The summer she turned ten, Phoebe sat and watched people not swim at the beach. Instead, bathers floated a few feet above the still water, riding airy eddies out toward the horizon.
Some of the bathers faced up to the sky with their arms spread, like lowercase t’s.
Some of the old witches floated like enormous clouds in their red or pink bikinis; their dimpled thighs and bottoms created small smudges whenever they grazed the glass Ocean.
Some of the men wore striped, unitard-style swimsuits, and butterfly stroked their way further and further out until the line between water and sky flattened them into air.
The orange sky was startling, but as the swimmers approached the tiny space between Ocean and sky, they turned into fleshy wisps and the water turned pink. All of this is absolutely true.
Now, almost twenty years later, Phoebe sits on the rock jetty with her legs pulled into her chest. She watches as the waves crash and retreat, crash and retreat.
She hadn’t needed to be rescued, she thinks to herself. She thinks of her friend, the Crone, who had warned her of this. People like her don’t need saving. She hadn’t been looking for anything.
The Crone had understood what Phoebe needed but always stayed quiet. Their connection was like that.
The salt spray feels like millions of tiny glass shards on her skin, even through the t-shirt under her denim jacket and pink cotton skirt. Her tears also sting.
Their salty water is hot, not cold, so the water settles on her, and seems to freeze, then boil over her face, her small hands, and her bare feet. There is nowhere else she wants to be.
She never asked to be saved or even found. No matter how close to the edge of the jetty she creeps, memory follows. She will never outrun it; she will never escape it.
There is no saving her from her own past.
When Phoebe was thirteen, she fell in love for the first time. She floated on the waves, and the water cats, with their slick, grassy bodies, enveloped her legs, waist, and belly.
She would lie there, allowing the surf to carry her from sandbar to sandbar.
The creatures slid into her heart, glided from chamber to chamber and purred until there was no way to tell the difference between their vibrations and hers.
The water cats pushed their berry noses against her cheeks to keep her mouth and nose above the soft waves. She could remember her mother’s laughter at the shore.
Her mother’s laughter was like the waves. To this day, Phoebe is certain her mother is the Ocean.
At the bottom of the Ocean, where the water cats lived, Phoebe knew there was a garden. It was full of enormous red flowers that opened to the clearest water like lips waiting to be kissed.
The water cats told her about this place.
They led her to the spot above the garden and told her that someday if she was very, very good, they would take her there and the tiny fish would eat from her palms.
She floated on her back, and the water cats wove themselves in and around her ankles, her thighs, all the way up to her hips until she was bound to the waist.
She shimmied her new tail in the water and dove deep, looking for the luminous ring of blossoms and their wanting little mouths.
“Come,” the watery blooms sang. “Come and let us kiss you. Be happy and loved, for the world of sand is full of tears.”
She dove further down, and the water cats hummed as they slipped through and around her legs. Eventually, she had to breathe.
By the time she found her way to the shore, her legs felt cumbersome. She knew that she would find her way all the way down to the garden one day.
When she was fourteen, the Monster came and he sent the water cats away. They slunk off into the caves where the water was icy. Their tails became frozen razors.
They didn’t purr and they only came out when Monster summoned them. She couldn’t swim by herself anymore. It was winter. The world turned dim and the garden closed itself up like a fan.
Boys came and went; none of them had mouths like flowers. Instead, they had teeth with metal braces. These boys tore and chewed at her and said they loved her. They didn’t though.
Her mother loved the Monster. She didn’t understand that he was made of winter. The Monster’s teeth were the biggest and sharpest of them all and made Phoebe bleed, sometimes.
At night, when Phoebe’s Ocean Mother was cold and dead -drunk, the Monster would swim to her through filmy, viscous sleep.
The blank, silvery moon lit up the Monster’s bulging white face and burned his eyes black. The moon and the Monster were partners. He summoned the enchanted creatures that were once her friends.
The icy water cats unfurled from his sleeves and his trousers and scraped over her body, leaving tiny imprints with their claws. Her body was a relief map of stained land and inky water.
By the winter of her fifteenth year, she’d taken her mother’s Fiskars to her head. Her hair jutted from her scalp like a million unbending fingers pointing in every direction.
