The Swimmer

“I made this,” Gracie whispered, settling down by the remains. A child had once built a small walled garden, with driftwood and seaweed used to mimic flowers, with broken shells to mimic walkways. Gouges scooped out with small fingers, with smooth stones at the bottom to mimic fish ponds or perhaps the tide pools nearby. My eyes went far out to the green smear you could just almost see if you knew where to look. Something flashed in that far water. I could not yet see what it was. “I made this the only day I ever went to the beach.”

“Why didn’t you go more often?” I seated myself on the worn-down rocks above Gracie’s sand garden. The old woman wore a yellow one-piece from bygone years, overly modest, with a skirt that hid her upper thighs. A bathing cap hid her hair. “Where did you get that amazing suit?”

Gracie’s fingers curled back from patting sand into place to reform the walls. A giant hulk of a woman so afraid of the least bit of notice. Comical even here, at the end of all things. “My mother wore it. She wore it under her housedress. We took three buses to get here. I remember that.” Her fingers uncurled, began to pat the damp sand into place. Much younger Gracie had built her little garden just above the tide line.

She redid the walls, making a square that was perhaps twelve by twelve inches. Perhaps a bit larger. “I’d like to build this as big as the beach.” She glanced toward me but did not begin such a joyous, arrogant project as that. A small garden it would remain.

Another garden, knowledge as bitter and sweet as a grapefruit, another garden out there. Where perhaps I would be allowed to catch a glimpse if I behaved. If I obeyed.

A turtle, a small whale, made its way toward the shore.

“Why just the one day?” I began to observe Gracie, as she got up to gather shells from nearby, the broken and the whole ones. The very long legs as skinny and ridiculous as stork stems. The furry face that old women get if they turn their backs on what society tells them to shave or not. The yellow did not go well with her sallow skin, as if her liver failed her.

It’s the only bathing suit she remembers, she never bought one for herself, I thought with the awful beginnings of pity splashing across my soul.

Her careful eyes, even now, so careful not to cause offense or bring wrath upon her rubber-wrapped head. “Is this my confession? I’m not sure how any of this works.”

“You don’t have to talk at all, Gracie. Or go out there, try your luck. You can sit here playing in the sand.”

Everything in me screamed at her having such a luxury of choices. My resentment exploded through me but it had become routine and mundane. I could not go. They could not stay, no matter how long they lingered on this beach or whatever stopping point they found themselves at. Mountain stream, sidewalk table, sagebrush, and cheatgrass vista. Something comforting and known before that last step into something else entirely.

Her eyes, exhausted blue marbles clearing of their fog, found me. “I never learned to swim. My mother could swim. My mama swam like a fish. She played in the water all that day, getting the most fearsome sunburn. I played in the sand. I built this garden for her. She told me we’d have a tiny house, with just enough room for some apple trees, some pumpkins, some beans, some cukes. Live somewhere with four seasons, have snow

at Christmas. She never said a word around dad. I never said a word, either. He just laughed and talked, expected us to listen.”

My eyes told me that object in the water moving toward this bit of the shore seemed to be a swimmer. Not once had I ever witnessed a swimmer leave that other place, return toward the past. Not once. I did not think it even possible. You cannot go back. You cannot return to what was. Time does not go backward, even for the gods.

“And so you spent your life being a silent mouse,” I said rather harshly, leaving the rocks to walk to the very edge of the water. I shaded my eyes with my hand, squinted at the ocean, at the rolling, heaving mass, that distinct smell of salt and rot in my nostrils. Giant sea turtles floated in that brine, flippers rising and falling. I saw tentacles further out but they seemed inert and surprised by a swimmer going the wrong way. Yes. A swimmer stroked toward this bit of beach, pulling along at a good clip.

“What is that?” Gracie stood beside me, shrinking back from the water slapping against her ankles, the tide starting to come in. “Don’t I get to start over here? Don’t I get a second chance?”

“Of course. No. I have no idea.” I kept my face turned to the ocean. “Why did you never go to the beach again?”
“Why don’t you know if I get a second chance?”

