Fiction from Gray Birchby
Remembering the Ocean
Chapter Eight: In which my father asks me to go into the ocean
Chapter One: In which I go to the ocean for the first time
There is sand and salt and shells and I love this place, so full of sunlight. I am four years old and I fall under the water and then (Though I am only under for a second I spend an hour there, in that beautiful land under the ocean. I make a friend there, and she teaches me to speak the language of the fish. We swear to be best friends forever.) I am back, my parents smiling as I shake off the water. I tell them of my adventures and they listen intently, indulgently, unbelievingly. I have always had a good imagination. They do not know that I am not making things up when I say the ocean told me they love me.
I fall asleep on the car ride home, covered in sand.
Chapter Two: In which I go to the ocean, again, and again
I return to that place many times, each time I dive under the water I am there again, time multiplied. During the school year I practice holding my breath, one minute, two minutes, my lungs scream and I picture being away from this place and back in my home with my friend. It is not that land is bad, it is just lonely, a place where it is too easy to be looked over and forgotten. I go to the pool in town and the lifeguards yell at me for being under the water too long, scaring them with how long I take to come up for air. I do not understand how anyone could be scared by the water.
We return to the ocean again and again and I build a life under the sea. The ocean always remembers me. My friend and I live in a house together, the walls covered with shells we’ve found on our walks. She always remembers me too, the same joy spreading quickly across her face each time we see each other again. I tell my family of this place where light from nowhere refracts through jellyfish, and the warm water that rocks me softly as I sleep and they laugh, I am growing too old for my childish fantasies. I stop talking about it and let people think I outgrew my make-believe. I farm plants and work hard, hands in the soft sand, digging out this life for myself.
My friend and I hold hands and laugh, and return to farming our land. She understands that I cannot be in our home the whole year, and promises to think of me even when I am not there. The farm flourishes, the ecosystem bright with colors from everything we have planted. At night we can see the plants glowing from our room, shades of purple and blue and green and yellow lighting up the dark ocean night. Even as we hear rumors in the town of the ocean’s temper beginning to grow once again I am confident in the ocean’s love for me. I have seen their anger, their cruelty, their changing heart, the way they run boats aground or trap them in storms without a thought to the lives of those inside but I never believe it could apply to me. Why would it? I am not one of those nameless sailors, the ocean knows me.
Chapter Three: In which I am free
We bring boogie boards to the ocean, the waves are perfect, rising up then crashing down. The ocean is destructive and can destroy all the sandcastles I build but they give me shells and sea glass and the feeling, even later as I am going to sleep in my room, of bobbing in its waves.
I head out into the water, excited to learn how to use these strange boards, my father’s tales of his time at the ocean as a boy echoing in my mind.
My father shows me how to ride a wave down onto the shore. I cut my body a little on the rough sand but I do not care. The ocean will clean the scratch and I am having too much fun to be hurt.
I dive under the water, my eyes open, taking in the beauty of the land I know so well.
Chapter Four: In which I am torn apart
The ocean has always loved me and today is no different, even as my eyes sting I am full of joy, crashing to the sand again and again. This, this is what freedom is, sand in my hair and on my skin and all around, sticking to my salty body.
I go to crash onto the shore again and
Chapter Five: Twisting
Twirling, hurled every which way at once, trapped forever in the breaking wave with no idea which way is up.
Chapter Seven: In which my father pulls me from the waves
He tells me it was only a few moments and not
Chapter Six: In which I die
I am pulled under the water like never before, no soft transition to a land of light and love, full of bright colors and warmth, but a harsh one. The land under the sea—my land under the sea—is stormy now, the waves pummeling me. Sand scrapes at me and I see my friend calling from our farm but I cannot get to her, cannot tell her that it will be okay. I would not want to lie anyway.
The sand wears my body down, layer by layer until I feel my polished bones settle on the ocean floor.
The ocean whispers in my ear, telling me I can never return, and I understand. I had a second life under these waves, but I am dead here now and will be dead if I return.
I feel something grab hold of my other body, my only body now, and I bid the ocean farewell.
Chapter Eight: In which my father asks me to go into the ocean [Expanded]
“No,” I say, the taste of salt and fear still in my head, even two years later. I sit on the sand and read, I run in the area the waves just lap at.
I have not told anyone what happened when I was under the waves
I do not go into the ocean again, do not dare to stick my head under for a long time. I am scared of what I will find, scared of what will be there now that I am no longer there. Scared that I will die again, but this time I will not have any other life to come back to. The ocean laps at my feet, still bringing memories of home and comfort to my mind. Tears well up in my eyes, prompted by this false show of kindness.
I am nothing to the ocean now, and I know that.
I go back to the ocean, summer after summer, and as time goes on I am able to live, despite everything.
When I have the courage to put my head under the waves again I open my eyes and scream, salt attacking my eyes. I see nothing but sand and water. Nothing but what is there. I resurface and go back to shore, too shaken by loss to stay out long.
The ocean is fickle and bores easily and no longer remembers my laugh, but I still remember the feeling of freedom that was better than any safe prison I have been kept in. I still wake at night and cry for what I have lost, salty ocean water running down my face. I miss my friend, and I hope she misses me.
The ocean does not cry for me.
I think about going back to the ocean sometimes, diving under and holding my breath until everything goes fuzzy, until the ocean has no choice but to remember that they love me. I think about returning to the place that always felt more like my home than the land ever can.
In time I make new friends. The land begins to seem less foreign.
I know in my bones that I am beginning to forget it was all real. The same bones that once scraped clean of me are now telling me that I am betraying myself. Betraying everything I left behind. I hope the ocean will still be there, even when I have forgotten them. I hope the ocean will not forget me.
Gray Birchby is a queer writer. Their fiction/poetry was previously published in the 2021 GrubStreet YAWP Anthology.