This extract comes from Chapter 7. For the first time, Sapphire dives into Ingo with Faro, one of the Mer.
We dive. I cling to Faro’s wrist because there’s nothing else, but it doesn’t feel like a human wrist any more. It feels cold and smooth, like a thick stem of oar weed. My fingers slip and I dig my fingers into the flesh. I’m too frightened to care if it hurts him.
I open my eyes. We’re moving faster than I’ve ever swum before, rushing down and down in a race of bubbles. Faro’s tail is driving us both. There’s salt in my nose and I want to cough but I can’t cough underwater. Water presses in on me, crushing my chest and making it burn. There’s a tight band around my ribs, squeezing in, like iron hands squashing my lungs.
I can’t breathe. The water won’t let me breathe. It’s choking me. The iron band around my chest is red-hot now. My fingers tingle and sparks of light shoot across my eyes. The water’s rushing up past me and I don't even know which way up we are any more. It’s like being wiped out by a wave when you’re surfing, but this time there’s no way up into the air. No way to cough and gasp and spit the salt away. The weight of the water won’t let me.
Terror rushes over me, and wipes me out.
‘ Conor! Conor!’ I scream inside my head. I can’t make the words into sound because there’s no air to make them with. My eyes are full of darkness. The band round my ribs is a circle of fire. It hurts so much that I think I’m going to die.
Thoughts fly through my head like frightened birds. I’m going to die. Not sometime far away in the future, but now. Here. I see Mum’s face, turning to the door, waiting for me. I hear her voice calling me: Sapphy, Sapphy where are you? It’s time to come home! I try to call back, to say I’m sorry I broke my promise, to beg Mum to come and save me, but my mouth is full of salt and no words come out.
‘ Hold onto me,’ someone says, close to my ear. ‘Don’t let go. As long as you hold onto me, you’re safe. You’re safe with me, Sapphire.’
I remember Faro. I open my eyes and he’s there, beside me. We’re deep, deep under the water and I’m still gripping his wrist as if it’s the only thing that holds me to life.
I can’t hold my breath any more. I’ve got to let go. The last of my human breath streams away in bubbles. Little bright pictures rush with the bubbles. Mum ironing in our cottage, the memorial service for Dad with the choir singing, the midsummer bonfire flaring up into the sky -
No bubbles of air come from Faro’s mouth. He turns to me with his hair streaming upwards. His nostrils are still closed.
‘Let go,’ he says urgently, ‘You’re safe with me.’
He’s talking! Faro’s talking underwater and I can hear him.
‘Let go,’ says Faro again. ‘Let go, Sapphire. Leave the Air. Let go, or you’ll drown.’
His words boom in my ears. Leave the Air, Leave the Air. Can I do it, like Faro? How can I leave the Air? I’m not Mer, I’m human. My ears are bursting, my chest flares with fire that is licking up my throat now and into my brain. I’ve got to breathe in. I’ve got to. But I’m so far down underwater that I’ll never get back to the surface in time to breathe.
‘ Leave the Air,’ says Faro imperatively, ‘Now.’
I have no choice. Water thrums in my ears. Let go or die, let go or die.
I let go. Mum’s face fades away as Air leaves me. All the bright pictures in my head fade and disappear as the sea rushes into me. Into my mouth, my nose, my ears, even my eyes. And suddenly it doesn’t matter. The sea is in me and I am in the sea. The tight band around my chest loosens. The burning eases. The darkness dissolves into light. I am breathing. I am in the water, but I am breathing. I’m cool and light and free. Why was I so terrified? I’m breathing, deep under the water, and all the pain has gone.
The sea combs out my hair and it flows behind me in the rush of our speed. We dive down, down, like swallows diving in summer sky. My hand is on Faro’s wrist, but I don’t cling to him any more. My feet are close together, like fins, and my free arm pulls strongly through the water. How fast we’re swimming! The sea floor rushes past as if we’re freewheeling downhill
‘I’m breathing!’ I say in wonder, ‘I can do it, Faro!’
‘You’re not Mer yet, Sapphire. But I let you in, so you’ll be safe here. I’ll look after you. You can let go of my wrist if you want.’
‘I don’t want to ... not just yet.’
‘Don’t worry. It’s all right. I let you in, so you’re safe as long as I’m with you.’
I lift my hand from his arm, just for a second, then I grab hold of him again. I’m not ready to swim alone down here, in this strange place where the whole world is water.
We rush onwards, side by side. Sunlight strikes down through the water and we swim in and out of pillars of light and shadow. Below us is white sand, gleaming and glittering. The pull of the tide has made deep ridges in it, so it looks like ploughed land.
‘Look up,’ says Faro. I look where he’s pointing, and there’s a brilliant skin of light way up above us, wobbling and shimmering.
‘That’s the surface,’ says Faro. ‘Air.’
‘Oh.’ It looks so far away. ‘Can I get back to it if I want?’
‘Yes, of course,’ says Faro. But there’s something in his face - doubt, or maybe fear -
‘What’s the matter? I can get back, can’t I, Faro?’
‘If - when you want to go back, you can. But it hurts. You get a pain - here -’ Faro puts his free hand on his ribs, exactly where I felt the burning circle of pain when I dived. I feel a shiver run through his body and into the wrist I’m holding.