She died them blue and black and green and purple. She smeared violet lipstick across her mouth to match the colors under her clothes, which no one else could see.
Every clump of color pointed the way outward. Teachers called it a phase. The Monster and the Ocean Mother sent her to her Old Aunt that summer.
It was fine; one place on this Earth was like any other at this point, and her head pointed in all directions.
There were never stars or a clear moon at Old Aunt’s place because of the bright lights off the boardwalk, and the noise kept all the Monsters away.
“Do people ever find love, and mouths, and flowers and skin?” she’d asked Old Aunt, once.
Old Aunt laughed. “You are better off not seeking such things,” she replied. “Serve your maker and all will be rewarded and skin and mouths will no longer matter. Service is the meaning of love."
To that end, Old Aunt was exacting and made her scrub the kitchen and bathrooms white as teeth every day.
She did as she was told. She scrubbed everything so hard that she was clean as a bone.
On the wall in the guest bedroom was a picture of a saint who wouldn’t look Phoebe in the eye. That was okay though because he also wouldn’t look at her body, even at night.
He kept his hands to himself, his pressed together at his heart. He wasn’t Love like the Old Aunt had said, but he wasn’t dangerous, either.
At night, Phoebe would hear the commotion outside Old Aunt’s house. Sometimes she would sneak out, ride her bike the few blocks to the boardwalk and then look for the elves.
They were usually loitering outside the dark bars that smelled like pee and vodka. The elf she liked most was named Orpheus. He had a long orange braid and crooked, slightly pointy canines.
He complimented her hair and knew right away that her head was a compass.
“Is green North?” he’d asked her once, handing her a clove cigarette and a shot of tequila. The tequila tasted like acid and it burned her insides clean.
Orpheus and his other elf friends made her laugh. One night, they got on their skateboards and bikes to a club where they all drank and danced until three.
When she climbed back through the guest bedroom window, the Saint on the wall said nothing, as usual. The silence pained her greatly.
That day, Old Aunt made her pull thistle roots from the flower beds as the sun rained down on her head.
Her palms were scratched bloody and filthy from the thorns by day’s end and she did not return to the boardwalk the next night. No one came looking for her and she slept like the dead.
By that fall, Phoebe was sixteen. Her hair was shoulder length and brown as an old bruise.
For many years, the Ocean was dead, and Phoebe no longer searched for the garden. The water cats never sang for her anymore.
Phoebe moved into her own small apartment and grew cilantro and parsley, and edited other peoples’ words for books about places far away.
Even on the coldest days though, she came to the new shore. This stretch of beach was always quiet on the cusp of fall and winter.
She parked on the street by the market, walked the two miles to the dilapidated house with the “Do Not Enter” tape, sat in the front yard, and thought.
Sometimes she wrote in her notebook or drew pictures of long, flat seaweed with berry noses and silky tails.
Often, she would walk to the edge of the jetty and watch the gray waves roll in beneath her. She’d let the cold mist spray her face, hands and feet.
The gulls screeched overhead, drowning out the lies told by first love.
Once, she was seized with the notion of flying, spiraling through the air upside-down. On the flat part of the beach, she began turning cartwheels.
It had been over a decade since she’d turned cartwheels, but that day the urge to fly was undeniable and sudden.
So that dull morning in mid-November, Phoebe practiced going airborne and upside down, falling over, tumbling into the cold sand. It was glorious.
Occasionally, her hands or feet slipped over the seaweed that had drifted to the sand to die.
Some afternoons, after the tide went out, she patrolled the beach, sadly gathering leathery strips of washed-up vegetation.
She gently waded way out into the low-standing pools and placed the poor creatures back into the water, where she thought they would live again or return to their maker.
Sometimes she would say, “From where you came, my friends. I’m so sorry,” and stay with them until her calves and toes were like icicles and her teeth chattered.
One evening, as the sun started to dip into the waves, Sam appeared from the cold froth like Venus on the half-shell. He was alone, and he wore a black wetsuit.
He rose from the horizon as the sky melted purple. His feet were bare, with pale-blue water toes. Phoebe knew his sweet, seaflower grin without ever having seen him before.
Some connections are like that.