Submerging by Shana Norris
Land had disappeared from view over three weeks ago. Newfoundland had been our last stop, the last time my feet had touched sand.
The last time either of us actually had feet.
The Atlantic Ocean stretched on in every direction, endless undulating waves of gray-green. Fog hung thick in the orange and purple dawn sky, so it was impossible to tell whether I really could see shapes on the horizon or if it was my own wishful thinking.
My body had grown tired of swimming. It ached deep within the bones with the need for land, for sand under my toes. It ached to have toes again instead of the red scaled tail I’d had for much of the past two months. I was finfolk and fully amphibious, able to move between land and water whenever I wanted.
“Are you sure we haven’t ended up in Africa?” I asked my half-brother Josh Canavan. His head bobbed among the waves next to me.
“I’m sure,” he said.
“But how do you know?” Nearby a bird swooped low to investigate us. Squawking, it flew away once it saw we weren’t fish. “Maybe we got turned around somewhere and have been swimming in the wrong direction ever since. Maybe that’s Swans Landing ahead of us now.”
Sometimes I suspected Josh wouldn’t mind if we were on our way back to the island where we’d grown up along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I knew the only thing he wanted was to see Mara again. The few times he slept, drifting on the ocean’s surface, he murmured her name while he dreamed.
Mara Westray had walked into my life three months earlier and had taken everything away from me. My grandmother, my best friend, my brother. She’d stolen them all one by one with that naive act. She could play the poor girl with the dead mama thing well, I had to give her credit for that. It had blinded everyone, except me. I wasn’t going to pity her for anything.
Besides, having a dead mama didn’t make her any more of a special snowflake than anyone else was. My daddy was dead and my mama had left when I was a baby. Yet I didn’t see anyone falling all over me like they did her.
Josh smirked, squinting in the sunlight reflecting off the water. “You don’t live up to your name much, do you?”
I scowled. Sailor. The ridiculous name my mama had given me before she’d disappeared from my life. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sailors usually have a good sense of direction based on celestial objects,” Josh said.
I hated when he started talking like a huge know-it-all. Which he was. He tried to hide it, but the guy was practically a genius. He just knew things; about events, objects, and even people. Things you didn’t want him to know. It was like he could sense them.
Josh pointed toward the sky, where the sun was beginning to peek through the fog. “The sun,” he said. “During the daylight hours, we can base our direction on it. It’s the easiest to remember. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” He traced an imaginary line across the sky, from one horizon to the other.
He nodded in the direction we’d been traveling before we paused to rest. “The sun is rising ahead of us, so we can logically assume we’re traveling east.”
I made a face, rolling my eyes. “Okay, brainiac. What about at night? There’s no sun to follow then.”
“We can follow the stars. If you know what constellations to look for and their position in the sky this time of year, you can easily figure out what direction is east.”
That was exactly what I meant by “practically a genius.” He had always looked tough in the halls of Swans Landing School, hiding in his giant black hoodie and walking around with a permanent scowl on his face, but underneath, the guy was a total geek. It was something most people didn’t know about him.
Of course, there was a lot that people didn’t know about him, such as the fact that he was finfolk like me. Josh had perfected the art of living a double life.
“Some of us have better things to do with our time than to stare at the sky all day and night,” I told him. I laid back in the water, stretching my arms out to my sides. Flicking my red tail fin, I splashed an arc of salty spray toward Josh.
He barely blinked when the water hit his face. He laid back too, letting his silver tail fin flick lazily among the small waves.
“Besides,” Josh said in a quieter tone, “I can feel the land calling me. Can’t you?”
I let out a long, slow breath, letting my mind go blank. Water gurgled in my ears as I bounced on the surface.
Yes, I could feel it. A tug deep within, pulling me toward the mists to the east. It was an urge stronger than anything I had felt before. Finfolk belonged to both land and sea, and so we could feel the essences—what we called songs—of both within us. The thing that made us able to change form also tied us to life along the coastlines. Our bodies constantly fought between the urge to walk on land or swim in the ocean.
“I feel it,” I told him.
“Then we’ll keep swimming,” Josh said, and I knew he was as hungry for the shore as I was.
The longest swim of our lives had begun two months ago, as best as I could tell. It was hard to keep track of time. We had traveled up the North American coast, following a path we hoped would lead us to the ancestral home of the finfolk. Since then, it had been nothing but a long, endless swim across the Northern Atlantic. Normal humans wouldn’t have been able to make it this long without help.
But the two of us had never been normal, nor entirely human. Being finfolk and fully amphibious allowed us to breathe underwater and swim with the ease of dolphins.
At first, I had been happy to be submerged in the water for so long. I had lived most of my life on land, pretending at being human like most of the other people on the island. It was hard sometimes, resisting the strong call of the ocean constantly beckoning me in. I could understand why my mother had left when I was only a few months old, why she decided not to fight the urge to disappear into the water. There was only so much a person could take before resisting felt pointless.
But the curse of finfolk was that we never belonged wholly to sea or land. And after a few days at sea, my body began to crave land again. I could see the same longing in Josh’s dark eyes, though he never spoke about it.
“We must be getting close to the finfolk homeland,” Josh said. “I’ve never felt the ocean’s song this strongly before.”