‘But it hurt exactly like that when I dived down with you. And I was going into the water, not leaving it.’
‘That ‘s the way it is for humans. Some of them drown of it.’
‘Some of them?’
‘Well - most of them. Nearly all of them. We call and call to them but they can’t listen. They can’t let go of the air, and that’s why they drown. It’s the other way round for us Mer. You drown in water. We can drown in the Air.’
‘ But you were in the air when I met you. You were all right, you weren’t choking or anything.’
Faro frowns. ‘Yes, some of us can go there. There are reasons -’ he breaks off.
‘Never mind. But it hurts when you go through the skin. It’s dangerous.’
‘Look up there.’ Faro points at the bright, distant surface. ‘That’s the skin. You have to go through it. That’s what hurts. The change is bad every time.’
‘So when I go back, it’ll hurt -’
‘No, not for you. You’re human, aren’t you? You’ll be all right, going back to the Air. Anyway, you’re here now. Safe with Faro.’ Faro smiles, and very gently peels my hand off his wrist. ‘There. Try again. You really don’t need me now. You only think you do, because of your Air thinking.’
We’re not moving any more. I’m floating free, in deep, deep water. My hair drifts across my face, then drifts away. The sea holds me like a baby. I’m not scared of it any more. I’m rocking, rocking in the hammock of the sea. Faro is right, the sea will look after me. Gently, my hand floats away from his wriest. I cup my hands, and scull the water. Faro’s right. I am safe.
Suddenly, with a strong flick of the tail, Faro turns a perfect somersault. And again, and again, faster and faster until he’s a whirling circle of human body and seal tail.
‘You try it, Sapphire!’
‘I couldn’t do that. I’ll just float.’
I spread out my arms to the water as if I have never touched the sea before. And I haven’t, not like this. I’m not bouncing about on top of the water doing breaststroke or backstroke or what humans call floating. The skin of the sea has parted and let me in. I’m living in the sea. I’m part of it.
‘Let’s surf a current,’ says Faro. ‘Come on, we’ll find a strong one.’
All my life I’ve been trying not to find currents. I know there’s a rip beyond the headland. That’s why we never swim out there, because it’s too dangerous. If the rip catches you, it can pull you a mile out to sea. Even if you’re a good swimmer you won’t be able to swim against it. You’ll be swept out, and you’ll drown fighting it.
‘There’s a good current this way,’ says Faro. ‘Come on.’
‘This way, Sapphire!’
I see the current before I feel it. There’s movement in the water ahead of us, like a twisting, glassy rope. Or like a powerful sea snake coiling itself in and out. The current looks thicker and much more solid than the calm water around it. Once it gets hold of me, I’ll never escape. It’ll coil itself around me, pull me tight and take me wherever it wants.
‘Never, never swim out beyond those rocks, Sapphire. That’s where the rip runs.’
‘But I can’t see anything, Dad.’
‘It’s there, believe me. Now promise.’
‘All right, Dad. I promise.’
‘Let’s go!’ calls Faro, springing forward eagerly like a surfer trying to catch the perfect wave. His body twists, and vanishes into the snake of the current. But I can’t follow. I promised Dad. I can’t -
But I can’t stay here alone either. What did Faro say? As long as you’re with me,
I dive, and the current swallows me. Just for a second I feel the terrible python pull of it and I’m scared it’s going to crush me like a snake would crush me in its coils. And then I’m part of it. No, once you’re inside it, the current is nothing like a python. I feel as if I’m in a plane racing down the runway at full power. There’s no choice any more. The plane has got to fly, and I’ve got to fly with it.
And there’s Faro, right in the middle of the current.
‘Come farther in, Sapphire!’ he calls.
Now I see what you have to do. You have to swim until you’re where the current’s fastest, where you can feel the muscle of it all around you. And then lie there inside it like an arrow, as Faro’s lying. The pull is so strong that it doesn’t feel like pull at all. I only know how fast I’m going when I look down and see the ridged floor of the sand fall away as we rush into the deep.
‘Yeee -- hiiiii!’ It’s Faro yelling, and then it’s me too, riding the back of the current as if it’s a wild horse, letting it twist me and turn me and spin me until I don’t know where we are or where we’re going. and I don’t care. All that matters is the ride. Faro’s standing upright on the current, balanced on the curve of his tail. I try to copy him but my legs won’t do what his tail does. I’ll try again -
‘Rocks coming up! HOLD ON,’ shouts Faro, and he swipes us sideways with his tail, and out of the current just before it rushes onto the underwater rocks and splits into a millions threads of white.
‘You didn’t look ahead,’ Faro points out, as we hang suspended in the calm, gasping.
‘Can’t look - not when going so fast - ’
‘Hmm. Slow human reactions. Better not get into any currents without me for the time being. They like to play rough.’
‘I think I’ll keep out of currents altogether.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Sapphire, how’re you going to travel without surfing currents? You need to know them, that’s all. They follow their own patterns, but you can learn them. Every current has its own path, but sometimes they come close and you can hop from one to another. That’s how you make the longest journeys. Once you’ve learned to current-hop, we can really travel.’