It wasn't even a convincing brochure: a statue of a barnacle-encrusted Christ, arms open in a dramatic release, face eclipsed by a sheath of green algae. Captioned beneath the photo, the words Christ of the Abyss. A father and son, positioned one bus row in front of Ana, flipped through an immense stack of glossed pamphlets. Airboating. Alligator encounters. Key Largo had more than an evangelical snorkeling experience to offer, and she knew it.
Her mother had passed, and Ana knew why she was back in the Keys. Guilt. Guilt over not attending the funeral. Guilt over being a lesbian. Guilt over missing church services she promised—really, I'll go—to attend. Guilt over feeling initially guiltless. The weight of it hit her in a tidal swell, willed her toward what she considered a pathetic reconciliation: a dive her mother had always wanted to take, to view the statue in a moment of deep and intimate prayer. A miniature, bronze souvenir of the effigy was perched—and probably still was, Ana suspected—on her mother's kitchen window ledge. It caught and refracted moonlight, a shining thing in a home of graying tchotchkes—bright, a vague warmth to its metallic shine. Nothing at all like the photo on the brochure, a ring of brain coral jutting from its left hip.
The bus hiccupped. Looking behind, she saw that its wheels had run over a small turtle. Its body was flattened like the head of a lily, shell fractured into hard petals on the hot cement. She wondered if anyone else noticed. It seemed as if no one had.
Dense swamp blinked past Ana in peripheral blurs of green and brown as she fingered a cigarette in her purse. The pair in front of her, the father and son, had settled on a trip to the Everglades. The little boy asked a series of questions, ranging from silly to sensible. His excitement seemed to radiate from him, and he paused only for those questions he wanted the answers to.
We get to feed the crocodiles? He was amazed. Ana imagined him there, brochure in hand, inching close enough to touch a square, leathery snout.
Of course, his father responded. And if you're lucky—he called him closer, as if to impart a secret—you can swim with 'em too.
S'not funny. There was a pause, during which both regained an accustomed enthusiasm. Instantaneous recognition, change. Something Ana had never been able to consistently manage.
The pair was dropped at a shanty adorned with buoys and nautical memorabilia, a gator's skull functioning as its sort of headpiece. As the bus kicked back, then lurched forward, Ana noted the father crouching down to speak to his son. As she witnessed their brief embrace, the bus rounded a bend and she rested her head against her palm, propped one elbow against the window frame, which peeled with old paint. And she sighed, not fully aware for whom she was sorry: her mother or herself.
The lagoon was shallow and still, undercut by a brilliant shine of white sand. It was open to the public, which Ana didn't understand—was the statue not invaluable? Was vandalism an assumed impossibility? She could see it, even from the leveraged height of the bus, a dark pupil frozen beneath the bright water, out past the dot of a lone buoy. A dozen children splashed through the barely visible surf, their parents commingling on the beach, tanning. As she walked toward a small pier, Ana briefly caught sight of her reflection in the water. By her estimation, she was the palest tourist there: a line of black studs highlighting the arch of her left ear, a tattoo of a curled dragon, the size of a quarter, just above her ankle. If she didn't get too close to the older, religious few, Ana imagined they might assume it was a traditional Celtic knot. Something acceptable.
It was at that moment, when Ana was welcomed into a tight pre-dive prayer circle on the makeshift pier, that she realized she didn't know what she was expecting. There was the intimacy of strangers: two older women holding hands. She couldn't place it. Soon, a small circle formed. And there she was, between the man she suspected was a priest and the woman she swore she'd seen in a silent film. Slender. Her conditioned (and, as she imagined they knew, frequently dyed) hair rolled into a loose bun. Young. Circumstantially silent. So unlike the others in sensibility she wondered why none had asked her if she knew what, exactly, she was partaking in.
Someone triggered an "Our Father," and each palm rose, as if cued, from waist to shoulder height. Ana first thought she'd forgotten the words, but quickly fell into the hypnotic rhythm of the prayer, mouthing only a few anticipated phrases—daily bread, trespass against us. Void of sound and, by extension, of meaning.
