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—must travel the pitch-black seas from broken-down Chelsea, Massachusetts, to Syrena’s homeland in Poland. Along the way, Syrena will reveal the terrible truth about her past, and teach Sophie about the ages-old source of her newly discovered power. But left behind in Chelsea, without Sophie to protect them from the dark magic she’s awakened, what will become of Sophie’s friends and family?
Find out now, in the spellbinding sequel to Tea’s beloved Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, which ZYZZYVA calls “a refreshing breath of air in the world of YA, equal parts eerie, heartbreaking, and fantastical.” McSweeney’s is proud to present this excerpt from Girl at the Bottom of the Sea, which is out today!
Under the mermaid’s arm, both of them held inside the shimmering school—Like an underwater disco ball, Sophie thought, dazzled by the swirl of tiny fish—Sophie was carried beneath the harbor. The currents of boats shoved them this way and that, it was like trying to cross a busy street, like running across the parkway where four lanes of traffic whizzed by. The school of fish slowed as a boat passed close, containing them in its wake. All the while Syrena grumbled and cursed the ships, until finally they had crossed from the harbor into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Finally safe from the party boats that crisscrossed the harbor, Syrena paused, letting Sophie to the ground gently. The disco ball of fish cracked open, releasing them, then hovered close by, a landscape of shining silver. Sophie noticed in all the commotion that she had lost her shoes. Her feet glowed pale and blue beneath the water.
“We have long way to go,” the mermaid spoke. “And we swim against the current. I will need all my power, my tail and my arms. So, I will make for you a cocoon. From this.” With her luminescent arms the mermaid gathered her hair and shook it wetly at Sophie. Like a sea plant it drifted in the water, swaying in the waves.
The mermaid slid into the heavy sand where Sophie lay like a broken doll, a marionette with cut strings. Never had she been so helpless, splayed on the seafloor like a jellyfish. No, not a jellyfish, she thought, watching the globe of a jellyfish pulse by. Jellyfish could move—their glowing balloon bodies were nothing but movement. Sophie was just a bag of bones. Syrena dug into the sand beneath her, and with her strong, flat tail she pushed the girl up the length of her body until Sophie was stretched out on the creature’s back.
Syrena’s hair, its intricate tangle, settled down over Sophie like a net, binding her to the mermaid’s body. Sophie was shocked at the softness of Syrena’s skin. How could she be so old and so rugged, and yet her skin soft like a dolphin’s? She should be tough as a whale, with barnacles cleaved to her scales, but she wasn’t. With her cheek to the mermaid’s back, Sophie felt such gratitude for her rescue that she nearly kissed her smooth shoulder, but she couldn’t imagine the mermaid would like that, so she didn’t.
Syrena pulled her tangles around her like a cape and with deft fingers braided her hair down the front of her body, securing Sophie tightly to her back. The mesh of hair was tight against the girl’s face, and she worried briefly about her ability to breathe. Then she remembered she was underwater. Her bones were broken. She was magic, so magic that she could keep herself alive when her body had turned to soup. The thought made her proud, but frightened: sure she was alive, in this lumpy, paralyzed state, but she couldn’t begin to imagine how to heal herself. What good was a magic that kept her half dead? Better than a magic that left you fully dead, she scolded herself. And she wasn’t really half dead. Aside from the fact that she couldn’t move and her limbs felt like sandbags, she was doing okay. She could think, her mind was clear, and she was breathing beneath the ocean. Her talisman glowed its faint blue glow, lighting up her mermaid-hair cocoon prettily, illuminating the miniature world of it—tiny fishes darting hither and thither, a hermit crab snared in a snarl poking its spiny head out to look at her.
“You are good,” Syrena said plainly, though Sophie knew she meant it as a question.
“I… I think so,” Sophie said.
“Yes, very good, I believe.” With her hair pulled back from her face, Syrena had a clear view of her surroundings. Beneath her a long-legged crab, spindly as a spider, crept along the sand. Syrena grabbed it and snapped it in half. She tore a leg from the poor creature and dug it back through her hair, poking it in Sophie’s face.
“Here,” the mermaid commanded. “You eat. Is long swim.”
Sophie screwed her face at the food the mermaid was offering. She’d eaten crab before, boiled and dipped in melted butter, but not this deep-sea creature, crusty and raw. “I’m not hungry,” she said.
The mermaid scoffed. “Well, you will be,” she said. “And when you are hungry enough you will eat mermaid food.”
At her words, Sophie suddenly felt a bit frightened about the journey ahead. “This would maybe be a great time to tell me where I’m going. Where you’re taking me,” she said, slightly more accusingly than she meant to. Sophie didn’t want to sound as if the mermaid were kidnapping her, but she did suddenly feel taken hostage—wound into the creature’s hair like an insect snared in a web.
“We go to Poland,” Syrena said, and in the tough, round sound of her voice Sophie could practically see the place, its pockmarked, cobblestoned streets reflecting the gray sky above. “There is castle on River Vistula, not far from my part of river. It like tourist castle, ya? But castle very big, and there is whole part of building tourists no see. Secret castle inside castle, ya? Boy lives there, your age I think? Tadeusz. I know his great-grandmother very well. His great-grandmother was big hero for Poland. She was a poet.”
“A poet?” A poet sounded to Sophie like the opposite of a hero. Heroes went out and rescued people and fought villains. Poets stayed in dusty corners bent over notebooks, writing about trees and giving themselves bad posture. “That’s funny,” Sophie said. She felt the mermaid buck beneath her sharply; if Sophie hadn’t been tied to the mermaid’s body with the mermaid’s own hair she’d have been flipped right off.
