Linda Hegland – The Repetitive Nature of Drowning

The Repetitive Nature of Drowning

When Simon first drowned, he was nine.

The summer it happened, Simon woke in the bee-buzz somnolence of the oppressive, sweltering mornings, already feeling he gasped for every hot breath. His sweat-stiffened hair was cemented to his head and his skin felt like old paper – parched and thin. Though Simon spent the whole of his cricket-choked and star-lit summer nights in the screened sleeping porch, rarely entering the stifling hot house but to change clothes and eat, still the dog days sapped his small-boy exuberance from him. He felt limp as an effeminate wrist, as wrung out as a well-used dishcloth.

The only repository of coolness in the whole of Simon’s small interior town was the lake – so wide that one could see nothing of the other side but a purple haze; so cold as to make one’s hesitant degree-testing toe shrivel white and aching; so deep as to be bottomless – dank, dreary home of a behemoth sleek and lonely. Simon visited there every day, pushing his face close to the surface, inhaling great gulps of moist air, rolling gouts of biting water down his bony back. He wiggled his fingers to attract minnows, swatted at ravenous mosquitoes, and ventured no closer than the wet rocks at the very edge of the water.

His mother would have been mad as a cut snake had she known he was at the lake. Deep, and cold, and wide as it was, it was nothing like an algae-scummed swimming hole or friendly simmering stream at which small summer-bewitched boys were meant to spend their adventures. It was not the place for scabbed-kneed boys’ antics or reckless dares. The family picnicked only once at the shore. It was a windy day and his older sister took a picture of him with her boxy Brownie camera, sitting on a rock. Behind him the water churned and swirled and lifted itself in irate curls of spume. Simon’s smile was hesitant as his seat was precarious, and his hair was tousled and blown across his face. After eating they had hastily packed up thermoses and blankets and hurried back to their old car. The lake had seemed affronted with them; the sun had eclipsed itself behind dark clouds and the cold gray air had bled the gayety from their outing.

On a day when the sky was the colour of faded amber and the sun seemed to fill the entire sky, Simon went again to the lake. On that day, there was no wind. The air was still, so still, holding its own breath in anticipation. The surface of the water was as sleek and as glossy and as black as the flank of his Angus calf – first prize in the 4-H fair, warm tongue sucking at his fingers.

And for no reason that Simon could say, nor could ever be asked, he stepped out onto the lake surface expecting the solidity of a marble floor and had remarkably taken several steps before he knew himself to be sinking, the icy cold numbing his body so as make him feel it had left him. He pulled his arms down by his side, lifted his head to look at the retreating sky . . . and accepted. He heard the lonely beast’s aching moans; he was aware of sinking with the smoothness of a hot knife through butter, leaving nothing to the world – not even a memory of the event as there was no one there to witness his stepping out of the world.

At just the point when his lungs, on fire, were to fill with water; at just the point when there would have been no returning, he felt himself lifted and flung onto the shore with all the ceremony of a caught fish. He flopped and gagged, gaped and gasped. He stood and ran from the lake, ran as fast as squelching shoes and sodden clothes would allow him – and then swallowed the secret of his drowning along with the green water still sputtering at his lips.

The second time Simon drowns, it’s for keeps.

An old man now; daily swims at the local pool. The walls are comfortably confining, the blue water holds no secrets. No rocks, no minnows, no moaning from the depthless depths. A sea-themed gallery of mermaids and seahorses on the ceiling solely for the benefit of back-strokers. Stroke and pull, stroke and pull.

Suddenly a cramping pain that clamps his heart and squeezes with a grip as if fearing a fall from a cliff into an abyss. As he looks up at the lights refracted and blurred through the water, as he watches the spindrift from his lungs bubble to the surface in fewer and fewer bubbles, as the booming in his ears reaches a dreadful dissonance , a great darkness fills his brain. With the undeniable, suffering perception that someone, something is coming to fetch him, he thinks, oh – I remember this.

Bio: Linda has published two short, short stories in the New Zealand ‘Smarter Than Jack’ book series, and is published (upcoming) in the Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature. She lives and writes in Port Coquitlam, BC.

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