Two days later, cumulus clouds piling into the heavens, she called Marty on his cell phone.
Marty always answered the same way, no matter who was calling.
“Good morning. What a fine way to start my day.”
“You can start it by packing,” she said.
“Bathing suit. Hat. Sunscreen. Any other knickknacks you like to have close to you. I’ll supply lunch.”
“I love a beach picnic.” She heard a chair scrape. She could picture him moving around his kitchen table to the plantation shutters in the living room. An abacus clacking followed. “But it looks like rain.”
“Where we’re going, rain won’t matter.”
“Oh Lordy,” said Marty.
Cedar went over the basics, the two of them sitting at the picnic table in the shade of the dive shop awning. That Marty was a good listener and a quick study was no surprise. She knew he would consult his dive computer, with its digital gauges for depth and air consumption, as if it were the Oracle at Delphi. He absorbed the hand signals – thumb up for ascending, thumb down for descending, a quick slash across the throat for out of air, the universal okay signal, the universal distress signal (here she thought of Mass) – somberly practicing each in turn, and then running through them again. Like windows. He asked questions and asked them again. He was the model student.
She pulled the instruction sheet from under his hands before it was thoroughly soaked.
“I didn’t know it was possible for one person to sweat so much,” she said.
“It occurs when I focus,” Marty said, a trifle indignant.
“I’m going to have to find the squeegee for your forehead.” She gave him an encouraging smile. “Diving is easy as walking and you’ve absorbed everything.” She patted his hand as she stood. “Now it’s time for a cooling swim.”
Behind the dive shop, she picked out a wetsuit from the rental rack. When they came through the back door, the matronly shop manager was bending at the waist and breathing fast, a large paw sweeping helplessly just above the floor.
“Please, Miss Irma Mae. Let me get your phone for you.”
As they walked down the dock, Ernan waved and started up the engines.
“No doubt she already knows my wetsuit size,” said Marty.
“She’s in the doorway, you know.”
When Marty reached for her hand, she was so startled she nearly jerked it away.
“Let’s give them something to talk about.”
“Oh Lordy,” she said.
Justin helped Marty get his gear on board.
He gave Marty a broad smile.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You’re in for an amazing treat.”
“Yes. I am. Lucky,” said Marty.
She stood grinning, equally proud of her son’s kindness and her friend’s game effort.
Justin held the box out to Marty.
“Thank you, no. My stomach seems a trifle uneasy.”
“You’ll be okay,” said Justin. “The worst part is right now, with the engines idling at the dock. I’ll get your gear stowed away and then we’ll be off and you’ll be good.”
Cedar left Ernan alone on the bridge. She pretended to tinker with a camera as they idled from the slip.
Marty started putting on his gear as they passed the breakwater. Justin moved to stop him, it was thirty minutes to the dive site she had picked, but Cedar waved him off.
She sat on the bench beside Marty, watching him perform each action – clip in the integrated weights, tighten the straps of the BCD, check that his air was on, purge the first and second stage -- as meticulously as he checked the instruments on his plane.
When he finished, she reached around and turned off his air.
His eyes widened.
She bent close.
“You breathe this air on the way out. You’ll turn your air on right before you go in. I’ll double check. Plenty of people forget to turn it on. Ten years, I’ve only forgotten to double check once. Fussy guy, asked so many questions I forgot what I was doing. Fussy customers throw me off.”
She watched him for a long moment, his smooth face so serious.
“I’m going up to the bridge. Do you need anything?”
She touched his cheek, surprising them both.
“I’m doing you a favor,” she said. “It’s a very special place I’m introducing you to.”
When she glanced down five minutes later, Marty was sitting stiffly upright, taking deep breaths and staring solemnly out to sea. He looked like an overdressed yoga pupil.
