The ocean came for us, but only wanted you.
I haven’t seen my brother since we were very young. He asked me how far I thought I could swim in the ocean. I said I didn’t know, but wanted to find out. We walked into the waves like soldiers going to war: devout, but terrified. At first, we stayed close, but eventually gained the courage to drift apart. By the time we were finally missed, it was too late.
They couldn’t have a funeral without a body. Father bought a cemetery plot and placed a headstone over the solid ground. They wanted to bury a box of your favorite things, but I wouldn’t let them take anything of yours. I hid all your racecars behind the bookshelf. I slept in your bed to make sure they didn’t try to steal anything at night.
I wanted to walk across the ocean. I was trying to find you.
I told them we had to get you back, but no one wanted to hear me. I asked where you were, but they would only say you were gone away. People stopped letting their children swim for a time and fishermen dreaded casting their nets. Mother watched the water like a gull, thinking it would tell her its secret if she was silent enough, but the salt has never told anyone the truth.
They tried to forget you, but I wouldn’t have it. I reminded them of you with just my appearance, but that wasn’t enough, for me. I asked questions about you all the time. I screamed your name when they told me to stop. I let them curse me, for you. I tried to make myself like the ocean so you’d feel safe when you returned. I drank large glasses of water and learned to swim faster. I kept a conch shell by our bed. I fell asleep listening to the water hoping to hear you.
I saw you across the ocean. Your face looked just like mine.
Finally, Mother took me to the shore. She held my hand as we waded in up to my waist. She made me stand against the waves. Over and over they knocked me down. Her hand was the only thing that kept pulling my head back above water. Between the waves she screamed, “You see? You see? Gone! Just gone!”
I didn’t see. I searched. I threw the flowers off your grave. I made them set a place for you at the table. I refused communion until they’d tell me where you’d gone. People grew concerned. I whispered to the fish I caught, “Have you seen my brother? He looks like me.” I cried at your birthdays. I cried at Christmas. I cried all the way into the water and then further beneath the waves. I cried until I saw you, my brother long gone.
I walked across the ocean because I thought you’d be there.
Father took me out in his boat once. We were far enough from the shore that I couldn’t see home anymore. He made me walk to the front. He told me to jump in. When I hesitated, he pushed me overboard. I treaded water for an hour before he fished me out. He asked me what I saw. I said you.
I went swimming everyday when I was old enough to walk to the beach alone. I swam to the rocks. I swam to the sandbar. I swam as deep as I could, until the water was dark, dark blue and I thought I’d freeze to death before surfacing again. Sometimes, I pretended you were there and told you stories of everything you’d missed. I told the waves I was sorry and begged them to give you back, for our mother, for your grave, for me. The waves didn’t care and pushed me back to shore, rejected again.
You weren’t across the ocean. I walked there, once.
I danced with a man who tasted like the ocean and I knew you’d approve. We were married the next June. When I feel my longing for you—the familiar sense of drowning while you’re standing upright—he walks along the sand with me. When our first son was born I named him after you. We had him baptized in the same water that took you from me. His smile is just like I imagine yours was. Mother says he is you reborn. I take him to the beach so we can stand in the surf, hold him tight against my chest and tell him just how far out you can go.
Cetoria Tomberlin is a poet and writer originally from South Georgia. Her work has previously appeared in various publications such as Fairy Tale Review, NonBinary Review, Southern Women’s Review, Cicada, Broad Magazine, and online at LADYGUNN, HelloGiggles, McSweeney’s and various other places.
Artwork: Lara Zankoul, “A dependent ship will go nowhere.”