In our mythology, there is an origin story about the goddess of the sea, who lives in a place beneath the land, synonymous with the underworld. In this origin story, her only daughter dies, and in her grief, the goddess decides to follow her below, never to resurface again. “Below” is a section pulled from a larger work-in-progress that reimagines this myth and correlates it to the violence inherent to the refugee experience. It follows a husband and wife settled in Los Angeles, years after arrival, when unresolved traumas begin to flare up with the death of the wife’s father. This tension becomes compounded when they lose their daughter to the sea in a freak accident, triggering the mother into a state of instability and depression. Despite all the circumstances that the husband and wife have survived together, it is the weight of their lost child that ultimately causes the marriage to implode. In this section, reality bends and surrealism reigns as we explore the mother’s existence above the sea and below through the eyes of her dead daughter.
He’s figured it out. The only way out is to swim, to break water, to surface. It is a long way up, that is how far we have drowned. There isn’t a clear path for how to flee the sea, which explains why so many have failed to emerge, why so many bloated bodies remain floating undiscovered, either drowned or drowning, sinking further and further below. Eventually, we hit the deepest and darkest depths, the point of sable black, the place of lightless obscurity. Here, the sky is nothing more than an old memory, a desire that flares up from time to time only to eventually ebb away. None of us will ever surface again — not for the warmth of sun, not for a moment of dry skin, not for a crisp breath of air. Where we are, there is no way, and no help, to navigate. We are lost and trapped here, and if one were ever to find themselves among us, then all hope would be lost.
The problem is that escape is impossible. If anyone were to try to leave this place, then those of us, the multitudes who have no choice but to remain, stuck below because of death, a misplaced body, an unmet burial rite, a soul roaming, or grief of abandonment — it doesn’t matter; the ways we’ve arrived are endless — we would follow such a person, melancholically waving, bewitching the escapee with our ghostly, ethereal, half-rotted bodies, trying to call him or her back home. But the thing is, my parents don’t belong here. They belong above with the living and the light. My mother fastened herself here, immoveable, having chosen to drown beside me ever since my body sank, and my father, perhaps foolishly believing he had enough breath for them both, followed her in an attempt to retrieve her and bring her back home. There is so much working against their escape. My entire lineage, my grandparents and my mother’s sisters, my unborn siblings, and the many others that never made it across the sea — each so much brighter than they ever were in life and clearer than what we have of them in memory — they whisper the seductive words of love: just stay, settle down, rest now. I’m afraid my mother has come to agree with them.
The sea is built upon rocks and lava, mountains and craters, and bones — thousands of bones of fish and dinosaur and tree and people. The sea hosts a legion of homes for all these souls, the dwellings stacked like shingles one atop another, rolling hills of bioluminescent coral, just another preternatural distraction to keep the wayfarers from knowing, exploring, or understanding just how deep this water truly goes. This is how the sea claims its people. And if someone doesn’t believe that they’re one of us? Then I correct them: they’ve been counted among us the minute they became waist deep, their skin a brush of blue.
But then there is my father, who has no plans to stay. He is attempting to break the rules. I am watching him, and I suspect he has found the way out.
From my murky viewpoint, in the deepest and darkest depths of the sea, I watch him on land, taking my mother’s hand. His grasp is almost violent, but I do not think he meant it in such a way; he is just determined. I recognize it in the way his eyes are narrowed and concentrating. I feel an ache begin to bud inside me because I can see my parents so clearly in the dark of the house, the place I used to live in the sprawling hills behind the city. My parents are being quiet and my brothers are asleep in the other room. If I concentrate and pretend that I am still alive, I can conjure up images, other times when my father’s eyes were narrowed and concentrating, times when he was taking care of me.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go. We’re getting out of here.”
He grabs at their keys in a wooden bowl atop a sea-colored table set just left of the door, and with a twist of his wrist, he wrenches the door open and they are off into the night. The moon is nearly full and the sky is brimming with cloud. My mother trails behind him, clearly drowning underwater; she is tinged a deep dark ultramarine. She doesn’t know what my father is trying to do. I think about my brothers left behind in their beds.
