Under the Surface
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Our gray cliff-top summer house huddled steep-roofed and curtain-eyed in the
crisp, sunny air. Dad pulled the minivan up to the door with a spray of gravel. We
all spilled out of the car into a day alive with the rush of waves on the beach below.
My younger sisters, Leila and Kala, ran to the silver-weathered railing beyond the
grass and looked down.
I stood with my hand on the car door, snared already by the presence of the ocean.
I didn't need to see it. It called and welcomed me, a rolling whisper in my ears, a
rise and prickle of the small hairs on my forearms, a pleasant tug inside my chest.
The ocean. I could use the ocean right now. In Guthrie I wouldn't need to think
about Gavin Reichs all summer.
"Edona." My older brother Harrison thumped my shoulder. "Quit zoning and help
us carry stuff in."
I blinked and went to grab luggage out of the car.
At first I thought the house wasn't happy to see us. I'd been counting on that rush
of house welcome when we came through the door, the sense that the house was
coming out of hibernation, stretching and scratching its back and greeting the
season with joy.
There was too much sleep in the air, and something else, something that scared me
even though I didn't know what it was.
Then Dad put down the two suitcases he had been carrying, held up his hands, and
cried, "House! Hello! Thank you for waiting for us!" He sang the old song about
coming home after a long time away, and we all put down our luggage -- Leila
even let go of Queen Rags, the doll she still hadn't grown out of at twelve -- and
joined the chorus, Mama stumbling a little over the language, though her voice was
rich and golden.
The musty air in the house lightened. The scary undertone faded. We tuned in to
the house and it tuned in to us and recognized us and suddenly there was warmth
around us, even though the air was chilly.
These were the tasks we did when we opened up the beach house in the summer
after a winter away:
Leila, who at twelve had just come into her power of air, threw open all the
windows to the cool blue sky, cleared away the musty, mildewy scents of a shut-up
winter on the coast, and invited in the salty smell of the sea.
Kala, one year older than Leila, was of Earth; she knelt in the tough sea grass near
the foundations to check the house's connections to the cliff below. Other
cliff-edge houses in Guthrie slid down to the beach and destruction, but we talked
to the house's foundations and the stones and sand below them every year, put
power into them, and communed with the local skilliau about maintaining our
relationship, and so far, the consensus was that the house would stay where it had
stood for seventy years.
I was fifteen. My power was water. I helped Mama and Dad unload the truck,
then curled up in the cupboard under the kitchen sink to talk to the plumbing, find
out if it had any problems to report. This was my little job before my bigger job,
talking to the ocean.
My older brother Harrison was a fire power, which would come in handy later
when we lit the first fire of summer in the big river-stone fireplace. Fire had
nothing to do with our arrival. Harrison went upstairs with his duffel bag and
Dad was also a fire power. He helped Mama unpack the groceries while Kala and
Leila and I did our beach-house greeting chores.
Mama came from outside the family; she had no power except to be herself, which
was plenty for us.
The plumbing told me about rust, and I did the warding that let the rust go and
strengthened the rest of the plumbing. Water liked to work its way into things.
Water liked to flow free. Sometimes I tried to talk it into wanting one thing more
than the other, and this time I got pipes and water to agree to coexist with less
mixing and more free flowing.
I crawled out from under the sink and checked the stack of bags and boxes in the
kitchen. The one I needed wasn't there, so I went to the front hall, where I found
and opened the dish box. I took out the crystal bowl, pulled off its soft gray cotton
wrapping cloth. The bowl caught blue sky light from the open front door,
fractured the light into scales and sequins scattered across the floor and walls.
Summer had decided to greet us with sunshine and clear skies this year; half the
time when we got here, it was raining.
I loved rain. I never got enough of it back home in the Klamath Basin. When it
rained, I could talk to the whole sky at once, sense the shape of the wet ground, run
over it, soak in, embrace everything around me. It rained on the just and the
unjust, and even people in town who would never talk to me couldn't entirely
evade the rain unless they stayed inside, and then who cared? Everybody who
went outside in the rain, I could touch them and they never knew it.
I wondered again how Mama had ever left L.A., where she had brothers and
sisters, Gramma and Gramps, aunts and uncles and cousins and lots of friends, and
come to Southeast Oregon, where nobody else we knew looked like us.
