The Preservation of Objects Lost at Sea ||| The Emerson Review

It has been nearly thirty years since Greta visited Scarborough Harbor, and it’s completely changed. Until her little brother’s death, she vacationed every childhood summer in this once-quaint coastal Maine town. Now, shops line sidewalks like shark’s teeth while tanned teenagers rollerblade by in neon bikinis, and arcades flash like ambulance lights down the length of the boardwalk, dappling plastic palm trees that decorate pebbled lawns of cheap motels. But Greta is relieved by this new ugliness. It means she can pretend it’s a different town altogether, one that holds no memories, good or bad.

When they pull up to the cottage, wind-washed stone and purple shutters, Ray squeezes her hand before getting out of the car, his way of apologizing to her for suggesting they come here. Months ago, they talked casually about a summer vacation, and he suggested this town of her childhood, this town that holds her brother’s ghost. He’d said: It’s time, Gret. You need to make peace. And she’d agreed, though she had no idea until they pulled into town how hard it would be. Ray reaches over, rubs her back. This, too, she knows is his way of telling her to relax, to have a simple, fun week with their son, Will, who might never come on vacation with them again, who is going to college in the fall, though Greta doesn’t want him to, though Greta will do anything to keep him from going away.


Kaimu still wakes up gasping sometimes, afraid he’s drowning in dreams, always the same one. In the beginning of the dream, he’s ecstatic as he winds the winch to pull up the heavy net, thinking of everything he might do for his family once he sells whatever it is he’s caught, a prize-winning cod, a school of striped bass, a shark, a bed of pearl-filled oysters. He winds and winds for what seems like an eternity, forearms tired. The sky darkens as if it is going to storm, and he knows he has to get the net back on the boat before the storm hits or else he’s going to have to head for the dock and he’ll lose whatever he’s caught. But he keeps winding and, finally, the net tumbles over the side of the boat and flops aboard.

When he peers inside, he sees it’s not oysters or shark or bass or cod: it’s the body of a boy, the bloated blue body of a boy, pale veiny fish with bulging eyes and frozen-open mouth. In the distance a tsunami-sized wave forms. Kaimu knows in a moment it will wash over them, and he will be tangled with the boy in the net, he will be dead with the boy in the net.

All of that happened, except for the tsunami, nearly thirty years ago, when Kaimu had just inherited his father’s fishing boat along with the burden of taking care of his mother. The boy was Joshua Hale, a name Kaimu has never forgotten, even after raising three boys of his own with his wife, Mai.

There, there, Mai says now, wiping away the sweat on his forehead with her cool, smooth palm, her sea-stone palm. There, there. It was only a dream.


Greta is fine for days, sits on the beach watching Will jump waves, watching the back of Will’s neck redden when a couple girls approach him, watching Will through cheap sunglasses she bought at the general store, watching Will through binoculars Ray used years ago when he went hunting until Greta told him it bothered her too much to imagine him gutting deer and moose, bringing home bloody slabs of meat, how much room they take up in the freezer.

Greta is fine, even sometimes takes her eyes off Will to do a crossword puzzle or walk down the shoreline with Ray, never too far. Greta is fine, until she hears the bells of the ice-cream man.

She forgot how those bells make her shiver. Worse than the slow winding of muted music as the truck creeps down the street, the bells are a cold noise, and the last noise, possibly, that her brother heard. Joshua was only eight years old, and she was twelve, when it happened. Their parents had left them alone on the beach for an hour with the instruction that Greta was to watch after him, and she did, for awhile. But when the ice-cream man rang his bells, Greta was talking to a group of teenagers around the life guard station and sent her brother off alone with a dollar bill and a pat on the head. She never saw him again. That is, until his body was found by a local fisherman and readied for the funeral, fat with seawater and made up so that he looked like a caricature of himself, a dark-double-brother Greta never knew and would never know. In her mind, her real brother still floated somewhere out in the sea, among seaweed and coral, or maybe he still walked the streets in search of the elusive ice-cream man. Or he might not be doing any of those things, but the boy in the casket certainly wasn’t him, Greta was sure of it. She still sometimes entertains that idea.

