NO ONE HAD warned Hilton about the undertow, and he wouldn't have understood if they had, but Nana did tell him he could only go in the water if he didn't go too far; this would have been enough if Hilton had minded like he should have. Nana, who was helping the ladies set up picnic tables, pointed to the orange buoy floating out in the water and said he could only go halfway there. And Hilton said, "Yes, Nana," and ran splashing into the water knowing that he would go exactly where he wanted because in the water he would be free.
He swam easily past the midway point to the buoy, and he could see from here that it was cracked and the glowing paint was old. He wanted to get a closer look at it, maybe grab it and tread water and gaze back at all those brown bodies on the sand. And it was here that he met up with the undertow
It was friendly at first. He felt as though the water had closed a grip around his tiny kicking legs and dunked him beneath the surface like a doughnut, then spat him back up a few feet from where he started. Hilton coughed and smiled, splashing with his arms, He didn't know the water could do that by itself. It was like taking a ride.
The buoy was now farther than it was before the ocean played with him. It was off to his left now when it had been straight ahead. As Hilton wanted to see if he could feel those swirling currents beneath him again, he heard splinters of Nana's voice in the wind calling from the beach: "Hilton, you get back here, boy! You hear me? Get back here."
So the ocean was not free after all, Hilton realized. He had better do as he was told, or he wouldn't get any coconut cake or peach cobbler, if it wasn't too late for that already. He began sure strokes back toward the shore.
The current still wanted to play, and this time it was angry Hilton was trying to leave so soon. He felt the cold grip seize his waist and hold his legs still. He was so startled he gasped a big breath of air; just in time to be plunged into the big belly of the ocean, tumbled upside down and then up again, with water pounding all around his ears in a roar...
He didn't hear Nana shout out from where she stood at the shore, but he'd hear the story told many times later. There was no lifeguard that day, but there was plenty of Kelly and James men who followed Nana, who stripped herself of her dress and ran into the water. The men followed the old woman into the sea.
Hilton felt he couldn't hold his breath anymore, and the water mocked him all around. It filled his ears, his nose, and finally his mouth, and his muscles began to fail him. It was then, just he believed his entire fifty-pound body would fill with water, that he felt an arm around his waist. He fought the arm at first, thinking it was another current, but the grip was firm and pulled him up, up, up, until he could see light and Nana's weary, determined face. That was all he saw, because he went limp then.
He would hear the rest from the others who told him in gentle ways about Chariots to the Everlasting and that sort of thing. One of the James men had been swimming closely behind Nana, and she passed Hilton to his arms. Then she simply stopped swimming, they said. Said maybe, she just gave out. Nana's head began to sink below the water, and just as one of the Kelly men reached to try to take her arm, the current she'd pulled Hilton from took her instead. The man carrying Hilton could only swim against it with all his might toward the shore. Many people almost drowned that day.
When Hilton's senses came back to him and he was lying on the beach, caked in gritty sand, all that was left of Nana was her good flowered dress, damp and crumpled at the water's edge.
So what the gifted old folks, the seers, often say is true:
Sometimes the dead go unburied.
Copyright ©1995 by Tananarive Due