By Susan McCulley
My husband, Frank, and I read about the island of Dominica in the travel section of The Washington Post. The article touted the island as relatively undeveloped without much tourism, but with uncommon natural beauty and variety—from beaches and rivers to rain forests and volcanic hot spots, spectacular hiking, and snorkeling in Champagne Bay, a warm cove bubbled by an underwater hot spring. We were intrigued. After our first visit, we were in love. At the end of our two weeks of exploring the island from beach to mountain, we sat in the tiny open-air airport, drinking local beer, absolutely furious that we were leaving. I had been sad and even a little depressed to return home after a vacation before, but at the end of our time in Dominica, I was pissed.
We scheduled our return trip almost immediately.
One of the things that makes Dominica special is that the two sides of the island are vastly different. The west coast is on the Caribbean Sea with calm waves and smooth beaches. It’s great for snorkeling and it’s where cruise ships dock to briefly discharge their passengers for trinket shopping, beer drinking, or whirlwind three-hour touring. The Atlantic Ocean is on the east side and has inlets of craggy beaches with wild, crashing waves. We loved the east side. On our first visit, we played in the rough, exhilarating ocean until we were waterlogged and breathless. When we planned our return, the east side was where we wanted to go.
We rented a small cottage at the top of a tiny east side village. There really wasn’t much there except the astonishingly riotous beauty of the steep, rocky island plunging into the sea. We could not wait to be in it.
The moment we arrived, we ditched our bags and followed the path to one of the beaches near the village. Even the walk to the ocean was intoxicating. The green in Dominica is not just green but glossy, luminous, achingly vibrant green. In back yards and along the road were trees heavy with fruit that we were used to seeing in mesh bags at the grocery store: bananas, mangos, grapefruit, and avocado. Most houses had a garden of (mostly unfamiliar) crops that betrayed the generosity of the soil. Every inch was fragrant, lush, and full of life.
As we walked through town, a boy bounced along with us. Skinny and excited, with huge brown eyes, he looked about ten years old. “Are you going to swim in the sea?” he asked.
“Of course,” we said, and when he asked if he could come along, we were happy to have him join us. He ran ahead, occasionally looking back to make sure we could follow the steep path down to the ocean whose deep, rumbling waves we could already hear. As we wove down the trail, we caught glimpses of deep blue waves edged with white froth against jagged black rocks in the cove below. We could barely keep up with our impatient child of a guide.
As we wound down and around, we could see a small curve of black sand tucked into an imposing rocky coastline with a fresh water river snaking down from the mountain into the sea. The Atlantic crashed, rhythmic and thunderous, against the rocks and sand. It was just as we’d remembered. We dropped our towels and ran into the water.
The water, sharply salty, cold and churning, felt like something alive. We dove into the relentlessly pounding surf, shouting to each other over the roar. We stayed just a few meters from shore in waist-deep water so we could keep our footing on the constantly moving sand. I kept my eyes on the open ocean to evaluate each wave. In the raw power of the ocean, I knew that one unexpected breaker could toss me ankles to armpits, completely disoriented in a swirl of sand and sea. Even with my vigilance, I was knocked off my feet and caught a nose-full more than once. It was thrilling to scout each wave, one after another, and make the split-second decision to jump up and over it, or dive into its base. The three of us hooted and swam, diving and jumping over each successive wave, then coming up again to look out and see what was coming next.
It happened fast. So fast, so suddenly. All at once, I realized I couldn’t touch bottom. I looked toward shore and saw that we were too far out. Way too far. Frank and the boy were just beyond me, also unable to touch. Frank clasped the boy’s hand and started swimming hard toward shore. I turned toward the curve of beach and swam as hard as I could against the harsh pull of the rip tide.
I’m a strong swimmer. I’ve been in the water my whole life and have taken lessons, done laps, and completed life-saving courses. I’m competent in the water, and I’m strong and healthy. But this? This was a whole different thing. Enormous waves kept pounding over my head, leaving me coughing and blind. A pause from kicking and stroking for even a second whisked me quickly even further away from shore. I watched as Frank struggled with the boy. I poured myself into every stroke but the beach kept getting, little by little, further away.
Frank and the boy were just a few feet away from me but I had to shout. “I’m not getting anywhere!”
Frank looked at me with wide eyes. Glancing at the boy, he screamed, “He can’t swim!”
We were in a powerful rip tide that was shredding us. The waves were impossible to swim in and threatened to throw us onto the rocks on either side. Swimming as hard as I could, I was getting nowhere. And now, this child, this boy we’d brought out to the sea with us. This boy can’t swim. “You’re the stronger swimmer,” yelled Frank. “He’s pulling me down. You have to take him.”
