Living Water

I’d like to say I don’t put much stock in dreams, but I do. I’m a full-on believer in the rabbit hole-ridden landscape of the subconscious mind, the magic that courts us in the quiet of the night: the feinting of reason, the yielding of our rational selves to the wider, more fertile pathways that call to us, wherever we are, to let go. Step blindly. Reach.

I never dream that I can fly, a fact I try not to read too deeply into. I also never dream of water, but my mother does. Specifically, throughout my sister’s and my childhood years, she had a reoccurring nightmare. In this dream, she’s at the beach…our beach that we girls were raised visiting (and my mom before us and my children after us). This is a Southern California beach, so you have to imagine plenty of warmth, and bright sunlight, and hot sand that burns the bottoms of your feet. In the dream, however, it’s winter, so everything is inverted: replace sun with fog, blue water with gray, heat with chill. We’re walking the beach in search of abalone shells and exercise.

At one point (time is so subjective in dreams) my mom realizes that my sister, Kate, who was Katie to us when she was small, is gone. As this is not a ‘plucked from the crowd’ nightmare, but rather a ‘swept out to sea’ nightmare, she isn’t gone suddenly. She wanders slowly, while my mother calls but she doesn’t hear, toward the foamy surf that whooshes in and out through duel outcroppings of a large rock–we knew it as Sea Gull Rock, but I later learned that adults referred to it as Bird Shit Rock–that sits half in sand, half in the ocean, dividing our section of beach from the next.

You can reach Sea Gull/Bird Shit Rock in high-tide wading only to your knees (adult knees, not little girl knees), but it’s tricky; the sand is always sunken around it, some anomaly of the tide. My mother continues to call, and I don’t know where I am in this dream–not flying–but still my sister walks, and then she’s in the water, and knocked over, then under the water in the channel between the outcroppings, disappeared from view.

The water rushes in and the water rushes out. My mother runs in after her, sea water soaking her pants, reaching under, thrashing about, even while fearing what she might close her fingers around, welcoming into open arms. But the water is silty and foamy and her hands grasp nothing as the tide carries each wave back out to sea. The water is gray, the sky is gray, even the gulls circling above…gray. Their caw-caw! grates like the serrated edge of a knife against the smack-smack-smack of water into the rock.

It’s a horrible dream, of course, but just a dream…just a dream…

Until it came true. It was winter. We were still very small, my sister and I. We were walking our beach. My mom was there, and my dad. The surf was rolling, the tide high. There couldn’t have been abalone to find. We reached the far end of the beach by Sea Gull Rock, and my sister was right there, and then she wasn’t. (As it always is, always, always.) She was running toward the rock, and then kept running, even after my mom called.

She went into the water. And then under. But in this dream turned reality, my mother didn’t run after her. She stood staring, stock-still, as if she were still in the dream, much like one wills a dream upon oneself whenever reality is best put at bay: watching Twin Tower news footage on TV or witnessing an auto accident with one’s own eyes. I imagine she was replacing it, somewhere fierce and deep, with a different truth: that of Katie snuggled safe in her room with the Peter Pan painting on the wall and the pink ruffled canopy over the bed, not here, in the surf, washing out to sea.

It was my dad who jumped in before Katie was even a few yards out and plucked her out of the water. Who carried her back, coughing but crying more from the shock of the cold water to her skin than the threat to her life.

I don’t know what happened after that, no one ever says. Stories always end with the saving of the day; an addendum would be messy, too hard to clean up after the party’s over and everyone else has gone home. We probably returned to the car somber, Katie wrapped in someone’s sweatshirt, sand in her hair, in her ears. She was probably promised a warm bath. A cup of cocoa. I imagine we got on with our day. At least until nighttime.

Because we save the worst for last, morsels unwrapped slowly and only by the part of us that dares. It’s then, in the epilogue, that we know that sense of submersion, isolation at its most primal, that means drowning.


Written for the Red Dress Club prompt: water gives life. It also takes it away.

26 thoughts on “Living Water

  1. Yikes! So scary (and such a beautifully rendered telling of your mom’s dream…it’s almost like you were there). I have dreams about water all the time–usually about losing my children in deep, cold water (dropping them off boats and bridges and things). I’m hoping they don’t come true…

  2. That’s harrowing. Runaway cars and sudden and steep accidental off-roading is the stuff of my nightmares. I’ve always been grateful not to have them about water because I love it so much – and having grown up swimming in deep, dark ponds, I think that’s lucky.

    • I think it’d be very interesting to round up mothers’ worst nightmares (of the literal sort) and list them. Actually, never mind…that’d be horrible to read!

  3. I’ve got chills.

    My dream is losing my children in a crowd. I have this dream more and more lately, as we prepare for our big move. I wake up crying. Always, I find them, but the panic nearly undoes me.

  4. That is so scary. I find that I am fearful most of things that can happen in an instant and forever change your life. I was going to do this prompt (still trying to find the courage) because two weeks ago two teenage boys drowned doing something that seemed both harmless and incredibly stupid too. But it’s too close to home for that one.

  5. Hmmm…Somehow I don’t remember that at all. But I do remember the Peter Pan painting. Very reminiscent of the “under toad”, for those Garp fans out there.

  6. I could taste and hear this memory-story, Amy. Perhaps it’s all the time we spent at the beach growing up or perhaps it’s your talent with words. Either way, it was fresh and sharp and chilling.

    Morbid though it may be, a round up of mothers’ worst fears might be cathartic, a Post Secret type of letting go that allows us to realize fears can be confronted and packed away.

    • You all have inspired me to round up everyone’s fears in a sort of community post. I have an idea, and I’ll be announcing it soon!

  7. How incredibly freaky that her dream came true! Never mess with dreams I guess…

    I have one that deals with us driving over a bridge and the bottom of our van opens and I fall down into the river, clutching my doll. I never see myself land in the water, I always wake up first.

    Haven’t had it for a while…

    Visiting from RDC

  8. I hope none of my nightmares ever come true. Your poor mother!

    I have to say, the last line is the one that will stick with me. The way your crafted it, was magical.

    Visiting from TRDC

  9. Amy – this is such beautiful writing. It really is. The imagery is so true – and I’ve also had recurring anxiety dreams, so it really hit me.

    That it actually happened is equally scary. I fear I’d freeze, just like your mom did.

    Really great piece.

  10. This is a gorgeous retelling. I can’t imagine such a situation, especially juxtaposed against the nightmare. To write about it so strikingly. I am in awe.

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