Sophie Swankowski is the hero from the stories she’s been hearing all her life: she’s the girl who will save the world. Or so she’s been told. Now she and her unlikely guardian—the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena—have traveled the pitch-black seas from broken-down Chelsea, Massachusetts, to Syrena’s homeland in Poland. But as Sophie learns about the ages-old source of her newly discovered power, her grandmother, the wicked and powerful Kishka, only grows stronger. And who will protect Sophie’s friends and family back in Chelsea from the dark magic she’s awakened?
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek and Girl at the Bottom of the Sea are available from the McSweeney’s store, and we are proud to present the first look at the spellbinding final installment in The Chelsea Trilogy.
Sophie was surprised to find herself hesitant. She hadn’t been above the waters in what felt like months, years, a lifetime. She had entered the creek in Chelsea one girl, and now, as she and Syrena prepared to swim into the mouth of the river, she was quite another girl entirely. Slowly she kicked her legs against the water, rising upward, the light growing brighter as she ascended, illuminating everything around her. She could see herself more clearly— her kicking, scuffed-up legs; her bare toes; the once-lovely linen jumper the Ogresses had fashioned for her, now in tatters. Her head tilted back and her eyes open, Sophie saw blue, a new blue, sharp and wide. Sophie saw the sky. At the sight of it she gasped, inhaling a mouthful of salty sea water. She broke the surface of the Baltic sputtering, her eyes tearing, her lungs heaving. Sunlight—sunlight!—caught the droplets that shook from her as she coughed, like bits of molten gold.
It took Sophie more than a minute to adjust to the brightness of daytime on land. Her eyes ached; she could feel them pulse as they struggled to shift from the ocean’s ambient darkness to this violent glare. She stared back down at the water, away from the sky, while they calibrated to the new environment. Slowly, she looked up.
Trees, and beyond the trees, meadow. She hadn’t seen such green, such verdant, living green, in a long time. Actually, considering she’d come from Chelsea—not the greenest place on the planet—maybe she’d never seen so much unbroken, unsullied green. There’d been the green of the seaweed forest they’d just harvested, but that was a dark and murky green. The green of these trees, of the leaves and the grasses, were every shade of green, most of them such a sharp tone it practically made Sophie’s mouth water. She realized she was hungry. Hungry for earth food. Hungry for… a salad? Yes! Sophie wanted to fill her mouth with living green things torn from their roots. Were she able to reach those trees, still very far away, she would have pulled handfuls of leaves from their branches and stuffed them into her mouth like popcorn.
The water beside Sophie rippled as Syrena’s dark head broke the water. “Arghch!” the mermaid yelped as the bright sun assaulted her eyes. She closed them, rubbing them furiously with her translucent fists. She stared down at the rippling waters, then slowly raised her face to the sky, shading her eyes with her hand.
“Polska,” Syrena said as she gazed at the green, and her voice held all the sheen of the sunlight on the water.
“It’s beautiful,” Sophie marveled. “I’ve never seen a place so pretty. It’s making me hungry for human food!”
“Oh, the food the people eat in Poland!” Syrena laughed. “Sausage and pierogi and sauerkraut and cakes with tiny poppy seeds and bigos and soups with mushrooms and soups with cucumbers, or beet soup, and kasha. Long ago they eat bear, ya? Bear paws with spicy roots, or tongue of the bear.”
“I was more thinking I’d like a salad, actually,” Sophie said, scrunching her face at the thought of eating the paws or tongue of any creature.
“You might have to magic yourself some salad,” Syrena laughed. “Much food in Polska, but not much salad. Look—” The mermaid grabbed Sophie by her bulging backpack and spun her around in the water. Off to the right, clustered around the water’s edge, was a rust-colored town. If she squinted, Sophie could make out the spires of churches, or castles or towers, the reddish color stained pale green by time.
“Is Gdansk,” Syrena said proudly, as if she had built the town with her hands and fins.
“Are we going there?” Sophie asked.
“Nie. Is not along our way. But just to see. A beautiful city, ya?”
“Ya,” Sophie nodded. From where she bobbed in the water, it looked like a fairy-tale place, something seen only in the very oldest books. Syrena, her hand still gripping Sophie’s pack, spun the girl back around so that her eyes were filled with green.
