Online Exclusive

As Birds Vanish: A Love Song

He’s been down under five times today, taking his turn, searching for the sailboat, believing he might be the one to find a child inside, skin violet, nerves tremoring, alive in the sweet torpor of hypothermia, fluttery heart almost but not yet still, breathing slowly, hushed, floating face up, a bliss of air trapped above her—
In the last minutes of twilight at the surface, in swirling silt underwater, Nic Kateri risks a final dive into the murky cabin of the sailboat, finds her with his hands, not his eyes: yes, where her mother left her, the child curled into herself, lungs full of water, pressed high above the bed in the tightest corner of the berth where yes, it’s true: there might have been bubbles of air once upon a time, hours earlier—

who to blame, how to measure
Even now in fast fading light they might be spared—
if only I stay down with you,
if only we stay under
But no—he’s been gone too far, too long, nineteen fathoms deep, his delirium a kind of rapture. Hypothermic and almost out of oxygen, the body betrays him, brings the surface of the water so close he sees the last radiant rims of light at the edges of clouds, green and violet—
it’s done, it’s over
The veil between ocean and air tears: into the hands of his friends he delivers the child—

Silhouettes, merciful strangers: one wrapping the child tight, swaddling her in a tiny blanket, two others lifting him into the boat—so cold he’s lost their names, their faces—but their hands, their hands on him, tender as the shadows of birds: these he knows, these he remembers—
Beyond them, the dark coming on and on: as it does, as it will: everything, every night, becoming other—someone very kind and quick peeling his second skin, the black suit that protects and doesn’t, murmuring, guiding him down the stairs—someone long ago and now helping him into thermal underwear—faces so close they might kiss, as children do, as lovers, as a mother soon to die kisses her only son—covering him with fleece blankets—

As if he can be warm, as if one day he might again be human—

all, all, and even you can be lost

They wait on the pier—mother, father—one dark shape in the dark, void of words, yesterday’s crimes swelling inside them: reckless now they know taking a child so small out on a breezy day, less than 30 pounds, leaving her alone to sleep in the V-berth below them, not listening to petrels and gulls—watching but not reading their flight, loving the bruised sky, trusting the forecast they’d heard that morning, gentle breeze becoming moderate, yes, lovely it was, white horses leaping out of long waves, the joy of riding them, loving too much their wild beauty, not checking the radio again even as birds cried, high winds and rain not predicted till dusk, believing they’d be docked at the marina hours before the weather deteriorated—
ruined in a day

Mother and father failing to envision birds vanishing; a sudden blow from the west; wind surging swiftly toward a gale; white foam streaking across the ocean—now and forever the woman wants to climb below deck; strap the child tight in her tiny pink floatation vest; wants to lie down next to her—ever, into, float with her—but already it’s too late to leave the man, alone, in this—and she chooses to imagine the girl nested between pillows, rocking in a dream, safe in the cabin—

destroyed in a moment

Impossible now to know what it was, debris or driftwood, a bleached tree tossed by waves cracking the hull; water filling the bilge; the electric pump kicking on, too low to hear, too slow to compensate; water pouring into an open wound—not sensing, not knowing, the weight of water bringing the boat down—each believing the jolt they’d felt only the crash of waves, only water, outside not in—even now in darkening day, deep in delusion, neither father nor mother calling the Coast Guard, keeping faith in their skill—even now in driven rain, the woman working the wheel hard, the man lowering the jib, reefing the mainsail halfway—

all shall be well

The man using the traveler to control the boom—and still the boat so hard to steer; mother and father each without language blaming the other—
Did a word of rage take shape in the man’s mind; did he turn to accuse; did he shout this word into the wind—he’ll never know; he can’t remember—only she will recall: the spar whipping in a crosswind, line of the traveler ripping through his hands, the boom striking his head, the father flung across the deck, the unconscious man flying toward the water—
impossible to believe

And now, ever, at last she feels it, the boat sinking slowly down, her child unsafe below, the father bobbing in waves, floating fast away from them—impossible to explain how the body thinks, how swiftly adrenaline empties the mind, blood surging to muscle, how in this deluge—epinephrine, cortisol, testosterone, serotonin—the body makes mysterious choices—
white horses break and rise
rise and shatter
The woman with her impossible strength finishes what the man started; lowers the mainsail—and now, too late, hears the pump, calls the Coast Guard, activates the locator beacon in the pocket of her vest—
thought streaks as foam
across the ocean

