To survive, my people must return to the sea, but Iím afraid. Iím afraid of water, not little water like you can hold in a cup, but big water. Iím afraid of drowning. Iím afraid of being entangled in the pale reaching arms of kelp. Iím afraid of the toothed mouths that can come at you from above or from below.
On dry land, things are at eye level. They donít swoop down on you from the sky. Gaping maws donít open underneath you. My eyes, the eyes of all my kind, face forward; our necks turn them freely from side to side. Thatís enough, when we walk on the surface of the world.
But we must go back to the water every cycle, where mere front-facing vision isnít enough. There, the world is not a surface; itís a ball that wraps you round. And itís dark. So Iím afraid.
I prolong my time on land until my eyes sting from the parching air. My lips dry in the sun and crack. My skin shrivels.
And then, afraid, I go to the shore, near the wading pools where we take our young. The parents look at me, but say nothing. Itís been many years that Iíve been coming to the shallows. I am an oddity that is no longer odd.
I make a show of playing with the babies, tumbling with them when the waves slosh over the tide-pools. I am a childless female, after all; isnít it natural? But itís not love of children that keeps me in the shallows.
I donít know why I have this unnatural fear of the half of life that keeps us moist and fertile. Iíve been that way since I was a child myself. Perhaps all childrenóno, thatís not true. It is the child-herders, not fear, that keep the youngsters near the shore. Left to their own devices, they would dive deep and swim far, from infancy onwards.
I was different. Always, I swam in-shore from my parents. And when I went with the other children, I made sure that some of them were always further out than I. Itís shameful to say, but I wanted the sharks to get them first and let me live.
As we grew, my age-mates noticed that I didnít dare the deeps. At first they teased me, then they mocked me, then they gave me up as broken. I was to be pitied, maybe, but not played with.
I learned to be alone, not just during the water-time but during the land-time too, for every land-time ends in return, and I felt the need to be as private as possible about the way I dipped and waded with our unfinished young instead of plunging into the waves with the others.
As the years passed, I lost all shame, or at least I lost the dream that my shame could be private. Everyone knew about me. There was nothing to hide, though I still craved hiddenness.
We need water-time or we die. We need land-time or we die. And I think, too, we need nesting-time, pressed together with our flock, or we die. But even ringed round with all these deaths, it is not easy to willfully end your life. It seemed to me, though, that the death that comes from being flock-starved is less definite, somehow less intentional, than drying or drowning. So this is the way I chose, if you can call it choosing.
One day, after my water-time, barely submerged with this yearís babies, I came out on land and just walked away. I went away from the squawking crowding of our nest-place, down the long beach, as I had done so many times before. But this time I did not turn back.
I walked until the sand became stone. I kept walking until the stone lifted me high above the surging sea. Little beach spangles grew in the cracks and strange tall plants laid down shadows across the path.
When the sun-high came, I rested under one of the leafy shades, for I was drying fast. Without turning back, I would dieónot the long slow death of flock-hunger, after all, but the thirsty, cracking death of dryingófor by now I was on a tall stone face so high above the water that I couldnít even see the place below where the waves came to the land.
I crept to the edge on my belly and found the breakers below me, boiling against the rock with a fierceness I had never known even in the harshest storms of autumn. Each swell reared up like a living dune, then threw itself against the wall like it would break it down or die. I felt the shudder come to my body through the rock. Sea and land were at war here, either at war or in the heaves of mating.
Where the water was not milk-white with foam, it was deep-green, bottomless. There were no shallows here, no tide-pools for the young or afraid. I inched away from the edge and back into the kindly shade of the tree.
I was drying. My tongue was sticking in my mouth. My eyes and crotch were prickling with the urgent need for moisture. I realized I couldnít make it back now to the safe shallows of my childhood, even if I tried. I could go forward for a little while, to some unknown placeómaybe the stone would sink back toward the beach in timeóor I could simply stay here, under this tree, until the air turned me to a leather doll and the big birds cleaned my bones.
I had stumbled on the way to die. I lay back to enjoy it.
The sky over the sea was blue. Air blue is different from water blue. It is the petal of a small flower, soft and dry and dainty, but spread wide beyond imagining. Water blue is more like an eye, deep and moist and shining. Only on gray days do the two run together so there is no line between them.
