The Sea, the Sea



 
The Sea, the Sea

 

Trying not to look at any of the others, she slipped off her clothes quickly and laid them on a pile of driftwood. It was getting dark, but still— Were they looking at her? Then she was in the water, they all were, and the chill bit her skin and the looking didn’t matter. She braced herself, but the waves pushed and pulled gently, almost playfully. The air was sweet, and they all whooped and splashed and danced, pretending not to mind the pebbles or the cold.

 

The stars were bright overhead but now and then lighting winked far off on the western horizon. A storm was heading their way, but Sarah knew that it would be midnight before it hit. Now there was this, and her heart beat hard and she laughed with the rest. This was real, this was so real, nothing else was real, and she danced on.

 

They had been standing outside Freddy’s eating burgers that night, talking aimlessly, when Linda said that the very thing to do—right now!—was go for a swim. All of them. It was a stupid idea, wasn’t it? Early May and the sea would be icy, they didn’t have their suits, etc. Linda had grinned, just grinned, and that had done the trick. They had finished up their food quickly and headed past the pier and the last of the shops and then around the headland and up the beach.

 

Tim yawned, more from nervousness than bordeom, although there was that too. They’d been cruising back down the coast that Saturday evening, bucking a freshening wind from the south. That seemed to be what you called it—“freshening.” Were they making enough speed? He couldn’t tell, didn’t know. Why didn’t Bob take her in somewhere? He yawned again, rubbed his eyes. The dark water slid by ominously in the glare of the lights, but it was impossible to look away, even in the cabin. The cruiser rolled and bucked and the back of his throat tightened. He yawned again, wide, and it hurt his jaw.

 

The whole thing had been Bob’s idea, of course. He tried to make them call him Skipper while they were aboard (fat chance of that!), talked about “port” and “starboard,” acted as if the cruiser were his and not his rich brother’s. He’d put on a captain’s cap, for Christ’s sake. They’d bought sandwiches and sneaked a case of the brother’s Dos Equis that morning, made a day of it, running north past Lufta and heading back to port by dinner—well, late dinner. No sweat. They’d look in at the Land Ho later, Bob in his cap and all, talk about what it had been like “aboard,” nothing like a bit of salt air, etc. As if you couldn’t get your lungs full of salt air standing on the damn pier.

 

But the cruiser had flown through the sparkling water that morning and it had felt great gripping the rail beside Wes and drinking and laughing, Bob laughing with them up on the—had he called it a bridge? We’re flying across the water, Tim had thought, hearing the words. It happened to him sometimes, and he’d stopped wondering at it, never told anyone. We’re flying. The sun and salt burned his skin, and that felt great too. Later, though, the wind had risen and the sea had turned choppy and Tim made his way into the cabin.

 

“And what do we have to say about Matthew Arnold?” Mr. Gray’s words came back to her. Mr. Gray, who should have been named Mr. Bright and who had a wicked smile that made you think he’d really like to get to know you better, and just maybe— “What do we have to say about ‘Dover Beach’? Sarah?”

 

Listen! You hear the grating roar

 

That had been in class Friday, and Sarah realized what a coincidence this was, first Dover Beach and here they were the next day on, well, Whitney Beach, named for that old sailor who’d built the house on the hillside. Whitney Beach, which was calm tonight. Had any of the rest of them put the two together? Not likely. She’d bring it up later, maybe they’d all have a drink at Linda’s house, her parents wouldn’t mind.

 

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand
Begin, and cease,

 

Suddenly she wanted to cry, had to fight it back.

 

“Sarah?”

 

  and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
the eternal note of sadness in.

 

“Sarah? Are you there?”

 

It was Tommy, up to his waist thank goodness, staring at her. She brought her hands up to her breasts, then thought the hell with it and splashed him. But not too hard.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Hey back! Listen! Be still! Can’t you hear it?”

 

It had sounded like a man’s voice, a kind of whisper. Not a grating roar. Tommy was nearest, John and Eddy were farther out—it couldn’t have been them—crowding close to Linda and Sheila. And what a surprise that was, ha ha.

 

The back upstairs bedroom had been Tim’s when he was a child. He’d resented it, but now he thought about that view out his window and across the arroyo and up the hillside, a view away from the sea. In the morning, when we woke up, the hillside was dark, mysterious, but at sunset, if he were studying late, it glowed, flaring from pale yellow to crimson. He wanted that now, to turn his back on all this. The cruiser rolled and he yawned and yawned. His head ached from the beer.

