Beats

by

My father’s voice, sturdy and robust: “Are you ready?”

Before I could answer him or choose between nodding or shaking my head, I felt the unrelenting push of his callused hands on the small of my back and slipped off the stern. The rough, almost splintery wood that served as my seat vanished beneath me, becoming a fraction of a second of airy suspension–a brief moment for me to catch whatever breath I could. The sea met me with a hard slap; the sounds and sights of the surface disappeared. Through the glass of my facemask the world transformed into an intense and velvety shade of royal blue. The shocking coldness of the water invigorated me. Immersed, I spent my first moments floating motionless some feet below the surface, savoring the sensations: the weightlessness, the saltiness, the hollow echo and gurgle of the depths, the tickle of rising bubbles on my legs, arms, and cheeks. In time my lungs protested and I propelled myself upward. I broke through and gulped the humid air.

“Cara!” My father again. He leaned over the side of the boat. “How’s the water?”

“Delicious!” I gasped, beaming.

He returned my smile and signaled a thumbs-up. He turned to direct a question aft. “Are you sure the schools will pass through here?”

“I think so.” From somewhere onboard, the boatman’s tinny voice carried over the blowing breeze. “It’s their season.”

Whether the dolphins passed through or not, the pleasure of my first jump just beyond the shallows could not be broken. I floated on my back and shut my eyes to the sunlight, savoring the mixed sensation of the sun’s prickly warmth with the water’s chill as I was held aloft on the light bobbing of the divergent tidal eddies.

“We’re near enough to the reef’s edge, so even if they don’t come, you can still do some snorkeling,” Dad said. “We can move to deeper water later, to try and chase the school, if you want.”

“That’s fine,” I answered. I drifted languidly like a slack string of seaweed for a few moments longer before gripping my snorkel’s mouthpiece with my teeth and twisting my body around to float on my chest. The world turned royal blue once more. Blue, and then some.

It is darker under the water but awash in color, filtered as the light is through the prism of the ever-moving current; there are hues on the seafloor that can’t be replicated elsewhere. The coral beneath my floating form unfurled and shone in an accumulation of varying shades matched only by the cascade of exploding reef shapes–round and balanced domes, wavy-lined and bulbous oblongs, spiky balls and blocks, long columns with branching tendrils–all made vibrant and vivid by the shifting latticework of light that blanketed the sea-bottom in a luminous mesh, rippling white crochet.

A flight of silverfish shimmered by, each of them a wavy mirror. Pointed darts of black-lined yellow guppies shot in and out of the coral’s crevices, unheeded by angled, slow-moving angelfish, the brides of the reefs, whose long fins trailed behind them in tapered, stylish trains. In a bed of swaying seagrass, a collection of spiny seahorses–ignoring and in turn ignored by a hovering, speckled puffer–clung to apple-green blades with their tails lest they be borne away by the drift. The seahorses’ cousin, a leafy sea dragon, smoothly slid along the ragged edges between the vegetation and a mound of wave-worn rocks. A family of orange clownfish circled beside the half-open maw of a pebbly giant clam, and just below them, on a patch of white sand, I delighted in piercing through the chromatophore camouflage of a small octopus passing by on rolling tentacles. A leatherback turtle, its mottled carapace the length and breadth of the coffee table back home, entered the scene, gliding through on flippers as elegant underwater as they are clumsy and plodding on land. It was a shame that my shadow, and the larger one that belonged to the boat, intruded into the patterns of light, color, movement, life.

We were anchored to a buoy just off the continental shelf, where the reef wall ended and the seafloor dropped steeply in a severe cliff, down into the fathoms below, where royal blue transforms into a heavy cobalt the deeper one dives until, when even the strongest sunlight cannot reach that far anymore, all turns black. This was my first time to see the real depths, to swim so near to them.

Muffled as his voice was through the water, I heard my father call my name; I raised my head.

“Cara! Here they come!” He gestured wildly to me off the starboard quarter with one hand and pointed to an area of open sea with the other. I turned to look.

The coruscating light on the ocean’s surface could not blind me from seeing the lustrous bodies of the dolphins as they jumped over the water. I had seen this before, but only on my father’s old, grainy home videos. To see this for real, right before my eyes, sent a shiver up my spine. My heart skipped with fresh excitement. For the moment, the dolphins were still a bit distant and small, but their forms were clearly defined; they approached quickly, looming larger with each leap. I traced their path and calculated just how near they would pass.

