The Bermudian magazine is delighted to introduce the short story runner-up from this year’s Short Story & Poetry Contest, themed “The Sea”.
Two Feet to the Sea
by Sherma Webbe Clarke
I had been dipping my toes in the sea all of my life, but MaryEllen dove right in, arms pointed in front of her head, touching at the fingers like the nose of a dolphin. She disappeared under the lapping waves of tossing ocean. I scanned the turquoise water for her navy one-piece bathing suit, skirted like my mother would wear. I shielded my eyes from the sun with my hand and stared at the spot where I last saw her, between a group of young people talking and the woman playing a game with her toddler. The child’s squeals carried all the way from the bubbly surf to my lookout point on the pink sand. Her mother lifted her in and out of the water in a playful vertical zigzag, but the child seemed eager to be free to frolic about on her own. I looked away from them and searched again for the stranger who had appointed herself as my beach buddy when she plopped her lime green, canvas tote bag next to me and introduced herself only an hour ago.
“C’mon in. The water’s unbelievable!” she had shouted back to me when she first splashed into the water.
MaryEllen had swum farther away now, past the glassy shallow surf to the clear, green area where most of the swimming population congregated, playing water games or floating on inflated plastic mattresses. She moved confidently toward the jagged volcanic rocks that formed a black oasis out where the sparkling blue color heralded deeper water. As she approached the rocks, I worried that she might experience a sudden cramp, cut her foot on the sharp surface, or get stung by a Portuguese Man o’ War. She might expect me to help her, but I was afraid of the water. She waved to me when she clambered onto the rocks safely, so I simply waved back.
“Almost there. You can do it!” MaryEllen yelled out to other swimmers approaching the rocks, just as my sister had called to me, waving her arms back and forth in the water below to keep herself afloat.
I was ten and until then I had managed to avoid any contact with the ocean that involved real swimming. Eager to keep up with my older sister that summer, I tagged along through the tracks to a clearing where she and her friends spent long, humid days jumping off the rocks into the refreshing water. Pretending to be part of her group, I sat on the grass among their abandoned pedal bikes and watched. When I felt a drop on my bare shoulder, I looked up into the face of mischief. I didn’t scream until I was midflight, falling five feet down into the sea. My body broke the surface in a ball and the water covered my neck, ears, and head in quick, successive gulps. My flailing became an ungraceful, instinctive dog paddle.
“Swim, Shay!” my sister’s voice urged through the gurgling in my ears.
“Do the dead man’s float!” another suggestion came. I kept paddling afraid the sea would swallow me into its abyss if I stopped moving. My chest burned from the exertion of trying not to drown. Was something nibbling at my feet? My frantic efforts brought me to the verge, and I heaved myself up the grass back to my spot among the bikes. I listened to the laughter and splashing below as my sister and her friends resumed their play while I pouted until my heartbeat slowed to normal.
“I can’t believe you live a mere ten-minute walk from the beach and you don’t do this every day,” MaryEllen was saying, rubbing her fleshy arms with her towel. “Or once a week at least,” she added.
“I like to walk on the beach, and I still get the benefit of negative ions. Doesn’t that count?” I asked.
“If I lived here, my bathing suit would always be out on the line to dry. I’d buy a boat, go snorkeling, and try my hand at deep-sea fishing,” she said. She squirmed until she found a comfortable position on her towel and pulled a small camera from her tote bag to take pictures.
“When I go back in, you’re coming, too,” she announced.
“Can’t,” I answered, tapping my book. “I want to finish this chapter.”
MaryEllen made a noise of disbelief and turned toward the group of young people standing in the water and snapped their picture. The sea was alive, inhabited, and moving. Earlier in the summer, my pastor baptized three new members at Horseshoe Bay Cove, while tourists watched us with curiosity as we sang “Take Me to the Water”. The following week, my husband and I found a good spot at Horseshoe Bay to enjoy the comedy playing at the “Movies on the Beach” night, but I spent more time listening to the relaxing crash of the surf and gazing at the stars than watching the movie. Dutifully, I stood at Albouy’s Point twice a day for a week to meet the boat the summer my daughter completed the White’s Island swimming program. I often took the ferry to work to avoid the slow crawl of rush-hour traffic.
