Between First and Final Breath
Illustrated by Sayantan Halder
The first thing Miguel became aware of was the blistering sun on his cracked lips. He could feel the great white eye of the earth staring at him, taunting him to fully wake and confirm that his recurrent nightmare had once again followed him into morning. He opened his eyes and blinked slowly, taking in the brilliantly white-washed blue of the sky. It was day five. He felt death in his bones.
It was quiet, so quiet that it seemed that there had never been any sound in the world at all. As if the still, boiling air had always been dense and resolute, unyielding to the gentle vibrations of one’s own breath, or the timbre of their voice. Miguel tried to speak, but he felt as if a hand rested over his mouth, gentle in touch yet suffocating, forcing his breath to seep past his lips like a leaking gas valve. Beneath him, the ocean rocked softly. He thought of his mother, a million years ago, rocking his little sister to sleep while she wailed and he watched from the doorway. He remembered feeling both frightened of her cries and jealous that she, and not he, was in his mother’s arms.
Perhaps the ocean is my mother, Miguel thought. Slowly, as if someone were turning the sound up on a radio, he began to hear the sounds of the sea stirring around him. The placid movements of the water, back and forth, back and forth, made soft whispering sounds. This time he thought only of his younger sister and how, as he gazed at her from the side of her crib, she made whispering sounds with her small pink mouth. She never seemed to notice Miguel, never turned her dark eyes upon him. At times, Miguel began to wonder if he were fading away—if her presence was somehow edging him out of the universe, filling up his space every day that she grew. He reached for her and the moment his hands touched her skin, she screamed. His mother ran in looking alarmed and then swiftly shooed him out of the room. She took the baby and rocked her. She wailed. Miguel watched from the doorway. Were these the same memory? His mind felt jumbled, a space filled with warm sun and too much sea water. Miguel turned his head and saw the lifeboat bobbing beneath him, but he could hardly feel it anymore.
His legs hung over the side of the vessel and his arms were spread on either side of him, welcoming the dense air to settle on his chest, make it even harder to breathe. Above him, the sky was completely empty, devoid of gulls, clouds or even movement. Miguel let his lids fall, saw the blazing neon red of sunshine against blood vessels and tried to will death to him.
He had lost his will to live surprisingly fast. Miguel thought, when he was a boy, that if he were ever in a situation that threatened his life, he would naturally do all that he could to survive. He had vowed to fight for his place in the universe, had tried all that he could to make himself feel permanent, to not disappear. But here, floating idly in the lifeboat of a ship the ocean had taken for her own, life had begun screaming to leave him sooner than he had ever thought it would. Perhaps the life inside of him wanted to rejoin the others. There must have been others. Miguel tried to visualize the other people, floating in their own boats, further and further away from him. He tried to see their own lives, released from their screaming bones, taking flight. Was this why the air was so dense? Was it filled with the life and souls of the people? Had they been there at all? Had they sunk with the ship? And if they had, did that mean mother wanted them more?
No, Miguel thought, angrily. There were never any people. There was never any ship. He thought again of his sister as a baby, golden light falling across her crib, illuminating her coffee skin, her pink mouth. He thought of his mother holding her, saw himself, now a man, watching himself, then a boy, watching his mother and sister from the doorway, feeling as if he were disappearing then and there. But now mother loved him in a way she never could, held him within her, like she held all living things. Miguel was special. He had been plucked from his life and brought to rest here, to become one with the sea, with mother. To hold his place in the universe, always.
Faintly, as if from another body, he felt sweat rolling down his chest, moistening his armpits. The sky was no longer blue, only white. All white, like a blanket being thrown over a bed with him on it. He saw his mother’s smiling face, before the baby came, and that smile was only for him. Sweat dripped from his eyes or, maybe, it was something else. Miguel tasted his mouth—salt. Heavy tongue, sweating eyes. Life was still screaming, trapped in his leaden bones. If only death would come and relieve her, life would depart and fill another body, link with another soul. And Miguel, empty, would finally, truly, be claimed by the sea. Mother, he thought.
He imagined himself melting through the base of the lifeboat and into the ocean. He saw himself sinking like a stone, falling further into the folds of mother’s cool embrace. A smile split his dry lips. The ocean swelled beneath him, and he felt mother tickling his toes.