“Swim there! Swim there!” Dad pointed some fifteen feet farther into deep water. “They’ll pass near that spot! But don’t go too far! Just stop there!”

I shook my head and chuckled. My father was more excited for me than I was for myself, which was plenty enough as it is. I stretched my body out and swam to where he directed.

In mid-stroke I rose with the crest of a sudden swell, felt myself carried up, then under, by a massive breaker. The sea was calm, but Dad had warned me that this happens sometimes; with all that goes on in the waters there could be many reasons for the way the currents behave. Like he taught me, I recognized what was happening and kept my head, grabbing a lungful of air before being taken beneath. I tried as best as I could to keep from resisting the vortex’s pull, to conserve my energy by keeping my body streamlined, flowing with the force of it until it died and I could make my way back up.

But the rogue swell pushed me far deeper than I expected, and when I felt the tug of the unexpected riptide dragging me farther away from the shelf, so powerful as to wrench my mask and snorkel from my face, I knew–with all my dad had taught me of ocean currents, with the pain of the water’s pressure rising in my ears, with the hull of the boat swiftly disappearing from sight–that all in this brief instant, I was done for.
Struggling was useless, but I struggled nonetheless. “The greatest danger in the water is not the shark or the barracuda,” Dad had lectured me once. “They’ll leave you alone most of the time. The greatest danger is the diver himself. Stay calm. Don’t ever panic or it’ll be the worse for you.” I remembered his words but could not make myself follow them. I scrambled madly against the undertow as it bore me away, and in disbelief at what was happening I released my last bit of breath in a flurry of bubbles. With a muted, underwater scream I called for my father like I was eight and not eighteen, right before I plunged from the blue to the black. The world was removed from me.

I fell into unconsciousness and, perhaps into worse; I can’t be sure. In the impenetrable gloom where I found myself suspended I felt no pain, even when I knew I was no longer drawing breath. I became aware only of a steady, rhythmic thumping, a regular beat that I surmised could not be my heart if only because it rose in volume and strength, instead of diminishing and dying, taking my life with it.

Something nudged me, brought back my self-awareness. I turned to look but I still could see nothing. The nudging turned insistent, pushing me in a certain direction. I tried to ignore it, to go back to black, but it wouldn’t leave me be, so I gave in and forced my limbs to move where it urged me. Blue increased around me once more by increments, the light returned, the water ended, and I burst through to the expanse of sky on high. With great heaves I refilled my body with the sweet breath of life that I had believed I would never taste of again.

I found myself being circled by the school of dolphins. We were in unfamiliar waters. The boat and my father were nowhere to be seen. No land was in sight, which my mind told me was impossible; no undertow, no matter how strong, could’ve delivered me far enough away from the island. I turned my face upward but even the sun and the clouds overhead looked alien; they seemed younger, just like the air I was breathing smelled cleaner and unsullied. Everything around me appeared brighter with a different, newer light. The sun’s position at the sky’s apex told me that it was noon, but a quick look at my wrist presented an impossibility: my diver’s watch read that it was only mid-morning. I realized too that I had not fallen into fits of coughing or choking, as my water-filled lungs should have reacted if I had truly drowned and been revived.

The dolphins clacked and chirped their greetings, intermittently puffing spray from their blowholes. I could not accept that I was where I was, swimming among them; I needed to reach out and touch them to dispel my doubts. Only when I stroked the rubbery hardness of their fins, handled the smoothness of their skin, both clammy and warm at the same time as they passed beneath my palm, could I admit to myself that I was breathing and alive.

The dolphins were patient and waited respectfully until I had gathered my wits and equilibrium. When they sensed that I was ready they broke their circle and proceeded to form a line in preparation for moving off. I hesitated, but one of them swam next to me: a clear offer to hold on. I took his dorsal in my hands and with a flip of his flukes we sped off, trailing white spume, slicing through the water faster than I had ever done before.

One would think only the birds know the meaning of true flight, but the open ocean is as much the sky to its own denizens. In moments I understood what it meant to soar.

We skimmed over the whitecaps. Some of the other dolphins occasionally broke through to playfully jump the foam. The crisp, bracing wind, the sprinkles and spatter in my face, refreshed me, drawing honest laughter from my lips. In pure joy I shouted at the top of my voice to the heavens. The heady sensation of cutting through the sea felt wonderful, as did riding in the wake of the trails of the other dolphins ahead; it was their strength and their energy that carried and filled me, that brought me forward. The waters became the universe and our playground, limited only by the infinity of the horizon’s line. We swam this way for what felt like minutes, hours, the span of days, the length of years.

