The carpet of green brush and jungle emerged from the clouds like a crocodile surfacing from the water. The topography of the Central American country ranged from flat farm fields and banana plantations to the jagged steeps of mountains and volcanoes. I couldn’t remember even having seen so much green.
I cleared customs and found the restroom. Caught my reflection in the mirror: my red hair pulled back with a green scarf, Mom’s abalone necklace over the red-ribboned key, the long strap of the duffel bag slung across my body diagonally. The weight of Mom and Dad rested against my thigh. I shut my eyes to the image. Possible. Possible. Possible, I tweaked my old mantra. I opened my eyes, looked at myself in the mirror—“You can do this,” I pep-talked myself.
Pete had helped me make arrangements to travel down the Pacuare river, which is where I thought I needed to head. I couldn’t be sure, of course, because Mom and Dad had left no directions, no treasure map. Not one note in Mom’s Costa Rica journal to indicate just where “our beach” sat. I’d have to rely on memory alone, which often proved to have faulty wiring.
When I got off the bus in Bataan, the narrow, dusty street of a town, I met a lanky gringo wearing galoshes. “Boat’s gonna leave in two hours,” he said. Pete, part Sherlock, part Jack Sparrow, part Skype extrodinaire, coerced the guy into giving me a ride down the river. The accented man ran a volunteer organization down the beach where I thought I needed to head. “You’re welcome to have lunch with us at the soda,” he offered. I declined, opting instead, to scour the mercado, if you could call a three-aisle store a market, to supply my two-night camping trip on the beach.
Down one row necklaces hung off a peg-board. Tiny glass bottles, the length of a large paper clip, were strung onto pieces of leather. “Costa Rica,” it read across the glass, and held a pinch of sand inside. I could…yes…I pulled one off the rack. Took my Oreos, pasta and necklace and paid for them at the register. On my way to the soda where the volunteers ate lunch, I popped the cork off the top of the glass vial and emptied the sand along the street. Rain began to flood from the sky.
In the small, unlit room where the mujer of the restaurant had stored my bags, I took the key from around my neck and unlocked the blue and brown bag. I pulled the white plastic bag from inside, untapped and unwound its tail. Slowly, I pinched fingerfuls of ash into the tiny bottle. Two more pinches from each plastic baggie, and, satisified that I had both Mom and Dad, replaced the cork, zipped up the bags and blew the remaining ashes from the lip of the bottle. I tied it around my neck and put my hand to my chest. I must have looked absurd, three “necklaces”—a key, a piece of abalone and now a glass vial—hanging from my neck. At least now, despite truncated memory, I would always have a last piece of my parents.
The boat arrived some forty minutes later, and I loaded myself in with the volunteers, trying to avoid conversation. They were all questions and giggles, eager to reach their destination, a sea turtle sanctuary. I chewed on my nails, then stopped myself and tapped my cheek bone instead, which was as satisfying as saying “dang it” when you really mean “fuck.” I don’t know why I had let Jodi convince me that I should stop biting my fingernails.
We cruised through paper-thin channels of the Pacuare River, at some points so narrow that I was not sure our rusted boat would make the winding turns. Long arching tree limbs from opposite banks met overhead, lacing together a canopy. Mangrove roots twisted around each other, pierced into the brackish water, the jimmy-rigged engine drowning any calling birds. My body tingled. What if this wasn’t the right place? I scoured the shoreline for familiar—trees? What was it I hoped to recognize?
I tried to remember coursing down this same river with my parents a decade and a half earlier, but it was as if all important memories of my parents—the shooting, how to get to the beach—had sloughed off like mottled snake skin.
A volunteer with a Scandanavian accent turned towards me. “First time to Costa Rica?” she asked, her wet arm pressing into mine as the boat navigated an elbow in the river.
“No,” I lied. I smiled, weakly and looked ahead again. I could not possibly make small chat at a time like this.
Around another dogleg river turn, and there he was, the wind waffling through his linen shirt, singing “Oh Happy Day,” as Miguel charted us down the river. Mom had clapped in time, hadn’t she? She must have. She had always clapped when Dad sang, her bangles clinking together like a tambourine. Maybe I was headed in the right direction after all. Maybe there was hope. I pinched the glass vile necklace, and it made me think of Aunt Karen, the way she was always clutching her crucifix. Rubbing it, like a talisman. I got it. I needed that kind of mojo right now.
