Contrary to the other boys, Lito knew how to swim. When he was a baby, his family had been travelling by sea because of a family emergency. It was a calm sea but suddenly a wave had caught him, sleeping, and dragged him overboard to his parents’ horror. They couldn’t swim so they were yelling and screaming and pulling their hair out, but he bopped up, unharmed, to the surface, paddling his little hands and feet like a dog. He was wearing a beatific grin, his tiny brown body glistening under the sun. They scooped him up out the water and into his mom’s embrace where he proceeded to cry non-stop. He wanted more of the watery embrace. He was baptized in the sea and never reneged her.
From that day onwards, they never forbade him to rejoin the sea. Those two had an understanding. He didn’t gravitate easily to the other children. Always, he felt the pull of the sea. He could play all day on the beach and in the waves, the foam tickling his toes until he walked in to play. He went to the coral reef and spent time under water amongst his kind. Nobody would have been surprised if he’d grown fins or a web between his toes. He came back with the most wonderful stories of multicoloured fish and graceful plants.
He learned to keep some of his findings to himself, though he longed to share his passion. His parents were distrustful of the sea, and afraid of her. He visited her all the time and understood her many moods. He even stole out at night to admire her under the stars. He swam out to sea and lay on his back looking up at the stars, gently rocked by her. He learned to fall asleep on his back, the gentle breathing of the sea matching his own.
There was one place he was forbidden to go to. It was called The Eye, and was the deepest hole you could imagine, with a cavern and fish aplenty. There were currents there that sucked you down and never gave your body back. When he finally heard of the place, he started looking for it. It became an obsession. Everybody had carefully avoided mentioning the Eye in his presence as he was growing up, afraid he would go and explore it. It was in a little-known area. The beach was littered with warnings about the abrupt plunge a few feet from shore. A man had drowned there recently, which is how the topic had come up.
As was his habit, he sat and stared for days, drinking in the information. He looked for patterns, plumbed the depth with pebbles, analyzed the current as best he could. He was not foolhardy and held the sea in deep respect. He talked to her, but more importantly, he listened to her, and thus knew to keep his distance when she told him too. He had been thrashed a few times when he hadn’t paid attention. She was an unforgiving mistress. He had grown into a strong swimmer, used to holding his breath and keeping his other senses on alert. The Eye was something he had never experienced. He went to it in all weather and under all conditions. He slept on its beach, in a sandy hollow where a few grasses welcomed him to bed for the night. The Eye did not sleep.
One morning, he awoke determined to go in. He brought his most beautiful conch and blew in it, a mournful sound that stirred the Eye. It blinked. He asked for permission to step in and The Eye granted it. His heart was at peace and his body relaxed. He trusted The Eye as his body was sucked down. He did not fight it, instead observing the changes in him with curiosity. The sea was his mother and he could think of no better end than to stay forever in her embrace.
His heartbeat slowed as the sea pressed down on his body. He was going deeper than he ever had, seeing fish that he’d never seen. He was in the cavern, glowing bodies intermittently lighting it up. Reluctantly, he turned around, fighting the pull. As the sea released its grip, the need for air became pressing. He gasped as his head broke the surface, his eyes still wholly entranced by the world he had been allowed to glance at.
The discovery kept him awake at night. He relived these few minutes over and over, feeling the pressure build-up and enjoying it. The second time, he almost drowned. Again, he blew the conch and saw the blink. He felt an avid bite, but discarded the warning, his curiosity getting the better of him. He loved the quiet and the silence as he dropped further. He came upon a rope which he followed down to weights. He was starting to feel woozy and followed it back up to the sun. When his head broke the surface and he lay on his back gasping for air, he was quickly surrounded by people wearing masks and fins.
They were getting ready to go down, to accompany a daring man who specialized in deep diving. He swam away, understanding why the sea had tried to punish him. She thought he had brought them here to desecrate her. He cried salty tears as he watched the rape he was unable to stop in his weakened state. The man was floating on his back, very still. The crew did not utter a word, letting the man focus and equalize his breath. In one fluid motion, he turned his body around and disappeared in the water. The others were already submerged, silently waiting for him below. It did not look like a violation at all. He stood up on the beach. The Eye did not give back bodies.
He was compelled to stay and watch. There was no agitation, no turmoil, just intent. He was holding his breath. A few had gathered on the beach, watching the man in the boat with one hand on the rope, the other holding a timer. He was calm, showing no restlessness as the seconds and minutes ticked away. It was too late, nobody could stay under water that long. Still, nobody moved, morbidly fascinated, wanting to witness the end of the story. The head broke the water, mouth open wide to gulp mouthfuls of air, the divers holding him solidly as he recovered then slapping him on the back with cries of joy.
He released his breath. After that day, he spied on the white man who loved the sea. Him and his wife did yoga, meditating through postures. He imitated them from the beach. One day, the woman was not there. She appeared by his side. He had not heard her soft steps muffled by the sand and was startled to see her. “Join us,” she offered. He didn’t know how to say no, so he followed her. The husband, William, nodded to him and showed him a place they had set aside for him.
Every morning, he joined them to breathe. He lingered after yoga, and they shared their passion for the sea. William was more than happy to have a free-diving partner. Lito was a natural. He was already going quite deep, and with the breathing techniques William taught him, the student surpassed the teacher. William explained that he was the current free-diving champion, and made a living doing that. Lito showed no interest in free-diving as a sport. He only wanted to deepen his relationship with the sea.
He fished with his father. The catch was always better with Lito around. Fish seemed to know him and want to please him. The family never wanted for food. The father asked a lot of questions about the white man. He did not fully trust him, but he trusted his son’s ability to make choices. The couple was invited to share a meal with Lito’s family. After that, the islanders smiled at the couple and stopped charging them like tourists.
The day of the competition, William was calmer, knowing that Lito was at the water’s edge. They had trained so well together that they could sense each other’s presence. When he plunged, Lito waited a few seconds then quietly lowered himself and followed him from the sidelines. He saw William in perfect position, gliding quickly and picking up a marker then slowly turning around and making the ascent. Lito did not go deep. He was just keeping an eye out. As William broke the surface, he looked for Lito as he was pulling off his mask and making the okay sign as well as verbally confirming he was fine. This done, he handed over the marker and swam to Lito, embracing him before being snatched away by his helpers. Lito and William’s wife stood side-by-side, proud and happy to see him safe and sound, smiling to the world.