In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Sofia Mariah Ma’s ‘The Last Diver on Earth’ is the winning entry from Asia.
When they finally found Ibu, she was laid out on the beach.
Draped in a shroud of slimy, rusted kelp, she looked like a giant glutinous rice dessert encased in steamed bamboo leaves. It wasn’t unusual that she was naked. Here, we dived naked. Off the coast of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Between the seas of Banda and Flores. But seeing her like this, I remembered Ibu’s promise.
She had told me she wanted to be the last freediver on Earth.
She forbade me from going into the water – the water we both love. But who ever really listens to their own mother?
With our lives so intertwined with the sea, Ibu and I had always lived with death as our fickle, wearisome neighbour. In the good years, death kept to himself. When things were bad, we would see him wandering the coast and picking at debris, at bodies, as in the aftermath of a tsunami.
Sometimes, we would see him watching eagerly as sharks prowled the shallow, near shore waters for easy pickings – well, not too easy, since we Bajau learn to swim before we walk or talk – but easier than, say, venturing into the dark, frigid depths without coming across a meal for weeks. Still, I never expected I would come across my own mother’s body on land rather than in the sea.
A small crowd had gathered around Ibu by the time I arrived.
No one spoke. No one so much as breathed, as if out of respect for the woman they recognised as their dukun – their medicine woman, who taught them to harvest remedies from the waters around them.
Need a quick pain reliever? Agitate an ointment from the venom of chestnut coloured cone shells. Want to disinfect a wound? Cultivate a salve from the vase shaped glass sponges. Her marine knowledge unparalleled, Ibu seemed chosen by the sea. Its crystalline blue waters formed her skin. Its rippled, foamy white waves like mottled sapphires took the place of her clothes, which kept her warm on stormy days when the water temperatures would drop, drop, drop.
I knew it was Professor Arisa even before she called for me, her stiff, gnarled fingers gripping my shoulder and pinching me right to my bone. Lanky and wiry, few were not convinced that Arisa was in her seventies and suffered from severe arthritis.
She often enlisted Ibu’s help along with her sensitive hands and inflamed joints to carry out her research in the twilight zone of the mesophotic reef. This was where sunlight reached its end and the abyss began, and where if life could resist death’s gravity of the deep, it would move to thrive in brighter, warmer oceans. Since it was already too expensive to use offshore deep vessels and submersibles to locate and collect samples of new marine species, Arisa was relieved to have found a natural deep diver in Ibu to aid her in her discoveries, particularly in places that were too erratic, too intricate. Nonetheless, as we dived, scrubbing the bleached reefs, or surveying the continental shelf, she always came with us. She, in full diving gear – wet suit, rebreather, computer; Ibu and I, armed with only our spears and intergenerational map of the sea imprinted into our minds, our muscle memory.
Once, Arisa told us scientists like her ascertained our enlarged spleens and specialised eye systems as what enabled us to dive without masks and without the need to breathe for long periods of time.
But to us, it was our poverty that had created these material effects.
In fact, if it weren’t for Arisa, Ibu wouldn’t have been able to raise or educate me, and this made Ibu feel indebted to her. She didn’t even mind that once a year, when she was invited to the mainland, to Nusabaru City on Kalimantan, she was made to act like a sea lion exhibit in an aquarium, while Arisa presented papers and published books on the new marine plant and animal species she identified after the Second Deluge at the end of the twenty-second century. Ibu said Arisa rarely mentioned the ones we could no longer find. But I suppose with Ibu gone now, this debt now falls to me.
‘Rumi, get a hold of yourself.’
I didn’t stop crying and beating my chest until the sight and smell of mother’s sickly white, bulbous body, reeking with a sour, putrefying odour, hit me. Yet it was at that moment also that I saw the strange-looking weed – no, seaweed – trapped among her wrinkled, bloated fingers.
At first glance, it appeared typical of green algae.
Velvety to the touch, its flat, delicate fronds opened to a fan the size of my palm. Even the mossy-green, thread-like tendrils that barely clung on to its frayed edges, as if it had been torn from its source in a hurry, looked normal to me. But the second my eyes saw its inner structure, I knew it was something I had never seen.
