“The Underwater Girl,” by Jennifer Diemer
Disowned by her mother for coming out, Mara joins her estranged father at his scientific compound up north and discovers something sacred beneath the ice.
(photo by Antwaan)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“The Underwater Girl”
by Jennifer Diemer
My eyes won’t blink.
I know my legs are kicking slowly beneath me, because I haven’t gone under, not all the way, but I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my skin, my blood, my body. There’s water all around me, swallowing me up inch by inch, sloshing against my chin, but the wet movement is only a dull sensation, like a kiss on puffy Novocained lips.
My brain goes into autopilot mode and flashes me a few seconds from the end of Titanic, that scene where blue-faced Jack finally slips down into the frigid water, leaving his beloved Rose behind.
At least I won’t leave anyone behind, I think morbidly, even though that’s not really true. I mean, I don’t have a Rose (depressingly enough), but I have a father. By now he’s probably noticed I disappeared from my bunk in the compound. Maybe he’s out on his motorized sled thing trying to follow my tracks. He’ll probably figure out where I went, probably figure out that I experienced a momentary lapse in sanity, because why else would a teenage girl with no arctic skills to speak of walk out onto a frozen lake (or river or ocean—I don’t even know) when she had clearly been told that to do so is to risk death.
I just had to get away, and normally getting away is safe enough. Normally I can step out my front door without confronting tundra and glaciers and the paw prints of, I don’t know, polar bears.
But Mom kicked me out after (in yet another lapse in sanity) I confessed to her that I was a lesbian, so now I’m stationed in this frozen wasteland with my scientist father, a man I hardly even know, who apparently had no idea I was coming until he got an email from Mom this morning, and who also apparently had no idea why Mom had all of the sudden disowned me until I told him myself.
“I’m gay.” No reaction. “Lesbian.” No reaction. “You know, I kiss girls?”
And he stared back at me with a face as blank as the white landscape surrounding me now, blurring at the edges thanks to my frozen-in-place, encrusted eyelashes.
Finally, after an ice age had passed, my father (prematurely grey-haired and blue-, blue-eyed) cleared his throat and looked away from me, toward the dingy Coke machine whirring in the corner of the small cafeteria. “So,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
And then, before we could exchange any more clever one-worders, Dad got called into a meeting and told me, in a gruff voice, his eyes still averted, “We’ll talk later.”
But I couldn’t face another parental renouncement, not after I spent hours on three different planes, not after crying so hard on the journey here that my head ached and the world was kind of spinning and my stomach was so churny, I couldn’t eat any of the mystery mash I’d been presented with for lunch. I should have probably rested, tried to sleep, but my heart was beating too fast for sleeping.
When I’m upset, really upset, I walk.
So, bundled up in some crazy-expensive (and fluorescent) cold-weather gear, I slipped out of the compound, and I trudged over the ice and snow. Back at home, I walk through the woods, mostly, because if I walk on the sidewalks in my neighborhood, I see too many people I know, stupid kids from my stupid school, and I see more than enough of them as it is.
But walking here, all I saw was white, and I should have been paying more attention, because the ice did look a little different spanning out over the water, but I hardly registered the change: I was too lost in depressing thoughts. Mom bowed out of my life (though she’s never committed to anything, so I figure she’ll send for me once she’s had some time to calm down and, I hope, realize she misses me), and my dad couldn’t even talk to me after my coming out, would probably ship me back at the first opportunity…
But ship me back where? Would I move in with Grandma? Or Aunt Helen? Aunt Helen lives in San Francisco, so that might be awesome, except for the fact that she’s always traveling for work and almost never home, and she already has two daughters (and three cocker spaniels), and her house is really, really small.
I kicked at a snowdrift.
I’m almost sixteen, so maybe I could get a job, rent my own place… Live alone for the rest of my life.
Resigned to the miserable future looming before me, I breathed out hard and stomped on the ice…and the ice cracked, and I lost my balance, and the ice cracked again, and I scrambled to get up, but there was nothing for me to scramble on, because I was sinking, wet, and the water that I swallowed tasted salty, like tears.
“Dad,” I whispered, my voice lost in the wind.
The only memories I have of my father are the stories he told me. He and my mother divorced when I was six, and before then, he was usually holed up in his office studying, or drinking at the bar with his friends from the university. I worshiped him when I was little, and any time he spent with me felt sacred, and as rare as snow in July.
Dad was obsessed with the cultures up north—their history, their traditions, their religion and folklore—so the stories he whispered to me, seated on the child-sized stool he pulled up to my bedside, were rich with thick-furred beasts, incredible feats of survival, and the exploits of goddesses and gods.
My favorite story was the one about Sedna, an Inuit goddess of the sea.
