by Alexis Levitin
James had been gazing, with his usual sense of wonder and exhilaration, at the endless unfurling of the surf, when he noticed someone far out, riding the crest of a distant wave. Most people at this wild beach bathed close to shore. Even teenagers rarely went further than the nearest line of crashing breakers. Real surfers with their boards never came to this beach, but clustered in large numbers at the crescent-shaped cove just a kilometer away, where the curving sands created a smooth and deep swell, perfect for a long and gentle ride. Yet here, in this waning afternoon, there was a body, a someone, melded with the frothing distant rollers, effortlessly advancing with the water’s rush. He shaded his eyes and seemed to make out a mass of yellow hair streaming behind the gliding figure drawing slowly closer. Now the figure had mounted a swell only three ranks out and was drawing ever closer. The gliding body was a woman, a creature clearly at home in the freshness of the open Atlantic, as it came pounding rhythmically towards the bright sand beach, a swimmer at play in the surging blue fields of the Lord.
Now she had risen on a new swell, only two ranks away, mysteriously gliding forward, as if part and parcel with the incoming tide. Mesmerized, James rose to his feet and gingerly hopped down the still hot sand toward the shallows. There were tiny minnows floating to and fro with the gentle eddies of crystalline water lapping the shore. The wet sand felt good on the soles of his feet. He gazed out to sea and there she was, having somehow slipped from the roiling third range of breakers to the second, seemingly without lifting an arm, without taking a stroke. He watched as her body rose with a gathering crest, then glided down the foaming slope, coming closer and closer. And then she was caught up in the last row of roiling surf, flowing towards where he stood in the knee-deep glittering shallows.
Her slender body floated almost to his feet, where she finally beached herself. She didn’t stand up, but lay there in the glittering afternoon tide, quiet and content. Like many on this stretch of beach, she wore no bikini top, but she seemed to be wearing a kind of wet suit up to her waist, a wet suit that shimmered blue and green as she swayed with the water swirling round his feet. She looked up at James through fathomless green eyes, smiled, and addressed him.
“Would you like to ride some waves with me,” she said, as if the salutatory norms of initiating a conversation with a stranger were irrelevant to her. James was a traveler and had pursued linguistics in grad school, but her accent was hard to place, not quite French, certainly neither Spanish nor Portuguese. Like a somnambulist, James heard himself reply: “Yes, let’s go and ride some waves,” as if it were the most normal proposition in the world. “I’m Jim,” he offered, as he started to stride towards deeper water, while she, without rising, turned gracefully around and drifted, like floating algae, back towards the open sea. “Jeeem”, she repeated, in melodious acknowledgement. “Melú,” she added, as if in an afterthought, and the final vowel stretched forth, like a prolonged note from a flute, gently wavering toward the distant horizon.
Moving as in a dream, James dove through the breakers, swam underwater, and pushed steadily away from shore. Sooner than he would have imagined, they had reached the seventh row of breakers, after which there was nothing but open sea. The swimmer who had come from beyond the surf continued to glide around him, comfortable in her element. She started to move further away from shore, but James, shaking off his spell, said: “No, this is good here, from here we can ride the waves back.” She gave him a quizzical look, but simply said “OK.” Even those two syllables, the prolonged initial vowel, the clipped voiceless stop that followed, seemed to come from some distant language James had never encountered before. Were there remnants of Celtic still spoken hereabouts? Were fragments of Manx, Cornish, Gallaecian, still extant in obscure villages at the end of unnamed dirt tracks? It was a mystery. When he asked her where she was from, Melú seemed not to hear and dove into the gurgling froth of a breaking wave.
And so they rode the mounting swells of the seventh range of waves, crystal-clear, stinging cold, filled with a freshness of affirmation. They rode in, then returned, rode in, then returned, remaining always at the same distance from shore. His companion said nothing and James, enthralled by her and by the sea, was content to float in his senses. But finally, growing cold, he turned to her and said: “Let’s go back, OK?” A shadow crossed her face and, in a soft voice, she replied “Already?” Again he noticed that indefinable accent and sensed the deep alure of otherness.
“Let us continue to ride these perfect waves, these endless waves,” she pleaded in her soft and distant way. Her English was perfect, even refined, but certainly it was not her native tongue. For James, her voice still held a mysterious appeal, but the pleasant sting of the cold water had lost its attraction. In fact, he felt it was penetrating his very bones.
“But aren’t you getting cold?” he asked. Her body continued to drift, to hover, to slip gently around him. In fact, she looked perfectly content out there where the surge turned to breakers that began their long roll toward the distant beach. He was amazed at her nonchalant ease in the chill waters, for he had always been rather proud of his own tolerance of the crystal iciness of the North Atlantic. But now he had met someone who was more than tolerant. Always in motion, she reveled in the whirling foam, the gathering combers, the tumbling swells, and seemed oblivious to the cold. In fact, she looked perfectly at home, like a cat in a familiar living room, with a warm fire on the hearth.
“It’s getting late,” James said. “We really have to go back.” She looked stricken.
“Go, if you must,” she finally said, and there was a wistfulness to her voice. “I’m going to stay out here a little longer. Go on, don’t worry about me,” and she accompanied him to where the endless surge began to crest. Somehow, he felt defeated. It must have been that shimmering blue-green wetsuit, those tight leggings that went up to her waist, that were keeping her warm in those icy waters.
“See you later on the beach, Melú” he said, before turning, with some reluctance, towards shore.
“Maybe tomorrow, Jeeem,” she finally replied. But a surge was gathering around him and, before he could say another word, he was swept up and hurled forward, heading back to the far-off, familiar beach.
As he rode his way home, he remembered the blue lips of his childhood when he would insist on staying in the sea beyond all bounds. For the moment he forgot about Melú, in his eagerness to make it back to shore and dry out and gather warmth from the westering sun. There was the hiss of his first wave, then a swift crawl through to the next row, then the leap on to the back of another frothing stallion rushing towards the beach, then another interval of calm, then another foaming steed, another plunge forward, then another, and finally, the last row, where he mounted a perfect swell that carried him into the shallows from which his adventure had begun. He lay there exhausted, then stood up, unsteadily, and gazed out to sea. There was nothing to be seen but file after file of rolling surf, seven rows, and then the darker North Atlantic, stretching towards the horizon. He trudged back to his towel, dried off, lay face down, and soaked in the last of the declining mid-summer sun.
* * *
He looked for her in town that evening, walking the long main street, peering into all the restaurants, all the cafes, all the bars, but he knew it was hopeless. After a quick dinner of fried squid, he walked beyond the town to the precipice overlooking the wild Atlantic. The wind was fresh and smelled of salt and iodine, but there was nothing to be seen in the dark, except for a delicate ribbon of white unfurling down below, where the ocean met the land. He gazed out at the sea and up at the icy stars. Then he walked home along the stony path, alone in the darkness of the night.
For a week he returned every day to the same beach and every day he gazed out to sea. There were always naked children playing on the sand flats left behind by the receding tide, splashing, giggling, chasing each other in circles. There were eager dogs, a Weimaraner, a Serra da Estrela Mountain Dog, a long-haired Belgian Shepherd, a Labrador, even a clumsy Newfoundland, leaping with abandon over small waves to retrieve the sticks their masters threw. And on the beach, stretched beneath the afternoon sun, there were bikini-clad bronzed bodies, lithe and self-assured. But out beyond the breakers, there where the seventh file of frothy waves tumbled forward in eternal monotony toward the shore, there was nothing to behold. Nothing but the oceanic emptiness of the vast and beautiful sea.