The year I turned 38, my feet didn’t touch dry land. To be specific, I spent the year adrift: my toes may have dragged the sand in shallow waters, I may have belly-rested in the slurry of the intertidal zone, but I spent those months exploring the space beneath the surface. 

There will come a place in this story where I will need you to suspend your disbelief. Perhaps more than one: In the beginning, when the current took me, you will wonder what kept me from drowning, what kept my nose above the water when the white waves beat against every other part of me, filling even the spaces between my teeth. I will need you to suspend your disbelief about the onset of winter, how the ice crystals that formed on the banks did not penetrate my blood. I will tell you, but I will start from the beginning. 


On July 14, 2013, five of us gathered on the sandstone shelf by the shore in an awkward celebration. Well wishes were exchanged for an hour until the light had fully receded, and the darkness became absolute. Only four of us went in the water: me, Regina, and the couple from Madrid, our fingers giving birth to constellations of phosphorescence as they moved. The Spaniards laughed in delight. 

“They’re so early this year!” Regina called, small stars cascading from toes. “You have to come in!"

The gentlest man remained on the shore. “I can see from here,” he said, though he could do no such thing.

“How can you stay on shore?” I teased him. “This is glorious! I’m going across the inlet.” Phosphorescent supernovas exploded in encouragement. “Don’t wait up!”

The others laughed in delight and agreement. 

“Ten Cuidado, Clara,” the Spaniard called out, “Be careful.”

But I didn’t want to be careful. My body was weighless and my arms strong enough to form galaxies in the sea. Though they were hidden in darkness, I knew that a dozen islands in this archipelago were within reach. The gentlest man and Regina would be leaving with the twins in the morning, but I could put some distance between all of us, now, before daybreak. The waters, in that moment, felt like rivers of kisses over my legs. I let myself be seduced. 

It would be a lie if I told you the rest of that first night passed prettily. My shoulders burned, and the salt water became like sandpaper in my mouth. Inevitably, the current changed, smooth obsidian surface became broken by rising swells. I obeyed their course. Water pressed into my windpipe more than once. 

The rhythm of the swim felt like survival: stroke, kick, breath. 

These islands are shelter.


Salty waters will not satisfy my thirst. 


But they are not the only option. 


By the time slow light began to break in the sky, and winds eased. Silhouettes of landmasses became visible, and I came in closer. 

Remembering a story from my childhood, I knotted myself in the kelp, like an otter, to stop myself from drifting away while I slept. Glorious rolls of fat kept me afloat: a life preserver. Like an otter, I floated on my back and ate oysters from my belly at breakfast, cracking the shells open with a rock. A seagull mistook my slick white skin for an outcropping, and made an attempt at a landing. 

Not knowing exactly where I was or what to do next, I let myself be cradled, an audience of eelgrass far below my feet, moving in unison. 


I had met the gentlest man three years earlier, when I was hired as an orchard hand in his cherry plantation. 

Later, I learned that his wife had a deathly allergy to stone fruit, that their ownership of the estate was a product of her infatuation with the blossoms, their honey scent, the way the fallen petals drifted like white sea foam amongst the bluebells in the spring. 

From February to July we would tend the trees, pruning skeletal branches mid-winter, monitoring pests and pollinators from bud break until the fruit was ready to collect on the cusp of summer. Regina would work alongside us up until the fruit set, and then would disappear from the fields until the season was over. Sometimes, she would disappear from the island altogether. 

At harvest time, the overflowing crates were hauled to the stand at the roadside throughout the day, and to markets on weekends. As temperatures climbed, jam kettles were ignited to process the unsold fruit that began to soften in the heat. Sweat illustrated our labours across our clothing, and by late June the beach became a mandatory antidote to the summer kitchen. 

Diving from the sandstone shelf, the gentlest man and I would race to the buoy and back, before returning to work. He never let me win. 


Eventually, the estuary became obvious, marked by the calligraphy of herons standing in silt at the mouth of the river. I climbed against the current following the same pattern that brought me this far: stroke, kick, breath. The waters would clear, further up. There would be rocky outcroppings and shady pools, lazy eddies where currents were simpler. 

There is a reason baptisms take place in rivers: where the ocean tells stories of cyclical change, rivers are a masterclass in cleansing.

Saltwater tells stories of transformation: entire ecosystems are hidden and revealed with the tides, innumerable creatures adapt to live in both worlds, both above and below the surface. They are granted a new world daily.

Rivers take everything downstream that is not anchored. They return nothing on the tide: they erode with brutal and necessary efficiency what is not valued enough to cling to with our entire lives, leaving monstrous vacancies. 


