Kauaian Karma

by: Terry Martin

What difference could my desire to cling to life possibly make to the ocean?” A story that urges one to let go and surrender fully to the flow…

“Hope and fear are both phantoms

that arise from thinking of the self.

 When we don’t see the self as self,

what do we have to fear?”

— Lao Tzu (trans. S. Mitchell)

From out in the Kauaian surf, I catch sight of the shore just as a five-foot wave slams over me, plunging my body underwater. After breaching and gasping for air, I scan the beach again, which seems so much farther away than I had expected. Just a moment ago I was standing safely on the shore. How did I get out here so quickly? Another wave washes over me, scattering my thoughts. Spluttering, and with a mouthful of salt, I recover and strike out for shore.

 I lift each arm in turn over my shoulder and kick for propulsion. The high, frothing waves often obstruct my view. I have to lift my head out of the water just to be assured of getting a breath. I swim hard for a minute and then pause to take another look. Oddly, the shore seems no closer than it was before.

I redouble my efforts. My arms plow through the water, my fingers cupped together for optimal thrust. Waves batter me, but I push on, stroke after stroke, until soon I am panting with the effort. I don’t stop until I am sure I have covered at least half of the distance, and then I lift my head out of the water to steal a quick glance toward shore. Yet there it remains, as perplexingly distant as when I started.

 A blanket of fear engulfs me, and the rush of adrenalin galvanizes me into action. This time I give it everything I have. I swim harder and longer than I have ever swum before in my life. My lungs labor with the effort. Lord…pant…if I…pant…could only…pant…catch my…pant…breath. Surely, I am closer now. I keep pushing past what feels like my own natural limits. But when the absolute need for air and rest overtakes me, and I pause for another look, the sight petrifies me: I have not advanced even a single inch.  

The shore is no more than a hundred feet away. On land, I could sprint the distance in a few seconds, but out here, I might as well be in another galaxy. I tread water, catching occasional glimpses of the warm, inviting sands bordered by palm trees and tropical vegetation. The beach and everything that it represents — safety, rest, joy — seem so close at hand.  

My lungs are heaving from the deficit of oxygen when another large wave dunks my head underwater. I kick hard and strain my arms to propel my body upward. When my head emerges, I gulp in a deep breath of air and am instantly racked by coughing. I have inhaled seawater, and I spit out brine and catch wheezing half-breaths in between coughs, all the while pumping my exhausted arms and legs to keep myself afloat.  

The merest feeling of sinking now fills me with dread, and I struggle desperately to keep my head above the waves. If the water were still, I could probably float on my back and extemporize until some means of rescue appeared. But the waves are too big and violent, and it takes all of my strength just to keep afloat. With little fat to buoy me, my body weight drags me down. Every time my mouth and nose touch water, my arms and legs fire like pistons to rise above it again, which, in turn, exhausts me, causing me to sink back down. I seem caught in an ingenious trap: the more I struggle to be free, the more hopelessly I become enmeshed. I can neither get back to the shore and to safety, nor, in my state of exhaustion, can I stay afloat. Then the realization dawns upon me with a force greater than any wave: I’m about to die.

 How the hell did I get into this?

“I must have died and gone to heaven!” I murmur.  

Having just arrived in Kauai, Hawaii the evening before, I am standing on Hanalei Bay beach at dawn with my ten-year-old daughter Nikita, my eight-year-old son Iván, and my ex-wife Toty. Many people find it surprising that Toty and I still take family vacations together, although we seem to get along much better now that we are not married.  

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” I ask, gesturing at the storybook setting before us. Hanalei — famously referred to as “Hanalee” in the song, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” — is a horseshoe-shaped body of transparent blue water ringed by white sands and palm trees. At the southern end rises a backdrop of lush jungle-covered mountain slopes, which, this morning, are decorated with patches of mist. Bloated clouds tinged with the scarlet and vermillion hues of sunrise drift slowly overhead.  

Nikita and Toty stand in rapt silence, taking in the scene before us, while a puffy-eyed, sleepy Iván drawls, “Why did we get up so early?”