When Sedna was a young girl, a teenager probably, she was beautiful, and her family was poor, starving. Her father urged her to marry. But, stubborn, determined to remain independent, she turned down every suitor who came for her. Finally, in desperation, her father promised her to a hunter passing through the village, and—too small to fight off two grown men by herself—Sedna had no choice but to follow the hunter, her new husband, into his kayak.
The man paddled the small boat to a rocky shore and led Sedna up a steep cliff. There, in astonishment, she saw that her new home was merely a nest, and then the hunter threw off his animal skins and transformed, becoming, before Sedna’s wide eyes, a large black raven with a terrible, sharp beak.
Horrified, Sedna screamed for her father, and, hearing her (as parents can always hear their children’s cries), her father came. He felt guilty for having forced his daughter into marriage, and he could not bear the thought of her suffering. When his kayak approached the base of the cliff, Sedna appeared on the shore and flung herself into the boat beside him before her raven-husband could swoop down and stop her.
But the raven followed them over the sea, and with his great wings, he stirred up the waters so that freezing waves swept over the kayak. Relentless, the waves came, beating, crashing, drowning…
At last, Sedna’s father, who loved his daughter but was, at heart, a coward, threw Sedna overboard into the icy ocean, bidding the raven to come reclaim his bride.
Stubborn still, Sedna clung to the sides of the kayak, but her father took out his hunting knife, and—one by one—he sliced off his daughter’s fingers. Wailing in pain, Sedna sunk down into the sea, her salt tears mingling with the salt water.
Her severed fingers floated all around her, and she watched in amazement as they took on new shapes: sleek-backed seals and large, slow-moving whales.
Sedna, in that moment, became mother to all of the mammals of the cold, cold ocean, and to the ocean itself. She was no longer a small human girl, a raven’s bride, but a sea goddess—powerful beyond measure. And she remained deep below, in the coldest depths, keeping watch, punishing those who dishonored her waters, and rewarding those who respected and embodied the old laws of gratitude, courage and freedom.
There’s something moving below me.
I don’t feel it, but I see it, a dark lithe shape with tangled, streaming hair… Hair like a woman might have, if she never cut it, never, not once in her life, because it’s so long that it seems endless, flowing underwater in coils, spirals, and finally catching between my toes, wrapping around my feet.
A tugging. My whole body jerks—down, down… No. I’m sinking, caught, and I flail helplessly with my rigid arms as my face slips below the ice sea.
“I think she’s coming around. Look. Her eyes are fluttering.”
“Wha…” I try, but my lips are stiff, my tongue useless. With a painful creak, my eyelids wince open, and I see the dim, smooth walls of my bunk, the solid lines of the bed frame surrounding me. “I,” I croak, and I shift my gaze, groaning, to take in my father’s stubbly face bent over me.
“Oh, thank God, thank God,” he murmurs, running a hand over his forehead and his eyes, leaving a wet streak behind, staining his cheekbones. Tears?
“Shh. Don’t worry about talking right now. Oh, Mara, why did you do it? You almost…” He exhales a raspy, shuddering breath and, tentative, his fingers reach out to stroke my hair. I can’t feel his touch, his warmth, only a light pressure, but I lean into it until his palm rests against my cheek, and something in my chest, like a lock, springs open.
“Mara, I love you.”
“I love you, and I’m sorry. For…everything. I was a coward, Mara. I wasn’t brave enough to fight for your mother, and I wasn’t brave enough to be there for you, to be part of your life. I ran away. My whole life, Mara, has been running away.”
“I failed you. I gave you up. But I never, never…” His eyes—so blue, too blue, blue as glaciers—brim over with tears. “I never stopped loving you. Please believe that.”
I swallow, stunned, and notice the man leaning over Dad’s shoulder. A doctor, I think, because he’s wearing a stethoscope, is dressed in white. I must be sick, if there’s a doctor in my room. I must have…
I remember, then. I remember it like a dream that I thought was lost, but wasn’t, really, only lingering at the edge of consciousness, only waiting for a nudge, a summoning. I remember my walk over the snow. I remember the water, saltier than the ramen soup they serve in the school cafeteria, colder than the coldest of winter days back in Buffalo.
I remember being swallowed up, and frozen.
I remember being tugged below the water.
My thoughts were a haze, and my vision was blurring, but I’d almost thought, just before I blacked out, that I saw a woman stroking the water beside me.
A woman with long black hair.
“Mara, thank God you were able to swim yourself out. If you hadn’t—”
“W—wait.” I cough, hard, for a solid minute. The doctor hands me a cup filled with lukewarm water, and I drink it down gratefully. “Dad,” I begin, shaking my head against the pillow, “I didn’t swim out. I was drowning. Didn’t you…” My eyes widen, and his eyes widen, too, mirroring mine. “Didn’t you pull me out of the water?”
