Water—there’s water everywhere, water covering my feet, my knees, my hips. Water, foam, salt, sand in my mouth, waves crashing against this iron cage, pulling both it and me towards the depths. Once, I looked at the sea for comfort, to shelter my loneliness from your anger, but you took that away from me, like you took everything else.
We have the same blood, you and I, and yet . . . And yet I am the only one here, aren’t I?
We were found in the same basket, floating among the debris. Sometimes, I like to believe that we helped each other survive, or that our parents, whoever they might have been, protected us, guiding us to find the expedition team. Did they felt regret when they saw us there? Did guilt crossed their minds when the only survivors of a then fresh massacre appeared in front of them?
I can only imagine what happened next:
“This one doesn’t look like them,” one of the soldiers must have stated, holding you in their lap. “Look at his eyes—he could almost be one of ours.”
The most important word here: almost.
“Throw the monster back to the water,” the captain might have commanded. That’s why they feared us, after all. Our eyes, and our power. “Keep only the normal one.”
Only one person, vice-captain Adrião Lima, gave a contrary idea:
“I’ll take both to land, and get rid of the other one as soon as I am there. Their kind can’t die in the water.”
Yet choking a child to death is easier said than done. As you know, Adrião didn’t kill me, the child with the terrible eyes. Instead, he named you Martim and me Jamim, and kept you outside the house, and me inside.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t dislike the house, at first. As soon as I could walk, I ran through door frames, memorized how many wooden boards each room had, and knew every single color painting the kitchen’s ceramic tiles. Adrião didn’t talk to me, but you did, and I cherished every single word I learned, and repeated them when I was alone:
house, white, ceiling, brown, sky, blue (water, water, water)
birds, rats, ants, hands, hair, me (you, you, you)
You were kind, Martim, do you remember those days? You would run back home to play with me, and we would hide salt biscuits in a jar under the bed so I wouldn’t starve when you were out. At night, you slept with me, and, together, we dreamt of the sea.
“No one can ever see Jamim’s eyes,” Adrião told you more than once. “No one will ever accept it.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with your eyes,” you told me, in secret. I thought my eyes looked like yours, as our bedroom had no mirror, and I didn’t understand the problem, either.
“What is so different about me?” I asked, looking at the dry skin of my palms.
We were alone in the house, but you looked everywhere before voicing a word:
“Adrião doesn’t like to talk about it,” you said, checking the open windows. You were glowing under the sunshine, and, at that time, I imagined if my sallow face could ever be like yours, no matter how alike we were. “But I heard one of the soldiers saying something—saying . . . About the time they found us.”
My first reaction was laughing: finding us? Who? You didn’t laugh back, you looked ashamed that I didn’t take your words seriously, so I hugged you and kissed your forehead, and you whispered close to my ear:
“I think they’re afraid of us.”
They were more than afraid, Martim. They hated us, and you preferred to hear them, but what can I do now? When we were children, you tried not to think too hard about it, and I distracted you accordingly. I asked you to tell me everything about the outside world:
“Tell me how the grass feels!” I said, my head completely out of the window, looking at the patches of emerald green meters ahead.
“Depends on the day. Sometimes, it feels wet.”
I was excited when you told me that, so excited that, when you were out of the house again, I climbed the window pane, and jumped to the yard for the first time. There, I understood what you meant: the grass was wet under my feet, the sun felt warmer than in the bedroom, the ants tickled my toes.
I wanted to run where you and Adrião were, and beg you to take me to the sea, because there was nothing I wanted to see more than the subject of my dreams, but I was back to our cabin the second I heard a noise, like a flower who withered as soon as she tried to blossom.
“Tell me about the beach again,” I asked, shaking our entwined fingers. We both sat on the mattress, and your free hand drew shapes in the air.
“The wind is different there, it’s humid, salty . . . ”
“Salty like food?”
You looked at me, and laughed.
