Reading time: 16 min
My mother once asked me what I wished for.
I told her I wished she’d never said those things, that she and dad had never split up over it, that we hadn’t run away to Chile’s desolate southern tip, of all places, to escape.
“I wrote what I believed in,” she said, trying to appeal to the idealism of youth. “I hated the conclusions I’d come to, but you can’t always choose what you believe in. Mankind must stop fooling itself…”
“Then I wish you’d never taken me with you,” I stabbed.
It was a cruel thing to say. I should have said I wished people had listened to her, but I knew why she’d been vilified by both sides. I regretted my words as soon as they were out, but I couldn’t take them back.
“We moved to Chile because you’re called Juanita,” she said, a non-sequitur intended to lighten the mood, but it was a veneer, nothing more. Her eyes showed the pain of choosing the least bad option. Our argument fizzled out, never extinguished but smoldering like an Andean volcano, to be rekindled with bickering and sniping at some future date.
That’s why it felt so strange to see her in my bedroom, giddy and excited. Busy with science books, adding and subtracting sinusoidal waveforms, dance beats in my ears, I didn’t take in a word she’d said. I pushed the headphones aside.
“…I said, come on,” she jabbered.
I thought she was on drugs. “Where?”
Then, because I didn’t leap up like the good little girl I used to be, “The Wilkins ice shelf has just broken away. Millions of tons of ice have just slipped into the sea. There’s a tsunami.”
The world seemed to wobble. I felt nauseous. This wasn’t elation or drugs. We were about to die. My mind reeled. …but, wait: we lived on a grassy plateau several hundred feet above sea level. How big a tidal wave were we talking?
“And we’re going to escape?”
“No,” she laughed. “We’re going to see it.”
I’d braced myself for take-off more tightly than usual; her cursory pre-flight checks, the way she flicked switches and tapped dials unnerved me. The ancient Piper Cub bounced across the grass, revving too hard, its skittishness mirroring her mania to see the wave.
Minutes later, hugging the coast, we saw it in the distance. My mother gestured, grinning, yelling over the engine note. Tumbling headlong towards us it looked like nothing more than a stripe in the ocean. If it hadn’t been pointed out, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.
She shouted again. Although I could only make out every second word, I got the gist: we were going to take a closer look. And, with that, the wings tilted, and we swooped towards the onrushing water. The plane dipped, my stomach dropping. I liked the feeling; it made me giggle.
I glanced at my mother who gripped the stick with steely intensity, keeping the plane straight and true. We passed over the wave. I craned around to keep my eyes on it, a magnificent furrow gouged from the ocean’s surface that arced out to the horizon to the north, whilst battering the cliffs in the distance.
What must be happening there struck me. Where we lived was remote, inhospitable. But further up the coast: there were fishing villages, ports, towns. And what were we doing here? Joyriding, barnstorming an Act of God. My mother grinned. I could tell she was going to try something. I gripped the seat’s tubular frame tighter as the Cub dropped and slowed until we were in the trough behind the wave. Ahead of us the water, banking upwards, stretched glassy green. We cruised below its apex, followed in its wake. I looked behind. We were in a vast furrow. We were flying below sea level. Out over the Pacific, we were… flying below sea level.
I grinned back at her, forced, fighting back the thought that all of this was wrong.
And then it happened.
The engine note changed, rising.
I sensed the propeller chopping at empty space, the motor racing. Our angle shifted back, sky filling the windshield. We were stalling, with no altitude to play with. My mother, a moment before so jovial, now grunted as she pushed at the stick.
And then the kind of drop that didn’t make me giggle.
“The tsunami’s sucking the air with it,” she shouted through gritted teeth, telling me what I already knew.
“Is that possible?” I screamed.
“We’re in dead air. We’re going down.”
The small craft crumpled on impact with the ocean, like some child’s model dropped on a hard floor. Water, so cold it sucked the breath from your lungs, swirled around me. That the old Cub was made of paper and string—or so my mother joked, calling it a ‘kite’ as if she were an ace from the Great War—saved us, because there was suddenly nothing to the aircraft behind the cabin. My mother’s hands unbuckled my straps as water came up to my face and all I concentrated on was getting one last gasp of air without choking, and then we were out in the Pacific. Except for a wing, floating loose, nothing of our aircraft remained.
I had the sour taste of salt water in the back of my throat and nose. The water swelled alarmingly around us. I was rising, I knew it.
“Swim, Jay,” my mother shouted, disappearing behind a wave.
Necessity outweighing the paralyzing iciness, I swung an arm forward to swim. Like lifting a lead weight, my limbs didn’t feel like my own. I took a mouthful of water, panicked, pulled myself above the surface again, coughing in rasps. My mother was nowhere to be seen.
