Alya sits back and closes her eyes, enjoying the cool of the evening. A little way up the hill, she can hear the bustle of the market, the bleating of goats. Further down the road, there is only the whisper of the surf.
“What does the sea say?”
Alya opens her eyes to see a rather grubby-looking child wielding a large crab. “Hello, Nadia,” she says.
“My mummy says you can talk to the sea. What does it say?”
“It says a great many things,” Alya smiles. “If you listen carefully, you can hear it. What do you suppose it's saying right now?”
Nadia inspects the crab in her hand. “Maybe… 'put that back, Nadia! That's mine!'”
“Maybe,” Alya chuckles.
“But you can really hear the sea,” the child protests. “My mummy says you can talk to it whenever you want to. How can you do that?”
“I was chosen,” Alya says. “It's my job. I have to look after the sea, and make sure it isn't too naughty.”
Nadia frowns. “What happens if it's too naughty?”
“It goes to bed without any cake.”
“So… you're like the sea's mummy? How did you get to be the sea's mummy?”
“Just as I said - I was chosen. The sea noticed me and told its old… mummy… about me.”
Nadia nods, apparently satisfied with this answer. “Nell Hadley,” she says, solemnly.
Alya's eyes widen. “And how do you know about Nell Hadley, little Nadia?”
“Mummy told me,” Nadia explains smugly. “Mummy told me Nell Hadley came and got you and you had to go and live with her in a bath.”
“In Bath,” Alya giggles. “That's a city in the UK. And, well, also Nell's partner, at the end of her life.” A pause. “What else did your mummy tell you?”
“She said… the first time you came back, you had all sorts of stories about Nell Hadley. How she stopped a volcano from blowing up… and nearly got eaten by rats. ” Nadia sniffs. “She sounds like a proper mummy.”
“She was… quite something, yes,” Alya sighs. “A lot to live up to. She knew the ocean like nobody else; she faced it down and refused either to tame it or to drown in its rage. She got things done; she always seemed to have the answers. And she tried to pretend she wasn't much good at emotions, but you know what? Whenever I was scared or upset, she was the one person I always knew I could turn to. The compassion of granite, she called it - she was… a stable presence in a shifting world. She was always there… and then, of course, she wasn't.”
Nadia is staring at her. “Yes,” she says at last, somewhat uncertainly.
“Sorry, Nadia,” Alya says. “Grown-up stuff. You probably wouldn't understand. Let's just say… for a while, I wanted to be Nell Hadley. To have that kind of strength. Of course, if I'd said I wanted to be like her, she probably would have been disappointed in me. I mean, she wanted to make sure the tides would keep turning when she was gone, but… I could never have been another Nell, and she knew it. There was… nobody quite like her. In the end, I learnt to be myself, to do the job using whatever it was she'd seen in me.”
“I get it,” Nadia says happily. “I want to be just like Berbulu.”
“Berbulu is a goat, Nadia.”
“Listen, Nadia,” Alya says, carefully. “Would you like to hear one of my stories? About Nell Hadley, I mean. I can probably think of one your mummy didn't tell you….”
Nadia looks thoughtful for a moment. “All right,” she says, seating herself cross-legged at Alya's feet.
“I thought that might catch your interest,” Alya grins. “Well now… have you heard of the Great Barrier Reef?”
Nadia nods. “It's a nice place. That's what everyone says.”
“It is,” Alya confirms. “I've met Great Barrier Reef, actually. It's quite friendly.”
“Can you… talk to it?”
“Not now. It's one of those Water Gaians who chose to break away from the Leviathan hivemind, in the end.” She notices Nadia's expression. “Oh. Sorry. Grown-up stuff again. Anyway. This is the story of how Nell and her friends saved the Great Barrier Reef….”
The child listens intently as the sun sets over the Flores Sea. Forgotten at Nadia's feet, the crab makes its bid for freedom.