Aqua Vitae

This room has four walls, but it is also without walls, expanding past the fragile steel of my skull. A fragment of me looks at rows and rows of glass bottles that harbor remnants of some yesterday. I am there, fingers tracing along bumpy corks and smooth, cool glass. Memories pulse beneath like a plasma bowl, striking out in purples, blues. 

*

On the bottom shelf there is a bulbous, ill-formed globe filled with the pure white sands of my childhood. Halfway buried is a single baby carrot peeking out from the miniature dune. I uncork the glass; it sticks with disuse. In a cloud of salt, sunbaked sand, and the lingering scent of fish, I remember the feel of a scratchy blanket beneath my soft toddler flesh. My mother slathers me in sunscreen while I munch on baby carrots drenched in ranch dressing; the coolness of ice water-logged vegetables in my mouth with delightful crunches. Hair drying beneath the shade of a hat, I fill my stomach while my mother and aunt talk, their words garbled through smudged glass. Lifting another orange ranch-dressing boat to my lips, it falls from my fingers into the sand. I pick it up again and eat it, unperturbed.

*

Standing up in my little cranial crypt, I find a new bottle that is well-formed, its insides dusky, the white sand glowing against darkness. A scrap of denim rests atop. The cork pops off. Inside I am younger, though I certainly thought I was wise then. I no longer go out on the sun laden beaches if I can help it, my skin having become fair, luminescent, vulnerable. I miss the ocean. Coming home from a place so landlocked that you refuse to eat anything brave enough to call itself “seafood,” it makes you want the roar of waves, coolness licking at your toes. And though it is too late in the year for swimming, I make my best friend get out of bed at two in the morning and drive us to a shore that we used to know. She does it happily, not sleeping is her hobby. I take off my shoes ten minutes before we park in preparation. The sand is still warm when we walk across the boardwalk, squeaking between our toes. Bioluminescence blinks us to the shoreline that glitters beneath the weakness of stars and valiance of a full moon. The chilled water welcomes me home, says that it has missed me. Somewhere down the coast a laugh shoots out through the night over the call of gulls. I unbutton my jeans, pull off my shirt, and toss them aside into a sandy pile. My skin breaks out in goosebumps as I wade out into the current until I can dive at last beneath the first wave big enough to knock me down. I breach the surface with a howling cry, not certain if I’m pain or pleasure. Perhaps both.

*

Looking at these bottles makes my heart sink as my hand naturally trails to a bottle of sludge, marring whiteness irrevocably. It smells like dying. When I heard the news, I fell apart. I didn’t really know why. The thought of oil flooding into our gulf felt like the violation of a sanctuary. Fish went belly-up for days, weeks really, until we were sure that Mother Nature had run out of such creatures. Our city was a natural disaster, an oozing sore, but so was the rest of the state. I scrubbed rocks clean with dish detergent the way they do in commercials. It’s not glamorous. It smells. It makes you angry. But you do it because you want to fix the issue the best you can, whatever that could mean. During a lunch break, I watch tar balls wash up on shore, burst into shimmering colours. It’s almost beautiful.

*

There are other bottles of sand, some filled with blood from when I cut my hand open on a rusty bolt on a pier at a church fellowship meeting. Another smells like the sunscreen I forgot to put on when I got a third degree burn on my shoulders after three hours on the beach, back when I cared about getting a tan. Freckles serve reminder for days like that. But this one, this bottle has a crab living in it, scuttling about in circles when it thinks I’m not looking. My mother and I sit in uncomfortable seats on a deck years after the sea purged itself. We’re eating crabs, the way we do when we haven’t seen each other in a long while. My fingers are smooth with butter, a cut stinging from lemon. My mother laughs at something I’ve said, her straight white teeth gleaming and lips stained blue by a tropical drink. Down below amid white Christmas lights is a man who plays a guitar and sings songs that tourists like, the ones about drinking on the beach at five o’clock. Wind whips through the second floor, fluttering napkins, basket liners, oyster shells. Just beyond is a crashing wave upon sand that seems a shade darker than it was when I was younger. I turn away from the setting sun that tickles the deceptively smooth surface of sea. All that matters is my mother’s laugh.

*

Despite the pounding in my heart, I don’t travel to the sea anymore. I visit it here in the safety of this shady place while I remember the way a wave curls before crumpling under the weight of itself, creating a tumbling avalanche. In and out. In and out. It’s a breathing thing. There are empty bottles that line the wall, too. Sooner or later they will be filled with sands of different lands, bits and pieces of my life trapped inside of them. Sort of like being locked away, but more like being preserved.

*

These grains get stuck
in grooves of my being,
making up my breath,
compose my song,
filling me up like clouds
evaporating into sunshine.

*

Whatever you might want to call it, the ocean is all the same. Parts of it are colder, more volatile, deeper than others; naming it different things doesn’t change that. Giving some part the name “Pacific” is like assigning the label “arm.” Parts of a whole. My belly is soaked by morning dew as I lay down in the courageous grass that grows on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, untouched by tourists’ footsteps. I watch the waves kamikaze into sheer rock beneath a wailing gull. In some strange way, I’m home more than a thousand miles away. Yes, this piece of the ocean smells different, its salt sharper as it has been chilled by years of geographic spread. Beneath the surface are creatures who prefer this to warmth given in a gulf. I wonder, if I jump now could I swim home before supper? My aunt discourages. We instead hop over a gate into a field of bleating sheep, ignoring a sign that says: “Keep out.”