She calls Will back to the beach blanket, and he runs up, sand sprayed on his shins, broad chest heaving, but still so pale and soft, her boy. She tells him they need to go back to the house. The tinkle of the bells tingles anxiety down her sides, up the backs of her legs. The expanse of sea and sky dizzy her, and she knows only that she needs the enclosed architecture of the house, a safe space. Will asks why they have to leave, says it’s only noon, says can’t he just hang out on the beach alone? He looks at her with searching eyes, eyes that reflect the whole landscape, too too much of the landscape. Ray looks at her also, and for a moment she thinks she’ll calm down, she’ll let her boy run back down to the waves.

But then the bells ring again. She tells Will no, he can’t stay here alone, tells her husband and son they need to leave. She folds the blanket messily, and Will sighs, jams his big feet into flip-flops, the ones Greta loves because they hold the shadow of his toes even when he’s not there.


After years of fishing, casting and hauling nets and winding winches, Kaimu is cursed with a bit of arthritis and has retired his business to his second-oldest son, his eldest having flown south one winter to never return except for occasional holidays. Kaimu still sometimes goes out on the boat, alone, just to enjoy the way the waves rock his body. It feels natural, the rhythm, more natural than land with its static quality, its hard flat lines. Sometimes he’ll drop a net just to see what he’ll bring up, and more often than not it’s a plastic bucket, or a tampon, or pop bottles, or a clump of mussels twisted with fishing line. But once in a while he’ll bring up treasures. For instance, small stones that glow like honey and resemble amber. And sea glass, a huge collection of which he’s amassed over the years. It comes in all colors: blue, green, brown, red, orange, white, translucent, sometimes all of those swirled together. It can be thick or thin, smooth or sharp. Sometimes Kaimu reads faint inscriptions in the glass that has more recently been shaped by the waves: Seagrams, Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam. Always whiskey, Kaimu imagines, because this must be the kind of place that calls for whiskey-drinking.

He did his share of drinking those years ago, after finding the boy’s body, and not just to block out the image of the boy, so small but so heavy with water, mouth open in perpetual plea. The other reason to drink was because they thought he did it, at first—he was taken in for questioning a total of three times, even held in a cell overnight. Down the hall he could hear the wails of a woman, and he wondered if it was the boy’s mother. He remembers, at the time, feeling stunned how the wailing woman down the hall sounded exactly like his own mother, how she wailed when her husband died, and he wondered at the time if all women throughout history sound exactly alike when they cry, no matter their age or where they are from or the reason they are crying.

Eventually they let Kaimu go when they found a better lead, and he never did find out who the crying woman was.


Will begs Greta to go out even though she keeps telling him it’s going to storm. It’s one of their last nights of vacation, and a strong storm is supposed to rip down the coast. Greta watches the Weather Channel a lot back home but does so obsessively when she’s at the beach. She knows how quickly these things can approach, how the rarest disasters can happen, how even Maine can get hurricanes. She lived through one, when she was a kid and her brother was just a baby. They all cuddled on the couch, so cozy, and told scary stories when the power went out. Amazing, how even in the midst of the worst storm she felt safe, then.

The Weather Channel says gale-force winds, says the possibility of rogue waves, says heavy rain and golf-ball sized hail. Will argues that it probably won’t be that bad, and besides, it might not hit until morning. Greta knows he’s right, but there’s just no telling with these things. She says that if he just wants to get out of the house, she’ll take him out for pizza. He responds: Don’t you think that maybe I just want to get away from you for one night? And slams his door. She hates when he does that, and he’s been doing it a lot lately, when she chastises him for coming home after ten, for not calling her, for smelling faintly like smoke or beer, for not letting him go out to parties, dances, camping with friends. The door slam is a slap in the face, effectively puts him farther away from her than ever, in another world altogether.

He met some girls he likes, Ray tells her, quiet-voiced Ray. You gotta let him go.

