The Girl from the Sea
by Paula Rivera Donoso
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
No matter how hard she tried, Adriana simply couldn’t remember the first time she had seen the sea. And she’d been born in the smallest port town in her country, a place far away from anywhere else that almost no one knew about, except those who lived there.
Ever since she was very small, she had played in the sand and waves, as if the beach were a part of her house’s patio or her own family. She thought she knew it as well as her mother’s melancholy face or her father’s rugged hands. And could she remember the first time her mother’s face had smiled at her or her father’s hands had caressed her? Of course not. Then she was only a baby with no memories, too busy living to create them.
The port was a city of grown-ups: sailors, fishermen, and fishmongers. They looked so old that they might have been born about the same time as the sea itself. Most of them had blue eyes, and a woman had told Adriana that this happened only when the sea and the person united their spirits, after a long time.
Adriana’s eyes were brown, like freshly moistened sand. The girl liked to think that the color of her eyes retained the memory of the passage of the sea for her. Every night she prayed to the mermaids that the day would finally come when the sea would swallow everything, including her eyes, and so she and it would be one.
But why did Adriana love the sea so much? Because it was her best friend.
Even though she always talked with sailors, fishermen, and fishmongers, they were grown-ups. There were almost no children in the port. All children studied in the cities in the interior, but Adriana’s family was too poor to send her to a school, so the girl studied in her own home.
That might sound quite cozy, but Adriana was often bored. Imagine going to a school with no recess, nor even other classmates to play pranks on in the middle of class! That was more or less how Adriana felt. Once she finished studying for the day, she had no choice other than to go to the beach or the market.
The girl already knew by heart the stalls, the cries of women, and even the vacant faces of fish. However, she felt that she never finished learning all that was on the beach. The sand always had a different relief, as if it were a giant sheet that was shaken every morning. The flights of seagulls always traced different images in the sky and their songs seemed to bring the most current tidings from the other side of the coast.
And the sea, of course.
The sea was never the same, but not like sand or seagulls, no. The sea was more like her dad, who was sometimes angry at how bad the catch of the day had been and at other times was happy about the good weather in the port. Or like her mother, who sometimes smiled with sorrow when Dad went out at night with his friends and, at other times, with joy when her daughter brought her little beach shells.
The sea was like a person, but not like any other person. It was a strange person, with mood swings, mischievous and irritable. It could be a grandfather or a child, or maybe it was both at the same time, because some grandfathers become childish and some children are as serious as old people. Yes, the sea was young and old at the same time. It had been there for many years, maybe it was even older than the oldest fishermen, but it was still as fresh as if it had just been born.
Adriana liked to imagine it as a child, but not like any other child. The sea was her friend, the only one she had and — at least that’s what she told herself — the best any girl could wish for. Not the best in the sense that it was always willing to play with her or that it was the most original in its games. As a matter of fact, sometimes it woke up very annoyed, and its waves crashed with fury on the shore, preventing her from approaching it to greet it. When that happened, her parents forbade her to go down to the beach, so Adriana watched it from afar on the hill.
At other times, generally when it was getting light very quietly, its waves were so passive that it was boring to play in them. All came with the same rhythm and sound under her feet, as if her sea were still half asleep and those were its snores.
So, what Adriana valued most about her friend were other things. She valued, for example, that it was always faithful. The girl was used to seeing families with children come on vacation each year. When she was younger, at first she had become delighted because that meant she would finally meet other children she could spend time with.
But at the end of the summer, families left, and the port was the same as always. Adriana wouldn’t allow herself to get her hopes up when these people arrived, because she knew they would only be there for a short while. Besides, they tended to be very tiresome people, who looked at the port and its inhabitants with contempt. When the summer ended, the beach was full of garbage, which sometimes made the fish and seabirds sick, and always angered the sea.
Because it, unlike these unpleasant people, lived in the port, like her. It would never leave there. Once Adriana heard the sailors say that the sea would remain in the same place even when all of them died, even when all humans ceased to exist. That was true fidelity to home! When she heard that, Adriana felt absolute respect for her friend.
And she loved it more when she began to realize that the sea showed itself to her in a different way from others. Although it sometimes got upset and splashed up to her hair with some more energetic wave than usual, and at other times her parents wouldn’t let her get close to it, Adriana could always talk with it.
Talk? Was it possible to “talk” with something that had no life, or rather, no mouth or ears? Of course! Since a very young age, Adriana had heard the fishermen say that the sea spoke with its multiple languages, which were the waves, and that its song expressed different things depending on to whom they were addressed. That’s why they knew how to recognize when it was dangerous to go fishing when they heard the sea murmuring under its breath, or growling. “Don’t come near me,” it seemed to say to them then. “I’m not in the mood to put up with those little boats on my back.”
But the waves told Adriana very different things. Actually, what she heard weren’t words like those of people. That’s why at first she had struggled to understand what the fishermen said about the sea. She only heard the roar of the waves crashing against the shore and then the hiss when they retreated.
Over time, she learned that people of the port interpreted these sounds based on the weather. For example, it wasn’t that the sea was really angry with them, but that a storm was approaching. So, Adriana, who had never interpreted anything, knew that she really understood the language of the sea because she didn’t need to translate the clamor of the waves.
On the other hand, she always spoke to the sea in her own language and was sure that the sea always understood her, because it sent her waves more or less intense in response every time she said something.
Besides, Adriana wasn’t interested in hearing the song of the sea to know whether it was safe to go fishing or whether the sky would be clear or cloudy. She didn’t care about that, because she didn’t see the sea as something to take advantage of. In this regard, perhaps fishermen, sailors, and fishmongers weren’t so different from vacationing families: everyone valued the sea only for what it could give them for their benefit.
At any rate, the whole town would attest that Adriana and the sea were inseparable. And even if her father warned her that one day the waves would sweep her away and turn her into a mermaid, never to return to her life as a human girl, she wouldn’t let herself get frightened. She felt she could lose everything, except for the sea itself. And she knew that it must feel something similar, since all the times she had been very sick in bed for several weeks, the waves had gotten mad. Everyone said that they were signs of storms that ought not occur at that time of the year, but Adriana knew that they were the raging laments of her friend, who didn’t understand the girl’s prolonged absence from its shores.
But she always got better and returned to the beach. Then the waves would tug softly at her bare feet and curl on her toes pink from the cold.
“Hello, sea. I got better.”
That’s how Adriana’s quiet days at the port passed. Her biggest adventure was to leave the house early every morning, after her duties were done, and head for the beach. How was her beloved sea this morning? How violent would its waves be? What color would its waters look?
And although she knew the sea better than anyone else in the area, the truth was that it had always been a complete enigma. And what was more mysterious than the fact that it had decided to offer its friendship to a human girl? But that was precisely what made it all more entertaining: that the days were always different because of the sea’s moods, but at the same time they were the same, because she always had the same chance for fun and adventure.
And Adriana let herself be swept up in this serene current of happiness, secretly waiting for her eyes to turn blue someday. Who knew what things the sea would tell her then? Maybe, in that contact between the foam and her feet, which was like a handshake for her, Adriana would end up turning into a mermaid.
That fate didn’t seem so bad, quite the contrary. She imagined herself singing with a new voice so that her father’s fishing trips were always successful, and so that her mother always had a reason to smile when she looked toward the ocean, now that her daughter had become an eternal creature, as eternal as the sea itself.
Everything was possible, because the sea was still there and there it would always be, right? Yes. Of course, Adriana never imagined that one day she, who went down to the beach almost every day, would be the one leaving there.