THE DELICATE RED filigree of the sea fan coral looked like alveoli in lungs, Clare thought as she kicked through the shallow waters of the reef, out towards a rock wall that she saw in the distance. She passed an orange coral grouper speckled with blue, stunning violet damselfish, the black-and-white striped bodies of the angelfish tipped with yellow. Behind her, Merrill was following a pair of juvenile turtles, their fins moving in a figure eight, bubbles trailing from his tank.
Six months ago, she’d taught him to snorkel near the shore. He mastered that quickly, and she drew him further into the ocean, until she became bored with the places they were swimming.
‘How about we try diving?’ she asked as they waded into shore one afternoon. She would take him to the charismatic parts of the reef, beyond the places where dead coral was coated with algae.
He stared at his feet, weighing it up in his mind. He was a man raised in the city, who engineered transport systems for navigating that city, and the shifting mass of the ocean was frightening for him.
‘It’s important,’ she added. ‘It’s where I belong.’
After a long silence, he replied, ‘Okay.’
He was content to drift on his own with the snorkel and mask, but in the wetsuit and tank he always trailed behind. While Clare dived up to manta rays, smitten with the way their pectoral fins rippled through the water, Merrill veered away to a safe distance, watching. On their last dive she had coaxed him towards a big grouper, speckled and mouthy. Curious, the fish swam up to them, its eyes swivelling. Clare tickled it under the chin with her webbed hands. The fish blinked, then wafted off to investigate a shelf of rock. Behind his mask, Merrill’s eyes crinkled with a smile.
Clare looked over her shoulder to check on him, but he and the turtles were obscured by a cloud of blue fusiliers. As she swam through them, some thronged into the floating mass of her hair, mistaking it for seaweed. She thought of the time she swam with her brothers into a tornado of jackfish to feel the thousand slender bodies skimming across theirs. A strange, latent charge entered their skin, thrumming for hours afterwards.
When the fusiliers moved on, she saw Merrill waiting for her and gestured that he follow. She moved over outcrops of brain and blue finger coral, and the frilled, mauve mouth of a giant clam. As they drew closer to the rock wall, she saw that it was plastered with pink anemones, fronds ruffling in the surge of the sea. She reached out to stroke them, the scales on the backs of her hands shimmering in the sunlight that poured into the water.
The yellow discs of a group of butterfly fish sailed past and Merrill, distracted, watched the bright sun of their formation. Clare strayed to the edge of the rock wall. Beyond it, the ocean darkened to black as the earth broke away in a crevasse. She calculated if she could leave Merrill for a few minutes to explore, but he was behind her, tapping her tank, reminding her that their levels were low. Reluctantly, she curved around and followed him. He was always leading on the way back.
On the shore, Clare peeled off her wetsuit. The webbing between her fingers dried and retracted. She rubbed the scales from her skin, leaving a silver pile on the sand.
‘I wish you could see the kelp forests, Merrill,’ she said as they walked up the sandy path to the shack. ‘Dad took me and my brothers to them at night at least once a week. The rules were that we had to stay with Dad, but I didn’t do that. There were these cute seals with big eyes that I liked to play with – I’d blow bubbles into their faces to surprise them, and sometimes they nipped my legs to get back at me. Dad told me off when we got back, but I said I could smell him in the water – he smelled like home, you know? So I always knew where he was. The kelp is amazing – it’s like being in a rainforest that touches all of your skin.’
Merrill didn’t reply. She glanced at him. His body was taut, his mouth a tight line. Clare’s stomach knotted the way it used to in the city when she negotiated crowds, trying to hold herself away from other people, her shins hot from the sun bouncing off the pavement.
He stopped and met her gaze. They were nearly at the shack, the coastal breeze stroking their ankles and the surrounding tussocks of spinifex.
He took a breath. ‘Let’s go there.’
‘To the forests?’
‘Are you serious?’
He nodded and her heart exploded in her mouth.