“No.” He pales, leaning closer. “No, you were lying on the ice when I found you. But you were wet, soaked. Your hair and eyelashes were frozen solid. You weren’t…” Head bowed, he drags in a deep breath. “You weren’t breathing. But Doc here worked his magic, brought you back to me.” He turns to the man behind him. “How can I ever thank you, Rick?”
“No thanks necessary, Greg. I’m glad I could help.”
Dad nods his head, pauses for a long, weighted moment, and then faces me again. “Honey, you’ve probably forgotten swimming out of the water. You were probably barely conscious, so it makes sense.”
I bite my lip and clutch at handfuls of the blanket. When I speak, my voice isn’t even a whisper but a breath.
“What was that, Mara? I couldn’t hear you.” Dad leans down, his ear just above my mouth, and I form the words again: “She saved me. She was there.”
“Who was there?” He smiles, tilting his head. “Honey, you’ve been asleep for hours. Were you dreaming? Is that what this is—”
“Sedna,” I say, then, in the strongest voice I can muster. “Sedna saved me. She tore me down into the water, and she pushed me out onto the ice. It was her. I saw her, Dad. I know it was her.”
“Honey…” My father, the scientist, regards me with a complicated mix of amusement and concern. “You remember the story I told you about Sedna?”
“Yes. And all of the other stories you told me.”
“Really?” I watch his Adam’s apple move up and down, and then, massaging the bridge of his nose, he motions for the doctor to leave. “I’ll call you back in when we’re through here,” he tells Rick, who closes the door with a soft click behind him.
I watch Dad chewing on his bottom lip. “Mara, what you told me, about your mother disowning you, about your being a…a—”
“Lesbian?” I offer helpfully.
“Yeah.” He gives me a shy, lopsided smile. “I hope you didn’t think that I… I mean, it doesn’t… I wouldn’t…”
“You wouldn’t ever slice off my fingers, would you, Dad?”
“What?” His eyebrows lift, startled. But then understanding dawns on him, and he sags a little, his chin against his chest. “Oh,” he says, breathing out. “Like Sedna’s father, you mean.”
I look at my father, then, really look at him, and what I see surprises me. I used to idolize him, used to think of him as superhuman, my genius scientist father. In my child-sized mind, he was a god.
But now… Now I notice the creases at the corners of his eyes, and there’s a scar on the side of his chin (vaguely V-shaped), and his hair is thinning, and worry lines imprint his cheeks when he smiles…
He’s human. Mortal. So very mortal.
This time between us feels sacred.
“I’ve never been courageous, not in the ways that matter most,” my father tells me, taking my hands from my sides and holding them up, examining them beneath the yellow light of the naked bulb swinging overhead. “But there is a beginning for everything, and if the beginning of my bravery starts now, at the ripe old age of 43, then I won’t run from it. Or,” he says, kissing the tips of my fingers, “from you.”
I close my eyes, sink deep into my pillow, and breathe out a breath I’ve been holding since I was six years old.
“Lesbian or…whatever, Mara, I love you, and I’m proud of you. So proud.”
I ask my father to take me back to the broken sea, to the place where I nearly drowned only a week ago, and when we arrive there, the hole I fell into has already frozen over.
“Healed so quickly,” I whisper, my eyes skimming the thin ice, searching below the surface for sight of that dark shape I glimpsed under the water, though I know she won’t appear again. She doesn’t have to. My eyes glide from the white-blue landscape to the ice-blue depths of my father’s eyes, and I feel, for the first time in forever, safe. I wonder if that’s how Sedna feels encircled by her seals and her whales, her family, deep in her fathomless dwelling.
I hope so.
Above, in the sky, I watch a raven circling, circling…so black against the blue. It circles for a long while, never landing.
Finally, like a cloud or a dream, it drifts away with a dark flutter of wings.
Hand in hand, my father and I begin the long journey home.
If you liked “The Underwater Girl,” you’ll love the stories from past months’ collections for your eReader:
You can now enjoy entire collections worth of stories in Project Unicorn, Volume One on your eReader or in person in paperback form (I’m a real book!), and support the project at the same time!
eReader edition on Etsy (all proceeds to authors)
Signed paperback on Etsy, PLUS free eReader edition!
(all proceeds to authors)
How can I support the project?
If you love what we’re doing with Project Unicorn, the two greatest things you can do to support it is to talk about it on your social network, blog or web site, and purchase each eZine as it comes out.
Project Unicorn is a very large undertaking, but we’re deeply dedicated to giving queer-girls stories they can identify with. Thank you so much for being supportive, and please consider purchasing an eZine to help us continue with this project! ❤ (You can also show your support by buying our other books, or simply donating to buy the authors a cup of tea. <3)
Please sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch and be the first to know when we release anything new! ❤