“Not like food. It feels like the salt is sticking to your face,” you tried to explain, rubbing my cheek. “The water is green and blue, and the waves crash against large rocks, crying shoooo . . . Shooo . . . ”
It was my turn to laugh at the sounds you were making, and we both laid on our backs, staring at the ceiling.
“Jamim,” you called me. “I have something for you, but you can’t show Adrião—ever.”
“What? Please, tell me what!”
Even now, if I close my eyes, I can see your focused young face, hair falling over it while you searched for something inside your bag. The only reason my hair was as short as yours was because Adrião wanted me to look like you from a distance, in case a neighbor saw a shadow in the window.
Never in my life I had seen something as wonderful as the ten sea shells you found for me. At the time, I had no idea what they were, and the names you taught me sounded as foreign as their spiraling and conic shapes.
“Come closer,” you told me, placing a stripped orange shell against my ear. “The sea sounds like this.”
Martim, I never loved you as much as I loved you that day. I hope that you remember that when I’m long gone.
“But it’s a secret,” you said. “We can’t go near there. The sea cannot be trusted, that’s what Adrião says.”
I kept the shells hidden for many years. As we grew up and our bodies changed, you kept living your life outside the house, and became a private, following Adrião’ steps. Your name was now Martim Lima, unlike me, who kept being just Jamim. Adrião eventually found us another house, away from the rest of the town, above the rocks and near the shore.
“You’re old enough to live on your own,” Adrião told you, like I wasn’t there. It was the first time we left the cabin together, but I was hidden under layers of heavy rags in the back of his cart, while you sat by his side. “Always remember what I told you. No one can see Jamin, and . . . ”
“And the sea is not to be trusted.”
All the frustration I felt for not being able to see the path from our old house to our new one was gone when I ran to the bedroom, and saw what I had wanted to see my whole life. The waves sounded just like the song the shells had sang to me, but louder, violently clashing against the rocks.
At night, the water was black, gurgling white foam. During the day, it was crystalline green, turning deep blue into the distance. When you were gone, I spent hours looking at it, imagining myself below, running in the sand, collecting shells, or even swimming.
Would I know how to swim, if no one taught me? That’s ironic to think now, but then, it filled me with irrational happiness.
Without your supervision, I had plenty of activities. I learned how to cook with the food you bought in the market, salting cod and filling pastries with custard. I found boxes of abandoned books in the storage room and I read to the point of borderline obsession. Most of anything, I watched the sea, I watched the sea, and I watched the sea.
The books were the ones to tell me the truth; not you, not Adrião. I must admit I resented that. Through yellowed pages, I learned about completely underwater cities, cities Adrião and his kind were never able to reach, although they never described the people who lived there. This is how they found us, Martim; not for kindness, but for guilt.
“No one can live underwater,” you told me with a grave look when I showed you the proof. “That makes no sense.”
“We did,” I insisted with a smile. “See this line: ‘entire cities under the sea, including grandiose buildings and houses that only they could access.’ Can you imagine that, Martim? Can you imagine how beautiful it must have been?”
You couldn’t, of course.
“Stop reading those things,” you told me, closing the book and touching its battered cover.
“You don’t look surprised,” I said, crawling to your side. Then, I had a realization: “Did you knew?”
“Of the people of the sea? Yes.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“They were not good, Jamim,” you told me, and sighed. “It’s better not to think of it. They are all dead, by now.”
We, you should have said, not they. That should have been a sign, but I followed your advise, and didn’t think of it. Days passed, and became months and years. Every afternoon, when you returned from work, I greeted you with a kiss, and you looked happy at last.
“I found something you might like,” you told me one day. Your hair was shorter, and the lines of your jaw began to show the shadow of a future beard. “I found those in the library.”
Something had changed inside you. Perhaps the feeling of betrayal you had when Adrião left us alone was gone, and you wanted to know more about who you truly were. Perhaps you learned how to appreciate me the way I appreciated you, and you wanted to show it by supporting my endless curiosity. Or, even, you might have felt the same call as I did, the call from the sea.
