I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt. When I was twelve, my little brother drowned. He was seven. I was with him. I swam him to shore. His arms were wrapped around my neck from behind, his chest on my back, his knees pummeling my thighs. At first, his small heavy head was on my shoulder, and he breathed in my ear, the occasional snort when water came in. His head bounced. My shoulder ached. His hands were knotted at my collarbone and I held them there with my hand, both so that he wouldn’t let go and so that he wouldn’t choke me. With my other hand, I pushed the water away.
We had gone to the beach for the day, just the two of us, alone together. This was allowed. This was our whole summer. Our family lived in Baltimore, or in the suburbs really, a place called Pikesville. When June came and set us free from school, and set my father free from his job teaching chemical engineering at Catonsville Community College—my mother was a painter, so she was always free—we would drive three hours down to Delaware, to a town near Bethany Beach, where every year we rented the same narrow gray house with a skew porch out front.
Every morning, after breakfast and cartoons, my brother and I would leave our father to edit his articles and our mother to dab at her paintings. Wayne and I would change into our still-damp swimsuits and I would pack us Capri Suns and Lunchables from the fridge. We would walk along the roads, cutting through a gap between the fancier houses to reach the beach. My mother had told us that the gap was called No Man’s Land, which Wayne misheard and took to mean it belonged to a man named Norman. We’d sneak quietly through Norman’s Land, then tromp over the boardwalk, our flipflops knocking against it, and find our favorite spot on the shore, which was marked by clumps of sea grass.
Wayne was a nutty brown, a scrawny creature, a good kid. He played so hard, as if play were work. I was too old to play, so I watched him play, and helped sometimes. That day, I buried him for fun’s sake. We dug a shallow trench with cupped hands, like dogs, like gardeners. The topsand was cane sugar, the undersand brown sugar. When the trench was big enough, he tumbled into it and I packed the sand onto his body, patpatting it over his hands and over his bony knees. Under the fluorescent sun, he lay still as a magician’s assistant.
He asked me to cover his head with our straw hat and I said, “No, you’ll suffocate!” He flinched, as if to grab for it himself, then remembered that his hand was buried. Too late: the mound of sand over it had sprouted a crack. He glanced at it, at me. I patpatted the sand back flat. After a moment he said it again, he mouthed, Cover. My. Head. I touched my sandy finger to his sandy cheek. “Close your eyes, Wayne,” I said, and placed the straw hat over his squinching face.
I had stolen that hat from a fruit vendor before Wayne was born, when he was still in the womb. Our mother, pregnant and craving, was buying a pear at a stand at a farmers’ market. The hat was rolling at the fruit vendor’s feet like tumbleweed. It beckoned me and so I picked it up and put it behind my back, switching it quickly to my front when we turned to leave. My mother didn’t notice until a block later. She twisted my earlobe till it stung and hissed, “It’s too late to give it back now, you little twit!”
Although our family had owned the straw hat for many years now, it was still too big for either of us kids to wear. We used it for carrying things instead, its leather chinstrap serving as a handle. We had used it today to bring lunch and a towel. Now it swallowed his head completely.
“You’re a dead Mexican,” I giggled.
“Olé!” he muffled from under the hat.
“I mean cowboy,” I said.
“That’s a sailor.”
There was a pause. “Yeehaw!” he said.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t laugh. I walked away from his buried body, staggered off into the sand pockets toward the greenish sea, bored but deeply satisfied that he would be surprised to find me gone when he lifted that dumb hat off his face. My turn to trick him for once.
My toes were already wet by the time he realized I was gone. He leapt up and tossed the hat and gangled his way toward me. Yelling pellmell, splummeshing past me into the water. I watched his bronze back vanish, then retreated and sat beside the empty trench with my arms around my knees. There was no one else around. It was bright and hot, the end of summer. Then the clouds came and lowered. The wind rose. The waves rose.