The boat arrived at a sloping hill of mud, and a gaggle of gringos, muddied feet and mosquito-bitten legs, met us at water’s edge. In assembly line fashion, they began unloading the boat, the sacks of rice and beans that would sustain them for the next week.
“I’ll take…my…stuff,” I said, as a tall guy in board shorts heaved my pack overhead. “I’m not going to the project.”
“Not going to the project?” he asked in a British accent. “Where else you going to go? But there’s nothing else around here!” He laughed.
“To the beach?” It came out as a question. I could feel my freckles flush.
The leader who had arranged my boat ride came to my aid. “Place you’re lookin’ for is just over that hill and down the road to your right about a mile. Beach’ll be on your left.” He limped up the hill, taking a drag on a cigarette.
Mud clung to my shoes as I navigated up from the boat. Several houses, lifted off the ground and perched amongst the palm trees, dotted the road. Their paint peeled, their windows, shattered or gone. Emaciated cows grazed in an unfenced field. I walked for what I guessed was a mile, then found a section of tall grass trampled down. I headed for the sound of waves crashing, and in seconds, transcended from jungle to beach.
It lay before me—the beach I had come to with my parents? I looked up and down at the coastline. Fine tan sand blanketed the beach and molded under my feet. Washed up tree limbs and shells and flip-flops of all shapes and colors hunkered in the brush along the thickets. Trash of all kinds: plastic cups and cardboard boxes and cassette tapes, littered the shoreline of the heavily-trafficked Caribbean coast. I’d read many times that drug smuggling boats tossed everything and anything overboard, especially when la policia chased after them. A few yards down the beach, turkey vultures pecked at the carcass of a tortoise.
The sea was a muddy brown the first hundred feet or so; on top of the ocean blue sky layered into the canvas of the horizon. Storm clouds crouched where the world dropped off. It reeked of salt and seaweed. I placed my pack on the sand and sat in front of it, leaned against it. My parents sat in the divot of my crossed legs. In all my dreams, this was not how I remembered it. In all my foresight, this was not how I pictured it.
I had come to the wrong place. All that god damned traveling and begging for a boat ride for this shitty beach. Not even the right one. Tears fell onto the sand between my knees. This stupid, ugly beach with a dead animal and god, it was so ugly and brown.
“How could you have let me stray so far off track?”
I spoke to my parents often, mused and muttered of days gone by and maps of future plans made. Sometimes they took longer to arrive than others—I imagined they were out exploring a continent not found on any of my dog-eared atlases. They’d always come, though. I knew they were there when my breathing slowed and the feedback in my brain settled into white noise. I still spoke to them out loud, mostly because I wasn’t sure if they heard me the way I heard them—a ratta-tap-tap and words, sentences, monologues, dialogues, played out completely in my head.
I pushed the bag from between my legs; didn’t even wait for them to respond. Didn’t listen for their side of the story. Couldn’t quiet my head enough to hear any white noise anyway, even if they wanted to join the conversation. “I’m doing this for you, and you’re not even helping!” From the ocean, wind, like a Kansas tornado. Strands of red frizz whipping in my mouth. I zipped up my rain jacket, pulled the hood down further. Drops of rain slid over the brim and dropped on my lap.
How could I have been so stupid? Why did I ever think this was going to work? How could they think I could do this alone? Why hadn’t they left me a map or directions or one stupid thing that would get me to the right place? Why did they have to be scattered in Costa Rica? What about Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara? What about our old backyard? Now I was stuck for another two days before I could catch the boat back to the shit-hole of Bataan, and I wouldn’t even be able to scatter their ashes.
And of course, more rain. Pelting, saturating, god damn rain. I stood up, kicked the duffle bag and went to pitch my tent. I flung the poles out, chucked two of the stakes as far as I could down the beach. The wind inflated my tent, pulling another stake out of the sand. Flaps and zippers thrashed against the nylon. Once erected, I slouched in the corner of the tent, barely tall enough for me to sit up straight in, and sulked in my wet clothes.
I spent the entire rainy day in the tent and ate every last Oreo while the brown and blue duffle bag gathered a pool of water outside.
A pancake of an ivory moon ascended. As I rewound the day, the noises of the jungle behind and the ocean in front crescendoed. From behind, there was the…rustle of trees? A paca hunting? I’d read that jaguars still lived here. Could it be one? And I was alone on a blackened beach. Alone.
