Yesterday I saw a dead man.
Frothing at the mouth, his body turning slightly blue, he was slowly floated in on a stretcher at the beach as the medics removed his snorkel and flippers and placed him reverently in an ambulance. No one offered CPR or mouth-to-mouth as the gathering crowd stood silently, feeling his fate. “Man drowns while snorkeling in storm,” the papers may say today. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, because I saw his body already; newscasts and newspapers are for people who weren’t there.
For some dare-devil reason, a tattooed islander had chosen to go out to the reef on the day hurricane Iselle passed over. Her winds whipped the waters, frothing and exposing the sharp coral formations, throwing debri on the sand, as ragged clouds quickly skirted by overhead. Someone from the shore must have seen the body floating in the lagoon and called for help, but the dare was over. Nature, one; human, zero.
Just a few days before, I swam the quarter-mile out to that same reef. As I stroked my way, I looked below at the coral, an occasional blue or red fish, an isolated new coral growth, pink and flushed in its excitement. At high tide, the water barely covers these ancient burial grounds, where well-travelled ships have failed to find the way in, and sailors, fishermen, and giddy tourists have tasted salt water and suddenly forgotten how to breathe. As the waves crash further out, you can almost hear the souls of ancient Hawaii warning young and old, but I still wanted to go. Perhaps the possibility of death draws me, as it drew the frothing man. The reef offers a kind of baptism, an initiation at the edge of the world, the experience of another reality, where life depends on you ability to breathe, as if you were being born for the first time, out of the waters.
In a week or two, after the hurricanes have gone, I will choose a blue and placid morning and swim out again to the reef, remembering the frothing man and the fleeting fight for life that keeps all of us breathing.