Row, Row, Row Your Boat

by Elizabeth Skoski

Ally leaned over the edge of her boat, plunged her hand into the ocean, and brought a handful of salt water to her mouth. She poured it down her throat, knowing that she shouldn't. Then she reached over again and scooped another handful into her mouth, feeling the sting from the salt as it snaked its way into the blisters on her hands and the cracks of her lips. It burned. It was wrong. But Ally couldn't help herself.

Halfway across the Atlantic, Ally's GPS tracking device caught fire. She never figured out how it happened. One minute, she was there, a tiny blinking dot making its way from New Jersey to England. The next minute, nothing but flames licking the edges of the screen, her dot vanishing behind a sea of static--then blackness. She put the fire out with her fire extinguisher, hit the burned out GPS a few times with the back of her hand, and looked out on the horizon line. Maybe, Ally figured, if she looked hard enough, she could see the green hills of Ireland, sheep kicking up their heels and ancient generations of drunks alerting her that she was almost there. But all Ally saw was thousands and thousands of peaks of tiny waves.

Ally made love to her boyfriend the night before she set off. In the shadow of the sand dunes on the coast of the Jersey shore, they had lain down in the sand, protected from view by the beach reeds that bend easy in the salty ocean wind. As the waves nipped at their toes, lapping into and out of their lives, Ally noticed the solidness of the earth under her back and the steadiness of her boyfriend, his weight balanced on top of her. So safe, she thought, sandwiched between two heavy solid objects, the earth and a boy. Like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Once a day, in the afternoon sun, when the temperature rose too high to even think about rowing, Ally would open a letter from her mother. Her mother had spent the months before Ally's departure, sitting every day at her writing table, writing to Ally's future. In an art that seemed to have died when Virginia Woolf put stones in her pockets, Ally's mother penned exactly one hundred letters, one to be opened every day of the trip. No more, no less.

Ally had trouble sleeping in the first three weeks. Strapped down, across the tiny compartment of the boat, she couldn't shake the feeling that she would capsize. The idea that at any moment, one of the benign rocking waves would trick her. That it would suddenly combine with the surrounding waves, spurned on by some undetectable movement deep in the earth's crust and together as one giant wave it would rise, menacingly over the edge of her boat, and pummel her down into the unknown deep. Ally lay awake all night, her body riding up and down, up and down with the movement of the waves. Nothing below her, she thought, but slowly shifting waves. And above us only sky...Ally hummed softly to herself, the noise spreading out for miles.

Ally drank the salty water from the ocean until her body wouldn't take anymore. Then she leaned over the edge of her boat and vomited, the current quickly pulling the contents of her stomach out to sea. Then, Ally leaned back and waited for the inevitable effects she knew would come.

Figuring her best approximation of direction from a rudimentary knowledge of the stars and her best-guess attempt at map reading, Ally picked up her oars and started rowing. She couldn't bob there any longer, letting the current take her further and further off course. Feeling her calloused hands around the oars, Ally pushed deep into the sea and started in a direction.

She saw dolphins a few times. They were the most curious, splashing up to the side of her boat, so close that Ally could lean a hand over and pet them. They looked almost like dogs, cocking their head and questioning what she was doing so far out. They felt like rubber, not slimy and wet, but almost dry, water slicking off their bodies.

Ally ran out of fresh water. She tried to wait for rain, setting out whatever make-shift buckets she could to catch the clean water from the sky. But it never came. Day after day it was only the round globe of sun, beating down on her, heat and glare like a solid weight on her shoulders.

Somewhere in her mind was the knowledge that she shouldn't, but the thirst that plagued her was unrelenting. It was a hand around her throat, closing off oxygen, a hole in the pit of her stomach the refused to fill, a weight heavy in her chest making it hard to breath. Ally leaned over the edge of her boat and spooned more ocean water into her mouth.

There were whales now, at night. Under the stars in the sky, so big it looked like a curved dome, Ally heard thunderous clapping in the water. From where she lay, on her back staring straight up at the sky, Ally thought it must be God's hand furiously creating waves in the water. But when she struggled up, and peered over the edge, there was the magnificent "V" of a whale's tale, rising out of the dark ocean and then flattening hard against the surface, with a boom that seemed to shake the very boat Ally lay in. She saw the tale rise again, out of the water, and then, again, BOOM! Ally laughed and clapped at the whale. "V" she thought at the sight of its tale. "V" for victory!

Ally was out of letters from her mother. All hundred pieces of paper lay scattered around the bottom of her boat. There were no more letters. The final one had read give up and come home.

The other girl told her about the beach. Ally heard her singing before she saw her. A voice from somewhere close accompanied by the steady, rhythmic sounds of oars slipping in and out of the water.

"Row, row, row, your boat..." Ally heard the girl singing. Ally shielded her eyes against the sun and looked out on the endless ocean. "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream."

The girl was younger than Ally, significantly. She could only be ten years old, eleven at the most. And she was in a regular old rowboat, the kind old people rent at Central Park, not the sophisticated extreme-sporting boat that Ally was in. The girl's hair was pulled back in two pigtails that bobbed with each stroke she took. Her feet were bare, but she was wearing a frilly dress, red with tiny white polka dots and a frilly lace bib around the neck.

"Ahoy!" The girl yelled to Ally, pulling her boat alongside Ally's. "What are you doing out here?"

"What are you doing out here?" Ally asked.

"I'm out for a row." The girl giggled as if answering the silliest question.

"In the ocean?"

"Yes." The girl laughed again. "But there's a beach right over there." The girl pointed behind her. Ally leaned over the edge of her boat, anxious to see the shore. "No," the girl giggled. "You can't see it from here. But it's there. Trust me."

Ally remembered that frilly bib. It itched her neck and her mother had put hair in pigtails that were too tight and pulled at her temples. Ally always hated the color red.

"You'll find it!" The girl promised. And with that, the girl dug her oars into the water and rowed away. Until she disappeared, Ally could hear her humming, merrily, merrily, merrily...

There was no more water. No more dried food. No more Global Positioning System. No more letters from her mother to open.

But there was a beach, and the direction the little girl with pigtails and a red polka dot dress had pointed to. Ally hurled her heavy oars into her boat and lay them on the floor of the small cabin. There was nothing left but the whisper of a beach.

Ally sat perched on the side of her boat, letting her feet dangle in the salt water. Yes, she thought, she could swim to the beach. She had all the water she could possibly need. How silly of me, she thought. I could've done this days ago. She eased her body into the ocean, kicking her feet to keep her head above water. Her arms already felt tired from treading water. No matter, she thought kicking her feet to propel her forward, there would be dolphins and whales to help her along the way. And the girl had said the beach was right over the horizon.

BIO: Elizabeth Skoski holds an MA in English Education from Columbia University, Teachers College and a BA in English from Binghamton University. She currently lives in New York City and is an Associate Editor for This is her first publication.