*

My sixteenth birthday is spent abroad, away from all of my family except for the benevolent aunt who brought me. We rent bicycles early in the morning to start the thirty mile loop that is the Ring of Dingle. I wear green corduroy pants, thinking I’m ready for an all-day affair, a leisurely ride. Like so many things in life, it starts off easy and gradually grows hills that feel like Everest. Tour busses whip by us on the curvy roads. It’s miraculous none of us die. When I stop to catch my breath, the blue waters blare beneath an uncharacteristic sun. Everything smells like the earthy scent of sheep’s wool, sometimes with the zesty undertone of freshly-pulled weeds. After walking my bike up the same hill twice through some trick of the universe, I collapse into a glass of Guinness that I’m not meant to be drinking, certainly not drowning in. I’m not supposed to be in this pub either, but it’s my birthday and they’ll make an exception.

*

In my room, I take a well-worn leather bound book off the shelf. When I first heard about the selkies, it was in a music store owned by a man who played his accordion for me after we talked about politics and he didn’t believe that I was American. “Selkies,” he tells me, his voice accented as if to suit my desire for the sound. “Selkies are very beautiful, you know. When I was a boy, I saw one once when I was fishin’ on the shore. Out she came with her brown fur gleamin’, then—” he snaps his fingers “—there she is: this gorgeous woman in nothin’ but what God gave her. Now, some might be tempted to talk to her, but I knew better. A selkie woman will only break your heart.” I ask him why. “Because for her to stay, you have to hide her seal skin. It’s the only way she’ll stay with you, but it’ll break her heart on account that she can’t go home. Don’t suppose I could ever do that to another livin’ t’ing.” My eyes trail away to a display of CDs, wondering if anyone could be so cruel. The human heart is a strange thing.

*

When I was a child, a riptide carried me out to sea. I did what my father taught me, I swam parallel the shore. By the time a lifeguard noticed me, I was crawling out of the water like the first creature to make its way to dry land.

*

My grandmother took me for walks when my mother went to work. We travelled to the end of the cul-de-sac, said hello to neighbors who were outside watering their gardens amidst Florida summer droughts, all the way down to the old boarded up house. She used to say that a man lived there alone, but I was more certain that it was ghosts. Walking through the yard, we’d find our way to a little shore where I would collect hermit crabs and driftwood that would always disappear before my mother came to get me. Some years later, that old man did became a ghost and a new family moved in, padlocked their gate.

*

Nature isn’t free. It has to be groomed, maintained, watched over, capitalized on. The beach toll was fifty cents, then seventy-five, then a dollar where it has remained for some years now. I do not begrudge this fee as it keeps the beach free of debris. Even the cost of admission to a national landmark does not bother me—keep this old fort from crumbling. But the use of a pier should not cost ten dollars just so I can cast a line. You do not own the sea or its bounties, yet act as though entitled to some commission. I’ve been to the pier’s end once, held up in my father’s arms as we watched the sunset together, the day before a cost of admission was assigned. Now, below the pier, I rest in its shade so that I don’t burst into flames on this hot summer day, and marvel that they do not charge for the privilege. 

*

I don’t remember learning to swim, but by all accounts I was a water baby, happiest in the bathtub, a pool, the sea. Maybe I liked it so much because the sensation was what I imagined flying to be like. Weightless. It’s been years since I’ve gone swimming. I’m not sure I’d even remember how.

*

Their faces were on the news for weeks: “Have you seen these boys?” Though dimly recalled, I remember a frantic mother sobbing on television, pleading for people to look for her children, that she only wanted to see them again. She got her wish a week later when their bloated bodies were fished out of canal half a mile away from my grandparents’ home. They had fallen off of their little boat, which they had taken without permission, and into the water without knowing how to swim. No one heard them cry for help. I wasn’t allowed in the backyard for months after the incident, not that I wanted to have anything to do with water. The faces of those two boys, their mother’s cries, haunted me.

*

My death will bring me
closer to God through high flames.
Send me out to sea.

*

When it started raining, it didn’t stop for two days. The canal swelled, overflowed, spilled upwards onto land, quickly overtaking the yard, then the garage, until it was intruding in on the privacy of my grandparents’ bedroom. Grandmother woke to a new kind of waterfront property. We got the call early that morning. I woke up and cried when I saw our yard littered with tree limbs, the friends who had shaded our home. We drove in the car that is now mine, so woefully unprepared for the carnage that littered the streets. Brave Samaritans took up their axes, chainsaws, whatever that could be found to clear the way. Despite such efforts, we only made it a quarter way down the road, stopping short of the water line. My mother locked me in the car while she waded hip deep, disappearing for so long that I thought that she had surely drowned. At last emerging, my grandparents followed with a suitcase each. Even from so far away, I could see her older eyes rimmed in red. Sitting next to me, my grandmother smelled of mildewed swamp: sweet and ghastly. Her tears only added to the flood.

*

I don’t smoke, but sometimes I like to pretend that I can pull off a mahogany pipe or long-stemmed cigarettes. Cancer does not exist here in this cerebral study. Sunshine streams in through my eyes to shine on my bottle collection who call out to me from behind tempered glass. Every day the wall grows taller, wider, until surely there can be no more room. Some are pushed to the back where they gather dust and cracks, rarely retrieved, but there they remain. One bottle sits open on my desk: I hear waves and the gleeful screams of my past self. I smell seawater, that familiar home, and ache for something I can longer name.

bam

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