
They set her up in a room at the inn, decorated with sea shells and bottles of colored sand. A picture of the beach, a palm tree hanging over the water, hangs in a bamboo frame on the wall. She has her own bathroom though she’s not entirely sure what to do with it, at least at first.
They try to get her to talk.
The inn keeper tells them to leave her be, and after a few days even kicks people out of the building to get them to go, when they become more insistent. The woman from the sea likes him, likes how he doesn’t ask her to speak, how he feeds her, always with a smile, and doesn’t ask her for money. She wouldn’t have anything to give him. The clothes she wears are borrowed, the room as well. Nothing is hers.
It’s three weeks before she says her first word, a small, mumbled “Thank you,” when the innkeeper leaves the room. He hears her, but doesn’t acknowledge it, assuming, rightly, that if she wanted a conversation, she would have spoken up. The next day, she does.
The innkeeper has a sweet, tiny wife, much shorter than the woman from the sea, with ruddy cheeks and hair the color of wet sand. She doesn’t ask the woman from the sea for help with her chores, but she also doesn’t say no when help is offered.
The innkeeper’s wife makes the woman from the sea laugh, and teaches her songs that the woman from the sea doesn’t sing, but sometimes hums when she’s alone. They pass many days hanging laundry in the sun, cleaning fish, making dinner for a town of hungry fishermen and farmers alike.
The woman from the sea doesn’t speak to many people, doesn’t ask the questions that sit on her mind, and tries to forget what came before.
A ship sails to the island one sunshiny day. The woman from the sea sees it first, the curling of smoke into the air, seeming to wrap around the smattering of clouds, and taps the innkeeper’s wife on the shoulder. The innkeeper’s wife calls to her husband, and the two of them run for the dock where the woman from the sea has spent many evenings, dipping her toes into the water as the men of the island pull in their boats for the day. The woman from the sea follows more slowly behind them, wondering if they have a place they wish to go, if they are leaving her. The idea makes her more anxious than it should.
Instead, when she catches up, she sees them with their arms around a boy, likely around her own age, with the innkeepers wide, toothy smile, and his wife’s sandy hair and sea-foam eyes. The innkeeper pulls back to look at his son, and the woman from the sea sees tears form at the corners of his eyes.
She feels badly for intruding on such an intimate moment, but before she can make her escape, the boy sees her.
The three converse a moment longer, and the boy picks up the bag he must have dropped on the planks of the dock. The woman from the sea shies away from him, averting her eyes, pulling at the hem of her shirt, not sure why she allowed herself to be wrapped in these flaps of cloth that make her feel so contained and so exposed all at once. She would dive into the sea if she thought she had anywhere to go.
The boy holds out a hand in her direction. When he speaks, his voice sounds funny, more tinny than either of his parents. His skin has lost its ruddy sheen, the one so many on the island share. “I’m Kaimana,” he says, and waits.
She shyly takes his hand, lets him shake hers, and then pulls her skin away from his, away from the delightful shiver of contact. She doesn’t speak much. Anyone on the island could tell the boy that. Kaimana.
But she finds she wants to, if she could only find her voice, find the name she so carefully put away in the back of her mind.
“Malia,” she says, after a long pause. “I am Malia.”
Malia watches him.
There are a great many chores to help with, but he does, and often Malia can’t stand to be there with him, can’t stand the playful banter between mother and son. His mother calls him Kai, and Malia wishes she could as well. It suits him.
He looks for her, offering smiles and words she’s not prepared to return, not yet. He’s so vastly different from his father, boisterous and loud, though he doesn’t demand anything from her, either. When she doesn’t answer his questions, he doesn’t push.
With little to do at the inn, she takes long walks, from one tip of the island to the other. It takes her a full day to make the trip back and forth. When she passes other people walking, she pretends not to notice.
It’s impossible to ignore how people react to her. Maybe half are kind enough, but Malia can see the way others make signs to the gods in her presence, the glares, the spitting at her feet as she passes.
The first time she gets back to the inn with skinned knees and scraped palms, Kaimana takes her hands in his and a dark look passes over his face. She doesn’t tell him who shoved her, but he knows all the same.
When he confronts Anahera, she glares and accuses him of being under her spell, a spell that must be cleansed with fire or salt water. When he tells his grandfather, among the other town elders, about the conversation, the old man rubs a weary hand over his face and says maybe Anahera is right, that keeping the girl at the inn is putting their whole family in danger.
Kaimana doesn’t tell his parents about either conversation, determined not to spread gossip and to keep an eye on Malia. But he didn’t notice her cool blue eyes watching him when he spoke to his grandfather, or the new reason for her silence.
After that, Kai accompanies Malia on her walks. At first he makes it seem as though he needs a walk as well. But a few days later, when she asks about the inn chores, he admits he’d rather not leave her alone.
She doesn’t want to tell him she appreciates the company. She doesn’t tell him how much safer she feels.
They are walking home in silence in the early afternoon. The sun is dropping through the sky, but Malia can feel it on her shoulders, which are turning more brown every day, like an ripening coconut. In the mornings, Kaimana’s mother spreads a cream on Malia’s skin before she goes for her walk and it keeps her from turning red as the cooked lobster they have for dinner sometimes. She only forgot once, and will never do it again.