Greta grabs a blanket from the couch, lays it over her sunburned knees, puts her head in her hands. Ray shuts off the Weather Channel and opens the curtains so Greta can feel the tepid breeze, tells her to look at the sky: it’s a beautiful dusk, not threatening. But there is one cloud on the horizon, Greta points out—and it’s a big one.

Just one cloud, he says, and you’re going to let it ruin your boy’s vacation? Just let him go for a few hours. He needs this, Gret. He only gets to be eighteen once.

This is the most vocal Ray has been about Will in years. Greta always decided the rules, and Ray went along because he knew about her past, about her brother, about how she spent her whole thirteenth year not leaving the house, about how her parents never blamed her for her brother’s death, not really, but she always felt responsible anyway.

Greta walks over to the window, leans down on the sill, inhales. Ray is behind her, running his knuckles up and down her spine, and she imagines herself a dinosaur skeleton, something slowly becoming fossilized. She stands up straight, goes and knocks softly on Will’s door. When she tells him she’ll let him go out, but only for a few hours, he hugs her so tight she feels her ribs cave. His gratitude is overwhelming—almost enough to make her happy with her decision.


The boy Kaimu dredged from the ocean was later found to be the first victim of a serial killer—one who posed as an ice-cream man to lure children to his truck, where he then molested and killed them by strangling them with fishing line and throwing them in the sea. He wasn’t caught until nearly two years later, when his sixth victim survived and pointed him out in a line-up. Kaimu read all the articles and watched all the news casts about the case, at once relieved his name was cleared and bitter that they suspected him at all; he knew it was because he was Japanese, that even decades after the war those men were still suspicious of his kind, were taught by their fathers to be vindictive.

Kaimu rarely thinks about the ice-cream man, now, though some mornings when he strolls the beach after storms, wading through washed-up shells and stones to find something special, he hears bells in the distance and feels a chill. He read in the newspaper that the men in the line-up were all dressed in the costume of an ice-cream man so the boy would be better able to identify the killer. White pants, white button-down shirt, red-and-white striped hat, an image Kaimu still can’t dredge from his mind. He imagined they all looked so much alike he didn’t know how the boy could tell them apart to pick one out. But thinking about it now, Kaimu understands well how a person’s face, seemingly indistinct, can be burned into one’s memory through fear, as if fear is a soldering iron, a branding tool, something that preserves.


Greta doesn’t sleep, can’t sleep until she knows her son is sleeping under the same roof. She lies under sandy sheets next to Ray, whose snoring mimics the in-and-out of the tide, and she wonders what Will is doing. She remembers when he was a baby and how she would let him sleep on her chest, swaddled and compact, a warm stone. She wouldn’t allow herself to fall asleep, afraid she might roll over and crush him in the middle of the night. That was the year she began looking older than her real age, the year of crow’s feet and purple circles and her first grays, but she didn’t bother covering them, because she wasn’t ashamed. Love meant fear, fear meant growing old fast.


This is what Kaimu lives for now, after years of living for money and lovemaking and the accomplishments of his sons: big storms. Or not the storms themselves, but what they wash up on shore, what they knock loose under the sea.

He sits on the porch, listening to the wind pick up, skin tingling at flashes of lightning in the distance. Mai comes out in her nightgown, thin and pale as moonlight, and she asks him what he’s doing. There’s disapproval in her voice, as there always is when he’s up late at night watching storms approach, as there always is when he gets up before dawn to go to the beach and spends hours there, loading his bags with stones and sea glass and shells, wading into the waves with his casting net to drag out more. After, he dumps it all over the garage floor, picking out which pieces to keep for his collection, which to sell to the woman down the street who makes jewelry, which to throw back into the waves.

Kaimu tells his wife he’ll be to bed in a few minutes, and she grazes his wrist with her fingertips before going back inside, a gesture of tenderness or defeat, Kaimu doesn’t know. She’s complained to him for years that they don’t spend enough time together, says that retirement is the time when they can finally really know one another, but he can’t help but feel there’s always been something holding him back, with her, with his sons, with everyone.

