By Simon Ó'Conchúir
He was just under the surface when he decided not to come up for air. He floated there, all of a sudden bereft of buoyancy, staring up at his own reflection. The water became so still that he began to forget which way was up. He might have been peering at himself from the banks of a silver pond. His reflection floated away from him, shrinking little by little as it did so. Looking into his own eyes, he found nothing but cold acceptance in them. Apparently, this was exactly what he wanted.
Soon he would float to a place far beyond the reach of his own visage. He would go as far away from that man staring back at him. He half-heartedly reached out to his own slowly shrinking figure as if to say goodbye for the last time.
Suddenly he felt that he was not alone. She was here too. He could see her shadow floating just below him. But he could not bear to look, keeping his eyes fixed on his reflection. But why shouldn’t he look? This was what he wanted after all. They had spoken about this many times. He would see her again. If only he looked down.
He saw his reflection extend an arm at him, looking less assured of himself after this revelation. The water rippled and splashed above him, and he saw that she was getting closer. She seemed not to move but was pulled magnetically towards him. The look in his reflection’s eyes was now one of fear. Not of the girl below him, but of the painful transition from land to water that he would surely face. Maybe he was not ready. Maybe he could stand a few years more on dry land.
That extended hand waved desperately for release. Its fingers opened and closed, pulsing like some mysterious sea creature filtering the water. It got closer the more he watched. It rose to meet him until, to his shock, he found purchase on another hand that could not have been his own.
The first breath he took was harder than any cold water plunge imaginable. For the smallest of moments, he thought he might be dead, that the silver mirror he had stared into was not water, but some portal to the other side. This then, he thought, must be his eternal torture. For his sins, he was to lay there while an overly muscular woman pounded relentlessly on his chest for ever.
“I think that he’s alright” came a voice.
“Stop that, for the love of God” came his own reply, more a cough than anything else.
His chest ached from the beating he had received. She might as well have been using him as a trampoline. With an effort he was able to flop onto his side, where he vomited up the last of the water he had swallowed.
There was a small crowd around him, now beginning to disperse. Obviously, he would not be taken away in a body-bag, so there was nothing left to see. For a moment more he failed to see the lifeguards as fellow humans. If they were sporting horns and wings, he would not have questioned it. Maybe this was a ploy of the torturers, allowing him to catch his breath and think he was safe, before starting the beatings all over again. Slowly the real world adjusted itself back into his mind.
“Should we call him an ambulance?”
The pool boasted around twenty lifeguards and instructors, far more than they really needed. Despite their great numbers, these tended to fall into three categories. The first of these were by far the smallest, these were mostly older veterans who looked like they had swam for most of their lives. Some of them had been at this very pool for over fifteen years. Men and women alike were rippling with muscle, though they were hardly ever in the water during opening hours. Despite the apparent lack of use, these muscles were surely well worked and ready for action, if the pain in his chest was anything to go by.
The second group were the most numerous, making up the majority of instructors. Most of them looked like they hadn’t swam a day in their lives. They barely looked qualified to float, never mind teach children how to swim. They sat, overflowing in their highchairs, almost the same colour as the faded plastic. Only one of these had bothered to descend the steps to check on the drowning man.
Lastly there was the young blood. They were all girls, and almost all of them were straight out of college. Those colleges, from all across the country, had a way of producing identical graduates. Every single one wore glasses in the same round-style. This, coupled with their tied-back hair and uniform style of dressing (almost exclusively close fitting t-shirts and thigh length gym shorts) made them impossible to tell apart.
It was from one of these college-clones that the question had come. At the thought of another hospital visit he sat bolt upright and waved her away.
“No that’s alright, I just need some fresh air is all.”
With some quick thinking he was able to convince them he had some mild form of epilepsy that made it hard for him to concentrate on simple tasks, breathing for instance, while tired from swimming. He was able to assure them in so many words that he would be sure to be careful and would take a break from the water for a while. With a few mumbled words of thanks to the muscled woman who’d rescued him, he made his way into the changing rooms as quickly as he could.