Kaimana watches her sometimes, when he thinks she’s not paying attention. She has always moved like she doesn’t know how to walk, stumbling over her feet, tangling herself in her skirt, sinking into sand when they walk the beach. He wonders where the scars on her neck came from, wonders at her thick black hair, which lies flat down her back, unlike that of the island girls. Her cloudy blue eyes never leave the horizon as he watches her.
He’s seen dogs catch a sound and perk up, and it wouldn’t be a lie to say that Malia does the same thing. In one instant, she’s pretending not to notice his eyes on her, and the next, she’s off like a shot, chasing something he can’t see.
She sheds clothes as she goes, and he runs after her, trying to stop her, terrified of what she plans to do. Her feet have never looked so sure, bare and quick on the grass, heading for the cliffs. He can’t reach her before she dives from them.
Malia’s body scissors through the water, a skill she thought she’d lost. She tries to push the thought of that painful night, all those weeks ago, from her mind. It doesn’t escape her notice that she’s barely so much as touched the water since then. But she can feel it sinking into her skin, the salt and water filling cracks she hadn’t realized had formed.
But she’s not fast enough. The life she felt in the water is fading fast. She has to be faster.
Later, Kaimana will think she didn’t know who it was she was saving. But she knows. She knows it’s the man who said her death might be for the best. She remembers what he would have allowed to happen to her. But she can’t leave him to die, not when she could save him. She can’t let it happen again.
The familiarity of the movement isn’t immediate, and aligning her body takes time, time she doesn’t have, but she does latch into place, her arms and legs a machine to do her bidding, the water no more an obstacle than the air above. Less so. This is her home, her world. She owns this water.
Don’t die, she pleads in her head. It would devastate Kaimana, and she can’t let that happen. It becomes a refrain in her head. Don’t die, don’t die, please don’t die.
She crashes into something, and it only stops her for a second, though she feels the drops of blood, feels the sting of the salt on her bare shoulder. The boat must have crashed, splintered into pieces on the rocks she can feel not more than a foot away.
The body of the old man has sunk below the surface, but it is no difference to her where he is, as long as she can get hold of him. It’s another process, remembering this movement, the way to carry someone, to still swim fast as she accommodates the added weight. She can hear her name being called from the beach as she gets herself pointed in the right direction, kicks off the rocks and heads back, moving more slowly, wishing she were just a little closer to shore. She demands more speed from herself, finds a reserve of strength somewhere to make it happen.
She feels the second Kaimana enters the water. Not a problem, until he starts swimming out. No. This is his island, and he knows it well, but he’s also panicked. He’s not paying attention to the undertow, which will pull him under without mercy. Go back, she urges, deep inside her head. I can’t save you both if you go under.
As she nears the shoreline, she sees he’s listened, his eyes unfocused as he watches her pull the old man into the shallows. He stands still as a statue, waist deep in the water, unmoving except his vacant eyes, and she panics.
His shirt is dripping salt and water, and she wills the old man to wake. She wills Kaimana to wake, as well, guilt and worry churning in her chest, and when he blinks himself out of his stupor, she can feel his eyes linger on her neck, the desperate gasping of the gills etched into her skin. She can feel him look her over, knows when he sees the way her eyes have changed from cloudy blue to bright, emerald green.
But he says nothing. He turns from her with no sign of disgust, and begins a rhythmic pumping of his grandfather’s chest. The old man takes his own time coming back to the world of the living, but he does return. When Kaimana looks at her again, she’s gathered the clothes he picked up for her and is covered again, the strips of skirt and shirt clinging to her still wet skin.
He only spares her a quick look, but it says so much. She wishes she could decipher his look as easily as she can the stars.
He carries his grandfather back to town.
Kaimana steps out into the night air, breathing deep, the first to notice that Malia had disappeared. Panic gripped him, at first, worrying someone had seen what he saw. The unmistakable gasp of gills against her neck, the way her skin glistened like scales in the sun when she swam. The way her body cut through the water with speed and grace no human woman could achieve.
He hopes she hasn’t returned to the sea, on her own or with unwanted help.
To his surprise, he sees her from the front door. She sits on the sand of the beach, her arms wrapped around her knees, her bright eyes turned up toward the heavens. He makes no attempt at silence as he joins her, removing his shoes to feel the sand between his toes. He copies the way she’s sitting, all tucked into herself. Still, she doesn’t take her attention from the stars above.
She speaks first, shocking him. “I can’t find their stories.”
“My family. If they died, their stories would be in the stars.” He doesn’t have a response, can’t possibly know what she’s talking about, the devastation she’s caused, her own fateful accident. “I lost them. Before I came here.”
“Are you thinking about going home?”
“My home is gone,” she says. “But sometimes a family is home, as your family is yours. Maybe I could find mine, someday.” She glances at him, at the smile he offers her despite what he saw. He’s not afraid of her. It’s more relief than she expected to feel. She untucks her legs from her chest, rests her hands on the sand so she can lean back, and he mimics her again.
“If you can’t,” he says, her eyes still on him, “maybe you could make a home here.”
Her smile is slow in coming, blooming across her face carefully, as though it’s unsure it belongs there. “I think I would like that.”
They turn from each other, reading the stories in the stars in harmonious silence.