The only one he has ever talked to about the dead boy was his mother, when she was in the hospice losing her memory for good. He’d visit her every day after work, carrying the smell of salt and fish in his hair, and he’d always bring her a little present, a little token of something by the sea to keep her company, to make her remember. Of course, she never did—or rather, she remembered wrong, she thought she was back in the Japan of her childhood, thought he was her father. She became obsessed with amber, or what she thought was amber but what he knew was not, since real amber has never been found off their shores. At best, he reasoned, it might be copal, young amber not yet fossilized, but he never told her this. He’d bring her small pieces of it whenever he could, putting them in a porcelain bowl on her bedside table. She was most lucid when rolling the stones in her hands, listening to him recite facts he found for her at the library, useless facts he learned by heart. For instance: amber was made of fossilized resin from an extinct conifer. And: resin oozed from trees where they’d been damaged, like blood from a wound. Resin dropped onto the forest floor and stuck to dirt, sand, clay, insects, bark, moss, feathers, hair. During storms, the sea washed up to the forest and took back with it the resin mixture which would be shaped by waves for years. Some amber is from ninety million years ago. In Japan, the legend is that amber was formed by the setting rays of sun as they touched the ocean’s horizon. Kaimu’s mother nodded knowingly at this, as if she remembered. Kaimu would go on and on until it was his mother’s bedtime and the nurse ushered him out.

Kaimu raises himself off the rocker, knees creaking, and walks into the garage, rummaging in the dark for his cast net, his backpack, his shovel, his pail. He shakes sand and shell fragments out of his backpack, secures weights to his net. He hands understand these movements in the dark better than they ever understood how to move over his wife’s body. He sits, surrounded by tools readied for his morning search. He waits until the first drops of rain cast shadows on the stones, then goes in to try for a few hours of sleep beside his wife.


Greta has fallen asleep for two hours—only two hours and already the storm is underway, and she is angry with herself for not waiting up for Will. Ray stirs, turns over, mumbles, his voice muffled by the pillow. He asks if she wants him to get up and shut the windows.

I’ll do it, she says, knowing well that he knows it’s an excuse for her to make sure Will is sleeping soundly in his bed.

She gets up and shuts their window; already the sill is full of water. She kisses Ray on the forehead before leaving the room, tells him she’ll probably stay up watching TV, and he grunts his approval, turns over again. She doesn’t know how he can sleep through the thunder, but he’s always been a heavy sleeper, so healthy and young-looking people sometimes mistake him for her younger brother, a comment that always makes breath catch in her throat, painfully, a fish stuck on a hook.

She closes the windows in the living room and kitchen, then tiptoes into Will’s room, careful not to wake him. He’s caught her a few times during his high school years standing over him as he sleeps, watching him, making sure he’s still breathing, and he always gets angry, looks at her like she’s violated him in some way.

He’s not in his bed.

She looks at the clock. It’s almost two. She peers out the curtains: no car. Lightning flashes, and Greta’s heart jolts. In all her years of careful parenting, this is the first—and the worst—time she’s lost her son. Never let go of his hand in a supermarket or a crowded amusement park where most of the rides were off-limits anyway. Her mind races through the list of possibilities: car accident; drinking, pot, coke, speed, heroin, acid, mushrooms, whippits; murdered; robbed; run away; club-hopping with a fake I.D.; unprotected sex; struck by lightning; hit by a fallen tree; electrocuted by downed power line; drowned in a rogue wave.

She won’t tell Ray, because he’ll only try to calm her, and there’s nothing more infuriating in these moments of horrible possibilities than someone saying none of them are possible. Anything’s possible—that’s the most frightening thing about life.


Lately Kaimu has been trying to control his dreams. Lucid dreaming, his wife told him, something she learned about in an adult enrichment class she took the year her youngest moved out of the house. Every night before he goes to sleep he is supposed to write down exactly what he wants to have happen in his dreams, and then when he sleeps he is supposed to become aware that he is dreaming and able to control what happens, to create anything that he wants to happen, as magical or impossible as it might seem. His wife has told him that sometimes in her dreams she flies, other times she talks to her dead parents. He hasn’t had such luck; the few times he’s become aware in his dreams that he was dreaming, he felt paralyzed, wasn’t even able to move his fingers let alone fly. But he keeps trying.