Even now the woman denies how much water might be in the bilge, refuses to imagine how soon water will break the sole, flood the cabin—

Never in the days and decades to come will she be able to invent a story that explains why the body chooses not to go down, rescue the child first—why it chooses instead to start the engine, circle back, find the father—why in a delirium of dopamine, the body believes saving them all still possible—

whatever word of rage he’d cried
only by wind remembered
A miracle to see him there, buoyed by his red vest, popping up high on white waves, disappearing in the hollows between them—impossible to believe she can get the boat close enough—but she does, thirty feet, there is time—

we are close, we are safe now

In her madness, in her love, she tosses the life sling, a yellow horseshoe—unspools its hundred and twenty-five feet of floating rope: so much more than she needs—
If he were conscious, he could swim ten feet, haul himself through waves, grab the rope, pull the sling, slip so easily into it—
but he’s gone, down deep
  in the dark of himself
She circles him, closer and closer, and the rope begins to spiral: as it should, as he taught her: the way in is the way out: a gold labyrinth of rope to save them—

The boat so slow, mercy or curse, sluggish with water—she knows everything now, and still serotonin floods the mind, bestows faith in a future—

do not be distracted

Quick and calm, absolutely focused, the woman lifts the boarding ladder over the side of the boat, secures it to its brackets—already she imagines climbing the four steps back into the boat, hoisting her limp husband up and over—
a story to tell, years after
She is telling it to herself now as she leaps in the water, following the line to the sling, swimming the sling toward him—willing him to wake—slipping the horseshoe over his head—and still he refuses—pulling one arm and then the other up and through the sling—
skin gone white, mouth purple

Now and forever she feels the tug of the rope; sees how low the boat sits in the water—tilted starboard, sinking faster—and she knows all in one gasp the choice her body has made is forever and terrible; the adrenaline that once sustained now poisons her—she tries to swim to the boat, to the child, tries to drag the man with her—three strokes, five kicks, all she has, all she can do now—
impossible to explain

Waves pull her back; the rope tightens: if they stay tethered, they’ll go down with the boat—forever and now and so fast she pulls the rigging knife from her pocket, cuts the cord: the body wants what it wants: to be alive—even here, even now, one more moment—
all, all can be lost
the particles of one
dissolve into all others

Childless parents hanging on a single sling, terrified and human, abandoned, chopped by waves, swallowing water, depleted, small now themselves, lost between blue-gray clouds and gray-green water—
why not go down
why not stay under
Weak and wasted, numb, the man waking and sleeping, the woman failing and failing again to dive, to die, to sink fast or far enough—

Never in the ten thousand nights to come will one dare to ask the other how it was, why it happened—

Rescued, they are, childless parents—the emergency locator beacon pulled from the mother’s pocket; strobing its light; beaming its radio signal to a satellite circling the earth; the satellite flashing it back again: time and space, all illusion: that miraculous message guiding the Coast Guard pilot close enough to see the strobe and yellow sling, a man’s red vest, the woman’s neon green one—

Flooded with gratitude as they watch the helicopter hovering, small in the vast sky, blades slicing air, a devastation of sound whirling closer—

Shattered as the rope and basket swing free—as the man’s bowels unspiral, as the woman’s unstrung heart swings out across the water—

Desolated and saved as a swimmer stays in the water with him, as two crew members pull each one alone into the fuselage—

Through all the years, all the evacuated days to come, the man will remember watching the woman as she hung between infinite sky and infinite water, the green ocean going black, the sky rose and gold, radiant turquoise too beautiful to believe along the horizon—never had he loved her more than this, never more despised her—

Now, waiting on the pier, they could not stand, could not be, could not breathe if not for each other—

Melanie Rae Thon is a recipient of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a Whiting Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Lannan Foundation Writer's Residency. She is the composer of thirteen works of fiction and poetry. This love song appears in As If Fire Could Hide Us, forthcoming from University of Alabama Press / FC2 in April 2023.