Seemingly more akin to a common nerve plant than a seaweed, its crimson veins stood out against its olive-green fronds. They were aligned in such a fine, tightly packed mesh, it reminded me of the netting used by the village fishermen. Waking up at dawn, they would cast their nets to trap shrimp or anchovies before the village farmers could start switching on their drones or gathering their seaweed. And since Ibu was neither a fisherman nor farmer, she had no business being so close to the coast or holding on to some seaweed.
Wait – was that why Ibu was taken?
She knew our myths, our stories.
Our seas belong to the Queen of the South Seas. To Nyai Lara, the Protector, the Avenger. If it had been me, Ibu would have castigated me, slapped me, for daring to wear or carry anything green – even a shade of it – without preparing a tribute for the Queen.
And there was nothing, nothing that mother could give, naked and alone, when she chose to return to land with this weed. So why did she?
Why did she risk inviting Her wrath, Her jealousy? I didn’t understand it.
Later, when the village cremated Ibu, coming together and building a bamboo pyre for her, and setting her on fire, I went through the motions like a paralytic. Like an infected snail with a parasitic worm in my head, shaking hands with every villager who approached me and offered me their condolences and their memories of Ibu helping them in some way or another.
Through their words and gestures, I already knew they wanted me to be Ibu – be what Ibu was for them.
From Ibu, I had learned how to swim with the currents and dive so far from the village, and to such great depths, even Arisa was tempted to recruit me. With Ibu, I had stayed in a stilt house so close to the sea that I too could warn the villagers about its coming caprices. Its warming surges. Its chilling swells. Its acidifying fluidities.
I too could tell them: harvest your sea lettuce today. Or get your drones to take them out of the water. Come moonlight, you can put them back into the absurd squares of ocean you think you can control. You think you can own. And don’t forget your tributes to Nyai Lara. Yes, yes, flowers would do. Put them out to float in baskets weaved out of bamboo leaves. What? You’ve forgotten how to? Come here, I’ll show you. I’ll show you how.
Before she died, Ibu had asked me to follow Arisa back to the mainland. There, I can find a job, a life, and never return.
When I objected, she had laughed.
Her tanned, wizened features were strikingly delicate when she smiled. And when she replied, her thin, dark hair and small, hazel eyes bristled, just like mine. ‘Live, Rumi.’
Watching the flames engulf Ibu’s body, lapping her up and spreading from end to end of the strips of palm leaves and vines used to bind her body, I told myself that the villagers can have their memory of Ibu as the woman carved by the sea. I will remember Ibu as the woman who carved me.
Deeper into the night, when Arisa arrived to take me back to her stilt hut by the beach, the last of the smouldering embers that used to be Ibu died.
Opening my mouth to speak, I couldn’t help it that my tone was accusatory. I was angry. ‘You did this,’ I said, looking out to the dark waters lapping around the village and seeing little. ‘It was you.’
‘You don’t know what you’re saying, Rumi.’
I knew exactly what I was saying.
‘It was you who pushed Ibu to dive further . . . deeper . . .’
‘It was not just for me. It’s for science, for everyone,’ answered Arisa, sounding like one of those ubiquitous holographic advertisements I saw floating along the MagRail tracks in Nusabaru City. Each and every one of them advocated the green-powered dreams of carbon-free, autonomous transportation and production made into reality by developments in solar and biochemical energy sources.
All for a better world. A better humanity.
Following Ibu on one of her trips to visit Arisa, I should have been impressed. I should have been amazed by the city’s naturally bioluminescent walls, paths, and trees at night, allowing its inhabitants to work and play while being swathed in subdued tones of blue, green and white.
But I thought everything, everything, Nusa was built on was owed to the sea.
In school, I had learned that this very trick of light was derived from single-celled dinoflagellates or plankton, which bloom on coastal waves and glow luminous blue right after sunset. Yet, at same time, I also remembered Ibu telling me how these same, surrealistic organisms signalled an omen – a warning from the sea.