Tonight, he writes on the slip of paper the same thing that he writes almost every other night: I pull boy out of the ocean alive. I save him.


Greta leaves without telling Ray, without putting on a raincoat, with only sweatpants, sweatshirt, and sneakers, and an umbrella that remains unopened because she is afraid of lightning. The rain is hard, smacks her bare head like tiny, cold eggs, but luckily there’s no hail, not yet. Her neighbors’ houses are dark, and she imagines them inside, sleeping through the storm, oblivious to the fact that any moment their world might be destroyed, their roofs ripped off, their houses flooded. How nice it would be to be like them, to believe in the benevolence of the world.

When Greta gets to the end of their block, she’s not sure which way to go. Few cars cruise the roads at this hour, especially in a storm, but over to her left there is a light still on, a club not yet closed, so she walks in that direction. What are the chances of Will being there? Not great, but all Greta knows is that she must keep walking, keep searching or else drown in fear.

The water bubbles up at the gutters and pools around her ankles. Her sneakers are soaked, and when she lifts her feet they feel heavier than ever. She imagines this is how her brother would feel, were he to come back to life: a new heaviness brought on by seawater, his movements slow, staggered, like a creature in a movie they once watched together, Swamp Thing, the first and last scary movie Joshua ever saw. And this is how he lives with her, still, swimming through her mind even as she searches for her son, but she’s okay with it. It’s the way she preserves him.

Wind tugs at power lines and whistles past dark buildings, pushes against Greta so she has to hold herself up against the vinyl siding of an ice-cream shop to keep from falling over. When she makes it to the club, she stands outside, face pressed against the window, peering in for any sign of her son. A strong gust splays her body against the pane, and inside a man turning away from the bar squints at her, but she’s too weak to pry herself from the glass.

Before she has a chance to go inside, she hears her name somewhere beneath the sound of the wind.

She turns around, and there, at the end of the block, is Ray, barefoot, in pajama pants and a t-shirt, completely soaked, their car parked beside him in the road. He begins to trudge toward her, and she’s strangely embarrassed, wants to hide. For a moment she wonders how she must look to him, to anyone who might see her: a middle-aged woman, long gray hair dripping down a wet sweatshirt, eyes swollen and red from crying, desperately high-stepping through pools of water in the middle of a near-hurricane to look for her grown son.

Ray stops about a foot away from her, as if he knows he can’t force her to come back, as if he knows the only way for her to return home would be to ask her and for her to say yes.

He asks her to come back to the house, shouting above the sound of the wind and rain.

She doesn’t answer him right away, braces herself against another gust. Then she tells him, no, she has to find Will, that something might have happened, that she won’t come home until she’s found him.

Now Ray walks forward, grabs her shoulders firmly, seems to resist an urge to shake her.

Gret, he’s home.

She looks over at the car, still running, headlights illuminating the rain. He’s home. Her legs weaken, feel unable to hold her waterlogged body. She wants to slip out from between her husband’s hands and lay in the near-foot of water, wants to sleep there. A breath heaves out of her lungs, the last wind of a storm.

He must’ve gotten home right after you left, Ray says. He told me he stayed too long at the party and by the time he left he had to drive the long way back to avoid the flooded roads.

Ray takes her arms and leads her to the car. She nods, follows, and he drives slowly back the few blocks to their house, but when they walk up to the porch she stops at the doorway. She can’t go in; she can’t face her son. She tells Ray she wants to sit on the porch awhile to calm down, and he offers to sit with her.

I’d rather be alone, she says.

She sees the bathroom light on and knows Will must be in there, brushing his teeth before bed.

Ray pauses before going inside and says, You know, you could’ve killed yourself tonight.

I’m sorry, Greta says, and she is. She’s hot with shame at the thought that Ray and Will both caught her at her ugliest, at her most desperate and needy and fearful. She feels like animals do, when they hide in dark corners to die—no one wants to be seen that afraid. That kind of fear is private, more secret than sex.

