I can see it coming, like a roiling thunderstorm on the horizon. There’s a rumbling in the distance and darkness swells from the corner of the sky, billowing through the blue like ink in water. The wind turns sharply in my direction, blowing my breath back into my lungs. It’s like I’m breathing nothing at all.
There’s an electricity in the air, but I know it’s not rain. Neither thunder nor lightning announces the tempest that approaches. Below my feet, the tide recedes with impossible speed, leaving fish and mollusks on the sea floor, rudely exposed, flapping their gills or their shells in vain. It’s not a storm, but a giant wave that comes racing in at me from the surf.
An arching wall of water seems to move in slow motion, curving in and up as it grows toward me. As it gets higher, it blocks out the sun itself, allowing me to see illuminated in the water the silhouettes of great sea beasts, unaware of the impending destruction of their medium.
I’m alone on the beach, there is no shelter that could withstand the impact. I don’t know how it is in other worlds, but in mine there are two choices. Stand and maybe live or die here on the ground with my head between my knees and the stink of my own armpits in my nostrils.
So I stand. I remember my form and plant my feet like anchors, bracing my legs to absorb the force and transfer it downward, into the sandy earth. It’s the front stance, which has some Japanese name I’ve long since forgotten. I try to remember its name while I wait for the tidal wave, idly biding whatever time I have left. Like enormous jaws of curved glass, the sea itself opens up to devour me, but I will not be destroyed.
Then the towering wave crashes into me and everything is chaos. My stance holds for the initial impact. A solid wall of water smacks into my braced forearms and I settle deeper into the stance, sand rising past my ankles as my feet sink into the continental shelf. I can hear nothing but the low-frequency roar as water fills my ears and swirls around me. The force is incredible, but my stance is strong and I am not obliterated.
Surviving initial impact is only half the battle. Now I am under water with the rushing current threatening to tear me asunder. Shells, fish, and floating sea foliage strike my body, tearing my flesh in a thousand different places, but I refuse to break my stance. It’s the only thing keeping me from being swept away into the watery darkness.
One good thing about being planted at the bottom is you know which way is up. Swallowed whole, I am surrounded by black. No light can reach me at this depth. Although my muscles burn from the strain and the swirling sand is now up to my knees, I hold my position and wait for the riptide to subside.
The cool water soothes my straining frame. I’m completely submerged, patiently holding my breath, trying to stave off the panic that I might run out of air before I can reach the surface. My ears pop to adjust to the pressure and I can slooshy the amniotic swish of my surroundings.
Slowly, the current loses speed. What feels like the pull of an undertow is really just a return to still water. Easing my stance, I push down on the ocean floor so I can lift my legs out of the sand. Time is running out. I need to reach the surface, I need to breathe. The sun is still nowhere to be seen.
Like a cat ready to pounce, I squat down as low as I can. I raise my arms above my head and press my palms together, fingers stretched toward the sky. With what strength I have left, I kick off from the ground to begin my ascension.
I am weightless, but still so deep. Everything around me is silent and dark. The air in my lungs has gone stale, swelling in my chest like a toxic cloud, screaming at me to replace it with clean oxygen. I bring my arms around and kick my feet, sweeping the water behind me in an upward breast stroke. When my ears pop again and my lungs feel like they’re going to burst, I exhale to relieve the pressure.
There’s only so much left, but I breathe out bubbles in a slow steady stream. I can see them rise in front of me, so I look up and there, impossibly far away, I see the twinkling light of day peering down at me from the surface. My hands are flippers and my feet are propellers and my mouth is a chugging exhaust pipe, sending word to the sky to prepare my arrival. The water is blue now, not black, but my lungs are almost empty.
It’s slow work, swimming to the surface. My arms and legs grow weary. With the last of my oxygen turning to carbon dioxide in my blood stream, the blue begins to turn black at the edges even though it brightens in the center. I am looking into the eye of God, blinding at the center of an otherwise impenetrable void, the only sign of warmth in the frigid water. My lungs are empty, so I seal my throat to prevent the panicky breath that would end my life. I flail my rubbery appendages in desperate determination. This is not how I die, I think to myself, even as the darkness threatens to overtake my vision.
At last, my head emerges from the waves and I gasp for breath. The panic in my mind almost makes me hyperventilate, but I force myself to remain calm, float on my back, and take slow, deep breaths. I’m still alone on the water, but the sun feels warm on my skin, red on the inside of my eyelids.
All that’s left is to swim the few miles back to shore.