I opened my mouth to scream. Icy brine choked it shut. I flailed towards shore, towards distant cliffs rapidly diminishing in height. I forced my stinging eyes to focus. I was above the level of the cliffs and still rising. In the distance, I could see the grassy plateau on which we lived.
And then I was dropping. Like rollercoaster tracks, the ocean fell away below me. The light dimmed as the Pacific bowled around me. I was in a trough, far deeper than the one following the first wave, the one we had flown into. A trough that seemed to fall away forever…
My legs hit something hard, my knees were forced up to my chin. I sat in sand and seaweed and slime. Everywhere, fish flapped, straining for air. Nearby, the Piper Cub’s tail sat at a crazy angle. Beyond, raised up as if on a plinth, a skeletal fishing vessel, all barnacles and rust.
The ocean flooded away from me, like a receding wave on a sandy beach. And with it faded a roar I only now became aware of, noticeable only by its absence. Which meant I could expect the wave to come back, harder, faster, colder.
I was at the bottom of the ocean, suddenly emptied of all its water. This made no sense.
Not my mother’s. Not caustic, like hers; sweet like honey.
A hallucination, it must be, a hallucination from the cold. Perhaps I was dead already.
“Over here, before the waters rise again,” it called.
And then I saw her, by the sunken trawler, below which was a square cubic construction, perhaps ten feet in each dimension, its precise angles incongruous against the organic jumble of the ocean floor. There was something not quite right about her, her proportions, her coloring…
At my feet I saw the water begin to pool, the ocean on the rise again.
“I have to find my mother,” I bawled back at her, pain and fright in my voice.
“The only thing you have to do is live,” she called, her voice carrying despite its softness.
I began to clamber, stumbling over rocks and seaweed, crabs skittish in their confusion, towards a dark opening at cube’s center. An octopus flopped. In the distance, the wall of water was returning, bearing down on us, a blue-black line on the horizon. I was shaking, shivering, my limbs leaden. I pushed on, straining for breath, straining for purchase on the slippery seabed.
I had to make it. I had to make it.
The steely face of the tsunami darkened the sky.
With an icy certainty, I realized there was no way on earth I would win this race…
I awoke to find myself awash with a milky blue light, lying on… nothing.
Nothing at all.
My body was supported by thin air. I was just hanging.
How many impossible things does a teenage girl have to cope with in one morning?
Gingerly, I swung myself around and down—tricky when there’s nothing to push against—but when my feet got to within a few inches of the floor gravity returned and all became normal again.
My eyes tried to adjust to the light, to make out where I was, but like a perfect snowscape there was nothing to focus on. All around me was a thin white haze, a miasma.
“I see you are awake.”
The woman who I had seen standing by the curious cubic construction on the seabed was now by me. Her long auburn hair moved like weed in the sea even though we were not underwater. Where had she come from?
“I need to find my mother,” I blurted, memories tumbling. “We were flying…”
“You are safe,” she said, her lips not moving.
That stunned me into silence. All I could do is blink twice.
She smiled and, this time, spoke normally. “I did not mean to scare you. We can adopt your manners and customs if it helps you to acclimatize.”
“Who are you?” I asked, trying my best to hold my voice steady.
“You have been shocked. It is quite natural for you to feel confused.”
I was right. There was something wrong about her. She looked like somebody had taken a description of a human and, lacking visual clues, made their best shot at replicating one. Like when you see an action figure of a movie character and are forced to question who it is. Princess Leia? Really?
I tried to pin down exactly what. Well, for a start, her eyes could move independently of each other. And she could bend at the joints a few more degrees than a real person. And her skin—sickly sallow but glowing with vitality all at once. Glowing blue. Like light through water. And her legs appeared joined and ended in a single fin. How had I not noticed that first?
“You’re not human.”
There was another word I could have used, but it didn’t feel right, felt too ridiculous. Not that saying mermaid out loud could have made any of this less crazy…
She just smiled. “You are safe. But your planet is in danger.”
“My mother… Where am I?” Was that fin even in contact with the floor?
“So many questions. You must rest. As for your mother, the ocean has taken her.”
I was stunned into silence. Mom. Grouchy, opinionated, stubborn, but changeable like the weather. But alive, so alive. Nothing made sense anymore.
“Where are we?”
“We are below the ocean. The Plethorean have created these tunnels and caverns below your oceans. There are large beyond understanding.”
“The what?” I asked, my voice sounding far away.
“The Plethorean. They have been living on your planet for eons. They exist in dimensions you cannot see. They have been watching over you.”
“Are you… Plethorean?” It had a fishy ring to it.
She shook his head. “The Plethorean are what you would call multi-dimensional omniscient beings made of pure intellect. They require a bridge to the material world. I am that bridge. I am a construct, able to interact with the material world on their behalf.”