In between their seats in the car, tossed atop the console, there is a bundle of envelopes, each addressed to me. They are from my father. The dates indicate every Wednesday and Sunday he has written, every week for the year and a half since I’ve been gone. His handwriting is looping, elongated like his hands, like his stride, like his smile when it is at its fullest. Under my name, the cursive Breath, the letters have a matching title written in cerulean blue, an addition he has just recently added. My father had written:
T H E W A Y H O M E ; W H I C H I S F R E E ; W H I C H I S O U T
I visualize each letter in my mind, remembering his nightly vigils, pouring out his apologies to me, his fears and agony, my mother’s suffering. My father wore guilt as though it were a second skin, aware that after everything that they had already endured, it was almost too much to bear to lose their only daughter by his hands. In his letters, he shared all the moments in which he was sure he would sink, unable to free himself from the murk, unable to escape everything that had already scarred their lives. He wrote, too, of the new and devastating thing that he had caused. He would have willfully allowed himself to drown; only, my mother had sunk faster. When my father wrote these letters, voiced these things, he believed that there was no audience. But there was always one: it was me, and I was always listening.
As the car growls to life, my father’s letters shift to shadow; I don’t think that my mother notices. I peer closer. She has enough to concentrate on, needing to focus all her energy on her breathing. I wish that my mother were more prepared, that she had gills; it would have made it easier, this business of drowning.
My father helps my mother inside.
“Buckle up,” he says with calm clarity. Neither my death nor my mother’s affair nor my grandfather’s offenses are on his mind. He is steadfast, resolute to see his plan through. He yanks down the emergency brakes and pulls away from the house.
It is hard to see because it is raining, and because it is so unusually cold. The windows are fogged with the heat of their breath: one willingly drowning, one fighting with all their might not to.
“Are you cold?” he asks my mother, but she doesn’t respond or shift or move. She is trying to breathe. She stares out the window. He reaches over and blasts the heat. The fog of the glass blooms forth as though they’ve entered a thunderous cloud. My father cracks open his window and takes a deep breath. I didn’t notice it before, but I become alarmed. He also has a dangerous tinge of ultramarine. It is quite dark. Please hurry toward whatever hunch you have, I think. The sea doesn’t like this act of defiance. If there is any indication that my father’s intuition is the right way out, it is the fact that things have just become more dangerous. The sea is pulling harder upon him, using its strength and intimidation to drain him of his determination. Things aren’t looking good, but across the whole length of the windshield, the fog begins to clear. I am beginning to think that my father is unsinkable.
My heart beats heavily in my chest. I feel buoyant watching them, and not in the floating dead type of way, but in a way that feels like flying in a cloudless sky. I am bright and excited and ready. I am certain that my father’s journey here, the long months he spent hovering around these depths, trying different things to get my mother out, was not in vain. They’re going to get out of here. A small part of me is becoming aware that they are leaving me and this dark place forever. I will be left alone. This realization feels like the rightest form of love. Even though I will miss them, and even though it will be lonely once they depart, I want them to leave. I want them to make it.
Please make it, I pray to no god in particular.
My mother is being very silent, but since this has been the case in the months since she started drowning, it is not so unusual. After all, only half of my mother is sitting in the car with my father; the other half, the ghostly specter, is here with me. In our belief, if the child leaves the world first, the mother has the choice to follow. I’ve come to wish that she didn’t. I leave the view of my parents’ car for a moment to glance at the woman floating beside me. I’ve gotten used to her, silently brooding, staring out into an open emptiness only she can see. Yes, this shell of my mother is still here, not even watching the race to herself happening before us. If my parents make it, this half person beside me will morph, will come to exist in one world and one world only — either the sea, or — I look up into the black — or the above.
