I was ten the first time I saw her. I remember this clearly, because my mother left exactly two weeks later—on my eleventh birthday.
We were in Hawaii at a surfing competition—this was back when my father still competed professionally—and it was late, late enough that the moon hung over the sky like a huge, tempting scoop of French vanilla ice cream. Its glow was more than my pre-adolescent heart could resist and I slipped into my bathing suit and out the door the second the babysitter got busy with my younger brothers.
I suppose any reasonable explanation of that night would have to begin with the fact that I’m a water baby. I was born in water, literally, back when that was the hip new thing to do. A bunch of doctors said it reduced trauma for the baby—being born into warm water so like the womb—and it must have worked. Because, while I obviously don’t remember it, my dad says I didn’t even cry. I just slid into the water like it was home. In many ways, it still is—despite what happened to me all those years ago.
After sneaking out of the house my parents had rented on a fairly obscure stretch of
Kauai, I went down to the ocean. They were at a big party celebrating yet another of my father’s wins and the three of us were too much of a handful for the fairly incompetent babysitter the service had sent over. She didn’t even know I was missing until my parents got home and asked about me. But I don’t blame her—in the end, it was no more her fault than it was mine.
Though I had spent my life in and out of the water—our house back home was less than a hundred yards from the ocean—my parents had one iron-clad rule. Under no circumstances was I to go in alone. Under no circumstances was I to even think about going in alone. The Pacific was brutal in its beauty, my dad told me again and again. Brutal and completely narcissistic.
I had always listened before that October evening, had never considered disobeying him. But that night, something called to me. Staying inside was an agony, staying dry even more so. I needed to be surrounded by the power and the passion of the water that was so much a part of me, even then.
I hadn’t planned on going deep, had hoped that wading out to my knees would silence the insidious whisper, the crazy voice in my head. But it didn’t and soon I was up to my shoulder blades. The water was relatively warm despite the fact that it was winter, but I remember being cold.
So cold that my teeth chattered.
So cold that I shivered until my bones rattled against one another.
I remember this because it was so odd. Before that night, the water had always warmed me.
But I didn’t leave, didn’t go back inside as a normal person would have. I couldn’t. At the time I didn’t know what I was waiting for. I knew only that there was a compulsion inside of me that wouldn’t let me move. A compulsion that kept me standing there, a gift-wrapped human sacrifice, as the water lapped and swirled around me.
Strangely, I wasn’t afraid or excited or any of the other emotions a ten-yea- old girl might be expected to feel in those moments. It was odd, but I felt … numb. Like there was something I knew I should be doing, but the thought of it—the safety of it—was just out of reach.
Finally-- when the whisper had become a shout inside my head, when my body trembled with a surge of energy so powerful it lit me up from the inside and made me feel like I was glowing--I saw her. She was dark and oddly beautiful and swam like a mermaid—like my mother-- her body cutting through the sea as a scalpel does through flesh.
She circled me as a shark would, her body sliding closer and closer to mine with each lap she took. I tried to look away, to back my way up to shallower water, but I couldn’t move. Though I could not describe the specific details of her to you now, in that moment, everything about her was hypnotic and I was spellbound.
Around me, the ocean thrashed and rolled. A wall of water built straight up in front of me—higher than the two-story house we were renting, higher even than the cliffs that surrounded our secluded little inlet. Higher than any wave I had ever seen before.
The wind picked up and the wave began to circle around me as she did, a cyclone of wind and water, power and pressure, with me directly in its eye. And then she was there with me, her voice a sibilant hiss in my ear, her fingers long, translucent talons that clutched at my suit and my soul.
“Give yourself to the water.” The words echoed inside of me. “Give yourself to me. Embrace the power.”
A part of me was still aware enough to understand that this was dangerous—that she was dangerous. But I couldn’t listen to that part, could barely acknowledge it when my entire body yearned towards what she promised me.
In those moments I could feel the power inside of me, feel it welling up until its immensity was all that I knew. All that I wanted.
The shudders subsided and in their place was a heat, a purpose so strong that it overshadowed everything else.
I was meant for this. Meant for her. Together we could accomplish unimaginable feats. I reached a hand out towards her--
“Tempest! Tempest, no!” My mother’s voice came from outside the hurricane of water, so faint that I never would have heard it if it hadn’t burrowed deep inside me.
“Tempest!” My father’s crazed shout.
“Come with me!” the water witch commanded, her long red hair flowing behind her like trails of lacey seaweed. “Come now.”
“Hold on, Tempest. I’m coming for you!” My father again. The cold came back, alleviating the strange numbness she’d brought to me, and I knew that he was getting closer.
I tried to back away but instead of meeting the wall of water, I felt a sharp tug on my ankles-- an inescapable force pulling me under. “You are mine!” the voice hissed as it pulled me deeper and for the first time since I had wandered down the beach, fear overtook my curiosity.
“Dad!” I called.
“Tempest!” Strong hands grabbed my arms, yanked me towards shore, and for a moment I felt like the rope in a game of tug of war. But then the hold on my ankles gave way, sharp talons raking themselves down my calves as she tried—unsuccessfully—to hang on.
Finally I was free and on land, the storm vanishing as if it had never been, my father holding me tightly to his chest. My mother tried to tell me that the witch was my imagination, that my terror of the brewing storm had made getting trapped by seaweed seem so much worse, but even then I think I knew she was lying.
Fourteen days later my mother was gone, before I’d even begun to grasp what had happened to me. It would be years before I finally understood—even longer before I accepted that some things really were beyond mortal control.
So, what'd you think?????
So, what'd you think?????