The full reality of what he had seen started to come back to him. He had felt her there with him, just below. No. It couldn’t possibly have been her. He was deluded. Merely a hallucination of his oxygen starved mind.
But it was not the sight of her that had set him off. It was the feeling he’d gotten while she was there. There are some people one can get so used to, that no indication from the other party is needed to be assured of their presence. That was the kind of feeling that apparition had brought up in him.
With a promise that he would visit his doctor the second he got the chance, he practically sprinted into the changing rooms. He was being too obvious, he’d have to cancel his pool membership after this. Already he had left a pool in the next town over for similar reasons. If he had another episode like that in the area, then people would talk.
All along the beach was calm. Far from being simply a mild day, the sand sky was devoid of their usual swarming life. The birds had flown off to roost, the crabs and worms had all buried themselves deeper than any hand could dig. For this was anything but calm. Every living organism within miles of the shore was stricken with panic, for these were their last few moments before the oncoming storm.
The only animals that seemed unaware of this unspoken curfew were the scant few people out for their evening walks. There are very few nowadays that pay much attention to storms, aside of course, when it directly inconveniences them. How high has man climbed to call the full force of the sea a mere ‘inconvenience’. Bird and beast knew well the power of that greatest of mistresses that has wooed and vexed mankind for all eternity. The men and women of old knew it too. The Book of Jonah showed what power God could bring upon man through His watery child. Odysseus was punished for his pride by the sea, dooming himself to exile and his crew to their graves. Even Gilgamesh knew how quickly the works of man could be washed away by unforgiving waves.
But modern man has forgotten what was once known well. They hide in their houses of bricks and poured stone, thinking nothing of the raging tempest just outside their own doors. But brace yourselves, men and women of the enlightened age. What you have taken generations to build, the sea will inevitably destroy!
It was on a day just like this that he had last spoken to her. She sat on one of the highest dunes, overlooking the whole length of the coast. Her hair had swirled around her in a great whirlwind, leaving a trace of the oncoming storm in her face. He struggled with all his might to recall what it was she had said to him. But it was as if the wind had snatched the words away before they could enter his mind.
How many times had he come back to this spot? How many times had he looked across the beach, expecting to see her, bent into the wind and carrying her shoes in one hand? With what foolish expectancy had he looked up at every passing voice, hoping to hear his name on her lips again?
So caught up was he in the memory of that day, of her face catching the last rays before sunset, that he almost forgot Anne was there behind him. She laid her hand on his shoulder, much in the same way their mother might.
“It was here, wasn’t it?”
“And you don’t remember what she said?” He shook his head. “She gave no clue where she might be going?”
“Nothing at all. She mentioned once that she’d like to visit her dad though. Only in passing, nothing concrete.”
“Where is he then?”
“Presumably in the same place as she is.”
And that was the thing. That one passing comment was one of the only times she had ever mentioned her father. Her mother was dead, as far as he could tell. But the only thing she had ever told him about her father was that he lived on a great plain where he raised horses.
The sheer absurdity of the whole thing crashed in on him again. What kind of bitch leaves a man high and dry like that? Not a word of goodbye. They couldn’t be sure whether she was alive or dead.
But then there was that feeling. He couldn’t just cut her out of his life. For one, he still loved her. If there was anything he could be sure of, it was that. That feeling was so strong in him, that it had the adverse effect of making him believe she loved him in the same way. Such a love does not work in one direction. As solid and as deep-rooted as a mountain was this belief. If she were alive, she had not left him because of anyone else.
“Do you want to go back inside?” came Anne’s voice again.
“No thanks, I don’t like how quiet that house is now.”
She left her hand on his shoulder for a while longer, before setting off inland back home.
He stood there for a long time. Watching the ebb and flow of the tide, the darkening sky, and the fast approaching storm clouds. He lingered in this limbo for what seemed like ages. The whole scene was almost silent, save for the waves. He realised that, like the sea, he had been in the calm before the storm ever since she had left him.
