My twin sister, Bay, and I pass underneath the brown-and-turquoise banners hanging from the ceiling of the temple. Dignitaries perch on their chairs in the gallery, watching, and people crowd the pews in the nave. Statues of the gods adorn the walls and ceiling, and it seems as if they watch us, too. The temple’s largest and most beautiful window, the rose window, has been lit from behind to simulate the effect of sunlight through the panes. The glass shines like a blessing—amber, green, blue, pink, purple. The colors of flower petals Above, of coral formations Below.
The Minister stands at the altar, which is made of precious wood carved in an intricate pattern of straight lines and swirls, of waves that turn into trees. Two bowls rest on top of the altar—one filled with salt water from the ocean that envelops our city, one filled with dark dirt brought down from Above.
Bay and I wait in line with the other youth our age. I feel sorry for everyone else because they don’t have a brother or a sister to wait with them. Twins aren’t very common in Atlantia.
“Do you hear the city breathing?” Bay whispers. I know she wants me to say that I do, but I shake my head. What we hear isn’t breathing. It is the never-ending sound of air pumping through the walls and out into the city so that we can survive.
Bay knows that, but she’s always been a little crazy about Atlantia. She’s not the only one who loves our underwater city or refers to it as alive. And Atlantia does resemble a giant sea creature sprawled out in the ocean. The tentacles of our streets and thoroughfares web out from the larger round hubs of the neighborhoods and marketplaces. Everything is enclosed, of course. We live underwater, but we’re still human; we need walls and air to protect us.
The Minister raises his hand, and we all fall silent.
Bay presses her lips together. She is usually calm and serene, but today she seems tense. Is she afraid that I’ll go back on my word? I won’t. I promised her.
We stand side by side and hand in hand, our brown hair threaded with blue ribbons and braided in intricate plaits. We both have blue eyes. We are both tall and carry ourselves the same way. But we’re fraternal twins, not identical, and no one has ever had any trouble telling us apart.
Though Bay and I are not mirrors of each other, we’re still as near to the same person as two completely different people can be. We have always been close, and since my mother’s death, we have drawn even more tightly together.
“Today will be hard,” Bay says.
I nod. Today will be hard, I think, because I won’t be doing what I always wanted to do. But I know that’s not what Bay means.
“Because it used to be her,” I say.
Before my mother died six months ago, she was the Minister of the temple and she presided over this ceremony, one of several held to mark the anniversary of the Divide. Bay and I watched each year as our mother gave the opening speech and blessed the youth of the year with water or dirt, depending on what each person chose.
“Do you think Maire is here?” Bay asks.
“No,” I say. Bay is referring to our aunt, our only living relative. I keep my voice flat but use the most cutting words I can. “She doesn’t belong here.” The temple is our mother’s place, and she and her sister, Maire, were estranged for as long as I can remember. Although, when my mother died—
Don’t think about it.
The Minister begins the ritual, and I close my eyes and picture my mother conducting this service instead. In my mind, she stands straight and small behind the altar. She wears her brown-and-blue robes and the Minister’s insignia, the silver necklace that mimics the carving on the pulpit. She opens her arms wide, and it makes her look like one of the rays that swim through the sea gardens sometimes.
“What are the gifts given to we who live Below?” the new Minister asks.
“Long life, health, strength, and happiness.” I chant the words with everyone else, but, for my family, at least, the first part has not been true. Both of my parents died young—my father of a disease called water-lung back when Bay and I were babies, and my mother more recently. Of course, they still lived longer than they would have Above, but their lives were far shorter than most of the people who live in Atlantia.
Then again, our family has never been like most families in Atlantia. It used to be that we were different in ways that made people turn green with jealousy, but lately Bay and I are different in ways that make people pity us. Their envy has been washed away by our misfortunes. Bay and I used to walk the halls of the temple school and everyone respected us, because we were the daughters of Oceana, the Minister. Now we are objects of pity, the orphaned children of parents who died too soon.
“What is the curse of those who live Above?” the Minister asks.
“Short life, illness, weakness, and misery.”
Bay squeezes my hand, comforting me. She knows that I’m going to keep my promise, and that in doing so I’ll have to make a choice opposite to the one I’d always planned.
“Is this fair?”
“It is fair. It is as the gods decreed at the time of the Divide. Some have to stay Above so that humanity might survive Below.”
“Then give thanks.”
“Thanks to the gods for the sea where we live, for the air we breathe, for our lives in the Below.”
“And have mercy on us.”
“And on those who live Above.”
“This,” the Minister says, “is the way the gods have decreed it must be since the Divide took place. The air was polluted, and people could no longer survive for long Above. To save humanity, they built Atlantia. Many chose to stay Above so that their loved ones could live Below.
“Those of us underwater in the Below have long, beautiful lives. We work hard, but not nearly as hard as those on land. We have time for leisure. We don’t have to breathe ruined air or have cancer eat our lungs.
“Those Above work all their lives to support us Below. Their lungs decay, and their bodies feel tremendous pain. But they will be rewarded later, in the life after this one.
“The choice to save our world in this way was made by the gods and by our ancestors. We accept their choice every day of our lives, except for today, when we make our own. Though we believe the gods have sent us Below for a reason, we also have the chance to go Above if we wish, to dedicate our lives to sacrifice.”
The Minister has finished the speech. I open my eyes.