Conjunctions:56 Terra Incognita: The Voyage Issue

Descent of the Aquanauts
Everybody thinks it’s going to be different for them, Janice said. The dinosaurs thought so too. She was on the porch of her rental duplex, busy smearing her thighs with suntan lotion, her tan an enviable deep golden-brown. By this time Janice had been at the shore for a month. Golden-brown was the color everyone craved, not only for their body parts but for their food.

     The dinosaurs had small brains, one of the girls said. All of us were older now; we’d learned things in school. Everyone thought the sun went around the earth, then everyone thought the earth went around the sun. Who knew what they’d be thinking next? The moon came out of the place where the ocean is now. The moon came from outer space and the earth captured it in its orbit.

     The moon, Janice said. The moon was what started all the trouble. She finished her thighs and started in on her arms. She took her time, squeezing the lotion out bit by bit and rubbing it into her skin in small circular motions; she was driving the little girls crazy. They’d promised their mothers they wouldn’t go to the beach without her. You couldn’t apply lotion on the beach—that was Janice’s rule. If you waited until you got to the beach, sand would get in the lotion, spoiling your tan.

     Janice informed everyone that after her husband arrived Friday they were taking a moonlit cruise on a luxury sailboat. She hadn’t married the boyfriend with the two-tone car; he turned out to be unreliable, meaning he dumped her for someone better looking. The man she married was named Henry and everyone thought he was too nice for Janice. He had the appearance of an English gentleman, very delicate and pale, the way a hermit crab looks between shells. Henry treated everyone with kindness. One of the little girls said he asked to see her pee-hole, but it was common knowledge he liked Janice best.

     After two people got married everything that had formerly seemed interesting became uninteresting—this was common knowledge too. Once you were married, romance and heartbreak were no longer an option. Where were the surprises? When she wasn’t wearing a bathing suit, Janice wore a girdle under her clothes. She didn’t have a pussy anymore, she had genitals. Her nipples disappeared in one big thing called a bosom.

     You girls know nothing, Janice said, lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. The sky was the usual color, a solid shade of blue that suggested everything worth seeing lay behind it. This was also true of the houses on either side of the street, two rows of identical white duplexes, like the semidetached brick houses back home. The only way you could tell the duplexes apart was by their awnings—Janice’s was forest green with yellow stripes.

     The curly-headed girl came walking down the stairs from the second floor with her raft under her arm. Have any of you ever looked at the moon? she asked. The raft was the same color green as the green of Janice’s awning, the canvas so old and dry that until the girl got it into the water it made her skin creep. If you look at the moon you see it’s something different from what they teach you, the girl said. She’d been planning to go to the beach alone but when she overheard Janice talking about the moon she couldn’t resist joining in. Stars around the silver moon hide their silverness when she shines upon the earth, the girl said, quoting her favorite poet. Upon the black earth.

     It used to be too dangerous to go on moonlit cruises, Janice continued. Once she got started she was unstoppable. The thing about the moon is how it makes things happen just by being there, like the way it can pull all the water on one side of the planet into a big bulge and then let it go. That’s why there are tides.

     I wish I could go on a cruise, someone said.

     My dad says those cruises are highway robbery, said someone else.

     It was a block and a half from the duplex to the boardwalk. The sidewalk was so hot the curly-haired girl could feel it through the soles of her flip-flops. The grass was yellow, the hydrangeas blue. The ocean was a wobbly sliver of light even brighter than the sky and shimmering like a mirage—she could hardly wait to get there.

     The cruise is worth it, Janice corrected. Ab-so-tive-ly pos-i-lute-ly. She said it helped if you were a newlywed. She leaned forward to put out her cigarette on the sidewalk, and when she sat up everyone held their breath to see if her bosom was going to stay inside her suit. The thing I’m talking about happened long ago, Janice said. Not as long ago as the Rain of Beads but a thousand times worse. People used to think the Horsewomen were involved, only this was another group. They were older and they were human girls and they had a leader—they called themselves the Aquanauts. Their leader was a girl who no longer cared what anyone thought about her. She no longer cared if everyone thought she was weird. During the week there were only women and children at the shore, just like now. The men came on the weekends. If the men had been there probably none of this would have happened.