Then I thought about Dad and remembered why.
We had lots of kin, Dad's family, in the forests and marshes around Klamath Falls,
and they didn't have any problem with who we were. We had been sanctioned.
We had the traits they valued in family members: we had our powers, and we had
learned how to use them as well as anybody else in our family. It was only the
people in town --
Guthrie wasn't like that. One of the reasons my siblings and I loved summer there.
To the businesspeople here our most important qualification wasn't race, but role:
tourist. Welcome. Spend money. Write postcards. Entice other people over here.
In Guthrie I could relax. And even when it wasn't raining, I had the ocean. That
was a different embrace from sky. Ocean held so many things.
Harrison clattered down the stairs. He saw me cradling the crystal bowl. "Hey,
Edona. You going to the water now?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Can I come with you?"
Harrison was eighteen this year. He would go away to college when summer
ended instead of heading back to Klamath. He had his mean moments, but mostly
he was a brother I adored, and I didn't want to think about what home would be
like without him.
I stuck my head into the kitchen. "Mama, I'm going down to the sea now."
"'Kay, honey. Don't turn your back on the water."
A low murmur from Dad.
"Oh. Right," said Mama. "I'm supposed to say that to the other kids. You can
turn your back if you like. But I wish you wouldn't."
"I won't," I said. "Harrison's going with me. I won't let him turn his back either."
Harrison thumped my head with a raised knuckle. I jabbed his stomach with my
elbow, but not very hard.
"Okay," said Mama. "We're going to have lunch in about half an hour. Be back
"We will," said Harrison.
A rickety wooden staircase went from the top of the cliff to the beach below. It
wore a faded sign: USE AT YOUR OWN RISK. Kala would be along later to talk
to the wood, find out how sturdy it was, reinforce it with more wood or with spells,
as needed. For now Harrison and I walked down carefully, our minds wrapped
around ourselves. If we needed to, we could float. Harrison could even fly,
though I had never learned that skill -- in air. In water I could fly, all right.
Floating in air was better than tripping and falling all the way down. Best of all
was just to respect the stair and accept its support.
Harrison reached the sand before me. As I was negotiating the last four steps, I
heard him mutter a cussword
I stopped and looked up. "Oh. What are they doing here?"
Mr. Reichs, our middle school history teacher, who had been mean as a snake to
Harrison when Harrison was in his class, and who was mean to me, even though he
ignored our paler cousins; Mr. Reichs's wife, whose eye color I had never seen,
since her gaze always slid away when I looked toward her; their thirteen-year-old
daughter Alice, about whom I knew nothing much; and, of course, Gavin.
I had spent most of eighth grade fantasizing about Gavin. He had wheat-blond hair
and caramel eyes. The line of his jaw was so clean; his voice had music in it; his
fingers were long and drew amazing pictures in the margins of his papers; and his
mind was full of strange, wonderful things. Best of all, he liked me back.
He'd meet me behind the library after school, and we went walking. When we
were away from everybody else, we could talk. I knew his dreams: he wanted to
write and illustrate graphic novels and web comics, something his dad had no
patience with. He asked me about mine, and I told him as much as was safe to tell
outsiders. I knew the feel of his fingers around my hand. His skin was rough and
warm and dry.
That was before he got his growth spurt. Nobody else was interested in him when
he was still scrawny.
Gavin had shot up last summer to six foot three, and had spent the rest of the year
trying to get control of his new lanky self. This year had been hell. Every other
girl in ninth grade seemed to fixate on him.
In the last month of ninth grade, he'd gone out in public with Ila Mae Rafferty.
They'd gone to the year-end dance together.
I knew things about Gavin besides what he had told me. I knew what rain could
tell me about him, but he didn't know I knew that. Better now if he never found
Mama and I had had one of those talks about how real to let your dreams get, how
to let go of the ones that never had a chance, how to find better ones, or wait for
better ones to find you. High school might be a whole other story, she said, though
I didn't see how, when all the same people would be there. It didn't matter; I'd
probably end up married to somebody from the north branch of our family, even
though they were a pretty creepy bunch, or if I went away to college the way
Harrison was about to, I might meet someone else. Maybe I'd meet somebody
when we went to L.A. to spend August with Mama's family.
