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Swimming to Saba

New Wisconsin Fiction

The seagull glides over me, surprisingly clear and large, onyx eyes looking down, black-tipped wings outstretched, its fractured shivering shape a reflection in the water—except that I’m looking at it from the other side.

Before I went under, I had looked up towards the trail head—one thousand feet above—and appreciated the symmetry of having looked down on this very spot of variegated blue a few hours earlier. I float face up just beneath the surface, tired of life’s effort, mild diaphragmatic contractions reminding me of the need for air.

The current envelopes me in its inconsiderate grasp and pushes me, tumbling and rolling across the sandy bottom that drops away and I’m flying over the edge of something with my arms and legs outspread like I’m in control; but I’m not, and then its soft pressure pushes me down into the dark blue.

Oh, I’ve had fantasies of drowning myself, long ago. But that fantasy involved a much more elective stepping away from shore. “Swimming to Saba” is how I thought of it. We were on vacation in St. Martin, and I knew that Saba was some miles off the southern shore. I told her I was going for a walk. I’d always wanted to go to Saba. It looked beautiful in the pictures: rounded, emerald mounds rising from water so clear it looked like they were floating above the white sand bottom, each a miniature paradise for one—or two.

I stood in the surf, under a starry sky of strangely shifted constellations, the surge breaking on the shore, the water and foam hissing and advancing up the beach in an undulating line only to recede, tickling the bottoms of my feet as the sand eroded underneath. I looked across the water towards the Saba I couldn’t see but knew was there. In my fantasy I swam until I could no more. It was quite peaceful, really, and, I tried, so it wasn’t a sin when I let the air from my lungs and the waves closed overhead.

The truth is: I’ve always been a sinker.

We found it by accident; Pololu Valley, a name on the map at the end of a road that was so out of the way and isolated that we figured it must be something special. On windy, overcast days the sea is a blanket of noise and white with foam from the mouth of the inlet to the shore. But this day was perfect, like the day we first saw it together, an expansive polychromatic blue, broken only by roughly parallel lines of surf coalescing onto a black sand beach so far below and distant that it seemed a picture not meant for corporeal occupation. 

The trail was as I remembered it: signs warning of a dangerous shore break and strong currents, a rock and dirt path twisting down between the branches of adjacent hau trees—fifty years an eye blink. I turn my head back, “Ready, Baybee?” I said in a low, private voice even though it’s 6:00 am—the start of the outgoing tide—and we’re alone. The narrow gap in the trees swallowed us and the gravity of the slope, seemingly just beyond the angle of repose, moved us forward with a peristaltic fervor. The first time, our descent was a sensual exercise of resistance and stress of supple muscled forms against a backdrop of a jewel-blue ocean. The trail’s sharp switchbacks and shear drop-offs were of no great concern; this time, it is a torturous test of a poorly functioning carbon-based life form of no great capability or promise.

Wide enough for two or more abreast in most places, the trail shrank to single file in others. Sometimes there were edges and surfaces of rock wearing through the hard-packed dirt; but the roots kept everything in place, a tangled presence surrounding the rocks and breaking through the earth in irregular clumps and swirls, taking up so much space that the ground felt hollow, so that at times it was like I walked on the surface of a drum. 

I focused carefully on my foot placement, each step a tentative advancement along the trail, and actually saw the light beneath the root laying parallel to the ground as my foot slipped neatly underneath, a perfect fit, almost like it rose out of the hillside just for me. I was already moving forward, unable to resist the insistent pull of the slope. My ankle twisted inwards, coming loose before my tibia broke away from the plate and fifteen screws already there. Somehow, I managed to only fall to my knee and was able to get up and continue on, the throbbing burn a too ungentle reminder of my mortality—and of the first time I met her: a pretty girl behind a cashier counter in a printed tan smock.

Her name tag says, Rachel. She smiles at me, a perfect stranger. “Hi.” 

