In the beginning, the world smells like salt and sweat and sunlight; it is pure and whole. You know the small space of your ship, its winding hallways and deep, narrow corridors that lead deep within its metal belly. You play hide-and-seek in the dark. You do not know fear; the sound of thunder pleases you. Even before the sun has warmed the water, you slide out of your clothing and let the air and sea feel cool and alive against your skin. You haul the boats in with all their strange travelers who stare at you, but you don’t care. They whisper behind your back. Tiny pieces of paper are exchanged and read and exchanged again, counted carefully one by one. Everyone is smiling.
The beginning grows old and fades. They put a knife in your hand. The short, narrow man is not like you, but he speaks gently and puts his much warmer hand over yours as he guides the knife. He talks about bone and muscle in centimeters and degrees, but you are not listening. You look past the short, narrow man to the people who raised you, but their backs are turned. The man teaches you, sometimes when you are fishing, but soon he brings you other things – students, he calls them, seagulls and white terns tangled in nets. He puts a knife in your hand. Practice.
The sound of thunder does not comfort you anymore. Someone is crying, and you think it is your mother, but you realize that the wailing is your own. You are afraid, and you do not remember what fear was like before and now it is all-consuming. The short, narrow man does not give you the knife. He wraps his hands around a hilt cooled by rainstorms and holds you like you held a tern once. He cuts the little muscle behind your knees, the one that makes it go limp (practice), and presses the curved edge against your inner arm. The crack of thunder drowns out a scream. They can hear you, but they are not coming. There are faces and no one is smiling. The water is cold when your back slaps against it and you cannot command your limbs to work. There is blood in the water and you see it with every strike of lightening across the sky.
You are going to die.
You have never really known what light is until now. You remember sunlight, but that seems like a dream – distant, false. The warm feeling of it against your back while you were swimming was a figment; the dawn was a nightmare. The light is harsh. The light is painful. It’s living, breathing, real. It’s like the little knife that they pressed into your hands, except now you want to curl your fingers around it and press it against your breastbone until it pierces your heart. Every time it disappears from your sight (you are dying), you feel a burst of panic.
Your world is pain. You aren’t sure if you are following the light, or the current is dragging you toward its blinding maw. You don’t care. You need it.
You breathe in air and sand. The taste of it is salty in your mouth, but worse is the dry, cloying texture that crawls down your throat, through your gills and into your lung. You can’t move your limbs, but you can open your eyes and you don’t want to — you can still see it, the lantern high in the dark and you don’t want it to leave you.
Something is touching you. Someone. It’s a tight vice grip on your shoulder; your body is shivering with an energy that was absent moments before. The light is fading behind your eyelids like a moon sinking over the horizon.
“You have to breathe now.”
The warmth near your cheek are fingers and your skin is plastered with the ocean and your own tears when you open your eyes. A bright outline becomes a woman in white, clutching a vial in one hand; her other is against your skin. Her hair is plastered to her face with the weight of the ocean she has pulled you from, but you are alive.
You breathe. The light is gone.
You will spend the rest of your life looking for it.