I didn't ever want to mention it to Mama, but I felt weird in L.A. It wasn't what I
was used to. Maybe I could train myself out of that.
So here was Gavin, after all that.
"Hi, Mr. Reichs," Harrison said. "What are you doing here?"
"Afternoon," Mr. Reichs said stiffly. "Didn't expect to see you folks here."
Harrison pointed up the cliff. "That's our house. Been in the family seventy
Mr. Reichs looked up. Behind his glasses, his eyes were unreadable. "Well. It's a
free country, I guess," he said. "Come along, Dolly. Kids." He stumped off
through the sand.
Gavin followed last. He watched us over his shoulder until the beach went around
a bend and they were out of sight. His face held confusion. We hadn't talked to
each other since that dance, where I'd gone stag, and he'd gone with Ila Mae and
never once looked at me. I wondered if he missed me as much as I missed him.
"Great," Harrison said. "Just great."
I sighed, then shook thoughts of Gavin and his family out of my head. I crossed
the sand, sat near the waterline, and pulled off my shoes and socks. I was wearing
a turquoise knee-length cotton dress because I'd been thinking about greeting the
sea since before we left the house in Klamath Falls this morning. Already the hair
was rising on my arms. The ocean. I breathed it in. I jumped up and ran into the
hem of a wave and plunged into my power.
I was here I was along this stretch of shore I was out and down and over, moving
up and down, full of cloudy sand near my underside, and fish flickering and
tickling through me, rocks resisting me, welcoming me, seaweeds waving in my
currents, I was coming in, going out, I was waving with wind, sucking in fresh
water as it flowed to me from rivers and creeks, salting it, pulling sand away from
shore, settling it back, smoothing and rolling and --
I blinked, rose from sea dreams. My legs were buried to the knees in sand, and my
dress was soaked to my waist. Harrison gripped my shoulder.
I had forgotten what it felt like to be solid.
"Sorry. We're going to be late for lunch," he said.
He held out the bowl to me. I gripped it in both hands and waded out a little, then
spoke to the sea. "May I take some of you up into the house to help us? We hear
you we came from you we are you we love you we welcome you farther we hope
you welcome us --"
A wave flowed up and filled the bowl with water, and I thanked it and waded back
to water's edge. In the last lick of water across my feet I felt something strange,
something shocking, a shake, a startlement in the worldnet that was ocean.
Something distant, something huge --
But then I stepped out, and Harrison and I walked back to our staircase. I had to
walk carefully so I wouldn't spill the water. Harrison helped steady me up the
But what --
No, I needed to get this water into the house so we could complete our knitting of
ourselves into the summer.
"Harrison! Edona!" Mama called from the top of the stairs. She sounded scared.
Harrison wrapped his arms around me, put his hands under the bowl. He glanced
back to the beach, then lifted us both up the cliff. Mama never sounded scared.
"Did you feel something?" he murmured as we touched down on the grass at the
top. "I thought I was making it up."
"There was a shock," I said. "Somewhere far away."
"There was fire, but it was big and full of dirt."
Mama rushed to us. "Kala said there's been an earthquake!"
"The earth didn't move," said Harrison.
"She said it's not that near, but it --"
Sirens wailed. I had never heard ones like them before. My skin crawled. I set the
bowl on the ground and turned to look at the beach.
The sea was running away. A dense hissing sounded below us. Black rocks
covered with seaweed and mussels and gooseneck barnacle colonies lay exposed to
air as the water drew back and back and back away from the sand. Everything
gleamed. Fish flopped, abandoned by their element. The air tingled.
"We have to leave!" Dad yelled, as he ran from the house, dragging Kala and Leila
with him. "Come on!" He opened the back door of the minivan and shoved my
"What is it?" I whispered. "This is wrong."
"It's a tsunami," said Harrison. "Oh, God." He turned and pulled Mama toward
the car. "Gotta get you out of here, Mama. Come on."
I stood and watched the sea retreat. I felt like I was losing myself.
"Edona!" Dad shook my shoulder. "Come on!"
"But --" I saw again Gavin walking away from me, looking back, his caramel
eyes soft. "But Gavin --"
Dad picked me up and carried me to the car. "Buckle up, everybody."
