Picture this like a landscape painting.
Along the bottom of the frame, in the foreground, are the outstretched legs and mostly-bare feet of high school students lying on a beach. One of the girls wears an ankle bracelet, and you can tell she’s proud of it. Another has a pink sweater bundled in her lap. The sand beneath their towels is damp and dark; this is a far cry from the day they’d been expecting.
Earlier, they’d piled onto the tour bus, sunglasses on, cameras and sunscreen in hand, electricity in the air generated by raging hormones and wanderlust. When they’d arrived at the coast, though, the white and turquoise scene waiting for them had been replaced by darkness. The rain and wind had smacked against the bus and the palm trees with a ferocity none of them had ever seen before, and they’d left for the hotel disappointed. When the weather had calmed a little, some had ventured out for an impromptu football game, splashing through the long grass by the pool. Somebody had discovered the beach where they now sit on the far side of a hill at the edge of the property, and word had spread fast. Better than nothing.
Beyond these figures in the painting is a slice of the ocean, and like the sky, it’s restless, the colour of concrete. In the distance, three students and a teacher, limbs flailing in the air, are jumping from a dock that protrudes from the right side of the frame like a ghost ship.
When the swimmers had reached their destination, they’d tested the water’s depth and seen the dock was higher and more decrepit than it had seemed from the shore. They’d looked to the face of rock beside it, hinted at on the very edge of the frame, and had climbed from handhold to foothold onto the greenery above. Now level with the dock, they’d seen boards were missing in places, and then walked to the edge of the wet and crumbling wood like gymnasts on balance beams. They’d looked at each other, water dripping from their bodies and their swimsuits, the sea beckoning at least twenty feet below. The teacher, a woman in her early thirties, had smiled wide and suggested they hold hands, and none of the students had objected. Then they’d jumped.
Picture yourself as one of these people. Feel the gritty texture of the dock under your feet, the hands in your hands as those feet leave the ground. You’re falling through the damp air. The world above is a tattered cloth, the world below a grey stare hiding secrets. Both worlds are immense, primeval, heavy. Far beyond your fragile life, but also somehow inclusive of it.
There’s a second here that you could describe with the word unity. You are one with Nature, other people, and yourself. You laugh as a sense of reckless certainty makes you feel wise and whole. In that tiny window of time, you see it all, understand it all, and the peace coming from that openness is overwhelming.
An instant later you hit the ocean, and that connection breaks with a sound you can almost hear.
John Rowntree is a graduating student of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. He has been active as a writer of prose and plays, and recently had a short story published for the first time in new Toronto journal Untethered.