You’ve got to learn to let go, Ray says. I really thought you were going to try this time. He shakes his head, and he walks inside before she has a chance to respond. She wants to tell him she will try harder. But she doesn’t know if trying is enough. In the distance, waves glimmer faintly in the dark and crash over the pier, black and shining like the one she stood on years ago, crying for hours, thinking of what to tell her parents after her brother still hadn’t returned to the beach blanket and she couldn’t find him anywhere.

Greta waits on the porch until the storm begins to let up. It’s nearly dawn. She takes off her shoes and walks down to the pier.


The sky is almost clear as Kaimu combs the beach, dragging his casting net behind him, carrying on one shoulder a backpack already half full with shells and stones and sea glass. His pants are rolled up and the detritus is sharp against his feet, a good kind of sharpness that lets him know he’s alive, even in a landscape as abandoned as this one, no one on the shore but him and one other person, a woman walking the pier not too far away.

He does not call out to her; anyone who comes to the beach at this hour comes for solitude. He drops his backpack on the sand and wades into the sea, up to his shins and then his knees, letting the waves suck him in, breathe him out. He casts the net and lets it unfurl out in front of him, weights sinking it so it scrapes the ocean floor, and then he walks backward, pulls it in to shore. Nothing good: broken shells, granite, a dead jellyfish. The storm wasn’t as bad as they said it would be, and Kaimu is disappointed with what it has left for him.

He wades in one more time, this time a little farther, so that he feels the water constrict his chest, cool his blood. He casts the net again, snakes it around on the sea floor, stirring sand and shells, hoping to unearth something that might be loose and ready to wash ashore.

When he goes to pull it in, the net is stuck, caught on something heavy, and no matter how hard Kaimu tugs, he only succeeds in straining his weak wrists against the resistance of the waves and dragging whatever it is a few inches closer to dry land. Out of the corner of his eye he sees again the woman still pacing the pier. She’s within shouting distance, and so he calls to her, asks her to please come help him. Unmoving, she stares at him, and Kaimu regrets having called out to her; he seems to have frightened her, probably ruined a peaceful moment.

But then she moves down the pier toward shore and trots toward him, calling, Are you okay? Are you okay? She rolls up her pants, steps into the water.

Kaimu tells her, yes, he’s okay, he just needs a hand to drag something out, the waves are strong. As the tide is sucked in, he braces himself against the pull and glimpses something glimmering in his net, a warm color under all the cool grays and greens. He glances back at the woman, and by the way she looks at him he thinks she must have seen it too, and as they watch one another during the silent intake of the tide, Kaimu wonders if he knows this woman, wonders at her secret reason for standing on the pier the morning after a storm.

The woman nods her head, says she’ll try to help, she’ll try the best she can. She wades in next to Kaimu and he hands her one side of the net, tells her to simply haul it back to shore as hard as she can. They separate, pulling the net taut, and tug it backwards with each wave, struggling against the pull of the sea.

As they get closer to dry sand, Kaimu sees what he has caught: amber—not copal, he thinks, but the ancient glow of real amber—and it’s the largest piece he has ever found, the largest piece he has ever seen, the size of a child’s over-inflated beach ball. He wonders, for a moment, if he is dreaming, if this is what happens in lucid dreams, but he knows this is the kind of thing he couldn’t make happen even if he tried.

He glances at the woman holding the other end of the net, and she’s pulling hard against the intake of the tide, her face red and serious, but when she looks at him she laughs, shouts over the waves that she can’t believe it, it’s beautiful.

In the shallow water the amber glows, a tiny sun rising from the ocean. Kaimu and the woman breathe hard as they haul the stone to shore, and when they finally make it they collapse, tired but happy, as if they’ve been waiting to do this for centuries.


Jacqueline Vogtman’s fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Connotation Press, Copper Nickel, Drunken Boat, Emerson Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Versal, and other journals both in print and online. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, and she is currently an Assistant Professor at Mercer County Community College, where she edits the Kelsey Review. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, daughter, and dog.

The Preservation of Objects Lost at Sea” originally appeared in The Emerson Review, Vol. 41, 2012