Matthew had lost weight since coming to Ghana, and his shirt was easy to get off as he trotted across the beach, the cloth hanging in his hands like a deflated balloon. It wasn’t that he didn’t eat well; the food in Ghana was just better for you, or so his mother said. His mother was the kind of parent who believed – and who would tell anyone who’d listen – that travelling was a necessary part of “growing up.” So for that summer they had packed up and flown out to Ghana to live at a “hotel” (more like a cluster of bungalows available for rent) by the ocean, eating meals of fufu and jolaf rice in the hotel restaurant and spending their days lazing around like lizards in the hot African sun.
A few days ago, when he had gotten bored of sunning and had gone out to explore the land beyond the hotel grounds, Matthew had found this stretch of beach that was seemingly deserted, the sand smooth and unbroken by human footprints. Yeah, there were bands of matted trash around, but these were pushed up towards the palms, marking out where the high tide would reach later in the day; if he turned his back on that part of the beach, he could pretend the place was pristine.
In any case, as he began to splash his way past the first waves and waded his way deeper in, the water was deliciously cool in the heat. The salt and suspended sand scrubbed at his skin, leaving him raw and awake. He ducked his head under and then broke the surface, letting saltwater run through his hair.
His mother had gotten a stomach bug in the past week, and she was back in their hotel room trying to sleep it off. He figured it would be okay to leave her for a little while. Looking out at the ocean through the slats in the window, there had been the uncontrollable urge to swim. And why not? He was on vacation, he might as well do what he wanted.
A wave hit him, and he grinned at the power of it, letting the water drag at his limbs as it pulled back out to sea. He would go just far enough that his feet couldn’t touch the bottom. No more than that.
Sand sucked at the pads of his feet, and his toe touched against a cowrie shell, the kind the Ghanaian vendors collected and wove into bracelets to sell to tourists. This one was huge, though, as big as his hand.
Matthew bent over to pick it up, and a wave crashed into his face, stinging, icy saltwater plowing into him with the force of a whole coastline driving it on. He stumbled, then laughed a little, giving up the shell for lost.
Spitting out a stream of saltwater, Matthew continued to work his way out until he couldn’t touch the bottom – just far enough, he thought – then paddled his arms and legs to keep his head above the surface, smiling from the sheer exhilaration of the ocean. The sky was clean, melting into the horizon lying to the south. If he squinted, there was no way to tell apart the water and the sky; it was all just a flat, eternal blue.
Another splash of water went into his mouth, and Matthew spit it out through his teeth. Yeah, that definitely wasn’t table-salt. It was more bitter, his teeth crunching on the suspended sand. (Maybe a trace of sewage, too, come to think of it…)
He turned to keep an eye on the shore and did a double take, blinking to clear the sting from his eyes. Had he really been that far away a moment ago?
He leaned forward and lifted his arms in a front-stroke, the sun tingling on his shoulders and back with the first blush of sunburn. Hair slicked down over his eyes, and he gasped between strokes, aiming towards the gray-and-yellow shoreline.
But the undertow was working against him. Matthew could feel it now, streaming out to open sea around and beneath him. Swimming against it was like trying to swim up-river. For every foot he pulled ahead, the water carried him back another two. The shore hovered like a mirage ahead of him, almost drowned out in all the lapping water. “Hey!” Matthew tried to shout, though he didn’t know who would be around to hear. A thick line of palm trees fenced in the beach, blocking the view from the road where people might be walking.
Water flooded into his mouth, burning like acid on his tongue. Matthew coughed, and his stroke faltered for a moment before he righted himself. Another wave crashed over his head … had he known that the water was like this? Had his mother warned him? He couldn’t remember now, couldn’t remember much at all in the rising panic…
And then he was under, crushed beneath the force of a wave. Everything was spinning in a somersault. When he tried to open his eyes, the water pressed like sandblasters against his corneas. He couldn’t tell which way was up or down, he was swallowing water.
And then a cool hand closed around his wrist.
He jerked at the touch, a stream of bubbles pouring from his mouth. Then he began to thrash. His mind was full of sharks, stingrays, whatever the Hell was in these waters … Yet the hand was firm, and after a while he realized that it was a hand, that those were fingers holding him tight, dragging him in the direction of the shore.
He opened his eyes once, only once. And it was just for a moment.
Just barely through the murk he could see that the hand belonged to a girl, almost a woman. Her clothes were rags that trailed behind her in the water. She was dragging him behind her by the arm, stepping quickly along the ocean floor, as if the water offered as little resistance to her as air. Her hair was grown long, trailing from her head in a black cloud. Circles of welts glowed against her wrists and ankles, blister-scars from where shackles had rubbed, and rubbed, and rubbed…
Matthew let her pull him along because he didn’t know what else to do. I’m dying. I’m dying and seeing things that shouldn’t be there…
After what felt like an age, girl swung him around and gave her arms a little toss.
Matthew’s head broke the surface. For a moment his lungs couldn’t pull in any air. Then his chest gave a spasm, a throat-full of ocean vomiting up and letting in breaths, sweet breaths that could never be big enough. The hand gave him one last push against his thigh – a reminder: Don’t be a stupid white boy. Don’t go swimming alone, and don’t you try swimming out that far again. I won’t save you next time, understand? No one will.