“To see Kauai and look for seashells!” I remind him. The few locals I have spoken to thus far confirm that beachcombing is indeed better during the winter months, when the surf is stronger due to shifting ocean currents. In winter, the larger waves not only deposit more shells along Kauai’s northern and western beaches but also make Hanalei Bay a mecca for surfers. In summer, the surf is calmer, although dangerous currents are nevertheless said to exist. At least, that is what I have read in the guidebook. On this July morning, the waves look remarkably calm, and the water is clear. It is hard to imagine any danger lurking in such waters.  

Smaller waves tend to wash up fewer shells on the beach, and we are finding little enough at the high-tide mark this morning. But I catch myself crooning the old Carpenters song, “We’ve only just begun…”

We wander half a mile north, fording the mouth of Hanalei River in our Tevas. The water is two to three feet deep, and we pause halfway across to romp around on a little island of sand. When we reach the opposite bank, Nikita yells, pouncing on a shell and holding it up for everyone to see. In her outstretched hand lies a juvenile auger of some kind. It is one inch long with alternating taupe and white spiral bands. In the center of the white bands and spaced at regular intervals are taupe accent dots, as if an artist had dabbed them on carefully with the end of a paintbrush. Smiling, I cannot resist observing that Nikita’s shell augurs well for our beachcombing. The children groan in unison at my inveterate habit of punning. A quick search turns up several other interesting small shells that we have never seen before. Excited with these first few promising finds, we head back to the car.

On the following morning, my sister Tris, who is vacationing with us, accompanies me while Toty and the children, who have had enough of predawn departures, opt to stay in bed. Tris and I head to Tunnels Beach, where a waiter has tipped us off that we may find some shells even in the off-season. Tris remains skeptical that we will find much of anything, but she is intrigued by the few shells that turned up the day before.

At Tunnels Beach, we wander eastward for half a mile, only seeing an occasional shell bleached white from long exposure to the sun. Then, we come upon a line of fresh shells at the high tide mark, like an oasis in the desert. Tris finds a small cone. I pick up a worn cowry with a purple top. I turn it over, revealing a long, slightly curved horizontal opening that resembles a wide mouth, with little regularly spaced perpendicular ridges that look like teeth. The cowry appears to grin in delight as Tris and I gather several limpets, little oblong shells like Chinese hats with lines radiating outward from the apex. The cowry keeps grinning as I swoop down on a large reddish-brown turban, whose spiral convolutions from the broad base to the bun on top indeed resemble nothing so much as the tightly-bound headgear for which it is named. The cowry continues to grin as I turn the turban over and swear at the sight of a pea-sized hole underneath. Pieces of other large shells are strewn about in the sand. Clearly, the area has possibilities. Nevertheless, we soon arrive at the end of the small pile of shells, and we gaze up the beach to where the lone and gently sloping sands stretch far away.  

Since there are no more shells on the beach, Tris and I venture out onto an exposed reef nearby, searching among the tidal pools and crevices in the coral. However, the few shells that we find all have live occupants, which we carefully put back. Collecting live specimens is prohibited in Hawaii.

After exploring the reef, I gaze into the water. It occurs to me that if shells wash up on the beach, there must still be some out in the water as well, so I put on my snorkeling gear to investigate. The water, which is at low tide, looks clear and inviting. I ask Tris if she wants to join me. She declines but urges me to go in nevertheless. She goes back to take another look at the shells on the beach to see if we have overlooked anything.  

I push off from the edge of the reef into the water, which is cold. Near the shore, the visibility of the water is good, although my snorkeling mask fills slowly with water. I stand in the shallow water to empty it.  Behind me, Tris is already bent over the shell pile. The sun feels warm on my back. I adjust the straps of the mask and push on.

Amid several large boulders, the sand on the bottom is arranged into a series of shallow trenches. I swim along parallel to the beach with a leisurely breaststroke while scanning the bottom. Near the center of the cove, I start seeing occasional shells. My pulse quickens. As I advance, more shells lie strewn about on the bottom, which soon multiply into the hundreds. I cannot believe my eyes. The bright sunlight dapples the sandy bottom and produces glints of iridescence off the shinier shells. I am floating in just two feet of water, and I have only to reach out my hand to pick up any shell I want.