I thought, after a little, that I might walk on. Going a little further would make sure that when the hard thirst came I would not lose courage and crawl backóa shame to go to all this trouble and then not die indeed.
So I walked on, following the high stony eyebrow above the sea, admiring the sky and clouds and the plants (which were different here.) Every now and then, I was pulled back to the edge, worming my way out to peep over and see the terror below me: deep water rising, crashing, drawing back to strike again, to knock away the foundations and crumble the land.
As I grew drier and thirstier, looking out at the water began to distress me, so I walked on without stopping and began to think about a place to die. It would be more comfortable to die in the leafy shade, but quicker in the sun, and perhaps the quickest of all if I kept moving until I could go no further, for the breath and sweat of exertion would speed the change. (A bullying little voice in my head said, ďBut a shark would be even quicker.Ē)
So I thought about this for a while, instead of about the different kinds of blue, and I walked on.
Drying is not easy. Or I should say it is easyóthe sun and wind do all the workóbut it isnít pleasant. You lick your lips, but nothingís there. Your throat is scratchy, and you cough to clear it, but, again: nothing. You squint and blink to ease your eyes, but you have no tears left; your water is leaving you and your body wastes none of it on comfort. It wants to live, your body does and, it hoards the little sea in your heart.
But even this is going. Your skin was never meant to hold it in without replenishing. And the cruelest part of death by drying is that, as your blood ebbs and thickens, your body cries out more loudly for the thing it needs, haunting you with pictures: romping with the children in the water, wrestling with the waves like with a playful mother. You think about water with every step away from it: your skin drinking up the ocean, your hair, too. Opening your eyes underwater and seeing the rainbow-colored jewelfish, the winged turtles, the bright geometry of the ones that live on the bottom, and the harp-strings of dim light. Under the water, the sun does not dry you but lights your way.
Dryness makes you remember wetness. I turned back. I had been too many years a coward.
But it is of course too late. It was too late many hours ago. My skin is loose now. I pinch a fold on the back of my hand and let it go. It does not spring back; there is no water to plump my flesh. My muscles are failing me. I stumble on the path back towards home. I wonít make it. It doesnít matter.
This walking is not a matter of thought and action. There is a pull that is underneath all that, something like the surge of life that drives a wave up onto a beach. I am a creature of the water and the land, and it is my time to return to the water.
So I walk, and then I stagger, and then I crawl, and then I lay down with my face turned to the edge. Far away, I can see
the eye-blue of the ocean meet the flower-blue of the sky, stitched together by a few clouds. Not many. At this distance, it all looks sleek and peaceful.
I know this is the place I will die, but my bodyís will for water causes me to scrabble with my weak legs in the gravel and the dust of the path. My muscles are limp now, with their sea-soup parched away. But there is enough left to push me a few more inches.
I throw my right arm toward the sea. It hooks over the edge of the cliff. Now I can pull better. My cheek and chin scrape against the rock, but I donít feel or smell blood. It has all gone inside, to my heart. My head flops, dangles over the brink.
I can see the ocean now, just below me, not pacified by distance but close and naked in its boiling passion.
Crash!óa great gout fountains into the air. Crash!óI can feel the quiver in the rock. Crash!óI see otters playing in the cauldron. Crash!óand sea-birds soar and dive.
Now my left hand, too, claws over the edge and I am heaving myself forward. I dimly remember the fear (ďfear of dyingĒ a mocking voice reminds me) like a night-dream after waking. I remember: greedy sharks and sea-weed snares. I remember the burn in your lungs when your body begins to cry out for air.
But my far-off memories of fear donít matter much. What matters is the pull.
I know there is water below me, if only I have the strength.
I pull, and hope to fall.
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Copyright 2011, Donna Glee Williams. All rights reserved.
Donna Glee Williams is a proud survivor of Odyssey survivor (2011.) Her work has twice received Honorable Mentions in the Writers of the Future competition and appeared in an odd collection of venues, from on-line magazines like Strange Horizons and Common Dreams to big-city newspapers like The New Orleans Times-Picayune and academic publications like The Womenís Review of Books, and from little magazines like The Delta Review and The New Laurel Review to newsstand glossies like Bluegrass Unlimited and Kung Fu Today. She lives, writes, and leads seminars in the mountains of North Carolina, though she was born in Mexico and considers New Orleans home.