Evie hadn’t told anyone yet that she had grown gills. She discovered them one day during swimming lessons. Didn’t want to make a big deal about it in front of the whole class at school, but she was pretty excited.
Evie was treading water with all of the other girls in the pool, listening to Mrs Alexopoulos shouting instructions into the air above their heads. Evie didn’t understand what Mrs Alexopoulos was saying. Her voice like a thick syrup over Evie's eardrums. It was too hot, too loud above the surface. Evie took a break from the noise and put her head under the water. She watched legs kicking and swirling the water around. An entirely different world under there. The gurgle of her breath was the loudest thing she heard. Thought she might stay there the entire lesson.
Evie watched the bubbles rise around her. Tiny little gems of air escaping from her nose and mouth. She felt a ‘pop’ either side of her neck. Wondered at the strange release of air from her body. Felt no need to panic. Stayed under the water a bit longer.
The other girls seemed to have a language of their own. Sitting in patterns of three and five on wooden benches and on the edges of the oval at lunchtime. The laughter rising when Evie thought no laughter was needed. She’d tried to join in, sat cross-legged amongst them, was never sure what to say.
The students weren’t allowed to sit near the seawalls. That area was strictly out of bounds. They were selling chocolates to raise funds to build the walls higher after the principal had noticed the lapping waves had started reaching over the top. One of the girls had sold thirty-five boxes of chocolates. Evie ate all of the chocolates she was supposed to sell.
At assembly they sang in unison. Raising their voices and reciting the school motto. Beyond the walls the watery world, washed clean of sand and soil, our school is safe from creeping tides, we strive to feed our minds.
The principal stood on stage above them, placed her hands firmly on the podium and looked over the students’ heads. “Remember to take the boat home on the south side of the building, girls. The currents are too strong on the north side these days.” She coughed, cleared her throat. “And if I catch any one of you loitering outside the gates without lifejackets, you’ll have the privilege of scraping the mildew from the library walls at lunchtime for the rest of term.”
Evie looked around the hall, waiting for assembly to end, saw paintings of the foremothers on the walls, explorers, scientists, musicians with their grim and serious faces. Women from a time that Evie never knew.
“And may I remind you that swimming lessons are compulsory. No exceptions.” The principal always had a lot to say. “Mrs Alexopoulos has informed me that some of you have been forgetting your swimsuits. You can go into the pool fully clothed if this happens. Understood?”
After assembly, the girls piled into the corridor, rushing past posters reminding them to save the seeds from their fruits and vegetables for the seed bank. Another poster, a vintage scene of large icebergs in Antarctica, before the icecaps melted. Evie wasn’t much interested in history, preferring to pay attention to the things she could do something about.
In biology class, she started paying attention the day they learned about skin breathers, creatures that didn’t use gills or lungs, born with the ability to live in the sea and on land. They could breathe above and below the surface with ease, air passing through their skin. She pictured bodies slick with saltwater, feeding on plants and other small creatures, singing to their family members, calling them near. She longed for the freedom to be understood with little effort, imagined herself spinning beneath the waves, sunlight meeting her skin as she sped through the water. Sunning herself on rocks, the other girls admiring her for her unique skills and talents, clambering to sit near her at lunch.
On weekends she made cakes with her mother. People still wanted cake. There was always a need for warm, sweet things. They had lots of orders recently. Their house smelt of cinnamon and apples, of lemon syrup and sugar. People wanted to be fed with more than just grains. Her mother knew that they needed more than just the basics to thrive.
Evie’s mother had taught her how important it was to adapt. She’d often say, “If we don’t have it, we’ll make our own.”
As a young child, Evie would spend hours making her own toys out of debris that floated in the water past her bedroom window. When Evie’s dad left in search of land, and never returned, they began making cakes.
“Things are changing much quicker than when I was young.” Evie’s mother spoke gently as they stirred cake mixture. “You don’t know how you’ll deal with things until you get there, but you’ll always find a way, Evie.”
Under the water, Evie watched bodies move chaotically, without rhythm in the warm water. Could see some of the girls were tiring. Evie knew that you needed good rhythm to be a strong swimmer. She didn’t let herself be swayed by the water pumping towards her from the tiled walls. She wasn’t distracted by the other swimmers jumping and splashing nearby. She knew that she shouldn’t be lured by the calm world beneath the surface. But her instinct told her something else.
A rough hand grabbed the straps on the back of Evie’s bathers and yanked her to the surface.
“What are you doing staying under the water for so long? You could have drowned!” Mrs Alexopoulos shouted even louder than usual.
All of the other girls looked at Evie, so many faces bobbing up and down like buoys.
Evie hid her gills with her hands. Knew she’d found another way to survive.