I first spotted her off the coast of Nassau, sunning herself on a rock as the Santiago left the harbor. At first I blamed rum and a lack of good sleep, but when I leaned over the port rail and blinked she was still there. Then I took her for a siren, an understandable mistake given her allure. When her scales flashed iridescent in the morning sun, I realized my mistake. I managed a good look with a scope before we passed into open sea: hair that could be water, skin like the lining of an oyster, a tapered tail that reflected all light that reached her. So enraptured was I that it took a good minute or so to realize she spied me back. I lowered the glass and looked away before the quartermaster could take me to task for goldbricking. But that hair and skin stayed with me.
She returned at the mostly unlikely moment, during our siege of the Balclutha some days later. The crew had a fight in them, resisting our attempts to raid their stores. I boarded with the first of us, paving the way for others to make it to the hold. One angry mate came close to beheading me, and we struggled against the bow until I had him half over the side. As I grappled him onto the ropes, a familiar glint caught my eye from below. She was there, somehow, between the waves and watching to see what I would do. Something about her eyes gave me pause, inspired me to reflect on my actions—as if she believed I could be more than a sailing wretch, rejected by king and country. More likely, I'd been spending too long in the sun.
Regardless, I hauled the lowlife back on board and knocked him to the deck where he'd cease being trouble. I knew better, but I turned back and snuck a glance into the sea below, hoping for confirmation I had pleased my aquatic admirer. That's when a bolt of pain lanced through my right calf, a blade clean through as I staggered onto the ropes myself. All I saw of my new attacker was a flash of blue jerkin, all I heard was an angry cry as I toppled from the merchant ship and hurtled into the expanse of blue and green below.
The world became fragments of memory: the slap of the surface, the sting of salt and chill of water, light receding as I submerged. I fought my way toward the air above, but the wound in my leg pulled like an anchor. Massive shadows confirmed the presence of the ships above me, but they were so far away. Too far. The tightness in my lungs filled me with panic until I felt an impossible but reassuring hand on my arm, pulling the pain and fear and cold from me. Lips touched mine, sweet warmth returned to my limbs and I began to breathe. How, I could not fathom, but I did not argue. I could breathe and I could see, the darkness parting as a new world replaced my own. Not darkness but strands of jade and emerald and nearby the silver of scales. She smiled, enjoying the opening of my eyes. Then she took my hand and urged me on, not toward the surface but into the depths.
I should have screamed, I should have struggled, but I felt only calm as we pierced the currents and submerged beyond imagination. I'd spent a near life on these waters, never understanding the world that carried on beneath our struggles. Colors bloomed in schools of fish and beds of kelp and blades of grass. She glided onward, and I in her wake. Even in the shadow of great predators, life exploded from every ridge, every swell that tossed us like dolls. I didn't belong here, yet it felt like home. She turned back and smiled at my ease, allowing her to pull me into undiscovered tides. I lived at her whim down here, relying on her breath and her guidance, but I'd never felt so content to resign my life to another. I began to wonder why she bothered with the land at all.
We drifted downward again, and the breath hitched in my throat. Ice crept back into my veins and darkness descended, and I feared for a moment she had dragged me to my death. Then she kissed me again, renewing my energy and restoring my faith. I wondered how long she could keep me here, and what would become of me afterward. My heart grew heavy and pushed against my ribcage as the pressure increased, a weight on my limbs. She slowed our descent and hovered before me, her hair a dancing kelp bed. She had words in her eyes and made me understand without speech. Forward was her home, a sanctuary from men, and I could choose to make it my own, too. But this kiss would be final, and I would never return from the sea. It shamed me but I panicked, remembering the ship and the port and the world of rock and soil I could stand on. I was an interloper here, even moreso than in my own world. She asked too much.
She understood, still shining through sadness, and when she took my hand again I was yanked upward, speeding through the hidden world of the depths on the way back to my own. Before we reached the surface, the world faded and didn't return for a long, long time.
I don't remember returning to the Santiago, but I was told I had been hauled out of the drink long after the crew finished pillaging the Balclutha and sending it on its way. My leg complained through its wrappings where I'd been run through with a blade, and I dulled the pain with cheap grog brewed from our spoils. I felt dry for the first time at sea, parched and withering. When I was well enough I hobbled above deck to avoid the cramped cabins, but even the open sky, once limitless, felt confined and monotonous. I could not stay warm, much colder than in the depths. My mates kept informing me how lucky I was, but I didn't feel it with my leg grown stiff and unresponsive and a fever on my skin. How could I burn up and shiver all at once?
I didn't miss the sky when I was confined below, shaking with illness. Sky belonged to the birds who circled and mocked us. Nor did we own the sea, content to skim its surface and remain at its mercy. I resisted at first when the infection reached its worse, but finally I bit down on a bit of sackcloth as the carpenter, the closest the ship came to a surgeon, sawed at my leg with no artistry. When the worst of the pain subsided, I moved on to cook's duties, no longer fit to board other ships. Life passed in shades of gray as we sailed toward another port, another retreat to the land I had refused paradise for. I consoled myself with drink and what women would have me for coin, but I couldn't recall what had seemed so important about returning to the world I had known.
In Port Royal I abandoned my mates and hobbled to the edge of the dock, where I sat for hours and remembered the lush world just out of reach beneath the waves. The lightness, the vitality, the thrill of survival where I did not belong. Wasn't that what drove me aboard the Santiago in the first place? Under the sea I could swim weightless, unencumbered by the lack of a limb, without stumbling in my path, buoyed by a beautiful creature who cared enough to keep me alive. My panic had been unfounded—I laughed at what I considered confinement now that I was chained to the ground with one foot to stand on. I had turned down love, and I had turned down freedom.
Every day in port I sat on the dock and watched the water in sunlight. By night I wrapped myself in blankets and drank myself into fitful sleep. When the time came to board ship, I realized I could not return to that gray world. In pale moonlight as we sailed away, I pushed myself up and onto the ropes with great torture. Once over the edge, it took little effort to lose my balance and plunge once more into the void below. I knew I would not be saved, and it did not matter. I needed to see and recapture the world as before, if only for a moment. I floated at first, buoyed by instinct and survivalist frenzy, but I calmed myself with memories of what I knew to exist below. Finally, I sank. The warmth I longed for faded, and my lungs ached almost immediately. But I was freed from the gravity that cursed me above. As I stopped thrashing and plunged deeper, a familiar touch restored the warmth and reassurance of my first visit to this world.
This time, I resisted nothing.