     People went to the shore then? someone asked.

     You think vacation is something new? Janice laughed the laugh she’d been working on, one that was supposed to sound musical.

     If the men were there it wouldn’t have made any difference, someone said. I’ve heard about the Aquanauts. What happened had nothing to do with what sex people were.

     Across the street the mother of one of the little girls had appeared in her driveway in a red bikini, a lit cigarette gripped between her lips as she hosed down her convertible. The mothers didn’t pay Janice for keeping an eye on their daughters, but they made it worthwhile for her, occasionally inviting her and her husband to their parties. Otherwise Janice wouldn’t have had any social life to speak of, she knew that, just as she knew the reason why had something to do with her being unsuitable in some way she couldn’t put her finger on, but which she suspected had to do with the fact that she, unlike the mothers, spent so much time with their daughters. It would be different when she had a daughter of her own.

     In the beginning the group was like Pangaea, Janice said—that was how they got their power. They were like one giant lump of land surrounded by a single giant sea. It wasn’t until the lump broke into pieces that you could tell from the fossils how it used to be. One girl had a black locket that used to belong to another girl’s mother, one girl had another girl’s friendship ring. One girl stole. She stole Blue Boy from Pinkie in the pack of trading cards in another girl’s cigar box, breaking up that treasured pair forever. Of course the girls didn’t like each other equally. The coastline of Asia didn’t dovetail exactly with South America. When they played Nancy Drew someone always got left out, frequently the girl who stole, who refused to be Bess, while the girl who didn’t care what anyone thought of her was always George. She came from very far away and then one day she disappeared. In between she lived on the second floor of a duplex apartment at the shore.

     When I say girls, Janice said, I mean teenagers.

     How many girls were there? someone asked. By now everyone knew better than to ask their names.

     What difference does it make? I don’t know, Janice said. Maybe four. Maybe five. Not a big group.

     I have a black locket, someone said.

     Do you think I’m blind? said Janice. And don’t everyone go telling me about your friendship rings.

     A hot breeze gusted off the bay, riddled with flies. Janice swatted at them but they kept landing on her; they were attracted to the suntan lotion. If she knew who’d taken Blue Boy she wasn’t saying.

     The Aquanauts always waited until the families had left the beach and gone home, Janice said. It added to the girls’ feeling of power to think of what was going on in the duplexes without them there. Everyone’s bathing suit had a crotch full of heavy gray sand and you had to be careful not to make a mess in the bathroom when you peeled it off. On weekends the fathers mixed cocktails and opened cherrystones while the mothers mixed cocktail sauce. During the week the mothers did it all themselves. If you were a good girl you sat on the duplex porch with your mother while she painted your fingernails bright red to match hers. She drank a martini and you drank apricot nectar. The little sisters played with their Ginny dolls, the Ginnies who couldn’t walk and the Ginnies who could, though you wouldn’t really call what they did “walking.”

     By the time the girls got to the beach, the sun was on its way into the bay on the other side of the island, and the shadows of the boardwalk shops and amusement park rides had grown longer and longer, making the sand dark and cool. The two lifeguards had turned over their chair and their lifeboat and taken off their whistles, dreaming of kissing the same girls they’d spent the whole day protecting. The beach was empty except for the gulls and the things people left behind accidentally like wristwatches and shoes or on purpose like trash. The sand castles had been swallowed by the sea. It was low tide, the shadow of the top car of the Ferris wheel swinging back and forth at the edge of the water.

     I like the black-haired lifeguard, said one of the older girls.

     He likes you too, said another girl. I can tell.

