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Rescue Attempt Haunts Poet

"Perhaps the most terrifying fate a scuba diver can experience is being trapped underwater with a dwindling air supply. Northern California kelp proved a fatal attraction for Marie Murray (Salinas, CA). She and her brother made a shoreentry dive off Lover's Point, a popular site in Pacific Grove. When they became entangled in kelp, her brother broke free, but the 51 year-old Murray was not so fortunate. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ryan Masters, an avid diver who lives in Pacific Grove, was walking past when he heard Murray's brother frantically calling for help. Masters dove in, found Murray in the kelp and pulled her ashore. Besides wearing the typical weight belt for a dive, Murray was also wearing ankle weights, which might have contributed to her inability to free herself."

- September, 2005 issue of Undercurrent

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"Rescue Attempt Haunts Poet"

Her brother had been perched
on the breakwater fat and weeping,
a walrus in his wetsuit, waving
to me like some sad old friend
as I pushed a stroller out Lovers Point.

A cool morning in late May,
the gray sky blind as gelatin.
The surface of the cove
a gently listing sheet of glass.
The kelp forest beneath
swayed like some huge,
uncertain skeleton.

I waved back
and he yelped, this man,
an animal sound,
palpable as sonar
in the morning air.

When I reached him, he was in shock,
exhausted, struggling to free himself
from his tanks and vest. His dive mask
pushed down around his thick neck
like a garrote. “She’s down there,"
he gasped. "She’s down there."

But no bubbles broke the surface
of the cove. If she was down there,
she was not breathing.

I entrusted my baby to a strange woman
with a kind face, stripped off my clothes,
grabbed the brother’s mask
and plunged my flesh into 50-degree water.

Burning with cold, I swam across
the surface of big silence, peering down
into the hazy green shroud of kelp.

Frantic laps
across the cove,
limbs heavy as kelp fronds,
lungs tight as clam lips,
I gasped for air between strokes.

After ten desperate minutes,
I saw her tank nestled in the arms
of the kelp like a long, white pearl.

Afraid I would lose her if I took my eye away
for a breath, I dove, kicking down
through the clinging fronds and odd green
particulate which hovered like homunculi.

Eyes closed behind her mask
she hovered in the kelp uncertainly,
as if trying to remember the way out.
The air regulator floated uselessly,
inches from her pale green lips.

I gently reached for her waist, undid
the weight belt and politely
helped her up, as if from a chair,
as if to dance.

When the kelp firmly refused my advances
I had no choice but to insist.
With a rude yank, she came free
and I felt how dead she really was.

I towed her corpse by the wrist
from this murky garden,
my lungs and calf muscles
alive with cramps,
my mind blank and empty.

When we surfaced, I foundered.
The waterlogged meat
heavy and awkward in its neoprene skin.
There was screaming from shore.

But swimming with a corpse is awkward.
Halfway across the cove I dropped her
and she sank to the bottom.

I had no choice but to do it again,
bring her back up. Suddenly
wanting to cry, realizing
I was not a hero.
I was retrieving a body.

By the time the search-and-rescue team arrived
I had her to the concrete stairs of the jetty.
Paramedics took her from me,
stripped away the wetsuit with a knife,
beat her chest, the woman's
cold white breasts
jiggling lifelessly
like beached jellyfish.

∙∙∙

The next day the newspaper headline read,
“Rescue Attempt Haunts Poet”.
The short article ending, unbelievably,
with the line, “Masters has resolved
to read more about drowning.”

As if the whole tragic affair
was just a timely opportunity
to immerse myself in cold water.