“Look, Jim! It’s more cool bovine scenery,” Annie, who had just taken over driving, said cheerfully. I glanced up from the map I was studying (being in the navigator’s seat) and Zoe popped up in the back where she had been curled up on sleeping bags and pillows.
“Moo, moo, little cows,” Annie said, “Moo, moo.”
“Since when are there cows in South Carolina?” Zoe said, pulling her black stocking cap up over her eyes. She was dying of cancer, and her hair hadn’t grown back since she stopped chemotherapy. Back in Minnesota it was the middle of a winter so cold it would make the snot in your nose freeze solid, so she wore lots of hats. “I thought South Carolina was known for peaches,” she said.
“No, that’s Georgia,” I said, “Haven’t you ever heard that song, ‘My Georgia Peach’?”
“Is that by the Smashing Pumpkins?” Zoe asked, to be silly — she knew better. Zoe knew all kinds of music. She could even sing operas by heart. She had sung La Traviata all the way through the deep blue shades of Missouri landscapes the night before, to keep awake at the wheel.
“Pumpkins are the official fruit of Indiana,” Annie said.
“This car smells like pumpkins,” I said, because it had that funky smell that comes with long trips — Doritos, stale pop and stale breath, ripe fruit, and sweat. We’d been on the road almost twenty-four hours straight. That’s the only way to travel, though, when you’re in college and too poor for airplanes and motels, and too restless to let mere poverty stop you from getting on the road and flinging yourself as far down it as you can. Thank God for all-night restaurants like Denny’s and Happy Chef.
I was trying to figure out where we were, but I couldn’t match up the little two-lane highway we were on with the map. This was the spring of 1996; we did our own navigating with paper maps, our own reckoning, and sometimes half a prayer. That we were lost didn’t surprise me, since we were taking back roads across the Deep South. We were all born and bred Midwesterners, and the landscape had us enchanted. All the kudzu hanging from the trees like green veils. The old barns weathered down to gray wood, listing to the side like sinking ships. The round, warm vowels of the language. The ancient Coca-Cola machines at country gas stations that gave us real glass bottles. The little yellow Waffle Houses, where the waitress inevitably addressed us as “honey.”
“Life is so much more interesting when you don’t know where you’re going, right?”
I gave up on the map and folded it up. “Well, children, I think we’re lost,” I announced. “Maybe we should ask for directions.”
Annie peered at the sun from under her ever-present baseball cap. “Nah, as long as we’re headed generally in the right direction, we’ll hit the ocean eventually,” she said, “Life is so much more interesting when you don’t know where you’re going, right?”
She gave me a wicked look. She was being sarcastic. During the night we’d fallen into a long, serious conversation about what we’d do after we graduated from college in a mere three months. None of us had a clue. You don’t just go to the registration office and sign up for the rest of your life; there’s no course syllabus or class requirement. Just time and space stretching out before you like a blank canvas or an empty page. What do you do with all of that?
“It scares me witless,” Annie had said.
“Well, look at it this way,” I’d told her philosophically, “not knowing where you’re going in life makes it more interesting.”
“Ha,” she said, “I’ll remember to use that on my parents next time they ask me what my plans are. Oh, and the bank I got my student loans from, too. ‘Isn’t this interesting?’ That’s what I’ll tell them when I default on the loan. Thanks, Jim.”
It was Zoe who had suggested the trip in the first place, bringing it up late one night at the college newspaper where we had all worked for the past four years. We were a little buzzy from too much sugary soda and coffee and not enough actual food. The course of our conversation had wandered through our usual repertoire — relationships, politics, music, religion, our future plans or lack thereof — and I made some offhand comment that included the phrase “the journey of life,” and Zoe picked up on that and said we should go on a real journey, and when that got our attention, she said she wanted to see the ocean. “It’s on my list of things to do before I die, seeing the ocean, that is,” she’d said.
“You are not going to die,” I told her. Zoe had a strong streak of melodramatic romanticism that I put down to reading way too much poetry. “You are twenty-one years old.”
“You’ve never seen her driving,” Annie deadpanned without even looking up from her computer screen.
Of course, wouldn’t you know, Zoe was diagnosed with cancer later that year. Zoe never said told you so, but she didn’t need to; the bitter irony of my earlier comment wasn’t lost on me.
In the beginning, we joked about it; our strategy had been to keep her spirits up with lighthearted banter. But then her hair fell out, and she kept getting thinner and paler, until all that shaped her face was her bony skull, and we stopped talking about it altogether. But we made very sure she got to go on her trip to the sea.
Now that we were within a few minutes’ drive of the ocean, Zoe was getting all hyper about it.
“I personally don’t see what the big deal is,” I said, “It’s just a lot of water, like any of the lakes you see lying around in Minnesota, except so big you can’t see the other side.”
“Something in us longs to return to the sea.”
“No,” Zoe said, “The ocean is the birthplace of all life on Earth, including our own species. It’s the womb of the whole biosphere. Something in us longs to return to the sea.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not me. I hate swimming. I hate taking baths, even. I don’t even know when I last drank a glass of plain water.”
