My mother tried to drown me, but it was accidental. Yellow bucket over the head, damp hair slicked to my scalp. No tears. Baby shampoo, the smell of plastic ducks. This isn’t scary, she said, chasing my naked body around the shower. My little feet, my starfish toes, sticking to the tiles.
Later we had a clawfoot bathtub, painted forest green. I would press my face against it, absorbing warmth. In there, I could rest on my back, float my knees up. A little blue washcloth was my dress; I’d color it white with Ivory soap. I ran my fingers along the ring of the tub—my shedded skin, dirt, specks of lint. I submerged my ears underwater, listening to the rest of the house with muffled hearing. Tick and blur, whir, gulping, groaning—sepia tones from an exiled world. My fingerprints swelled and puckered, the water turning tepid.
Afraid to swim, they said. I wore a life vest while the other kids were diving headfirst, cannon balling, pushing their feet off the sides of the pool, arms reaching, bubbles rumbling like exhaling fish. Swimmers. I was not one. My brother and his friend yelled, Star Man! as they leapt into the air, skinny limbs stretching outwards, little star boys lighting up the universe. Then hitting the surface of water, splashing chlorine waves across my face. I kicked my legs, hugged my buoyant jacket, twirling, suspended.
I learned to swim by myself, alone in the corner of an outdoor pool. Flicked one foot up, then the other. Kicked hard. Then quietly dog-paddled myself to the deep end, grabbing onto the sides of the pool, my pulse in liquid tempo. Depth said, You’ll want to return here, often. And I knew sinking was never my fear.
Recently, my friend and I walked through a misty forest, breathing deep. I heard drowning isn’t so painful, she said, and I stopped, told my dog to sit. Have you thought about this? I asked.
Later, I read survivor stories. Resist, and struggle against asphyxiation, ropes around the throat, deadweight pain. Accept, and embrace euphoria. Singing sailors, angelfish, weightless white light. Maybe it’s true.
I have always needed to live by the sea. I thought it was because, as a child, there was a small island with a lighthouse outside my bedroom window. I fell asleep to its two-note song—sad, flat notes like organ failure. Lungs, collapsing with the melancholy of fog and relentless wind.
Herring boats lit up the horizon at night. Waves chipped away at the high bank; erosion reached for my backyard. I thought it was salt air I needed, or whitecaps, or the pink and purple backs of Dungeness crabs.
Now, I know.
I was born on a Wednesday morning. The ocean in my ear canals was ticking, humming. Tick tick, boom, swoosh. The sound of a whale’s heartbeat, far off, then getting closer. A pounding. A stream of foreign chemicals flooded my bloodstream like an oil spill. Flesh was maneuvered, and florescent lights stabbed my face, my eyes. A cold, cold air enveloped my naked body, and I reached back for the open ocean, my mother’s abdomen, blood like rivers staining the hospital sheets.
Memories. A sparkling, turquoise sea off Ko Pha-Ngan in Thailand. Anini Beach, Kauai, grandmother turtles gliding like spaceships. The Rio Grande, ancient evaporated seabed. The Cliffs of Moher, five hundred feet of disintegration, a footstep away from falling, falling. Midnight, floating naked in the Salish Sea, the shooting stars of bioluminescence shimmering across my flesh, clinging to my cells, then disappearing.
When it’s time for me to go, I’ll walk barefoot across acres of sand, curl my toes over boulders, leap across logs, scrape my skin on barnacles. I will temper my blood to freezing water, sip an elixir, toast my Russian and Irish ancestors who once drank spirits on board massive ships, hands on the railings, watching the shorelines of their countries disappear.
Nostrovia! God bless.
I’ll go under and open my eyes. A galaxy of swimmers, submerged. Sea lions, whales, and hermit crabs. Oysters and anemones, urchins and clams. When I go under, I’ll breathe in deeply and fill my lungs. I’m back, I’ll say. Back inside the watery walls of my mother, the fabric of my dress rippling with the currents, with the seagrass. It’s that easy, I know. It was floating that scared me, but not this.
Candice May is a writer from British Columbia, Canada. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, December, The Porter House Review, Necessary Fiction, JMWW, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her at: candicemay.ca