Short Story If You Don’t Mind the Drowning
There are times you have legs. Mostly, you do not. You smile with teeth grown sharp from gnawing at chains that refuse to release.
In the belly of a shark, you lose your right hand.
Your mother taught to never grab with your left. As the ship trails past, you’re glad respect dictates that you don’t reach for it. The shark who swallows your hand doesn’t try biting you twice. It looks at you, both of you strangers to each other with black eyes and long scars across your faces. The shark swallowed your hand with ease, but something inside must have made its stomach turn. It doesn’t touch you as it swims away. This is the first time in a long time that nothing and nobody touches you. You’re free to breathe, now, if you don’t mind the drowning.
Time loses progression as you sink until, eventually, you’re far enough down that there’s no light to track passing days by. In suspended isolation, your body rots before the chains do. Where the sharks don’t come, your lungs fill inside your chest with water. Salt coats the back of your throat and produces layers so thick they weigh down your tongue. Your hair clutches to your scalp, extending upwards as roots swaying in an invisible current. This is how you come to understand release. It is in the gag and arch of your back, the delicate twist of your hair as you twirl within the waters. You are a tiny dancer all on your own.
It’s easy to feel empty in the isolation, aware of only the sluggish flow of water through you. The ship was intended to sever the connection between you and home. When the pale men noticed the cough sucking your weight, tossing you overboard was only meant to solidify the departure. The farther down you sink, the less there is to see, and a film settles over your unused eyes. You would forget home in the dark, but home’s not so easily swallowed in the belly of a shark.
Your head fills with the distant beat of a drum to keep you company. It’s a mother who lost too much to the shore. Your grandmother, one of them, sitting you down beneath a cover of night, tapping against your chest to your beat. Opening your eyes becomes easy again.
You wait suspended until you realize the only thing keeping you there now is yourself. The chains around your wrist don’t lead to anything. They dangle as aimless as you. Where they may have once fixed to a point, the ocean doesn’t respect the weighted boundaries of men who rule nothing here. With your pickled eyes and hair spreading as underwater foliage, you’re not human, anymore. You are free to move.
You don’t know which direction leads up, so you grab onto a lock of your hair to guide you. It’s newly alive beneath your fingers with things from the ocean’s depths, but none of them recoil from you. They dance through the holes in your flesh, spots where the water’s caressed it from you. As you ascend, you watch bodies penetrate the barrier between water and sky, the impact like rain. You can almost feel each one. The ache of their bodies entering the water threatens to become your own. As they come, you remember days before that weren’t actually yours, head thrown back whenever the skies opened up. Your head is a crowded mess, but you do not mind. The remembrance is how you come to know these bodies are no stranger. You hold your arms out.
In every drop of rain, they are you.
Your bones remain on the ocean floor, but they’re elsewhere, too. Tangled in reeds where a boy was held down by people who forgot even Black children breathe. In ponds, where cars ran off the found are never found by police who never look. Hung then unstrung, stretched along the Mississippi’s spine, tossed in under circumstances that make the river twist in on herself with guilt. She apologizes to you, sometimes, the tempo in your head picking up her anxieties. imsorryimsorryimsorry.
You tell her it’s not your fault.
You say there’s no better place to lay your head than in her silt.
Sometimes, the water apologizes by telling you where to find new bodies. Mostly, you don’t need her directions. You find them suspended or tangled or tied up and open their eyes with the careful fingers of your left hand. You’re aware of how you look, hovering outside the tender boundaries of human. There are times you have legs. Mostly, you do not. You smile with teeth grown sharp from gnawing at chains that refuse to release.
You smile with teeth grown sharp from gnawing at chains that refuse to release.
Beneath the surface, you cannot speak. It doesn’t matter. For children new to the language, you reach out and gently tap against their chest to the beat of what’s never abandoned you until they comprehend. They’ve heard of creatures in the water, things to placate or avoid, but they trust you. It’s the adults that are different, always asking where they’re supposed to go. They wait for God and flashes of bright light. They are used to being of clay incompatible with the water and watch their bodies disintegrate believing this is it.
“You didn’t see nothing in the water. You gotta stop lying all the time.”
“I’m not lying ,” a girl standing near the edge of a creek raises her voice to a whine. She’s no older than seven, cheeks still round with baby fat. Her sister standing higher on the hill above is long in face and limbs.
“You got me out the house for nothing,” the older girl says, stretching her arms wide, “It’s hot out, Delia.”
“I saw something,” Delia pouts, looking over her shoulder. The creek is the same as it’s always been, winding lazily through the woods. The weeds beneath the surface sway back and forth. “It was a person, Cory, right there,” she adds, pointing to the spot where the creek makes its way under the bridge. The summer’s light can barely reach where she points and the water obscures itself in black.
“People don’t live under there,” Cory says. She comes down the hill to stand beside her sister, putting one hand on Delia’s shoulder. She can’t stop herself from gripping a little hard.
