The first time Sysa disappeared, she was three years old. It was nobody’s fault. Everyone who should have been watching her did watch her, but somehow she managed to find her way to the edge of the tide, and then she was gone. While everyone was screaming and running through the water, calling for her, she reappeared, wet all over but happier than they’d ever seen her.
After that day, she knew how to swim, though no one could remember teaching her.
That was the last vacation her family took anywhere near the shore.
Her parents enrolled her in the town’s swim program as soon as she was old enough, and the coach raved about her form, her speed, her grace. For the first few practices, no one her age or older could beat her, and she broke several of the club’s records.
Then she quit. Her parents tried to dissuade her. They spoke about perseverance, about her obvious talent, about what her future could be. She didn’t care. She didn’t like competition, and the water was wrong.
The second time she disappeared, Sysa’s third grade class made a field trip to the local aquarium. Again, nobody was to blame. She was in the middle of her group, the chaperon was keeping a close watch, but one moment Sysa was there and the next moment she wasn’t. When the staff of the aquarium found her an hour later, she was soaking wet and standing by the largest tank, staring in. All the fish in the tank had gathered by that section, swimming around her and occasionally bumping into the glass by her face. She wouldn’t explain how she’d gotten wet or why she’d left her classmates. She wasn’t defiant or argumentative. She just seemed a little surprised, whether to find herself there at all or to have people asking her questions about it.
Soon after, the first birds appeared in her neighborhood, one or two in the beginning, then groups of them, flying over Sysa’s house, calling out to each other with voices like no other birds she’d ever heard. There was a great commotion about the birds, and experts came to the neighborhood with binoculars and books and gasps and cries of joy. Sysa found her way to the experts and learned the names of the birds: shear water and puffin, petrel and frigate birds and gannets, and those haunting big creatures that seemed to float on the winds as if on water: albatrosses. Sysa cut out articles about the rare birds found far from their normal habitat, and she saved them, tacking the pictures to the wall above her bed.
When she was a little older, she repainted her room. The walls were sky blue and pale green, streaked with gold and gray, and toward the floor they turned midnight blue. You couldn’t stand in the room too long without swaying, just a little, and the colors seemed to move as you looked at them.
The storms began the year Sysa turned 12, different from the usual summer and fall storms. These were wind whipped downpours, puddling the ground, washing away tree roots, turning off electricity. They were more severe and more frequent, and many theories were offered about the reasons for the change. Sysa read the reports avidly, and images from those, too, went onto her bedroom walls.
On nights when there were no storms, Sysa seemed to bring her own with her. Every morning her sheets and pillow would be sopping wet, her hair and nightclothes damp. She didn’t understand why this happened any more than her parents did, but nothing anyone did allowed her to wake up dry.
When she was in high school, the first creatures started beaching themselves: dolphins and killer whales, which were strange enough in that part of the world. But then there were other creatures as well: giant squids, octopi, angler fish, the sort of animals you would only see in books or deep underwater. Scientists and environmentalists, beachcombers and ordinary people gathered to try to understand why this was happening, and how to save the animals.
There had never been a science class field trip before, but somehow Sysa’s class set up a trip to the shore to study the phenomenon up close. Afterwards, neither the teacher nor the principal could remember whose idea it had been, though they both thought Sysa had been a staunch advocate. That was odd because generally Sysa had little to say in class and didn’t seem to care one way or another about science.
On the bus to the shore, Sysa brightened up and chatted with her classmates, increasingly voluble and excited, almost incandescent in her eagerness, as they approached the ocean. It seemed so out of character, everybody remembered it after.
The great expanse of the beach appeared before them, littered with bodies, large and small, strangely silent and still, as if they were dead, or as if they were waiting. Sysa was the first one off the bus, and ran like the wind toward the creatures, leaving her classmates, teachers, chaperons behind.
There was video. Newscasters were filming stories about the mysterious beachings, and Sysa ran through the reporters and crew, past the cameras and paraphernalia. She pushed her way through crowds of people, scientists and lay people, police officers keeping order, and the usual hangers on who were trying to make money from the sudden crowds.
The videos show her kneeling by the side of one of the squids, resting her face against its great head. The sound wasn’t good enough to record the noises she was making, but it’s clear from the video that she was moving her mouth as if she were talking to the squid. She stroked it and patted its tentacles, and then stood and hurried to the angler fish, and then to the killer whale, and then to each of the other creatures lying on the sand. At first, the police and the scientists tried to stop her, but after her first encounter with the squid, the creature began to move, feebly and slowly. At that, people stood back and allowed her to move to the next beast and the one after that, and so on. Every time, after she touched the creature and, apparently, spoke to it, even the ones that had seemed most dried out and close to death began to move.
Her classmates arrived at the beach when Sysa began walking toward the tide, urging the squid alongside her, and the other creatures, with the help of the scientists, also progressed toward the water.
You can see it on the video, the joy in her steps, the lightness in her whole body, the way she seemed to skip through the waves, the way the waves parted for her and closed behind her. You can see the reactions of the people helping the animals back into the ocean, their pleased surprise and confusion, the way they looked at Sysa as she waded through the tide, joined on all sides by the newly restored sea animals.
She danced through the water, the tides rising around her as if to welcome her. She threw her head back and laughed the whole time, arms spread, fingers open.
There is still dispute about what it was that rose from the waves before her. A fine spray filled the air around Sysa as she reached waist-deep water, and the video only shows a shadowy figure gathering itself from the tide.
There are those who say it was the shape of a great woman, taller than a ship, her body blue and green and nearly transparent, her hair white as foam, her eyes dark as the ocean depths. They say she reached out her arms and enfolded Sysa in them, and Sysa dove forward into the woman’s embrace.
There are others who saw no woman. They say it was a massive wave, taller than any they’d ever seen, that engulfed Sysa and pulled her under.
What everybody knows is that Sysa disappeared for the third time. It was no one’s fault, but she was never seen on land again.