     What about the man with the metal detector? said the curly-haired girl’s little sister. The man with the metal detector was always one of the last people to leave the beach. Her heart went out to him, with his over-tall red crew cut and the way the sleeves of his white short-sleeved shirt stuck out like fairy wings.

     Don’t be stupid, said someone else. This happened before any of us were born.

     What difference does it make? said the curly-haired girl. It could have happened yesterday.

     Every night it was the same thing, Janice said. The girls would wait until the beach was dark and then they would walk straight into the ocean and swim away from shore until they disappeared. Afterward they would sit under the boardwalk and get so drunk that by the time they came home and went to bed it seemed to all of them that they were like clothes tumbling around in a dryer.

     One night something different happened. The girls didn’t come back. The mothers were sitting on the duplex porches, smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails. They were sitting in groups of two or three, the fathers still in the city. Some of the fathers also were sitting on their porches at home, drinking and smoking and listening to the hot summer wind moving through the crowns of the sycamore trees. The fathers weren’t in groups; aside from the ones having affairs they were alone. There was a feeling of melancholy everywhere, the melancholy of being in a place apart from the person with whom you normally spent your time, thinking of her sipping her martini, picturing the lit tip of his cigarette traveling in darkness away from his lips and toward the ashtray. The sound in the other person’s ears of a car turning onto the street where the two of you normally lived. The sound of the sea in your own ears. The feeling of melancholy was everywhere and it wasn’t, generally, such a terrible feeling. Because everyone knew they were going to be reunited with the person they were missing, they could throw themselves into their melancholy moods.

     There had been warnings. But people never heed warnings.

     No one listened, and as more and more people stopped listening, more and more people stopped telling the truth. Even Madame X didn’t tell the truth, having been designed that way by the Chamber of Commerce. Nothing will put a bigger damper on a family vacation than being told the world’s about to end.

     You’ve seen how she just sits there in her glass case in the arcade, Janice said, with her big glass eyes and her little plaster hands lifted like the pope’s, waiting for the next coin to drop. That night she decided—no more lies. Supposedly it was one of the lifeguards who got the fortune, but he didn’t take it seriously. The only thing lifeguards take seriously is looking good for girls. You don’t belong here, the fortune said. You never have. Once the land stops getting in its way, the ocean is going to be everywhere.

     Madame X told me I was lucky in matters pertaining to business and finance, someone said.

     She told me I was going to meet a dark, handsome stranger, said someone else.

     I bet she meant the lifeguard, said one of the little sisters.

     Girls, Janice said, oh girls. For a moment she stared off into space like she was trying to collect herself. The parents didn’t realize anything was different, she said, and she sounded angry. Not at first. If they’d been paying attention to the moon they might have had a clue, but they were too filled with feelings of nostalgia and self-pity, the way adults become after they’ve been drinking. The girls knew it was going to happen that night, though, and they were ready. Their leader said she hoped they’d said their good-byes. Everyone had brought her air hose, for all the good it would do.

     It was late and the tide was as low as it gets. The girls didn’t think they’d ever had to walk so far before arriving at the water. They walked and walked and walked and meanwhile the moon was practically on top of them, like they could touch it. Like they could stick a finger in one of the craters—you’ve all seen the moon do that.

     My dad says that’s just an optical illusion, someone said.

     If your dad’s such a genius, why did he ever have you? said someone else.

     The curly-haired girl moved a little closer. I wouldn’t dream of touching the moon with my two arms, she said. She was quoting the poet again but no one cared. They were too busy listening to Janice. Even the curly-haired girl couldn’t leave. That was the thing about Janice—she made you want to know where she was taking you, even if you didn’t want to go.

     After what seemed like forever, the girls got to the water, Janice continued. There had been a sea breeze all day long. Now there was nothing except a feeling like something holding its breath. The girls waded in, enjoying the warm water on their feet and the burst of the first waves against their ankles, still warm but cooler, the shallow water mixing with water from the heart of the ocean, which was cold. The ocean is coldhearted; you don’t have to be a genius to know that. It makes boats sink. It makes you watch where you put your feet. If you choose to swim at the end of the day after the lifeguards have left the beach you take your life in your hands. You know that, don’t you? Janice gave everyone a piercing stare meant to drive her point home.

