A Drowning

Martha Mukaiwa

A young man disappears beneath the cerulean skin of the Atlantic Ocean exactly 71 years after my father is born.

The sun beating down over Swakopmund’s Mole is high.

My brother-in-law has abandoned his struggle with a gangly gazebo to run and get help, and, from the shore, my father watches the water.

In the moments before we arrive, it is simply my dad’s birthday. The plan is to spend the afternoon laid out at the beach to ease the aches and pains of the city and the four-hour drive from Windhoek, but we’ve only just set foot on the sand when my brother-in-law sprints away from the awning.

He calls his wife, my sister, and tries to explain the situation in ragged, racing breaths, but he’s hard to understand, so he hangs up abruptly after promising to call back.

As we watch the young man’s companion gazing helplessly at the spot in which the man was last seen swimming, the details of his drowning trickle down the beach in an awful episode of broken telephone.

An unconfirmed story of a cramp, kayaking and cousins hits people spread out on beach towels and draped over camping chairs like a whispered bomb. The shock of the silent blast eventually mutes the whole heartbreaking scene and there is a subtle slowing, a terrible turning towards the sea.

Studies say that the average adult person can hold their breath for anywhere between 30 seconds and two minutes.

But by the time my family and I alight on the beach, the man’s guard, scouring the ocean from a bright yellow kayak, has been staring into the depths for far longer than it takes to drown.

To our left, a curly-haired woman in a blue T-shirt and a straw sunhat looks particularly stunned. The story coming through the broken telephone is that she observed the drowned man’s disappearance and was perhaps the first to raise the alarm.

As rescue personnel and curious onlookers seek her out, it strikes me that neither she nor his witnessing and no doubt traumatised cousin will ever know the full story.

Life is vicious that way. It taunts in the truth that the only person who will ever know the measure of the young man’s end is the man himself and, tragically silenced by the sea, he cannot tell us.

There is little to say as the minutes wear on.

I look at my subdued father, grey-haired and going strong, and at my two-year-old niece who is uncharacteristically quiet, and wonder how it can be that some people only see 22, while others celebrate 70.

I am incredibly grateful for my father’s long life, but the unpredictability of it all, the other side of existence’s coin is, disquieting.

A birthday, just as much someone’s death day, and the young gone before they grow old.

When the ocean begins to blur, as it does below tears, I turn towards the beach.

Life has moved inevitably on.

A pretty young woman engrossed in a phone conversation stretches out on her towel and beams at something said a world away.

Two kids root around a crash of kelp, exclaiming at their discovery of seashells, and an older gentleman licks soft serve off his fingers as it sticks, drips and pools in the burning sand.

Many people leave out of respect for the dead or simply far too uncomfortable to linger where there has been such a grim and tragic reaping.

My family and I stay for a moment, unwilling to give up hope.

Like a scattering of others, we are convinced we see something.

We hallucinate and we hope, but eventually we say our personal prayers for the man and his loved ones’ peace and go too.

For all the desperate diving and despite a rescuer who raises his hand in high alert, yelling “Goggles! Goggles!”, they don’t find the young man that day or the next.

I learn his name in a news report a little while later.

He has a good, strong name and I say it out loud when I return to the ocean.

It’s a day as bitterly beautiful as the young man’s last.

Seagulls swoop, children play and flares of sunlight dance on the merciless sea.

– martha@namibian.com.na; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram; marthamukaiwa.com

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