“You work here?” I instantly feel stupid. There’s a slight hitch in time, and I imagine the second hand of a giant clock going tick, tock

“What gives you that idea?” She laughs. My face turns red. 

“I do too. I mean … I used to. I mean I still do, it’s just that I twisted my ankle a couple of weeks ago.” I hold up my crutches a little higher just to make sure she didn’t miss them. “But I’ll be back next week.” 

“Does it hurt bad?” She sounds like she actually cares. The ache in my left ankle noticeably lessens. 

“Cried like a baby,” says David, my best friend, who I forgot was next to me, “just stepped off a curb carrying a case of Pabst. Next thing you know, he’s rolling around on the ground, grabbing his ankle and screaming like a girl.” He jabs me with his elbow, laughing, smiles at Rachel and charitably adds, “Doesn’t take pain too well.” 

I shrug and look away, “Yeah. Pretty stupid, huh? See ya around.” I turn and crutch walk to the service counter to pick up my paycheck.

The burning in my ankle had faded to a tolerable presence as I passed the sign on a wooden post at the side of the trail that said, “Congratulations, you’re halfway there.”

From down the trail I heard voices, which puzzled me as I didn’t remember any other cars parked at the trail head. The voices rounded a switchback below me, two people side by side with strong sure steps made possible by the two generations of separation between them and me. I stood off to the side, not sure if he even saw me; but she did, her hair of the same color of long ago. As she looked up at me with blue eyes and smiled, time stopped and I was in a place where I’m young and—she walks into the kitchen where I’m studying. It’s late, and I look up from my chemistry notes. “Are you okay, sweetie?” I stand up and pull out a chair but she doesn’t sit down and I see that she’s wearing her shoes. 

“I think it’s time. Finally. I’m sick of this.” Her hands are clasped under her belly like the weight of our child is too much for her back to bear alone. 

“I know. I know, sweetie.” I feel completely helpless, like I should be doing something but knowing not what. “Should I get the kids ready?” I ask. 

“No. It’s late, and I don’t think I’ll deliver for a few hours.” The overhead light accentuates the shadows under her eyes and I have an urge to lay her down and tuck covers under her chin. “The contractions are still at least twenty minutes apart.” She says it clinically, detached, as though she’s talking about somebody else. 

“How long?” 

“Over the past hour or so.” She walks to the row of wall hooks behind the door and grabs her jacket. “I’m going to drive myself. I’ll call you when it gets closer.” 

“I don’t know, Baby, I’d feel better if I drove you.” I’m confused and can’t believe that I didn’t think this through better. “Let me get the kids and I’ll see if I can drop them at my aunts.” 

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Michael, it’s not my first time. I’m telling you that it’s going to be a few hours at least and the longer we stand here talking about it, that much closer it’s going to be.” 

“Okay.” I help her into the car. The seat is all the way back and as I click in the lap belt I see a sliding movement under the fabric of her blouse, stretched tight across the swell of her tummy and it’s like my heart flips over in my chest. Jesus Christ, I murmur. I can’t believe I’m letting her go. 

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. Love you.” And then she was gone. 

The kids and I make it to the hospital a half-an-hour before our youngest is born. I have Samuel watch his little sister and littler brother in the waiting room because my aunt didn’t want to leave her dogs alone; and because she didn’t really have places for the kids to sleep she said from behind the half-opened door of her apartment, running a tentative hand across the four pink rollers evenly spaced, front-to-back, on the top of her head. 

I’m writing a newsletter about gardening and soil pH in my home office when the phone rings. I hear her answer, and then I hear her say, “Yes,” and her voice sounds strange. Then a terrible sound I’ve not heard before surrounds me, squeezing my heart with fingers of fear. I know someone has died. I rush into the room, crying for I knew not who, and she is standing there with her mouth open and a primeval keening, like light escaping from a fracture in a sealed vessel—forever gone, forever lessened, forever changed. We bury our second child three days later. 