Harrison had to fasten my seatbelt for me. I leaned my head back and called to the
ocean. It couldn't talk to me now. Something it wasn't used to was happening, a
holiday, a costume, a self it rarely got to be; an exuberance and a joy, a sense that
everything would shake and change and speed and rush. Land would not contain it
the same way; it would have more things to toss and throw and crash --
Cursing, Dad got the car started and sped out of the driveway. All around us our
neighbors were driving wildly too, all heading inland to higher ground. We almost
crashed into Eldon Haggerty and his wife.
I fumbled with my seatbelt buckle.
"What are you doing?" Harrison yelled.
"People!" I yelled. "There are people on the beach."
"Stop it, Edona," said Dad. "We've talked about this before. Even with power,
you can't always help. Power isn't enough. In a case like this, power can hardly
help at all." We slowed as we joined a stream of cars on Spyglass Road, passed a
blue and white sign with an arrow that said, TSUNAMI EVACUATION ROUTE.
"But it's water, Dad!" I unbuckled my seatbelt, threw open the car door and
jumped out. "It's mine! It's me! I'll be all right. You keep going."
I ran back along the line of cars.
Harrison raced after me.
He snatched me up into the air and we flew back to the beach.
The wave came racing in with a noise like a mountain falling. Sea energy filled me
until I thought I would explode. The land under me had slid and shifted, and hot
wet rock had boiled up in the gap, forcing power into me. Suddenly everything
was too small to care about. All I wanted was to race over land I hadn't touched
before, smash what I hadn't been able to reach in ages, crash into things and
Joy was hot inside me as the water raced toward us.
Harrison was the one who looked for the Reichs, found them running along the
beach road toward their car. Harrison was the one who dropped down next to
them, let me pull Gavin to me as the water hit --
It smashed down onto us like a truckload of cement. For a fraction of a second I
knew we were dead, and then I opened as I had never done before, melted my
human self into my power self, became one with my element. Smash! Flow!
Reach! Devour! Pull back to myself all these things that had escaped from me!
Alice, Mr. Reichs, Mrs. Reichs --
I took the smashes and made them part of me, and another part of me cocooned my
brother and Gavin, made a bubble of still water that floated on the tide of the
tsunami. In the crush I spared a thought for the rest of Gavin's family, but I had
not held onto them soon enough. The wave had carried them away from us.
We floated as water foamed inland, smashed houses and carried cars, broke trees
from their roots, carried boulders and drift logs in and thumped them down on
things that smashed and squished. I held my brother and my friend safe in this
rage of water, worked them to the top.
Water spread over the low land and rose up the sides of the hills, pushing
everything before it. I felt drunk with the strength and wildness of it; never had I
felt water as strong and scary as this.
And then the wave crested, slowed, and stopped. The water retreated. I held my
boys as the water flowed away from us. We dropped down to a surface that had
been scraped clean down to the dirt, and then I let go of myself and pulled back
into human form.
Harrison and Gavin collapsed onto the ground, gasping, coughing, choking.
Water. I had forgotten some people needed to breathe air. I knelt by my brother as
he coughed up water.
Gavin turned over and threw up.
They were both alive.
Harrison gripped my hand.
"Thanks," he whispered.
"Thanks," I whispered back. I stroked his face, his hair. I had held him the way
water holds you, tight and close, but it wasn't the same as being able to touch him
with my hands. I turned to Gavin, ran my hand down his back. I had held him
close too. There were others I hadn't held. I had been so selfish.
The water had been so huge.
Dad had told us more than once: just because we had power, that didn't make us
gods. I had done what I could.
"What happened?" Gavin asked hoarsely. He tried to roll onto his back, and gave
Harrison's cheek heated under my hand. He was calling on his element to
strengthen him. A moment later he sat up and took off his T-shirt. "Here, Edona."
Until then I hadn't realized that I crouched beside them naked. I turned my back
on them -- Gavin was still face down and hadn't really looked at me -- this was so
small a matter in the face of the disaster, why was I even worried? -- I put on my
brother's shirt and woke up to the world.