“This jelly just won’t set today.” It was my second attempt, and dozens of jars remained syrup. “What do you want me to do with them?”

Fruitflies clouded around the mountains of fruit waiting to be processed, and there was more to be brought in from the orchard.

He came over to look. 

“We’ll change the label, call it Sundae Sauce.” He tilted a jar, watched it run down the sides. “But let’s do a quality control check before we put it on the stand. I’ll be right back.”

He returned, carrying a full pint of ice cream. We ate outside in the shade, finishing both the ice cream and the so-named Sundae Sauce. A few wasps fed on the remains. 

“It sort of suits you,” he said, pointing to the red spatters on my skin and clothes. “Like a cross between a painting and a crime scene.”

I found a handful of cherries to fling at him. “You’re not much better.”

A sticky hailstorm ensued, staining walls and pavement and everything between.  

“Stop!’ My squeal startled the wasps at their dinner. “I know I started it. But we have to stop.” 

“So you concede?” Triumph was etched in each of his laugh lines. 

“I concede. I just want to get this cleaned up before Regina gets back. She will not be happy.”

He looked past me, over my shoulder to the doorway. “She’s not home until Monday.” He met my eyes for a second. “Come on, it’s getting late. Let’s see if you can beat me to the buoy this time. We can clean up in the morning when it’s cooler.”


On the 18th day, I was stung by a jellyfish, it’s wedding-dress layers whipping me with venom and then retreating when the pain shot up my arm. I watched it go. 


“We’re putting the orchard up for sale.”

My fingers paused with the pruners, but I didn’t turn to look at him. 

“It’s not going to happen quickly, probably not before the end of the season, but I wanted you to know.”

I ran some calculations, counted expiring possibilities in the leaves that still carpeted the ground. I composed a dozen responses, and swallowed all of them while he told me about their plans for the move. A smaller acreage, with horses, a smaller house, a little closer to the city. No stone fruit, he said. 

“I’m sorry you’re leaving,” I said, turning to face him. “This has been so much fun. But I’m excited for you, for your next adventure.”

I went home and threw up the colour of macerated cherries.


The next months were spent following fallen leaves downstream where buffets of oysters and sea lettuce grew, and returning upstream with the salmon in search of freshwater. Moving in and out of the estuary, I grew round, seal-like. The underwater weightlessness and insulation became a comfort. The texture of the water changed as winter set in, became sharper, more abrasive. Less like a friend and more like a challenge. 

It would be easier to explain those winter months, my reluctance to return to land if I had found the hotsprings that were rumoured to be along this coast, but they were elusive. Instead I eased into sleep, passing those long dark stretches in a hibernative state. 

I tried to imagine myself growing roots, wondered if the earth grew lonely for my presence. I thought about the ways in which blooming can only occur and fruit can only be borne when there is an anchor. 


A few months later, Regina’s unspoken pregnancy began to show. The twins were born in April, named Stella and Anne after the fruit in the orchard under which they were conceived. 

Months later, the man from Madrid who had come to buy the orchard was still learning the business when Regina went into hospital; it was left to me to train him. 

He smelled of salt and laughed roundly. He was unimpressed with my coarse Spanish skills, but was still willing to sleep with me in the carpet of fallen blossoms while he waited for his wife’s delayed flight to arrive. 

Headlights crossed our skin as a car came up the driveway, home from the hospital. The transgression was never mentioned.


I had become so accustomed to the white noise of the river that I barely noticed when the frogs started singing again in the spring. Bullrushes and maple blossoms offered themselves up as gifts, and within a month, the river began to recede from its winter levels. 


The new owners began to work the orchard full-time to prepare for the transition of ownership, and the need for my presence declined sharply. I swam to the buoy and back repeatedly, though there was no one to race - he was busy with the twins and the training - I became faster. When that route became too repetitive, I swam to the islet that sat some distance out. 

On the eve of their departure, Regina asked me to celebrate with a drink on the sandstone shelf. The gentlest man and the couple from Madrid would be there, and no amount of social acrobatics offered an escape from the invitation. 


Once the weather allowed, I followed kayakers southward, towards more familiar territory. There were no phosphorescence that year to celebrate my homeward journey, but the rocks were strangely welcoming beneath wrinkled feet. At the foot to the path leading up to the street were the remnants of a picnic: campfire ashes, oyster shells, and a pile of cherry pits. 


It would be a lovely conclusion if I could tell you that I emerged polished, like a piece of beach glass or a stone smoothed by the tides, but that is poetry that did not emerge

 Eight years later, I ran into the gentlest man in a Christmas parking lot, beneath the glow of crimson lights. He didn’t recognize me.