     As usual the girls were dressed in identical black bathing suits with skirts and identical white rubber bathing caps that strapped under the chin. They looked like old ladies. They didn’t enter the water like old ladies, though, splashing water up over the tender parts of themselves to lessen the shock. The girls plunged right in and kept on going. They ignored the jellyfish and the seaweed. They didn’t look back. At their leader’s command they dove under the first big breaker that came their way and rose up on the other side at the exact same time as meanwhile the whole idea of what a wave is fell apart behind them. For a moment they paused so everyone except the girl who was so nearsighted she couldn’t see anything without her glasses had a chance to make eye contact with one another. Then they kept on swimming.

     The girls had been preparing for this for a long time. At the shore they practiced in the ocean; at home they practiced in the bathtub. At first they just held their breath, but after a while they got so they could breathe underwater. The girls didn’t really need the hoses anymore; they just brought them along for backup. People were eighty percent water, they figured. What made everyone think the moment our ancestors came out of the water and started to breathe air represented a step up the evolutionary ladder? Why did people always think things got better by moving forward? Why did people think that way? It was so limited! As if the surface was somehow better than everything else. As if air were king.

     The girls rose on the next wave and felt themselves flung forward as the wave broke behind them. The further they got from shore the bigger the waves were becoming, rocking under them with more and more energy. It was like they were being pushed on a swing, higher and higher, getting swept up the side of a hill to stay for a split second at the top before being swept down into the valley below and then up again, the top even higher this time, the slope even steeper and the valley lower, until they found themselves at the top of a mountain of water the size of an alp. The moon was right there above them, drawing the ocean up to it. The girls practically banged their heads against its surface. Because of the moonlight everything looked like it was coated in silver, but you could see how dark the water was underneath the coating, so dark green it was almost black, and the moon itself was whiter than anything, whiter and smoother than an egg.

     I’ve had that dream, someone said. I dream about those kinds of waves a lot.

     It’s an ancestral memory, Janice explained primly, as if she were mentioning something better left unsaid.

     The girls didn’t realize until they’d arrived at the top of that final wave that one of their group was missing. You’d probably guess it was the girl with the bad eyesight, but you’d be wrong. The girl with the bad eyesight was right there treading water with the rest of them, waiting for the signal from the leader to dive under. No, it was another girl, one of the best swimmers. Unfortunately for her, or maybe fortunately—who can say?—she didn’t always concentrate on what she was doing. She was careless, and when people are careless things go wrong.

     Somewhere along the line, Janice said, the careless girl let herself get caught in a breaker that carried her back to the beach. The breaker curved over her head and thumped her from behind—that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re thinking about something else, like for instance a boy. Then it churned her around and around before leaving her on her stomach in the sand together with a lot of broken clamshells and those little crabs the size of your thumbnail. Even though nobody was there to see her, the girl stopped to make sure her bathing suit was still in place before getting to her feet. Normally she didn’t care about the way she looked, but this was different. The world was about to end and her friends had left her behind. They were going to survive and she was doomed. Plus she had to go home to her parents.

     Except it didn’t end, someone said. How can we be here if the world already ended?

     I’m getting hot, said someone else. When do we get to go to the beach?

     A lot of people died, Janice said. You’ve studied it in school. The world didn’t actually come to an end, but it might as well have. It was like scientists predicted. Whole countries weren’t there anymore. You’ve all seen the globe. It looked completely different.

     Suddenly she yawned and stretched and stood up. Well come on, she said. What are you waiting for?