Maybe one day soon, he would finally snap. Anne certainly seemed to think so. She never said it, but he could read plainly the sadness in her eyes. She had reserved the same look for their mother. That feeling of waiting, of knowing that things will only get worse, of being unable to do anything at all for someone.
At the end of it all, she had been glad their mother was gone. That one little thought had broken her in ways he could not imagine. Though she had never told him, he had read the relief she had tried so hard to hide from the world.
That was the way Anne looked at him. After all that had happened, she seemed constantly on the verge of shipping him off to some mental hospital far away. There was nothing else that she could do. If she had to nurse him as well, then it would probably kill her.
His back was to the wall within the enclosed realm that was his own thoughts. It was as if he stood at the end of a great blocked drain. The water would soon rush in and crush him, but for the moment he could do nothing but wait for the torrent to come.
How many stormy nights had he passed outside like this? Waiting for something or hoping things would suddenly all become clear. As if, in a moment it might click into place and he’d know for sure she had left, and where she had gone.
The cloud suddenly parted, leaving a single line of moonlight streaming down onto the dark, surging water. The waves broke up into white caps, foam shot up in great pillars. In that white light he thought he could see her once more.
She stood upon a great pearly chariot, abreast two white horses, reared up with the full force of the sea. Though an otherworldly countenance, hers brought only calming thoughts to his mind. Her hair floated about her as if submerged. Her blue-green gown rustled softly as if she were constantly facing into a gentle breeze.
Two grey eyes looked at him from across the water. They were like jewels set into some ancient rock upon the sea floor. The constant ebb and flow of the tides, the eternal currents had smoothed that face down, washed away all impurities. Such is what happens to all who spend their time on the sea. For even the harshest piece of glass may one day be turned into a gem by the caress of the waves.
He found that his soul was a great slab of rock. It was rough, unpredictable, only partly shaped. With her help he could shape himself into something, anything but the thing he now was.
"It might take ages” he said aloud to himself.
He said it as if there was hesitation in his heart, but by the time he had first opened his mouth, he was already ankle deep in the surf. She turned her chariot, the horses clopping as if the sea were glass. She watched him with open arms, the way she had done in the pool.
As he dove deeper into the raging waves, he thought of his life up until this point, and what it could be like if she had stayed. Where would he be if she had never left him? What had she seen while she was gone? Her eyes seemed to tell him that it was alright, she knew the way forward. This whole time she had merely been looking out for him. Scouting out the safest route over the darkness that lay ahead.
His mind rushed across the sea to lands unknown to man. She said her father had lived on a great plane. And what greater plain is there but the sea? The greatest of sharks and whales wander through her like cattle upon fields of lush grass. And what horses! What better horses could a man ask for, than those white caps that rush so swiftly down their watery slopes?
The waves pulled him further out. The sea was his ally. She would bring them together once more. They would roam that great plain, across to the farthest point, down to the furthest depths.
He would find himself out there, under the stormy sky, or far down in the inky blackness.
Anne stood on the sandy hillock where they had last talked. All around her the storm had raged the night before. The calm of the last few days had been shattered. Now, bits of wood, rock, and dead fish lay strewn across the sand.
The place was alive again, despite this. Gulls flitted about, pecking at scraps and swooping at crabs. Far off on the water, Anne could spy seals lured here by the promise of plentiful fish. For there was certainly an abundance. They leapt now and then from the water into the air, whether from predators, or simply from the joy of having escaped the storm was impossible to tell.
The beach brought life and death so close together as to be one and the same. As it blurred the line between land and sea, so too did it blur the realms of this world and the next.
Amidst all that new abundance of life, Anne couldn’t catch a glimpse of her brother. There were no words to describe her relief.
About the author:
Simon Ó'Conchúir is an Irish writer, born in the south Dublin town of Clondalkin. He graduated from University college Dublin in 2020 with a BA in History & Politics, and again in 2021 with an MA in Medieval Studies. He currently lives and works in Dublin City.