A long grunt escapes my lips. My body is numb. I cough up the last gulp of water I had taken in and held before I passed out. As I sluggishly blink my eyes, one thought repeats in my mind: I have to break through as soon as possible. I didn’t need to breathe during the transformation, but now my need for air is urgent.
My nerves awaken from the inside out. I can feel the change in my body. Everything is different. My eyes are dry. I blink a few more times in the darkness, working to clear away the crust that has formed over my lashes. Slowly I become aware of a dim light penetrating the shell of my cocoon. The sun’s rays reveal a complex webbing within the shell’s walls, strong enough to withstand the ocean’s waves.
My body stirs, and I can feel the shrunken cocoon chafing against my skin. I pull away from the rough interior. Something’s wrong. I’m lying on my back and I can feel that the pod is still—no longer bobbing along the ocean’s surface. I have to get out now! I push with every molecule of my body, but it’s no use. The shell is as hard as rock. I fumble in the darkness trying to find the last section of the cocoon that I had sealed, in hopes that it might be a bit softer. My fingers meet at the top of the pod and I use my thumbnail to puncture a small hole. A bright beam of sunlight streams in and momentarily blinds me. As I had suspected, there is no water. I begin to panic. Where am I?
I need the ocean’s pressure to help me break through the shell. I frantically chip away at the small hole and attempt to push one of my newly developed legs out. The sensation of being able to move my lower limbs independently throws me off balance. They flail weakly as I try to maneuver them over my body to thrust them up and out.
Although I’ve watched humans walk and dance and kick, I don’t know how to use these new limbs on my own. I grip the backs of my smooth thighs with my hands and pull my knees toward my chest. It’s so strange to feel skin and not scales—to have no control over what was once my powerful finned tail. I position my feet against the top of the cocoon and kick the damaged shell with all my strength. The debris shatters away from my body.
Stunned by the bright sunlight again, I clamp my eyes shut and roll over. I strain to push myself up, and wobble as I attempt to stand steady. For the first time in my life, I am vertical, held upright by two feet! I squint through tears and I’m terrified to see that I’m surrounded by a pack of them. Humans who I do not recognize. They don’t look like the ones from my home, but I am somewhat relieved to see that they do not look like the pirates, either. I am completely exposed. My body trembles so violently, I’m afraid I will collapse.
Excerpted from Shallow Waters by Anita Kopacz, published by Atria Books/Black Privilege Publishing, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2021 by Anita Kopacz
“Spellbinding… A captivating debut.” — Harper’s Bazaar
“Part history, part fantasy, this novel crosses genre as easily as it does time.” — Buzzfeed
In Shallow Waters, Anita Kopacz draws on the Yoruba legend of Yemaya, a Black mermaid deity who watched over enslaved African people as they were forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. In her stirring and lyrical debut novel, Kopacz imagines Yemaya’s origins as she uncovers her powers—which include miraculous healing abilities, elemental manipulation, a body designed to traverse lethal rivers and survive the darkest depths of the ocean—as well as her greater purpose.
Shallow Waters is available for purchase now online and in bookstores near you.