This story contains depictions of deliberate child endangerment and references to the deaths of children.
They left me to drown, sea salt clinging to the back of my throat.
I could hear the rolling rhythm of their rowing chants, drowning out my cries as succinctly as the sea would soon drown me. Yet no matter how hard my strokes, the boat diminished each time I came up for air.
And, as all the boys before me, I slowly lost my voice. My strength. My will.
Every year, we sacrificed a boy to the waves. The strongest boy, the one who would survive the longest out there — out here. A boy who, like my brother Toma before me and others before him, would swim desperately until his muscles ached and his belly filled with saltwater.
Until the spirits welcomed their sacrifice.
People back home would nod sagely to one another as they commented on how sweet the winds were, how full the catch the following seasons. Surely, the boy that year must have swum hard and survived long in order for the village to receive the spirits’ blessings.
Yet if the winds were poor and the catch minimal? They would condemn the boy who swam for not being as strong as they’d hoped after all.
For dying too quickly.
I thought — during that long boat ride where I’d pleaded for them to choose another, told them it wasn’t fair to throw in the same blood twice in a row — that I would feel more connected to Toma out here. But I didn’t. I couldn’t feel him in the waves. Couldn’t sense him in the air I gulped before reaching again for a sandy shore I could not see.
All I could feel was a gnawing, growing terror that grew colder with every painful stroke.
I thought that I heard spirits.
They drew me onto their skiff. I clutched the whorled wood the way a child might his mother’s skirts, unashamedly. And there I remained, whispered songs swirling around me, my body shaking from exertion.
As I closed my eyes in relief, I was only vaguely aware I’d been saved, plucked from the ocean while the sun still glowed red from the morning sunrise. That I’d somehow lasted the cold, seemingly endless night.
I dodged consciousness, sleep coming in minimal spurts. As I drifted in and out, I wondered that ocean spirits sounded so much like people. Like men.
I raised my head in a sudden dizzying rush, finding five men fore and aft in varying stages of dress and sunburn, the air suffused with the earthy scents of teak and oil. They wore their shirts off their belt-loops like the men back home. The shanty they sang, the one that had brought me into sudden alertness, was the same tune the village men had sung as they’d rowed away.
The man in front of me must have heard my gasp, for he twisted on the thwart. His oar paused in the air, saltwater droplets sparkling in the sunlight like gems gifted from the spirits.
Then I was looking up into Toma’s face, his lips set in a hard, unfamiliar line. I thought I dreamed him, pooling him together from water-logged hopes. I reached for him, worried he might dissipate, and his eyes softened, as if he were made of memory and reflections. Then he paused in his rowing to grip my shaking hand, his skin firm and real and hot.
“Didn’t think they’d throw us both away.”
Me either, I tried to respond, but my voice fizzled at the realization that he was truly here, truly alive. All I had left to give him were gasps that only vaguely resembled questions, my relief tumbling out of me in pained noises. He pressed a waterskin into my palm and turned back to his rowing, a sense of bitter disquiet in his manner that had never been there before.
Toma walked me through their sparse island home. The dock was thin. Their homes were little more than squat hovels tucked away from sea and sand, and there were so very few of them.
“What about the others?” I asked that first night, my voice as scratchy and battered as I felt, my emotions fragmented and me too exhausted to put them together again. I lay on Toma’s bed, a mesh cot with a rattan blanket that smelled musty.
“The other boys.” The boys that must have been saved before him. Before me. All the ones I would recognize from the last few years.
Toma shook his head. “The ocean’s a big place.”
He told me to sleep. Told me not to worry. I could only do one of those things, so I closed my eyes.
He brought me to their shrine in the morning, in order to give thanks to the spirits for saving me. I knelt in gratitude and cut off enough of my hair to fashion an offering, though my fingers trembled as I made the weaves across the fish bones.
Their shrine had an air of freshness to it that the ones in the village did not. New shell wind chimes hung from curling branches. Driftwood cradled the table lovingly. Water basins — shells, crab carapaces — were arranged in a wave, while dried seaweed drifted against the rock.
Drifted. Like the seaweed still lived and breathed and shuddered in the sea.
Toma leaned close to me and whispered, “Don’t stare. They get nervous.”
So I snuck glances up at the wisps of water that rose from the basins and the shuddering seaweed. And prayed all the harder to the spirits who seemed to be here. Yet not from where we’d come.