 

Tommy turned his back—his splendid bare back—and started walking slowmo through the water toward the others.

 

… let us be true …

 

The cruiser plunged into a trough and he watched the bow disappear into the dark water, then rear up like some animal, sending a wall of water crashing against the cabin. I’ll never do this again, he said to himself. The cruiser plunged again and something smacked the bottom and Tim fell onto the deck. The cabin spun around him.

 

“Christ! Get out of the way!” It was Bob, swinging into the cabin, his face twisted. Tim crawled aside as Bob slid into the chair and jabbed at the radio, jabbed at the red distress button until it beeped, then shouted “Mayday mayday mayday mayday!” into the microphone. “Uh—we’re off Hammer Point and heading south. Out rudder’s disabled!” He looked around as if seeing the tiny cabin for the first time, pushed the button again. “Off Hammer Point and heading south! Our rudder! Mayday mayday!”

 

The radio muttered something back.

 

“Mayday mayday!” Bob shouted, looking at Tim, not even talking into the mike now. Shaking. “Maybe a log. We hit something and the rudder’s not responding!”

 

What? It had been a man’s voice again, distant but frantic now. Tommy was too far away, they were all too far away. The breeze swept over her, raising goosebumps. The lightning on the horizon winked and winked again and the water slapped her thighs.

 

Tim looked around the cabin. “Where’s Wes? Bob, where’s Wes!” Then he got up and made for the head, bracing his hands against the ceiling, but the cruiser lurched and twisted and he fell again. The next thing he knew Bob was pulling him up onto a bench and shaking something at him, but it took him a few seconds to realize that it was a life jacket. He finally grabbed it and then Wes was struggling to get into his own but the deck fell away from them and then swooped up, fell and swooped up again, tossing them up and down. Tim was sliding, couldn’t hold onto anything, then he was bouncing in the black water and the cruiser was over there, its running lights dancing madly, he couldn’t understand how that could be, how he was here in the water.

 

She saw that the others had turned back toward her, were heading for the shore. She crossed her arms across her breasts and turned back too, shivering with cold now and disappointed but relieved. It would be a good night for hot rum at Linda’s. But then a light swept across the water behind her, threw long bouncing shadows toward the beach and was gone. She looked back, they all did. Out there at the mouth of the bay there were lights bouncing and twisting, sweeping now across the water and now into the air and now gone. They watched, couldn’t stop watching even though the waves were rolling in faster, restless. Sarah put her hand on Tommy’s shoulder.

There was a boat out there.

 

… let us be true to one another!

 

The wind howled and his mouth was full of salt water. He couldn’t think. Lights danced around him and he couldn’t find which way was up. Then he was tumbling, tumbling, and his knees raked something jagged and he tumbled again. He grabbed at whatever it was but the water pulled him back and he tumbled again.

 

There was a boat out there, they could see that now, but it seemed to be out of control, twisting in the waves, its lights bouncing drunkenly. And there was something

 

His hands and knees gripped at something, something jagged that slid away, but he held his head above the water, breathed in and gagged but breathed in again. The water sucked hard, tried to pull him back but he held on. Took another breath. The gravel—It’s gravel!—swept back under him, cutting him, roaring as it swept back, then forward.

 

Suddenly there were two boats, one bouncing wildly at the mouth of the bay and another approaching fast, its lights steady and insistent, rounding Hammer Point. As they watched, something shot up from the second boat and blossomed high above them, blazed bright red high in the air. Linda screamed.
 

Tim gasped. Something was happening, someone had screamed. He realized he was standing up, holding his own against the rough push and pull of the water, and the world had turned red. How could that be? He breathed in and out, in and out. Now there were words, loud words, harsh words booming across the water, but he couldn’t make them out. Someone was shouting, but he stood transfixed, staring instead at the shore, where a line of naked creatures—mermaids and mermen—stood staring back at him, their bare skin glowing red but fading into the night. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Then another flare blossomed overhead and the words boomed across the water again, far behind him, hailing him from another world.



Grove Koger



Grove Koger. I’m the author of When the Going Was GoodA Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, and Assistant Editor of Laguna Beach Art Patron Magazine, Palm Springs Art Patron Magazine, and Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal. In addition, I've published over one thousand articles, stories, poems, and reviews, and blog at https://worldenoughblog.wordpress.com





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