More rustling. The wind had yet to die down. Where was that noise coming from? In the thickets behind me? Poachers? The ocean crashed and I surveyed the flimsy fabric walls of my tent, undulating with the air. What protection did I have from anything or anyone besides DEET? A scratching noise seemed to come from my tent. I thought I saw my tent shake. This crappy beach! Was it the wind? More scratching.
I had to do something other than stare at the darkened top of my tent. I wriggled out of my sleeping bag. The tent moved again, this time noticeably. What the hell? Hands shaking, I found my Swiss Army knife, opened it, and grabbed my little cooking pot. I unzipped the tent. Opal-topped waves crashed in front of me. My head craned to the side. Nothing. No one. Nowhere. Miles of moonlit beach. The tent shimmied a third time. It was windy, but—
And then I saw them. Four at first, black masses lurching down the beach. The moon barely illuminating the pearl-stringed ridges contouring their backs. This isn’t real, I thought, knife and pot still in hand, mesmorized. I ducked back into my tent, traded my weapons for my headlamp, turned it on, unstaked the corner of my tent from the sand. Sure enough, scratching their way out from the depths of the sand worked a nest of baby tortugas.
The sand teemed with flippers, heads and shells. I counted thirty-six turtles heaving themselves out of the sand, some already heading toward the whitecaps of the ocean. Their long flippers endlessly moving. Some eeked left, others right; a few made a perfect beeline for the waves.
The turtles were the size of my fist and strong as oxen. They had pointed heads and as their flippers oared, their little bodies lifted up, scooched forward, and plopped down. Each turtle left tracks in his wake, a series of small divots that looked like a child had driven his Tonka truck down the beach. Waves crashed on the sand, greeted them. Several were picked up and swept into the dark ocean. A few were washed back up the beach. But one by one, each turtle breached the sand beneath my tent, lurched toward the ocean and plunged into the salty waters, the beginning of their hundred-plus year journey. I watched the story unfold while holding the corner of my tent up, darting my light from the tent to the beach. I followed the complete journey of seven turtles, my head slowly moving down the beach like a satellite in the night sky, tracked only by the progression of my light. I couldn’t move for twenty minutes while the turtles found life and ocean. I remembered what my mother had written about instinct: “With no one else around, in the dead of night, baby turtles will follow Mother Nature’s instinct every time. Humans, with all their power and manipulation, don’t have to help them in the least. Deep in their marrow, they just know.”
And so did I. This was it! This was my beach! How else could I have landed on top of a turtle’s nest? Between surf and sky, on this litter-filled beach, stood spirit. For all the fretting I had done about how and when to let go of my parents, the moment unfolded itself, quickly as a spool of ribbon falling down the stairs. I plopped the tent back in its place and unlocked, then unzipped the saturated duffle bag.
The tide nibbled at my toes, and I inched myself into the water. My jeans clung to me like chewing gum, and I held my parents. I imagined the babies flitting through the water, pulsing down and out in the current. I reached into the bags and grabbed fistfuls of grainy ash. It clung to my fingers and edged under my nails. I pitched them forward, handful by handful into that dark ocean topped by the milky moon. A breeze from across the ocean and the ashes flew back into my face, scuttled their way into my tear ducts and sprinkled in my hair. I felt them coat my teeth; they tasted of soot and burned rubber. They flew back at me, despite my hurling them away. I imagined them landing on the rippled shells of the tortugas, a free ride to the deep sanctuary of the ocean.
We spent several minutes like that, the ashes and I, in a silent argument about which direction they would head. I had kept some for myself, I knew, and when the bag was nearly empty, I scoured the corners with my nail, scooping up any last bits of ash. I opened my mouth this time, when the night breeze blew the ashes toward me. I welcomed them in every crevice of my being. I backed up a few feet, dragging the bags behind me in the water. And because I was already wet, and because when I was ten I had seen my mother do it without hesitation, I, too, sat in the breakers, cross-legged, and let the pulse of the ocean wash over me. The smell of salt filled my nose as I inhaled deeply.