She had chosen a shallow reef patched with large spreads of white sand bottom. Reef and sand ran flat for nearly 800 yards before finally starting a gradual slope toward deeper water. A popular beginner’s spot, the reef rarely had any current. The maximum depth, should you burrow into the sand, was forty feet. An imaginative dive instructor had named the reef “Forty Feet Max.”
Justin tied them to the mooring buoy.
Ernan bounced down the ladder. Pouring himself a water, he toasted Marty.
“To new beginnings,” he said.
“They told you to gang up on me,” said Marty.
“Since I am only doing as I am told, you can leave me the tip,” Ernan said.
Cedar shrugged into her gear and sat down on the bench beside Marty.
He was cleaning his mask with baby shampoo.
“Questions are still fair game,” she said.
“Who would do this to a friend?”
She got up and brought him a paper cup of water.
She watched him fondly. The man even drank with dignity.
“Relax, Marty. It’s fun. It’s like flying.”
“And you clean the windows first,” said Marty, tapping a finger to his mask.
“That a boy. Up you go.”
She held his elbow as he staggered to his feet. Still holding his elbow, she walked him slowly to the stern.
Standing beside him on the swim step, she conducted a last head to toe check. Each piece of gear was perfectly situated, although his eyes bulged.
“Mask a little tight?”
He shook his head. The regulator was already in his mouth.
She reached behind him and turned the tank valve just to be sure.
“Didn’t think you’d miss that one.” She patted him on the back. “You look like a pro. Not a strap out of place. Really. Now all you have to do is remember to breathe.”
Marty nodded soberly.
“Well then, you absorbed the most important lesson of all.” She squeezed his arm. For some reason she thought of Miss Irma Mae. “I’ll be right next to you the whole time. Hand on your mask, big stride,” she said and they both stepped into space.
Marty was an awful diver. Instead of tucking his arms against his side and finning easily, he clawed at the water with his arms, in the manner of a man frantically separating thick brush. The clawing of his arms was accompanied by a wholly out of sync and equally spastic kicking of his legs. It was as if he had left every shred of grace on the boat.
Although it didn’t seem possible, his buoyancy was worse. He rose toward the surface, plummeted toward the bottom, then rose toward the surface again. Finally Cedar took his hand.
Justin free dove nearby. Since the trip with Maas, Justin had eschewed tanks at every opportunity. The only time he wore a tank was when they dove with clients and he was the safety diver. But on this dive she could handle Marty, barely, alone.
Maybe it was Marty’s flailings, but on this morning Justin seemed to swim more beautifully than ever. He moved through the water like a pale dancer, his hair flowing back in waves, his fins performing a languorous, sleepy beat as he made for the sandy bottom. He didn’t so much swim through the water as meld with it, a human current.
As she escorted Marty back and forth over the reef, she kept only half an eye on her son. He moved from surface to sand with the ease of a drifting leaf, sitting lotus-legged on the sand, arms folded across his chest. She knew his eyes were shut. Maas performed the same drill. Once she glanced at her watch. When she looked again it had been two minutes. Just as her own chest started to tighten, Justin opened his eyes and rose easily off the sand. He hung suspended, smiling at her, and spread his arms wide. She waited. Nodding once, Justin finned for the surface, silver bubbles dripping from his mouth, sunlight moving across his smooth muscles.
It was a joy to behold.
Marty saw this, too. Grinning madly through his face plate, he gave her the thumbs up, quickly folding his thumb into a fist when he realized he had given the signal for going up.
She scowled at him and laughed.
Soon enough he did have to go up.
Back on the boat, Marty couldn’t stop talking. He’d been terrible in the water – he harangued himself for this – but he had been transformed. Cedar had seen this transformation in beginning divers hundreds of times, the way they went in mute and frightened, agitated hands plucking at their gear, and then, like the newly baptized, they were back on board, waving their hands now, futilely trying to pantomime the wonders they had seen.
It was the greatest joy of her job, made greater still because this was her closest friend.
