Today’s Saturday Short is a story I wrote a few years ago for my aunt’s birthday. She loves the ocean, and diving, and I previously wrote her a story about a shark and a mermaid (which might, one day, venture into the public eye as well.) This story is less fantastical, but still seeks to capture our shared love for the sea.
Song of the Sea
It’s been three months since the accident, but Rachel can still remember what her walls look like. Her parents have kept their promise not to move anything. Turning her head, she visualizes the window facing south, surrounded by blue molding and flanked on either side by two large paintings. Replicas of her favorite artist’s work. Wyland has a way of capturing the undersea world in a way that makes her remember her own diving experiences. In one, two humpbacks passing by a coral reef, the other has sea turtles floating above another reef filled with colorful fish. Rachel has never gone anywhere quite that exotic, but she had hoped to, one day. Now, there is no point.
Leaning back and closing her eyes, Rachel lets out a quiet sigh, tears stinging her eyes. That is all they are good for now, crying, and she did it a lot when they first gave her the news. Now she feels resigned, doomed to a life so much different from the one she had planned.
She has to pat down her blankets to find Bubbles. Clutching the stuffed lobster close, she buries her face in his well-worn but still soft body and curls up for a nap. Sleeping and eating, that is about all she has done for the past few months. Music plays constantly from her stereo, to the point it has become more background noise than anything else.
Sound has become her strongest sense since the accident, letting her hear every creak of the house and scratch of branches when wind shakes the tree outside her window. Even conversations on the floor below become something more than mumbles. Rachel knows her parents speak about her condition a lot, and her father has called every specialist in the entire field, but no one can help. The initial surgery failed, all the doctors can say now is ‘sorry’.
Two weeks pass in a blur of sound, and hopelessness, and tears, before Cassandra arrives. Blowing through the door like a tsunami, the five-foot-two brunette storms up the stairs and throws open Rachel’s bedroom door with force enough to rattle the pictures against the wall.
“All right,” Cassandra says, and grabs the girl by the arm, all but dragging her from the bed despite their fifty pound difference in weight and three inches in height. “Enough moping, girl, it’s time to get back in the game. Get dressed.”
Rachel lies on the floor, scowling in the general direction of her former swimming instructor. “Make me,” she snaps.
That is the wrong thing to say. Cassandra unceremoniously searches the closet for a clean set of clothes, then drops them on Rachel’s face. “You have two minutes,” she commands, and leaves, slamming the door behind her. Her raised voice can be heard going down the stairs, calling to Rachel’s parents.
Dressing is simple enough, easy to feel how the shorts and shirt go on, and Rachel has soon replaced her pajamas with what she hopes is a color-coordinated outfit. Knowing Cassandra, it might be orange and purple, but Rachel has no way of knowing. Pausing in her door, she automatically sweeps the room with a turn of her head, but can see nothing but the slowly fading image her mind throws up of her bedroom as she used to see it.
Down the stairs, clutching the newly installed banister, feeling for each step. A few quick strides to the left at the bottom, then her outstretched hand touches the wall and she turns right, following it to the opening that is the kitchen doorway, where she can hear voices.
“Out of the question,” her father is insisting, in a tone she knows all too well. “It’s far too early.”
“Maybe in a year or two,” her mother adds, in a different tone, one that implies ‘never’. “And only if we can be assured of her safety. It’s dangerous enough when you can see…”
“There are others who are blind—”
Rachel bites her lip. That word still makes her flinch, and blink her eyes as though that might dispel the darkness in them.
“—and dive in perfect safety. Rachel has the added advantage of knowing the hand signals already, so she would adjust much faster than someone just learning to dive.”
Rachel’s heart beats faster, and for the first time in a long time she feels a bit of hope. Granted, she knows diving will never be the same if she can’t see everything, but it is more than the sights that first drew her to learn, and she misses the feel of the ocean around her, the whisper of eddies and currents against her body as she swims down. She once told a reporter from the school newspaper, in an interview on diving, that under the water, everything else seems so far away, so trivial in comparison. Peaceful. It is a feeling she misses. The possibility that she might get it back…
“No,” her father says, one short, firmly pronounced word that brings her hopes crashing back to reality. Of course, her parents will never allow it. It took months to talk them into letting her take diving lessons the first time. Now, with her disability—it hurts to even think that word, but it’s the truth—their protectiveness has become even worse.
Cassandra continues the argument a little longer, but it is useless. Her parting words are, “What about what Rachel wants? What she needs?”
Her father’s response: “Her mother and I want what is best for her. She needs rest and time to get used to her new life. What she doesn’t need is you filling her head with hopeless ideas and dreams. I would prefer it if you did not visit again for a while.” Or ever, the words imply.
Rachel’s shoulders slump, and she heads upstairs without even saying good-bye.
More time passes, and finally her parents feel comfortable enough to leave her at home, with strict instructions not to handle anything sharp or attempt to use the stove. They take the spare key and lock the door on the way out, an unspoken command to stay inside.
