29 Aug Watermark
Watermark Craig Westmore[su_divider]
I began my walk across the Atlantic Ocean in the city of Natal and headed east-northeast in hopes that one day I would reach the shores of Sierra Leone. Years of walking on rivers have not prepared me for the uneven swell and three-meter waves. My thighs and calves burn at the end of each day and I collapse on the surface, laying limp like kelp. A modified snorkel keeps water out of my mouth when I sleep and a scuba mask prevents saltwater from splashing in my eyes.
On the first day, a westerly wind pelted the back of my neck with gritty sand from the coastal dunes, pushing my pace faster than I intended, but I wanted to get away from the land’s stinging admonishment of my journey. On that first night I lay in the soft sea foam and let it soothe my skin.
“Why, Thiago?” my girlfriend Aline asked when I told her of my plans.
“I will run the rivers in search of diamonds.” Ever since my feet felt the surface tension of the waters near my home, I knew I was destined for bigger things than fishing for my father.
My friend Jair played futebol on the river with our friends every day but I found the ball sluggish and hard to kick. He loved to dive for the ball head first toward the goal then splash down a few feet before bouncing back up. It was fun but I needed more.
Aline feared the ocean and wouldn’t come with me. She had learned to walk on the river but stayed close to the shore. When she was a little girl, she had been pulled under by a riptide and carried out to sea before being rescued by a passing boat.
I took her to the top of a tower to show her the path I would take. She only saw the vast plains of sea blending with sky. I pointed out the tides like small roads leading out to deeper currents but she held me tight and refused to understand. I said goodbye and left her crying behind a waterfall. Her face blurred by the water. Her tears lost in the mist.
By the third day, the thin green line of land on the horizon disappeared. In every direction only sea and sky. Deep and pale blue. I had to remind myself that home had dropped below the curvature of the earth.
In a week, the seagulls stopped following and the wind became my only companion. At sunset, it would pick up in strength and hug my body and I would lean into it to return its embrace. At night, it died down to a whisper and lulled me to sleep.
I grew accustomed to eating raw fish and dragged my pole in the sea, catching some herring in the mornings when they fed. After finishing my meals, I threw the remains far behind me to keep sharks from nipping at my feet.
“Will you ever come back?” Aline asked.
“Yes. When I’m rich and we can live anywhere.”
You cannot cross the Atlantic Ocean any time you want. You have to time it with the rainy season and follow the storms. It is the only way to get water to drink. I wore a hat with a wide brim to collect water when it rained.
I planned to stay close to the equator for warmth and wore a wet suit like the ones that scuba divers use in cold weather. At night, I put on the hood and booties to keep warm.
I’ve always loved exploring. When Jair and I were kids, we hiked up one of the smaller rivers to see how far we could go. We came across an indigenous tribe gathering at the river’s edge for a water ceremony–a rite of passage for boys and girls. The children lined up along the shore and a spiritual leader painted their faces with crushed urucum berries. The young initiates followed him to the water and he slid one foot along the surface, arms out, then slid along the other. The children balanced for a few steps and fell in. Jair and I had hid well in the bushes but when one of the tribesmen lifted his nose to the wind, we ran away before we could be found out.
Jair and I told our brothers and sisters what we saw. The little ones thought it was a fairy tale. Jair’s big brother punched him in the arm for telling lies. And when I started to tell my parents, my grandfather put a finger to his mouth.
For days, Jair and I stood on the edge of the dock with our feet dangling and skimming the surface to get a feel for something solid to stand on. Jair fell in five times before I tried. I crouched low, slid my feet, and fell in. Jair laughed but I didn’t fall in right away. I had felt something thicker than water buoy me up for a moment.
“An afternoon of nonsense,” Jair’s brother said when he came to get him for dinner. I stayed, watching the sun dip below the hills, so slow and barely perceptible. When I closed my eyes, the sun’s light shone on my eyelids. I glided my foot as slow as the sun had set. Then the other foot. I tried gliding at the speed of the falling sun.
