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For the first time, the water was in motion.
Small, almost unnoticeable ripples grazed the rock upon which I was perched. My toes curled around the edge of the rock that was half submerged in the water and half exposed to the brisk breeze sailing by. I tried to remember what it felt like when a faint gust of wind would scatter my hair—when rogue strands would gently tickle my cheek and dabble around my eyes. I raised my hand to my face, as if by instinct, to remove the strands, but I was reminded that my hair was gone.
I did not shift my gaze away from the water pushing against the rock. I rested my chin on my knees, finding it hard to breathe. I took in short breaths through my nostrils as I imagined the cool breeze swiftly accelerating up into my mind and drying out the cancer that had invaded just a few months ago.
My eyes were drying out from the air. I wanted to blink, but I feared the sharp sting of a severed vision. I enjoyed the moving water; I figured it was a vision that would easily dissipate into millions of little particles after a second of darkness. I fought the urge to blink, and I kept myself entranced by the water. For once, I could not use the absolute stillness as a mirror; the gentle ripples and waves distorted my image. I figured my image had been altered many times throughout my life, but never by nature itself. Medications, doctors, surgeries, accidents—they reshaped me like I was some feeble, amendable piece of clay. Nature had never attempted to change me. But, on that day, the water did not show me who I was. Staring into the fluidity, I was just an ovular blur being constantly shifted and nudged, disfigured and abused. A single tear pulled away from my eye and struck the water, creating its own rings of ripples which quickly failed to sustain against the larger waves of the water.
“It’s okay,” I thought to myself, “not everyone can endure the storm.”
I took in a few more shallow breaths, my heartbeat pounding through my knees and into my chin. The breeze against the tear streaks on my face gripped me in a frozen bitterness. I tightened my toes against the rock; I would not abandon it.
The water gained momentum, and I knew it was not a vision. I tightened my muscles and dug my fingernails into my arms as I took the deepest breath I could muster. The excruciating burning in my lungs scorched the purity of the air and bloomed all through my abdomen. I kept my body curled and I wrapped my arms around my legs in a rigid embrace as my body was brutally assaulted.
I stared straight ahead to disassociate my mind from the ruins of my body. The water continued to push up against the rock; droplets began to fasten onto my toes. In the distance, I saw what appeared to be an island. It was too far away to clearly make out anything concrete, but I could see its trees slowly swaying from the gusts of wind. The breeze carried faint sounds of the leaves smacking against each other. As I continued to stare at the faint motions of the trees, I realized that they were approaching. Hints of fear plagued me, and as I took in another breath, I could feel every single muscle fiber across my body constricting until my motion was completely impeded. My lips quivered as my breaths became increasingly shallow, and I could taste the salt of my tears as they were torn from my lips into the darkness of my mouth.
The swaying trees continued to draw nearer, while the ripples of the water turned violent, as they began to voraciously gnaw away at the rock. I could feel my body being devoured by terror and panic, but my mind remained at ease.
As the trees were almost completely visible, I was flooded with the realization that the figures were not trees. They were people.
Thousands of people trudging through the waters, sloshing and agitating the stillness that used to prevail. The wind carried their sounds to me, and the sounds I judged to be rustling leaves turned out to be horrible moans. The closer they came, the more I could understand. Some called out names, others proclaimed apologies. Love. I wasn’t sure if any of the people were even speaking to each other. Courage! Some had their arms outstretched as if they were reaching for something or begging for help. I am sorry! I am. Fingertips scraped along the surface of the water and tainted the immaculate blue with blood from wounds and sores. Elizabeth. Isaac. Their words became louder—more profound.
I repent for my sins.
The people used the water as their road for a pilgrimage. Where they were going, I was not sure.
What is my penance?
The savage waters were a warped mirror for these people, only reflecting shattered segments of sobbing faces, bleeding hands, and broken souls. Claim my soul. Claim my soul. They became louder and louder, and their moans turned to miserable shrieks and declarations of suffering. Please! I will not run! I deserve to be punished!
The people ceased to walk. Their screams continued, but they came no closer. My body was trembling, or so I thought. Somehow, after so much anticipation and uncertainty, I was still right where I began. I scraped my gaze off of the people and stared down at the water that was beginning to tranquilize itself. But still, I was damaged. I could not see my face, nor could I see compassion, hope, or vitality in myself. The screams skewed my reflection.
I witnessed their struggle to move, but the subduing serenity of the water held them rigidly in place. This is our day of reckoning. Their legs began to exhibit a brown hue, and their scarred skin tore off their legs to reveal what looked like bark. The dead and wasted skin sunk below the surface of the motionless water. Faces revealed anguish and willingness. I knew they were ready.
Their skin continued to peel off, layer by layer, revealing branches and crisp, green leaves. It was like watching mortality give birth to life.
The people embraced their transformations and accepted their fate, their judgment, their penance.
“Is this what becomes of sin?” I asked. I did not receive an answer, and I knew I never would. Through the screaming and absolution, the people began to resemble fresh, profound vegetation. Some had already completed the process, while others were close to crossing over. Sounds dwindled, and I relaxed. I took in fewer breaths, feeling like I too had undergone their transformation. But, I knew that I had not yet reached my day of reckoning.
The people had undergone a physical and spiritual metamorphosis, for they existed before me as an endless breadth of groves. Frozen in time and organically invented, the people had faced the retribution they were either running from or venturing toward. That I will never know.
The groves were just a few feet away from me, but I knew to keep my distance. I admired the view, I really did.
Another gentle breeze passed by and rustled the groves. I raised my hand to my face to brush away the strands of hair that were not tickling my skin. I thought about my day of judgment.
Could my rebirth be my penance?
I shifted my focus back down to the water, my eyes dried and burning from the chilled air gliding back and forth over the water. I could not see my reflection, not even in fragments. I was not there—not on the rock, not in the water, not in nature.
With all of the strength left in me to muster, I blinked. I kept my eyelids fused shut for a few seconds, squeezing them together as I could feel them swelling with moisture and renewal. My toes uncurled from the edge of the rock and I dropped my shoulders in an effort to be released. I lost control, and my body toppled over and fell into the shallow waters. My eyes were still closed.
Being underwater, and with my vision wholly impaired, I imagined the groves walking toward me. As close as they came, they would never touch me. They knew that I would always be watching them, remembering their suffering and their nightmares.
But, when I opened my eyes, I saw absolutely nothing.