I could not imagine being happier.

When our time was done the leader leaped into the air and struck a pose against the sky before plunging down; he did not resurface. The rest followed, including the one I held onto. Unprepared, panic filled me once more, and after a couple dozen feet of descent, with the blackness below approaching, I could not restrain myself and let go. My instinct told me to swim back above as fast as I could, but after covering less than half the distance I discovered, inconceivably, that I felt no pain, experienced no exertion, and did not run short of breath. I stopped.

In gentle angles, countless beams of sunlight pierced the water like expanding rapier blades that dissipated into placidly dancing motes. I floated there among the shafts of light, suspended among them, between the azure half-light and its gradual vanishing into the depths. The water glowed, luminous, so broad and so wide, to my left, my right, and below me. Surrounded by the eternal, I imagined all that vast murkiness, all the possibilities it could contain, and felt so very small.

I took a gamble and, against intuition, drew breath, prepared to drown. Nothing happened. The water tasted as sweet as the air, if still salty, and coursed through me as my own blood. The ebb and flow of it through my mouth and nostrils, regular as the tides, cooled my body and soothed my nerves. I couldn’t help but smile at my discovery, a child learning wonder in her first steps.

Upon inhalation, upon taking the waters of that mysterious ocean into me, the beats I had heard earlier returned, much stronger than before, not fast or slow, just even. I twisted this way and that but the source lay neither below nor above; it was all around, and when I closed my eyes, I could hear it within me. The water itself pulsed with the sound. No longer relying on my eyes but on the traveling vibrations, I appreciated that it is not just what we can see but also what we can hear and feel that is richer under the sea.

A gentle prod to my thigh disturbed my reverie. My eyes met that of the dolphin that had been pulling me, its protruding beak upturned in that perpetual friendly smile all dolphins owned. “What? You didn’t know?” it seemed to be saying and laughing at the same time. I couldn’t help giggling back, and the fizz tingled as bubbles escaped my nose and throat. It circled me once then drifted close to offer its fin again. I took it.

My dolphin did not head directly down–perhaps it sensed the remaining vestiges of my fear–but instead descended at a gentler angle and at a slower pace. It pivoted off its initial line and advanced to a shallower stretch of sea, not quite the shoals but not the deep either, where it took me on a journey through a montage of captivating visions, each of them settling into their permanent places in my memory.

As we approached, a blurred mass of shapeless green transformed into a flotilla of billowing, leafy kelp, taller than the tallest man, which we blended into so neatly it felt as if the stalks’ shoots and branches parted for us as a courtesy; the foliage’s tips caressed my bare arms and legs as we swam through. When the kelp forest ended we entered and drifted over a space where a large cast of crabs skittered sideways across the sea bed, tracking thin furrows in the sand, a veritable multi-clawed army on the move to parts unknown. We evaded a fluther of translucent jellyfish that stagnated in one spot, eerily motionless, sharply pink against the blue, and slid into the cavities between a cluster of rock formations, arrayed in uniform rows, the width and height of cathedral pillars, astounding in their size and their strange symmetry.

We turned aside at the end of the bed when we came up against a sheer, craggy embankment that rose from some vastness below, passing so close to it that I could see into its many shallow recesses, where smaller marine life–too many and too various in appearance for me to give them any names–capered and dashed on thin legs that recalled silver and gold fibrils. Various kinds of sea anemones–round, wide, and flat like the severed heads of sunflowers, fan-shaped and flapping like elephants’ ears, or solidly trunked like petite, fibrous ferns–dotted the rock in their purples, tangerines, ambers, and mauves, their tentacles endlessly curling and whirling to the flux. The embankment’s face was encrusted in many places with armor-plated barnacles, and enshrouded in others with extended tracts of algae, innumerable air globules the size of ball-bearings caught in the hair-like fuzz so as to resemble dew on the morning grass. I brushed my fingertips across the algae and the globules escaped into wriggly flight, crystals in miniature on the ascent.