I scan the many warn, common shells until I notice a lovely white shell with a striking geometric pattern of black dots — a drupe! I clutch it and swim on. A few yards ahead lies a green and brown turban, which I examine lovingly underwater. I pick up several other shells, and soon my hands are so full that I have to return to the beach.

I walk up to Tris with my hands cupped and then open them before her astonished eyes. “Wow, where did you find those?” she asks. I point to the water, adding, “Are you sure you don’t want to come in?” She declines, adding that she doesn’t like to snorkel. I place my finds in a shell bag next to my backpack and then run back down the beach, jumping into the next wave. The underwater trenches extend out a ways, and there is a large area to explore. I gather more small cones and then — my eyes blinking in disbelief — a one-and-a-half-inch cone with bold black accent marks repeated in layered friezes: it is a Hebrew Cone, the first one I have ever found. Minutes later I come upon a pink Granulated Cowry, also a first. When my hands are full again, I run back up the beach to show my sister. Her jaw drops at the sight of the Hebrew Cone and the Granulated Cowry. She holds them up for closer inspection. Her eyes dart from the shells to the waves, and then back to the shells again. She asks, “Did you bring an extra snorkeling mask?”   

For the next hour, the two of us swim back and forth over what seems like an inexhaustible treasure trove of seashells. The waves tumble the shells together with the sound of tinkling chimes, audible even underwater. As the sands at the bottom get rearranged, new shells continually appear.  I now snorkel with a plastic bag in one hand, so that I do not have to get out of the water as often. I am shivering with cold, and my fingers are almost numb, but I do not want to stop.

As the morning drags on we are being increasingly buffeted by the incoming tide. I stand for a moment in waist-high water to catch my breath. I lean over with my mask underwater and see a large unfamiliar shell. When I reach for it, a wave hits me broadside and sends me sprawling up the beach. I get up and rush back, but the shell is no longer in sight. Even though I swim back and forth over the area where I had last seen it, the shell has vanished amid the shifting sands and murky water stirred up by the increasingly violent waves. I stand up again to take a rest. A few yards away, Tris catches my eye and gestures that she is ready to stop. She is tired but beaming with contentment.  

Back at the rental condo, we rinse the shells and place them on paper towels on top of the broad kitchen counter, inviting the others to come and look. Amazed by the shells we have found, Toty and the children decide to join us the following morning. A half hour before dawn the next day, we all pile into our rental car and drive back to Tunnels Beach. We walk quickly along the beach until we get to the cove, at which point everyone dons snorkeling gear and plunges into the water.

Like sharks patrolling a reef, we crisscross the underwater trenches. The shifting sands continually reveal new shells, and the tinkling of the shells underwater is punctuated by occasional whoops of delight. Catching sight of my daughter bobbing in the waves nearby, I swim over to join her. She opens her hand to show me several drupes and a cowry that she has found. We both return to the hunt. I notice a large turban and dive down to get it for her, but just as I am reaching for the shell, a little hand darts past mine and grabs it. The spry little mermaid emerges from the water, clutching her prize and grinning.  

I swim out farther. The bottom is barely visible from the surface, and I have to dive periodically to see what is down there. The shells farther out from shore seem older and more bleached, as if they had been there a long time. I start to circle back when I notice a shell tumbling over itself, propelled by the current. I dive down eight feet to grab it and then surface to take a look. The shell is two and a half inches long and over an inch wide, and it is adorned with alternating blotchy brown and white streaks. It is flawless and unoccupied. I have never seen a shell like it before, and I swim back to show the others.  

Later, at the rental condo, Tris and I try unsuccessfully to identify the mystery shell in the guide book. I pick it up and examine it more closely. It is a beautiful shell — a collection-grade specimen. I look into the aperture again and then groan in disbelief. A slug-like occupant is visible, which must have been retracted earlier. Making a tragic face, I hand the shell to Tris, who smiles at me in commiseration. I decide to return the shell to the ocean while it is still alive.

