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“How unusual.” The tremble in the doctor’s voice betrayed his calm façade. “I’ve never seen this before. ” The doctor turned over my shivering hand. Every joint had stretched, elongated. I was still too numb, too cold to feel the sharp, excruciating pain of torn tendons and ligaments. The doctor looked down at me, gazed into my eyes like a father looking down at his wounded son. “How did this happen?”
I thought back, fought through the muddled cloud of hypothermia and pain and time, and remembered.
Perfect cold. Pure, fluid, eternal sea of ice all-consuming. No warmth left, the spark frozen again, that divine spark, the last hope of warmth and solidity and light. And now it left, again, left my body to the endless pitching of the waves, just like those of my crewmates, frozen dead long ago.
I fought off the invading icy sea, rekindled my last spark of life, and floated on my island with its spark through the eternal ocean of perfect cold.
A sound broke the rhythm, the cadence of the peaceful raging waves. A gentle whisper grew into a roar that covered the sounds of rain and snow and sleet, and the silence of the dead around me. A rhythmic sound, but different from the sea, set apart, foreign, from the past where I remembered sun and light and warmth. I thought back, tried to remember, tried to place what caused that sound, but the cold sea had swallowed the memories, replaced them with endless cold and dark. So I crawled back to my spark, kept myself alive, thought only of warding off the chilling seeping deep.
Light. My eyes closed, couldn’t stand the strength of the blessed brightness. I opened them again, saw the sea receded all around, saw my spark flare up into a flame, remembered what hope was, part of my memory set free from the clutches of the sea. I pulled memory over to my fire, that blessed flame, remembered again. Remembered the Maria, remembered the captain, remembered the names of the dead men floating all around me. My flame grew brighter again, fueled by another regained emotion. Sorrow. The sea boiled and snarled because of the flame, receded again, left more of Memory dry, and again I remembered. Remembered the signal flare, clutched in my hand, remembered the heaven-sent rhythm. The sound of a helicopter. I knew that the heaven’s light must shine from it, a searchlight. I k
I knew that the Coast Guard had arrived. I knew that they thought I was dead, just like everyone around me.
Knew I had to light the signal flare.
I remembered moving, what a strange sensation, like seeing an old friend one has not seen in a long time. But I knew that that part of me that moved, that did more that think and breathe and survive, lay buried far beneath the swirling icy water. My fire blazed up hotter, remembered anger. The sea seethed as it receded, scared away by the flame’s shining heat. It retreated just enough to let me reach down through the freezing frenzied waters that longed to claim me. I fought from Ocean’s arctic grasp the part of my brain that moved my hand, touched it with the faintest breath of heat and will. Light, next to me, in the sea, clenched in a hand that I remembered feeling, distant, like an old man remembers childhood. Light in Ocean’s darkness answered the Heaven’s light.
A break in the rhythm, a jolt, a splash. More breaks in the wave’s slow pulsing roll, small and desperate. A shape blocked out the light and the stars’ weak glitter beyond. A face, my memory told me.
He grabbed his arm around me, helped me float, and stayed with me. He spoke, and my ears rejoiced at the sound of a warm, flowing, human voice, not at all like the sea’s cursed seething Sirens’ song. The diver said, “It’s gonna be all right. We’re here now, and we’re gonna bring you home.” We waited there, and he held me, kept reassuring me. That flame of life burned into its own, and cast out Ocean’s greedy sinking claws from my mind. Feeling returned to my muscles and body. I felt the icy water, the cold air, but they were shadows to the light of the diver’s warm, strong arm holding me tight. I saw the basket descend from the sky, to bring me up into the chopper, to blessed warmth and hope. To bring me, this one caught in darkness’s snare, back from death and give me back my life I thought lost.
I saw that rogue wave crash over the basket and drag the chopper towards the maw of the sea. The diver released me, lunged forward, knife flashing into his hand. He grabbed the line and slashed that wire that would bring heaven down to hell. The diver grabbed the, the rope to heaven, and tied it into his harness, motioned up to the flight mechanic. The diver swam back to me, hugged his arm around me again, and said, “All right, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.” He waved at the chopper. We rose out of the icy Bering Sea, up into thin air, up towards warmth and safety. And all the way, the diver’s sturdy, warm arms held me tight.
