When I first saw her, she stood on a granite walk that jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean, holding onto a railing that tourists lean against in better weather. They stand, listening to the calmer waves sweep into a carved-out place in the rock called Thunder Hole. The ocean was crashing over her, obscuring her from my vision.
People had stopped their cars to watch the waves the storm made, but instead they saw a woman standing on the roped-off platform, her back to them, facing the sea as it smashed itself against her. I was one of those people, the people who watches.
She survived the wave that swept over her head and waited for another to come, to engulf her and the platform. The waves were so large, they splashed over my hiking boots and I was standing above her by fifteen feet. The echoes they made as the crashed against rocks hurt some of the children’s ears. One little boy stood near me with his hands pressed against his head, crying.
“She’s going to get swept right in,” a man next to me yelled to anyone and everyone. “She’s crazy. She’s going to get swept right in an bashed against those ledges.”
People murmured their agreement.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” he added.
This was true.
“You going to get her?” He asked me, zipping up his LL Bean anorak to his neck.
I looked around for a park ranger, a cop, someone official. There wasn’t anyone there. Just tourists in expensive cars with their kids and dogs beside them. And of course her, the woman in the waves, standing there, defying one of the strongest forces of nature.
Just then the woman buckled as another wave crashed against her. I expected when the crest dropped to see her gone, to just view the soaked granite of the platform and a vacant place where she used to be.
And then it hit me – the guilt of the bystander, the one who watches and witnesses. The guilt overwhelmed me.
She made it through. Her back was bent as if she was ancient.
“Jesus! She made it!” someone yelled. A few people cheered.
“What a freak,” some college-aged guy standing on the other side of me said. “She must be totally psycho.”
They didn’t know her. They didn’t know why she was there, what she’d done, who she was, what she’d been through, or even what emotions she was feeling right then. They just stood there watching, judging, not helping. And just like that, I knew… I didn’t want to be one of them.
“Okay,” I grumbled aloud and started down the wet rock steps, trying to pump myself up for what I was about to do. “Okay.”
Lifting one leg over the rope with the “closed” sign shining on it, I slipped a bit, heading down, but somehow she knew and turned herself, facing me now, grabbing onto the railing with both hands, she pulled her way back up towards me before the next wave hit. Her eyes were brilliant. The gray Maine ocean was so dull in comparison.
I reached my hand out for her.
She took it, smile, and came up to where I was.
“Thank you,” she said, laughing, alive, still holding my hand as she hopped over the rope and glided from one granite step towards the land, towards the bystanders, judging, watching.
And that’s when I realized where she was…? Down there in the waves? It was a less dangerous place then where we were heading back to. You know the violence to expect from the sea, from nature. You brace yourself for it. You move with it. But people? We expect more from each other. We expect hands and help, guidance and love. But too often, what we get is inaction, judgement.
When we got back up, most of the people had left. She survived. They weren’t interested any longer. The moment for them had passed, a story to tell, even though they didn’t know her, her motivation, or her name.
Sometimes I think that woman is all of us. Sometimes when things go down in this country that are just ridiculously bad, I think about that woman, standing there, a force in herself, bending but not breaking, refusing to be swept away, silently taking it as everyone watches. And when I think about her, I’m amazed.
“Are you okay?” I asked her as she shook out her hair and started to actually wring out the sleeves of her shirt.
“I am,” she said. “I am now.”
She took four steps forward and disappeared.
This happened when I first came to the island and a long time before the accident that took a child’s life close to this area. I was working dispatch at the police department when they recovered that little girl and this story has absolutely nothing to do with that horrible event.
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