She had said, Rumi, sometimes too much life is too much. Avoid eating any fish in the area. Throw back the crabs, the mussels harvested from this sea, because tomorrow, a red tide will come. A red tide will come.
At the turn of the twenty-third century, ‘red tides’ became the norm for most depressed towns and displaced cities like ours. They brought unnaturally warm currents with too many nutrients and too many parasites spreading disease among the plankton and all that relied on it, including humans.
Like Rotterdam, Jakarta too had attempted to hold back the sea with its own version of the Maeslant Barrier. After it failed, drains and canals were designed and built to turn the area into a ‘city of sponge.’ It wanted to naturally redistribute flood and rainwater away from its low-lying roads and housing areas to its man-made parks and rooftop gardens as Shanghai had done. Mangroves were replanted. Wetlands were reformed along the tragic coastline of abandoned highways and buildings, looking more and more like a last-ditch attempt to cleanse the city of the failed, embittered concrete nightmares, and returning them to Nyai Lara, the Queen of the South Seas.
But Nyai Lara had predicaments of her own too.
All the damage we had wrought on nature with our fossil fuels and plastics was no longer reversible. Extensive swathes of ocean had been left deoxygenated and dead. Massive volumes of trash and plastic had been regurgitated onto our shores. Still, by 2210, Nusabaru City on the Kalimantan mainland was marketing itself as the real ‘city of the future’ – a revolutionary capital that would contribute neither carbon nor plastic to the environment. Diving with Ibu and still finding dead zones and currents of plastic wherever we went in the ever-warming sea, we knew Nusabaru City would be no different.
When Arisa finally spoke again, she looked distracted.
She was sitting on a chair surrounded by stacks of paper filled with numbers and scribbles all around her cluttered hut. Numerous cups of sopi, or palm liquor, were poured from bamboo bottles and drained. Her ikat skirt spun out of silky golden and red strands was softly shimmering like tessellated gossamer under the full moon.
And for once, Arisa was looking at the screens of her computers that were showing changes in sea condition and seeing nothing at all. Combing her hands through her hair that shone hoary white like optic fibres, she said, ‘You know, Marli understood that everything that we ever did was for the future.’
‘But she was my mother,’ I shot back from the entrance of her hut, as if it meant something. ‘And she’s given up her life for something you believed in. No, Arisa, you will help me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You will help me find out what happened to Ibu.’
‘But you already know what happened to her, child.’
‘I mean, where.’ Arisa stared at me. ‘You saw it,’ I said, my tone accusing her again. ‘She found – a new species of seaweed, out there, in the midlight. And I need to know why it was so important to her – I need to know where.’
Why? ‘You said it, didn’t you? It’s for the future, for science.’ For me!
‘– Besides,’ I said, cutting her off, ‘I know that you know exactly where she’d been.’
Swiftly, Arisa’s black eyes regained their sharp aspect.
They were cold and calculated. Resolute. Good. I was unaccustomed to the emotional and empathetic side of Arisa.
Ten years ago, she had come to our village and recruited Ibu with wads of cash, as if the Bajau had only dealt with barter. We were harnessing solar energy for our phones and tablets long before the Indonesian government offered us more stable livelihoods based on drone enabled fishing and seaweed farming. For taking away our dying art of bare-handed pearl diving and fishing, it seemed we were meant to thank them.
But perhaps what neither Arisa nor the government truly understood about us was why we persisted in keeping our traditions of freediving and living free on the sea. And to us, we couldn’t understand why both the government and Arisa spent so much time and resources to look for some rare, still-unknown species of marine life that could help decarbonise the atmosphere or oxygenate the seas when what needed to be done to save the world should have been done long ago. Not now. Not here. Not in a hurry. Staring at me, Arisa asked, ‘Hold on. How could you know I know something like that?’
‘You must have found something since you were so late to Ibu’s funeral.’
I saw Arisa sucking in her breath, and continued: ‘And you must have been curious about the seaweed, and about why and how Ibu had died.’
