The surface was so far above her that she could not see it, could not feel it. There was some faint memory of a bright place beyond that teemed with life and motion, but as her vision faded so did this vague impression. The water around her pressed in on her- not with weight, which she could no more sense than the light of the surface above, but with its sheer presence. The hard, vivid existence of the sand below her and the water above was a burning flame from which she shrank. There was nowhere to withdraw to; everything around her was so harshly real that she sank deeper into the quiet, soft insulation of herself. She forgot about the surface and lapsed into a long, shapeless dream.
When a hand touched her, it was an electrifying shock that yanked her back into the sea with a gasp. The dark water around her was so bright that she hid her eyes; the sensation of the sand, even through the waxy-cold layer of numbness, was so alive that her whole skin shivered. Her mind was overwhelmed by the noise of vision and feeling that she didn't realize words were being spoken until the hand touched her again and brought a little focus to the world. It was under her arm, gently supporting her as she flailed into a sitting position, and the words were saying, "You shouldn't have wandered so far out here, my dear. Man should not be alone, even in death. Come now, stand up."
She managed to sit, which was harder than it should have been. It felt as though her spine had gone soft and bendy. Or perhaps it felt as though she had no spine at all. Her arms, too, felt light and vague. She pulled the hand away from her eyes, squinting. The fingers were blurry, as thought they were dissolving into the water. The knuckles and nail beds were shadows, suggestions, and the skin was pale as chalk.
She looked up in alarm at the figure bending over her. He was a beacon of color and clarity in the darkness, with the rich salt-and-pepper of his beard and the gleam of his brown-gold eyes. His cheeks were even a little rosy, his lips thin but burning red. When she put her hand in his and rose to her feet, she could feel the creases of his palms and the hairs on his knuckles.
He put a hand under her chin and looked at her face, then ran his fingers down her arms as though taking inventory. She was too numb and disoriented to fight him, but a shiver followed his trailing touch. He turned her around by the shoulders, and she obediently shuffled in a circle.
"It's a good thing you were wearing such bright clothing; I might not have noticed you out here, otherwise." She looked down. She was clothed in a splotch of pink and a smear of blue-gray, both sickly pale. It seemed to her that the pink should be tight and warm, and that the blue should sway and ripple; they hung leaden and formless instead.
The hands dropped away from her. "Well," he said. "You can't have been out here too long. We'll see what we can do."
A moan of whalesong cut through the water, and she lost him and the words he spoke as she turned toward the sound.
"None of that!" He jerked her back to attention, turned her head to face him, and let those blazing eyes burn into hers. "Focus. What's your name?"
She gaped at him, uncomprehending. Names were words, and everyone had one, including her. She reached for it- and it was a long, long way that she had to reach. When she finally found it, it was a slippery thing that wanted to escape from her grasp. She had to find her tongue, as well, which was lost in the endless confusion of her mouth.
"Vera," she finally managed.
He broke into a beaming smile. His face really moved, too- the cheeks rose, the lips widened, bright teeth shone through and his eyes crinkled. This was a sharp contrast to some other faces, somewhere before. "Very good! Well, Vera, it's time to walk. I don't think we should stay out here much longer."