Fiction: “The Dance”

Read the first-place winner of our "Spring Cleaning" short story contest.
By Kate MacNamara | Published: April 9, 2018


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It was under the enormous sky, our last dance. There was little else, just us and all that blue. We talked of urgent things, of course we did. But it wasn’t one of those preposterously heavy conversations about love, and what it all means. We did not wallow in goodbye.

You know, at first, I wasn’t even sure you called. It was hot, you remember, and there was that wind. There always is when it’s hot like that. Heat rising from the land, and cooler air rushing in, the sea breeze, it makes quite a sound. The gulls were screaming, but then gulls always scream, they’re in a constant state of panic, gulls. There was, too, the roll of pebbles, raked and clawed by the waves, like a grinding of teeth.

Your shout was one word, I think, though I couldn’t make it out. I could see you a good way out, your faces turned toward me, but too distant for features. Then there was nothing. I had imagined it as I had imagined you needing me countless times before. It was my wont, to turn a late hour, a missed meal, looming weather into misadventure, some trouble that had befallen you. At times I wondered, worried, even searched – the goat tracks up the cliff, along from the beach – panic tearing at my throat like the calls of a mad woman, ringing in my ears, always ending in a wave of relief: Silly, we told you not to worry.

In my uncertainty, I walked to the water’s edge, straining to hear. And then you called, clearly this time, you called my name. You were both of you rising and falling with the swell and the waves, and I struck out into the water.

The cool of the water numbs the brain a little, which was a mercy when the waves rose between us and blotted you out. When I came to you, your skin was washed and grey, the colour of old rags, the pallor of a dead man, and you were coughing and fighting for breath. In that first moment I thought it was your heart, otherwise how to make sense of this struggle? I don’t remember you saying – though you must have told me – that you swam out after the child. “Daddy,” she asked you, “are we being swept out to sea?” Then I knew it was the current the surfers ride, maybe 50, 100 feet across, that carries them away from the beach. It is a narrow serpentine, I expect you could throw a stone across it.

She was calm, and in that moment I told her to swim, swim diagonally, picking a point far up the beach. I didn’t touch her cool skin, or squeeze her hand, but her long hair fanned out around her shoulders in the water, it looked like the hair in fairy tales I’d read her, and I wished I had a lock of it to keep.

She struck off on her back, her yellow polka-dot mask tipped up at the bright sky. Away from me. God forgive me, I thought, the swell pushing between us, the sound of the waves, their rush and wash, replacing the sound of her steady strokes. All of this in broad daylight, under the warm January sun, casting its heat on us as soon as anyone. A daylight robbery.

You were in my arms, waterlogged as you were, your breath rasping, your lungs sodden. I held your body as high as I could in the water, your back pressed to my chest. Chin up, darling. But the waves washed across your face and overwhelmed you, like a baby fallen back in the bath, powerless to right himself. What a power it is to breathe, and then not to breathe, to hold your breath and wait, wait, wait, then breathe again.

“Kick. We’ll try the frog kick.” Your ear next to my mouth. “We’ll call it the frog kick waltz.” Did you laugh then, or was it the cry of the gulls, harrying one another, swooping and calling across the empty beach. In a low trough, between waves, my foot grazed the pebble, I think yours did too. I could see the long fetch of the beach in my mind’s eye, its slow climb beneath the water. I knew that somewhere close beneath us, there was that long sickle of sand, proud above the gravel channels on either side. You would name it properly, careful as you are in topographical description: the ebb tidal delta.

On its far side is the estuary mouth, a busy span of water ever occupied with the labor of filling and emptying the tidal flats. When the tide is running fast out of the inlet, the main current sweeps far into the bay, but it also eddies around this sickle – forming and reforming it – creating a second, lesser channel, and this channel is blind. The force of the eddy pushes the water up the beach, higher than sea level. Then, its energy spent, that water begins a hasty retreat and rushes to equalize. So we were in the path of gravity. I think your clear scientist’s eye must have creased in a wry smile; a nod, not to fate, but to physics.

They say drowning men will panic, flail and struggle, and sink their rescuer. So I thought, against all contrary evidence, that you must not be drowning, for you were as gentle as a lamb, but you were as saturated too, your chest heavy as a bale of wet wool.

To tell the truth, I was preoccupied with the child, squinting to see through the waves, straining for a glimpse, even as we struggled, you and I. Water in the mind’s eye is flat, biddable, that you might see across it. But out there it is its own thing, peaked and heaving, and not ours to command. Nowhere in that wild expanse was there visible a polka dot mask. And that is perhaps the crux of the thing; the choosing one, and so, not the other.

I strained to see a figure emerge, upright on the beach; I willed a small figure to take shape against the dunes. It consumed me, this desire. I prayed, possibly aloud, let it be either of us, let it be you, but not her. I think, though I cannot hear you say it, I think you must have said go. Or was it me who screamed it, snatched it, struck out and fled, as in the middle of a dance while the music played on.

It is not a matter of deserving, for any of us. You get what you get. Well, tell that to the coffee pot, standing there – ramrod straight – like a Methodist minister. Quietly damning.

She asked me, my daughter, as she lifted this vessel, if I feel guilty, “survivor’s guilt,” she called it. Her face was flaming red even as she searched, these years later, to find the words. It is not a subject either of us find easy. If you were glib (and why not be, they are only feelings, these raw, butchered ends) you might say there are dangerous currents that move through this topic of conversation, and indeed, even at the surface, you can read their treachery. From the kitchen window, now as I break the eggs – one, two, three, and a splash of milk – I can see the tidal bore at the inlet, that wave that curls up. It does not move up and break, but stays put, marking that turbulent place where the outpouring of the estuary and the big water of the bay meet. It is not spectacular like some bores you may know, ridden by surfers, causing their rivers to flow backward. All the same, it marks a place. “The guilty party,” I said hotly and against my better judgement, willfully misconstruing her, whisking so that a splash of egg escaped the bowl. “I didn’t mean that…” she trailed off, flustered. “I meant to help you understand,” she is taking a degree in psychology, this one, “that it isn’t your fault.”

What can I possibly loose into the ensuing silence? It takes so little chewing, this meal, that I am left to fuss with the pouring of milk, and then to press into the pad of my index finger the crumbs from suppers past that are scattered across the table, depositing them obsessively into a small heap at the side of the plate. I hate myself, that I cannot master this impulse and let them lie. And if I am honest, I hate that she will read all of this, like runes, and make some textbook prognosis.

She will be wrong, of course. So wrong, I think later with my hands thrust so red and deep in hot water and suds that even the dirty dishes look dismayed. Dismayed, as only dirty dishes can look and egg especially. Egg is very judgmental, all the more so the longer it lies. It has the measure of me, egg, and that glazed, jaundiced eye beholds not guilt but resentment.

 

Kate MacNamara is a business journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She lives in Alberta, Canada. “The Dance” is one of a number of stories she wrote while living in New Zealand for a year with her family, on hiatus from real life.

 

Read our interview with Kate MacNamara on her writing process for “The Dance.”