“There is a small bronze plaque in the other side of the beach that talks about this,” you said, drawing it on a paper. “It’s a memorial for the people of the sea, who perished fifteen years ago. They call that day the Night of the Drowning, but I don’t think that’s quite true.”
“Here, look.” You skipped to another chapter of the book you were holding. “If they lived underwater, how would they die drowning?”
“What do you think, then?”
“No one died because of the sea—they died in it. I just don’t know how yet.”
“How do you think the cities looked like? I imagine them translucent, sea-foam green.” I closed my eyes, allowing the magic to flow inside my mind. “Like a glass dome, but outside the fishes keep swimming, and pink coral grows around it like a vine.”
“Where did you learn so many things?”
My merry laughter made you smile, and I pointed at the piles and piles of books I accumulated around the house.
“Do you think they breathed underwater?” you asked.
“Do you think we can?” I asked back.
At night, we slept together like husband and wife, and I wondered if one day you would get one. A wife, that is, someone to replace me. Where would I have gone, then? Would you have let me go to the sea?
But I tried to avoid this kind of thought, because I couldn’t ruin our blissful peace. The amount of joy I felt when you returned was proportional to the hopes I had that you would let me roam outside of the house, since we were connecting in a way we never had before.
Before I could tell you about my dreams where we were there, under the water, and a woman I had never seen kissed my forehead before she left, you changed.
Yes, you, Martim, don’t blame it on anyone else. One day, one wicked, sorrowful day, you returned home without saying a word, and you broke four dishes. The noise scared me and I ran to the kitchen, only to find you sitting on the floor, crying.
“Adrião lied to me,” you said, while I comforted you, caressing your hair and kissing your back. “The others will never accept me.”
There was nothing you could do to please them, but you were not aware of that, not yet. You worked harder, and you got better, more refined. Your reports were more literate, your actions more pragmatic, and yet all your companions received far more glory than you did.
“Think of the sea,” I told you. “Think how well we would have lived there.”
“No one lives there anymore,” you answered.
I licked your tears, wondering if the ocean felt as savory as them.
One month later, you did it again. You came back punching furniture out of your way. You howled like animals do when the sun is down, and I ran to you, like I did every day.
This time, you pushed me away.
“Martim,” I tried to tell you, smiling. “You have to get used to it. No matter how much you try, they know you’re different. They know you’re one of us,” I pointed at the open window. “You will never be one of them.”
I thought I was helping, but you slapped me across the face. Trembling, I touched my cheek, feeling the skin burn, trying to put my jaw back into its place. You ran to the bedroom, and left me there, and the only comfort I had was feeling my own tears wet my hands.
The next day, when I woke up, I promised myself I would forgive you, again and again. That I couldn’t understand your suffering, but I wouldn’t let you worsen mine. So I kissed your sleeping mouth, and stole the spare keys you hid in the cupboard because you were too sure I would respect Adrião’s laws.
After you left to work, I unlocked the door. What a warm, beautiful day! I left my sandals in the house, and touched the short grass. The ground scratched the soles of my feet, but I didn’t care. You were right—the more I approached the shore, the more the breeze changed, turning humid, almost palpable.
There was no one outside, so I ran down the path of the rocks, thinking: Martim! I wish you could see me, Martim! I wish you could be here with me! When I reached the beach, I fell on the sand, realizing it was not as easy to walk there as the straight boards of our house.
“Martim,” I said out loud, tasting the sound of your name. I could see you, smiling at me, holding my hand, bringing me closer to the sea. I felt like we could go to the cities underneath, if we tried, and I walked to the shore, feeling the water for the first time against my legs.
“I love you,” I told the sea, imagining I was saying the same to you. I filled my hands with sea water, and tasted it. “I love you, I love you!”
When I was back to our house, I entered the second bathroom, the one we never used, and filled the old bathtub. All my euphoria had vanished and turned into physical pain, and I wanted to feel good again. You understand this, don’t you?
That was when I saw my reflection for the first time. All my life I had imagined myself to be exactly like you were: with your hair, and your nose, and your mouth. With your arms, and your stomach, and your jaw, and your legs. Imagine, then, the horror I felt when I saw what I was: somewhat like you, but not really. I was uglier, stranger.