I joined Toma’s fishing trips after my first few days recovering. Out there, within that blue expanse, I found myself staring down into the cold water that had almost claimed me, searching for hints of the spirits here too. Darting glimpses of driftwood and seaweed moving against the current seemed to trail us out, then trail us back to shore. Companions I came to expect, then to greet each morning.
Our nets strained in fullness, more so than the village nets ever had. The winds came heavy from the west to cast us out to sea in the early mornings, then blew strong from the east to send us sailing homeward bound. The storms on the reddened horizons held off, spinning their fierceness out, away from the island, away from we who had been left to die.
In thankfulness, we always brought the first fish of our catch to the spirits’ shrine. Even before we pulled the catch off the boats. Even before we stopped to eat, to rest. What we did not do was go beyond our fishing grounds. As if there was some form of barrier made of heart-hurt out there in the water.
When I asked Toma why we did not go further, why we did not bring news of our survival — of the spirits’ rejection of our deaths and their bountiful blessings to our lives — to the village, he said, “For what? For them to find a new way to abandon us?”
But it wasn’t us I worried over.
I added my own offerings of chimes and shells to the spirits’ shrine. My hair became patchier through the seasons as I wrapped seaweed about my locks and strung them on the rocks where the spirits danced. They sang to me sometimes, a rippling sound that reminded me of the frothing of the waves and the howling of the wind at once.
Toma claimed he could not hear it. “They’d let us know if they were upset. And not with mere sounds.”
Yet I felt the spirits at my side as I walked the dirt paths, my callused hands grazing the wildflowers and seagrass growing tall on either side. I felt them when I waded into the ocean, like a tug, a gentle insistence, as if hands that were not hands pressed against me, pulling me onward, outward.
The spirits, shyly darting in my peripheral, urged me toward a fat, straight teak one late afternoon. I lay my ear against its bark and listened to them sing, their voices burbling like from the depths of the ocean.
So as the season turned, I cut the tree at its base and began to carve my own skiff under Toma’s worried gaze.
Toma did not argue loudly, like the elders from the village.
He spoke softly some nights of our quiet lives filled with satisfaction. He spoke long of responsibility, of when and where it was required. And when and where it wasn’t. He spoke of his love for me, of his hopes from the previous year that I was living well, of the pain of finding me in the sea, of his happiness that we were together again. That I was safe.
He did not argue loudly, but I heard what he attempted to say nonetheless. His quiet insistence hid a fear for me. Yet as the days began to lengthen, as the water began to warm and the jellies returned and the rains slackened, I could feel the salt tang rising in the back of my throat. Could taste it when I dreamed of swimming toward shore in a desperate bid to survive. Swallowed mouthfuls that saw me waking, clutching at my throat.
The day of sacrifice approached.
Every time I set my offerings at the shrine, I could sense the spirits hoping for something more from me. While every time Toma caught me staring out over the ocean, my indecision grew. Had the spirits been more demanding, had Toma lathered me with guilt, perhaps I would not have felt so torn.
I woke before dawn to find the spirits frothing in the waves, shivering like worried kelp. The ocean stretched long and dark. Violet clouds streaked across the sky like a guide, village-bound.
The others hovered on the bluff, on the paths before their small homes, watching. All the boys plucked from the sea. All the men scarred by the saltwater burn slipping into their lungs.
Toma caught up with me as I bent to untie the slip. “You don’t owe them anything.”
“No.” I supposed I didn’t.
But then I tasted brine, a salty tang gathering in my throat, swelling until it touched my tongue, like the waves had taken residence inside of me as a reminder. I envisioned the next boy thrown to the sea.
And the next.
And the one after that.
Some of them surviving, found by these men. Some of them….
The same salty tang reaching down their throats as they sank, sank, into the chilly embrace where the sun could not pierce.
I leaned over the side of the skiff to grab Toma’s hand, our sweat mingling, sand scratching at our palms. For a heartbeat, hope flared in his sad, tired eyes. Then I slipped my hand free and pushed the skiff off the dock and out to sea.
The spirits flocked toward me, wet wisps of sea spray against my keel, damp breezes swelling in my canvas. They rode the waves, their shivering worries turned to exciting leaping as I turned us toward a village to set a tradition right.
They left me in the ocean to drown. But all the spirits willing, I would be the last.