Deep-Water Drift

Daniel Reiter Click to

Dan_Reiter_photoDan Reiter writes at least two words every day. Some of them have been published by Tin House, The Florida Review, Hobart, Burrow Press Review, McSweeney’s, Matchbook, Spork, Word Riot, WhiskeyPaper and [PANK]. He came up with this story one windy afternoon in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while sitting on his surfboard. Read more:

Chase works the edge of the pool with the shovel, sweat plinking from the tips of his hair, chittering out the perpetual monologue of the eight-year-old boy. Mallory, elfin-eared, eleven, sits squinching her brown toes in the delicious warmth of the bottom sand. This is the musical simplicity that appeals to her: the chunch of her brother’s spade, the whisper of the ocean shallows, the sizzle and lash of the shorepound.

She scans the wind-rippled sea for her mother… afloat somewhere on the breathing hills, out past white ropes, a blonde speck on a sky-blue board. Mallory’s eyes––Cherokee eyes, lambent as black tea––strain to the belt of darkest water, to the place where dream monsters glide white-eyed in the abyss.

A storm brews in the Sargasso: witch cauldron, twists of Saharan sand, hooded troops launched shoreward. The swell’s fury is still a few hours from this coast, but the little girl can sense it with an animal prescience, like the seagull that bends suddenly landward but cannot divine why.

Chase––tanned, towheaded, awkwardly muscled, jointed in the way of a young macaque––stuffs his shovel into the sand. “Is that good enough?” he says. “Mallory, wake up!”

She is watching her mother levitating over water. “I just remembered my dream,” she says. “I was flying over the Montessori playground.”

“Flying? I never fly in my dreams.” Chase plunges his fists into silt and bubbles.

“Do you ever try?”

“I thought if I jumped out a window, maybe. It didn’t work.”

“You have to start on the ground,” she says. “A sidewalk, or a field. You get running with the wind, like you’re paddling for a wave. When your feet feel really light, you test the air in little hopping jumps, and then, when you’re ready…”

Chase’s head snaps to attention. The father is thumping down the beach––bald, shoulders tufted, monkish, three surfboards balanced on his head. He lays them by the pool: gleaming crafstman’s pieces, hand-shaped tints of coke-bottle blue, malachite green, ripe persimmon.

“Isn’t it too big out there?” Mallory says.

“It’s four foot glass,” says the father. “Swell’s not going to hit until the afternoon.”

Chase is already kneeling at his board, scraping wax over his deck with rapid strokes. Thrumming sound, like wings.

They wade out through warm lace, toss their boards down, swim into bands of white, lattices of rainbow.

“What’s that face?” the mother says when the little girl ejects over the top of a wave. The mother turns round to look, but sees only lilac clouds glued on the low sky, the water like hammered gold.

Fresh from her bath, ponytail darkening the back of her shirt, Mallory arranges the plumeria in the bowl with zen precision, plipping them in stem-first so the pink and yellow petals overlap spiralwise. She has the same heart-shaped face, same Cherokee cheekbones as her mother. Listen: the stormswell attacks the beach: thunder made operatic by distance. Her father is away, surfing some coquina reef, her mother on a quest for groceries.

Cabbage palms flail east. A yellow butterfly dances in the front yard, tracing in backward hops and loops its doomed crusade against the wind. But what is missing from this sonata? Some whoosh, some clatter. A familiar percussion instrument. Mallory glides over polished oak floors, calling her brother’s name. His bedroom is empty. The playroom, too. The bathroom. She peeks her wet head into the steam and dust of the garage. “Chase?” His sandals are gone. And his surfboard.

She sprints across the road on fawn legs, barefoot, threading a gap in the traffic, throttle of waves like china cymbals––whiting out the hum of the northbound cars. She can see them already, a hundred feet before the crossover: monstrous salt geysers, erupting over the sea grapes, over the wooden rails. She takes the stairs by twos, wind spitting tendrils of hair into her eyes, into the corners of her mouth. The ocean rears up like a mountainscape, creased, blue, majestic.