She listened attentively as Marty gushed without pause; about the Hobbit forest coral, and how the schools of fish moved as one, and how the gnawing noises came from everywhere, and how the flickering sunlight was like God’s own hypnotic trick, and how he was worried about squeezing the blood right out of Cedar’s hand, and how he dove like a rubber ball.
She got him water, but he only held the cup in his hand and kept talking.
Ernan came down the ladder. He stood smiling behind his shades, waiting for Marty to take a breath.
Finally Cedar put her hand over Marty’s mouth.
“The captain has something to say.”
Ernan said, “We should go. We have afternoon divers. Where is Justin?”
She stood so suddenly her mask dropped on the deck.
She was turning to look where she had last seen him on the surface – how long had it been, she had only looked once when they first got out of the water -- when she heard a small cough. She spun and her stomach fell. Justin floated, forearms resting on the swim step, mask on top of his head, the picture no different than thousands of times before, only now the green eyes were unfocused, the expression dazed, the confident creature of the sea gone.
He looked up at her, his expression frightened and mildly surprised, like someone who has just quit in the middle of a long race they knew they would win. Like the little boy she would never let go.
She was rushing across the deck.
He waved and gave a feeble grin.
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” he said, and he began to cry.
Only after she had helped him on board, removing his fins while he sat with his head down, wrapping him in a towel to stop the shivering she knew she couldn’t stop, did she ask him what had happened.
The apology on his face broke her heart yet again.
“I’m so sorry. I pushed too far. I blacked out.” He was crying noiselessly, big, single tears sliding down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry. You were right.”
She thought it was her voice, but she wasn’t sure. She was crying now, too. She felt a hand on her shoulder.
You should have died. How could you be on this boat? You slip instantly into unconsciousness while your mother pays you no mind and a procession of lives shatter.
She touched his cheek, thanking God for its warmth.
“I hit my head on the bottom of the boat.” He said it slowly, more like a question. “If I hadn’t hit my head, I would have drowned.”
She wanted to take him in her arms and hold him there forever, but he was already standing and looking over the side. Ripples of sunlight ran across the sandy bottom.
“I hit my head on the hull,” he said softly.
She already knew, but she played the last useless card anyway.
“You must have blacked out under the boat and floated up the last few feet.”
The sea softly batted the Wendell Holmes.
“No. I was away from the boat. The last thing I remember I was sitting on the bottom. I’m sure of it.”
His face had lost its dazed expression. His eyes narrowed.
“How did I get under the boat?”
That night she stood in the doorway for a long time, watching her sleeping son, and then she went up on the deck.
She stood staring at the dark homes scattered on the jungled hillside. Palau was an island of early risers. A single light held back the dark; a valiant wisp of civilization.
The light winked out.
Turning to the water, she went to her knees. She hadn’t been to church since she was a girl. She didn’t pray anymore. Prayer seemed a passive, fruitless exercise.
She wasn’t praying now.
Swaying slightly, she spoke.
It was no symbolic gesture. She knew it heard. Just as she knew it clung to the bottom of the boat, sharing her thoughts and trying to ease her loneliness.
I brought him to just beneath the boat, at the last, nudging him gently so the impact wasn’t damaging. It had to be done, and there was no real risk that I could perceive – no other boats, just the woman and the man who swims like a tumble weed -- but if there was any question in my mind, it was answered as soon as I lifted the limp form from the sand. The boy ferries an impossible airiness. Let me explain. Holding your kind I feel a weight that does not correlate with size. The man on whom I performed my pleasant vivisection, I wrestled him about as if he were an anvil. The man on the toilet, dying in my arms, I had to look twice to ascertain his presence. I don’t know what makes the difference. Maybe evil is accumulated baggage. Maybe purity is holding few things close, only the things that truly matter. I don’t know. I’ll leave it to your disciples and philosophers.
I do know the boy weighed almost nothing. He was lighter than anyone I have ever encountered.
I lifted him toward the sun as if he was an offering, my own heart running light-footed with joy.
Author / Speaker