FearIncident on a pretty Mexican beach raises spector of every parent's deepest dread

Every second was etched in acid as I plowed through the wave-churned surf, submerging my face into the sandy water every few seconds hoping to catch a glimpse of my drowned daughter as my wife shrieked out every mother's horror on shore, collapsing into the arms of kind Mexican strangers.

Experimenting with a slight relaxation in her eternal vigilance against every danger real and imagined, Donna left Elizabeth playing 50 feet away from our table on a tiny, calm bay nobody's ever heard of. Plenty of other kids were splashing unattended; what could be safer? We turned away for a moment to move our chairs, and our precious six-year-old was gone as if snatched off the planet.

I scanned the surf line, asked "Where's Elizabeth?" and our world fell apart. Of all the stupid things to dawdle over at such a time, I wasted five seconds worrying about whether to leave Donna's purse unattended. Coming to my senses, I ran down to the water, looking this way and that to see if she had wandered away on the beach. No sign. Nothing but the blank surface of the ocean, blank faces of happy vacationers unaware anything was wrong.

That unawareness changed quickly as Donna screamed "Elizabeth" over and over, investing the name with furious, passionate fear. Soon, dozens were running, wading and swimming, hoping for a forgetful girl, but imagining a skinny little body, eyes open and unblinking, silky brown hair fanning out under salt water.

I know that back at home the Pacific still forges an artful sickle of fine sand from the jetty down past the recently taller and brighter lights of Seaside and on to black Tillamook Head surfacing over its surroundings, a hulking but placid humpback whale rising from endless gray swells.

In every culture, eons of mothers' helpless screams form scabs over the spirit of a place. Back in the long age of the Clatsops and Chinook, every mountain, headland and creek was wrapped in tragedy and humor, demons and gods. Stories grew like moss on every geographical feature within sight of my house, from Cape Disappointment down that long arc of sand to the south.

Even in this time of hardened resistance to mystery, I think I can now hear those ancient stories. At least I understand better now the necessity of creating some fragile framework on which to hang a soul-shattering loss.

Maybe our fishermen, working so close to the ocean's faceless doom, still have a little of that rich and subtle stew of stories stashed in their holds. Can't work these mean waters long, I suspect, without acquiring a little heathenish propensity for seeing capricious spirits in the swells and currents and impenetrable fogs. Maybe poets are drawn to the life. Maybe the life creates poets. I lean to the latter explanation.

There's no planting pretty daffodil-lined paths over the horrifying impersonal depths of the cold-bone ocean. It'll grab you, chew you, and your family'll feel lucky if it deigns to spit back your remains.

There's a small window of time in which a drowning victim's life can still be pumped back into her, and we were nearing the end of that time when I heard shouts from shore.

Elizabeth, covered head to foot in the warm sand in which she had been rolling, far from the water, was telling Donna over and over again that she was OK. A stout Mexican momma was telling Donna "Just hold her."

And that's what we did. It was a couple days before she got us back in the water. The taste of losing her will linger forever.

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