“Hot… Hot… Burning up inside. Smothering outside.”
Whether she thought it or spoke it aloud, Captain Grace O’Malley could not be certain. She was certain, however, that she was unbearably hot and bound up in something steaming wet and heavy. All was darkness, silence, and discomfort.
She had to get free. She had to get cool. The burning from the inside out would drive her to madness.
She thought she might be lying on her back with her arms tucked up tight to her chest, but as she began to struggle all things swayed and swam until she had no sense of which way might be up in the unrelenting darkness.
Might she be falling? There seemed to be air rushing by her face and through her hair. If the air was moving, it brought no comfort. Her lungs ached with the heat of it. Still, she thrashed all the more to gain some freedom of movement.
At last, Grace was able to get her right arm free. As she reached out into the darkness, all balance and stability left her. She tumbled head over feet. Falling, falling, but never stopping. She quickly pushed away whatever still wrapped her left arm to her body and reached out to steady herself. There was absolutely nothing in the void to reach, to touch, to steady herself and yet she tumbled no more. The sensation of falling was as if her feet were pointed down and the air rushed up toward her face. As much as she wanted to kick her legs free, Grace feared she would begin tumbling again.
Grace cautiously flexed her hips and knees. She could move her legs but not separate them. As she wriggled about in this manner, she realized that her wrappings were becoming wet. A cooling spray had begun to fly up at her as she continued to plummet.
As the skin on her arms and face began to cool, the fire within began to abate. Grace took a deep cooling breath. As her body began to revive, so did her senses. The rush of the wind and spray came to her ears at last. Far in the distance below her feet, Captain O’Malley could see a faint cool glow.
Her feverish mind cleared. Grace realized that, although she had been falling for an impossibly long time, she was falling at a controlled and steady pace. She stopped trying to kick free and observed. The steady rush of air was now cool and bore the tang of salt sea air. The mist and spray were now more like rain-driven before a gale. The faint glow at her feet grew brighter and closer. The light rippled and danced like moonlight on a calm ocean.
The feeling of buoyancy came as the water rushed up to envelop her. Grace instinctively held her breath and waited for the plunge to stop. She panicked for a moment as she realized that there was no surface; there was no air. She began thrashing again, hoping to orient herself to which way was up. One powerful kick of her bound legs sent her thrusting through the water.
She gulped in surprise. The intake of water provided a rush of clarity to her mind. She realized that she could breathe. She became absolutely still and took another tentative breath.
“Same result. I can breathe water,” she thought.
With each slow inhalation, the panic subsided and reason regained control. For the moment, Grace chose to accept that she was not going to drown and focused on her surroundings.
At first all Grace could see was a vastness of water in all directions. No matter which way she turned it all looked exactly the same. She tried to look into the depths at her feet and took in another shocking cold gulp of water. Her feet and legs weren’t tangled in something. She realized she had no feet. She focused her eyes on the scales and fin of a fishlike tail where her lower body should have been.
The urge to stretch as if waking from a deep sleep took hold, and from head to fin Grace extended every muscle. She wondered at what must have been a dream. Imagine expecting to breathe air and fearing to take in the life-giving ocean blood. Grace chuckled and swam toward the reef she knew lay beyond the murky predawn light.
Morning arrives quickly in the shallows of the reef. The gurgles, clicks, snaps, and groans of the waking community of the coral could be easily heard as Grace approached. Up from the deeper waters not yet touched by the morning sun, rose a huge loggerhead turtle. Grace swam along with the venerable old turtle for a league or two until she grew bored of his languid pace. With a flick of her tail, she bolted away toward the noise ahead. She could discern a large mass separating itself from the parting gloom ahead. A peel of laughter broke in chorus around her as a pod of dolphins joined her swim. She was able to sprint along with them for only a short distance, but it was far enough to reach the edge of the castle of coral jutting up from a field of seaweed.
Grace slackened her pace and was immediately engulfed in a huge school of fish. They moved with one mind to avoid her and a handful of oncoming sharks. As the rush of predator and prey passed her by, the full morning sun bloomed in a riot of color and motion in the clear water of the reef.
The tiny fish darting from anemone to anemone presented bright flashes of red, gold and orange against the greens, blues, and whites of their surroundings. Grace rolled and tumbled with the joy of the scene.
Suddenly, the reef went silent. The crabs, shrimp, and fish darted for cover. Grace turned and turned but could not spot the cause of such panic. Then came a low rumble that Grace could feel more than hear. The ceiling of water began to drop. A force began to pull her across the reef toward the shore. As Grace struggled to gain control in the current, it released its grip. Grace floated stationary for a brief moment before being pounded by a series of shockwaves.
Grace was tumbling head over heels in consuming darkness. The rushing noise of water in her ears gave way to the sound of voices.
Bartolo was leaning over her with a look of grave concern etched on his face. He stepped back to allow Dr. Sloane his place at her side.
“Thank the Almighty, her fever has finally broken. But she is still many weeks from recovering to take command duties again,” Sloane stated as he swabbed her face with the rag Bartolo passed to him.
Mr. Hawkins stood away from the sickbed nearer the windows of the cabin, arms crossed, body tense. His fear of shipboard illness was almost superstitious.
“She is far from the only member of this crew who’s ill, sir. This voyage has been cursed since we rounded the horn and crossed into strange waters,” he grumbled.
“‘Tis no curse, man. Merely the consequence of being at sea for so long. Everyone aboard would benefit from fresh food, water, and time ashore. Not to mention that I could do with an opportunity to replenish my supplies.”
Bartolo quietly moved to untangle the bedding from around the Captain as the other two continued.
Hawkins turned to the doctor with a gleam of hope in his eyes. “We should be nearing the Juan Fernandez Islands. Would you advise that we put in there and resupply?”
“I would indeed. It would likely improve the health and morale of the crew,” replied Sloane.
“T’would also give us a chance to careen the Siren Song before the worms eat the hull through.”
Both men paused and looked expectantly at Bartolo.
“Aye,” he answered slowly. “Seems a wise course of action. I seem to recall that the mistress mentioned Juan Fernandez. I think she would want us to careen and resupply,” he said as he continued watching her prone form in the bed.
Her heavy, easy breathing was a positive sign of natural sleep.
Sloane stared at Hawkins.
“All in favor of making for Juan Fernandez?” said Hawkins.
“Aye,” responded the other two.
“I will note the captain’s decision in the log.” He then turned to the door. “Mr. Van der Beer, adjust your heading. We make for the Juan Fernandez Islands. Captain’s orders.”