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The Land Baby

The diving suit weighs against his body like a wall. He pushes through the water. The pressure in his eardrums is constant and piercing, as if a nail is being driven through his head. The glass of his diving helmet fogs up; the view becomes obscure, the kingdom around him threatening, mystical. Dark forms swim against the luminescent bottom of the sea. He wades through this other world in his cast-iron boots, half man, half machine. People call them Mechanics, these divers who use the canvas suits and copper helmets to do what had always been done before with no equipment but a stone and your skin and the air in your lungs.

The Mechanic keeps walking against the current, slowly, painstakingly. He uses his hook to tear a sponge from the sea floor. His net is almost full. Two more and he pulls on his lifeline twice, signaling his mate on the boat to haul him up.

He takes his time surfacing, gradually releasing air from his helmet, allowing his ears to adjust. Now he is supposed to become a creature of the land again, of naked flesh and dry air and heavy bones. As he nears the surface, a stabbing pain blooms in his left ear, and his arm goes numb. He blinks once, twice. A tingling sensation now. He takes in the sea air through his helmet. Once, twice. The tingling subsides. Then, it’s gone. He clenches his fist, once, twice. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.

He lets himself float, waiting for Nikos to load the harvest before pulling him on board. Then Nikos releases the valves of the Mechanic’s helmet and Alekos emerges from the suit, sweaty, disoriented, adjusting to the surface world like a newborn.

“All good?” Nikos asks.

Alekos clenches and unclenches his fist. Once. Twice. He nods.

“Good haul,” Nikos remarks as he helps the Mechanic out of the suit.

Alekos nods again and, soon, they are on their way back to land.

As the boat approaches the shore, Alekos can make out his daughter sitting on the wet sand, waiting for them. But there is another figure, in the water, resting against the rocks to the left. A woman watching his daughter from afar. Alekos stands up on the boat, trying to get a better view. At that moment, the girl jumps to her feet, as if she has just noticed the boat. Alekos shuts his eyes tight and opens them again, once, twice. At last, a splash and a fleeting glimpse of hair and scales and the woman’s gone.

The sudden nausea makes him sit down on the bench.

“What is it?” Nikos asks. “You feeling okay?”

“Did you . . . ” Alekos starts. He rubs his arm. “Never mind,” he says. “Let’s get to shore. Maria’s waiting.”

On the way home, none of them speak. The men push a wooden cart loaded with their crop of sea creatures. The copper helmet shines in the corner. As it catches the sun, Maria thinks her father’s body is still in it, buried underneath the sponges. She shakes off the thought, and pulls on the diving stone, trailing it behind her like a dog on a leash. Her father hasn’t used it since he became a Mechanic, but she carries it with her every time he goes diving anyway. For good luck.

It’s a long way to the village, but no one complains. They leave behind the sea and her ancient voice, wailing for her children, and they hold their breaths, as if to slip away unnoticed.

The house smells rank. No matter how hard they work, a few sponges always roll under a sofa or are shoved behind a bucket in a corner and rot there while the rest are drying outside, until someone sniffs them out. Both father and daughter are used to it; they don’t even notice the smell any more unless they really try. Besides, Maria has never known anything different. All the houses on this island smell the same.

Her hands are deft at handling the sponges and clippers. Clip, clip, squish. At only seven years old, she already has the dexterity of a woman who’s been doing this her whole life. Clip, clip, squish, and the sponges take shape. Clip, clip, squish, and you can almost forget these are skeletons she’s handling. Beautiful, tender skeletons.

Alekos sits on a stool next to his daughter, staring at her little bird of a hand, clipping away. He clenches his fist, unclenches it. He picks up another pair of clippers, but they slip through his fingers. He looks at Maria, to see if she noticed, but she seems absorbed in the hypnotic rhythm of her work.

“I saw mama down at the beach,” she says suddenly.

Alekos inhales sharply, the glint of scales and hair and salty skin flashing before his eyes.

“Don’t be silly,” he says.

Maria stops clipping and eyes him with her most serious look. “It’s true.”

“Mama is in the meadow, under the stone,” he says. “Remember?”

“I saw her. She was crying,” Maria insists.

Alekos forces a laugh, and it feels like a bead in his mouth, like those blue ones girls always wear around their necks to stave off bad luck and evil eyes.

“Well, then, maybe you saw a water woman,” he says, pinching his daughter’s cheek with his good hand.

Maria thinks about this for a while. “Why was she crying?”

“Water women always cry. Their babies get caught in our nets and die.”

“And then what happens?” Maria asks as Nikos taps on the door lightly, and walks in.

“Then the water woman cries and some man somewhere dies,” Alekos says. “And then the water woman has a child again.”

Maria stares at her father, unsure whether she should believe him or not.

Nikos sits by him on a low stool and pulls two cigarettes out of his pocket.

“Now go play,” Alekos says. “You’ve worked enough.”

Nikos waits until Maria is out the door. “What’s that you were talking about?” he asks. He passes one of the cigarettes to Alekos.