“I’m just here to push you out there, Gracie.” I stopped before I spewed actual venom and poison into her face. “The universe is unfair. Even now. You swim, you might get there, to that smear. I have no idea what’s there if anything’s there. I don’t know. Now build your damn garden, whisper your sad little memories, and go. Just go!”

I resisted the urge to wreck her carefully redone sand garden. I huddled on the same rocks I had huddled on for thousands of years. The broken, the bungled, and the botched would wander past me and out into the blue. I stuffed my fist into my mouth rather than laugh or start screaming to just abolish me into the darkness, let me find some sort of rest. A hand patted my left shoulder, timid and barely felt.

“Can you swim?”

I met Gracie’s gaze. “Never mind. Just do what you have to and go. Another will be along, another, another.” I bit at my lips, swallowed down that grief that left me raw and exhausted if I allowed myself to wallow in the steaming pits of my own despair. I noted the swimmer had drawn closer. A woman.

A woman in a yellow bathing suit, the same bathing cap.

The swimmer stood upright, swaying with exhaustion and triumph. Gracie’s fingers bore down on my arm. “Mama?”

The right arm raised high, the open-palmed hand waved at both of us. She smacked a turtle out of her way, she plucked seaweed from herself as she moved into the shallows. Short, powerful legs and arms, a hearty sunburned face. The ocean roiled and spewed behind her as her feet took her to the beach. “I’ve had enough. Gracie?”

“It’s just like that day,” Gracie ran to her mother, her mother caught her daughter’s arms, barely came to Gracie’s wide bony shoulder.

“It’s not,” and the swimmer pushed Gracie to the beach, stomped past her to flatten that small walled garden Gracie had redone. I cried out, someone did. “He killed us both, Gracie. Don’t you remember?? We were just leaving, to catch the bus. He killed us both, screaming he couldn’t be alone. Bang bang.” Her feet stomped that sand and driftwood and shells and seaweed into an ugly mess. “We never came here, Gracie. This never happened. We never got on the bus, Gracie. You never grew old.”

I caught the swimmer before she flew at Gracie, who had remained on the sand, broken all over again. I opened my mouth to spew something, anything, any words at all. Gracie sat up, in the same buttercup yellow suit her mother wore. That timid mask she wore even now fell away. I watched a new Gracie emerge. I watched Gracie eat that same fruit I had sampled. Glorious and heartbreaking, freeing even as the chains descended to cuddle my throat.

“We did, mama. And you swam all day. I made a garden out of sand and sticks and shells. I remember it. I remember it so well I can’t forget it. Even now. Let her go, please. We’re going to rebuild my garden. Make it so big it can’t be stomped out in seconds.” Her face turned toward me, her eyes as calm and wide as the ocean on a summer evening.

“Do you want to help? Or will others be here soon?”

“It never happened,” Gracie’s mother kept whispering, and Gracie took her into her arms, rocked her. I took a broken clam shell, began to map out a giant walled garden. Perhaps it would be different now. Perhaps the dead remember what they wish.

We built Gracie’s garden. Walls of sand to my waist, strange formations of driftwood, shells, and fish bones. Water filled the gouged-out holes and Gracie freed whatever crabs or little fish found their way into them. Gracie’s mother spent most of the time we worked on a single tree-like structure, with delicate pink shells stabbed onto splinters of this or that. And to no one’s surprise, the driftwood became living wood, the pink shells became blossoms, leaves sprouted. It lived for a few moments only but it lived.

Gracie’s mother took Gracie by the hand. She whispered it was not far.

“What’s there?” Gracie asked as I sat nearby, almost asleep.

I had not slept for centuries, since I had left that other garden since my sentence had been passed, where my death did not bring me rest or peace. The universe is unfair, I knew that firsthand.

The water slapped about her waist as she and her mother looked to that far-off spot.

“We’ll have to build something. I couldn’t find anyone, Gracie. I grew so angry.”

“A little house, with enough room out back for a garden,” Gracie said. Both plunged into the ocean.

The monsters and sea turtles and fish, all of it, came for them. I watched this or dreamed it. The universe hates and grins and rewards without merit or sense.

I lost track of them but I felt, in what is left of my soul, that they made it.

Because even now, I yet have hope. I have a giant sand-walled garden to wander in. I maintain it. Sometimes those who wander through help as well.