Where is her brother? There: a lone black buoy, rising up a pleated hill, swept down again into a valley. The sea pulsates, shrugs. Folds in slow motion. Chase appears high on a glittering cliff, vanishes behind a seaglass ridge. Again he mounts a ledge, this one too steep… Mallory watches as his board flutters out from under him like a leaf, like a weightless thing.

The wind pulses. The sea oats––plumaged priests of the dunes––all bow east. Both boy and board are crushed by the white pillars.

Mallory’s heart is a mess. No surfers in the water, no fisherman, no one walking the sands. Only the slow, unfeeling waves. Building, collapsing.

Chase’s board comes up first, breaches like a tarpon, flips and flips, feathers toward shore, moving too fast, weightless. Unmoored.

Only after the set has cleared does she sight her brother again, windmilling on the milky ruins. A rip current drawing him out like driftwood.

She tests the wind in dashes and leaps. The sand scalds her soles like a skillet. So not a dream. She runs under the wrack line, hops from foot to foot on cool packed sand. Chase’s board skips along the inside reform, tumbles like a blade of grass on the rapids, fires over the shorebreak toward her, leash twitching like a cut snake. She snatches it at the water’s edge.

Chase, like a water insect, flitting in the impact zone. A cresting wave holds him up like a moth in a glass box. His arms airfoil––fragile wings––before the smack of the white paw takes him down.

Whitewater forces Mallory up into the seaweed. Board tucked under her arm, she awaits the set’s discharge. The long period swell: a chaos followed by a simmering lethargy, like a father who, after a rage, sinks into his chair to gather his breath.

Chase reappears now, smaller than before, still reeling out. Mallory feels herself pulled eastward, tugged toward him as if by a fishing line. Taste of metal in her mouth, she sprints into the water. Everything drained of sound. Blood attracting blood. Even her footsplashes are silent. She falls onto Chase’s board, slices out like a scull, shivering in terror. Clouting slick leather.

Zephyrus, wind from the west, flings the girl over the green shoals. She rises to her knees, driving, lets loose a wild bark as the horizon curtains up in the east. Here is Chase, panting, treading water.

“Get on!”

The board lurches with the boy’s added weight. Mallory shoves him to his stomach, wedges herself between his legs. A foundering vessel. Chase retching, spagging seawater. His arms like clay over the rails. The thundercloud nearly on them. Mallory throws her shoulders into her strokes. They cut a slow line toward the dark frothing hem of the world. The only safety in the deep water now. The wave climbs beneath them… she can feel herself going slick, slipping down the backside of the board.

Swan-winged Zephyrus, lover of youth, lightest of all things, shrills another gust, skims the children up and over the blunted hill. Chase’s hands, revived now, track like horse hooves on the seaskin. A second wave, bigger than the first, advances on them, teeth sparkling. Mallory digs in. Her father’s lessons: Xanthus and Balius, the storm-foot twain.

A monsoon––the spray blown off the back of first wave––swallows them whole. Blind, deafening ephemera. They pace through the torrent. Again Mallory has the wild sense of sliding off the surfboard. They are vertical. Chase is perched on the nose. She grabs hold of his legs, the board tilts, and they soar together down the backside of the wave.

Thrash of forehooves. They fight up and over the humped blue back of the third wave. Push. The fourth wave slips under them. The fifth. On the outside, the children sit up and face each other: sick at the bumping of their hearts, at the sight of the faraway tiny playhouses on the beach. Too much sky over them.

Chase’s jaw seems more square, whittled to bone, like the hard little boys up the street. His eyes smaller and blacker in his face. “It’s five waves,” he says, trying to sound tough, his voice thin as tissue paper. “Every time, five.”

“What were you thinking?” Mallory says. “You paddled out by yourself? You didn’t tell me?”

“I was fine. I caught a couple good ones. Just, my leash…” He lets loose a wet, gurgling hack. Gushes foam from his lips.

The surfboard is an eight-foot egg, sturdy enough for a boy of 48 pounds, but dubious under the weight of both brother and sister. The children kick in constant circles to maintain balance in the rollwaters. The houses are shrinking. The coastline is bent, fish-eyed, so that the Eighth-street steeple seems too close to the Cape, and the Cape too close to the water tower.