“Nothing. Childish nonsense. Says she saw a woman in the water,” Alekos replies. He brings the cigarette to his lips and reaches for his matches. “She just misses her mother,” he adds.

“You’re scaring her.”

“She should be a little scared of the sea. I don’t want her waiting at the beach by herself every time.” Alekos tries to light his match, but his left hand doesn’t obey. The match falls to the floor, and dwindles briefly before it goes out.

Nikos strikes a match and lights the cigarette for him. Then he lights his own. “What is it?” he asks, nodding towards Alekos’s arm. “Is it the bends?”

“I don’t know. It’s been like this since I came up.”

Nikos is silent. He looks serious. “You shouldn’t use the suit any more,” he says after a while.

“Can’t get enough sponges if you’re not a Mechanic.”

Nikos drags on his cigarette and half-closes his eyes. “Can’t get that many if you’re dead, either,” he replies. “Or if you get the bends.”

“I know,” Alekos says. “I know.” He takes in his smoke and holds his breath. “I think I saw her too, you know,” he says while he exhales.

“Who?”

“The woman.”

“Did you?”

Alekos rubs his arm. “I don’t know.”

“Was she crying?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay. Well. Not much we can do about it, either way.” Nikos gets up. “Come on. Let’s take you two up to the village. Sotiris had a good haul yesterday and he’s buying everyone wine at the tavern.”

Alekos crushes the butt of his cigarette against the side of his stool and grabs the wool coat that is hanging by the door. He can’t manage to put his left arm through the sleeve, so he simply drapes it over his shoulder. He catches Nikos looking at him and shaking his head, his eyebrows furrowed.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he growls. “And let’s go get a drink while I still have a good hand to hold a glass with.”

The feast has been going on for several hours when the three of them get there. Half the village is gathered at the tavern and Sotiris, red-nosed and red-cheeked with the drunk man’s happiness, is pouring wine for everyone. The gathered crowd greets the new arrivals merrily—the women kiss them on the cheeks, the men embrace them or tip their hats and wave.

“Niko! Alekos!” Sotiris shouts as soon as he spots them. “Come sit! Drink!”

Maria follows the men quietly and takes a seat at the corner of the table, trying to remain as unseen as possible. They know she’s there—there was no one to leave her with, anyway; no grandparents, no aunts or uncles on this island, only widows and fate-stricken cripples, trying to get by—but they try to forget. And for the few moments between emptying a glass and filling it up again, they succeed. They even come to ignore the canes of the crippled divers that rest against so many of the chairs, the half-worn coats, the trembling hands that barely manage to raise their glasses.

But then the music changes and a silence falls on the crowd. It’s the Mechanic’s Song, the island’s truest tune. Faces turn downwards for a while, eyes look inwards. A few sigh. A woman whose husband died while diving dries her eyes and empties her glass. But when the singer begins his song, five men spring up from their seats and start to dance, Nikos and Alekos among them.

I will either be a Mechanic, the song says, in its irregular, speech-like pattern, or they will bury me in the sand. I will be a Mechanic, and one day they will bury me in the wet sand.

The five men dance in an open circle. Alekos is last, leaving his numb arm free, his other wrapped around Nikos’s shoulders. The lead dancer is an old man, bent almost all the way to the ground, supporting himself on a wooden stick. His legs shake. At the end of the first turn, he nearly collapses. The second dancer catches and steadies him. They go on, slowly, struggling against an invisible current, as if they are still walking on the bottom of the sea in their iron shoes. And then the music picks up speed, and the old man suddenly straightens his back, throws his stick away and starts jumping around, showing off, his chest bursting with joy. I am a Mechanic, and let them bury me in the wet sand one day, the singer sings. The dance concludes, the old man falls to the ground, exhausted, broken. The rest of the men carry him back to his seat. His wife wipes his forehead. Maria watches as each of the men kiss the old diver between the eyes, thanking him for his gift, and then return to their drinks a little lighter.

Early the next morning, while her father is still asleep, his breathing heavy with the wine of last night, Maria slips away quietly. The sea is calling her. She knows her father will be furious, but she takes the dirt road down to the shore anyway. When she arrives at the beach, the tiniest slice of sun has appeared behind the mountain to the east.

Maria sits on the wet, cold sand and waits. She watches the waves, too high and too dark for this time of day, and listens for the solemn cry of the water. And before long, she spots the woman’s form perched on the rocks to her right. The rocks are not that far from the shore; the current may be strong, but with a little luck she could reach her. She takes her clothes off and walks straight into the water.

The woman sees the waves crash against the little body, threatening to consume her. No, land baby, she thinks. What are you doing? Go back to your papa. But the girl swims fast and strong. The woman can’t help but admire her determined strokes—she’s good at this. She’s so close now; a few more strokes and she could touch her, put her arms around her, feel her little heart beat against her chest, be with her. She pushes the thought away.

“Go back to your papa!” the woman shouts, and dives, and swims away.

Alekos stays on the boat more and more when they go out sponge diving and lets Nikos do the underwater work. Yet, he misses it: the pride of being able to provide for his daughter doing the only work his people deem worthwhile. The thrill of being this other creature, and at the same time the solace, the return to a fluid world, the black-and-whiteness of the lifeline: it works, you live; it is severed, you die. He has given up on his arm, tries to convince himself he can make do with just his other one. It doesn’t always work.