A wave went hissing around his body, which Matthew realized, suddenly, was splayed out in the shallows. He felt wet sand under his fingers and pulled at it, not noticing the tiny, clear-colored crabs that scuttled out from underneath his palms. His eyelids had mashed closed again, the saltwater drying in a crust over them and sealing them shut.
Finally he managed to get to his knees and crawled out of the water, up past the garbage mats to a strip of dry grass beneath the palms.
He didn’t care where he was, as long as the water couldn’t reach him.
The sun had seared him to a pink, peeling crisp before he finally found the energy to stand up and walk back to the bungalow. His mother had been sitting up in bed, reading a book when he came in. Everything about him was limp, dirty and burned; for a moment she just sat there, blinking at him in shock.
Then she rushed up out of bed and found the tub of shea butter they had bought while in Kumasi. He sat on her bed as she rubbed greasy swathes of it into his skin, all while she lectured him about putting on sunscreen, and finally made him promise not to go out over the next few days unless he covered himself up. It’s a bad burn you got, Matt. For God’s sake you have to be careful if you don’t want a melanoma when you’re older…
Personally, Matthew was fine with staying inside and hiding from the sun. Easier to hide from the world that way, and the people, too, and the ocean… But every time he glanced out of the window, nervously, not sure exactly what he was looking for, he could hear the waves lapping, the palms swaying, and feel that unquestionable sensation of needing to know.
So the next day he walked out to the shore again, though now he put a hat on his head and a towel around his shoulders to keep off the sun. He found himself a place to sit, a boulder-sized rock that jutted out into the water. He anchored both hands firmly on the stone to steady himself against whatever he might see down there.
Or might not see, he told himself. You were oxygen deprived. You were dying.
But those welts… and her skin, she was almost glowing…
He reached a hand up to adjust the brim of his hat, shading his burned-pink face and neck.
When he lowered his hand, the girl-woman was standing in the water below the rock. Her misty black hair hung just beneath the surface. The rags did not cover her breasts, which were only half-full… maybe she was more of a girl than a woman, after all. For the first time, he could see her face turned up towards him.
There was no doubt in his mind anymore that she was dead. Her eyes were not eyes but blank, black skull-holes. When the sunlight shifted in the water, her brown skin became translucent, and beneath it he could see her salt-weathered bones.
“You’re a ghost, right?” Matthew whispered. He could not, would not look at her directly, in her nakedness and deathliness; he bit his lip and stared instead at the space beside her, full of cool blue-brown tide. “I think there’s one of those slave castles nearby, isn’t there? Is that where you came from?”
The girl stared at him blankly. It occurred to him that she wouldn’t speak English. Why would she? It was a foreign tongue, just as he was a foreigner on someone else’s beach. And why would it matter to her where he thought she was from? It wasn’t as though he had even gone to the slave castle. Hell, he had barely spoken to anyone besides his mom since he had gotten to Ghana, just the occasional restaurant waiter, disappearing the rest of the brown-skinned Ghanaians to the edges of his vacation, inconsequential…
If all that was true – and it was – why should she be obliged to speak to him at all?
Matthew swallowed reflexively, his throat letting out a dry click in the quiet. “Umm… can, can you tell me why, then? Why’d you even bother saving me when I’m…”
He swallowed again. The air around him felt thick, thick with history and washed-away suffering.
Still nothing from the girl in the water. The eye holes stared at him, and- Matthew’s arms went limp at his sides. They weren’t just blank, after all. He could see glints in there, if he looked close. Millions of tiny glints, swirling in a dim constellation… all the tiny lives that had also been deemed inconsequential, too sick, not worth selling, almost dead anyways, dumped overboard without a thought.
The girl’s lips parted for a moment, her throat convulsing as she tried to speak. At first in a trickle, and then in fine red pillows that curled up to the surface, Matthew watched blood come pouring out, blood specked with viscera, with diseased tissue, with everything she had kept coughing up before the white men unshackled her from the rest and dragged her to the side of the boat, and looking down at the water she began to cry and tell them, don’t, please, she didn’t know how to swim, PLEASE PLEASE DON’T SHE COULDN’T SWIM-
Matthew catapulted himself off the boulder and into the sand. Then, not pausing for breath, he bolted back towards the bungalow. What felt like moments later he burst through the door and shut it hastily behind him.
When his mother looked at him from where she lay in bed with her book, and asked, what’s wrong, Matt, he didn’t answer.
Instead he ducked her questions, went to the bathroom and shut the door behind him. Then he thrust himself under the showerhead and turned on the water full blast. He began scrubbing, scrubbing hard, his sun-burned flesh singeing in pain. His eyes were watering from tears and he didn’t know what else, but it was okay, he was rinsing it away, just like the sand, just like the beach itself and the girl, the girl who’d died out there… no, who’d been murdered out there… who had rotted alone at the bottom of the ocean, no one caring then, no one caring now.
As time went on Matthew’s scrubbing slowed. Eventually he was just standing under the water, staring blankly at the drain and the water trickling down and out of sight.
“I’m so sorry,” he felt himself whisper aloud, the words lost in the sound of falling water. “I’ll do better. I promise I’ll… I’ll find ways to do better.”
The only thing that answered him was the gurgle of the drain.