The first to claim him said the drowned man was his son. When we asked about identifying marks, he said only his eyes — dark blue — apart from that, why would a father know? The last time he saw his son unclothed was years ago.
I was the first to see the drowned man. Find him. If one finds drowned people. He rose in one of the cuttings, lay half submerged, face down, as if he'd taken a deep breath and was just looking for something.
The next to claim him was a young woman with a baby on her hip — carried in a paisley shawl, knotted so it supported the child, its fringed ends tied round her hips quite nattily, leaving her hands free to wipe the child's dummy. It has fallen from the child's mouth to the grass.
"My man. His father," she said, looking down at the baby. When we asked about identifying marks, she thought for a while, sucking the child's dummy.
"His hair," she said. Then, "No. His eyes." His eyes were dark blue she said, and started to say other things but we had to stop her, as we'd stopped the man before. Immersion in water, aquatic fauna.
When I found him, I thought things would be simpler if he sank again, and I threw some stones onto his back. He rocked a little but did not sink.
Then a group from a church fifteen miles away. They said he was their priest. He'd left them on their knees mid-service, and walked out. They all waited, on their knees, they said, waiting for him to come in and give the signal to rise, but he never did. When asked about identifying marks, they muttered something about hands, a contracture, they said. Left hand. But we raised the issue of softening of tendons after long immersion, and they muttered about eyes, but left it there.
We brought him out.
There was a woman next, lost her younger brother. Hadn't seen him for twenty years, but was sure. A man said he was the drowned man's twin, but we didn't think he was. Another man said he was his partner who'd left him for a woman. Then two women phoned, saying he was their cult leader who'd said he was going to drown himself — and the owner of a shipping company who said he was a maritime lawyer. And more. All mentioned the eyes, but there was nothing we could do about those.
In the end, we just put him back when the tide was high — and in the morning, he'd gone. We waited a few more high tides, and when he didn't resurface we held a wake, exactly there — with everyone who'd said he was theirs.
We reckoned the fact that he might have been, was better than nothing at all. It's hope, isn't it?
Vanessa Gebbie is a novelist and short storyist. Author of two collections: Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning (Salt Modern Fiction), her novel The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury UK/US) was selected as a UK Financial Times Book of the Year and Guardian Readers’ Book of the Year. She is contributing editor of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing), and is recipient of an Arts Council Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Gladstone’s Library residency. She also writes poetry and is a freelance writing tutor. Her story "Three Stages in Learning to Fly" appeared in Issue 21 of The Cafe Irreal; "Uncovering the Walkways" appeared in Issue 24; "The Note-Takers" appeared in Issue 27; and "Storm Warning" appeared in Issue 29. The latter two stories also appeared in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013).