My dolphin and I retreated from that great wall, and while doing so a wide shadow cast on us made me look up. A manta ray, easily the length of a car from nose-tip to tail-end, coasted by on wings extended like those of a giant bat’s. Some weak sunlight still slanted down, enough for me to spy a thin, bony remora hiding in the protection of the manta’s ventral side. A bit lower and advancing in the opposite direction was a bulgy-eyed goliath grouper, longer than a man is tall; we were close enough to it for me to count the brown and white splotches on its skin and the spiny tips of its fins. But even at some distance farther off, we were all dwarfed–me, my dolphin, even the ray and the grouper–by the hulking aspect of a gentle whale shark, waving its tail fin as it propelled itself slowly forward and away.

When the distance between the wall and the two of us was enough, I turned to see that it was no wall, but the jagged, upper end of an undersea mountain, the peak of which towered high overhead; our coming near to it was just the barest brush across a fragment of one of its outcroppings. I discovered that my dolphin had taken me that much into deeper water, up against a mass so large, and I hadn’t noticed the change till now.

We veered off and made our way into a gully that, after a swim through a narrow corridor, grew into a wide canyon, the sheerness of its sides expanding before us in emergent grandeur. Here, there were many schools of different types of fish, each of them spurting away as we neared. As we proceeded, ledges and overhanging underwater flora served as a canopy over our heads, blocking the thinning light and darkening the surroundings further.

But I was no longer afraid. My fear had vanished, replaced by all the wonder that I had been shown and my complete trust in my dolphin. It turned its head to look sideways at me, nodding its head in assurance; I understood and tightened my grip.

My dolphin banked sharply and plummeted into a fissure in the gorge, leaving the light behind us until, once more, blindness. With my eyes useless, my ears thrilled to the water’s throbbing beats, which grew in volume the deeper we went.
Just when I was prepared to revel in this bliss forever, it ended, all too abruptly. Pain erupted in my chest as if a hammer swung in full force had struck me there. I released my dolphin as unpleasant, staccato flashes assailed my brain. My body crumpled into itself; I could not endure the intensity. I surrendered, and gave myself up for lost.

Later, when I was back on board, my father said that I had disappeared for a good fifteen minutes. The freak wave had lifted the boat up almost thirty feet, startling both him and the boatman into losing their legs. When the sea leveled and they looked over the edge, I was nowhere in sight. They scoured the area but couldn’t find me.

“Then the dolphins came back,” Dad said. He clutched my hands tightly as he spoke.

“I think they had also been taken when the wave hit. We couldn’t find any sign of them either until the boatman heard their chirping and splashing some thirty feet away from where we were anchored. You were on your back, and they were pushing you toward us. We hauled you in. You were so pale, and you weren’t breathing. I thought you were dead. I squeezed your stomach until you coughed up a bucket’s worth of seawater. We helped you force it all out. I never thought I’d see the day where I’d be happy to hear you choking. Lucky, lucky, lucky. For someone who was under as long as you were, you’re none the worse for wear. Still, let’s ask a doctor on the island to look you over, just to be sure.

“I made a mistake, Cara. I don’t care how strong a swimmer you are. Next time, life vests. No arguments, okay?”
He told me all this over the roar of the diesel engine as the boat straddled the island’s coastline and headed back to the resort. I listened quietly to his voice from where I rested near the prow, a towel draped over my shoulders, hugging myself and gazing out over the water. A smile broke out and spread across my face when I caught sight of the dolphins racing alongside our vessel, matching our speed, a sleek escort of glistening silver shapes. My father embraced me from behind and we watched them together. I’d like to think they were making sure I reached land safely before they made their goodbyes.

To be honest, I can’t remember any of what my dad recounted to me, not even of how I got back on the boat. But I do recall the exact moment when I realized where I was, and what brought me back to him completely.

After the last of the seawater had been expunged from my system and my dry panting diminished into normal breaths, Dad pulled me to his chest and enclosed me in his arms, calling me, murmuring my name over and over: Cara, Cara. His heartbeat, thudding rapidly in my ears, startled me into full wakefulness. With the beats beneath the waves still clear in my mind, both sets of sounds reverberated so differently in so many ways–the first, fast, where the second was steady; the former, light and high-toned where the latter resonated full and rich–yet were also so very much alike where it counts the most.

Kenneth Yu is the publisher/editor of The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, or PGS. Locally, his fiction has been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, The Philippine Graphic, and The Philippines Free Press; online, on AlienSkin, The Town Drunk, and Usok. He also won Fantasy Magazine’s 2009 Halloween flash fiction contest. He has two horror stories forthcoming, one in the print anthology D.O.A. published by Blood Bound Books, and another at Innsmouth Free Press.