“Funny?” Syrena snapped. “What so funny about that?”
“Just, like, I don’t know… a poet being a hero. It’s just funny. Because poets are like, you know, they’re sort of wimpy.”
“‘Wimpy’?” The mermaid bucked again, and Sophie was glad that her spine had been pulverized because the mermaid’s movement was sharp enough to have snapped it in two. “What is word—‘wimpy’?”
“It just means you can’t fight that good.”
“And you think poet can’t fight good?”
“I don’t know if I think that, exactly, it’s more like, the world thinks it. Right? I mean, I’ve never even met a poet.” Sophie was quickly backpedaling away from her original comment. The mermaid was so sensitive!
“Is right you never met poet!” Syrena snapped. “You know poet, you know a poet is a fighter! That place you from, Chelsea? That dump could use a poet! Someone to stand on city square and holler about what a trash place it is! Someone to fight for poor little ungrateful child such as you, get you better education, get you better doctor, ya? What you think poet does?”
“Um, write, right?” Now Sophie was annoyed. “Poets write poems. Little bits of writing that don’t make any sense, usually about trees and stuff. Flowers. They’re like Hallmark cards.”
“What is ‘Hallmark card’?”
“They’re like, these cards you buy that have a poem written inside them. You get them for Mother’s Day, or for a birthday or something.”
Sophie could feel Syrena’s sigh; the mermaid’s body beneath her sagged with it. “Can’t even be mad at you,” the mermaid said, her voice little more than a mumble. “You too stupid to even be mad at. You live in world without poetry, without poets. You think poet’s job to tell your mother happy birthday. You are such a fool you don’t even know you are a fool. How can I be mad at such fool? Poet’s job to create the world.”
Sophie didn’t appreciate being called a fool, but it was true she hadn’t ever known a poet, so she just kept silent. She hadn’t known the mermaid was such a poetry fan. It was just another weird thing about her.
“Tadzio’s great-grandmother the poet Krystyna Krahelska. Much famous in Poland. Almost famous as me. In fact, when the city want to make statue of me, they have Krystyna be the model.”
“There’s a statue of you in Poland?” Sophie asked, and felt Syrena buck again. Sophie understood that every buck was the equivalent of a slap on the head.
“There two statues of me in Poland!” the mermaid roared proudly. “I tell you I am famous, you think I lie, no? What do you know. You girl with no poetry. Well, you will learn in Poland.”
“So I’m going to Poland to learn poetry?” Sophie was beyond confused. Her whole life was falling apart, everyone she cared about was in danger, and her grandmother was wicked beyond belief. And she was strapped to a mermaid’s back, being stolen away to the old country to learn poetry?
“If I have any say over your education, ya, you learn poetry. And you being brought to Poland for education. You learn about Odmieńce, you learn about Kishka. You learn about yourself. You learn about big story, ya? The whole big story, your story. Pigeons in Chelsea tell you part of story, ya?”
Sophie had a flash of her flock, a body memory of a plump and feathered body settled on her shoulder. “Yes,” she said softly.
“And I tell you part story. But there be more. Tadzio know some, he help you.”
“Is he magic, too?” Sophie asked. “Is he Odmieńce?”
“No,” Syrena said. “He just boy, just human. But he special. I tell you, his great-grandmother big hero.”
“So I’m being dragged away from my home, all the way to Poland, to learn about magic from some boy who isn’t even magic?” Sophie asked skeptically.
“When you say like that, doesn’t sound so good,” Syrena agreed. “But I only have my small part to share with you. I have to trust that all the other parts come into place. And you must trust too, Sophie. Whole world depend on it, ya?”
Sophie let the mermaid’s last, impossible phrase linger in her mind. Whole world depend on it. How could that be? How could the whole world depend on her, a girl from Chelsea who barely made it outside her town, not even into Boston, just on the other side of the bridge? Sophie’s whole world was Heard Street, Bellingham Square. It was Revere Beach a bus ride away, and that was as worldly as it got.
As she felt her anxiety begin to grow, the mermaid spoke again, her voice low and serious. “Plus, there is Invisible. I show it to you, is far out in ocean, but we go there. Invisible have something to do with story, but I don’t know what. Not my part to know.”
“What is it?” Sophie asked.
“Is like, force, ya?” Sophie could hear the mermaid struggling to explain. “Is like, energy. I wish I was poet, then I could explain better, ya? Invisible is there and not there; something like that takes poet to understand. I don’t understand Invisible, maybe you will, with your magic. All I know is Invisible very bad. So bad you can feel it, feel it stronger than you see it. Just wait. We will visit it.”
“Well, I can’t wait,” Sophie said sarcastically. “I’m going to see some bad vibes and then get dumped at a castle so some boy who isn’t even magic can teach me something.”
“Ya,” the mermaid said. “And then you will fight Kishka. And you will win. You must. If you lose, that feeling I showed you when we first met, that terrible badness, that will win. That badness is Kishka. So, if I you, I shut up with the smarty-pants—how you say?—bullshit. If I you, I want to learn everything I can from everyone in the world—pigeon, mermaid, boy. If I you, I want to learn every single bit of information I can learn. Because if you lose, we are all—how you say?—screwed.”
And with that the mermaid shut up, and so did Sophie. She remembered exactly how it had felt, the first time Syrena had pushed her way into Sophie’s heart and showed her who her grandmother really was. So she lay upon the mermaid’s back in quiet contemplation, fighting off the fear that threatened to crawl up from her heart and swallow her whole.
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