I expected an overwhelming sense of relief. A degree of accomplishment. I expected the sky to open and some ethereal being, if not my parents themselves, to boom out, to tell me they were proud of me, job well done, pat on the back. At least the usual chatter of their voices I heard when I listened close enough. Instead, what I discovered sitting in the salty Caribbean ocean just as my mother had years ago was that like her, I sat absolutely, positively empty-handed—lost. “Something in me wanted to create and protect and nurture,” she’d said, repeated, turned into a creed.
But before I could contemplate that, my memory, and the ocean I sat in, pulled back as the water does before a tsunami hits. And it crashed upon me then—a fragmented wave of memory, eight years lost:
In front of me, a blonde girl in a pink shirt. Holding onto a man’s hand. Skipping. Her hair bungeeing up and down her back. A little boy on the man’s other hand. Dark brown hair. I finish my cotton candy. Dad taps my head with his paper cone. The girl in front of me skips. Laughs. Dad laughs. “More cotton candy, Peacock?”
A wave crashed, pushing me shoreward, salt in my mouth, water up to my shoulders.
I pushed myself upright. There! The girl. That day. It was here—the memory was here! At the beach, in the ocean with my parents. I would sit here all night. I would see them. Feel them. Remember their last words. Remember how I’d tried to save them. Surely, I’d tried to save them.
Mouth full of salt. Hair tangled in seaweed. Toes pruned. The moon, kissing the horizon. The stars, twinkling au revrior. And yet.
And yet. Nothing. That was it. The only shard of memory.
Come back, I willed. I’m here. I’m willing. Come back.
Then I whispered it to the ocean: “I’m here, come back. I’ll be okay with it, however it happened.” To the waves: “Come back. Just a piece, a bit of memory. Please.”
Then I screamed it at the sinking moon: “What the fuck! Why won’t you come back? Why won’t you come back to me?”
By the time I finally dragged myself from the ocean, I couldn’t tell if I was pleading for my memory or my parents.
Outside the tent, I spat salt from my mouth, stripped out of my wet clothes and threw them in a pile on the sand. That one little piece of shit memory was all I was going to get. Naked, my skin withered like a raisin and gritty with the sea, I crawled into the tent and plowed through my pack. Surely I’d brought some booze. Shirts and sports bras and toothpaste flew around me as I dug and dug. Hadn’t I packed that flask of bourbon? Where the hell was it? I wanted the rest of the memory so bad I could taste it. It tasted like salt. And if I couldn’t have that, well, damn it, I would drink it out of myself.
I pulled my birth control and my Pumas from my pack and heaved them out the tent flap. I looked up for just a split second to see where they had landed—and falling out of the back pocket of the wet jeans I’d been wearing, something white. How did that get my jeans pocket? I scrambled out of tent, pulled the out the saturated Polaroid of Summer Henty. The paper warped like a record left in the sun.
She had been there. Skipping. Younger in the photo than in my freshly retrieved memory. But still. I bored into her captured image, trying to coax more memory from that day. I could feel my body shivering, my bare skin exposed to the Caribbean wind. Think, Olivia, think. She was skipping. Dad asked about the cotton candy. What happened next? What?
“Just a piece! Something!” Not even the moon, who had already climbed down the ladder of the sky, answered me.
I fell asleep, photo still in my hands. Donna Henty in my dreams. Short blonde hair, a torn shirt. She crawled out of a broken eggshell on her hands and knees. Her mouth duct-taped shut. Scars across her torso. A fire crackled behind her, inching up to meet her. Rope dangled from her wrist. Oil-stained handprints reached up over her shoulder, crawling to her neck, black inky stains that would not yield to water. Loose skin hung from below her pale, icy eyes. She lifted an arm; loose skin there too, dangling like hung wet laundry. Her pointer finger extended and singled me out. A great wall of fire crawled toward her. She crawled toward me.
In the dream, my back pressed against a brick wall, the lumpy chinking scratched though my shirt. There was nowhere to go. I flung my body against the wall, scaled my hands up, felt her breath exhale over me. And from behind the brick wall came a desperate cry. I couldn’t see who it was, but my heart told me it was Summer; the Summer whose picture I clutched in my hands.
Had it been Summer’s picture and not the beach that offered up the scrap of memory?
Those bees, the ones that pinched in my stomach, the ones that colonized there upon learning of my parents’ death, swarmed inside.
I am hooked. Love the similies.
Thanks, Elaine! It’s a love/hate relationship with the dear pages. You must be counting days at this point, huh? 😉