My father and Carla towed the yellow inflatable boat carrying the girls into the water. The low tide held them far out, bobbing in the small waves. The girls were both five years old, born just a week apart, my mother and Carla having met in a birthing class. Every day my father took the girls out in the rubber raft, some days two or three times.
My father held the boat behind where Megan was sitting. Carla stood behind Bonnie. I know the inexplicable behavior of the sea-when the tide seems to push up against the shore and the undertow slips out like a fluid carpet toward the ocean’s vast center and the whole sea heaves its chest.
When the waves fattened and heightened, Dad motioned Carla to push out farther, beyond the break. He guided the boat, seeking the solace of the rolling hills that the ocean offers anyone who can penetrate its crashing shoulder.
We were girls, with lungs, not gills. But I was in no danger. I stood in the dry sand, watching.
Megan wore a navy blue bathing suit with a sailboat on it. I remember her skinny arms and muscular legs, slow brown eyes and long lashes. She had a beauty mark on her right cheek and a matching one on her right buttock. I remember that.
My mother was on the shore with me, making a home movie of the girls, Dad, and Carla playing in the big surf. I looked at Megan’s and Bonnie’s upturned faces, smiling expectantly at the down-crashing wave. I heard Megan squeal. My mother bumped into me with her camera. We both laughed at their predicament.
The wave came down without question or hesitation, unbidden, naturally. When the three of them surfaced, both Carla and Dad had their hands on Bonnie’s streaming body. Surfacing, my father looked as ungraceful as a human out of his element. He threw his head back, cleared water from his blinking eyes. Carla was gasping. From the shore we noticed first; Megan was not in the boat.
For several long seconds after Megan vanished, with the camera’s eye, my mother searched the surrounding water. She filmed until she realized that she was still holding the camera, realized that Megan was truly underwater too long.
It is obvious in my mother’s movie that Megan is gone, as though the camera, the viewer, the audience, were omniscient. I was the first to fully realize that Megan was under the waves. I was watching Carla, her hands wrapped under Bonnie’s arms, gripping her child’s chest, looking to my father in disturbed confusion.
It was Carla’s expression that finally alerted my father to Megan’s absence. In our home movie you see his eyes frantically jump to his hands. It registers. He’s holding Bonnie’s small calves, not Megan’s. Then he grabs for his own thighs, as if he might be on the warm beach, Megan safe in his lap. Now the camera starts scanning the surrounding waters. You can feel the panic in the rapid pacing of the churning waves. In actuality the ocean had calmed terrifically, as though satisfied.
Dad and Carla started clapping the water around their bodies. My father shouting, “But she can swim! She can swim!” The film heads into its epilogue of drifting sand. As my mother drops the camera, it turns lazily, falling downward, and there is a brief framing of the cloudless sky before the camera comes to rest. The film ends with many minutes of sand. It is not motionless; the wind is blowing grains in front of the lens.
One of Megan’s and my favorite beach games was to stand at the tip of the shore, where each creeping wave could only lap around our toes and halfway up our heels. We loved the way the wet sand sucked at the bottoms of our feet. As my mother charged into the ocean, I was acutely aware of this sensation. I was immobile.
On the nape of my neck, fine hairs standing up, thin skin raised in bumps. The water looked too strong. Hands in fists, I dug my nails into my palms, drew my fingers up to my face. In the soft flesh below my eyes, I pressed my nails, making deep crescents. My sister was lost underneath. Burning juice rose from my stomach, scalded my throat. I was eight years old. I was afraid for her and for myself.
The guilt began immediately as I felt the ocean pull at my feet, the same way it pulled at my sister. I knew that I would not be able to move, that I would remain on the beach, mute and watchful. I believed at this time that if I stood perfectly still and did nothing but concentrate on Megan’s appearing, I could will her back from whatever depth. It was then that I began speaking to Megan without words.
My mother beat the surface of that great body of water, as if enough force would cause it to relinquish her child. Megan did make contact, a final touch with Carla. This part I always omit when recounting Megan’s death. It seems too cruel and impossible.
Suddenly Carla was yelling, “I’ve got her!” She glanced at Bonnie, who was holding the side of the raft. Carla peered into the opaque water, and dove under. We above shared an eager relief. Of course she’s okay. This was only a terrible scare. Carla emerged, her face shattered, humility. She immediately dove again. My mother howled. Carla surfaced a minute later; Bonnie raised her arms toward her and whimpered. Carla moved back toward the boat. “She brushed against my leg.” Then she clutched her own baby.
My parents began diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing. Carla held Bonnie, both crying and visibly shivering. It was then that I realized I was holding my breath. Good, of course; as long as I can hold my breath she’s still alive! Then my last hope was not to breathe and to wait for Megan. I stood there bursting in my head and chest, knowing that Megan could not hold out this long. Racked with choking, I knew that I had failed. I stood breathing on the shore.
As my mother had seen through the camera’s eye, I saw what was happening through Megan’s eyes. With her eyes open, Megan knew which direction was the surface, was air. But she couldn’t raise her body out of the gripping current while being tossed one way and another. She saw the surface. She saw the green-gray water and the sun coming through the water, illuminating particles. For a brief moment she saw Carla’s pale leg, pivoting nervously. The current even forced her against this sturdy leg for a moment, and then tossed her back even farther. Her eyes never closed, she kept them open, focused on her life. I saw what she saw. And all the while, seeing the sun’s rays, the sloshing surface, feeling the push and pull of the undertow, the salty water going down, there was silence. The silence lay heavy over all the sensations, heavy and calming. Her arms reached for us, cried out for us. She kept her mouth shut against the water. She motioned to the retreating figures of the boat, her father’s legs, all of it, until she couldn’t anymore and closed her eyes to the silence.
We remained there. The ocean moved back into its own low sleepful state.