     The beach was just a block and a half away but it always took longer to get there than it should. The little girls had to be herded along and there were lots of things to carry. Things got dropped and someone had to go back to pick them up. By the time they arrived at their usual spot—a good spot just to the left of the lifeguard stand with no one between them and the water—the sun was directly overhead. Janice screwed the umbrella into the sand while the older girls spread their towels as far from the umbrella and as close to the lifeguards as they could get. The beach was crowded. Everyone was talking at the top of their lungs about private matters like heartbreak and terminal illness. It was the only way to be heard over the sound of everyone else, not to mention the surf.

     Hurry up! Hurry up! cried the little girls.

     It’s not like the ocean is going anywhere, Janice pointed out.

     A seaplane flew past very low over the water, trailing a banner that said TAKE A MOONLIGHT CRUISE ON THE EVENING STAR.

     Come Friday, Janice said, that’s going to be me and my honey on that boat. She set up her beach chair in the pool of shade made by the umbrella and sank into it, letting out a sigh.

     It was a very young coast. The little girls went off to play with their buckets and shovels in the shallows while the older girls began working on their tans. One minute there was no wind at all, the next minute it came gusting off the bay. Some sheets of newspaper drifted past, followed by a baby wearing nothing. The lifeguards whistled in a swimmer who’d ventured too far out.

     People are such idiots, Janice said. She reached into her beach bag and withdrew her cigarettes and her sunglasses. You know they’re still down there, she said, lowering her voice. The Aquanauts are still down there. They live in the deepest part of the ocean where it’s so dark you can’t see what they look like. They don’t look the way they did before the Descent. They used to care how they looked. They used to shave their legs, for instance, things like that.

     The curly-haired girl knew Janice was talking about her. She thought it was probably a good idea to like being looked at if you were a girl—it was probably key to survival. If you were a gorilla it was the other way around. Somewhere the girl had read that if you looked a gorilla in the eye it would strangle you.

     Whatever we can’t see has power over us, Janice said. Plus, as much as people seem to think so, the ocean isn’t infinite.

     When that immense wave broke it went everywhere. Almost everywhere, Janice corrected herself—emphasizing almost—but not quite. You can’t even begin to imagine what it looked like. Luckily it was nighttime. If it had happened during the day it would have been even more terrifying. The whole sky was blocked out. Some people ran, some people got in their cars. They ran the way people do in horror movies, looking back over their shoulders while continuing to run forward, without any sense of direction or purpose. Of course it did no good. The only things with a chance of making it were the things living in the water. Even then, a lot of them didn’t do so well.

     But the Aquanauts were OK, right? someone said.

     Look! said someone else, laughing. The tide was coming in and just as Janice was talking about the immense wave breaking, a small wave had broken and sent parts of itself up over the sand and onto the bottom edge of someone’s beach towel. As the water crept up the beach it turned the white sand dark, pocking it with tiny holes where the sand crabs lived. Then it went back where it had come from. The air smelled like hot tar. The bucket-shaped things the little girls had been building got washed away along with other things like sheets of newspaper and flip-flops and cigarette butts.

     Where do you think you’re going? Janice asked the curly-haired girl.

     The girl was heading out into the water with her raft under her arm.

     Didn’t you hear what I was just saying? Janice asked. About the Aquanauts?

     So? said the girl. Vacation was a nightmare when you were a teenage girl forced to live in a rented duplex so small and with such thin walls that the sounds and smells of your whole family not to mention the people downstairs like Janice and her husband were always right there. The curly-haired girl knew Janice and her husband could hear her feet walking across their ceiling. While they were having sexual intercourse they could hear her feet. Janice could hear her feet while Henry’s penis went in and out of her.

     Maybe you don’t get it, Janice said. This is no joke. Because I’ve watched you—you’re always one of the ones they have to whistle in.

     At first the girls just spent their time playing, she explained. They couldn’t believe how lucky they were. They were alive and they could go anywhere they wanted. They could explore the parts of the ocean where human beings had never been before, and they could swim through the top floors of skyscrapers or into places like maximum-security prisons or movie stars’ mansions or the lion cage at the zoo, places that had always been off limits to ordinary people. It seemed like nothing could hurt them, either. Not even sharks or giant squids, and they didn’t get sick with things like gill rot or white fin the way regular fish did.