As the prayer drew to a close, introductions were made. Bea, an older woman, said her pastor had preached about the beauty of the statue, situated only a few dozen feet inside the coast's continental shelf. He told the congregation that a peaceful light seemed to emanate from its bronze cast. But it was truly the depth, Ana thought. It was that innate benefit of a shallow reef: near-constant sunlight. As Ana's attention drifted from the water toward the dark dive spot, the cloudless horizon, the reef water, its surface pimpled with minnows, Father George shifted his gaze toward her.
Hi, she said. I'm Savannah.
In ephemeral moments of formality, Ana introduced herself as Savannah. It was the name her mother gave her. But at twelve years old, she had pruned that name from both sides, excised one N, and declared the revision permanent. She never imagined herself as a Savannah. She never imagined herself an elegant, fluid, interesting name. She was the two-syllable girl. The girl who took what she wanted and left the rest.
What a pretty name, one woman said, just loud enough to be heard. Though flattered, Ana assumed one judgment would lead to another. She failed to acknowledge the compliment, though she badly wanted to. She had resolved to mask her self-esteem issues since May, when she decided that fraction of her life required revision. She often set out to achieve what she considered the impossible—gain weight, find a friend who happens to be a girl, volunteer weekly, pay off college debt—and when confronted with the opportunity to pare down significant personal change, to admit she loved women like her ex-girlfriend Kara, she instead got another stud added to her left lobe. And, like the ocean water just beneath her feet, her life would lay idle and unchanged.
It was at that line of piercings that Bea looked, perplexed, her face contorted into a that-must-have-hurt sort of frown. Knew it, Ana thought. These people are just like her.
No one asked why she was there. No one asked questions like Where's your mother? or How old are you?
Almost thirty-two, she would have answered, even though she was twenty-eight. She'd been inflating her age for strangers since she was seventeen. A bead on the rosary of things she'd done to distance herself from her mother, her quotidian life.
Two men were heading out, grabbing pairs of rented flippers and snorkels from an empty chum bucket.
She stepped into the water, felt the looseness of white sand softly conform to her sole. She walked out with these two men, mid-fifties, bald and balding. She knew they were normal people, probably just looking for something extraordinary to fill their free time. Like her, back when she and her mother were that close: sending out SOS messages in clear, plastic bottles, watching them wash back ashore days later. Help! I'm stuck in here! and Wrong bottle! She pegged the conclusion of those particular memories at around eight years old. Then, she became Ana. Rebellious and short-tempered as the length of her own name.
The sun was hot on their backs, shipyard bells and gulls peacefully panging in the distance. The three did not talk, even as the water rose to meet their hips, their elbows, their shoulders. The size of the fish increased with the depth, as did Ana's quiet concern of accidentally stepping on a poisonous urchin or stonefish. Finally, the water met her chin. Her head lolled on the surface like a buoy.
She kicked off the bottom and let gravity pull her under, the cool water soothing her face. She followed the men to the statue, which stood at an intimidating seven feet tall, alone in the sandy absence of rock. Submerged and grounded, it seemed somehow larger than she anticipated. It looked like her father, she thought. But, upon closer examination, no. It didn't. The beard began too high on the cheekbone, the face too symmetrical. Ana considered swimming closer, really looking, but didn't. Underwater, everything was foreign and new. Masses of mussels cloaked coral in broad sheets. A school of snappers bisected a cloud of plankton. The statue's arms were so open, like two thick, silhouetted antennae, ready to accept whatever the tide brought to them.
She turned back toward the shore, surfacing again. She could see a father and daughter playing near the pier, studying shells together. He hoisted the little girl onto his shoulders. Their footprints stretched from the pier to a dark blue umbrella in graceful loops and curves. He was spelling out her name. A gull landed near them, and he chased it. Allie became AHie in the sand. The bird perched on a post in the parking lot, rejoined its flock.
Ana submerged once more, her eyes on the statue as she glided toward it. But out of the darkness swam two slivers of grey: effortlessly jetting, then slowing. She suddenly realized the two men were nowhere near her. Another quick glance at the statue, and she saw it: two flowers tucked beneath its base. Red, loose with large petals. She started to tread water, pulling herself away from that span of black water, the abyss. Back on shore, a daughter's laughter. Underwater, a still warmth.