Back at the shack, she hopped online, checking maps and scientific reports. A number of the forests had died off with warming seas and overfishing, which meant the crown-of-thorns were spreading and eating them, but some were still intact. One was five hours’ drive away. They could be there by lunchtime and dive in the afternoon.
ON THE DRIVE south, the radio wittered with the usual news from the city: flood heights, boardwalk routes, sandbagging locations. Merrill switched it off and silence thickened the air. Clare wound down the window.
‘Do you have to have that open?’ Merrill asked. ‘It’s annoying.’
‘Yes, I do.’ Clare was waiting for the moment the wind turned salty.
They reached the car park, opened the boot and changed into their wetsuits. Clare watched the quick rise and fall of Merrill’s chest. She stepped closer, and laid her palm upon his sternum.
Merrill nodded. She zipped up his wetsuit.
In the water, Merrill leaned on Clare’s shoulder as he wrested his flippers on. Clare reached for his hand, gripped it briefly, then plunged into the waves. The webbing between her hands grew and the old desire took hold, a longing to thrust ahead until the currents found her and towed her out beyond the breakers. She resisted it, waiting for Merrill to catch up.
Once they navigated the waves, she took his hand again. They were diving deeper than he was used to. Ahead, the forests came into view, tall, waving. Merrill slowed, tugging at her. Or perhaps it was that she had sped up, longing to be enclosed by leathery ropes of algae.
Clare paused, waiting, then they kicked gently into the long, undulating skeins. It was like being in a cathedral, with the canopy closing over their heads. Sunlight streamed through it, anointing them in a greenish light. Blue and red wrasse darted in and out of the ropes, while seahorses floated sedately by. Brightly striped snails inched up and down the stems and, further below, tiny feathered starfish nestled in the crooks of the leaves. A giant cuttlefish, camouflaged green, detached itself from the kelp, its body shivering with colour as it moved through the water. Clare didn’t often see them; they used the kelp as a nursery to raise their young and kept themselves well hidden.
Clare wanted to float away, to see how far the forest extended and check if it was thinning with the ocean’s heat. In a way, she was glad her father and brothers weren’t still around to see the loss of aquatic abundance. They had loved to play hide-and-seek in the kelp, scaring each other by reaching out to grab a leg or a waist, then dashing away. Here, the coverage was thick, but she had seen other forests on Merrill’s screen at the shack, spindly and bereft.
Merrill released her hand and she gestured that he swim down. She wanted to show him the creatures on the sandy floor: spiky sea urchins, lobsters, abalone, biscuit stars and orange nudibranches spotted with purple. He hesitated, then began to dive. Clare followed in his slipstream, resenting the wetsuit and tank. She wanted to touch his skin, to feel as if there were no division between them and the ocean. She would have preferred to get by with just a lungful of air, but she was conscious of unnerving him. And if they ran into someone while diving, she would have to hide her hands, here in the place where they – and she – belonged.
The currents changed with a swell of water. It billowed through the kelp, bending the tall fronds. Clare stilled, peering down, but the waters were shallow, so the source must have been further out, beyond the forests. She tried to see through the kelp, wishing again that her mask wasn’t there so that she could sniff for the chemical tang of a shark. She noticed Merrill watching her and kicked downwards, her webbed hands scooping and pulling her to the sea floor. She tried again to look beyond the kelp curtain, but all she could see was the fast-moving body of a sea lion, whose body mass was too small to displace all that water.
She glanced up. Merrill was ascending too quickly, his legs scissoring. Clare reached him in seconds and wrapped her arms tightly around him. She hauled their bodies upwards.
When they surfaced, Merrill dragged off his mask. His face was ashen. ‘What was that?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve not felt it before.’
‘Weren’t you afraid?’
‘No. I wanted to find out what it was.’
She scanned the waves, searching for an intrusion on the surface, but nothing seemed amiss. When Merrill’s breaths slowed and lengthened, they swam back to the shore.
THAT NIGHT, CLARE lay awake in the motel room, staring at the ceiling, trying to match the pattern of disturbance in the water with something in her memory. She dimly recalled a whale-shaped presence at least once when she was in the sea with her father, or perhaps her father had sensed a whale in the distance and told her about it when they reached the shore.