Life had been dotted with interactions with the sea, even after the horror of being thrown overboard. I respected her like a pen pal with whom I had a relationship that I treasured, but I figured we would never be inextricably linked in the intimate, face-to-face, we-finish-each-others’-sentences way of inseparable friends. I left that to the early-morning, year-round swimmers, fishermen, triathletes, water sports enthusiasts, and the kids on summer vacation who spent their days jumping off the rocks across the Island just as generations had done before them. I looked at MaryEllen. She could have been one of them, coming home each evening salt encrusted and dragging sand into the house on her legs, sandals, and drenched towel, had she grown up in Bermuda.
“Lived in Paris all my life, y’know,” she said after a while.
“Wow, really?” I asked, my interest sparked.
“Not the fancy Paris in France,” she said. “Paris, Illinois, in the United States.” She looked at me to watch my deflated expression. She pushed her puffy feet into the soft sand to shield them from the assault of the sun. Their tops were already tingeing red against the fair skin of her legs, and my brow had broken out into a sweat under my large-brimmed straw hat.
“Yup, this is my first trip out of the country—out of state even. My husband called it our Paris-to-Paris adventure.”
“What made you stop in Bermuda?” I asked her. “Couldn’t you have flown right to France?”
“Never seen the ocean before, and you guys are surrounded by it. And you’re small, like Paris, so I figured I couldn’t go anywhere on the Island without seeing it,” she said, her greying pony tail flopping from side to side as she looked around.
“I love the sound of the ocean, the smell. It’s like paradise here,” she said. I felt my back straighten with pride, as if I had anything to do with the first impression the Island made on visitors upon their approach into the airport. On a day like today, with clear blue skies dotted by wispy clouds, I could imagine the intakes of breath and the ooohhs as passengers peered through the airplane windows to get their first glimpse of turquoise water where the sea spills onto the coastline. The cabin would fill with the rumble of chatter of unreserved anticipation. The ocean had that kind of draw.
“Y’know, at my hotel, there’s a statue of Mark Twain, just sittin’ there like you could ta
lk to him. So I sat down on that bench, like we could have a real conversation, and I imagined him describing his steamship journey to Bermuda back in the 1800s, all seasick and such.” She held my wrist as if to show she had more to say.
“‘And then the beautiful Bermudas rose out of the sea,’” she said, quoting the famous writer. “I mean, I came on a plane but I think I understand what he was talkin’ about, that first glimpse.”
I gave her my full attention, but she avoided my eyes as I sat quietly beside her.
“My husband, Frank, died of cancer last year, before we could take this trip together,” she said. “The kids have got their own families now. My youngest, Kyle, joined the Army. Came to the diner where I work and said he’s gonna see the world.” She let out a short laugh. “Then I thought, ‘MaryEllen, you’ve been working hard in this diner for more years than looks good on a woman, and you haven’t seen nothin’ of the world.’ So I figured why not take the pennies me and Frank saved up and see something new.” She inhaled and exhaled deeply, looking around as if satisfied by her decision. “Bermuda is a paradise, but I had to go through hell to get here—pardon my French,” she said, modifying Mark Twain’s words to express her own situation. “Frank would’ve been okay with this,” she said finally.
“How long are you staying?” I asked her, ready to make suggestions on what to see during her visit.
“Three little days,” she said, “before I go on to Paris. The fancy one in France this time.”
Then suddenly her body shifted and again she was on her feet.
“Let’s have one swim together before I have to go, okay?”
Without waiting for agreement or protest, MaryEllen lumbered across the sand and plunged into the water. She executed perfect butterfly strokes in a race against no one and nothing, then dove under water, disappearing head, body, legs then feet as if being swallowed by quicksand.
Every year I promise myself I will take advantage of my proximity to the sea, even if I have to clutch my niece’s Styrofoam noodle to get over my initial trepidation. Instead, I sit on the shore and guard wallets, towels, and picnics while family members cool off in the sea. Or, like today, I sneak away to the beach with a book for a short respite and hover in its company, like a wallflower at a school dance.
Eventually, MaryEllen’s head reappeared, bobbing in rhythm with the waves. She enjoyed her brief moments in the water as vigorously as I had squandered years of being surrounded by its beauty. I thought of Frank who should have been floating weightlessly under the brilliant sun or splashing his wife’s face playfully with the salty water. MaryEllen motioned to me to come, and without hesitation, I stood and walked boldly to the edge of the sea.