It was dead before we got there. A bottle-nosed dolphin washed up on the shore between the dunes and the black basalt reef that collars the coast. As usual, we go out of our way to examine it. My father thinks I should know what death looks like.
Dad and I are gentle when we trace our hands along the whip tracks that scar its sandpaper skin. He says it was more than likely caught in the traps the local boys set out for crabs in deeper water. The bigger fish and the dolphins tangle in the lines, they thrash and fight for breath. They break free or they drown.
My father is a salt and silver man, he swims and surfs every day. Together, we are deeper than the trench that drops away offshore, and strong as the current that grips without warning. We don’t miss a single visit, even in this low cloud, grey weather.
My father trusts me on the shore to play in the shallows where I sift sand through my fingers and hunt small crabs that skitter through the shadows. He’s always gone a long time but I don’t worry. He’s older than the ocean and as sure as the tide. I don’t wonder what would happen to me if he’s swallowed into the gloom as well.
“You and your father, you’re the same,” my mother speaks into the air over my head so she doesn’t have to look at me. She’s as thin and cool as a whisper now. For my part, I pretend not to hear her, and count the shells I collect each day. I arrange them in a quiet parade on the window ledge. It’s not my fault I’m alive and she was careless.
My brother washed up days after everyone but mum had stopped searching. I wanted to know if his eyes were milk marbled or nibbled away altogether, were his lips blue or grey as winter? They wouldn’t let me near him to see for myself. If she’d shared him with my father, he’d have known the sea as I do, he wouldn’t have lost his footing and slipped below the fetch. If she’d shared him with me, I might have watched more closely.
If she could see the way my father rides the waves, how he carves across the crest, then swoops into the air like a song. If she could watch the dolphins fly to meet him, she couldn’t help but shift, but she refuses. Even before, she had no patience for the water. You can’t turn your back on this ravaging sea.
She thinks when we lost my brother, he was trying to join our dad. He went too deep, where the surge waves knock you off your feet and drag you far from shore if you don’t know what to look out for. If you’re smaller than the peaks, your little hands can’t be seen reaching for someone who’s not paying attention. You thrash and fight for breath, you break free or you drown.
My father and I are at the beach the day mum packs the car up. She’s leaving while we’re away, so we don’t have to see her go, dad says. It’s hard on her too, he tells me. I think she can’t stomach us another second, but I don’t say so. I hold the silence. We sit near the reef for a while, staring out into black water. Dad turns his face so I can’t see. He doesn’t understand we’re better off alone.
We don’t try to bury the dolphin. The local boys will cut it up for bait and souvenirs and the tide will claim the rest. We leave it lying in the sand staring at the backwash and we walk back to our usual spot where I settle myself to watch the ghost lights on the whitecaps.
When Dad goes in, he offers himself to the first swell and lets it draw him where it will. Behind the breakers, I see flashes of grey skim across the surface, they skip through the air in high, clean curves before falling back into the waves. My breath catches in my throat but I resist the urge to follow. I don’t mind. I know how to wait.