‘Oh, I don’t know if the word for it is curious, child. But, yes, I might have detected Marli’s wrist tracker using the equipment on my boat this morning.’
‘So, you did find something.’
‘Look, I don’t know if it’s something,’ Arisa answered, sweeping an arm around her hut, pointing to everything. ‘And I don’t know if it’s something worth pursuing.’
‘Don’t say that,’ I whispered, as Arisa fell silent. ‘Ibu didn’t die over nothing.’
Arisa nodded. ‘But Rumi, if we are to do this, we must do this my way, with my equipment.’
‘Listen, wherever Marli found herself in, it must’ve been dangerous. And if it had been so for Marli – for your mother – it will be doubly so for you. You can’t deny this.’
Arisa explained that Ibu had been investigating an area of continental shelf that hadn’t yet been explored. We didn’t think to. Just east of the village, it was precariously close to an active volcanic island, Batutara, which had been spewing ash and triggering earthquakes for years.
Its state was so volatile, it sometimes created dead zones in its surrounding sea. Glutted with toxic algae and marred by lava flows, carbon dioxide and sulphurous fumes were dissolved directly into the mid-light waters of these dead zones.
There was no other reason except for Arisa’s research that Ibu would venture there.
‘Then, all the more reason we shouldn’t head there,’ Arisa was vacillating now, loudly, but half-heartedly. She was drinking copious amounts of sopi as we sat with our legs dangling over the edge of her hut.
I studied the deep, feathered creases in her face, flushed red with warmth and illuminated by the yellow bio-luminescent lamp in her hut. I smelled the cloying sweetness on her breath competing with the saltiness of the breeze around us. I wasn’t sure if I felt closer to Arisa than I ordinarily did. I felt she had betrayed Ibu, and for what, ambition? ‘You’re still a child, no, you’re her child.’
‘I’m not a child anymore, Arisa. I’m nearly sixteen.’
‘Not nearly sixteen at all, Rumi. Not even close.’
At dawn’s arrival, Arisa and I were at least equally determined to set off for Batutara.
As she started up the engine of her boat, fiddling with the latest maritime and scientific paraphernalia, I sat on its solar roof and watched the dark sky lightening to dusty blue from its stern. For a few minutes, all I did was watch the crepuscular rays of the rising sun scattering against the low-lying clouds, painting them in streaks of rosy-pink. I took in the crisp morning air with the smell of brine and relished in the sea winds brushing against my darkened, sun-parched skin.
When we were far enough away, I turned to look back at the village.
Square-hewn seaweed farms by the hundreds demarcated its shoreline. Each square was occupied by a tube-shaped, solar-powered drone scooping up the rope-grown seaweed and laying it down in the water again, only after trimming it perfectly. The village farmers still had to remove invasive seagrasses or sea urchins by hand to protect their aquatic crop, so a few of them were already up and about as we headed east into the open sea.
As the seaweed farms shrank in the distance, the village’s free-floating fish farms came up in the horizon.
Looking at them from above, they appeared as grey geodesic domes. To ensure that the free-range fish being reared inside these massive, seemingly self-sufficient spherical farms were safe to eat, numerous divers checked on them daily. Marine drones supported their work, helping to harvest the fish and alert them to any openings made by sharks or thieves. But anything else that required a subtle touch still had to be done by a professional diver, which could have been what Ibu and I could have become but didn’t.
Once we travelled past the fish farms, we hardly met other boats or man-made structures. Only once were we interrupted by a pod of dolphins, breaching in the frothy playground of the boat’s wake, and playing catch with a piece of kelp in their snouts. Their tittering attracted Arisa’s attention, who came out to the stern and took videos of them. ‘They’re a good sign, aren’t they?’ she shouted up at me, but I waved her off.
It was not she who will be risking her life looking for some mystical seaweed.
