Seaside Gothic

Fiction | Poetry | Nonfiction

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I Can’t Hear the Sea

I Can't Hear the Sea by E. J. Dawson

The first time I saw the sea, I strode to the water’s edge, intent on the horizon, stricken with wordless, shore-less wonder. I was three.

We’d visit every summer. When the tang of brine wafted through the air we knew the holidays were here. Sea salt blended with sweet chemical smell of sunblock, overridden by the chewable pungency of hot chips.

Everything was hot. The sun. The sand. But the water was cool, and it called to me. When it rained, the chill of artic currents, when the tug of a rip threatened to drag unwary swimmers to the rocks. The danger of those crashing waves, not like the safety of the beach, a haven from the rolling surf’s gait.

Dark spaces lurked beneath the water, and they weren’t the only things to be afraid of on the beach.

Things made of more than waves skulked by the sea. From the uppermost pools of stagnant seawater, anemones waved luminous tendrils, closing their sucker cups to inquisitive pokes. Little fish, transparent enough to see the sand beneath their flitting bodies. An occasional crab hiding as the cries of children came closer. Ever-watchful parents kept a steady eye out for the slight, the tiny, the almost invisible but deathly glow of blue ringed octopus that was out of the water.

Beneath the surface things swam, and some didn’t look dangerous. The floating blue that wasn’t the sea, but the tendrils of bluebottle jellyfish. Balloons the size of a child’s fist that stung. We used to wee on it, but they don’t do that anymore. Best to avoid, in order to not get wee’d on.

Even snorkeling was an adventure, dodging optimistic fishing lines, finding beauty in the dull rock formations. Nothing like the glamorous pictures of the great Australian coral reefs so much farther north.

I took my sisters out again and again. We explored but watched for sharks. The fins in the water. The distant streaks of shadows that might not be darting dolphins, but something with a sinister affiliation. If we heard the cry of shark, the single word a scream of warning, we thundered for the shore. Two of us swimming in little alcoves, tens at secluded rocky shoals, a hundred across mile long stretches of dead seashells.

We’d rush to the safety of that golden sand. Drag ourselves through frothing waves, and wait minutes, an hour, a day, for the primordial like creature to pass.

They’d never scared me. Not when on days after bad storms you could find their dead young everywhere. A peculiar curling thing, brownish black, more like some sort of strange seaweed than the carcass of an unhatched egg.

I swam further, deeper, into the sea that called me.

Here it was darker, quieter, colder. Fish zipped away, uninterested in the bulbous bodies above who foolishly baked their backs in the hopes of spotting something interesting.

Like the shadowy features of the Wobbegong shark. Mottled. Disguised. Still. Damn hard to spot.

My sister swam away like Road Runner being chased by Wile E Coyote. Fins splashing, snorkel full of water, her tanned athletic body moving through the sea with comedic velocity despite the panic.

I held still.

White shirt floating like the jellyfish. White legs, still slick with sunblock, keeping me steady on the subtle waves with flicks of my neon yellow fins. The Darth Vadar sound of my own breath, the tinny echo of sloshing waves, the tang of salt stuck to the back of my throat.

It was one small shark. It didn’t move. Neither did I.

I swam on, and it was there on my way back to the beach, to return another summer.

Older, daring, unafraid, the ocean call tight about me, I investigated those rock walls. Searched for the curious life of our strange southern coastline.

It found me.

Another pass of a rocky shoal, from my peripheral vision came the pointing finger. The gestures. The warning. A scream I hadn’t heard with the water thick in my ears.

Through the crystal-clear sea hovered a shape.

Flat as a disk. Six feet wide. Black as the mouth of hell. Beautiful as the night sky. The ripples of a stingray, right before us. I clasped my sister’s hand. We couldn’t run, it was there. In front of us, coming towards us, closer, so close if we moved, we’d be in its path. And on its tail waved a spine. We’d never escape if we moved. If we held still, it would pass by.

I remember holding my breath. Afraid the noise would draw its attention. Terrified a wave would catch us off balance. That I’d accidently kick it. I was nothing but wood, nothing but another sea creature. We did not care about one another. We weren’t a threat to one another.

The alien eyes didn’t blink as it was there, underneath us, and kept going.

An eternity passed before I dared move. Taking a deep breath, I forced my chin to my chest, checking back the way we’d come, to where the creature was between us and the shore.

Only it wasn’t. It’d long swum onwards.

Coughing, spluttering, dying a little, I removed my snorkel, spat out the water I’d near swallowed, and dragged my sister to the beach. I was the one comedically racing for the safe sands. Brave but terrified. Exhilarated and horrified.

So dangerous, but we were safe.

Those summers are long gone. I grew up and away. I went back to the beach today and couldn’t recognize what the water sounded like. The siren call that dragged me out to sea. Where the ocean wouldn’t hurt me. The swell that carried my body in its wonder. I never wanted to leave.

It’s gone now. But sometimes I hear its echoes in the thud of waves on the shore, the same rhythmic pulse like the beat of my heart. As though I couldn’t ever leave the sea, because I held it within me.