They were sharks, but Ana discounted that possibility at their size: small, sort of, maybe a few feet long. Not barracuda—those she could recognize. Her brother had done a presentation on them in the seventh grade. Failed everything but that assignment. But still, even through the security of just knowing they weren't sharks, she felt it—that piercing feeling of being, of becoming alone. Ana steeped her head under the water. Three of the fish glided toward her, undulating like grey snakes. There were more, their tails high, underbellies white as bone. Three feet long, maybe a little larger. Fins low. Dark, spaded heads like the bases of shovels. They were sharks, she realized, whipping her flippers away. One foot popped loose, the pink plastic filling with water, weighing it down. Her studs warmed slightly with panic. She tickle-t-touched back to the pier, face toward the setting sun, where she arrived, one flipper missing. Like a little girl who accidentally discovered the deep end.
She paused in the water, knee-deep, and looked behind for the missing flipper. A small, hazy dot of pink had caught on the head of a large brown polyp, far out past the buoy. She wasn't going back for it; she'd pay for it if she had to. But between recognizing the statue as mournful—not, as she suspected, a religious novelty—and the veil of back water out of which it seemed anything could slither or metastasize, going back wasn't an option. Continuing forward, she stubbed her toe on the base of a rock encased in slime—a brief, piercing surge of pinched nerves.
Kara would've laughed, she thought.
Ana hated thinking in terms of women who let her drift away. But there had been months of that. It was just another moment of living alongside the façade of a pretend partner. Relationships extended with ghosts. God, how she wanted to be the woman to sever ties, to say things like You deserve better or I'm sorry this isn't working out. But it wasn't her. She was the girl who missed a funeral for a heavy metal concert.
Savannah!, an older woman called out.
It didn't register immediately. But then she remembered, kicked the sand in a rush of relief, hobbled—flipper, foot, flipper, foot—toward shore. The young girl was throwing water on her father's footprints, those that obscured her name. She raced from the water's edge to the tip of the first L, like she was putting out a concentrated fire. A ribbon of water drooled out the prints. And there it was again. Allie.
The cry came from Bea. She kneeled on the pier's edge to talk to Ana, ran through the typical litany of questions: What happened? and Jellyfish? and Are you okay?
It's nothing. And maybe it was nothing. Maybe they were just large fish. Maybe it was the heat, or that she'd been holding her breath. Maybe she just forgot the flower.
Bea looked at her as if she knew it all: the three-minute goodbye phone call, the persistent Stop worrying comments to her father, that first kiss with Kara on the slated pinnacle of Ana's first mountain hike. But she didn't know. Hers was a list of separate emotional casualties. At no point would their sorrows intersect. But because of the sun, or her recent sleeplessness, or the downward pucker of Ana's lips, Bea said it anyway. Let's get you dry, honey.
After dislodging herself from Bea's careful, cloying watch, Ana broke toward a stand of palm trees. It was far from any discernable line of sight, far from girls who play with men like their fathers. She became quickly, satisfyingly ill. A swift, dry, cold-sweated contraction. She looked toward the pier, one pink flipper nestled between its thin planks, held her hair back a moment, then folded it over her shoulder. It was drying, caked and cracking with sea salt. She could go back in the water, but this is how she'd be taking the bus ride to her hotel, she thought. So that was how she left it. A few minutes later, her hair hardened like beached seaweed. The dark button of the statue in the water was more difficult to recognize as the sun began to sink down past the flat horizon.
You taking the bus, honey? They were all leaving, something Ana had been looking forward to. But now she wasn't sure.
Yeah, Ana said. The later one.
Bea nodded. Nice meeting you, Savannah.
Within minutes, the beach was cleared. The tide gradually pulled out, and the water shed a layer of hot mist as the surrounding air cooled. Ana sat there, on the splintered edge of the pier, wondering where beneath the ocean's skin her flipper was located—and the statue, those fish, the flowers. The little girl's name still imprinted in the sand, losing its sharpness, blurring with the tidal breeze: Allie, llie, ii. She breathed in, leaned her head against the wooden frame. If there was a moment of reconciliation, if there was an opportunity for penance, she had missed it. A soft wind cooled the line of studs on her ear, and it felt for a moment as if the whole world—as it turned on its axis, gradually coated in shade—was spinning toward some distant fissure, everything not grounded being pulled toward the bottom of that terrible, black water.
Title graphic: "In Depth" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.