“How are we going to get in?” Mallory says.

“We’ve got to try to catch the fifth wave,” Chase says.

“And if we wipe out?”

“We don’t.”

“And if we do?”

“We swim in on the lull,” he says.

“Like you were doing before?”

The children tense in unison; another wave shoulders up in the east. They grapple into darker water. The sea builds under them, hoists them into the gale, then plunges on, dropping them in the shade of a quiet cove. The water thickens about them, and they are thrust once again into the smack of the heights. Five times they take the ride, five times are held up for inspection and let down. When the set is done, they squint through the spindrift at the sun-glossed clouds… flaming spines, tangerine feathers, golden fishbones… and paddle toward the steeple.

Impossible to know time. Late. It’s getting late. When the next set comes, the children lurch over the outer sandbar, rolling ever nearer to the heaving ledges. On the fifth wave they come dangerously close to the ten-foot vertical wall. Mallory anchors her legs, Chase whips back like a seal, and they pull back in desperation.

“How are we supposed to take that drop?” Mallory says.

Chase has no answer. They drift in the vacancy between sets. The clouds dim to pink smoke, to ash. When the next set comes, they paddle hard for the fifth wave, and for a wild slashing instant they are soaring down its face, taking a high line, the rail of the board fully engaged.

Then Zephyrus, playful Zephyrus, strikes the wave, stretches it like a sail. The board helicopters and Mallory’s hands open and Chase tumbles over her head and the world woofs into a violence of green.

“You have to learn how to take one on the head. That’s the first of all.” Bristled with sideburns, the father is a slightly less evolved animal than his little ones. “All you need to remember… are you listening? Two words. For when you take one on the head.”

Mallory can see his bright, apish eyes, can hear his voice now––two words––as she rag dolls in the spume, lungs screaming, shredded, sandblasted, sucked up and over the falls, smashed with a red scud to the sand. Two words to keep you from slipping away completely.

Go soft.”

The little girl huddles against the shellgrit, eyes closed, bubbles leaking from her lips. She lets her mind swim. In death, the beauty and pureness of all reality, which is one. She dies. She is released from the wheel. She resurrects into another sun, golden and hot, flooding her eyes. Chase is swimming away from her, glowing like an ember. She wants to call out for him, but she cannot stop the sound emitting from her throat.

How long was she under? She floats on her back, meditates on the veil of clouds, tries to calm her breaths, but the croaking persists, a frog sound, vibrato. Maybe she can slow it. Flusters of clouds, brushed dust. A hump or an aftershock of the set carries her up. She catches a dream-like glimpse of the shell necklace of the houses on the shore.

Mallory swims breaststroke toward her brother, still convulsing. His surfboard is beyond him, drifting out to sea. Zephyrus, still at work, teases it ahead, flicks it upside-down.
Chase splashes after it. Who can know time? Only the dimming sky. The children reach the stray board together, monkey atop just as the next set wells up beneath.

Clutching and giving, kicking in circles, hands interlocked, she remembers her father’s reading of Lao Tzu: “In motion, be like water, at rest, like a mirror. Respond, like the echo, be subtle, as though non-existent.”

A lull now, an Atlantic fatigue, brought on by the coming of dusk. Chase rests his head on the deck. Sobs. Water plashes over his shoulders. The first Florida star, Vega––touchpoint of Orpheus’s lyre––glints high on the charcoal field. All color drains east. Band of emerald over kingdom of gold.

The sea smooths, grows weighty and slow. Cold ebony mounds, cavernous depths beneath. What now? Unable to confront the possibility of another takedown, the children hover in this fringe between sea and sky, fuzzed convergence of inky worlds.

Subito fortissimo: an explosion of the water. A double discharge like musketfire. Enough to rattle the bones. Only a pelican, shivering out its beak. It flumps into the air, salutes, inspects them with wary eye, whispers north.

