Thursday, April 16, 2009

Low Tide

The late afternoon Central American sun splattered gold ribbons of light upon thick, green seawater that lazily washed, pooled, then receded amongst the sand and coral. The motion of small brownish wading birds fluttering to land appeared in Vance’s peripheral view. So he watched them as their long, scaly legs carried them skittering along, quickly probing slender beaks for any unwary crustaceans left behind by the salty waves that lapped overhead only hours before.

Behind him, a larger creature’s steps came closer. He could hear her rapid, short breaths as a small, brown girl of about ten ran past toward the birds that quickly took flight as she approached. A cold, distant memory stirred Vance to watch the girl with apprehension while her long black hair flew behind her as she joyously threw her arms upward shouting, “¡Triagame por favor con ustedes, amigitos!” as the birds flapped away.

Vance fixed his eyes upon her intently as she ran faster away from him. Others on the sparsely populated beach read, unfocusedly gazed elsewhere, dug in the grayish-fawn sand or dozed. Vance shot to his feet as the little girl simply disappeared. He broke into a run, zeroing in on the spot where he saw her drop about 50 yards away from him. Knowing that seconds were like hours for her right now, he sprinted faster than his middle-aged legs had taken him in more years than he’d care to admit.

But all Vance was thinking about was getting to her as he remained focused on a small circle of water irregularly framed by sandy coral. Breathing heavily, he knelt down and plunged a sinewy arm into the small abyss that visibly revealed nothing. Sharp coral dug into his bony knees, but he didn’t feel it as he leaned farther downward, sweeping one arm in a search pattern as the other steadied his body.

Several large bubbles suddenly broke the surface and his arm swung in that direction. Small fingers grasping aimlessly touched his forearm. He opened his hand and swung his palm sideways until it made contact with the back of a bent elbow. Vance’s fingers closed around it, making sure to get a good grip and pulled upward firmly but with care.

As she broke the surface, her little round face was dappled with mud and dead algae, but her big, dark eyes were open wide. Water oozed from the corner of her quivering mouth and Vance put both hands under each arm and body-slapped her chest against his. Her arms and legs dangled like rubber. Curling his left arm under her buttocks, he pushed her head over his shoulder and sharply smacked her between the shoulder blades with his open right hand.

Convulsively, her chest shook as her lungs began to painfully expel the water. Vance felt warm liquid trickle from his shoulder downward as she spasmodically arched to-and-fro, coughing more forcefully. It was a feeling he knew well. He continued to slap her back, but more gently as the last shudders of her involuntary hacking fit finally subsided. He continued to hold her, as her left arm was still draped limply over his shoulder. “G-gracias, Señor,” she weakly croaked. Looking down at her copious sputum mixed with the wet sand and stringy vegetation down his back, she continued, “Lo ceinto sobre el lío.”

“De nada,” he replied, continuing in Spanish: “I’m so sorry that happened to you, little Precious.” She said nothing. “I know that it was dark and you couldn’t get out. Were you scared?” “Yes, I was, sir,” she managed. He began to rock her gently and cooed as softly as his voice was capable, “of course you were scared. That’s perfectly normal. It’s all right now. You’re safe. You are still with us and we are the ones who are blessed the most for that.”

After a brief pause, her body began to shudder again as a new smaller stream of warm droplets slid down the side of his neck just below her face. He continued rocking her as he carefully but firmly squeezed her as her increasingly hearty sobs shook them both. Her forearm pulled on the back of his neck as he continued, “yes, yes, yes, you go ahead and cry as much as you need to.” And cry she did.

That’s not quite how it went for him as child many years before, but Vance felt that perhaps this was a step toward making it right…

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