The Drop-Off

Muffled sirens and muffled footsteps. I wake to the excitement of a new rescue mission. All forces the island can muster are racing down the street in a flurry of sand—one ambulance and a single cop car. Their screeching sends my cousins and younger brother into a mad dash for binoculars while my mother stands at the edge of our porch, three floors up, squinting towards the sea. 

When I arrive, the binoculars have been found and several people have pointed out the speck of flesh bobbing up and down in the water: there and gone, there and gone. We take turns ogling with the binoculars as a jet-ski is pushed from beach to water, mounted by someone in a luminous orange vest, blinding in the sun. I watch a string of water spit out the vehicle’s back end, first high, then lower, lower, lower, until it’s gone and the drowning man is reached. He is heaved onto the jet-ski with apparent difficulty, and my cousin yowls, “oh god! He lost his trunks!” He presses his hands against his eyes as others clamber towards the newly discarded binoculars. “I will not be able to unsee that…”

A common source of excitement on the island, instances of near death and frequent rescue happen at least once a week. But, not all missions end in amusement. The crosses that litter the dunes—some dated, some inscribed with a name, others bearing cloth petals arranged in a ring—attest to the lives lost at sea. This sea. I watch as it sprawls out along the sun soaked sand, lazily ebbing in the morning breeze. Looking out along the drop-off, where the ground is too deep to warrant the breaking of waves, it seems even more amazing that something so seemingly gentle could snatch a life, a dozen, a hundred, without giving the matter a second of thought.

Image: a cross, left as a memorial to a victim of drowning

Demoted to faux memories and cautionary tales, townsfolk often speak of the cocky marines who have tested their strength against the waters (and failed), or of the father who attempted to rescue his son (“just four years old, what a pity”), only to leave his wife with two coffins to buy. The ocean is never to be taken lightly, but here most of all, swimmers must exercise caution. Signs posted at the public beach entrance next to my home warn of strong currents and deep waters, but the illusion of calm is a deadly temptation. Many do not realize how desperately their feet rely on sand to keep them grounded in one place, rather than tossed among the waves. And few realize how quickly the currents can change; a strip of water, placid one minute, can become entirely too vicious the next.

I know this, and yet it is difficult, floating on the water at low tide, knowing ground awaits mere inches below, to imagine the ocean ever taking me. It is an old friend, one I claim to know well, but the sea is a force of chaotic neutral: it will hug me tight and eat me whole.

Image: the drop-off

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