The Shallows by Christopher R. Alonso


There was a time that dreams walked the streets, stars swam in our water, and the sea slept in my bed.

You said a lonely starfish on the beach is just a star that fell from the sky and can’t find its way back to ocean above us. It touched the earth, it was dirty, and we couldn’t have put it back in the sky no matter how hard we tried. That’s what you told me. Grey skies covered us like the blankets on our bed. Waves licked at the edges, tasting land.

One day we found one, skin like the ridges along your spine.

“We’ll make a wish on this star,” you said.

I still thought that star was holy the moment you touched it. I reached for your hand, and you tightened it in mine like it was a lifeboat. There were so many things I wanted to say, like “You’re this and that. You’re a reflection, and you reflect things. When you smiled, the stars smiled back.” I couldn’t say that. You couldn’t reflect everything, so we made a wish, and when I asked you wouldn’t tell me what it was, some superstition you learned while traveling the world. I nodded and considered changing my wish, impose my will on you like the moon on the tides.

We walked along the shore then, skipping stones into the waves. Your hair changed color again. I remembered, so did your eyes, your skin. You were blonde one day, glacier eyes when you told me about sea burials from the past then brunet when you told me of the people who made marble carvings in their temples, a trident, and horses in one, you as fifty daughters in another, you as the son of the seas.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I helped fight off an invasion into Japan?” you said.

“Tell me,” I said. “Please.”

“The Mongols were going to sack Japan, ravage the place. They prayed. Day and night they prayed to their gods, and we answered, like mothers and fathers.”

Your hair went dark and your eyes, too, knifepoint and winged.

“We watched from the shore and the shallows and ruined those ships. I remember their masts cracking like finger bones then snap. We took some of the people with us, you know. They flew into the air, their bodies going still once they hit the water. Then we claimed them. Japan still has a name for me.”

At home, we lay in bed while you told me stories. The waves you made when Earth angered you, the winds you made when Sky touched you, and the rains that came when Earth needed and Sky pleaded.

“That’s when we take part of me,” you said. “It hurts sometimes when Sky takes parts of me, but that’s what we do, but that’s how we do things. They take my water. Sometimes I take their land. The world is in a constant state of bargaining.”

You smiled, and your skin was dark deep. You’re destruction redefined.

The next morning the sky was cloudy, and the sun peaked out through the tiniest gaps in the clouds. It was that blue-gray light of early morning, when the world knows it’s asleep.

You were still, your hands on my shoulders, my hands on your back, like we were dancing, floating downstream. Every breath was a movement, cresting up and down. You commanded the tides.

“It’s going to rain in three minutes,” you said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“I just do, like the way you know where your fingers are on your body.”

I was trying to grapple with the things you said and how we got there, your limestone knuckles against mine.

“Tell me about the year 2004,” I asked. “Please.”

With you, there is always an asking.

“That is one of the many moments I don’t like to remember,” you said. “It was not because I wanted to do that. I was angry. Earth and Sky were asking for too much, and so

I gave them what they wanted and took many with me. Too many.”

“What did Earth and Sky say?”

“There was not much they could say. That is how we work, unspoken and understood.”

“What did the people feel when you took them with you?”

“Some felt fear. Others felt a thing you call peace. I tried to make it as quick as I could, the taking,” you said, moving your free hand over my body like you were pulling at my blood.

Water came. I fell in love with someone who talks like rain and acts like riptides.

“Let’s go for a walk,” you said. “Out to the shallows.”

Along the shore, I picked up a shell, smooth like collarbone skin. They were scattered all along the beach. You taught me their names, from colorful moon snail shells to ladder horn snail shell. Once, we collected as many as we could and took them home. I blinked and you changed, hair in short curls swept away from your face.

“Some people cup shells in their palms and hold them up to their lips,” you said. “Sometimes an asking sometimes a pleading sometimes a promise.”

You asked me to close my eyes and had me pick them off the floor and name them by touch. Then you put your hands in mine and asked me to name them. I brought them to my lips.

You pressed your mouth against mine and apologized.

I asked why.

You said, “Sometimes I confuse helping with hurting.”

I held on to your hands and pulled at you, wrapped myself around you like a prayer.

I remembered you cried. The waves came in, biggest on record, and it rained until you stopped. I felt it was my fault all that water because I was trying to make a home out of you. I said sorry over and over, but you stopped me. I whispered a promise over your bones.

“Let’s forgive and realize what we do to each other.” Then you looked at me and said, “I will take you home.”

There was that word, home, and I knew then that it wasn’t a physical place, a house with walls and a kitchen and a bed. It wasn’t the place my parents left me when they went. It was the place those ancients sent their dead, out into the dark horizon.

Seasons were changing in the magic of the world, and we were caught in the middle of it. From our view at the window, clouds loomed over the gray waters. The winds came the next day, and we went out into the storm to feel something outside ourselves.

“Was this the other thing that happened in 2004?” I asked.

“A lot happened that year,” you said. “The storm. The wave. I fought with Earth and Sky and did too much. I took too much.”

Winds beat our faces. We came upon the bruised shore. Waves beat against the cliffs, screaming to let them through, saying they’d pass eventually.

I was inches from the shallows, but you pulled me away, a current.

Your eyes were trained on the water, dark and rising, like sleep. Then toward the sky. The wind stopped.

I heard the quiet.

“Let me tell you a story,” you said. “Once upon a time someone fell in love with the Sea, and it heard their call, and so I came to them.”

You turned to me, your eyes changing colors from glacier gray to blue of the rain. I could feel your voice humming through my bones. You filled my lungs with water.

I could taste your worry and your want.

“I’ve heard the rain in your voice and felt the current in your blood,” you said. “You have the ocean inside you. You think yourself small but you hold the world in your heart and the stars in your hands.”

There were long pauses in your voice like the distance between galaxies, and your eyes wouldn’t look away from mine no matter how much the light hurt.

The wind kicked up, howled down the shore, and the land around us lit with roars.

“They’re asking for you, aren’t they?” I said.

“Yes,” you said.

You pushed your hair away from your face, changing from short and cropped to long and curly. “I have been away for some time.”

“So what happens now?”

“I go. We must continue to bargain.”

“Can’t you stay? Can’t I go with you?”

You put your hand on my cheek, and it was cool and strong and smelled like yesterday.

“I want you to remember something,” you said. You pointed to your heart. “This is your home. I will not turn you away. I will come for you when you call my name. I will come to you, as long as it takes me.”

The world shook and cried. The blue and the gray melded into something dark and hungry.

I watched you step away, walk over the waves and make your way to that place I couldn’t follow.

Christopher R. Alonso was born in Miami to a family of Cuban exiles. He is a current MFA student at the NEOMFA program at Youngstown State University. You can find him on Twitter, @chrisralonso.