Mama, I think to myself. You don’t belong here. Go back home.
I touch her ethereal face. She doesn’t register me; she doesn’t even turn to look. Why did you come here? I think with grief for the thousandth time.
When I was still alive, my mother used to always sing. She and my father had escaped so much, and had managed to rebuild their lives. But then, after I left her and after she followed me here, she lost the sound of her voice as surely as she lost her way. I sometimes think that she doesn’t even reside here; wherever she is, it is somewhere else, a place much deeper and much darker, a darkness that not even I can fathom. A darkness, perhaps, that she had created all on her own.
I return my gaze to my parents’ car. I watch her close her eyes. I don’t think she wants to think about where they might be going. I can tell she is afraid. It’s her bottom lip. She sucks it in until it is one thin line, straining against her thoughts. I stare at her, studying her pinched face, and then I slowly turn to my father as he drives. How did he find the way out? I am mystified, left wondering how it is that he has accomplished the impossible.
I wish that my parents would have seen the depths to which they’d sunk sooner. I wish that they had realized that their eyesight had become gray, that our poor town of folks sit in a trench of sadness, a true black hole that eats itself again and again. I wish they could have seen that the world didn’t end just because they’d lost me. If they had been alert, they would have seen the truth — that here, down where I am, all these people stuck and floating — they’re all here because they’ve given up. They’ve drowned. Yes. My mother is drowning. Yes, my father followed her. But they haven’t reached the point from which they cannot return. They truly need to leave.
Most of our family members had died long before my parents’ ship anchored, long before I was even a figment of their imagination. These family members selfishly don’t want them to escape, don’t want them to ever escape. They want this town so deep below the water to grow, to never lose its inhabitants, and to gain and gain again so that one day being dead will look little different than being alive, so that one day we will all be together again in our little town and it’ll be like our homes were never ransacked, never bombed. It’ll be like a time before any of us were forced to flee or run away, boarding a ship never to return again. We’re the ocean’s floor now, the endless sea, the depth of jungle, a ravaged land, an inescapable ship — these people don’t ever want them to escape. But my father, man, he’s up to something. He’s spotted something beyond this lightless place.
In the rearview mirror, my father glances at the empty road behind them. My brothers cross his mind and he prays to the universe that they sleep peacefully through the night, that the house remains safe and that they never know that for one night only, he is abandoning them the way he has never forgiven himself for momentarily abandoning me. He prays that after this, he and my mother can be good parents and that they can forgive themselves for the times when they were not. Then he thinks of me, and his resolve wavers for a moment, just enough to let a little of the familiar guilt set in, but then he returns to himself, full again of light and will. He glances at the stack of letters. My father. What he doesn’t know is that he never needed forgiveness, that I had never been angry. What had happened, had simply happened. And then I was gone.
“Chrys,” he says to my mother as if it were a secret. “We’re getting out of here.”
The rain gives a little, and then the moon shines brighter. The faint pull of stars begins to glow above. My parents travel farther from the city, and now there is a break of deep dark blue: the ocean. The moon gets larger. I think I see it now. Something happening: our worlds are colliding. What is my father up to? The ocean looks frigid and cold. It also looks breathtakingly beautiful, undisturbed by the sleeping landlocked world.
“Chrys, look,” he says, pointing. “It’s the ocean right beside us.”
They drive forward onto the cliffside. The ocean spreads along the rock face — a stretch of blue so long that it makes their one lane track of cement and gravel seem miniscule, unsafe, and attackable. Rain and seaspray batter against their windows.
I watch as the waves lap up against the rocks, lines of white fizzing and foaming before receding. The water is so close, and the wind has made it wild, or perhaps it is the sea itself becoming violent at what my father is attempting to do. They are far along a stretch of deserted highway, but my father pulls over.
“The ocean doesn’t want us to leave,” he says. He glances at my mother. “Do you understand? It wants to keep us.” He hesitates, then whispers, “It wants to keep you.” He turns full body, taking off his seat belt, to face the rising tide. “We can’t outrun this,” he says. “But I think that we can trick it.”
