Human chain in Castricum (short story)

Harald Renner

On that windy and cool day in June, I biked early in the morning to the beach of Castricum in the Netherlands, at the edge of the North Dutch Wadden Sea, surrounded by forest and dunes. I put my clothes apart from the swimsuit in the saddlebag and put my bike in the windscreen of a dune. I swiftly walked the beach, heading the sea. The cautionary shout of the few visitors, wrapped in woollen blankets, was thrown into the wind. I suspected envy behind it. As a well-trained seventeen-year-old lifeguard, I knew what I was doing. Follow me, who dares!

I didn't want to swim out, because I didn't want to die. On safe ground, near the beach, I intended to throw me towards the surge, feel the spray on my skin, enjoy life. That's all it was. What did I know about the pitfalls of the North Sea? Who warned me of the danger that the seabed would change breathtakingly quickly, that depths and sandbanks would develop or disappear? What did I suspect from the interplay of tides, wind and current, good and bad weather that constantly change the water? Who had told me about changing winds and unfavourable current, which can turn even the quietest bathing bays into a roaring sea in a few minutes?

Suddenly, but a moment too late, I understood what was happening. From then on, fear clutched my heart with an icy grip. At the boisterous game in the surf I had gone unnoticed the invisible red line, the point of no return. Why did it suddenly became hopeless to feel safe ground with my feet? The beach still seemed so close to me. But it did not approach, but retreated infinitely slowly and irreversibly in front of me, however much I swam against these forces. When I finally understood it, minutes had passed, my strength was wasted and my life was in great danger. I shouted against the roaring sea, called for help with sinking courage. I wanted to force the view of the beach goers over to me. Wildly I waved my arms, again and again. I swallowed salty seawater, more than I could bear. I was coughing up the liquid that had penetrated into my lungs. Forces and confidence left me more and more, my pulse was racing, I  pitifully froze, felt helpless, abandoned by everyone. My senses were cloudy. My consciousness resembled a tube that became inexorably narrower. Panic gripped me.

Why didn't they see me? Why didn't they hear me? Why didn't they help me? Why were they still talking, reading, still playing with their petanque balls? I had long since buried all hope when people at the beach finally seemed to be moving like on command, jumping up, running around, pointing to me. Now they stood at the edge of the water. They waved at me, scraps of words reached me that I did not understand.

Further time passed unused until the first of them finally broke into the surf, splitting the waves with great steps and shortening the distance. But then he remained agonizingly long, waiting until others were open to him. Eventually, they held each other by the hands, lined up to form a human chain, secured themselves against the deadly suction. I saw the front man approaching and coming closer, clutched at this straw of hope. Slowly he came, thirty more metres, maybe twenty metres. I saw the hand reaching out for me. I read the words from the lips of the savior. I understood that I should hold on, just not give up now. These last, these desperate, all-decisive moments were yet to come. That's all that mattered. Nothing else any more.

I fought with them for my life, with all my strength, with all the courage that was still in me. Then I lost this fight, was exhausted and depleted. Unable to move my arms, I left myself to perish. My swim kicks became shorter and faster, consumed uselessly the last reserves, lost all coordination. Now my body was hanging upright in the water. I was less and less able to stretch the limbs and arrange the swimming movements. My fingers were spreading, getting claws. Every feeling for up and down, for front and rear faded away. I was overcome with unspeakable tiredness. A good night's sleep embraced me, dragged me into the deep. I gave myself up. But there was this hand, out of the blue, and in a last desperate effort I grabbed the hand that had been held out to me. The savior pulled me out of the darkness and into the light.

The young physician in the Medisch Centrum in Alkmaar carefully closed the notebook into which he had written my history. After my transfer from the intensive care unit, he was sitting at my bed for a long time, tracing my gradually returning memory with gentle, persistent questions. He patiently helped me to dissolve the fog that surrounded my traumatized consciousness, protecting all the comatose days since my salvation. I was grateful to him for the care and closeness he gave me. Also for his calm understanding, when the memory played tricks on me, when my story sounded confused, fragmentary and full of contradictions. It was only gradually that I began to see the connections - and to understand that I was miraculously saved. I breathed, I could think and talk and get answers to it. Slowly I felt my way back into life.

The doctor rose to leave the room. He stopped at the door and hesitantly turned to me. "The human chain," he murmured,"it stays a mystery to me. You were alone on the beach. The jogger who found you had a mobile with him. There was no one on the beach but him."

I stared at him. "No human chain? All by myself out there?" He nodded silently. "And the hand?" I asked with surprise. "Who pulled me out?"

The doctor smiled, nodded at me and left me to the consolation and healing of my confused, colourful dreams. What should he have said?