Even fifty feet down, we heard the winch break. The motor died with a fiendish scream, and we fell, back towards the sea, back towards that cold, eternal prison. Back towards Ocean’s numbing touch. The diver jerked back, upwards, the line tied off. I slipped out of his arms, kept plunging towards the depths. I saw Ocean laughing, knowing I would soon be his, his to hold in icy fingers far below the sea. Forever.
So I reached out my hand, searching, hoping, praying for some salvation from the final decent into Ocean’s cold, watery embrace.
Fingers, a hand, reached down and locked into my own. I turned, and saw the diver, face creased already with pain, arm locked, fingers stretched. I looked up into those eyes burning with passion. He gave a soldier’s promise to never leave a comrade behind. “I won’t let go.”
That was all the reassurance I could ever need. “I know.”
The Coast Guard diver held me up, arm extended. I heard his shoulder dislocate, felt every one of his tendons and ligaments snap, saw the agony dance across his face, cringed as he gasped for pain. The cold wind and driving rain kept my hand to cold, too numb to feel the pain I should have felt.
Two eternities passed. The clouds grew lighter as somewhere, high above, the sun rose to grace the sky. The rain and snow still drove at us, drove at the diver’s grip. But his strength never failed, my hand didn’t slip even a millimeter.
Finally, the gray rock and green grass of Kodiak Island rose out of the never-ending sea. The chopper came in at the concrete slowly, set us down as gently as possible on the tarmac. The paramedics rushed to us, tried to lift me onto a gurney. But the diver’s hand remained locked in mine. He couldn’t let go. The paramedics had to pry our hands apart. He yelped in pain as they pulled his shivering fingers off me, and only then did I see the full, horrify extent of the damage to his hand. It had stretched, every tendon and ligament snapped, took on a skeletal look. I knew the same must be true of my own hand, but I was too afraid, too tired, too numb, to look down and see. I still could not feel the inevitable pain.
Still was I stunned by his sheer force of will, of love. He risked his life for me, felt my weight rip his hand apart, all to bring me, a stranger he should not have cared about, home. He never let go.
The doctor’s kind eyes still looked down on me, patient, understanding, caring, like a historian waiting for a veteran to collect his thoughts.
“I was on a fishing boat with seven other men out in the Bering Sea. A storm blew in and whipped up 30-foot waves. Our boat couldn’t handle it, sunk very quickly. We sent out a distress call, put on our life jackets, our survival gear, swam out into the ocean. We floated there for hours, holding on to each other for dear life. The others… they froze in the icy sea. When they came, they thought I was dead too, until I lit the flare. They hovered over me, just over the crests of the waves, sent a diver for me. He swam to me, put his arm around me, said everything was going to be alright, said that they were going to bring me home.
“The crew lowered a basket to us in a trough, but as it reached us, a rouge wave hit the basket and dragged it down into the frozen depths. It would have pulled in the chopper, too, if the diver hadn’t cut the line. And then he tied the line into his harness, grabbed his arm around me, motioned for the chopper to bring us up. We rose out of the water, up towards the chopper. Their winch stopped, rolled out. I slipped out of the diver’s arms, plunged towards the icy water below.
“I reached out my hand, hoping for some forlorn salvation. I felt something brush my hand, grabbed it, felt the diver’s strong hand grab back. He shouted to me over the wind, ‘The flight mechanic tied off the line, so we won’t fall any more, but we can’t get back up into the chopper. We’re going to be all right. I won’t let go.’”
I winced, felt the feeling, pain coming back into my hand. “For four hours, he held me. The icy wind whipped at us. It rained, snowed, hailed, tried to knock me off. But the diver held tight to my hand through it all. He tore every tendon and ligament in his hand, felt every one snap. He could have ended his agony, let me fall. But he never let go.”