'Sea to Sea'

For 'Marie Claire's Makers issue, author and poet Leila Mottley pens an evocative piece of short fiction.

Leila Mottley
(Image credit: Magdalena Frigo/Penguin Random House)

For Marie Claire's Makers Issue, author and poet Leila Mottley writes about the power of the ocean. Mottley's debut poetry collection, woke up no light, hits shelves April 16.

The Pacific waves keep rolling. Foam of the mouth, thunder, split up a child from her mother. This is what geography does. A salt history, a global Great Migration we are all still too terrified to be in awe of. I don't like the ocean, but I love the water. I like still. I like quiet with a drip drip and no movement. Stay where I grew up, on my back door step. This family has moved too much.

The West coast knows a different kind of blue. Looks warm, but is a messenger for purple toes and frozen wishes. I was always too afraid to put my feet in, until this day. Sunday loving, I am beckoned to the shore of everything. I've never worn sunscreen because I think I am invincible, like how my grandmother didn’t bother putting a lock on the door because she couldn't bear the thought of someone coming in. I look across my ocean and think of landlocked Tennessee, Kentucky. A South Carolina port, a Detroit fleeing. I think of my great-grandfather’s straight-from-Haiti growl. It is impossible to locate a body in decades of flight, create a timeline of families living in four centuries at once.

I breathe the ocean. The wave caresses my toes and threatens to callous, a whipping cold, a haunting sever as the water pulls back again. Somehow I still hope to find home in a menace that has done nothing but take, find float in the sinking thing. The current finds my thighs, my hips, wraps itself like a taunting lover around my waist and squeezes. I count. Three. For all the steps we've taken, the land hot beneath our feet as we march. Two. For all the tongues we've wielded from our ties. One. For what we could've been, if the ocean had taken mercy and called us home before all these seasons of flight. I dive. The waves are hungry. I am full.

Mottley is the author of Nightcrawling, a New York Times best seller. She was also the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate.