The Book That Nearly Drowned Me

What happened when I went searching for magic underwater

Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that almost killed you?

When I was twelve years old I turned into a mermaid.

I had already learned to hate myself by then. I was trapped shuttling between the two poles of a spectrum I could never reach the middle of, always either too quiet or too loud. My laugh was penetrating, my shyness crippling, my body not a body anyone could want. I trailed behind all the girls I knew: last to a mobile phone, last to getting my ears pierced, last to make-up and tight tops and boobs.

Before lessons and in the playground and at home in the evenings, I cracked open books and left my last-place life for as long as I could. I became a dragon rider and a woman knight and a witch at a school for magic. I fought villains, loved heroes, and was loved in return by both.

Best of all, I was beautiful. I was elegant, smart, brave. I could fascinate people, charm them or kiss them or kill them. As long as I was reading, I could be anything at all, so long as it wasn’t myself.

It was a cold day when I picked up The Tail of Emily Windsnap at the library. I liked the cover, with its shiny fish tail, and I’d always had a secret adoration for anything to do with mermaids. I liked thinking they were out there, I guess — a little bit of magic the ocean was holding onto, keeping safe from the rest of us. Mermaids were lame by then, of course, the same way unicorns and play-acting were. But I loved them anyway.

I read the whole thing in a day and I was gone.

Emily Windsnap wasn’t much like me in most ways. She was skinny, for starters, and she lived on a boat, and she turned into a mermaid when she was immersed in water. But in other ways, I related to her so badly. Like me, she lived in a little town in England where nothing much happened at all. She wanted friends. She wanted magic. She wanted to feel part of something bigger and better than the regular world. She wanted to find part of her that she thought was missing — even if, in her case, that was a merman father. Best of all? She went out and got it all.

I wanted a bit of Emily’s magic so badly that for the first time in years, I went swimming for pleasure. I’d loved swimming as a child, but the grubbiness of local pools, the horror of changing in front of other girls, and the sheer grimness of putting tights back onto damp legs had pushed me away from it. It was only now, with the promise of magic laid out before me, that these problems were suddenly worth braving.

Sliding into the chlorinated water felt like getting closer to that mystical mermaid girl. In the water, goggles on, I was free. I could see all the way to the end of the pool, the light filtering through the water like liquid gold. I was weightless, slippery, graceful. It didn’t matter that my thighs jiggled or that my laugh was annoying. In the water, I was silent. I was beautiful.

It didn’t matter that my thighs jiggled or that my laugh was annoying. In the water, I was silent. I was beautiful.

I swam and swam and swam. I learned to hold my breath longer and longer, to use the water rather than to fight against it. I spent hours during our summers abroad in the pool, dolphin kicking my way from one end to the other, pretending with all my might that my pale white legs were a long and beautiful tail. So long as I was in the water, my looks and my personality didn’t matter. The water loved me just the way I was.

Knowing that I could go back to the water whenever I felt particularly down about myself made it more bearable. I was never that fast or strong or co-ordinated, so I was never at risk of being plucked out and plopped onto a school team for anything. Swimming always just belonged to me, and only me. It couldn’t be bent into someone else’s shape, the way I was always trying to do with my body.

But I still wasn’t quite as close to Emily Windsnap as I wished I could be. She swam in saltwater, after all, in the open sea. I swam in amber-lit pools filled with chlorine that dried my hair and skin out and made me itch all over sometimes.

So when we took a family holiday to Madeira, I was overwhelmed with the chance to do it at last. The hotel we stayed in had a tiny, rocky pool down at the base of the cliff it perched on where the waves slopped in and kept the water fresh naturally. No chlorine, just seawater. You could swim right up to the edge, poke sore elbows against the hard rock, and lift yourself right up into the waves as they washed in.

It was the best pool I’d ever swum in. At last, I felt like I was the closest I could get to being a mermaid.

Then my parents went one better. There was a bigger pool on the island, they said. Our little rockpool on steroids. Public use, for anyone, where the waves swept right out of the Atlantic and crashed together onto the swimmers. Immediately, I had to go.

And we did. We set our towels down at the shallow end, where the rock sloped gently into the water, and my younger siblings splashed happily about where it wasn’t too deep.

I swam at that end for a while, turning around in the water, imagining I was slender and shiny and scaly. I clamped my legs together and dolphin-kicked in circles, tasting the salt on my tongue. It was the freest I’ve ever felt.

Then my father said he would swim out with me to the far end of the pool. I turned and looked. The waves came in high at that end. Really high. Occasionally, two met coming in at the same time and turned into one super-wave, slamming down onto the swimmers below. They always popped back up, laughing, right away.

So, wide-eyed, I said, “Yes please!”

Out we swam, strong and sure. Breast-stroking, not dolphin-kicking, because without a tail dolphin-kicking was actually quite hard. With breast stroke, though, I could scud along for hours.

The bottom of the pool was so far away I couldn’t see it from the top. My mouth tasted of iodine and my eyes were sore and red. I was thrumming with the love of it, all the water around me, my last-place body so light and elegant beneath me.

Then the wave came in. Twice as big as the one I’d seen, a Frankenstein’s monster of a wave that must have been maybe three or four smaller waves combined. It may have been nothing to the older and more experienced swimmers but to me it filled the whole sky, tall as a tsunami.

It crashed onto my head and down I went. My feet kicked out for the bottom, to shoot up to the surface the way I’d done for many times, and met only empty water.

The air bubbled out of me frantically, I set myself against the water, and the water began to win. I was panicking, utterly and completely, arms and legs thrashing as I fought to get myself back to the surface.

I wasn’t a mermaid any more. In that moment, salt knifing up my nose, I wasn’t beautiful or weightless or strong. I was just a stupid girl who had swum too far out of her depth.

I wasn’t a mermaid any more. I was just a stupid girl who had swum too far out of her depth.

I made it to the surface, though I don’t remember how, and had time to drag in the tiniest bit of air before another wave came in. It wasn’t as big, this one, but it was enough to toss me under again, turning me over like I was nothing. Like I’d never had any power at all.

My dad saved me, the way the best dads always do. I think he caught me by my hair, in the end, hauled those long blonde strands up out of the water and towed me, choking, back to where the rock sloped up and out.

The saltwater burned coming back up. I started crying at some point between all the coughing and retching.

You have to understand — I’d been swimming my whole life, since the first time my mother took me to baby swimming classes and the instructor supposedly told her I was a natural, instinctively going for a rudimentary breaststroke instead of the messy doggy-paddle of the other children.

And I had never, not once, felt out of control the way I had beneath that wave.

That is the only time in my life that water has felt like an enemy. Like something out to hurt me, instead of to make me feel beautiful.

My parents, good people, did exactly the right thing: they took me right back into the water and floated with me. We swam some breaststroke at the shallow end, up and down and up and down, and they showed me how to trust the water again. We didn’t go back towards the waves.

Back at home after the holiday, I picked up the Tail of Emily Windsnap and read it for maybe the fourteenth time.

I realized then that I would never find the world that she had, deep beneath the waves. That magical ocean didn’t exist. The real ocean was vast and disinterested and strong, and it wasn’t made for people to live under. It didn’t love me or want me or even care one whit about what happened to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I still dreamed of living in that world of hers, with secret cracks in rocks that led to mermaid towns and school classes in Siren Singing and Hair Brushing. I dreamed of being beautiful and weightless and elegant, with a shimmering silver tail.

That magical ocean didn’t exist. The real ocean was vast and disinterested and strong, and it wasn’t made for people to live under.

But I understood, thanks to that monster wave and the crushing panic that followed it, that the world around me was the one I had. There was no magic in it for me to go and find. My body was the one I was stuck with, and it was never going to grow a tail. The water couldn’t turn me into anything I wasn’t already.

I also understood that if I wanted magic, I was going to have to make it myself.

That summer was the summer I wrote my first short story, about a group of girls who — shocker — turn into mermaids.

This summer, thirteen years later, I turned in my third novel draft to my agent, and we might be readying it to send to publishers soon. It’s not about mermaids or mysterious underwater kingdoms, but I’m hoping at least one reader, somewhere, will find a little bit of magic in it. Will learn after it, the way I did with The Tail of Emily Windsnap, that you can find a way towards not hating yourself without having to turn into a mermaid first.

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