Before I was prepared for it, however, we soon arrived on the jade green shores of Batutara. On seeing the volcano up close, coughing plumes of ash and smoke into the dark, grainy clouds above it, fear crept up. Worse, the more time I spent on the boat with Arisa, who was refreshing my memory of how to use a mask, a pair of fins, a rebreather and even the white wet suit she had prepared for me, the more scared I felt. It started innocently enough, as mild tremors in my fingers and toes, but grew to a spine-rattling chill that felt as though it extended right down to my groin.
‘Are you listening to me, child?’
I wasn’t. I was too aware of my heartbeat pounding in my temples and my throat tightening in dread than anything else.
‘I need to tell you something before you go into the water.’ I didn’t respond. I was busy trying my hardest to conceal my fear but failed. ‘Marli never wished this life for you.’
‘Yes, so . . . Couldn’t you say that you chose this life for yourself, Rumi?’ Arisa’s face was so close to mine, I could see the flakes of dry skin around the edges of her mouth and along her silvery white hairline. I didn’t want to trust anything more that Arisa said but on this wide expanse of ocean, above the place where Ibu was last alive, she was my only friend. ‘You must know, even though your mother was the more experienced free diver, you are her better. She always said that you were faster. Smarter. And that you can hold your breath for longer. I didn’t know why Marli wanted to stop you from becoming a freediver, but to me, you are her natural successor. Her future.’
Although it didn’t sound like Ibu at all, I wanted to believe her.
I wanted to feel that when I finally stepped into the ocean, it was an adventure—not an obligation to either Arisa or Ibu, or a mere reckless endeavour. At the very least, its warm, wet embrace felt familiar. Its cavernous silence in my ears soothed and composed me, while I became more accustomed to its enveloping pressure around my head, my chest. Stretching to my full length, I used my arms and legs to start my descent.
Four steps were all Ibu needed to teach me about freediving. Forget about breathing or being human. And as I reached the depths of the ocean, aided but not reliant on Arisa’s rebreather, I etched those four steps deep inside the recesses of my mind.
The first thing I noticed about the waters surrounding Batutara was the mist.
I wasn’t sure if it was from the gases released by some undersea magma or from the coral spawn of such a crowded, multi-faceted reef. But while I saw countless species of fish, crustacean and – algae, there was nothing like what Ibu had found. I swam leisurely and patiently along the rocky and uneven shelf of sea, until inspiration struck me.
Wait – what if the seaweed Ibu had found had both green and red algae characteristics? It was a new species, wasn’t it? What if it could control whether it photosynthesises in sun or blue light?
In an instant, I looked for a drop in the ocean – a crack, a fissure – or any shaded and obscured area where sunlight could penetrate, but only teasingly. Gradually, I did manage to notice a glimmer pricking the corner of my eye through Arisa’s mask and headed straight for it. I thought it was a sign from Ibu. A clue. When I discovered it was a just a small, transparent section of plastic, my hopes deflated.
In its former life, it could have been important. It could have been a protective cover for food or medicine, but down here, it was fodder. Fodder for whales and bottom feeders. Fodder for bacteria and . . . and algae.
Following the trail of plastic instead, I went further along the shelf to a place where the coral reef hadn’t yet colonised and came across a gushing underwater river teeming with plastic. The sheer amount of plastic in between these layers of dark, maroon-hued rock caused it to scintillate like a stream of aquamarines when sunlight bounced off it. I imagined a kind of undertow current had formed to compensate for the waves approaching Batutara’s shoreline, which then drew in all this plastic and trash, and even marine life, straight down into this river.
It looked as though, over time, a strange kind of sea habitat had developed inside it. Thrived inside it. But since the opening of the river was so constricted and shallow, I knew I would have to leave behind all of Arisa’s diving equipment just to explore it.
I looked across to the jutted riverbank, looking for more signs that Ibu could have been here, but didn’t need to search far – Ibu’s solar-powered wrist tracker was sitting just on top of it. Upon picking it up, it died. But with its final flash in muted white and blue, it told me that it had, at least, communicated with Arisa’s boat. And in this, I supposed, for me, it marked my point of no return.