The boy shrieked in terror and pleaded with Frank, “Don’t leave me out here!”
Frank got closer to me and shifted the boy in my direction, “I’m not going to leave you, I would never leave you, but she’s a stronger swimmer than I am!” What he didn’t say, and what we both thought was, “I would rather drown than to have anything happen to you.”
I know what to do with a frightened non-swimmer: hook your arm under his armpits, and swim on your back, pulling him using the strength of your legs and the opposite arm. It’s the most efficient and powerful way to swim someone to safety and prevents the panicking victim from pulling you under. I knew what to do … and I didn’t do it. As Frank handed the terrified child to me, I had this thought: “If I take him in the life saving tow, I’m admitting this is a full-on emergency. I’m admitting that this situation is really, really bad.” I was already scared. Admitting how bad it really was was more than I could take in. So I grabbed him by the forearm and dragged him through the surging water with everything I had.
There was something in the deafening sound of the waves and the jagged dangerous-looking rocks on either side of us that gave the ever-smaller beach straight ahead a hypnotic pull. A wave would crash over the boy and me, and I just kept my eyes on that little crescent of sand and kept pulling. Frank called out, “We’re supposed to swim to the side!” He was right. I knew that when caught in a rip tide, the way out is, counter-intuitively, to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. But here, in this narrow, rocky cove, to swim parallel to the shore meant to go straight into the teeth of rocks on either side. I squeezed the boy’s arm and swam harder. But as a concession to the whole “swim parallel” thing, I aimed on a slight angle: rather than directly at the beach that I so desperately wanted to get to, I oriented us a just little to the left. I pulled and pulled the whimpering boy behind me.
It didn’t seem that I’d moved at all but as I made a big scissoring kick on my new, angled trajectory, I felt sand. Incredulous, I dropped my feet and found solid ground. My body and heart surged with relief as I stood and pulled the boy’s body into mine. I could feel his warm, slippery, skinny limbs, his pounding heart. And I could feel my own heart hammering hard against my ribs. I squeezed the boy even tighter, looked to my still-struggling husband, and shouted, “Frank, put your feet down!” He told me later that at that moment, just a few feet from me, he couldn’t touch the bottom. He desperately reached his long toes and felt the sand, then swam another stroke and stood.
The waves were still deafening. The water surged around us. The rocks were dangerously close. But we were standing. In a small, staggering line—woman, boy, man—the three of us walked slowly and unsteadily in to the little black beach. We wrapped the trembling and silent boy in our towel, and he sat on the sand and ate a crushed granola bar. Frank and I stood behind him shakily drinking water and watching as the disinterested waves continued to pound the shore.
The days that followed had a paradoxical combination of feeling both dream-like and surreally vivid. Mangos were some kind of crazy, sensuous, cacophony of sweetness. The sky was so beautiful we could barely look at it. The water tasted like life itself. We would squeeze each other tight and say, “We’re here. We’re okay. We’re alive.” My mind would reel and I’d look at him and say, “Frank, we had that boy with us. What if…” I was unwilling to complete the thought. Frank just shook his head. And then, in his precise way, he would say, “I was seventy-five percent sure I was going to die.” We mostly just held onto each other. We were dumbfounded to find everything from the papaya trees to our land lady’s garden so perfectly normal and yet so extraordinarily extraordinary. The vivid island landscape felt simultaneously unreal and hyper-real. This is what living feels like.
Word of our brush with death flew through town before we even made it back to our cottage. God was praised. Prayers were said. We were invited to church. We nodded and agreed and wore our best clothes on Sunday—the only white people in that pink sanctuary singing praises. We were grateful. We were so deeply grateful for being alive, but also for every taste of food, every bird song, every wave from someone on the road. In a way that I never had before, I felt the intense sweetness of living and the absolute connection we have to each other. In some ways, that day is with me every day. The reverberation of it isn’t as intense, but it’s still there. I still remember. I’m still awake to the wonder that we have every day.
Frank says he took the boy back into the water, just for a few minutes so he wouldn’t fear the sea, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember speaking at all as the three of us picked up our clothes and slowly walked back up the trail to the village. I don’t remember anything about that walk except placing one unsteady foot in front of the other. If I ever knew the boy’s name, I don’t remember it. But I do remember, as we came to a turn at the top of the trail how that boy, our boy (and he will always be our boy), turned and waved almost imperceptibly and disappeared into the village.
SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing and moving, traveling and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. Her essays have been published on Elephant Journal, and she is working on a book. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.