Adrift

The sky had slipped from bold in its blueness to a softer pastel, its pink-tinged glow reflected in the limpid sea. The local fishermen were busy at the far end of the beach. Some men gathered the large gauzy fishing nets together in neat parcels, to be stowed for a few hours, others coiled ropes and one man sluiced away the debris of their work from the bottom of the boat. The women had come to meet them and they sorted through the day’s catch, throwing fish into baskets that briefly pulsed then fell still. Crows picked at the discarded fish carcasses and the stray dogs lay, licking their deformities.

The scene at the other end of the beach was entirely different. Families were clustered around the rocks – holiday-makers who wondered at the peace of the place even as they interrupted it with a chaos of children, buckets and spades and bags of belongings. The children lay strewn about on the sand. Some were grouchy now the excitement of dipping their toes in the sea had faded. Others were rubbing distractedly at their skin where it pricked with dried-out saltwater, their heads drooping with sleep. A few still scampered, squealing with the very last of their energy, faces glowing from the day’s burning sun. The adults had begun packing up the paraphernalia of parenthood, making ready to go. The moat of the afternoon’s sandcastle had been filled now and the towels drawn back out of the creeping water’s reach.

It was as if they had been woken from a spell by the swift disappearance of the sun, which had plummeted into the sea and lain there briefly, bleeding red light, before sinking out of sight. It was time to leave the beach to the mosquitoes and the crabs, and retreat to verandas lit by candles decorated with shells. Children would be stowed in bedrooms and parents would adjust their hearing – the day’s squeals and laughter giving way to the thrum of crickets and the brush of breezy palms.

But first they must gather everything together and leave their spot, running back and forth to the cars parked at the fringe of the beach and piling their baggage inside. No one minded whose flip-flops were whose, or which towels belonged to which villa; everyone gathered as many things as they could and carried them in precarious armfuls to the cars to be dusted of sand and sorted later. Birds wheeled above, clutching their catch and flying away.

After bags came children. Toddlers were carried to the cars with arms flung around necks and legs clamped onto hips. Someone did not have enough hands to manage the youngest – a baby sleeping in its carrycot. It sat perched on a rock like a bird’s nest, fringed with broken-off mussel shells and glowing green algae. The tide was coming in but they did not feel any urgency from the placid expanse of water, a picture-perfect postcard scene. They couldn’t know how it crept up quickly, cautiously at first, then bold.

There was only a minute, perhaps less, when all of the adults were loading the cars or rushing things to them. But the wave needed no more time than that. One single push, a strong swell and the carrycot was gently lifted from its perch. Shells were picked up too, and some small pieces of rubbish that had escaped attention.

As quickly as the water had swept up it drew back, revealing sand once more and a light sheen of water on the rock. And so when they saw it, they didn’t understand how the baby, left moored on a rock surrounded by sandy beach, should be bobbing gently out at sea on an innocent-looking wave.

The baby slept on as the waves whispered their lullaby.




Penelope Thinks She Remembers Her Father

Periboea hid her infant daughter as soon as she was born, knowing that Icarius had wanted a son. As soon as Icarius discovered the baby girl, he threw her into the sea to drown. However, a family of ducks rescued her. Seeing this as an omen, Icarius named the child Penelope (after the Greek word for “duck”) and raised her as his favorite child.

I was three when I fell into the pool at my father’s friend’s house. I was climbing up on a chair and the next thing I knew, the chair was sliding to the side and I was being taken with it. I wasn’t scared as I felt the world tipping, carrying me tightly. I heard the splash, the cool water wrapping itself around me, and then the muffled underwater sounds of people yelling, one (probably my mother) screaming, and then the hands grabbing my dress and yanking me backwards. I turned around to look and there was my father, his hands on me, setting me on the side of the pool in front of him, smoothing out my dress and my hair over and over and scolding me softly for being too near the water.

Maybe I did smile and that’s what made him cry, just a little, as he kept his hands on my legs, holding a girl in a sunshine yellow dress, who was dripping, melting into him, melting into me. You would think that it would be like the child who fears dogs after being bitten by one. Me — I adored the water and felt no fear of it. Water muffled all sound and made the world reassuringly blurry and, sometimes, when you least expected it, people came after you if you plunged in too deeply, people who pulled you toward them and with them. I loved the water from that moment onward.

I dream of it, live in it. And in it, I sometimes see him coming toward me, a hazy vision swimming closer and then, as if suddenly caught in a school of fish, moving away into the shadows, disappearing into the watery divide that always holds me away from him, as if my father is pulling me back gently, telling me, you don’t need to go. You are safer here, in my warm, watery world, where nothing is clear, nothing is sure, where the world floats in and out of focus.

I ache to rise to the surface, to learn what real vision is like in the hot fire of the sun, to learn what real sound is like above the hazy, muted surface of the water. Above the rippling surface I am sure there is the clear song of a voice, someone calling me.

But I’ve chosen my fate: to spend my life in the underwater days of believing I once had a father, a father who loved me, a man who would risk his life to save me.