Tammy Delatorre’s “Out of the Swollen Sea” was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the winner of the first annual Payton Prize, which seeks to honor one excellent nonfiction essay each year in memory of Payton James Freeman, taken by SMA. This year’s theme was “after the unhappy ending,” a theme we intended to be interpreted loosely, and it was—like many of the wonderful essays (we received almost 300 of them) that were submitted to this contest, “Out of the Swollen Sea” does not include a literal unhappily-ended-narrative after which a new narrative follows. Rather it speaks, as we hoped the winning essay might, to how the past is part of our ongoing life, how it continues into the normal and natural now. “Out of the Swollen Sea” impressed the first readers with its vivid portrayal both of the author’s father and the author’s corner of the Pacific Ocean, with its poetic turns and transitions, and with its entrancing voice. Cheryl Strayed found all the finalist essays excellent, but in her words, Delatorre’s writing “edged out the rest.” In addition to publication on The Rumpus, Tammy Delatorre is being awarded $500 and will be brought to Drake University to read and speak to the public.
We are grateful to everyone who submitted their work to this contest, to Cheryl Strayed for volunteering to judge it, and to Stephen Elliott for offering to publish the winning essay on The Rumpus. And we are overjoyed to present the first Payton Prize to “Out of the Swollen Sea.”
–Amy Letter, Chair of the Susan Glaspell Writers and Critics Reading Series at Drake University and aunt to Payton James Freeman
I grew up on the black lava coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i—rough, hostile terrain. My father took us to the beach every weekend: sometimes to camp, other times just for the day. He’d rise early on Saturday morning and pace the front yard.
I’d linger close, hoping he’d see me: already sunburnt from previous weekends. Kids at school called me Blackie because I was as dark as the rocks we fished from. I believed if he saw me, he’d let me stay home for once; enjoy a soft bed, not sand and stone. I wanted hot showers, cold drinks, and television.
But inevitably he’d holler for me to get ready, not realizing I was already at his side, and I’d help him with the fishing gear.
My father’s focus: the sea, its foaming waves and rising tides. He calculates the best way to pull fish to the shore. He has so many ways to do it: throw net, cross net, spear gun, slide bait, whipping, and straight pole to name just a few.
Before he becomes a small dancing dot down the coast he leaves the eight-year-old me with one piece of advice: Never turn your back on the sea.
Then he’s off, rod and reel over his shoulder, a single piece of limo dangling from his hook; tackle box in one hand, a bucket in the other.
In the spot where he’s left me, miles of black rock stretch in either direction. There’s not a single tree for shade, but the pounding waves have created a large tide pool carpeted with algae. I wade in. The ocean surges over the pool wall into a shallow knee-deep section. Beneath my feet, the pink, gray and green pebbles feel slippery and unstable. In the deep center is a small patch of sand. Out from that point, the coral creates shelves, and under the bottom rung is a cavernous hole, where I see the head of a moray eel.
He lays claim to the deep; I keep to the shallow. But waves continue to froth over the wall; the tide rises, and the center becomes an inviting cool aqua.
I climb the pond’s highest ledge to gauge the eel’s hideout. I see the tip of its nose and jump off. Submersion is refreshing. Under water, I see bubbles, sand, and light suspended in a haze, but no eel. When I reach the shallow end again, I’m glad to still have my toes.
My father comes back in the evening, just as the sun is setting, his bucket full of fish. He approaches the pond’s edge where I am swimming. I quickly climb out, realizing what he’s about to do. He cuts off heads and along with the innards tosses them into the pond. I help him scale and gut, but watch the hole. Eventually, the eel emerges, its head as wide as my father’s fist, its body as long as mine. It makes its way over and sinks its teeth into our bloody offering.
I live in Los Angeles now. The beaches in Southern California are different: fine, white sand, usually not far from a Starbucks.
My father came to visit once. He’s friendly, like most people from the Big Island, and said hello to everyone we passed as we walked around the Hollywood Reservoir. Many didn’t respond. I took him to the Santa Anita racetracks, where we could lose some of his hard-earned mechanic money, and to Malibu, where he complained he couldn’t see the ocean because of all the large homes, and when he finally could, I saw that from behind his sunglasses he was trying to read the water, whether there was fish or not.
He was getting a divorce from my stepmother and desperate to find a new life. I knew it wouldn’t be in Los Angeles, but for a couple weeks he sacked on my couch. During that time, I didn’t sleep well, plagued with nightmares of sea monsters. In one dream, it was a moonlit night. My father and I went fishing on the sea of old wounds. The first thing he pulled up was a large swordfish. Fighting it into the boat my father almost stabbed my heart with its sharp bill. The next thing he hooked: my self-esteem. “Throw it back,” he scolded. “Too small.”
My father is a private person. He lives in a small town on the Big Island, and like most Scorpios demands loyalty. He wouldn’t want me to write about him or give up family secrets. He doesn’t ask me what I do for a living.
