Otoh Swims Back

Sigrid Gayangos

Otoh woke up to the sound of hovering helicopters and gunshots. He was alone in their lepa; his nine other siblings and parents were nowhere in sight. Otoh looked around him: other families had rushed from their own lepas and onto the shore, black smoke rose in the city, men in camouflage uniforms and huge tanks lined the coast. To the far left, Otoh saw pump boats with red flags hiding behind the tangled masses of the mangroves’ arching roots. Otoh knew that this could only mean trouble.

There was that deafening sound of a one-note whistle, as if a giant had blown it, and then, for a moment, a blood-red fire ignited the sky, only to land a decisive and fatal blow on the smaller islands. In the distance, Otoh saw his mother carrying two of his younger siblings as she clutched at the sleeve of a uniformed man. He couldn’t clearly see their faces, but Otoh knew all too well the patterns of his mother’s malong which she always wore to sleep. He wanted to cry out, to tell his mother that he was still there in their lepa, but Otoh’s throat was already parched dry after having inhaled the phosphorus-filled air. He wanted to jump out of their lepa and swim right into the sea but the sight of other burning houseboats paralyzed him with fear.

Feeling helpless, Otoh prostrated himself on the narrow floor of their lepa, clasped his shaking hands, and bowed repeatedly with his eyes closed. Otoh had never been a religious person all his life and he never saw the need for praying, though he had seen how other people did it. No words came out of his mouth yet his mind pictured out the great and powerful sea enveloping him in its gentle waves as more ferocious ones lashed at the forces on the shore. He imagined being cradled by a wave that seemed to have a mind of its own, only to be reunited with his family later on, in their very own version of a happily ever after. Otoh had never really prayed in earnest before, but now his heart called out to the body of water that he had known ever since he let out his first cry as an infant.

These—all these fanciful imaginings—Otoh prayed for with closed eyes as a hand-shaped blue mist not unlike the gentle waves that he had imagined wrapped its fingers around the shivering boy. As the waves made its way around the boy’s body, Otoh thought he heard someone sing the songs of his grandmothers.

And then, everything was enveloped in darkness.

When Otoh first came to, it seemed as if he had been sleeping for years. His body was well-rested, too well-rested, that it was a huge attempt to even wake up from the protective cocoon of his slumber. But the voice in his head was demanding. You better start swimming, boy, it said. Otoh racked his mind—how was it to swim again? He seemed to have forgotten it, though it was customary for the people in their community to throw the newborns straight into the sea. They never feared drowning, for what good was a person if he did not know how to swim? Otoh struggled to move his limbs in awkward arcs but this did not propel him to the direction he was aiming for. Instead, he felt himself tumble in a full three hundred and sixty degree turn.

Have you forgotten how to swim, boy? The voice was mocking him.

Otoh then realized that it was a huge turtle that was talking to him. It was a sea turtle, alright, but it was unlike any other he had seen before. Judging by its size, it should be at least a hundred years old. But the smooth, almost scrape-less shell could only mean that the turtle was still really young. Instead of the usual bony plate lying on top of the head between the eyes, this turtle had a gemstone that was unlike any color he had seen. The gemstone gave off the same hint of green-yellow glow that outlined the turtle’s gargantuan body.

You have to swim back now, boy. This is as far as you go.

The ocean floor was still so far below him, that Otoh could see nothing beyond the span of the turtle’s light. Although he felt that he was quickly being sucked in, Otoh knew that he was far from reaching the bottom. He thought of the different creatures that were waiting for him down there. They probably talked like this turtle, too, he thought.

All animals talk, you know. It’s just that you can hear us more clearly in here.

Otoh gasped in surprise as the turtle replied to his thoughts and gasped again once more when he realized that he had no trouble breathing underwater even after having gulped in a mouthful of seawater. In fact, he realized, that the sea water here did not taste like the salty sea water he had known all his life. It had that subtle sweetness of sugarcane and the smooth consistency of milk. Otoh suddenly felt drowsy and began to curl himself in a fetal position, as the pull of the ocean floor rocked him to sleep.

I said swim back, boy! Not sleep. You can’t go down there. Swim!

Otoh fought hard against sleep and saw through his heavy-lidded eyes that the turtle was spiraling down faster than he did. Falling behind the animal, he realized that his torso was just as long as the turtle’s tail.

Why are you going down, then? Otoh asked, as if used to this form of conversation.

Because I am from down there and I live down there. But not you, boy. Not you.

Otoh thought of home. He saw several children laughing over a meal of smoked fish and cassava bread; a woman holding the oars of a lepa boat while a grown-up man and a bunch of children dived after shiny objects thrown into the sea; children, all with sun-streaked hair and bronzed skin, swimming to the nearby island in sure and excited strokes. But there were those angry red sparks in the sky and soon tiny houses rattled and threatened to collapse. The air was thick with smoke that it hurt Otoh’s eyes when he kept them peeled open. The gun fires were too loud for him to bear and his breath quickened with every earth-shattering explosion. Faces swam before him in the darkness of the sea, and they swam farther from him, urging him to join them at the bottom.

Those are false thoughts! You should go home now. Home is not down there.

Otoh shook his head. He wanted to swim but his current position did not allow him to. He shook his head some more and lifted his eyes. He looked up, at the surface that now seemed nonexistent, and saw more images. He looked deep into the city, past the old forts with walls covered in moss, past the city hall with thatched roofs. Several houses displayed the flag bearing the sun and three stars, as crimson ones remained defiant on a few poles. Otoh’s vision reached the giant stadium where a thousand faces flooded his sight. He tried to scan all, to look for his family who could only be there, but there were just too many of them. Otoh could only do so much. He looked deep into the city and could only see fear. His hands sought to cover his face and realized that his cheeks were warm.

That is why you need to swim, boy. Swim back to your family.

Otoh glanced at the animal that had been falling down with him. He looked back into the bottom and tried to gauge its true depth. The darkness was alluring, and another minute in the water would have changed Otoh’s resolve altogether. But he had to look for his family now. He had to find them fast. He knew what he had to do.

Otoh stretched his arms before him. I should be fine moving it this way, right?

Let me help you.

The turtle turned, opened its enormous mouth, and snapped at Otoh.

Otoh struggled as half of his body was set firmly in place by the turtle’s lip. He struck at anything that his weak hands could reach, until he realized that the giant animal meant him no harm. Otoh ceased his futile attempts at escaping, though the darkness inside the turtle’s cave-like mouth was unsettling. In less than a minute, he felt a gentle release in pressure from his waist. His eyes were still closed, but Otoh felt a calmness wash over him that seemed to propel him ever closer to the surface.

When Otoh opened his eyes, he was floating on top of a wooden plank in the middle of the sea. He squinted at the glaring sun and figured that it was probably midday. But the other lepa boats were nowhere in sight, when normally they would be returning now from early morning fishing. Otoh started making his way back home. As he got closer, Otoh noticed that the entire stretch of what used to be a busy marketplace had now been reduced to rubble. The whole village was eerily quiet in the aftermath of devastation.

Otoh’s courage quavered for a split second. But he knew he had to be strong. There was a lot yet to be done. There would be time to demand what they were owed, what was due to them. For now, all he wanted was to find his family. One arm extended overhead, Otoh pulled himself one powerful stroke after another closer to shore.

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