In the trees I wasn’t sure if it was sun or cloud overhead. I wasn’t sure if it was rain on my face, or tears. I heard her soft voice ask me if I was okay and I realized that I hadn’t moved. She stood before me and her face was wet, too, and I thought that it must have been raining. I told her that I was fine, that she reminded me of someone, and then I turned and started again for the bottom just as her partner came around the switchback. 

I stopped by the rope swing hanging from an ironwood tree at the bottom of the trail. It too was as I remembered it.

Her toes pointing out, back arched, hair hanging down, she looks backwards at me from the apogee of her arc, laughing. I hear the creak of rope on bark overhead and smell the faint scent of her perfume, flowers and citrus and sea all at once as I push her forward and up, again and again, not wanting the day to end. 

I heard the creak of the rope on bark overhead, the worn driftwood plank passing back and forth, causing a gentle current in the air that tickled the hairs on my leg, unaware that I’d even pushed it. Not much further now, the low roar of the surf is close. Through the trees, I saw the blue, and her—

Impossibly blue eyes open a final time. “Remember Polulu Valley,” she whispers. 

“Yes, honey. I remember.” I hold her hand. It is cool and dry. She smiles, her head sinking back into the pillow and as her gaze slips away and she closes her eyes. I know that she is there. We are alone, in our bedroom in our home with pictures of our children on the walls. It is late—early morning, and I have a window opened even though it is cold out. I lean over to kiss her but have trouble finding her lips because I can’t see through the fog of tears hot against my face. 

There was a rock for me to sit and take off my shoes. The coarse black sand felt cool against my feet, each step a perfect fit. I took the ashes from my backpack and walked into the foaming water. Voluminous clouds of postcard perfection moved leisurely across the sky. The warmth of the morning sun, already well above the horizon, was marred only by a gentle offshore breeze and the scattered drops of ocean spray, lifted from the wave crests by the wind, against my skin. 

When the water was at mid-thigh, I opened the plastic container that the funeral home had given me. I had told them that I didn’t want anything fancy or heavy, that I wanted something more portable. I held it above the swells that were coming in at waist level. I wanted to be far enough out for the surge to take her. I heard the wave break against the shore behind me, and as I felt its pull against the back of my legs I poured the ashes into the water. They were white and pale grey, and then they were around me and I felt their brittle granular texture against my skin, like thousands of tiny bubbles. I didn’t notice the wave that lifted me off my feet, and before I could stand up I felt the undertow pulling me out. I didn’t have the container any more but I saw tiny diamonds of light in the water around me, against me. She felt close. I wasn’t afraid. 

I discover that the key to drowning is to not have any expectation of ever again taking air into your lungs.

I am surrounded by blue and my only sensation of orientation is a vague lighter blue that must be up. I hear the mournful cries of whales calling. I miss her. I open my mouth and with the air held in my lungs I fill the water with my own sound, the sound of my fracturing, my memory of her, the whole of us, a lifetime. I take the first tentative sniff of ocean into my nose, trickling around the back of my throat, crawling down my trachea. It feels cool and illicit as it passes into my bronchi. But in my chest it is heavy, and there is not the expected relief I thought its mere volume might bring. And then I am frantic, not yet ready to go. 

Somebody is pulling me out of the water. My chest is on fire. I cough and retch like I’m trying to turn my lungs inside out. I can’t get enough air. I have no idea of how I got from there to here, an old man with a long scar on the inside of his left ankle stretched out on a black sand beach.

The coughing stops. I can breathe better now. I see the verdant mountains of Pololu Valley in the periphery of my left eye and the polychromatic blue of the ocean in my right; the sky, a cerulean vault over me. My nostrils are filled with the scent of salt and sea and flowers, and I feel her beside me, around me. I know she’s there—it feels like light entering through the break.  

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Shaun Melarvie is a general surgeon living in Door County. His native state is North Dakota, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of North Dakota with a major in English Literature and minors in Biology and Chemistry.

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