When his father died, I was asked to write the eulogy. I interviewed my grandmother and all of my father’s brothers and sisters, but my father refused to be questioned.
As I delivered my grandfather’s tribute, my father listened from the back of the church. People laughed and said I should try to publish my grandfather’s story. After the funeral, my father took me aside, said he’d never heard a eulogy written in that way, taking what everyone had said and making a story of it. I had seen him wipe away tears, although he’d never admit it, and by that same token, he refuses to acknowledge I’m a writer because then he’d have to accept I have my own version of our father-daughter story.
When the tide is low, my father picks opihi. This sea snail has a circular shell and looks like a woman’s nipple. They suction to the rocks right at the level of the tide, which rises and falls. There are two types: yellow, which is sweet, and black, which we spice up with shoyu and chili pepper.
My father uses an old butter knife wrapped with cloth and black electrical tape to pry them off the rocks and places them into a bag tied around his waist. When he gets back to camp, he uses a spoon to scoop out the creature, and with the muscled foot still undulating, he throws it to the back of his mouth, doesn’t chew, just swallows. The fresher, the better.
I only eat opihi when my father cooks the big ones, as large as my palm, over the fire. The flesh contracts in the heat, separates from the shell; my father pours in beer, or shoyu and vinegar. It marinates a couple minutes longer, and with the sauce still warm, I kick back the concoction like a shot of whiskey, except with bitter, gritty guts.
No man can live up to my father, so of course every man I’ve dated is a version of him.
My father didn’t like my first boyfriend. During high school, when my father went out night fishing, I had sex with that boy on the recliner my father brought home from the dump.
I had sex with my second boyfriend on the beach one night, black lava jutting into my back, waves crashing nearby. My father read about it in my journal, so I burned every notebook, vowed never to write again, though the pledge only held until I left home.
Boyfriend number three returned with me from college. The first thing my father said to him, “You really are a white man.” We went snorkeling. My boyfriend thought he spotted a shark, swam and scurried out onto the rocks. My father was not impressed: him leaving me as sacrificial bait.
My father met number four when he came to Los Angeles. He laughed at his jokes, but after we broke up my father said the guy was a fraud and I didn’t know how to read men. My father didn’t take into account that he taught me that to love a man like himself I had to overlook the bad parts.
Like the time I was seven. At the end of a party, the rest of the revelers had gone home or found their way to cars to pass out. My father leaned against a stone wall dangerously close to falling over. My stepmother was seated on a folding chair in the corner, where she was shielded from the cold mountain wind. Deflated helium balloons and streamers lay at her feet like petals fallen from a flower. Her arms were crossed; heels still on her feet, even after the long night of dancing and frequent trips to the makeshift bar. They had served free draft beers and wine coolers in sweaty bottles, but the hard stuff poured into the base of plastic cups was two dollars. My father had been drinking from those cups all night, and when I tapped his elbow to ask if we could go home, he slapped me.
The black A’ama crabs come out at night after the moon sets. They have hair on their legs and eyes that protrude off their heads. Both help them to sense their surroundings and move on the slippery black coast. They scurry and scavenge, picking at living organisms in the rocks and sometimes feasting on the remains left by fishermen: guts from fish—if the eels haven’t gotten to them first—and shrimp shells.
They come out in the cover of darkness. Their blackness a perfect camouflage against the black rock. My father runs quickly and wears tubis on his feet for grip. When a crab comes into view, it’s blinded by his headlight and freezes in place. My father snatches it up and deposits it into his crab bag, avoiding the nasty pinchers.
When we get home, he dumps the crab into our porcelain sink. They scatter and scurry making ticking and clicking noises as the exoskeleton of their legs tap one another. They try to make a run for it, but the sides of the sink are slick. My father grabs one, cracks open its back, and generously salts the insides.
After a few days, the seasoning soaks into the crab’s soft meat. I pick a large one, pull off a thick leg, and squeeze so the black inky flesh protrudes. I suck it out. The meat, sweet and salty, dissolves against my tongue. I’m allergic to crab, but I don’t mind the fat lip.
I think of a story I might write: about a daughter who loses her father to the sea. She grows progressively more melancholy; her dreams haunted by man-o-war, stingray, and poisonous rockfish.
Her father’s body is never found. She wonders if he turned into a merman. She imagines him trapped in a sea cavern, feeding on plankton and kelp. The water washes away all memories of his terrestrial life. The cave is dark and forever cold, and his nose is running. During the night, he cries, tears and snot falling into the salty sea.
But there is a seed of hope, like a grain of sand in an oyster, collecting sea milk and mucous that slowly crystalize into a precious pearl. She rubs her brown belly, wet with waves and gleaming in the sun, and hopes for a baby born to the sea; its first breath held a moment longer as it makes the transition from amniotic to Pacific.
The fish are striking. My father is driving the small skiff, and we continue to make the same run over the same track of sea. I’m tired and want to go back.
My brother could be convinced with one tired, pleading look, but my father is oblivious to anything except the nibble at the end of his line.
