‘SIT HERE!’ Hands pat seats, children laugh and look for their friends. I pay no attention. I know without looking that they aren’t talking to me.
I probably sound sorry for myself, but I just know, and I don’t mind all that much. I tried to fit in, but now I’ve given up trying. I scan the bus, looking for a space, but most of the seats are occupied. A couple of people tell me the seat next to them is already taken. Others just look away as I look in their direction.
Mr Galene sees me and takes pity. ‘Why don’t you sit next to me, Ariella?’
‘Thanks, Mr Galene.’
‘My pleasure,’ he says. ‘Here, sit near the window, because I might have to get up.’
‘Thanks, Mr Galene.’
Mr Galene organised this trip to the beach. Some of the kids at school, like me, haven’t been before, even though we live only a few hours away. Mr Galene looks out for all the kids, especially the ones who don’t fit in. That’s why we know each other so well. He was the one who said I seemed like a fish out of water, but that one day I would find my place. He’s right about me being a fish out of water. I hope he’s right about finding my place.
I didn’t know the expression fish out of water when he said it, but then one day I saw a goldfish jump out of its tank, and in the few seconds before it was put back in it flipped and flapped around, its body writhing, its fins waving, hopelessly grasping for something to hold onto in the air. Its eyes bulged, and its mouth gaped and gasped. There was oxygen all around it, but it couldn’t access it because it was out of its element. Out of its element was another expression I got from Mr Galene. It means to be somewhere where you don’t belong, where you’re not comfortable. That’s me again. I’m not comfortable anywhere. I don’t know what my element is.
When I was a baby I was the only survivor of a car crash in a little seaside town. I was healthy and strong and clean, but alone, and no-one knew who I was. No records could be found to identify me, and no-one came to claim me. I was a mystery. All I had was a name, engraved on a bracelet. I have lived in different homes, and gone to different schools, and the one thing that doesn’t change is that I don’t fit in.
Kids are laughing, talking, shouting. I’m excited too, on the inside. The closer we get, the more excited I feel. The landscape changes: crops growing, animals grazing, orchards, then rainforest as we descend the mountains. A glimpse of blue in the distance. The thrill makes me sit up straighter. ‘The briny blue,’ says Mr Galene.
‘What?’ I say, and then correct myself: ‘Pardon?’
He chuckles. ‘The briny blue ocean. It’s what my mother used to say.’
‘Yes,’ I say, and close my eyes to imagine that blue again.
I can feel the sea coming closer. Is it my imagination, or can I smell it? I open my eyes and see it again, and I start to cry. Just little tears. Not many.
‘Are you all right, Ariella?’ asks Mr Galene, and all I can do in reply is nod and smile.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ he asks, and I nod again.
The bus stops in the car park, brakes hiss, and I press my face against the glass, ignoring the shouts and jostling of the other children getting off the bus, barely aware of the teachers telling them to be calm and orderly. ‘Stay together, no wandering off, stay within sight of the teacher …’ and finally the children are off the bus and I walk down the aisle and descend the steps onto the tarmac.
I am in a kind of trance as I approach the water, and I barely hear the teachers calling out to me to stay with the others. The sea is the biggest thing I have ever seen, bigger than mountains, bigger than clouds. It is so beautiful, sparkling blue in the sun, still, but in constant motion, waves breaking on the shore and sinking into the sand, crests forming and falling, and beyond the waves are depths undreamt of. There is seaweed on the beach and shells and crabs scurrying into tiny holes. A breeze blows the smells of weed and fish into my face, and each wave whispers my name. The sea is calling to me. It’s soft, barely audible, but it’s all I can hear. It is pulling me to it, gently, but irresistibly, and I respond to its call.
The teachers’ voices are muffled, ‘Ariella, stop! Ariella, come back!’ I am vaguely aware of the kids watching. Mr Galene runs to me and holds my arm, and then says, in a loud whisper, words which at first I do not understand: ‘This is why we’re here, Ariella. Pull your arm away and run! Do not walk, or I will have to catch you. Break away and run!’
I look into his face. It is serious, sad, happy, expectant. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes! Thank you.’ And I pull my arm from his unresisting grip, and I run. He runs after me, almost fast enough to catch me, almost close enough to reach me, and I run into the surf until the drag of the water on my legs topples me, and I plunge into the waves.
I have never swum before. The water embraces me, cool and warm, soft and firm. I am free from gravity, weightless like a cloud. Something says, ‘Welcome Ariella, welcome home.’ And I swim, for the first time in my life, under the water, further and deeper, deeper and further, until my mind knows that I must come up for breath, but my body doesn’t need to breathe.
I see in my mind fish with unpaintable colours, sharks and whales and giant squid that whales fear. And I see the real monsters of the deep: creatures undreamt of, older than age, bigger than size, weirder than words, in waters deeper than deep, and darker than black. There are creatures that have never seen the light of day, or have even imagined it in their endless night. I see wrecks of ships sucked down by storms, or sunk by cannons, their timber and metal hulls crumpled like tinfoil under the crushing weight of water. I see forests of seaweed as big as trees. I see tiny islands in the endless blue, thrust by volcanoes into the world above, ringed by coral, made alive by vegetation whose ancestors’ seeds were dropped by birds or borne on the tide, and I see the warming water creeping up the beaches and claiming them back. I see reefs fading and dying.
I see pollution—oil and chemicals and filth, rusted metal, glass and plastic, plastic, plastic. There are bags and bottles and bits, rings and shards and micro-particles, tarpaulins and sails, boxes, containers, ropes and hooks and lines, hurting and maiming, choking, strangling, tangling, suffocating, contaminating, poisoning.
I hear the music of waves, whispering onto white, tropical sands, rounding and polishing pebbles in endless clattering rhythm, grinding stones to powder and crushing powder to stone, pounding on resistant rocks, a trillion persistent waves, and the rocks recede and reshape, grooved and scarred, shorelines are shifted, sculpted, and shaped. Hungry swirling whirlpools suck, water slurps into caverns, and gushes in spouts. Ice shelves crack and crash in mighty splashes, generating gigantic ripples; icebergs grind and drift in their majestic, deliberate dance. Tiny droplets of water float in mists, rising and roiling, billowing and crashing from clouds into mountainous waves in wild tempests.
And with this symphony of life and renewal I hear the harmonies of chattering dolphins, singing whales, lullabies, shanties, reels, ballads and hymns, but over it all I hear the discord of weeping, lamenting the lost, the suffering, and the creatures that will never be.
I feel light with happiness, heavy with sadness. I move, I swim, and I breathe. I breathe water and I do not drown. I am in the sea and the sea is in me. The sea has found me. I am from the sea, and I am of the sea. This is my element.
I feel my family near me, and I know that they know that I am here. I know who I am. I have a purpose, and I feel joy.
I see a grieving mother on a beach, handing a baby to a couple who will keep her safe, with tears, and love, and hope … and a name on a bracelet—Ariella. The baby is special. She has a purpose. She is here to learn the ways of the Ter-People, the land-dwellers, so that she can teach her own people, the Mer-People, about them. And she will help the Ter-People to understand that the sea is suffering through their actions, and that they must help it to heal. Then there is an accident which only Ariella survives. With no-one to teach her, her mission is forgotten. She is lost. And then she is found and brought back home.
Now I must choose: stay here and find my family or go back and fulfil my mission? It is the biggest and most important decision of my life, and it must be made now. There is no time to consider. But I don’t need time. The choice is easy. I know exactly what I must do.