We had come to rest on the high school football field, half a mile inland, away
from everywhere I usually went. I only knew where we were because the
scoreboard and the goalposts still stood, though one leaned drunkenly. All around
the playing field I could see fallen forest and scattered pieces of what used to be
Guthrie. A VW bug sat upside down not ten feet from us. The school buildings
were flattened piles of debris. Puddles lay everywhere. I sent my senses out to
touch them; water still wetted everything and told me more than I could understand
about what lay around us. Broken pieces of what used to be things, mostly, and
ground salted and scraped.
I whimpered and hugged Harrison, frightened. What about Dad, Mama, the kids?
Were they okay? Was there someone in the overturned car nearby? Water still
seeped out of the almost-closed windows. Water --
I stood, went to look inside. Empty of everything but water. But farther down the
field, I saw what might be a person, tangled in downed powerlines. He didn't
Harrison stood, stooped to help Gavin to his feet. "Oh, God," said Gavin. He
staggered and almost fell until Harrison propped him up again. "What happened?"
"We had a tsunami," said Harrison. "We went through a tsunami."
I sniffled and rubbed my eyes. "Mama," I said.
"They're all right, Ee. You know they are. Dad's with them."
What could fire do against water? Well, Dad had a lot of oomph, and maybe they
had gotten far enough away. Worse came to worst, he could have flown them out
of there somehow, and Leila and Kala could help. We were so much better off
than normal people.
Normal people. "Gavin," I said.
He looked at me, drowned caramel eyes and wet hair, bruises on his pale face from
I didn't know what or when or where. Hadn't I held him safe? Not safe enough.
I said, "I couldn't help your folks or your sister. There wasn't time." My throat
"Help?" he said. He shook his head and looked around. "Where -- what -- Mom
. . ."
"He doesn't know, Ee," Harrison murmured to me, "and you don't need to tell him.
Let's find some other people, get some news." He turned his head, stared ahead
and behind. Every direction we looked, there was destruction. Where were we
supposed to go?
"Inland," I said.
We went to what had been a road. Asphalt remained, littered with broken branches
and the bones of houses, patio furniture, trash, long shiny leaves of yellow-brown
kelp, kelp here where seawater shouldn't have come. All trash now. We walked
around everything. I had no shoes. Harrison carried me when we encountered
broken glass. After about five hundred feet we came to the high tide mark the
wave had left. It was strange. Everything beyond looked just as it had earlier that
morning. Trees still stood. The road lay warm and dry in the cool sunlight.
Breeze whispered through the grass.
We walked toward the intact world. The road was warm under my feet. I held
Harrison's hand; he had his arm around Gavin's shoulders. Gavin kept stumbling
even though there was no longer anything to trip over. He veered, pulling us with
him, this way and that across the dotted yellow center line of the road.
A police car came toward us, lights lit and whirling, sirens silent. It stopped. A
man got out and asked us questions. I didn't answer, and neither did Gavin. I let
his shock enter me. It seemed much easier to check out.
We sat side by side in the back of the police car, Harrison in the front, talking to
the officer while he drove us away from Guthrie, asking questions, asking if the
officer had seen our family, not explaining when the man asked why we had
separated from them. I kept my hand on Gavin's knee, listened to the tides of his
blood under his surface, closed my eyes and leaned back. I sensed the stutter of his
systems, how shock pinched them, slowed the movement of things to where they
could help. I didn't know how to talk to the water in him so it would help. I was
afraid to try.
The ocean's joy in escaping its usual limits woke inside me, its absolute uncaring
about what it killed. It surged through me. I sat with it. I let it wash out of me
again. It came back.
I sat with that. This was a power of water, to overflow, to flood, to smash or carry
everything before it. I had known the powers of touch, seep, flow, support, and
drown. Now I knew more.
The officer spoke into his radio, talked to Harrison, who turned back and told me,
"They're all right."
I let out a long sigh. Half of the chill in my heart thawed. I took Gavin's freezing
hand and squeezed it, even though he didn't return the pressure. My family was all
right, and that mattered more to me than Gavin's family, even though I thought it
They were all right, and I was full of memories of hunger and delight in
destruction, and Gavin was deep in shock. When he woke up from it, if he ever
did, his life would be a nightmare.
I glanced back through the rear window. We had gone around a bend in the road.
Behind us, everything looked normal.
Inside me, everything had changed.