by Tom Sleigh

There Sarah and I are, all those years ago, and Hannah, still just a little girl, too scared, defiant, jealous to leave her mother for long as she took her very first walk with me down the beach that afternoon. The waves, running white against the offshore wind, sent up spray blowing off the wave-tops as they shaped into green tents where a seal, magnified in its glide down the foaming face, mirrored her bundled energy and grace as she refused to take my hand, reminding me how different she was, is, from me when I was a child—so malleable to my parents’ moods, an inward sulk I never showed my only rebellion. Wind blew salt in both our faces which she licked off her lips—“Come on, Hannah,” I said, “let’s keep walking,” but suddenly she turned from me and ran toward Sarah, running the way a foal does, all instinct and anxious need, toward its mother.

And now all those years ago are swept away at an outdoor restaurant, the sun cool but bright, and she’s happy to see us, she rolls her eyes at my jokes which is why I tell them, knowing that if she mocks me she still trusts me, her compass needle swiveling this way, that, but always pointing out beyond us who once were her circumference, now shrinking to so much less.

Breaker on breaker other lives pour over hers, as right now on the phone, a friend’s voice, brave but gnawed at by rage and fear, tells me about her brain tumor, how she can’t make her eyes focus, how she can’t find herself in space, how the attendants at the rehab place won’t let her go to the bathroom by herself because she’ll fall, but then she asks what’s up with Hannah, how’s Hannah …

Youth, age. Sitting here alone, staring at the cement water tower on top of the old brick housing complex, the leaves on the plane trees faintly turning yellow, shuffling in the light breeze, how do all these hours enter into one life that keeps telling me, none too convincingly, that it’s mine? It’s as if I’m that seal tented in the wave, my path down the breaker a slow-motion glide that seems never to end … but how short a span until the wave heels over and crumples around me, exploding every which way in foam and spray as I pop up above the waves, curious and wary of what the humans are doing, the little one turning from the big one and running away.

Published on April 26, 2022