“You see there,” the mermaid’s arm shot out straight before her, pointing to the place where the ocean cut into the green like a wide, blue road. “That is River Vistula. That is my home. More than Polska, or Warszawa, River Vistula my home. I cannot believe we here. And that you here too, Sophie.” The mermaid paused and stared at the girl, and Sophie was unnerved by her stare. Above the water Sophie’s pale blue eyes were nearly silver, and in the sun they all but vanished.
“What is it?” Sophie said. “You’re creeping me out.”
“Sophie, the Vistula not salt water. Is fresh water.”
“Okay,” Sophie said. “So?”
“Salt water will be with us for little while, but not long. Gone very soon. Then you have the sea plants, ya?” The mermaid hit the sack of vegetation strapped to Sophie’s back. “They contain salt. Good for you to eat, to chew on, suck on, just keep in mouth maybe. Look.” With considerable effort, the mermaid lifted her weight of hair from the waters. Sophie could see strips of sea plants woven in and out of the thick tangles. “I bring more, I bring much as I can, ya? But we must swim the river quickly. We must get you to salt castle, and to Tadzio. You will begin to feel sick on this river, ya? But you will fight it, you will suck the salt from these plants, you will swim very fast, we both will, ya?”
Sophie ingested all that the mermaid was telling her. She knew she was being called to be strong, and she bolstered herself. She could swim fast, she could command the waters to move very quickly. She would eat this whole giant bag of seaweed if it gagged her. She wouldn’t complain. The iciness of the mermaid signaled how serious this was, and Sophie made herself icy in reply.
“Of course,” she said. “I can do it. Let’s go.”
“Wait,” Syrena stilled her. “Another change. Sadly.”
“What?” Sophie’s heart thumped quickly inside her. She didn’t want so many changes. Although she’d known all along that the purpose of this epic journey was to reach Poland, leave the mermaid, and train to destroy her grandmother, Sophie had become accustomed to the rhythms of the ocean, the company of Syrena. Why couldn’t she just travel the deep forever, living a mermaid lifestyle, never mind Kishka and whatever magic she inherited, whatever massive effort was expected of her just because she happened to be half-Odmience. Sophie never asked to be the saver of the world! She was just a kid!
Syrena had moved behind her and unfastened the octopus from the backpack, causing ribbons of sea weed to unfurl into the water, floating away. She brought the creature to Sophie.
“Octopus not coming with, Sophia. Can’t live in freshwater. Is salt water creature, ocean creature. Yah? You understand?”
The octopus, it seemed, understood. It wrapped its tentacles around the mermaid’s neck and gave her a long nuzzle, the dome of its head snug in her neck. “Oh!” The mermaid laughed. “Such sweet creature! To think I expect you to eat it once, when was just a baby octopus! Friend, I pledge to never eat octopus again, ya? In your honor. You will be sacred friend of the mermaid, ya?” Syrena stoked the octopus lovingly with her long, pale fingers and untangled its tentacles from around her neck, holding it out to Sophie. “Say your goodbye.”
Sophie’s eyes were full of tears at the sight of the octopus, hanging there before her in the mermaid’s hands, his tentacles undulating around him. What a strange and silent comfort he’d been on this journey. The octopus was full of love. Sophie took him from the mermaid and clutched him to her desperately, the tears in her eyes flowing into the sea around them.
“You are the best octopus friend I’ll ever have,” Sophie said, snot clogging her nose, and her eyes all stinging and blurred. “Thank you for being with me. I wish I could come visit you someday, but I don’t know how I ever could. The ocean is so big. Where will you go? Where will you live?” The octopus took a tentacle and placed it over the girl’s jabbering mouth, causing the mermaid to sputter with laughter.
“Octopus be all right!” Syrena said, laughing. “Octopus be in the sea, is where they belong.”
Sophie smiled at her friend and nodded her head. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t worry about you. But I’ll miss you. I’ll never, ever forget you.”
The octopus took his tentacle and pointed it back at himself in agreement, causing more tears to leak from Sophie’s face. She felt like Dorothy in the stupid Wizard of Oz or something. As she went to release the octopus from her grasp the creature swam closer, and with deliberation placed all its tentacles on Sophie’s head. A last massage? She thought briefly, but as the cephalopod brought its beak into view, Sophie had a flash of the deep-sea Vulcan, the octopus that had healed both her and Syrena and given her visions. Was her sweet little octopus pet about to do the same? Were all octopuses magic, exhaling their very own crystal balls into the sea?
