The Dive

Pedro Novoa

Illustration by Andrea Popyordanova

You dive. As you descend you hear your Grandmother Hiromi: “Bring back the algae of the old ways.” The words float around your handmade mask like fish shedding scales of light. Your bet on modern medicine came up empty. The iodine tablets that your brother Yochan took to combat anemia had little effect; at most, they turned his cheeks pink for a few weeks.

Next came your training: aquatics, the progressive submersions, and, of course, the medical checkups to see if your body was responding. You needed to be sure: Mama Misuki had died precisely because she had underestimated science, because she put more trust in myth than in reality. To Grandmother, her daughter hadn’t died, she’d been called back to the sea. No one contradicted her. As was custom, no one cried during the wake. Only Papa Hideo sought refuge in the bathroom, where he broke tradition and burst into tears.

Papa marched to his own tune. If the force of gravity insisted on dragging us, he levitated. If the world rotated left, he raced in the opposite direction. Knowing full well what lay ahead, he allowed Yochan’s doctor to talk him into moving us to Chosica, hoping that the dry climate would improve your brother’s health.

When Grandmother found out, she disinherited him and readied her suitcases. “I’ll go back home,” she said as she carried her eighty years to the airport; and she left for Japan. The proud old woman lived alone, without electricity, cards, or supermarkets, eating only fish, abalone, and algae that she took from the sea herself. “I had the entire Pacific Ocean to myself,” she’d explain a year later.

After discovering that the climate in Chosica, instead of helping Yochan, was hurting him, we returned to Callao. It was you who talked Grandmother into coming back. It was also the time of betrayal, your betrayal: you traveled to Cusco because you got a good job, but you told Grandmother that you lived in Lima, just an hour from home. That’s why, every time there were family reunions, you’d invent the most outrageous excuses. And since you were her favorite—even though she never admitted it—she’d end up accepting whatever nonsense you told her. But when a phone call told you that Yochan’s illness had become critical and that the doctors had lost hope, you took the first plane to Lima. And there you were, diving in search of the algae that Grandmother used when medical science declared that your brother was going to die.

When Yochan was eight, Grandmother dived; at sixteen, Mama Misuki; and now, at twenty-four, the responsibility passed to you, the next generation. Your brother’s wife offered to go in your place, but she lacked history in her veins. The women of our family had dived in the sea for thousands of years in search of oysters and pearls. Distraught, she would dial your number with the same desperation with which she now held the rope tied around your waist. From the boat, your sister-in-law was sweating, suffering: your submerged body was in some way her body.

And you, face down, sinking into a universe of black milk with a snorkel that was a horn that sprouted from your mouth. And the agonizing stream of light from the lantern framed your descent, proving that night below the surface was more night. And without fins, without a diving suit, breasts exposed and dressed only in your underwear, you set out, infinite, toward a swarm of algae where you were supposed to find the yellow-brown ones, the famous fucus algae. Those plants that your ancestors, the amas, the ancient pearl divers, ate raw to ward off the demons of weakness. The bad thing was that they preferred to build their nests in the hostile depths of underwater cliffs. Now, thirty meters below, you felt the jaggedness of the rocks.

You took care to penetrate thickets of plankton and shell colonies. And finally, you felt the swollen vesicles of the fucus algae brush your hands and arms and trace the outlines of your breasts. You pulled out as many as you could to fill your small mesh bag and you were done: half the battle was won.

You’d gone a minute and a half without breathing: an eternity beneath the water. You felt, at times, that your tongue was growing, twisting, curling backwards: That’s how your mother had died when she failed to calculate the strain of the return journey. You could die in the same way. You moved as little as possible so not to saturate your body with carbon dioxide. Your arms clung to your thighs; you kicked just enough to return to the surface. Then, a knot snagged on your heels altered the plan. You’d become entangled in your own line.

“Don’t be afraid of the sea. Do not fear fighting for what you love deep down,” Grandmother used to say, the fish devouring remnants of light in front of your mask. From above, your sister-in-law exhausted desperate attempts to pull the rope, horrified to find it limp, then broken.

After feeling invisible punches to your diaphragm, a lulling dizziness that was pulling you from this world, you’re able to undo the knot, free yourself from the lead belt, and ascend almost by instinct. Your return was slow but constant, less than five meters from the surface from below you watch as the keel of the boat grows and becomes defined. You see bits of your life floating like irregular oil spots. Among them, you recognize the pale cheeks that Papa traced on Yochan, Mama’s smile when she found her first pearl, and Grandmother’s stern voice correcting everything. At that moment, your arms stiffen; your tongue is a giant snake obstructing your palate. The light has become a different light: whiter and more ferocious. You begin to dream. And in your dreams, your feet sprout fins, and oxygen is a mere superstition.

translated from the Spanish by George Henson