On an impulse, I grab my snorkeling gear. I’m curious to know if more shells have been washing up in the interim. I drive back to the beach and then run for several minutes through the deep sand until I arrive at the spot where I had found the shell that morning. I throw the shell as far out into the water as I can, hoping that it will not wash up again. Then I stand and observe the incoming waves, in which I can see many shells tumbling over and over at the base of the surf. The waves look bigger and darker now, but I reflect that I might be able to find something nonetheless.  Wasn’t that why I brought my snorkeling gear along?  

I remain gazing at the waves, unsure of what to do. Eventually, I reason: I can check it out. If I find anything, I will stick around and snorkel for a while. Otherwise, I can get right back out. How bad can it be? I was just out there this morning. So saying, I don my snorkeling mask and enter the water.

I breast a large wave and dive down. The waves have stirred up so much sand that I cannot see anything at the bottom. I try grabbing for larger shells, but the waves threaten to roll me in the surf. I swim out a few strokes to avoid the churning power of the waves closest to shore and dive down again, but the water is deeper, and no light can penetrate such turbulence. It’s difficult to stay underwater long enough to grope blindly for shells on the bottom. Satisfied that further searching is futile, I surface and glance toward the shore, which now seems strangely distant. How can I have come out so far in such a short time? I start to swim toward shore.

Exhausted, gasping for air, and floundering in the water — I want to go back and edit the day’s events. I do not want to find the mystery shell. I do not want to drive back to the beach. I do not want to enter the water at high tide. I want to be back safely at home, not out here in the waves. I’m not ready to die. As soon as the words enter my mind, I am aware of how ridiculous they sound. What difference could my desire to cling to life possibly make to the ocean?

Water surges up suddenly over my mouth and into my nostrils. I splutter and try again to raise my chin higher, but the effort only tires me. I think of my children and the folly of having thrown everything away for the chance of finding seashells. I ache to hold Nikita and Iván in my arms again. I wonder what their life will be like without me. Will they even know what has become of me? Will my cold, clammy, waterlogged body wash up some day on shore, like so much flotsam?

I see a large wave coming, and I duck my head underwater as it passes over me. Then I kick and try to claw my way back to the surface, except that my hands find nothing to grab onto…except a bottle that I’m holding for my baby daughter, whose big, bright, button-brown eyes regard me comically with suspicion after she tastes the formula that I have had to substitute for her mother’s expressed breast milk, which has just run out. In the other arm, I’m carrying my infant son tucked like a football as I walk back and forth, my mother-in-law observing that I am the only one who can get him to sleep. Nikita and Iván, now older, are inviting me to take a look inside the fort they have built with cushions and blankets…the two of them are giggling next to me on the couch as I read to them. I am holding a greased pan steady as Nikita pours batter in to make her first pancakes. We’re playing kickball in the yard, and Iván has just tagged Nikita out at third base. We’re walking along the beach together…and then suddenly I am spluttering underwater again as another big wave interrupts the vision, like the Lacanian Real bursting through the symbolic order. I recall how the little match girl in the fairytale dies at the moment of her most intense fantasy.  

My exhaustion is mounting every moment. I am ready to drop and don’t know how much longer I can stay afloat. My arms feel as if I had just done five sets of twenty bench presses and pull-ups back to back without a pause. If I were in a gym, I could set down the weights and enjoy the pleasant sensation of swelling in my arm and chest muscles. But the moment I stop out here in the waves, I am done for.

A gull cries above me, absurdly oblivious to my plight.  

I gaze again at the beach. I have never wanted anything so badly in my life as to be standing on it, but just as in a nightmare, I cannot make any headway at all. I seem destined to observe my own pathetic demise, and I have no one to blame but myself.

With all of the force I can muster, I raise my head above the water and crane my neck to look at the beach. Down the beach and to my left, I notice a man walking along the shore in my direction. To my right is a woman, who seems to be intently surveying the scene. I raise an arm and yell “Help!” at the top of my lungs, instantly choking on seawater. The man sees me and points his arm up the beach in the direction he is walking. Incredulous, I think, “Here I am drowning, and all that the idiot can do is point his finger. I mentally urge him, Go get a boat!  Do something!