For the first ten minutes, Rachel has every intention of doing so. Then there comes the knock on the door. It is Cassandra, and Rachel opens the door, stiffening a little when she is immediately enveloped in a hug she isn’t expecting.
“Come with me,” Cassandra says, and leads the way down the driveway to her little car, which purrs as it pulls into the street and heads left. Cassandra lives in the other direction, and Rachel perks up at once.
“Where are we going?” she asks, hardly daring to guess.
“The Y,” Cassandra replies. “Under the circumstances, I’m counting you as a newly hatched tadpole again, which means diving practice in a pool before I throw you off the boat.”
It feels like a dream as Rachel gets into her diving suit. Cassandra helps strap everything on, diving weights and oxygen tanks, checking the hoses and adjusting the mask. Then it is time to feel her way into the pool, moving to the edge until she can slip into the water with a familiar plop. Cassandra joins her a moment later and begins running her through drills. It takes hours to adjust to the new feeling, to learning how to sense direction all over again, and respond to taps on her arm the way she had once reacted to visual hand signals.
Weeks pass by, and Rachel sneaks out as often as possible with Cassandra to continue practicing. Finally, over a month later, Cassandra announces she is ready. They plan to dive on Monday, when both Rachel’s parents work late and Cassandra has the day off from her normal work of teaching kids and teens how to swim and dive. This gives them eight hours. The docks are an hour and a half away, leaving them five hours to take a boat to the closest diving spot, gear up, and dive for a few hours before returning to the dock.
Rachel says good-bye to her parents that morning, trying to hide her excitement as their cars drive off. A few minutes pass, giving her parents a chance to remember something, then Rachel grabs her cell phone and speed dials. Cassandra arrives soon after, her car’s purring engine familiar to Rachel’s ears by now. Grabbing a small bag with a few things she will need, Rachel hurries outside, locking the door behind her. By now she knows the path to the curb perfectly, taking each step with confidence until she nears the car. Holding out one hand, Rachel moves forward carefully until she finds the car’s door, trails her fingers down until they wrap around the handle. A moment later she’s inside and Cassandra is tearing down the road.
“I called ahead,” Cassandra tells her. “There will be a boat waiting for us.” Then she cranks up the music and rolls down the windows. Rachel closes her eyes and leans into the wind, pretending, just for a moment, the darkness is temporary.
But her eyes open automatically when the car rolls to a stop at last, and reality comes flooding back. Without the wind rushing in her face, she can hear the sounds of the docks, more clearly than she ever did before. Chains creaking, sails snapping, water lapping. Human chatter and laughter everywhere, almost overwhelming Rachel, who has not been around many people in a long time. She follows Cassandra closely, one hand touching the woman’s shoulder so as not to get lost.
A few words of greeting with their boat’s captain, then they are on deck and ready to set sail. Rachel is shown to a seat against the rail, and she leans over, feeling the cool mist of sea spray as the boat picks up speed. She can smell the distinctive scent of the ocean, salt and seaweed and fish. Seagulls cry overhead. Out here on the water, Rachel feels alive again.
Suiting up takes far too long for her taste, but at last she and Cassandra are in the water. Rachel treads water while her teacher gives the captain instructions. Finally, Cassandra tells her they are ready. Rachel feels almost nervous as they begin their dive.
Once they are underwater, though, her fears fade away. Sound is suddenly dulled, and Rachel follows Cassandra, one hand on her teacher’s tank. They take their time on the descent. Once they reach their target depth, Cassandra levels out and allows Rachel to move away a little, though she stays close. Rachel rolls, feeling the resistance of the water, the light pressure from their depth, the familiar twist of her flippers as she kicks gently to right herself. For a moment she feels whole again, no sound or touch or warm sunlight on her skin to remind her of the truth.
Then it comes. A soft vibration, almost imperceptible at first, but increasing until Rachel can feel it shaking her bones. Startled, she reaches out, and Cassandra grasps her hand, then taps her arm in a quick pattern. But even before she is finished, Rachel knows what the source of the disturbance is. She and Cassandra had chosen this dive spot years ago, because it was known to have occasional passersby, rare but beautiful creatures. Whales.
Closing her eyes, Rachel lets the music shake her to her core until it fades again, all too soon. She can feel tears dripping down her skin, and knows her mask must be fogging, but it doesn’t matter. Without sight, the mask is useless, anyway. More than anything, she wishes she could have seen them, floating majestically by, oblivious to the presence of the humans. Or perhaps they did notice them, even glanced their way. Rachel can almost see the large eye, surrounded by wrinkled skin, peering deep into her soul.
There is no way of knowing that in a few years, a new scientific breakthrough in the medical field will result in treatment for Rachel’s condition. Upon regaining her sight, she will travel the world’s oceans, searching for whales and doing everything she can to study and protect them.
What Rachel does know, however, is that she will never forget this moment. No matter how many times she will spot a whale breaching, or swim past a cow and her calf, or watch orcas hunt, this encounter will always be the most meaningful.
She will never forget the day she heard the whales sing.