Countless metric tons of seawater hurtled into and over las Cortinas, or curtains—named for the cascade the Pacific makes when it thunders over them and the slab-like shape of the volcanic rock formations themselves—thrusting out of the Nicaraguan shoreline south of Casares with the weight and sound of a doomed jet. It was the hour between dog and wolf, when the light parts the veil between day and night in a part of the world comprised of attracting opposites: priceless natural beauty and heartrending poverty; profound generosity and the expedience of necessity; life, and the other.
I looked to the sun, a somniferous blob of mercurochrome, far out to sea. My sons—still my hearts outside of my body, aged six and ten—built a sandcastle in the surf a few feet from me with their friend, conscious of the place’s beauty, but still untouched by its menace. I reassured myself of their safety by observing that their mother and grandmother were close by.
A swimmer who looked to be about twenty-two, slender, swarthy, and breathtakingly reckless, thrashed in a shallow, rocky posita at the base of the curtain of frozen lava on which hammered the deafening tide. He stroked piston-like, joylessly, against the incoming rollers, his arms pumping mindlessly in the confined space like a diaphragm providing air to a dying brain. When his head disappeared among the razor sharp outcroppings, I thought, he’s going to die, and commenced the mental calculus—distance from me to him, him to the rocks, boys to their mother, next wave to the shore, time required to cover the distance between us, distance I could go without leaving my sons fatherless. His head reappeared, and the wave flicked him backwards. He could either get out or dive into the next wave.
Out of the corner of my eye I noted in an instant both my oblivious children’s joy and the horror on the women’s faces. I halved the distance between myself and the swimmer in case I was compelled to decide whether or not to try and save him. At that moment, with difficulty, he climbed out of the surf. So he is going to live, I thought. Shaking my head, I turned to my family. My wife’s eyebrows rose; wordlessly, she indicated with her finger that I should look back.
He had scaled an immense slab of frozen lava and now stood, back to us, arms thrown wide like waxen wings, facing the ocean, haloed by the ruby sunset, dazzling in his youth, his arrogance, his foolishness, his proximity to his own destiny? He’s invited Death in, I thought. There wasn’t even time to call out to him. In one beat, his legs were swept from beneath him and he disappeared. Sucked inland, not seaward, between the Charybdis of water and Scylla of stone, his head reappeared for an instant as it hit a shelf of rock six feet under where he had just been standing. His legs followed as the waves cascaded over and around him, pushing him into the posita another six feet down, where he disappeared again. I began towards him. His head reappeared. I determined to drag him out of the water and begin CPR. Came the next wave, which pushed him under and expelled him, raking his legs against the barnacles. I thought, if he’s unconscious, then it’s going to be easier to serve as Charon, if I can reach him before he’s carried out to sea.
As I made for him a third time, he hauled himself out of the water, and strode decisively to a log on the beach, pulled a phone from a bag, and began texting. I stopped and observed him. Stabbing at the phone, he seemed unaware of the blood streaming from the deep cuts and abrasions on his legs. If he had been concussed, then he hadn’t yet gone into shock. He didn’t seem drunk, altered, or fatally injured—there seemed even to be a slight caper in his step. (Or was that my imagination?) Was he suicidal? Had he stupidly taunted Death in some sort of sideways-macho-bullshit Hemingway stunt, or was he just a fool? What was his story?
The children, concentrating on their sandcastle, seemed to have missed it all. I inhaled deeply, noting with a trace of guilt that I felt no compassion for the boy, and felt relief that I hadn’t really been called upon to decide whether or not to risk my life to save him. My youngest sang quietly as he patted the wet sand; the ladies were still processing their astonishment. My older boy looked up at me. “Did you see that?” I asked him, indicating the swimmer, his back to us, sloping up the beach in the starlight, talking animatedly on the cellphone. “Hmm?” He replied. “The boy who nearly met Death just now,” I answered. “No,” he said, sunnily. “I was watching my sandcastle get swept away.”