Someone gasped. A woman on the other side of the river dropped her bags. I was standing in the middle of the river and immediately fell in. She shouted a prayer and ran away. I swam back to shore, hurried home, and hid under my bed. I felt ashamed for what I did. I don’t know why.
The woman’s husband accused her of drinking and no one else believed her when she pointed a finger at me in the market the next day. I avoided the river. After school, I joined Jair in the fields to play futebol and bats with the other kids. A week went by before I returned to the river–on a day when Jair visited his aunt in Fortaleza. Early morning before sunrise I walked upriver and took my first steps off the sandy shore, gliding like I’d seen the spiritual leader do it. I reached the center and went back without getting wet. I was breathless. By midday, I walked back home, down the middle of the river with my back straight and my head held high.
After weeks on the ocean, I lost track of the days and logged time by the length of my beard. When it grew enough to stop itching, I spotted a man in the distance dancing on the waves. He lifted his foot then shifted his weight to lift the other foot and repeated the motion swiftly three times. On his fourth try he suspended in the air for a blink then fell back down. He seemed to be climbing a ladder only he could see.
The drops of rain fell hard like slaps. When I got closer, I shouted out to him. He jumped back at the sight of me as if I was a ghost. But then he laughed and waved me over.
He wore shorts but no shirt. His skin deeply tanned by the sun. His hair was deep black and cut evenly around his head. He was shorter than me but his legs were thicker than my waist. He told me he was Guarani, from a small tribe of indigenous people who lived up river from my town.
We kneeled in the surf and shared our fish. He had caught a mackerel twice the size of my herring. I could not catch such a large fish. Herring pulls me along the surface and I cannot reel it in. I pull it up when it tires. But a mackerel of this size would drag me into the sea.
“Are you dancing to thank the rain?” I asked him.
“No. I am trying to climb it. I want to reach that cloud up there.”
I laughed. “That’s impossible.”
He pointed at our feet. “And yet, here we are.”
I blushed at my lack of faith.
“What will you do when you reach it?” I asked him.
“I want to find my tribe. They left the forest land last year and set out on the Atlantic to find a place to live.”
I could not bear to ask him why; I already knew the reason.
“It looks hard.” I told him.
“It is,” he said.
After our meal, he returned to his climb but kept falling back down. His feet were not fast enough to get a good hold on any drops of rain. And yet it fell as thick as fingers.
He took a break on the surf. Out of breath from all that work.
“Have you done this before?” I asked him.
“On fog. I crawled my way to the top but it wasn’t very high. Then the midmorning sun burned it away and I splashed back down.”
“That cloud looks very high.”
“Yes, but it is very thick. I could live there for days, drinking its moisture and fishing for birds.”
“And if you fall?”
“I believe there will be moisture in the air to slow me.”
I watched him for an hour and said goodbye. He had not moved beyond the first few steps.
“Glide like you’re on ice,” I instructed Jair after showing him I could walk on the river.
“I’ve never been on ice, Thiago.”
It took three days for him to get it. He said all my advice distracted him. We taught our friends and played upriver after school, thinking up new tricks and games to try–who could jump the highest, dive the deepest, slide the longest.
When our parents found out, we got harsh punishments; some got beatings. We were not to mock the rituals of the inland tribe with our disrespectful gameplay. Fernando got sent to boarding school. Luiz ran away from home, but he would have gone anyway since his father bruised him badly whenever he got drunk. A week later his uncles found him sleeping in a bus station in São Luis and brought him back and put him to work and let him sleep on their boat. Family takes care of family, no matter how bad those families are.
We laid low for a while then played further upriver. We kept it a secret all through middle school and continued in high school. We played on the river for so many years that when we graduated, my friends lost interest in games and went to work for their fathers.
I got a girlfriend, Aline. On days I wasn’t fishing for my father, I taught her to walk in a part of the river where lovers went–and so, everyone respected our privacy. At eighteen years old, I felt important. I had a gift. I needed to know what I could do with it.