“Return to the sea,” Zoe continued, not listening to me (as usual). “Think of all those people who didn’t make it across. I’ll bet there’s enough of them down there to make a whole country of drowned people.”
“Eww,” Annie said.
“My great-great-grandma was only nineteen when she came over,” Zoe said, “Of course, she had to come, because otherwise she would have starved. It was the great potato famine in Ireland. Our country is populated with the descendants of all those millions of people who risked their lives coming over the ocean, to a place they’d never seen before, to make new lives.” Zoe was silent for a long moment, resting her chin on the back of the car seat. “The water giveth life, and it taketh life,” she said.
“Amen,” Annie said, nodding.
“We’ll get some salt-spray-scented air into you, Jim, and that’ll cure you,” Zoe said, clapping a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll see the poetry of the ocean.”
When we got to the parking lot near the state park beach, it was a lot cooler, especially with the strong wind. We put on our winter coats. We had the beach to ourselves — no spring break college crowds here.
Grassy sand dunes blocked our view of the water. Zoe charged ahead, slipping in the sand occasionally. When she got to the top, she let out a whoop.
“Bonzai!” she yelled, and disappeared down the other side.
“She’s not going swimming — is she?” I asked Annie, but she was already running after Zoe.
When I got to the top of the dune, I saw that Zoe wasn’t going to run into the ocean after all. She’d taken off her shoes and was cautiously walking out where waves slid across the flat sand like tongues, leaving it so glassy-wet, you could see her upside-down reflection.
I looked out over the empty water, which was a sort of steel-blue color interrupted by flecks of white all the way out to the flat horizon. There weren’t any boats or islands or anything out there. It was as forlorn as a desert, except that the upside-down part of this watery desert harbored a whole world of strange living things, and unexplored mountains and plains, and the shipwrecks of people who hadn’t made it to the other end of the ocean. Zoe and Annie looked so small as they walked along the beach, the vastness of half the world stretching out behind them.
We pulled blankets and sleeping bags and food and Zoe’s boom box out of the car and set up headquarters above the high-water mark in the sand. We were planning to spend the night there, sleeping under the stars. We roamed the beach, hunting for dry driftwood to make a fire with, and picked up some interesting seashells along the way. Zoe said she would make necklaces for her little sisters. For supper, we made baked potatoes and vegetable stew over the fire, and brought out cheese and crackers and wine and avocados. Annie put on her favorite mixtape as a stay against the expanse of the sea, and we were in fine shape.
“I am warm and happy,” Zoe said, eating a piece of avocado. She was wrapped up in a heavy wool blanket and had a scarf wrapped around her head to keep the wind out of her ears. She smiled at us; Annie and I smiled back.
If she had her way, she’d be an exploding star, a supernova. Actually, if she had her way, she’d keep on living.
“You look like a babushka,” Annie said. The sun set behind us, an orange ball in the grasses of the dunes. The sky above the water grew darker.
“Thank you for coming on this trip with me,” Zoe said, “I could never have driven the whole thing myself. Not that I would have wanted to — I mean, it wouldn’t have been as much fun by myself.”
“Of course, if you’d gone by yourself, you wouldn’t have had to put up with Jim’s annoying music selections,” Annie said.
“Or Annie’s snoring,” I said.
“Shush,” Annie said, slapping my arm with a mitten.
“No, it’s better to travel together,” Zoe said. “We need one another.”
I leaned back to look at the darkening sky; I could make out the first stars there. I thought of The Lion King — stars being the souls of dead people or something like that. It was hard to comprehend Zoe as a star, though, a sharp little quiet point of light. If she had her way, she’d be an exploding star, a supernova. Actually, if she had her way, she’d keep on living. Her pale presence, so close on that beach — the blood and the breath moving in her like the waters of the ocean, her quick eyes, her songs, all the things she could spin with her hands and her heart — all of that burned with greater brightness than any of those faraway stars. And if a star fell from the sky, who would miss it? The universe is piled deep with them, and they all look alike from this far away. But when Zoe fell from the Earth, there would be no getting her back. I was just religious enough that it all made me mad at God, the stupidity of letting her life end just as the most interesting part was coming up.
“I never did like The Lion King,” I said, breaking the long silence.
“What?” Annie said, frowning as if I’d spoken some blasphemy.
“Too bad we don’t have a boat,” I said to change the subject. “If we had a boat, we could explore down the shore.”
“If I had a boat, I would sail across the ocean,” Zoe said.
“I wouldn’t,” Annie said,. “I’d be too afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” Zoe asked sleepily. She had propped herself up against her backpack and some blankets so she could rest her head and still look out over the water.
“Getting lost,” Annie answered, “Drowning.”
“Drifting out there without any drinkable water for weeks on end is what you should be afraid of — a slow death like that,” Zoe said. She sat up briefly to pour herself more wine. “I should do it — build a boat and sail across the ocean.”
“Where would you go?” I asked.
“Anywhere the water would take me,” she said, “I don’t know. From here, probably Ireland, then London, then Paris…then around the Mediterranean. All those warm Greek islands that you hear about in the old epic poems.”
