Twenty Seconds

What you still need to know is this: When Death comes for you, she does not steal into your home like a thief in the night bumping against the detritus of your ordinary life. The chipped white cabinet with its squeaking hinges. Your grandmother’s broken teapot. The stuffed dancing monkey from America that takes pride of place on your mantle.

No. Death comes like a lady.

She opens the door and waits, sensing into the darkness. If all is well. If your life is full of joy and triumph. If your lover is attentive. If dark clouds part like shimmering dew in your presence, she will turn back the way she has come. She will close the door with a click so soft, you will wonder if you heard anything at all.

But if you are trapped in the inky darkness. If the scent of your imminent demise wafts in your nostrils. Well then, she might just make her appearance . . . and you would be grateful.

Do you know what it feels like to die? To feel that last gurgling breath wriggle its way through your windpipe?

I do.

When Death came for me, I was only five years old. A tiny girl-child, I stood on the edge of a cliff high above the Caribbean Sea while the boys of St. Marc perched below, shouting and taunting.

Plonje! Plonje!” they cried. Dive.

Easy for them to say, they knew how to swim. In the bustling Haitian port town where we lived, young boys spent the early hours of the morning diving into the bottomless ocean. A moment later, they popped back up with nets full of docile carp and grouper, rock lobster, sardines and even conch. They brought their bounty home for the women to cook with some fresh plantains and a spicy pikliz sauce.

“Rose is such a bébé-la-la. What a big baby!” someone shouted loud enough for me to hear.

The laughter intensified until I felt its vibration in my clenched teeth and in the tears that sprang to my eyes. I’m no baby. I squared my shoulders and puffed out my chest. In an instant, my feet were racing across the jagged rocks and into the deep, blue sea.

I’m flying!

I hung in the air like a laughing gull with great big flapping wings. It felt so good that I allowed myself to think, if only for a moment, that it would be okay.

Then the water rushed up to meet me.

You imagine my drowning as some long, drawn out affair with much screaming and crying and floundering about? No. There is only stillness. Wrapped in a paralysis of fear, the body cannot move.

For a child, the process is mercifully quick. It takes just twenty seconds to swallow a mouthful of water. Twenty seconds for the lungs to claw frantically at a tiny bubble of air. Twenty seconds to gasp and choke and vomit it all up only to take it back in with the next desperate inhalation.

Twenty seconds

The next time Death came for me, I was a woman ancient in my bones. We were crossing the Caribbean Sea in a boat some half-hearted carpenter put together over a long weekend. Only the tiniest sliver of moon peeked out from beneath the darkened sky. I stayed alert. When the jolt came, I was ready.

The boat collapsed into a pile of wood and metal, splinters and shards. We plunged into the sea. By now, I knew enough not to resist. Why should I? This salt-seasoned world is as instinctively familiar as my mother’s womb.

Not so for the others. They struggled fiercely, churning the water with their arms and renting the air with their screams.

Ede mwen. Help me.

The process of drowning is not nearly as merciful for adults. We struggle against the inevitable. It is our way.

It takes three minutes for an adult to stop fighting. Three minutes to become so exhausted you can’t even raise your nose and mouth out of the water. Three minutes for the body to pulse and throb to a rhythm so erratic it does not register as a heartbeat.

Three long, endless minutes.

I went to work, swimming past scraps of lumber and old memories. I dove deep into the churning water, then popped back up with a lifeless shell curled in my arms. We enter the world in a tight little ball and leave in the exact same way.

I counted off as I worked: Three. Six. Nine. Twelve. Fifteen. Seventeen.

Where is she?

I counted again: Three. Six. Nine. Twelve. Fifteen. Seventeen.

Still, she is not here.

Where is the baby girl who had wrapped her tiny arms around me moments before our boat melted into the sea? Even in the darkness, I had felt the weight of her stare. It was as if she knew that I—

Ede mwen. Help me.

I heard the words reverberate in my soul. I couldn’t stop myself from plunging deep into the water once more.

It is all blues and dark, dark grays down at the bottom of the ocean. I made my way by touch, my hands groping through the debris of a thousand sunken ships. My lungs begged for much-needed oxygen. I swallowed hard—not the air that I craved, but the brine-soaked water that craved me. My lungs were now razor blades scraping against tender flesh.

I dove lower, feeling the seawater rush through my veins, curdling my blood. I need to breathe. The thought screamed through my mind, but I knew it was meaningless. I could not have what I wanted. This is the price of my salvation.

I dove even lower.

My hands collided with a sharp, bony elbow. Meci, Papa Bondye. Meci. I praised Father God as I grabbed hold of my burden and pushed up against the weight of the ocean.

But I had stayed too long.

I could feel the spasms in my throat threatening to close off my windpipe. I could neither inhale nor exhale. I kept moving only because the human body is a series of reflexes and electrical impulses that don’t always know when they’ve been shut off.

I pushed up even as the darkness descended all around me. Then, just as the final twinkle of light started to fade, I broke free.

I swallowed huge, greedy gulps of air, choking and spluttering. A sharp, wheezing cough wracked my body. For a long time, there was only this—the sounds of life.

When the violence subsided, I looked down at the young girl still wrapped in my arms. She did not stir. The soft pebbles of her eyes looked up at me without recrimination, but also without hope.

No! Not this time. Not this little girl. 

I pushed the breath of life into her with a small prayer. How long had it been? Twenty seconds? Three minutes? Three hours? I don’t know. I pushed more air into her, but it eased through her body without resistance. I pounded her chest, then breathed again. Still nothing. She will not see her sixth birthday.

I allowed her body to join the others.

The air crackled with a sudden energy only I could feel. “Take me,” I begged, my strangled cry piercing the darkness. “I want to go home.”

You still have work to do, a stern male voice replied.

I trembled at the words, but of course I must obey. How could it be otherwise?

In the distance, I heard the roar of engines as the ocean shifted from the command of nature to that of man.

The Americans were coming.

When Death Comes For You by Marjorie Florestal
Available on Amazon

Click here for a free longer excerpt

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