Apparently so. From the octopus’s hidden black beak emerged a small bubble of air that grew in size as it floated toward Sophie. Sophie braced herself—braced her heart—for a glimpse of her mother or Ella, Aunt Hennie or Angel, or even her odd sister, her twin, so like her yet such a stranger. But the girl in the bubble was someone Sophie had never seen before. Her hair was long and glossy-dark, spanning out around her head in a way Sophie recognized. The girl was underwater, like she was—no tank of oxygen, no breathing tube. And she was smiling, happy, perhaps playing. When Sophie saw who her playmate was she inhaled sharply, and shouted for Syrena.
“Look!” she pointed at the fragile bubble, wobbling in the water. There was another mermaid. So much like Syrena, and so different. The same tail, though this mermaid’s scales climbed much higher up her torso. Same wild mane of hair, though this mermaid had grown what looked like tiny horns, or antennae, that cast a bioluminescent halo around her. Her eyes were thin, with an upward cast, and her cheekbones sharp as a fishbone, like Syrena’s. Unlike Syrena, there were the tiniest, gossamer fins floating off the tip of this mermaid’s cheekbones. Her face was stern, as if she was trying to discourage the girl from being so playful. At a glance, it was a dynamic Sophie recognized. And then, the bubble burst.
“Oh!” Syrena cried. “I have not seen one of my kind in—oh! I cannot know! I cannot know how long it has been!”
When the octopus’s clawed beak cracked open again, the two froze, watching the next bubble form and float toward them. Another girl, Sophie’s age, her face round, her hair in a sloppy ponytail sliding off the side of her head. She did not look playful but focused, radiating an intensity Sophie feared would pop the bubble. And her companion? A mermaid. Same ratty, wild, dark hair as Syrena—even wilder and rattier if such a thing were possible. The mermaid’s face was marked with dark lines—not wrinkles but ink, tattoo marks that arced down her forehead, meeting in a point between her eyebrows. More marks, circles and dots, decorated her cheekbones, and curving stripes ran down her chin.
“Her hands,” Syrena said, tearing Sophie away from the creature’s face. The mermaid’s hands were blunt, fingerless. “Arna,” Syrena breathed, her voice holding a wonder Sophie had never heard.
“You know her?” the girl spun away from the bubble to face her friend.
“Know of her,” Syrena said. “If is her. Arnakuagsak. Famous and powerful. Man chopped off her fingers, she use mermaid magic to turn fingers to seals. To seals and fish and many other animals. Octopus, maybe.” Syrena gave a smile and stroked the octopus. The bubble came apart, vanished.
“Oh, Sophia,” Syrena smiled. It was hard to tell beneath the salty waters, but it seemed the mermaid might be crying. “I have not seen one of my kind in so long, I did not even know if we still existed. I imagined I could be only one. Only one in all the waters of earth!”
“Syrena,” Sophie clasped the mermaid’s arm and directed her toward the octopus’ beak, where yet another iridescent bubble floated out from his ebony beak. Like a diorama, like a snow globe, the orb held another girl and mermaid. This girl’s eyes had a sparkle that could be seen even at the bottom of the sea. Her hair, tightly braided at the crown, exploded behind her in a great, round afro. Beside her, lounging in the sea, a great mermaid, her hair a bundle of long cords that slunk into the sea behind her, each one resembling slightly the slinky, striped snake that hung around her neck, sliding down her body towards her tail. From the mermaid’s temples sprung spiny fins, and her eyes flashed blue-white against her dark skin. Syrena stared deeply at the bubble, her long, elegant fingers clamped over her mouth. Her head shook back and forth, slowly.
“I cannot,” she breathed into her fingers. “I cannot believe this.”
“Do you know her, too?” Sophie asked, and Syrena shrugged. “Perhaps. Know of her. Mami Watu. And the first, the very first mermaid, perhaps a Ningyo.”
“What is that?”
“Is mermaid, basically. Just from other sea. Oh, octopus!” The mermaid pulled the creature to her, pulling his tentacles away from Sophie’s crown. The girl gasped and gingerly touched her head where the rubbery suction cups had stuck themselves to her.
“Syrena! Maybe he wasn’t finished!”
