The June waves crept cold and soft and sudden in between my toes, drowning my blue nails in invisible salt and multi-colored wet sand.
I had never been so close to drowning before. My father had pulled me out just in time. The sea had had me in its dark, green and wicked gape until rainbow fish danced before my eyes. I laughed while coughing up the sea, babbling dreamily about the magical underworld and its mysterious and inviting shimmering lights. My mother told me to keep coughing and spitting and I did. She held me up and patted my back while I tried to get the feeling back in my legs. But they had grown weirdly soft. Like jelly. Like the sea.
The coming night, and many nights after, I dreamed vividly about the gold and pink zebra-skin of the sea, colors of sunlight and blue-green darkness permanently tattooed on my eyelids.
That was five years ago. In early June.
As the waves left my toes in puddles of hollowed out sand I didn’t know where to move. Bird-Clouds of migrating swallows banked in the sky and I imagined schools of fish doing the same out there. Under the blue blanket of wetness. But I had become afraid of the water. Its magic oozed into my forbidden dreams, rank with salt and silver.
For the first time in my life I had fallen through a portal into another world, a world whose rules I did not understand: an underworld of slowness and flying things maneuvering through shafts of unpredictable greenish light. I thought I was going to stay there forever. I don’t know if I had truly wanted to or not.
Later that summer I found a conch shell on the beach and my mother told me to put my ear to it. In it I could hear the song of the sea again. It became my one and only link to the world I had left behind. But I never went into the water again. Ever.
It was the first day of the school holidays and I was back on the summer island. It was the beginning of a new life. A life called summer. It was a short life, like a butterfly’s, but with endless days that seemed to contain so much more than ordinary days. So much growing up spread out, searching for the sweet nourishment of dreams.
My sisters spent the first days looking for summer boys, for among hundreds of holiday guests there was bounty the sisters had never seen before. Tanned giants and skinny surfers darted from beach to beach, their squawking tangled with the continuous rant of sea gulls. My uncle and aunt let us run free like sparrows, leaving the seduction of youth to run its course. I watched the sisters and the boys scattering on the cliffs like handfuls of berries tumbling to the sea after a fall. Their limbs long and sun kissed like the days. But my toes were always white and my fingertips were wrinkled and pink from the teeth marks of the hungry sea.
There was a storm that night and I was awakened by the blue-black roar of wind-whipped waves. The moon, halved by the shadowy summer night, shone icily and pale overhead. I pulled a white cotton dress, conveniently placed on the chair next to my bed, over my head and climbed out of the bedroom window I always kept open. There was no sign of any humans. I was alone, out of sight, and shadowless. Down by the dock my uncle’s boat danced wildly in the wind and pulled its moorings like a fish on hook. The island was blue and grey and lost in nostalgic reminiscence, solidly rooted in the world, it didn’t bother much about the sky’s rolling temper. It was a rainless wind. The sky was clear and warm. I walked barefoot down to the dock. It was a pillarless dock made of wood and it moved slightly back and forth. This is where I had fallen into the underworld five years ago. I could still see the portal, black and silvery and seductive. I bent over and tried to find my reflection in the chaos of the surface. There was a silhouette down there, moving rhythmically. But it didn’t look like mine. The face was blurry, but the hair seemed to be longer and the eyes, deeper set and perhaps it was just the moon, but they seemed to be shining as they looked straight into mine. And it was then I heard it. In the echo of the storm, notes that didn’t belong in the natural world: the slow keening of the sea.
Then, suddenly, the world ended. I don’t know if I let go or if I was pulled, I don’t remember feeling it happen. The furnished night disappeared with all its traditional smells and logic, and complete silence occurred. As though it had never been otherwise. Everything seem to fly into place as the loneliness of night was replaced by the unquestionable swirling of the mysterious patterns of the underworld. Time was suspended, and my body, from walking and running, took on the slow graciousness of a fish, bending and flickering like a speck of dust moving motionless from sun shaft to sun shaft. Pillars of curled seaweed bent to the current as my eyes went voyaging in the endless blue. A memory flickered in my mind. Of legs turning to jelly. Only it had never been jelly. My green and silver slippery skin curled like the seaweed and performed the dance every underwater creature knows. I moved effortlessly, and the expanse, with its crumbling non-existent walls, widened before me.
I let go and allowed the sea to take me. But I didn’t get far. Something had grabbed hold of me, had gotten its hook so deep into me that I couldn’t move. And I felt my breath stuck in my lungs, drinking the whole sea. I fought hard. But the hold on me just tightened. I was caught in someone’s net. The more I fought, the more I lost. Until I was hoisted out of the sea and tossed on to hard land. I blinked hard, trying to focus on this new world around me. And as it resettled in my mind, the patterns became familiar. Nothing had changed since that summer five years ago. And nothing had escaped. My eldest sister looked at me with horror. Not understanding what she had just done. Desperately trying to set the scene anew. I coughed and spat and the same came out of me. My jelly legs, reunited with hard ground, reformed and recoiled. My sister patted me on the back and draped her cardigan over my shoulders. A summer boy appeared behind her. He looked frightened and out of place. His brown chest was bare and his shoe lace undone. My sister pulled me after her, I wriggled in her brick grip, but gave up and let her lead me back to the house. The summer boy disappeared into the sunrise.
Later that summer my uncle taught me how to swim. After my sister told him about my little seaside escapade there was no mercy. Funnily enough I learned pretty fast. My uncle called me a natural.