He baits our poles, each with three hooks. On every run, we pull up a full strike of nine fat oweoweo or menpache. The moon, full, low and radiant, has attracted the fish, made them wild with hunger. Their red scaly bodies shine in the moonlight.
The sixth run and it is 2 a.m. I can feign interest no longer. “Isn’t it enough?”
“Got to keep going while they’re biting,” my father says.
We continue to make the run until 4:30 a.m., when the moon finally sets and the fish make the short descent to the bottom of the sea to sleep.
Finally, my father turns the skiff back toward the pier. I put my pole down, relieved of duty, and lay my head down at the bottom of the boat, which smells of fish, shrimp and blood. Just before I doze off, I see my brother, his eyes barely open, visually miserable sitting in the breeze, but he dares not fall asleep. He is a man at 13, and my father holds him to different standards.
It is a long ride back. I fall into a deep sleep and dream of spearfishing with my father. Imagine that. On a fishing trip with my father, I dream of fishing with my father, a nightmare within a nightmare.
In the dream, my father has his back toward me, a spear gun in his hand. I am tending the floater. When he spears a fish, he hands it to me. I thread the small pencil-sized spike through its wound or eye, whichever is easier. The fish, twice impaled but still alive, squirms and tries to swim away. When I look down the line, there are hundreds of speared fish, a thick trail of blood and guts, at the end of which is me. Inevitably, sharks begin to swarm, and my father continues to fish.
I lay on the clinic bed. The technician tucks a washcloth into my pants and asks me to lower my waistband. I imagine the ultrasound of my uterus and ovaries like a vast sea, except for the mass on the right like a tight white knot from which web-like veins extend.
The technician pushes the probe firmly against my belly trying to capture the image of something just beyond sight. Her brow wrinkles.
“You can wipe yourself now.” She hands me another washcloth.
I dab at the jelly. “Does everything look okay?”
She looks away. “You’ll get the results from your doctor.”
I head toward the door. Multiple cysts, I may need surgery. You’re running out of time, my unborn babies seem to say to me through the pain. Why do they think I need reminding?
I tell my father I’m worried about having children. “I never imagined you with kids,” he replies, which I take to mean, “You’d be an awful mother.”
When my father fishes, it’s like a dance, scurrying over black rock, avoiding the slippery limo. He draws his pole back and casts the line. A fish takes the bait with a sudden tug; the dance begins. My father jerks the pole, lodging the hook deep in its digestive track. Then he lets the fish lead, making a run out to sea, the sound of the line racing. My father thumbs the spool to shift gears, and slowly reels, feeling out the strength of the fish. He tows, then lets it run; give and take, until the fish is worn out. Then he brings it in, away from the reef that might cut the line; maneuvers the fish with a gently cresting wave onto the rocky shore. He jumps down and grabs it, a finger in its gills.
The fish squirms in its unnatural habitat. I watch as the air slowly suffocates it. The sun once filtered by leagues of sea now hot and bright on its eyes, the first parts to dry out. The waves, such an intrinsic part of its home, now a distant reverberating memory. One last undulation of its body, a quick seizure, then complete release. My father and the sea. The rest of the world falls away. He wipes his brow and asks me to fetch him a beer, the falling action and silent victory.
“It’s a big one,” I say. A nod, then my father returns to the rocks.
But on the days before I left home, my father didn’t fish. He sat under the thorny keawe trees drinking beer without the triumphant catch. He looked out to sea as if the big one never rose, or the method he used was never the right one.
I had come to resent the beach, its black lava hardened like tar, the blazing sun without relief. I resented the flash of my father’s tackle, the smell of fish forever on my fingers. Even the thought of the beach made me feel sunburnt and salty. It had never been my habitat, and in a few weeks, I would leave.
I walk out to the point where they say the sharks run, large dark shadows in deep blue waters. I smile at the thought of my body immersed in the swollen sea and jump. Sudden engulfment, and I think of my father fishing, hoping he might fish me out. Save me this one time.
I emerge to white foaming caps. Take a precious breath and swim for shore. The ocean surges and slams me against jagged basalt. I try to hold on, scratch my side, and worry about blood in the water.
Too late, I realize the rocks form a shelf and I’m sucked under. My body cradled in the earth, a baby in the womb, head against a stone heart. Thump thump. Below me: beautiful azure, hundreds of silver fish, and starchy coral. I try to swim toward the light, but the current holds me. My lungs go tight and hot. Now I swallow the sea; its salt burns my throat. Everything is clear and cool, but I am not ready for a watery grave. I feel a lull, kick, and make a break for it.
At the surface again, I grab black rock. Avoid the poisonous pointed sea urchins. Pull myself out; scratch my right thigh and elbow in the process. I can barely stand on shaky legs. Breath comes in gasps. Blood drips from my head, rib and shin. I glisten yellow in the sun. I laugh at the sea and its dangers; then turn to my father. He is not looking at me, but I smile and wave furiously.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.