A sharp pain lanced through my right ear as I dipped my bare feet into the frigid surf. The sea licked my soles, an immense hound happy to see me, so cold that it disoriented my nerves and kept my ear tingling until my toes went numb and the referred pain subsided.
The wind was warm, the sun hidden behind thick grey clouds, and the sand was the perfect temperature for napping. I was envious of my brother who lounged behind me, sprawled just feet from the foaming waves, basking with his head resting on his interlinked fingers. “Go on,” he urged lazily. “It’s not so bad.”
I shot him a glare, then tightened my grip on my thin fishing spear. The obsidian tip glittered in the ambient light, droplets of the sea already decorating its hand-knapped surface. I made it myself; it was part of my family’s rite of passage. The first step, really.
The second step was in front of me, tumultuous blue as far as the eye could see, fading away into the sky at the horizon. My brother kicked coarse sand at me; it stuck to my damp ankles. “Get going!” He grinned sardonically at me.
The water did not get any warmer as I walked forward; it splashed my calves, then my thighs, and I let out a strangled noise past gritted teeth when a particularly high wave soaked my loins. I heard my brother laughing over the eternal roar of the sea and I bit back an annoyed growl. Jerk.
Once my hips were below the waves and my stomach and breasts had gotten thoroughly splashed, the cold water was less shocking. I kept wading, feeling the waves begin to tug on my thick braid, as though the sea itself urged me back to shore. Not today, it called, pulling at my hair. Not today, I am wild today, you should not play with me today.
When I was younger, I told my mother that the sea talked to me. She got very quiet, and her eyes got very wide, and we never mentioned it again. But I think my brother could hear it too; when I gave one final glance back, the waves now coming regular and steady, his grin was gone and his brow was lowered, his eyes scanning the surface of the water.
A high wave was coming. I let my toes leave the rock-riddled sand and ducked below the water, resisting the incessant pull on my braid. The undertow was so soft here that I barely felt it, but I could easily navigate underwater by the feel of the tide suckling on my hair.
My skin numbed, and my eyes adjusted to the gloom and sting of the sea, and my fishing spear was weightless and unencumbering. I swam out, more fish than woman in how I moved. I imagined aquamarine scales gleaming along my legs and stomach, knitting my limbs together into a long tail, flattening my strong arms into sharp-tipped fins. Oh, to be at home in this wild water!
But human I was, and human I stayed, and I breached to breathe as often as my lungs demanded. Calm settled over me, as it always did when I was in the water. Sweet air and cold current and the entire world of water and air moving around me, always moving, restless and heart-beating and in-outing. I fell into the rhythm of the sea, and all thoughts abandoned me like rats would a sinking ship.
I always thought the rats just wanted to swim more than ride a wooden husk.
I lost track of time, as usual, until I recognized that my muscles were tired, that my inner visions of my fish scales and my fork-finned tail were fading against the reality of slowing legs and chilling flesh. The sun was still nestled behind its blanket of grey sky, and I took note of the wind’s direction – inward, to the shore, to home – before diving deep.
The slope of the land was so gentle here that, even as far out as I had gone, it was not too deep to reach bottom in a single breath. I forced my eyes open against the gritty current, extending my empty hand to touch the chunky rocks and the heavy sand of the shallow sea floor. Without direct sunlight, it was much darker than I would’ve liked; if I were fishing, I would not be fishing the floor today.
But I was not here to obtain dinner; I was here for a pentapus.
Pentapi were harmless creatures of shallow water and soft currents; they were amphibious, even the saltwater-loving kind, and retrieving one alive was the second step of my rite of passage. Their bodies were small and squishy, roughly the size of my brother’s fist, and their five tentacles were thick, short, and besuckered. They lived primarily on larger fish, feeding on anything that drifted close enough to slurp down their tiny gullets.
Unfortunately, the larger fish they most loved to use as hosts tended to be the same ones that liked to chew the legs off diving fisherfolk like myself.
I dived five times to the floor before I found a few resting sharpfish, their streamlined bodies longer than my arm, shining silver in the murky water. They all had pentapi suckered onto their flanks, slowing their spear-quick swimming but keeping them clean from more harmful parasites and smaller flesh-eating minnows that could get under their bright scales.