One day, his arm feels so heavy he decides there is no point in even going out to the sea. He sits outside his house, trimming sponges: steadying them between his knees, clippers in his right hand. Clip, clip, squish. Clip, clip, squish. Time passes, and that’s the most he can ask for.

At noon, when the sun is at its hottest, Maria comes home, her hair wet, her skin white with sea salt. She’s been to the sea again. Alekos feels the blood rush to his head as soon as he sees her. He stands up.

“What were you thinking?” he screams. “How many times have I told you, I don’t want you going down to the sea alone.”

The girl is stunned by his sudden anger. She can’t move. “But mama is lonely,” she whispers. “I can’t leave her alone.”

Alekos’s knees buckle and he grasps the back of his chair to steady himself. He holds it in. This grief, this helplessness. “I miss her too,” he says finally.

“Mama?” the girl asks.

No, the sea, he wants to say, but doesn’t. “Tomorrow,” he says instead. “We’ll go together, tomorrow.”

“Will you dive?”

He tries to clench his left fist. It doesn’t obey.

“Yes,” he says.

“With the suit?”

“No. Not this time. Just with the stone this time.”

Maria drags the big white stone all the way to the shore. Alekos didn’t tell Nikos what he was planning to do, because he knew he would never let him go alone. Nikos would have tied him to the chair if he had to.

They arrive at the sea early in the morning, while the sun is still low in the east.

“Wait here for me, okay?” he says.

The little girl nods and sits on the sand, her tattered grey dress puffed around her, making her look like a sickly anemone.

It’s been months since the last time he dove with just the stone. But skin-diving is in his blood, he tells himself. It is in the island’s blood. He pushes the boat off and navigates to the usual spot. Then he strips down to his bathing suit, ties one end of a short rope around the stone and the other around his waist. He waves at the sun, packs his lungs with as much air as he can take in, and jumps head first into the water.

He descends fast, reaches the bottom in what feels like a minute. It must be deep, because the pressure crushes his eardrums. He doesn’t care, because the sponges are there, alive, magnificent, waiting for him to collect them. And yet, at that moment he realizes he’s left his hook on the boat, didn’t even bring a knife to cut the sponges loose.

He wants to laugh, but can’t. He hugs the stone to his chest with his good arm. He can hear his heart beating slowly, slowly, filling his ears. But there is something else, something more. This sound, the voice of the sea that holds him and soothes him, because he knows it is the most ancient voice there is.

The euphoria starts to set in. He knows this is the most dangerous thing that can happen to a diver—it happened to his father, his uncle, countless of his childhood friends. It is the rapture of the deep; the air in your lungs turns into a sweet poison that traps you like a siren. He bites hard on his lip to ward it off, but the drunkenness lulls him, his breath transforms into wine, into heaven, into pure joy. He lets the stone go and drifts with the current as far as the rope will let him. His vision blurs, and he’s almost gone, when a bright flash pulls him momentarily back to his senses. He thinks he sees a woman in front of him—a glorious blur of skin and scales. Her hair caresses his shoulders so peacefully, so tenderly, but then he sees her eyes and they are frantic. She tries to untie the knot from his waist, while he looks at her with a lack of understanding. She pulls him, her mighty tail flapping against the current.

He shakes his head.

But the joy, he wants to tell her, before his vision darkens completely. The joy. Don’t you see?

The girl is still sitting on the beach when she emerges from the water. It is the first time she can get close enough to see the child clearly. She’s beautiful.

The woman swims to the shore, where the waves fade into foam. Her long tail flaps against the wet sand. It’s the first time she’s not crying.

“Mama?” Maria calls.

The woman holds out her hand. “Come here, baby,” she says, her voice sweet and deep and terrifying.

“Did papa send you?”

The woman shivers slightly as a breeze of air from the mainland touches her skin, carrying with it the smell of the land people. “Come,” she says again.

Maria walks over and joins the woman in the water. They go in as far as the girl is able to walk, and when her feet cannot reach the bottom any more, the woman wraps her arms around her and lifts her, holding her close to her chest. The girl’s dress is wet, wrapping itself around her body like dead seaweed. She doesn’t seem to care.

“Are we going to find papa?” Maria asks. She ignores the keen, needle-like teeth when the woman smiles her warm, motherly smile. And she doesn’t care that these are not her mother’s eyes, nor her hair, nor her nose. And she ignores the scaly arms that hold her tight when they dive.

And the woman, she pretends she can’t see the girl gasp for air, and lets the sound of her heart drown in the ever-mourning voice of the sea. And she tries to believe with everything she has that maybe this one, this land baby, can breathe underwater. Maybe this one can.

About the Author

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & theatre scholar based in the UK. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, Strange Horizons, Spark Anthology IV (Grand Prize winner of Spark Contest Three), and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Rhysling award. She is a first reader for Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi. Her personal website is www.natalia-theodoridou.com.