Below the surface of the water, the sky moved far away, and the river expanded in width and depth until it seemed as endless as an ocean. Sofia swam towards the body, trying to ignore the eerie feeling of having entered another world. She reached for one of the arms and grabbed its wrist.
All of a sudden, the girl came alive and struggled to get out of her grasp.
Sofia tore back in surprise and fright. The two girls shot towards the surface of the water at the same time. Sofia gasped, frantically filling her lungs with air, brushing her hair out of her face, as her eyes became used to the outside world again.
She stared at the girl who was staring back at her, although she was not gasping for air, and didn’t seem dishevelled or ruffled in any way.
“Who are you?” Sofia said with the first breath she managed to draw.
The girl moved backwards, not taking her eyes off Sofia. With every inch she put between them, her gaze became calmer and somewhat superior. She reached for a rock in the water and pulled herself upon it in one fluent motion.
Sofia could have sworn that there had not been a rock in that place before, and she realized that she was standing comfortably on the ground, the water only reaching up to her stomach, even though it had been deep and endless a mere few seconds ago.
The girl brushed her long silver hair from her face. It seemed neither wet nor dry, but smooth like a velveteen sheet.
“Since you disturbed me,” she said in a haughty voice, “you should answer that question before I do.”
“Disturbed you?” Sofia blurted out. “I saved you.”
The girl gave a little laughter that rang as clear as a bell. “Why should I need saving?”
“You – you were drowning.”
The girl pulled her legs up on the rock and looked around with a slightly bored expression. Her arms and legs were light-blue as if colored from inside. She was wearing a white and silver suit that was constantly changing form, wrapping itself differently around her body every time she moved.
“What is drowning?” she asked, as if she knew exactly what it was, but enjoyed putting Sofia on the spot.
“It’s -,” Sofia started. How could she possibly explain drowning? “It’s when you are underwater for too long, and you – you stop breathing.”
“But I never stopped breathing.”
“You can -?”
“Of course!” The girl laughed again. “Of course, I can breathe underwater.”
She elongated her neck like a cat, exposing green and yellow gills that flapped open and closed again before Sofia could get a good look. She giggled at Sofia’s confusion.
“Can you not breathe underwater?” she asked with an air of mock-innocence.
“No. I -.” Sofia stopped herself. She looked at the girl angrily. “You shouldn’t make fun of me. I saved you. And even if I didn’t, that’s what I set out to do, and you should thank me for it.”
“If you only saved me to receive gratitude…”
Sofia felt her face turn hot. “That’s not what I meant!”.
The girl smiled sweetly then as if she had established her position and could now allow herself to be graceful.
“My name is Orì,” she said, like a peace offering. Pronouncing her name, she sat upright as if expecting reverence.
Sofia swallowed her anger, not completely successfully. She didn’t like this girl. But she was still curious.
“I’m Sofia,” she mumbled.
She shivered. Unlike Orì, she had not become magically dry or un-wet. The wind was jabbing at her skin through her soaking clothes. She wrung out her hair that was becoming stiff.
“Are you – cold?” Orì said, with a voice that was difficult to assess for true feeling. She rather sounded as if she was posing a scientific question, interested, but unconcerned.
“Of course, I’m cold,” Sofia said.
“I do wonder what that feels like.”
“Don’t you know?”
Again, Orì shrugged lightly. She was drawing little circles in the water with the tips of her long blue fingers.
“Are you -.” Sofia was unsure how to talk to Orì. Every word seemed to hold the potential to be dissected and turned against her. “Are you a mermaid?”
Orì burst out laughing.
Sofia turned away. She had already half expected this reaction but hadn’t been able to refrain herself.
“A mermaid?” Orì made a show of her amusement. “Tell me, do you see a tail here? Can you not see my legs and feet?” Orì stretched out her legs and wriggled her toes, laughing as if she had never heard a funnier joke.
“Of course, I can. But I thought that – maybe – since you can breathe underwater…”
“Most people can breathe underwater.”
“I don’t know anybody who can.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Orì said as if she had forgotten a fact that was too obvious to even be mentioned. “People in Nihon, I meant.”
Sofia’s breath stopped as if another wave had crashed over her head.
Orì looked at her, not understanding her reaction.
“You’re from Nihon?” Sofia asked, her eyes so wide that it almost hurt.
“Where else should I be from?”
“I – I hadn’t considered.”
“Yes.” Orì nodded as if conceding to a well-known fact. “Mother always says that people from the Other Side are rather slow.”
“I’m not slow,” Sofia protested.
Orì tilted her head and smiled sweetly. “Alright.”
Sofia scowled at her. She disliked Orì more and more, but she had never met anybody from Nihon. She had rarely even heard anybody mention Nihon, and for all her games and daydreaming, she had never really considered what lay beyond. It was as if a cloud had been put over Nihon that distracted everybody from asking questions. In their minds, it was as far away as a distant star in the sky, even though it lay just across the river.
Even now, face to face with the mercurial blue girl with gills on her neck and clothes that changed color every time the sun was reflected on them, Sofia couldn’t shake the idea that she was being fooled.
“Are there mermaids in Nihon?” she asked, determined to get as much information as possible.
“Of course,” Orì said. “But I’m not one of them.”
“What do they look like?”
Orì stared at her. Maybe because she enjoyed making others feel inadequate, she was afraid that she was being given the run around herself.
“Don’t you have mermaids here?” she asked, frowning.
“No,” Sofia said. She was almost sure of it.
Orì looked wistfully towards the other side of the shore. “That’s too bad,” she said as if to herself. “I like mermaids. Most of them have been very kind to me.”
“There are mermaids in Nihon,” Sofia repeated, amazed. “Are there other creatures, too?”
Sofia felt her skin become hot again.
“You know. Beings?”
“Everything that is, is a being, don’t you think?”
Sofia clenched her teeth. But before she could find a better phrasing for the myriad of questions bubbling up inside her head, Orì’s head shot around.
Sofia followed her frightened gaze, and saw Aunt Sybil standing in front of the house. She was wearing a large woollen coat that did nothing to conceal the sharp edges of her tall and bony body. Her face was rigid as if she had unlearned to smile, or frown, or cry.
“Aunt Sybil,” Sofia blurted out as if she had been doing something wrong. “I was just playing, and -.”
“You are soaking wet,” Aunt Sybil said, not coming any closer and not looking at Sofia even as she spoke to her. Her eyes were fixed on Orì, unblinking. “I have not rung the bell,” she said to her. “But I will do so next time, and it will not bode well for you and yours.”
Orì had turned pale under her blue sheen. She straightened her back and folded her hands in her lap in a gesture of respect, or maybe deference.
“I did not mean to intrude,” she said. “It was an honest mistake.”
Aunt Sybil didn’t reply. She didn’t believe in mistakes, honest or not.
Without making a sound, Orì slipped back into the water. She didn’t say anything to Sofia or to Aunt Sybil, and was gone without a trace as if she had never been there. Not even ripples in the water remained, and no bubbles rose to the surface.
Sofia stared at the spot where she had vanished. There was no rock emerging from the river anymore, just like before. When she looked back at Aunt Sybil, she had lost the grandness of her previous stature, and Sofia was sure that it had only appeared to her that way because of the surprise of being caught. Though she didn’t exactly know what she had been caught at.
“Sofia, you will catch your death,” Aunt Sybil said with a voice that made her feel even colder. “Come inside.”