She turned on her side to look at Merrill, sleeping on his stomach. His white body never tanned, whereas hers darkened as the summer went on. She touched the smooth nape of his neck and his soft, tufty hair, which was starting to grey. Then she pushed the sheets down, pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and quietly let herself out of the room.
It was nearly a full moon, the sea’s surface white with light. She left her clothes on the sand at the water’s edge, the way she used to before she met Merrill and moved into his house. It was so long since she’d gone out on her own that she wasn’t sure what conditions her lungs were in. She hoped to get half an hour out of them, at least. Her muscles clenched as cold water slapped against them, then relaxed as she adjusted to the temperature. She swam out, lazily, then with more attention as she negotiated the breakers thumping at the sand. As soon as she was beyond them, and the sea was calmer, she took a breath of air and plunged down.
Without the single, limiting beam of a torch and the distraction of bubbles pouring from her tank, the sea was loud and luminous with clicking, thumping and whirring. To Clare’s relief, her second lids dropped down over her eyes; she wasn’t sure if her vision would work as it used to. She couldn’t see far, but she could rely on her sense of smell. Already she imagined that she could detect the old, familiar scent of her father and brothers.
Below her, she made out the lazy swivel of a blackbelly lantern shark, its shape marked by blue-green bioluminescence. Further away were large, pulsing jellyfish, lit up like blue lanterns. She found the forest by its touch against her cheek and shoulders, and tumbled and dived through the tall fronds, delighting in the scrape of serrated edges against her arms, breasts and torso, the way they tickled the tops of her feet. Without having to concentrate on where Merrill was, her body loosened and relaxed, held by the water in a way that it wasn’t on land.
She sped up, kicking, relishing the sharp pain in her unused quads, her body paring the dark, luscious water. Her long hair snagged on a frond, and as she tugged it free, the sea fell silent. Her pulse boomed in her head, then receded. She wondered if it was something sonic, far off, exploding. She waved her hands, keeping herself in place, waiting.
It was there, and then it wasn’t: a figure almost twice her size, a thick, powerful tail that shone in the dimness, a large, webbed hand patterned with scales, reaching out and touching hers. Clare reeled, sent tumbling by the force of the water, expelling the air from her throat. She righted herself and moved upwards. When she reached the surface, she took another breath and dived down. The sea was quiet, the fish spooked. She swam through the black water until her vision began to sparkle, rose up and dived again. That familiar, powerful scent permeated the water; she was sure she wasn’t imagining it. The sea began to rustle back to life; the creature was gone.
CLARE WOKE, SWEATING. The room was bright and stifling, the bed empty beside her. She sat up and swung her legs over the edge, leftover scales falling to the floor. She recalled scraping most of them off in the cold shower at the car park. Her lungs still ached. She rubbed her chest with the palm of her hand, trying to work out if she’d hallucinated from a lack of oxygen, or if the touch on her arm had been the scratch of kelp.
She heard Merrill’s key in the door and swallowed.
‘Morning.’ Merrill wrestled an armful of brown paper bags onto the bed and started unpacking. Rambutans, pineapples, mangoes: the sweet, sticky fruits that he loved. ‘There were markets! Also found you some coffee.’
She took the cup and smiled, hoping she didn’t look fake. His brown eyes were bright, his body loose and relaxed.
‘You’re up late.’
‘I couldn’t sleep.’ She studied his face, wondering if he could still smell the ocean on her skin and in her hair.
‘I can drive back home, then. You’ll be tired.’
‘You don’t want to try another dive before we go?’
His face hardened. ‘No.’
Clare turned away, drinking the coffee to hide her disappointment, even as she knew that the dive to the forests had been a huge, generous step.
She heard the rustle of brown paper bags, then felt Merrill’s hand on her shoulder, his thumb stroking the side of her neck.
In the car on the way home, he didn’t complain that she left the window open. Clare let the wind buffet her hair and cheeks, trying to hold on to the smell of home.