There was a hill behind the beige house in Iowa. When winter settled and grew comfortable, crisp, dense snow packed thick above the patchy grass and created a short-lived open stretch of silent space. Soon the twins in their snow pants and jackets that puffed soft like clouds would traipse up the blinding ascent with their foam sleds, hand-in-hand, cheeks stinging bitterly. Afterward they would escape to the warmth of the beige house and drink hot chocolate in the flickering yellow kitchen light, watching the white resettle, smooth and undisturbed on the incline.
Months later, the snow would sweat itself into slush. The world would become water — quiet black water budding under their shoe prints, sharp sweet water curling down the hill and catching on the snowdrops, dead water puddling gray in the kitchen, laying stagnant and brown on the patio. Water was everywhere, but not the kind of water the twins craved. As they grew they realized the enormity of their bitter desires. If only every spring the ponds would swell monstrous with snow and sleet and ice, eat the muddy banks whole, surge through vast grasslands. Things had been like this, once, millions of years ago. Tides rippling over miles of farmland, seas of underwater silos. Oceans across the endless fields.
Imagine, then, the promised ecstasy of California. Mira loved doing this, shutting her eyes as their tables and beds were packed away and their worn home grew empty and foreign. She imagined it entirely too much. She painted pictures for Sam that Sam did not, could not believe.
Ca-li-for-ni-a! The name floated hot and bright from her mouth, ripe with childish promises both of them had grown out of: Katy Perry on the beach, the Hollywood sign announcing life bursting forth from the desert, beautiful men and women sunning like cats on the sand. Of course Northern California was its own world, but Mira’s dreamy visions encompassed it all — Santa Cruz’s faded pastel seaside attractions, the glorious brightness of the Golden Gate Bridge cutting through the salt fog.
Sam imagined it differently. She felt California like a tight roil under a board, pressure filling up her nose and throat, thrilling vicious masses rippling beneath her shadow, the water-world everywhere.
After all, they would be able to see it, touch it, breathe it in for the very first time. Not on a screen or in a magazine. In person, they would see the ocean. Before they left, Sam and Mira stood on their patio hand-in-hand and said goodbye to the hill behind their beige house. Then Sam closed her eyes, dropped Mira’s hand, heard the surf come pounding down onto her head, and smiled.
After all, they would be able to see it, touch it, breathe it in for the very first time. Not on a screen or in a magazine. In person, they would see the ocean.
When they reached the promised land Sam knew she had been correct to doubt her sister. Their new house in California didn’t even have a pool, although it would have matched well with the neighborhood’s stucco walls and sparse palm trees. The buildings were every color under the sun: pink candy floss, soft mint green, dark rust. Not many people called this suburban scatter home. Many lived there without complaint, but when they inevitably left, they did not look back. Somehow, it was not a part of anyone’s soul. It felt painful to look down the street and see those houses lined up like little rows of grave markers. Their hill in Iowa had been a small and constant world in their backyard that offered protection, solace, life. Here, there was nothing. No grass, no snow, no rain. No water. They did not dare to take their pilgrimage to the coast when their own house seemed a dead withering husk. Four years of high school slipped by in desiccation.
In their last weeks at home, Mira spent the suspended drought days on fool’s errands. She was convinced their dream was, as of yet, unbroken; she was always desperately searching for a way out. Sitting out on the porch, all of a sudden: “Hey, let’s go to the reservoir.”
“Why the reservoir?”
“Closest body of water. Revelations always happen near bodies of water.”
“What revelations do you want to have?”
Mira tried to think but the everlasting barren air overcame everything. Gritty wind like a palm in the face; she screwed her eyes shut against it all. “Anything. Anything!”
“Can’t you think of something more exciting?”
Sam was a believer in revelations of movement rather than those of the mind. She had given up on her dreams of the sea. In the early mornings and late nights she swam laps in the high school pool instead, closing her eyes tight. Sometimes if she tried hard enough she would open her eyes and be moored on Alcatraz, navigating the icy perils of the Bay. The same stroke after long powerful stroke would stretch before her and everything would fall quiet once more. Solitary. Silence pressing in on all sides. In order not to drown, she moved.
“Half Moon Bay,” Mira announced minutes later, as if emerging from a dream.
“It’ll be cold,” Sam pointed out.
“Now who’s being boring?”
They took permission for their journey from their parents and left the following weekend. Mira grew quiet as she drove, afraid, perhaps, of being proven wrong yet again.
Sam was drawn and apprehensive next to her. She wondered what they would do when they finally reached the sea. Surely swimming was out of the question. Those trusty long strokes of hers would fail to cut through the waves. She would be dashed against the rocks, forced to learn the awful reality of what the ocean really was. A trap. A beguiling smile. Enough to dream of it and be sated; to actually face it would be to learn what lay under its ever-changing mask. Sam missed their hill. She missed sliding down and being met with solid earth every time.
Surely swimming was out of the question. Those trusty long strokes of hers would fail to cut through the waves.
Mira softly hummed under her breath and Sam felt a flash of resentment. The hills around them were yellow, rasping for breath, and yet her sister was sunny.
“Do you think there’ll be surfers?” Mira asked brightly.
“You always wanted to learn. Remember? Even back then, you’d pretend your sled was a board.”
“I grew out of it.”
In the town the buildings were low, squat and sparse, still oddly charming. Their car crawled along. Expectant and anxious. A rattling wind shook the scruffy palm trees.
They parked and wondered what to say.
“If it’s too cold we won’t be able to do much,” Mira said, already apologetic. Always shooting too high, always coming up short. “We can dip our toes in. Maybe — maybe we should’ve gone to Santa Cruz instead?”
“Maybe,” Sam allowed.
They walked together.
“Can you smell it? Can you see it?”
The air brimming, cold, alive. Stinging. Clouds gathering, growing, blossoming.
They blinked and it was there. It met both the sky and the earth they stood on. It was slate grey, whitecapped, alive, crashing. It exhaled mist deeply. It ran onto the sand all at once, then drew back into itself. It was shy and stark and it thrummed with the secret energy of life. Things could survive above, below, within, around. It was never-ending. It was brash, vast, embracing the land, then receding, always. Always changing. Always the same.
“I see it,” Sam said.
The dirt became sand beneath their feet. They traipsed down the hill, hand-in-hand. The beach was empty and they moved across it together, toward their ocean. The masses of the clouds cracked wide open above them. Finally the tide came rushing up, the sand slipped from between their toes, and they stood, one island, as the sea and the rain crashed below them, over them, around them, the surface splitting wide, then stitching itself smooth.
Once more the world had become water. Sam smiled. Grateful, Mira smiled back.
Contact Ankita Chatterjee at [email protected].