I make one last, nearly superhuman effort, raising my arm and head out of the water to call for help. The man looks at me but merely continues to point in the direction he is walking. I sink back into the water. I am so tired that I cannot go on. So this is how it ends: not with a bang but a wheezing whimper. How many seconds of my life remain? Water surges again over my nostrils, and I instinctively close my eyes as my head goes underwater.

The image of the man’s outstretched finger lingers before me in my mind’s eye. Why was he pointing? What was he pointing to? Then in a flash of awareness, I realize that he is signaling for me to swim in that direction. With the vigor of newfound hope, I thrust my head above the waves, and after getting my bearings, I turn and begin to swim parallel to the shore. Pulling my arms to my thighs in a long breaststroke, I am amazed to feel myself moving through the water again. As though freed from an evil genie’s curse, I swim parallel to the beach, and the current itself helps to propel me. When another large wave washes over me, I strike out again for the surface and recollect — why had I not thought of it earlier? — that directly in front of me lies the exposed reef on which I had been out walking that very morning. The reef is underwater now, but I know it’s there, and that’s where the current is taking me.  

After I take a few more strokes through the water, my foot strikes the flat ledge. The reef is covered in three feet of water now, and I stand up with difficulty. A wave knocks me over. I stand up again and take slow, clumsy steps toward the shore. Soon I am in just two feet of water, then one, and at last I am standing on the beach. I fall to my knees with convulsive shivers and tears of gratitude.

I look around to thank the man who has saved me. Oddly, he is nowhere in sight. I can see half a mile down the beach in either direction. He cannot have walked so far in such a short time.  

The woman I had glimpsed on the beach approaches, bringing my backpack in her hands. She is middle-aged and has native Hawaiian features, with black hair, dark eyes, and light brown skin. She hands me the pack and asks me if I am okay, looking at me with evident concern.  

“Glad to be alive!” I manage to blurt out.

 She observes, “The ocean is like a woman: you cannot fight her, but if you give in, she will eventually carry you to safety.”

Over glasses of wine later that afternoon, I recount the harrowing experience for the third time to Tris and Toty. I am amazed to be sitting in an armchair, taking casual sips of merlot, gazing at the bird-of-paradise flowers outside the glass sliding door. The memory of being caught in the waves is so fresh and vivid that I wonder which is real: am I here safe in our rental home, or am I still out in the waves and only dreaming of safety? I recall the famous ending of Ambrose Bierce’s tale, “An Event at Owls Creek Bridge,” in which a Confederate spy entertains the delusion of escape during the split second before his neck breaks at the end of a noose.  

Whether I am dreaming or not, I am filled with a profound appreciation for everything I see: my children bent over a jigsaw puzzle, the brilliant red-crested cardinal in the lawn outside the door, the distant verdant hills, the sound of the Rolling Stones playing “Gimme Shelter,” the feeling of my body lounging at rest in an armchair.  When I later witness one of Kauai’s famous rainbows, I feel transported.

Nevertheless, after becoming gradually reassured of my existence in the days that follow and learning that I had been caught in a rip tide, a question nevertheless continues to haunt me: Why had I quixotically battled the ocean when safety lay within reach the entire time? Why had I been unable to think of anything but pursuing the most direct linear path toward shore, even though such a course of action was not only absolutely futile but suicidal? Ironically, my salvation had been at hand the entire time I was in the water, but I simply could not see it until the man — no, the angel, who had manifested at my moment of greatest need and then promptly vanished — had pointed the way. In reality, it was my own fear and panic that had turned the ocean into my enemy. As soon as I stopped fighting the current, it had actually helped carry me to safety.  

I cannot help but wonder: how many imaginary enemies have I — or should I gently say “we”? —  sown with the dragons’ teeth of fear and frustrated desire? And what unknown harmonies lie waiting to be revealed the moment we cease battling the tides, when I — or should I gently say “we”? — cease striving against phantoms of our own making?

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