She lay next to him, quiet, bruised, no longer afraid. When he washed her face with seawater, she looked at him and smiled. There was no thought of what was ahead. They pressed close, caught in each other's breathing. She had always been a part of his life and now it was if they shared the same skin, as if their blood journeyed through both of their bodies. How could you possibly love someone else's life more than your own? The open heart of your own life lying in someone else's hands, helpless, beating, unafraid. How is that possible?
When it began, the night turned dark. No moon. A wind rose as if it came from beneath the water. It slammed the boat into the edge of land and tossed it down a channel. Then the water rose, grabbed the wooden craft and pushed it forward with the force of a racing car. We lunged at the oars. The current tore them away. That's what it was, a current. We had drifted into a channel and it turned into a river, out in the thousand little islands of the Keys, out in the sea. I lay on top of her as we both held on to the struts of the seat. The current dragged us, pushed us in a wild roller coaster ride, careening to the right, then to the left, spinning us around, then off again in the rush of the channel, the river. It was a river. There were brief phosphorescent shimmers of light; I could see its banks, the torrents. Suddenly we slammed into a wall of water and pitched forward as if we plummeted over a cliff. It began to rain.
Rain. Hot and cold, driving rain. We couldn't see, we couldn't talk. She moaned under my weight; I tried to move away. The wind and rain kept us pinned together. The rage of the river pressed the front of the boat down. It was filling with water. We were headed to the bottom. What no one could do, what 'he' couldn't do, the sea and its river would. We were ending, we were drowning and I faded out.
The tips of her fingers throb. She opens her eyes and sees the front of the boat glistening above her head. The rain has stopped, the clouds are moving, there is a moon after all. Her fingers are dug into the wood and she sees her broken nails. Water to her chest, no higher. On his back, he's draped over the side of the boat, one arm locked in hers, his head barely above water. The air is still, thick. She thinks: Floating? What keeps us floating? A long moment, a deep breath -- she releases her grip. The boat does not move. She finds her leg under the water and reaches out. Sand. She thinks, she says: We're on a beach. She pushes herself over the top, braces her feet and drags him out of the boat. He's breathing. With his face in her hands, she sleeps. They sleep -- for all the days and nights they ran with fear.
I know that you can share a dream at the moment you are dreaming. I know it! It happens from time to time. But with her, from the beginning, from the first blended touch, we traveled together. Day into night, night into day. When we walked through the angry faces of our family, it was the replay of a dream we had shared before. When we pledged our life into each other, we did it in dream after dream before we pledged ourselves when we were awake. It becomes difficult to tell the difference. Day into night, night into day.
They awakened to see that it was an island, set at the mouth of a small inlet. In the bland moonlight they could see other pieces of land and a dim outline of where the channel, the river ended. Where was the ocean? Were they still in the Keys? There were no sounds, anywhere. No movement in the water. Above them, the island rose slightly into what seemed to be dense pockets of mangrove.
They steadied themselves on their feet and began to walk, first along the shore until they reached an impasse of water and roots. Then they headed inland, up the rise and into the shadows of the trees. After some hours, they began to struggle through the thick growth. The weave of tangled roots and calf-high water made it difficult to walk. The moonlight became scattered in the overhead canopy of branches. Moments of darkness from drifting clouds. It began to rain again. They stopped, facing no clear path ahead. Turn back! But behind them, the same mask of trees and roots as if the forest had covered their way through it.
She is a believer. She believes that time moves in only one direction, and you move forward with it or you fade and cease to exist. I am a doubter. I hesitate, looking for ways to pause time or to reverse it. I am in danger of fading. She will not allow it. She locks her arm in mine and drags me along. We put our heads down and push on. All around us, on top of us, the sound of the rain is so loud we cannot hear our own voices. But we can see -- streams of moonlight. It's as if the clouds have settled in patches in the treetops leaving breaks of open sky.
Suddenly she stops, points to the ground and stomps her foot. I look down; there's nothing. She stomps again. I feel it: a smooth, hard surface beneath the water in what has been sucking mush all along the way. She puts her foot out and stomps in front of her. We test it step by step. It's a plank, a series of planks, a walkway.
