Simi serves the gods as Mami Wata—a mermaid—collecting the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their journeys back home…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea, a fantasy debut inspired by West African mythology—published by Random House Books for Young Readers.
A way to survive.
A way to serve.
A way to save.
Simi prayed to the gods, once. Now she serves them as Mami Wata—a mermaid—collecting the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their journeys back home.
But when a living boy is thrown overboard, Simi does the unthinkable—she saves his life, going against an ancient decree. And punishment awaits those who dare to defy it.
To protect the other Mami Wata, Simi must journey to the Supreme Creator to make amends. But all is not as it seems. There’s the boy she rescued, who knows more than he should. And something is shadowing Simi, something that would rather see her fail…
Danger lurks at every turn, and as Simi draws closer, she must brave vengeful gods, treacherous lands, and legendary creatures. Because if she doesn’t, then she risks not only the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.
There is no sleep for me in the sea and so, when I break the surface to search for ships, the sun and moon are my constant companions. Sometimes, I swim downward, taking comfort from the deep. From its darkness and the viperfish that often dart out of sight.
Occasionally I think I see flashes of a star-scattered wrapper, remember the smooth flow of words that spin images in minds. But it is never for long. Instead my thoughts stay simple, merging with the sea and the creatures in it. It is easier to swim between the shifting blues, to skirt the dolphins that nudge me, calling me to play before I head back to the sky and the air to search.
On the last day before Yemoja’s seventh, I rise from the depths to discover that the sea and the sky have decided to conspire with each other. Clouds press low against slate-gray waves that rise and fall in growing peaks, and the air has a thickness to it, a fresh musk that I can almost taste. I want to dive back down, to ignore the growing storm and the havoc it will bring, but it is then that I spot the sail. A flash of white in the meager light.
I bob for a moment, letting myself be carried high by a wave. Even from far away I can see that the vessel is larger than the one I found before. Its mainsail snaps in the wind as it rocks from side to side.
I swallow as my heart lurches with the sea.
The wind picks up, throwing thin needles of rain that sting my skin. I wait, the heavy wetness of my hair cloaking my shoulders.
Yemoja’s words echo in my mind. Honor. It is our honor.
I swim toward the ship, fighting against the strong currents, choosing to slip just under the waves where the rain shatters the surface but doesn’t pepper my skin. Sharks glide beneath me, twisting and turning, but I don’t pay them any attention, nor they me. I am not what they want.
When I emerge, the wind is sharper, rising with peaked waves that grow to the size of small mountains. The vessel is ahead of me, the curve of its dark hull scoring the surface as it cuts through the water. Faint shouts carry on the wind and I make sure I stay close to the ship, just enough to watch but not to be seen.
The day pulls out, clouds and waves whipped together so that it is hard to tell where the sky ends and the sea begins. I keep my position, watching as the waves, shot through with white foam, batter the ship relentlessly, wondering if the mass of shifting water will sink the vessel. Shuddering, I imagine shards of masts and sails and limbs and blood in the sea.
A sudden current draws me closer as a cry rips through the air. Thunder rumbles, followed by lightning that fractures the sky, ripping through the clouds to strike just left of the vessel. The wind brings more shouts as I am caught by another current. I fight it, pulling away from the tug of the deep, staying on the surface, eyes on the ship. There are movements on board, but I am still too far away to see properly. I hesitate, wanting to be closer, wanting to see. But I know it’s too risky so I swim down, just beneath the waves, in reach of the hull.
As muffled shouts filter through the top of the sea, I glide underneath the wooden bottom of the ship. Peppered with barnacles and algae, its length spans only a fraction of the whales I am used to. I plan to surface on the other side of the vessel, but pause when the darkness shifts. The clouds must have parted momentarily, because a large shaft of light splits the water. I start toward it just as the depths are filled with a great crash, bubbles rising and bursting. As the small pockets of air dissipate, I see it.
Dark brown skin gleaming as it cleaves the layers of the sea.
A boy, a man… no, somewhere in between.
I reach out at the same time as he shoots through the water, the ship already speeding on, jettisoned cargo far beneath the waves. Black chains hang from bloodied skin, dragging him down as bubbles continue to pop and rise. I swim up as he sinks, my gaze locked on the pale soles of his feet and then the spread of his fingers. There is pain in every line of his body and I feel it in my heart. I push it aside and focus on him, on honoring his life.
Gently, I cradle a foot, pulling him to me. The chains knock against my side as I curl my arms around the muscles of his stomach. His skin is hot in the cool of the water, and the sea turns pink from his blood.
So much blood.
My heart thuds as our chests press together. His skin matches mine in heat and I know that life must have only just left him. I place my lips next to the shell of his ear, the coils of my black hair brushing against our skin. His body speaks of the sun and of giant mahogany trees, their flesh a delicate brown beneath the bark. I turn him to face me, my fingers slipping down his ribs as I open my mouth to speak Yemoja’s words. But before I can begin, his eyes open, black pupils swallowing the white.
In shock, I shove the boy away from me. He floats backward and into the dark of the sea, clawing at the water.
I was not expecting to find someone alive. I have never found someone alive.
The boy looks at me, his eyes large.
Wide-set brown eyes.
The shade speaks to me. A rich color that reminds me of something… of someone. The water surges around me, plucking at the memories, but for once, I yank back.
A midnight-blue wrapper. Stars picked out in rich fabric. The memory is still there. I tease at it as the sea embraces us. A voice as smooth as silk.
Here is a story. Story it is.
The same brown eyes flecked with dark amber and the dot of a beauty mark, too, this one just above a left eyebrow rather than close to lips.
Tears escape, instantly joining the sea as a shark glides closer. Instinctively, I reach for the boy’s wrists and pull him back to me. Eyes that were open begin to flicker as the last of the air flows from his mouth. He will die if I don’t do something. Panic ripples through me and I tighten my grip on him. With a push, I propel us toward the sun that is glittering through the water, wavy with ripples.
A wide smile. Full of joy, of love. I hold on to the recollection, letting it fill me as I swim harder and faster.
As we break the surface, I’m still holding him, cradling his head against my chest. The water is choppy and we bob together as he sucks in a deep breath.
The air is still thick with the weight and sting of thunder, but the clouds are scudding toward the thin red line of the horizon. The boy’s skin is chilled now, his chest hitching intermittently. I look down at the tight curls on his head as his hands hold my waist loosely.
It’s all I can think as I lift my face to the sky. Praise Yemoja.
The sea grows colder as I swim through the waves, my arms full of the heavy weight of the boy. He’s still breathing but not for long, not if I can’t get him out of the water. Think, I tell myself as I look down again at his thick black hair.
And then I see the fin that slits the waves.
The shark dips back down, but I have already seen it. And now that I study the rain-slashed water, I can see more, at least three.
No, I tell them. Go.
One peels away but the other two remain. I swim faster and pull the boy closer. His blood seeps onto my desperate hands as a dark shape cuts through the ocean toward us. I clutch the boy’s warm body to my chest, trying to look under the waves.
The sharks are not listening.
Excerpted from Skin of the Sea, copyright © 2021 by Natasha Bowen.