I took the deepest drag of breath I had taken in sixteen years and abandoned everything that Arisa had given me to drop down to the bottom of the underwater river. At this depth of about seventy meters from the surface, it almost felt like I was flying – like I was airborne in the sea. It made me forget that my chest was collapsing, and every inch of my body was being pummelled by pressure, which caused me to drop, drop, drop into the belly of the reef.
I didn’t fight it.
I felt it flow over me, gently pushing me to walk along the riverbed of plastic, as I continued to find the next clue that Ibu had seen. I must have looked for barely a few minutes, but every minute in these harsh, cold depths felt like eternity.
I couldn’t explain it.
Arisa would say it was science that guided me to another fissure, another crack on the ocean floor, but I would like to think that it was Nyai Lara’s whispers: What do you think you’re doing here? Haven’t I already warned off your mother who dared to make off with something that belongs to me? How dare you presume to visit my undersea river, my undersea cavern dwelling – you and your mother! Come here, you, I’ll show you. I’ll show you.
I knew I had passed the hundred-meter mark when I started suffocating and felt an excruciating pain pulsing through my head, chest, and gut. All around me, there was only darkness and the sensation of rocks underneath my hands and feet. Before, I had believed I was flying. Now, I was crawling on my knees. And begging and praying to Nyai Lara to spare me. Save me. I knew that in these most gruelling moments, in this most testing environment, Ibu had found a means to live. But my hands were growing heavy and paralysed. My legs were freezing over. My lungs, oh . . . forget my lungs . . .
The only thing that was still stirring with activity was my mind. My mind was still alive. And not even Nyai Lara could take my mind away from me.
When my lungs came back to life, euphoria swept over me.
I couldn’t care less that I might be breathing water instead of air. I gulped down litres of it ravenously through my mouth and felt my chest swiftly expanding. With my eyes adjusting to the dimness, I saw that I had ended up in an air pocket inside a tight, confined space enclosed within columns of rock. I struggled to recall what had happened after I had dived into the underwater river. I thought I must have climbed into an underwater tunnel of sorts, which had led me here – but how?
I must have died, I thought. How else could I explain the oxygen, here, in this cave that was more than a hundred meters below where the sea met the sky?
Looking closer at the rough, rocky walls around me, focusing my eyes on them and touching them, I realised that they were not just made of rock, but was also covered in seaweed – Ibu’s seaweed. I laughed when I spotted it, which came out in a spluttering cough. I allowed its soft, silky texture to soothe me as I ran my fingers through its impressive, moss-green carpet, and regarded its scarlet veins running through its almost-translucent fronds with reverence.
Like mine, its veins were pumping essential nutrients and gases helping it to stay alive. Except unlike me, it was breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Now, wait a second – oxygen? How would just a few seaweeds produce so much oxygen that it would create an air pocket in the middle of the ocean?
Since Ibu’s body had been washed ashore on the beach just outside the village, I knew she had made it out of this cave alive. She had managed to use her knowledge of the currents and tides to swim, perhaps, halfway to the village before she drowned. Yet she didn’t risk her life to bring this seaweed back to Arisa or for Arisa’s research. No, Ibu must have risked everything to bring it back to me.
It was me. I did this.
After all those years with Arisa, Ibu knew that this seaweed—no, this discovery—was not just life-changing, but world-changing. I could see from the seaweed that was barely submerged that it was not just pearling, but nearly effervescing, with oxygenated air. And manufacturing it at numerous times the rate of nothing I had ever seen.
Without bringing any of the seaweed with me, I made my way back to the ocean surface slowly and unhurriedly. Why shouldn’t I? I knew the steps. I knew the path that Ibu had set out for me, even though it will be me who will become the final free diver on Earth.
Where I emerged, I saw it was nowhere near Batutara or the village and noticed that my wrist tracker too had died.
Despite the ringing in my ears, I heard dolphins in the distance tempting me to follow them. I spared no time thinking about my lacerated lungs or salt-burned eyes and thought only to do everything I had to, for as long as I had to, to protect Ibu’s discovery.
Photograph © marneejill