Dead In The Water

as published in Imago

They lay on the beach, pecked at by a thousand birds, the leg openings splayed ragged, torn at by things beneath the sea. I looked away into the fog, breathing in its heaviness, so full and dripping you could hear it; like walking into a wall, your eyes flat against it. The sea was at my feet. I had a small frame of clarity, the sea going from line to line within the frame; I, inside a picture of sand and shells, of water, lives coming and going, beginning and ending, and them, the lacy, violet-colored pair of underwear. They lay in the residue of the outgoing tide between my cabin and the lighthouse, neither of whose lights reached me. I shined my flashlight again and then away, trying not to look, wanting to go on, to draw my jacket against the night’s cold. Yet they were a part of my misty world suddenly, part of what was visible in the night, and I couldn’t move. They were a question washed to shore. I tried to see again into the fog, wondering if there were other things ebbing with the currents; blouses, shoes, or stockings. I wondered if they were hers. That was the question.

She was among ”fifty homicides during the period of one year” in the city where I was. That’s what the newspaper said. “Drug dealers, drive-by-shootings, prostitutes.” Hers was “domestic,” struck in the head by her husband and thrown into the water. He had confessed after three days of questioning, the paper said, “their business together,” he had said, “was not working.” He had transferred funds the day before from her account to his, forty thousand dollars. “We weren’t getting along,” he said. Her body was never found. “Body unaccounted for,” the paper said.

I thought about her being out there. Where else would she be? Where did she have to go? At night in the fog, you hear things. You feel the presence of something, like ships passing, the night gone white and moving with its lost, wet creatures. As if it could come upon you, over you, over the trees and road. You hear things moving with it, or staying behind somewhere, their voices weak, fading.

I find things. Wings, skulls, webbed feet, formless bodies. They wash up and are left behind, as if the sea is filtrating, ridding itself of dead weight. I look out from the cabin window, the water like glass some days, the sun tight across it, some days agitated, heavy and cresting. There are teeth but I can’t identify them, feathery bones the wind blows from the palm of my hand.

I lie awake thinking about her, her hair twisting, drifting, her skirt unfastening, loosening, slipping from her body and off the tips of her waving feet. I ask someone how long a person would last. They shake their head. Hypothermia, they say. Then eyes. Eyes go first, they say. I never thought of that, I say, and look at the teeth again when I get home. What would have been the last thing she saw, I wonder, the last image to be in them, in her eyes? His face, I think. It would have been his face, unless she was asleep and dreaming, unless she was turned away, in their boat, to watch the sunset in the sky and on the water. Maybe that was the last image in her eyes; the sea, the sun, the birds flying low, the mountains. Her eyes would be a mirror, would have been, past tense, a mirror; the sea consuming itself, to be filled, then, with her falling, with a million images of the setting sun, of him, his hand high, his own eyes wide with the terror of what he was about to do; a million foamy sea-images of it.

If I were looking at someone like that, realizing I was about to die, I would see something else. I would see everything about him and me, his face making love, his shirts in a drawer, the first time I set eyes on him. I would want to ask him a million questions. . “Why?” “Don’t you. . . . ?” “Did you . . . ever?”

Why didn’t he just ask her for the money? She would probably have said yes, given the options.

This is how she died then, it died, their love; for forty thousand dollars, forty times a thousand dollars. Or was there someone else? The face in his eyes making love, not hers. Maybe when he looked into her eyes he saw that she knew that.

I step carefully when I’m walking, now. There are answers everywhere. She is falling with the rain. She is in the layers of fog, and in the tall wet grass. She is on dinner plates with the beef that has grazed. Her, a million times over. She is on the windshields of passing cars. He is, it is, their dead love.

He took something from their boat, and brought it down upon her head until she was silent, words on the tip of her tongue. Then he drove the boat out to where the water was deep enough, where the currents run swiftly and immeasurably, and he slipped her body down into the currents like she was going swimming. What she didn’t have time to ask, what words were on her lips, the sea is full of, and I am walking on them in the yellow foam at the water’s edge, flattening them; they rise in front of me, and drift in gold bubbles as I go by, and if I knew how to read them I would gather them.

The panties are there, day after day. The sea doesn’t take them. Sand has anchored them for the time being, but eventually they will wash away to another place for someone else to find.

I look out from the cabin window and imagine her drifting, ebbing through a lithe kingdom, her clothing rethreading, her bracelets, rings, earrings slipping away. I would do that, too, I think. I would let go of everything. I would release my clothes, my underclothes, everything; and I would swim furiously, swim with the sea under me, and inside me, and around me. I would reach long into the water. I would kick backwards with my breasts circling. I would close my eyes.