     But after a while it was like, what’s the point? A lot of time went by. The water receded. The descendants of the people who hadn’t died began reproducing. First they did it as a necessity. It was only later they started enjoying it. Soon things were back to the way they’d been before the wave. Houses got built, streets like this one with rows of duplexes. Someone put up a boardwalk. There was a penny arcade with a fortune-teller in a glass case. This was possible because it turned out the future still existed. It’s the one we have now, in case you wondered.

     A whole lot of time had gone by but the girls hadn’t gotten any older. They were still girls. Even after everything that had happened to them, that part never changed. Eventually they found themselves back at their old beach. They recognized it from the shadow of the Ferris wheel down by the water.

     Janice pointed and the little girls gasped.
      Our beach? someone asked.

     What did you expect? said someone else. That’s how history works, or else Janice wouldn’t know it.

     The girls couldn’t get out of the water to lie on the sand and work on their tans. If they got out of the water they couldn’t breathe, and they missed the way the lifeguards used to look at them. They didn’t want to stay girls forever. That’s the main thing about girls, am I right? Janice held out her left arm and studied it critically, admiring her tan and the way her ring sparkled in the sun. Girls are always in a big hurry to take the next step, she said, the one about men and romance and marriage and babies. The girls drifted as close to shore as they could without being seen. They could hear the sound of baseball games on people’s radios. The lifeguards were looking out to sea but the girls knew they weren’t looking for them. Every girl was crying but the other girls couldn’t tell because their faces were already wet.

     It’s their own fault, someone said. They were the ones who decided to live undersea. No one made them do it.

     If they hadn’t they probably would have died, said someone else.

     They’d be dead now anyway, said the curly-haired girl. She turned her back on the group and began walking toward the water.

     After Janice finished moving the umbrella and all the beach things from the path of the incoming tide, she spread herself out on her towel, flat and wide and brown like a gingerbread man. Except they aren’t, Janice said. The girls aren’t dead and they aren’t ever going to die. You’d think that was a good thing, wouldn’t you? But what if you wanted to take the next step, only you were doomed to be a teenage girl forever? It would make you angry, wouldn’t it? It would make you more than angry. It would fill you with murderous rage.

     The girls got to be immortal and it made them deadly.

     At first there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Sometimes people said they felt something swim by them in the ocean but that was all. Sometimes the girls would bump against someone but just barely—the girls called that “kissing.” Of course they no longer wore their black bathing suits and their white rubber bathing caps—when a girl bumped into someone, the person could feel how seamless the girl’s skin was. Their skin felt smooth and slippery like sausage casings. It wasn’t really skin, though. It was more like a pod.

     After a while the girls began to shoot right past us, not quite seeing us and just barely feeling the bump of us against their skin. It was like all we were to them was something that got in their way. It was like they hated us.

     I’ve felt that, someone said. I thought there was a fish swimming by me.

     My mom said it was nothing to worry about, said someone else. It’s only the current.

     By now the curly-haired girl had gotten past the breakers and was lying on her stomach on her raft, paddling away from shore. She could see the moon up ahead, preparing to shine once the sun got out of its way. Every night there were more planets; planets were being born somewhere in space, being calved off larger, older planets. This was the way of the universe, the old making way for the new. When she looked back, the lifeguard stand was like a dollhouse toy, Janice like a dollhouse doll. Over the boardwalk the sky had turned the color of beets, but right above her head it was still blue and getting darker, the weird blue of a newborn baby’s eyes.

     It was then that the girl sensed it—a disturbance in the water next to the raft, a feeling of a presence getting ready to move past her and then pausing, sensing her there as well. She could see a glimmer of skin just below the surface, a shudder in the current as the head came up beside her. Whatever it was smelled like fish but also like it had been buried in dirt and was starting to decompose.

