I am a little girl, and I am in Jamaica on a vacation with my family. The Caribbean is even warmer than I had imagined it to be. Accustomed to the bone-chilling Atlantic, I am suspicious of the balminess of these waters. I edge my way forward, away from the shallows. With each step I take I expect the sea to turn icy, but it doesn’t. My mother is swimming nearby. I dig my toes, which through the water’s lens appear positively spectral, into the soft white sand. The sun here is different from the sun at home. It inserts itself everywhere. I can feel my skin absorbing its rays, and I am entranced by this odd but exquisite sensation. Later, tonight, my brother will howl, both pained and outraged by the worst sunburn he’s ever had, and I will begin to understand that this sun, it is dangerous. But right now I’m a little in love with it. I am bread baking in an oven, and rising up and off me are heat and that delicious salty sea smell.
So I am not doing much of anything at all when my left leg bursts into flames. That’s the way it feels, anyway. I open my mouth to scream, but I am too shocked by pain, and nothing comes out. I try again, and now I am hollering, hollering for someone to come save me, or put me out of my misery, which at this moment seems to amount to the same thing. As if I am dreaming I see a lifeguard running towards me. As if I am dreaming I watch him scoop me into his arms and run faster, if that’s possible, back towards the beach, where he dumps me inelegantly onto the sand. Still I am hollering.
Where is my mother?
I throw up. I am embarrassed, humiliated, in front of this young man with such beautiful skin and the most musical lilt to his words. My mother arrives, finally (is she really loping towards us?), and he explains to her that I have been stung by a Portuguese man o’ war. Not stung, no, he continues, but accidentally touched. The creature has simply brushed by me. He adds that if the man o’ war had intended to sting me, I’d be a lot worse off than I am now. He shows my mother my calf, which bears the mark of one long and curved tentacle. The lifeguard is rubbing a paste of sand and salt water into my leg, and soon I feel a little better.
Until I experience labor, twenty-five years from now, I will never know a pain as intense as this.
Later, fingering my scar, which in time will fade to a silvery white, I think to ask my mother why she didn’t come for me when I started screaming. I am old enough to do the calculation: my mother, ten feet away, versus the lifeguard, eighty feet away. And yet he got there first. “Oh,” she says, “I had no idea what was going on. Sarah, you were just standing there doing nothing, and then you were screaming like I’ve never heard you scream. I thought you’d gone mad.” And here she trails off. I wait for more words, but they do not come.
If this is meant as explanation, it does not go very far. What, I wonder, if I HAD gone mad? The obvious conclusion is that she would have left me to stand and scream, stand and scream, until… When? Forever?
I can still find the scar on my leg, though enough time has passed that I have to search for it. It is visible only in certain kinds of light and from certain angles.
As for the other scar from that day, it is buried deep, and yet it continues to make itself known. It is an angry red, and welted, and now and then it throbs. Unlike the other, this scar refuses to fade. I think it may just outlast me.