I screeched, falling back, but I had to see myself again. We had, indeed, something similar, except in the eyes. My eyes were black, inside and around. There was no white sclera, and my pupils and irises were equally dark.
You betrayed me, Martim. You never told me that.
When you were back, I said nothing of adventures and discoveries, and you only touched me in bed, at night. I kept running away to the beach, and you kept beating me when you were angry, until, eventually, you found out.
Let me remind you what happened in the last few hours, in case you forget. You returned earlier from your shift at the barracks, and you saw me walking in the road. You watched me until I got inside the house, and you followed my sandy steps. When I was changing my dirty clothes, you made your triumphant entrance:
“I can’t believe you did this to me!” You screamed, and I recoiled, covering my head to protect myself. “Someone could have found out about you! Someone might have, already!”
“Martim,” I tried to say, my voice but a whisper. “No one saw me, I’m sure, I was just . . . It was too lonely in here, and . . . ”
“You want to ruin my life,” you growled, lifting me by the collar of my linen shirt. “Now I can see it—you were doing this from the very start!”
“No, Martim, I . . . ”
“From the beginning, you were trying to make me turn out like you, away from everybody else!” Sometimes, your words were inaudible, part for your wrath, part for your slamming me against the wall. “You and your ridiculous dreams of the sea! You made me believe that I was different—that we were different, but you know what, Jamin? This is all just a myth. A lie!”
Martim, you are stronger than me, and I could do nothing against you. I couldn’t even answer, because you were choking the air out of me.
“Stop—stop . . . ”
“You were trying to drown my dreams,” you continued, throwing me to the floor. I coughed, dizzy, unable to even think. Why were you doing this against me? I love you, you love me, we are the only living people of the sea. Why, Martim?
“You’re frightened,” I said, against my better judgment. My body was dripping with sweat, but I was able to stand up, shaking. “You’re afraid to admit what we are, and what we can do. Together, Martim, you and I . . . ”
Looking into my ink black eyes, you answered:
“There is no you and I, Jamim. If you love the sea that much, I’ll bring you to it.”
And that was the end. You grasped my hair with all the mighty strength you gained in the last years, and dragged me out of the house while I yelled, and thrashed, and begged.
“Do you know what that is, Jamim?” You pointed at a rusty iron cage hanging from the tall rocks, on the other side of the beach. “When your people was captured, they were put inside that cage, and left to die. To this day, we don’t know if they died drowning or starving, but you will soon find out.”
Night falls again, and water reaches my lips. I still think of you, Martim, and of what you did. My body is exhausted and sore, but my calloused fingers grasp the bars, struggling to stay awake. How many days since you left?
It’s time to hate you, I say like a prayer, even when my voice has long abandoned my lips. You are not here to rise my limbs as they fail me, you are not here to kiss my forehead as it crashes against the oxidized iron of the cage, you are not here to feed me when I think of biting my own hands. Tell me I am dead, Martim. Let me be dead.
But I’m not. The sky is vast and speckled with stars, the sea breeze dries my tears. There is a dazzling world ahead, a world where only you exist.
Slowly, I close my eyes, drifting away. Hunger makes me think of biscuits hidden in a jar under the bed. It makes me imagine stuffing a fish in our kitchen, my fingers smelling like paprika, lemon, bell pepper. It makes me think of sugar and angel hair. But there is no food here, there is nothing but the sea.
When water covers the entire cage, my muscles begin to relax. The ocean is filling my lungs, but they don’t burst; they absorb, they extend. Despite the darkness above, I see light underneath: hundreds of lanterns spread across the sand, lightening the path, maybe for me. If I widen my black eyes, I can see phantom figures watching from afar, blue shadows waving, urging me to come. The people of the sea.
You were right, Martim. You forgot about our kind, but I never did. I realize that when the iron cage yields, and I fall, motionless, into the arms that wait below. I am from the water, and my people—and yours—never drown.