     She could see where the stories came from. The thing’s eyes were large and lustrous as plums, and when they stared at the girl they were filled with an intention so forceful she knew she couldn’t be imagining it. Until that moment neither one of them had any idea of the other’s existence, like the way a baby is suddenly in the world, or a dead person out of it. The thing’s gaze was fixed on a place right above the girl’s head, the place where she knew her thoughts were visible.

     Back on shore no one noticed anything. People were eating hot dogs and burying one another in the sand. They opened her up and there it was, someone was saying in a loud voice. A tumor the size of a grapefruit.

     Janice rolled over. You’re probably wondering how those girls got to be that way, she said. Because they started out the same as you and me, just like everyone else.

     They were all somebody’s darlings, Janice said. They got tucked in, they got presents. They got Suzuki method piano lessons. Also My Little Pony and Felicity the American Girl, horseback-riding lessons, religious training, ballet lessons, and pets. Also bedtime stories when the nights grew dark. Once upon a time there was a little girl who could be anything she wanted.

     Later she couldn’t remember she’d ever even had a mother or a father.

     My mom and dad had me, said one of the little girls.

     But what about that other girl? someone asked. The careless girl who got caught in the breaker?

     She’s the one who had to watch it happen, Janice said. She saw everything. The bad news is you’re all descended from her. That’s why you have trouble sleeping—and don’t go trying to tell me you don’t because I know what goes on here at night. The bedroom walls are like paper. The good news is it’ll start getting better once you’re older. Cocktails at five—that’s the answer. If those mothers and fathers hadn’t been drinking their cocktails when the wave broke—if they’d been able to see what was going on, the way the first spray was very light, almost unnoticeable, but that it was followed by a disturbance in the air that was everywhere and was a threat to the whole idea of air, to the idea of breathing air instead of water—if those mothers and fathers hadn’t been drinking cocktails then we’d have gone insane long ago.

     In our house my dad’s the one who drinks, someone said.

     My mom drinks soda, said someone else. But my granny drinks rubbing alcohol.

     Suddenly the dark-haired lifeguard stood on the seat of his stand and began blowing his whistle over and over again, louder and louder, violently waving his arms, motioning toward shore.

     Speaking of cocktails, Janice said. She looked at the sky and then she looked at her wrist. The sun is over the yardarm, she said; no one knew what she was talking about. She began gathering together the things they’d brought with them to the beach. Everyone was beginning to gather their things together—it was as if a signal had gone off somewhere.

     We can’t leave now, said the curly-haired girl’s little sister. Even though she was often embarrassed by her older sister, she didn’t want her to die. She remembered the time she dreamed her older sister died and it was terrible. She couldn’t stop thinking of Cinderella singing “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”

     Both lifeguards had jumped down from their stand and were dragging their boat across the sand and into the water.

     Janice seemed affronted. The problem with humans is they think their children are theirs, she said. They think because their children came from their own bodies and cells they own them, like where we come from points to the future.

     By now most of the people leaving the beach had stopped in their tracks and were turned to face the water. The lifeboat rose and fell as the dark-haired lifeguard rowed it through the breakers, the oars lifting and lowering like wings on either side.

     Does anyone know who it is? someone asked.

     The stuck-up girl, someone said.

     It’s that poetry girl, said someone else.

     Of course the girl couldn’t hear them, she was so far out to sea on her raft. My darling, my dearest, she said. She had no way of knowing who it was she was talking to. How long had she been out there? The sand at the water’s edge was cold and hard, the galaxies revolving on their horizontal plane like a roulette wheel.

     From the shore all anyone could see was the lifeboat, getting smaller and smaller.

     Believe me, you don’t want to be here when they bring her back in, Janice said. It’s not like I didn’t tell her. You have to watch out for your arms and legs if you go that far out. You all heard me, right? The last girl this happened to had bites out of her. 

Kathryn Davis is the author of eight novels, including The Silk Road (Graywolf). Among other honors, she has won the Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lannan Award for Fiction. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.