Out on the ocean with my father, I watched the waves lift and fall. I searched for smooth surfaces and places to glide. When a shark attacked our nets and tried to steal our catch, I jumped out of the boat and ran to the net. I kicked and stomped on the shark’s head until it swam away. The faces of my father’s crew had gone white. When I climbed back in, proud of my accomplishment, the veins on my father’s neck popped out. He raised a fist. I felt a thump and fell to the deck as my vision faded to black.
A day later I made up my mind. There was nothing in this small fishing town for me. I would leave and get rich with the gift that I had. I would go where my father and family couldn’t find me. I would go east. To Africa. And walk the whole way.
Aline pleaded with me, “It’s dangerous. Why don’t you take a boat to get there?”
“I don’t have the money for a boat. But I will come back on my private jet.”
I left home on a Saturday night and took an overnight bus along the coast heading south to Natal–the closest city to the African continent.
When my beard had grown long enough to pull on the hairs, a 30-meter yacht sailed up to me. A young couple and their crew were sailing around the world. They had heard of people who could walk on water and took pictures of me standing in the wake of their yacht. I offered them my fish; they offered me wine. They said they could give me a job and help them on their journey. I was very tempted but they didn’t say what the job was. I declined and they sailed south while I continued east. But each day that passed, I felt a stronger urge to return home.
And then I lost my pocketknife. So careless! I had gotten adept at removing the head and scales of my fish without a cutting board. There is no place in the sea to set something down. I cleaned my fish and put the knife in a side pocket of my pack when a wave came. It must have fallen out. I wished more than ever I had accepted that job on the yacht.
Several days passed before I was desperate enough to eat a live fish. I was horrified to think that my teeth would clench down on a living thing and kill it. I said a prayer and thanked this animal for its life so that I may live. With the first bite it wiggled in my mouth–slimy, oozing, and salty. As I ate, I felt a life dying in order to nourish me.
Each day more I thought about how I had left Aline. She had gotten a job at the beach park in Fortaleza with the world’s tallest water slide and an artificial river for floating down on inner tubes. When a little girl had gotten knocked over in the mechanical wave pool, Aline swam out to save her. I asked why she didn’t run on the surface to get there faster. She said she didn’t want to attract attention or anger her boss. I accused her of denying who she was, ashamed of her gift. We argued and I left her behind a waterfall by a snack shack with the smell of chlorine and her sobs drowned out by the laughter of splashing tourists.
When my beard had reached my chest, my legs gave out. They had thinned to the thickness of my arms. I lowered myself into the sea, put my pack under my legs, and swam for days. I swam until my arms ached and my legs had rested.
The next morning, I tried to stand and couldn’t. I couldn’t see over the waves and didn’t know which direction to go. Homesickness hit hard. Thunder roared in the distance, and overhead, hundreds of copper-bottom clouds with cumulus sails drifted away from a storm. They traveled on an easterly wind to the Americas like the ships of Portuguese explorers.
With the memory of my ancestors, I rose up out of the sea and ran to the storm. I would climb the rain, reach one of the cloud-ships, and sail home. Under the rain, the rhythm of the drops tapped out on my shoulders and face. I swiveled my hips left and right and up while snapping my hands at the rain like the dance of a fighting crab. The sea disappeared below and just as my lungs started to burn, I reached the bottom of a cloud and leapt into it, pulling myself up by the fingertips. I sat in the mist to rest and the sails of a colossal cloud-ship passed by, heading toward the orange horizon.
As I massaged the ache from my legs, a cool breeze chilled the tops of my feet but not the bottom. A moist film like seaweed stuck to them so I reached down to pull it off. A ring of white skin peeled away at the edges revealing scales of silver, green and blue. I ran my finger along the soles of my feet–slippery in one direction, coarse in the other.
I have the mark of a water walker, and now I can dance on rain. I will go home and teach Aline and we will learn to direct the clouds and bring water where it is needed. We will live in the sky and leave others to wonder of our existence. And when we die, we will rejoice for the plants and animals that will be nourished by our bodies, our lives.
Submitted to Reedsy Contest #160
Prompt: End your story with someone dancing in the rain.