“What about the Caribbean?” I asked, “Sitting on a warm beach is a thing people do, I hear.”
“When I was twelve, I made a list of places I wanted to visit,” Zoe went on. “My parents got National Geographic magazine, and I spent weeks that summer looking through them for that list. I typed it up on my dad’s old manual typewriter. I’ve still got it somewhere.” She sipped her wine. “There are some pretty interesting places in the world. Like there’s this island called Pohnpei where the yams grow ten feet long and the grasshoppers get as big as chickens, and the schoolchildren use giant pandanus leaves for umbrellas. Which they have to do a lot, because it rains so much there.”
“Well, thanks for that, Ms. National Geographic,” Annie quipped, “I’ll never eat another chicken again without thinking of giant grasshoppers.”
“What else was on the list?” I asked.
“Let me see if I can remember…okay, Glacier Bay, up in Alaska. You can climb blue mountains of ice at midnight in July, because the sun never sets. Venice, of course. Come with me to Venice, Jim! The cats own the place because there are no cars to run them over. We could sing opera on the Bridge of Sighs. The Galapagos Islands, obviously, and the Great Barrier Reef…and oh, Ball’s Pyramid, in Australia. It’s the only part of the ancient continent of Zealandia left above water, and there’s this giant stick insect that lives there and nowhere else.”
“Now you’re just making things up,” I said, “Just how long was this list, anyway?”
“Three pages, typed single space.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of places to visit. It would take years — ” I stopped short, realizing too late my wrong turn; the awkward silence that followed may have been worse than if I’d just said it, though, because Annie cleared her throat and dipped her head. I swirled the wine in my paper cup. The mix tape had stopped a few minutes ago, leaving us to listen to the steady rhythm of the waves.
Zoe did not look away, but smiled at us. Her dark eyes were large in her thin face, its normally pale color made warm and alive by the firelight.
“The good thing about dying from cancer,” she began, but then she paused, faltering for a long moment. “Okay, there’s nothing good about it,” she continued, making me laugh a little. “But what I want to say is, thank you for this. This has been nice…and you know we would never have gone if it weren’t for…and, I am just so grateful, you know, for everything. God scatters us across the earth like so many mustard seeds, hoping we’ll live the abundant life, and so many people just sit home and watch television, and we miss all this.”
She extended an open hand toward the water and the world beyond.
“And you know what? I’m not afraid. Isn’t that amazing? I’m not afraid. At least, not now. I am only happy, and grateful for the world.”
“Just because you can’t see to the other end of the ocean doesn’t mean there isn’t another shore all ships come to, right?”
Zoe had never spoken like that before, and her earnestness embarrassed me. Most of my college friends used humor to talk about things like love and death; this kind of bald honesty made people itchy. At the time, I wondered whether she might be slightly drunk from the wine; looking back now, though, I think she was as clear-eyed as she’d ever been.
I saw tears on Annie’s face. Zoe looked over, too, and she moved to cup Annie’s cheeks with her mittened hands.
“Don’t cry,” Zoe said, “I know where I’m going. Just because you can’t see to the other end of the ocean doesn’t mean there isn’t another shore all ships come to, right? We look out across the water and we don’t see it, but only because we can’t see that far. But we don’t believe anymore that if we sail over the horizon, we’ll fall off the end of the earth. I can smell it, Annie, like sailors on a ship can smell land ahead in the dark. It’s there.”
She leaned forward a little and kissed Annie on the forehead.
“And that’s a blessing for you, my love,” she said in a slight Irish brogue, to break the tension. “Wherever you go, and I hope you travel far, may God go with you.”
Annie returned Zoe’s gaze without blinking, the slightest of smiles brightening her wet face.
“And for heaven’s sake, don’t watch too much television,” Zoe added.
“But I’ll sure miss watching old reruns of Friends,” Annie teased, smiling a little and pushing away the tears with the palms of her hands.
“Make real friends instead.”
That night, all of us huddled together in our sleeping bags, trying to stay warm under the bright, bright moon. Zoe and Annie seemed to sleep soundly, but I kept drifting in and out of dreams. The rhythm of the waves washing onto shore kept waking me; I drowsily worried that the tide would come in and drown us. Was the tide coming in or out tonight? I didn’t know.
We were on the edge of new territory, each of us ready to go our own way — Annie and I out into what people referred to as “the real world,” Zoe out into another world entirely.
Hush, hush, the waves seemed to say. Zoe turned over and kicked me.
“Move,” she mumbled. “You’re squashing me.”
I made some more room, and fell asleep under the sound of their breathing, and that of the ocean.
Read the sequel to this story: Sister Zoe, Meet the Gardener.
This story first appeared in Waking Up Bees and Other Tricks of Love: Stories of Living Life’s Questions, a book I wrote on a contract-for-hire basis for Saint Mary’s Press, which owns the copyright. The version here contains significant revisions from the original, and is presented here with the permission of the copyright holder. You can purchase Waking Up Bees and Other Tricks of Love at the Saint Mary’s Press website.