“You finished?” Syrena asked the creature, and he blew the tiniest bubble from his beak, a bubble that floated over to the mermaid and popped in her face. Syrena laughed and hugged him. “I think that was all for Sophia, with the girls, and you touch her head and all, but I cannot tell you. Thank you. You give biggest gift. Biggest gift to know one is not alone, ya? Biggest gift ever.”
Sophie had never seen such a wide smile stretch across the mermaid’s face. Her baleen was fully exposed, bristly beneath her upper lip that was pulled taught in happiness.
“That was for me?” Sophie asked, taking in the mermaid’s words. Of course it was—it was her head the octopus had attached himself to. And as shockingly delightful as it was for Syrena to see her kind, Sophie could tell the larger point was for her to see her kind. Girls. Three girls, all her age. Three girls, happy and serious. Three girls living and breathing beneath the ocean, with their mermaid companions. Sophie was touched by Syrena’s joy in learning she wasn’t alone, but she didn’t feel quite so excited. Who were these girls? Did it mean that Sophie wasn’t quite so special? Did they all have evil grandmothers, too? Were there even more out there? Sophie felt the kindly brush of the octopus’s tentacle on her brow, soothing the furrow she’d made with her worries. Syrena looked at her, a slight smirk teasing the corners of her mouth.
“Oh, are you jealous?” Syrena asked in a teasing tone. “You think you only girl with mermaid friend and now you feel not so special?”
“No,” Sophie scowled quickly, though that was exactly what was happening.
“Sophia,” Syrena said in a stern tone velvety with care. “Is always better to not be alone. All of us creatures—even mermaids, even unicorns—all creatures alone, ya? So is good to have people, too. To be less alone. Imagine if you alone under the sea all this time, without me, ya? What would happen to you?”
I wouldn’t have made it!” Sophie cried. “I wouldn’t have found my way, I wouldn’t have survived!”
“Maybe these girls and their mermaids help you find your way, ya? Maybe they help you survive, somehow. Maybe you help them, too.”
“I know I’m being a baby,” Sophie confessed, making the mermaid laugh.
“You just being human,” Syrena asked. “All humans are babies. Is okay. You think about it. Think about these girls. I think you find you want to know them, ya? You want to understand. Maybe you even want friend. Human-girl friend, who are magic also, like you.”
“Maybe,” Sophie said, uncertain but hooked on the faces of the three girls she’d seen in the bubble. She could bring them into her memory as clear as the bubble: the girl with the fan of dark hair, perhaps a streak of yellow-blonde floating in the water, her smiling face; the stern, round-cheeked girl with the sloppy ponytail; the girl with the sparkly eye and round puff of hair. And their mermaids, each one different from one another and different from Syrena. The more Sophie thought about all of them, the more curious she became, and her upset at not being the only human girl hanging out with a mermaid in the whole world faded away and began to seem as ridiculous as it was.
“Anyway,” Syrena brushed aside Sophie’s feelings like the human silliness she thought it to be. “Real point here is, we say goodbye to this friend.” Syrena gathered the octopus’s many tentacles in her cool hands and kissed them all. “A prince,” she declared, “A king. A king among octopus, a king of the sea. May you grow large and mighty and live forever, may you swim deeper than any human dares to go.” The octopus caressed the mermaid’s cheek with the tip of a leg, and turned to Sophie.
“Thank you,” she said, choking up again. “Thank you for everything. I wish I could do something wonderful for you—”
“You did!” cackled the mermaid. “You didn’t eat him!”
“Oh, hush!” Sophie snapped. What a thought! “Thank you, Octopus. I love you.” She, too, kissed the octopus’s tentacles, and then placed a kiss on the dome of his head. He tapped her face with the tips of his many legs, poking and pecking, and Sophie imagined a bazillion little kisses all over her face. She laughed out loud, and the octopus took a single tentacle and on her cheek traced the shape of a heart. And then he slunk away, behind them, back to the kelp gardens they’d swum through, back to the Beluga whales, back, back, back, and out to the endless sea.
“Now, we go,” Syrena said brusquely, all sentimentality gone. “Back to business. No time for crying over new friends or lost friends or any friends. Ya?”
“Ya,” Sophie nodded, pulling herself together. They sunk deeper beneath the water, moving forward through the sea until the sea slowly, then quickly, became the river.
Illustrations by Amanda Verwey.