Dear Wayne. You swam into the furrows. At first, you didn’t know it because you were under the surface and you faced down as you swam, staring at the vault of the sea below. Then you felt the sky darken above you, a shadow passing, and when you came up to breathe, you were suddenly inside them, the great grooves in the water, the furrows. On either side of you, those whirring sheets of water, the foam along their edges sharpening like teeth. On either side of you, the furrows chewing, cleaving deeper. They ate you up. You were alone out there and the world took you back in, reclaimed you into its endless folding.
He was joyful and swimming and then he wasn’t. I ran in. I swam to him. I reached him and we grappled some until he managed to get on my back and wrap his arms around my neck. I held his knuckles in my hand. I turned and swam us to shore. He dragged me back. Halfway to the beach, his small heavy head began to beat against my shoulder in an unreasonable way. That was the word I thought: unreasonable. A word our father would say. I knew to hold my breath and dive through the waves like our mother had taught us. But what about Wayne? Did he remember to dive, to hold his breath? There was no breath in me to ask or remind him.
The wind whipped. I clutched his knuckles like a junk of bones in one hand, pushed the water away with the other. We rocked, his knees bumping the back of me, his head knocking my shoulder in that unreasonable way. It made no sound, but they found bruises later. I felt him soften and something inside him came into me then—ssth, ssth, ssth—came into me in little waves. More and more ripples until it was done and my insides felt full up—his body swept clean of him, mine filled to bursting. I swam like this, doubled, an emptied sack on my back, my fingers raw with clutching.
I woke up on the beach alone, on my back, sputtering, my throat raw. I turned my head and puked, mostly lacy water. Puking didn’t hurt; it was a comfort. Water sucked at my feet, intermittent, insistent. I was confused about exactly how naked I was; my swimsuit was tangled in the crevices of my body. There was seaweed stringing my arms, and the grit of sand and salt disturbed my sense of my skin, its limits, where it began and ended. Exhaustion crowded me, from the top of my head all the way down my back. Pain, the throbbing in my head and my shoulder, made me rise onto my elbows and look around. Everything was blurry until I cleared the coves of my eyes.
I couldn’t figure out where I was. There were black stones studding the shore, a trail of them leading to a bristling cluster of grass. Just past that, maybe twenty yards away, I caught a glimpse of a dark form flung on the sand. It was bent, obscenely bent. The sea tugged at it. I stared at it. Was it my brother? His arm? His leg? All of him? It could’ve been a tree limb. Panic beat inside, for me, for him, for me, for how far apart we were. I watched the bent thing being dragged into the water. I watched it disappear into the sea’s frothing mouths; I saw it bobble up once and then go. I didn’t move, or couldn’t.
I woke up on the beach alone and figured out that I had blacked out again. I was shaking fiercely. I turned to look out at where I had seen my brother but there was nothing but smooth sand now, and those stones dot-dot-dotting over it. I tried to get up but I couldn’t. I curled slowly onto my side, grit grinding grit all over me. Rain came and went, waves came and went, shouting hoarsely at one another.
I don’t know how much time passed but when I opened my eyes, there was a head blocking the gray sky above me: a bizarre alien head, too big. I recognized the shape of our straw hat. Was this man wearing it? For some reason, I thought that if he had found our hat, then my brother, whose body I’d seen rolling in the surf, must truly be dead.
“Where’s Wayne?” I asked the man.
The man turned and pointed to where I’d seen that bent form. Then he shook his alien head and yelled into the wind, which ate the words right out of his mouth. He leaned closer. He was white, in his forties or fifties, wearing a skyblue canvas windbreaker. I remember seeing his lips form the word “home” and how he mimed gestures of politeness—“Can I touch you?” expressed with a pat, a questioning look—before he lifted me up. I remember the steady leverage under my shoulders and knees, then a heavy tottering momentum over the sand, the rain pattering my face, the wind galling my ears.
Copyright © 2022 by Namwali Serpell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.