“I suppose you’re going to say they’re from the planet Ug,” I mocked.
She laughed, oblivious of my mood. “Oh no. The syllables required to vocalize the name of their home world exist outside of your dimensions as well. It is literally unpronounceable.”
The absurdity of her words were like a slap, doubly so set against the concrete reality of what had just happened to me. I couldn’t believe she just said what she’d said. They were the ravings of somebody who could only be described as… Oh Christ… I was hallucinating. Hallucinating a mermaid, a mermaid who was on the spectrum.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, smiling. “I can have created any dish you wish for.”
I shook my head but heard myself tell her otherwise, as if my stomach had spoken for me. I was starving. “Huevos Rancheros. Can you do those?”
She led me through tunnel-like corridors—or maybe corridor-like tunnels—artificial yet organic, where streams ran uphill over our feet which remained curiously dry. We emerged into a vast cavern, ghostly green ambient light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere in particular washing the walls.
“I sense a sadness,” she said. “A deep sadness.”
“My parents split. I came to Chile with my mom. She was a climate scientist. She came to the inescapable conclusion humanity could do nothing about its destruction, that we’d warmed the planet too much. We were running downhill with no brakes, as good as over the cliff edge but didn’t realize it.”
I found myself lifting eggs, tomatoes, and chilies to my mouth. I was halfway through the bowl. At some point I had sat myself at a table made of light-filled glass or crystal, without clear edges or surfaces, its shape only marked out by what sat on it. How had that happened?
“She got hell from both the climate change deniers because she said it was real, and everybody else who was trying to do something, even if it was just recycling their cans. There were no ideas left simple enough to solve the problem: her words. She thought it was too late to do anything. A climate change fatalist, they called her. She was angry at how she had been treated, so ran away as far as she could to write a book, took me with her. When the ice shelf collapsed and the tsunami came, I think she felt vindicated. She’d got to the point of thinking we’re all going to die, so she may as well die being proved right.”
As if in sympathy, the space we were in shook, as if the very earth were displeased. When it had passed, I found my palms pressed against the tabletop, braced for the worst.
“The tidal wave passing over us. The continent you know as Antarctica has shifted. A tidal wave a thousand feet high sweeps the Pacific, washing back, washing forth.”
“Mom said an ice shelf…”
“Merely a volume tumbling from a bookshelf that is itself about to be overturned in a house tossed by an earthquake. An entire continent has moved. The planet is shaking itself apart. The tidal wave grows uncontrollably. But you are safe in these caverns.”
A shadow of a thought passed across my mind, like a cloud dimming the sun. “If the planet is shaking itself apart, how can I be safe? Come to that, if the Pletho-whatevers are made of pure intellect, why did they need to build tunnels and caverns in the first place?”
The mermaid’s face clouded. “I do not know. I am only a Goddess in this confusion.”
I choked, as much on spicy tomato as on her words. A Goddess? “You don’t know?”
She shook his head, blank-faced. “Do you ask, ‘why the clouds?’”
“Why the clouds what?”
“The clouds have been there for eons, just as the Plethorean have, but you do not ask for what purpose.”
If this turned out to be death, the last vestige of consciousness trying to make sense of white noise, I hoped this part would pass quickly.
“That’s different,” I said. “Nobody built the clouds. But if these Plethorean made the tunnels and caverns, there must be a reason.”
The wave passed over us again. It reminded me of being in the airliner that took us to Chile, waiting to take off, the thrust of the engines surging through your seat and up your spine.
“To keep you safe, Juanita.”
And then another memory of vibrations, a more recent one, of adding and subtracting sinusoidal waveforms, drumming the theory of harmonic oscillators into my thick teenage skull, the steady beat of dance music in my ears.
“You said the waves are growing.”
“Thousands are dead. Millions will be.”
The mermaid delivered the headline like a speak-your-weight machine, but all was awhirl within me. In my mind’s eye, a word jumped from the textbook. Resonance.
“We need to flood the tunnels. Flood the tunnels so the oceans no longer resonate.”
The mermaid looked askance.
“You said they were large beyond understanding,” I said.
“They are many dimensions,” she agreed.
“Yes, but how much water can they hold?”
“It is not a question that has meaning.”
“Flood the tunnels,” I ordered. In my mind the solution was obvious.
“You are safe here, Juanita. If we flood the tunnels you will die.”
In my mind, my mother’s words echoed: there are no ideas left simple enough to solve the problem. But she was wrong.
“Flood the tunnels,” I growled. “Fill the empty spaces with water.”
The mermaid’s face clouded. She shook her head. “You will die, Juanita.”
“If we don’t take the energy out of the tsunami, millions will.”
