La Mar

Photo: Melissa Maldonado

His toes were sunken into the earth. He burrowed down deeper until he hit the next level. The one that always stayed damp and cool. Somehow kissed by the waves or absorbing the sea even while the sand above it maintained its constant temperature of hot and steamy. He always wondered how this was possible. Was it the moisture from above or below? Rain that had seeped in while the sun was held at bay by the rare cumulonimbus clouds. Or some unseen source of water constantly trying to push to the surface but always being beaten back by the relentless heat.

He watched on as his children dared the ferocious waves. They jumped and screamed in anticipation of the frothy swells. And when the foamy brine gushed over their tiny heads, they would scamper back to the shoreline trying to escape the strong tow pulling them deeper in. Those were the moments that he feared most. He caught himself holding his breath every 30 seconds until the current had released them, and they were once again free to taunt and tease this most temperamental force of nature.

As a child on the island he had been taught to fear the wrath of La Mar. He had always thought it odd that his father and uncles referred to the ocean as a woman, and his mother and aunts as a man. El Mar. La Mar. The men in his family were fishermen. They would wake before the roosters crowed and be long gone by the time the first rays of dawn peeked through his curtains. They would spend hours in trawlers being tossed about by this unpredictable female. Sometimes she would shower them with her blessings: mussels as black as coal, prickly red sea urchins, unspectacular looking oysters that, when pried open, would reveal a glimmering pearly sheen. Other times they would return home exhausted and empty-handed. They were at her mercy. He later learned that this was why the fishermen called her La Mar. Men were predictable, transparent, straightforward. There was no mystery hidden in their depths. No concealed threats. But the sea. No. She was a woman.

Life had changed though. La Mar was now the property of industry. His uncles had retired their small trawlers years ago when commercial ships took over. They did the job more efficiently. There was no room for sea-fearing locals and the tales of their untamable mistress. His parents sent him to the mainland knowing that there was no future worth pursuing on the island. He didn’t think twice about their decision. He never had grown fond of waking up while the rest of the world was still slumbering, and then coming home reeking of the catch of the day. He was happy to leave for solid ground.

Nevertheless, after years of being landlocked, he still harbored a respectful fear of La Mar. Of her erratic behavior and volatile mood swings. That was always the difference between the islanders and the mainland folk. He was raised with a deference to the sea that his children had never known. He trembled knowing how she could at one moment be pulling them close to her in a tight embrace before pushing them back out into the world, and in the next moment be wreaking havoc on businesses, homes, lives with her destructive fury. He wanted to adore her without the anxious hesitation or skeptical uncertainty that always crept in when he saw her waters churning. Like his children, he wanted to be able to dive into her surf headfirst untroubled by apprehension and doubt.

But he chose the safety of the sand. The security of what he knew to always be true and steadfast. It was funny to him that the islander, the one lulled to sleep by ocean melodies and fed by her bounty, should be the one most unwilling to succumb to her charms. Nevertheless, he willed himself to stay put and let his children live their adventures with La Mar, to shield these little mergirls and merboys from his childhood fears, to spur them forward into a brave new world. As his parents had done for him. And as he held his breath again, waiting for those little heads to come bobbing up, he dug his toes in deeper.