First comes the coldness. Ringing. White. An electric flow from the extremities inward. Screaming to the spine and neck. Even before the water fans to icicles, even before the hideous gleam of the white belly: the coldness. Chase is shouting, but his voice comes in muffles and echoes, bouncing at her as if from across a long corridor. She can see the stained water, red-green foam. Sees her brother ripping off his rashguard, twisting it. Sees her leg mouthed open in four or five places. Black, weeping wounds, the size of quarters. But it is the coldness that paralyzes her, makes it all so distant.

Chase is working the tourniquet, whimpering like a dog. The next wave billows in. He tightens the knot, takes Mallory by the arms. The chariot floods up, sinks achingly into the trough. They dance. Dark saline wine blooms on the rashguard. Five waves. He sets her bloody leg up on the board. Mallory, clenched all over, cannot feel her toes or fingertips. All legs on the deck. No words. Conservation of energy.

The tourniquet comes untied on the next set. Parted flesh, seep of blood. Chase blunders with the rashguard, reddens his hands, cannot seem to tie it. The little girl cracks through the cold, wrenches it taut.

Swimming shadows. Horror of violet dusklight. Another wave. Another.

When she can sustain no more, Mallory lies back on the board. The sea pities her. For a long while no waves come their way. Chase holds her stable. She sleeps.

When she wakes again, her mouth is sand, the sky a glistening plum. She sits up. Stabwounds in her right shin. Gibbous moon, low and dirty. How long was she out? Chase is shaking all over. The rashguard is black as the depths.

“I’m hallucinating,” Chase says. “Look.”

Low on the star-field, a crown of gold light, embedded with dual rubies, sweeping the distance with roving white beam. Frumming, feeble, it vanishes its way.

“I need to lie down,” Chase says.

“It’s okay,” Mallory tells him. The little boy eases back, shuts his eyes. They ride in delirium. Butterflies on the wind.

Later. Much later, the children lie braided on the deck, sleeping. Zephyrus has blown the sea flat, clean as lakewater. But a burble, a loose current, jostles them over, and they slip together into blackness.

Go soft. Allow body to react unimpeded by mind. The lungs: balloons of air, suctions giving natural pull to the surface. She hoists herself up on the board. Chase, too. Alive, both children, under the wobbling lamp of the moon.


Chase turns full round. “Do you hear that?”

Their oil-slicked backs cut mercury. Scythed silver dorsals. Telepathic spirits, blowholes ploofbreathing, eeping tickety sounds. They encircle the children. Slithery. The night sky breathes, throbs, wommm… wommm, celestial horizon brightening in slow casts of blue. The cetaceans roll and laugh, rapturous, spinning high-frequency wavelengths above the range of the ear.

Time? A spell cast by the body. Impossible to know how long before it comes––the white glint on the horizon, the shine of the fishing boat.

The water mammals blow joyously, dive deep.

The captain cuts the engine, tosses the ring over the starboard rail. The boy reaches out, takes hold. The captain hauls them in, lifts the little girl out of the water first, eases her onto white cushions.

Mallory wants to study him, this tanned stranger with his black ponytail and sunglasses, this man pouring water over her leg, over her elfin lips. She wants to understand him, but the corridor collapses.

When she opens her eyes again they are buzzing away from the light. The man at the console has his sunglasses off. He is speaking into the radio, another language. Japanese? She hoists herself into the breeze. A knife in her leg. But here is the water tower. And here is the air force base. And here, across the pink shallows: the small, sad people, some with stretchers, some in uniform, some in swimsuits. Her mother and father, poor lost creatures, wade out into the ocean. And the corridor again.

Warmth now, splashes. Cradled in the hot, hairy arms of the father, his gorilla face melted by sadness. Grunting, murmuring “my god, my god.” Feet squeaking on sand. The corridor.

A needle in her arm. Stingbite of pain. Tubes, pouches of liquid. Fleshmeat, torn and white. High-pitched whistle. Sleep.

Where is Chase? Here: stretched across the cold white corridor. His staccato voice backing the clink of wheels. She closes her eyes, and the dance continues. Surge and plummet of endless waves.


3 Responses to Deep-Water Drift

  1. Pingback: Outside the Burrow | Burrow Press

Comments are closed.