Three sharpfish were enough to be dangerous to a lone swimmer, but not unmanageable. I swam towards them slowly, conserving the air in my body and the energy in my waning muscles. One of them, the smallest, darted off when I got too close. The other two took circling paths around me, one behind the other, silver arrows in the shadows of the sea.
I kept swimming gamely forward, not even turning my head to watch them move. After a moment, I cast a discreet glance over my shoulder; yes, they were trailing me. A little closer to my bare feet than I would’ve liked, but they hadn’t shot forward to bite yet. I lessened my kicking, and the lead sharpfish zipped forward to seize the opportunity that I presented.
I contorted in the water like a seizure knotted me, tucking my feet into my torso and presenting my thin fishing spear to the thin spearing fish whose toothy jaws gaped to bleed me. I was practiced at this, and the kill was smooth, almost effortless on my part; I had aimed the spear well enough that the sharpfish spitted itself upon its length. Its tail lashed for a moment as blood began to billow darkly from its open mouth.
The two pentapi clinging to its long body realized its distress and detached themselves quickly; I ducked closer and presented my bare forearm to the closest one. It avoided me deftly, squirting away and out of reach. They were small and silly creatures, but they could swim better than a large and silly human; I turned to the other, which was rising instead of moving horizontally with the current.
I gave a strong kick, half-pretending and half-praying that my legs could be my tail and propel me far enough, fast enough, leaving my spear and my kill behind. The other big sharpfish had already fled, no fool to stick around when its fellow had been skewered.
The second pentapus was slower than the first, fighting the water’s push-pull lullaby, and I pulled even with it by some combination of luck and leg strength. I tucked my curled body around it and offered it both my forearms, and to my surprise and relief, it suckered onto my left arm. Its touch burned painlessly against skin half-numb with cold, and I nearly let out the last of my air in startled response to the queer sensation.
I looked down for the dead sharpfish and my spear and spotted them within swimmable distance. I couldn’t leave the spear, even though retrieving it would risk spooking the pentapus with the sharpfish’s blood. I slipped through the water, trying to calm my thumping heart, and took up the end of the spear with my right hand. I twisted and began heading for the surface, keeping the sharpfish downstream of the calm, suckling pentapus.
I breached and breathed, spitting back at the seaspray. It would be a challenge to swim back to shore with the dead sharpfish weighing at me and my pentapused arm slow with caution, but throwing away a big fish like that was entirely too wasteful. Besides, this was a test, and if I came back with the pentapus and the spear and the sharpfish, so much the better.
I let the waves take me back, leading me by my braid, which floated on the water’s surface in front of me. The pentapus didn’t have any panics, despite being lifted into clear air several times when I had to fight my way forward along higher waves. I did not look forward to having to bear my weight on solid ground when I reached it; my legs ached, my torso knitted with weariness. I never knew how far out I swam when I went to that spot that sharpfish loved, but I knew most of my peers could not go out and come back without exhausting themselves before they reached the shore.
My brother gave me a few hearty claps as I struggled through the surf, my shoulders slumping, the sharpfish a dragging weight at my right. The pentapus pulsed against my arm, trying to feed on my bare skin, and did not drop from my body to return to the surf. I reached dry sand and dropped the sharpfish, but did not fall to my knees, however much I wanted to.
“Very nice,” my brother said approvingly, giving me another wily grin as he stepped forward to take up the fish. “Good trophy.”
I gave him a wan smile, and he patted my shoulder as he bent to peer at the purplish pentapus. “Rare color,” he remarked, giving the top of its domed body a touch with one fingertip. “Looks healthy, too.” He straightened and looked down at me, hefting the sharpfish in his arms. “Ready for the hike back?”
I could’ve said no; I could’ve asked for a rest; I could’ve told him how my legs were shaking to the bone and how my flesh felt like stone. Instead, I bared my teeth in a forced grin. “Yep,” I said.
My brother gave me a knowing wink and led the way back to the forest and our village.