The sunbeams softly settled on my stretched-out body. These days in Georgia were the best, and with it being the first week of vacation and all, everything was just about perfect. My life was a heaven. With a cool drink in hand, I felt like anything was possible.
I had no idea how true that was.
“Maria! Come! Uncle Jacob wants to take you for a ride on the boat!” My mother was also enjoying the vacation, as evidenced by the bounce in her voice. I rolled off the lounging chair and headed down to the strip of private beach where the water shimmered and the sand was as warm as a bed. Uncle Jacob stood there, his towering figure looming above me. “Come on, Maria!” My heart developed a dull sort of ache at that name. I missed the nickname Ria. It was my father’s nickname for me. Was. Ever since that terrible storm on these very waters, where the boat, like a bucking bronco, had thrown my father off, the word was had been my enemy. These shores should petrify me. I should be unable to wade in these waters. But, though these waves hold terrible memories, they also hold all that I have left of Dad. Pushing away the feeling that made me want to crumple and cry, I grinned. Shielding my eyes from the blinding rays of sun, I skipped down to the water, my golden hair swinging around my freckled face. The motorboat stood there, majestic and waiting. “Lady Amy.” My grandmother. Lovely woman, Gran Amy was. At least her death was natural.
The spray of the surf bounded across my face. I was a bird. I was soaring.
“Maria! You liking it?”
I nodded, showing on my face all the words that wouldn’t come out of my mouth. The sky above me was liquid sapphire. The waters were a shade of blue-green, like someone had mixed that liquid sapphire with a sparkling emerald. The houses on the shore jutted out and were the size of marbles. Dentil Island was right ahead. Plunging my head into the soothing ripples, I caught glimpses of colorful schools of fish. Suddenly, my heart gave a leap. There was that fish! My father and I always saw it. More like used to always see it. We didn’t know its name, so my father dubbed it the Ria fish. The Ria fish bounced on the water, in the way that used to make us laugh. I reached out, wanting to feel its glimmering scales. Experience had taught me that the Ria fish actually liked to be touched by humans, if you were gentle. Dad and I were. A gust of wind tugged at me. I thought that the breeze would ease me closer to the Ria fish.
But it didn’t.
“Uncle Jaco… augh!” I spluttered. The pitiless wind swooped me off the deck. The boat underneath my fumbling fingers was pulling away. Uncle Jacob had just noticed me fall, but it was too late. The waves were crashing upon me, denying me the right to speak. The surf consumed my body, shoving it down the waves. The spray darted around the boat and dove into my eyes. Salty water settled itself on my tongue, filling my mouth with the horrid taste of seawater. The ripples were now mini tsunamis. As soon as I came above the raging water, a new wave lapped over me, and I disappeared beneath the sea again. Fighting to come up, I realized it was no use. I was losing oxygen. The disoriented figure of Uncle Jacob was too far. I couldn’t reach. I gasped, water burning me down. I closed my eyes and let it overwhelm me.
When I was sure I was dead, I opened my eyes but was completely astonished. I was in an underwater grotto, and everything was now calm and still. I took a breath. Nothing. The fire wasn’t there. Seaweed hung in beautiful draperies, and I thought to myself, Well, being dead doesn’t seem to be that bad. As I glanced around, out of the sea mist came a figure. Instead of running away, I squinted. I knew this man… I leapt into his arms. Dad.
“Dad! How… what… Dad, aren’t you…” The word didn’t come. I hadn’t uttered it since the day of Dad on the boat. If someone said it in my presence, the tears would quickly emerge.
“Dad, if you… if you’re here… am I…” Dad grinned cheekily, as only he could grin.
“No, Ria. I only have a short time with you, anyway, sweetie.” I nodded, burying my face in his seaweed-smelling shirt. Hearing the name Ria lit a spark in me on a candle I thought had gone out forever.
“Dad, I saw a Ria fish!” I needed to tell him the news. It was the only way to start the conversation. Dad nodded.
“I know. I was the Ria fish.” My heart practically stopped.
Dad chuckled. “Hon, it’s magic. Just a little, though.” My face lit up.
“Can you do some now?” My dad’s face suddenly showed lines of unfamiliar weariness.
“It takes a lot out of me, Ria. But…” I held up my hand.
“Don’t hurt yourself any more than you need to.” I wasn’t about to let my already gone father hurt himself. Dad’s weary face morphed into a bright one.
“You know, you haven’t changed a bit, Ria.” I beamed. Then I remembered.
“Dad, why do you want me here anyway? I mean, besides actually seeing me.” Dad nodded, his face growing serious now. He held up a purple-and-green beaded necklace, a figurine of a Ria fish hanging from it.
“I told myself I would give this to you when you grew up. It belonged to my mother’s mother. But I added the Ria fish. Anyway, after the whole boat thing, I realized you would always be a little girl in my eyes, and I had missed my chance. So, here, little Ria.” He placed the necklace around my neck, and the sensation swept over me. Cooling and heating. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even smile. I knew my eyes showed it all.
“Oh Ria. I love you so much.” Dad gave me a gigantic hug. His arms were strong.
“But it’s time for me to go, Ria hon.” I panicked a bit there.
“No, no, Dad, stay!” My heart beat fast and furious. He couldn’t just leave me broken!
“How will I get back anyway?” Dad didn’t say anything. He just gave me a mournful yet cheerful grin.
And then he was gone.
I closed my eyes and started sobbing. Dad was gone now, gone for real. I fingered the necklace. Immediately, I felt swoopy and excited. In another second, I was right by the boat again. Paddling up to it, I swung my slight frame over it. Uncle Jacob was in the water on the other side of the boat.
“Maria… Maria… Come, Maria… Maria, please…” I was dazed, only able to conjure up a few words.
“Uncle Jacob…” Uncle Jacob flung around in the water. For a moment, he only stared, the next second he was right on top of me.
“Oh, Maria, that was great swimming, how’d you, oh, so glad, oh, Maria I’m so glad…” All I could do was smile a wan smile, then I collapsed inside the boat.
* * *
Dad’s necklace—well, I don’t think it has powers. Maybe it does, and I just haven’t discovered them yet. But the real power is that Dad is always with me. Around my neck. He will guide me in anything I attempt. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. Dad is my everything. And whenever I see a Ria fish, my necklace feels lighter. Most of the time, the Ria fish is green and purple. And my hand automatically goes to my necklace. Because Dad is always with me.
In the form of a Ria fish.