“Stay here, Juanita. Stay with us and live. That is what the tunnels and caverns are for. For you to live.”
I don’t know what it was about her words—a hint of threat, a sour note of laughter, perhaps—but a moment of clarity told me that to stay meant to be trapped, a fate worse than death that would go on for eternity. The mermaid was not my friend.
As if to prove it, I looked down at my feet, or where my feet had been, because they had turned to fins, my flesh had become grey and scaly. My thighs were webbing together as I watched, the beginnings of a fishtail.
I launched myself with what movement I had left at the cavern wall, an amorphous shimmering grey mass that defied focus, like something that is forever in your peripheral vision, never front and center. Was it near or far? I swung, tears in my eyes, and screamed, pounding, pounding, pounding.
“Flood the tunnels,” I screamed, until my fingernails clawed at hard stones, I felt cold damp against my cheek and sucked in salty, seaweed-laden air. I was shaking, shaking uncontrollably, shaking against something that was smothering, enveloping me.
I looked up into my mother’s face. I was on a beach, the ocean calm. Grey clouds scudded overhead. My feet were my own. My mother’s eyes brightened and years fell away from her.
“The ocean. Resonance. It’s resonance. We must flood the tunnels,” I rambled through chattering teeth. “Did we flood the tunnels?”
“You’re in shock, Jay. You’re safe now.”
By rights I should have gone to hospital, but they were overwhelmed. That there were hospitals at all was a miracle. We sheltered, alongside hundreds of others, in a municipal sports hall in which I’d played badminton six months earlier, or a lifetime ago—both felt equally true.
Two days later a car drove us home. I had learnt not to mention the Plethorean or mermaids or flooding the empty tunnels to break the resonant wave, my first gabbled references bringing raised eyebrows and the kind of sympathy reserved for the irreversibly loco.
Not being able to talk about what I had seen and touched and heard, not even the huevos rancheros, left me in a withdrawn silence. I did little but stare through the window at the shattered landscape, slumped against the car door, listening to the continual radio coverage of the disaster. Even as the panorama become familiar, I refused to lift my chin from my arm.
Not even as familiarity gave way to strangeness.
Not even as the car slowed, and my mother and the driver started debating the fish scattered across the blacktop.
It was only when the thin grass gave way to sand and silt that had never been there before and I saw the broken tail of the Piper Cub lying by the roadside, that I sat up. In the middle distance lay a wing.
And there, close to our house, was the fishing boat, blackened and weed-encrusted.
The last few yards were taken slowly, the car picking its way through the debris, as if driving on the ocean floor itself.
We all got out of the car in a kind of haze. Our feet settled in a muddy layer. Doorslams scared the gulls away, up to then occupied feeding on the beached fish, but seconds later they came cawing back. The air was pungent with the ocean carrion which lay scattered in a wide ring around our house. Through the open car windows the radio newscast continued to provide an incongruous soundtrack to the absurdity before us.
Nobody commented that the front door was still ajar, just as I had left it in the excitement of running for the plane. In front of it, in amongst seaweed and sand, lay a huge grey shape, like a kite crossed with a catamaran. Close to, I could see its white underbelly. Glistening, almost rubbery, with dead glassy eyes behind its projecting mouthparts, it was bigger than me. I expected it to move at any second, to give a sign of life, to wobble and flap and threaten to enter the house. But it remained still.
“Mobula tarapacana,” my mother said without expression. “Devil ray.”
“Do you want me to drive you somewhere else, señora?” the driver asked, twisting his baseball cap in his hands. He seemed eager to leave, to escape the smell of rotting fish.
My mother just went on staring at the huge fish at the threshold to our house in silence.
The driver stood, uncertain, waiting for an order that never came. He leant through the window to switch the radio off, but I barked at him to leave it on. They were the first words he’d heard me say. Something I had heard, an opening remark, something about undersea caverns…
…scientists are working on the theory that the pressure of the wave broke the ocean floor, under which lay vast cavities and fissures, previously unknown, which filled with water and dampened the energy of the wave, and may even mitigate rising sea levels…
My mother looked over to me, wonder across her face. Was there truth in my ravings? Flood the tunnels. Yes, there are still ideas simple enough to solve the problem. And this idea had been mine.
Failing to grasp the meaning of the strange tableau before him, the driver opened the car door. But, before he got in, he lifted a miniature on a chain out from under his shirt and kissed it. Gold-rimmed, it flashed in the sun. Not a wife or girlfriend with whom he would soon be reunited. It was an icon, the image of a goddess, and he did it to ward off evil, or so he thought.
It was the mermaid.
Copyright 2022 Robert Bagnall
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash
I don’t even know how to explain what this means to me. You said it perfectly