All we knew was that the finfolk ancestral home was somewhere off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland. Or at least, that was what the myths said. No one we knew of had ever seen it. Our people had left Scotland generations ago and had lived in Swans Landing for three hundred years. Some finfolk had left Swans Landing over the recent years in search of our old homeland, but no one had ever returned. We didn’t know if anyone had found it.
We didn’t know if it even existed at all.
But it was the only way I could hope to find out what happened to my mama. I had to know why she left and what happened the night Josh’s and my daddy died.
Thinking of Swans Landing always caused an ache in my chest. I thought about my Grandma, the woman who’d raised me after my mother left. She didn’t want me to go on this trip. Grandma always had excuses to keep me from leaving. If it were up to her, I’d live and die on that island.
I splashed water in my face to hide the tear that trickled down my cheek. Grandma would be okay without me. She had Mara now, a replacement granddaughter, she didn’t need me.
“Ship,” Josh murmured next to me.
I rolled over, looking in the direction he pointed. On the horizon, a dark spot moved closer, slowly growing larger.
The trick to swimming across an ocean was to avoid being seen. Two teenagers swimming far from shore couldn’t be easily explained. It wasn’t too difficult once we’d left land behind, but there were still the occasional freight ships passing by or planes flying low enough overhead to see us.
“Let’s go under,” Josh said.
He dove into the water with grace, as if he’d been living in it his entire life. Actually, Josh hadn’t known he was finfolk until he was nine years old. He’d been playing on the old broken pier back home and had fallen in. Lucky for him, I’d been there, swimming without Grandma’s permission. I’d seen him fall and had gone to save him. I’d known even then that Josh was my half-brother, though he didn’t. His mother had never told him about me or about the fact that his father was descended from finfolk.
Or that our daddy had died because he fell in love with my mama.
Josh had changed and became finfolk for the first time that day long ago, and I’d been the only one who had known. I’d kept his secret for years, teaching him about our people.
I followed Josh deep under the surface. We couldn’t go as far down as some ocean creatures, but we could go deeper than normal humans could without scuba gear. The ocean wasn’t as murky this far from land and so we could see some distance in front of us. Schools of fish swam by underneath and jellyfish glowed iridescent as they passed.
Josh darted in front of me, leaving behind a trail of bubbles, and I hurried after him. We couldn’t speak underwater, so we had to surface for anything more than hand gestures. During our weeks of swimming, the two of us had become good at knowing what the other was thinking. A quick glance was usually enough to convey thoughts.
So when Josh stopped suddenly, his face grim, I knew the icy trickle up my spine was a reflection of his thoughts even though I hadn’t yet seen what he had.
I swam to his side. What’s wrong? My eyes asked the unspoken question.
Josh nodded to an area ahead of us and I turned to scan the water. A dark shape sliced through the shadows ahead, darker than the rest of the area under the ocean’s surface. Around us, fish suddenly darted, swimming away and leaving an eruption of bubbles behind them.
I didn’t know a lot about the ocean outside of Swans Landing, but I did know enough to realize that when the other sea life got out of the area, it was a bad sign. A very bad sign.
Josh pointed up, but I shook my head. We couldn’t surface. The boat would have drawn closer now, since it was moving toward us and we were swimming toward it. But the dark shape still loomed ahead, growing larger with each second.
“We’re finfolk,” I tried to speak even though I knew speaking underwater was useless. A fountain of bubbles escaped from my lips, drowning out my words.
Josh gave me a puzzled look and I made elaborate hand gestures, trying to indicate that we should keep swimming. We were as much a part of the sea as anything else here was, and we had the advantage of being fast. Both of us were in good shape and finfolk could swim nearly as fast as dolphins when they needed to.
But Josh didn’t look convinced. He gestured toward the surface again.
Sometimes I couldn’t believe the two of us shared the same father. He could be cautious and timid, while I wasn’t the kind of person who sat around waiting for things to pass. I took action. I’d led us out here on this trip across the Atlantic and I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.
Turning an expert flip, I spun around and darted ahead, leaving Josh still gesturing toward the surface. I didn’t look back to see if he was following, but I knew he would. Josh was one of those guys, the kind who felt like he had to look after the people he cared about. He would never let me go off toward some unknown danger all on my own.
So I wasn’t surprised a moment later when I felt him at my side. He tried to grab my arm, but I dove deeper into the water, my arm slipping from his fingers. I’d had a lot more swimming experience than Josh had and the water was a part of me. I could move with little effort, slicing ahead through the darkness.
A startled eel slithered out of my way as I passed and I watched over my shoulder as it twisted in half-circles behind me. Josh barely noticed the eel as he swam after me, his silvery tail flashing as it caught sunlight that broke through the water.
Josh stopped suddenly, his eyes widening. I twisted around to see what had him so panicked.
A wall of wriggling, silvery fish swept toward me, moving through the water so fast I didn’t have time to respond. I became swept up in the wave of bodies around me, fish bumping and biting against my flesh as they panicked, trying to get away.
I swam down, fighting against the mass, pushing through scales and sharp teeth. Just as I could see the edge of the mass, I crashed hard into something rough that refused to give way.
A net. The boat we’d seen above hadn’t been a freighter, it was a fishing boat.
Copyright 2012 by Shana Norris. May not be reproduced without written permission from the author.