He jumps out of the car and runs to the other side, pulling my mother out from the passenger seat. She doesn’t resist or argue back, but I can see that she has begun to cry. I mourn for her, but there is nothing that I can do. What must be done can only be accomplished on her own. She has to make the choice to return to the living world, to leave me behind for good. A crowd has gathered around me, eyes wide, interested in the commotion of the escape attempt. I glare at them all, daring them to try and disturb this moment, daring them to call out to her, to ruin this process my father has started.
I do everything in my power to keep them back. My mother must have the chance, the quietude, to decide that she doesn’t want to be here anymore, that she is ready to return home with my father and to my brothers. They cross the highway, a dangerous thing, and my father leaps over the steel guardrails of the road. He helps my mother over. Wind roars around them, flapping their clothes loudly against their skin. Lightning strikes above them and the rain starts to fall in a downpour. The road is wet, the gravel unstable, and my parents stumble as they try to brace themselves on the treacherous slope. Below them is cliff face, a bevy of shard and rock and slick-like moss. If only there were more light.
Something in me suddenly breaks, and I begin to gush tears. It is so beautiful, this herculean effort. It is hard to look away. It is hard to keep from rushing forward and caressing them. They’ve lost so much, and we’ve selfishly kept so much here down below the sea. I feel ashamed. I should have asked my mother to leave long ago. I look to the others and see the glisten in their eyes. I am no longer afraid that they might ruin this escape. There is something holy happening before us, and this is what we must be willing to lose. What we must be willing to let go of. I want my parents to escape, and whatever it is that my father is planning, if the painful beat of my cold sea heart is any indication, then it is working.
“Alright, Chrys,” my father says close to her as he helps her leap from rock to rock. The storm will not abate. They are carefully making their way through the rocks. They are holding hands tightly, for balance, for love. “We’re going home. We’re getting out. We’re going to be free. When we get back from here, it’ll no longer be blue.”
He cups my mother’s face in his palms, and this is the most dangerously intimate thing I have ever seen. He draws her tightly to him, and though it is raining, I know he is crying from the depth of his being. They have reached the end. There is nothing left but dropping off into the boundless blue.
He kisses her profound, their lips chilled.
When he pulls away, he lingers by her ear, his fingers grazing against her neck. His voice drops below a whisper as if he intends to shut out the ocean, and he murmurs to her something that is impossible to hear above the storm closing in around them. Their months on the ship, their years in the camps, their childhood of traversing across different terrains, memories of running and death and survival bloom up all at once. They have already managed to survive the world; it is possible for them to do it again.
Then he lets her go. Staring deeply into her eyes, he smiles and takes a deep breath. There on the edge, he plunges backwards, heading for the sea. Suddenly, his voice appears in my head.
Breath, we’re going to rip the ocean open.
He has put all his trust into this moment. He had no way to know, but somehow he found out.
I know we can never find you, that we can never bring you back home. But, Breath, I know that you’re okay, that we’re going to be okay. I’ll come back for you and search. I was once a fish, and I can return again.
I am beaming with pride; though I am nowhere, I am all around him. I know he can feel this. The way out is to swim, to break water, to surface. It is a long way down, a long way up; this is how far we have drowned.
Did you know, Breath? he asks. It’s been so long, but your mother and I once had gills. It was how we traversed the sea.
I close my eyes, in awe of my parents’ strength. The rain ceases and the full height of the moon shines upon my mother and the empty space where my father just was. It was only a moment, but my father was not scared. He already knew. Only a moment, and then my mother jumps in after him.
In the pocket of her dress, words written upon parched paper burn against her thigh. Chrys — I loved you beyond it. The letter he had written the moment that boat anchored. Two falling stars, then suddenly our worlds collide. The universe is one, and then my parents got away. When I open my eyes and I am sitting in the trench, my mother is gone.