Full Fathom Five

Terrence Dunn


It was a whitecapped day. Clouds
hung over the ocean, black and solid as
stone. In the pale light of the empty, color-
less beach, a small boy in a yellow slicker
sat watching a net-fisherman anchored
some twenty yards from shore.
The waves pitched the small skiff roughly back and forth. The fisherman struggled to haul his nets up from the choppy water, but lost his balance and fell into the surf. He came up briefly, arms thrust into the air, head back, mouth open.
The boy crashed into the breakers. The manís wading boots filled with water and the boyís legs could not resist its force; it knocked him over twice.He ran home, clambering up dunes and tumbling down them.
As his father called the Coast Guard, he said, "Wait here. There's nothing you can do now, Daniel." But he ran back so hard he puked when he stopped. The beach and the sea were empty, but for the tiny boat, rocking wildly at its anchor.
A form washed up sluggishly, black and shiny. As Daniel pulled, the surf pushed the body towards him, feeling as if it weighed three thousand pounds. So it was true what his father had once told him: Dead men gain the weight of all of their sins. Daniel knelt and fought to keep the head above the foam.
The manís face wore an expression of pure surprise. Only one person could have saved him. The water coursed around them. The darkening sky closed in and it began to rain. A blue jeep approached, its tires spewing sand and roof lights flashing. His father walked unhurriedly behind.
A policeman moved him gently away from the body, while his father, a fisherman himself, said the man was a fool to be out by himself on such a day; that life isn't kind to fools. Daniel read that Ralph Neeley had no survivors. He had lived by himself and he died by himself. To which his father said, "Everyone dies by himself."
He was not allowed to go to Ralph's funeral. How could a man get himself killed so stupidly? Daniel hated his dad for the angry things he said whenever Neeley was mentioned. He told himself to forget, but he could not. When he started in the night, he sometimes found his mother sitting near. Only she could hear the gasping sounds he made as he drowned in his sleep.
One night, he awoke to his father's voice outside his room, lecturing his mother.
"Leave him, Eleanor. Heís got to grow up. You can't protect him forever. You have to let him go."
"I hope you fall off your boat! Let's see who comes and saves you! I
sure won't!"
His father appeared at his door, looking into the dark with a
strangely calm expression on his face.
"Someday youíll understand, Daniel. The man is dead and no one, not you or anyone else, could have saved him. Thatís the way it is and you canít be afraid of it. Learn from it not to be foolish." Then he disappeared, ice clinking, down the hall.
"Drop dead," Daniel whispered. "You werenít there. You donít know
anything about it."
His mother murmured, too softly to hear. But he felt her continued presence outside the door, watching and waiting.
After his father died, Daniel found reason to move back to his hometown. He started going out by himself early in the mornings to the beach where Ralph Neeley had perished. He liked it there best when the weather was dirty, cold and wet. Often he stripped down and sank into the rough black, trying to feel what Ralph Neeley had felt when he realized the sea was not going to let him go. Was he ready for that, after spending his whole life on it? In it, he heard voices and saw faces, different ones each time, though always the last to float up towards him was his father's, wide-eyed with surprise that the sea had captured him, too.

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