Do you know what that's like? Can you close your eyes and imagine sinking, for hours, sinking in muck, then feeling a firmness under your feet? Feeling as if your flesh were solid again? Can you find the strength to run? We ran as the planked walk slowly rose out of the water. Even in the deafening rain I could feel her laughing, feel her hand gripping mine. Then we saw it: blurred focus at first, darker, more distinct as we stumbled closer. It loomed, pushing the trees away on all sides. Large beams and large, shuttered windows; dark, wet wood framing what looked like a cluster of buildings, covered with what seemed like a tall, peaked roof. The walkway, the ramp that carried us out of the water ended at a wide deck, a dock in the middle of the mangrove water forest.
We stand panting, nearly breathless at the door. The rainwater pours down on us, and now, there is a wind. This time, I pull her along and push on the door or what is actually a gate. Open it. It opens on to another planked way. Follow it. It leads to another gate. Open it. It opens to light... windows of light, high up, steamed bright. It opens to sounds... voices, laughing, singing... music. We lunge at a door, but the rain and wind shoulder it shut. Together we pull, pull until it finally heaves open and we blow inside, the door slamming behind us.
It was a huge room, full of people, drinking, dancing; I couldn't see the far side. The air was warm and heavy. The smells, the delicious smells of perfume and tobacco, burnt food, wine. The long, crowded bar ended at a small stage. A few men play soft, tinny jazz; a few women dance next to them. One was tall with long hair and a long thin body, sensual, sweating from the movement, her breasts pushing her unbuttoned shirt open. She stared at me and her eyes made me turn to the woman next to me. My lover, my half of life; so much time had raged by since I looked at her.
Look at her, standing next to me, her long body covered in the wet film of her dress. Her long wet hair draped around her neck. Long. How often I had touched that hair when it was soft and smelled of delicate soap. How often I had touched her when we were alone and safe.
In the rush for shelter, in the capture of the moment, I hadn't realized that we had invaded the room. Our entrance was a shock: everyone stops talking, drinking, moving. They all stare at us, some become tense, almost fearful. The music stops except for the drummer who continues to tap a quiet rhythm on a cymbal. We were strangers. Somehow we threatened them and felt threatened in return. The moment stretches to a tight breaking point. I close my eyes, my head spins, I see nothing. She takes my hand and pulls me to the bar.
"Two drinks, please. Anything." I flinched when I realized that my pockets were empty. "Don't think I have any money. Pay you later."
The bartender was a short, Latin-looking statue. He suddenly leaned over and said: "That's okay. Your money's no good here."
He poured two glasses of wine and stood behind them. I hesitate. She takes her glass and begins to drink. Just the tap of the brush against the cymbal and the scraping of the wind outside. I looked across the room. Just eyes, no other sounds. I knew, I thought I knew if I reached for the glass, if I moved, something terrible would happen.
The moment stretches on. Then a man gets up and walks toward us. A big man. He stopped in front of me. I saw his heavy face and thick arms. He looked down and saw my torn shoes and tattered pants. He says nothing as he brushes past me, wrenches the door open and shoves himself into the wind.
We, everyone, took a breath. The little, sullen bartender smirked and nodded. I didn't understand. He waved his hand at the glass, motioning me to drink up. Drink? No. Wait for something to happen. Wait. He nods again. Carefully, she reaches for the glass and puts into my hand. We drink together, looking at no one, looking at nothing, savoring the warm alcohol as it dulls the chill of our skin. We wait.
Suddenly, the outside door bursts open and the big man pushes himself through. He stands shaking the rain off his body. Then he nods and points his thumb up high for everyone to see. The moment ends, the tension ends, the bartender smiles, everyone else turns away, the talking, the laughing, the music, the dancing. The hall is a warm, dry shelter again and we stand as travelers, strangers, begging to be ignored, allowed to be welcomed, soon to be examined, soon to be absorbed.
That was our first encounter, our first moments when we were inhaled, yes, inhaled, swallowed, engulfed by Chanchala.