“I didn’t say under,” Delia corrects, pulling her shoulder away, “You’re scared.”
“I’m not,” Cory snaps, dropping her hand to her side. She turns to make her way back up the embankment, “C’mon. Dad doesn’t want you down here anyway, you know that. You can’t even swim!”
“I’m not lying,” Delia says. She starts to make her way back up the hill, grabbing onto rocks jutting out of the earth to help her up. “There’s somebody in the water! I think they live there. I swear on—”
“Don’t swear on nothing,” Cory interrupts harshly. “Mama hates when you swear on things. I’ll tell you was swearing and that you were down here.”
Delia climbs back up to stand beside her sister. The road here is really not a road, only dirt and rocks that kick up when cars drive by too fast. Although their house is only a short walk away, it seems as if there’s nothing but woods around them. The small bridge stretching over the creek is one of Delia’s favorite spots. She loves to watch the creek as it flows. Her mother has always called her a water baby, their little surprise. I had you in the tub, she says, and maybe a story like that should have accustomed Delia to everything the water contains. But the thought of her birth in their tub at home only makes her think of what else could be given life within a wider expanse. Curiosity drags her back, but she is still afraid.
“People can’t live in water, you know that, right?” Cory asks after a while, because she’s never been good at maintaining silence. She’s not a water baby in the same way as her sister, born into something warm and gentle. She was born with a storm booming and rain pelting the windows.
“I want to,” Delia says, turning to her sister with her chin stuck out.
“Yeah, then maybe you aren’t even a person,” Cory rolls her eyes, “We should check your birth certificate. You could’ve been switched at the hospital.” Their arguing is cut short by the roar of engines. From one of the trails leading into the woods, a group of boys emerges on ATVs.
“This is why I don’t come down here,” Cory hisses. She takes Delia by the hand, moving to stand in front of her younger sister. Both girls squint their eyes against the dust kicked up by the group coming to a stop in front of them, but neither of them move. They have learned, as all tormented children do, that running never gets you away fast enough to be worth it. The boys are teenagers, with longer legs and fathers with even longer reaches—the type that can get two little Black girls in trouble for being on DNR land, even though nobody cares about the boys poaching on it.
The boys are teenagers, with longer legs and fathers with even longer reaches—the type that can get two little Black girls in trouble.
“Delia, Cory!” one of the boys whoops, stepping off his ATV. He’s at least seventeen with a crooked jaw and jagged teeth to match. “I haven’t seen you all summer. I missed you guys.”
“Blake,” Cory says carefully, “We were just going home.”
“I didn’t ask,” Blake replies with a shrug. “What were you guys doing? Fishing? Swimming?”
“We’re going home,” Cory repeats, but behind her, Delia chimes in: “We saw a person!”
Cory looks back at Delia, practically snarling. Another one of the boys, this one with cropped hair turned blond from the sun, laughs, “A person? Where?”
Delia points. Blake follows her finger, frowning for a moment before he laughs, too. “Under the bridge? Like a troll?”
“Shut up, Delia,” Cory hisses under her breath, squeezing her sister’s hand tighter.
“No! In the water.”
“Yeah, in the water,” Cory interrupts, laughing awkwardly. She starts to walk away, pulling Delia along with her. “I’m gonna take her home, she’s crazy.”
“Hey, wait, wait,” Blake reaches out to grab Delia’s wrist. His palm is sweaty and full of calluses. Delia’s father’s hand is the same way, but his feel honest in her hands. Something about the boy’s makes Delia squirm to pull away. “Don’t be like that. I just wanna see the person, too. It sounds cool.”
“Yeah, we should check that out,” one of the other boys says, coming up beside his friend.
Someone grabs Cory and she yells as they pull her away from Delia. The struggle to separate the sisters is brief. Two boys hold Cory back by the arms while Blake and another stand with Delia at the edge of the bridge. She is struck silent by confusion, staring at her sister. The water has been calm all day, but there’s a hiss to it now as the boys peer over. It froths where it tumbles over the rocks. Even the weeds look agitated.
“You saw it down here?” Blake asks conversationally, leaning over with his arms on the concrete. Beside him, Delia nods, standing on her tiptoes. “You wanna know how you can see it again?”
“How?” Delia asks, warily. In one smooth motion, Blake takes her by both arms. The other boy grabs her by the legs. They lift her into the air and begin to swing her, back and forth. It is a game kids play all the time, but there’s nothing fun to be found here.
“You gotta go down there yourself,” Blake laughs. With each swing, the boys bring her higher and higher. She’s like a human jump rope edging up to the moment where she’ll turn over right in the air.
“No, no, no!” Cory yells, trying to run forward despite the boys holding her. “Blake, she can’t swim.”
“Don’t lie or you’re next,” Blake says without turning to her. “You’d hate that, right? Can’t get your weave wet.”
“I’m not wea—” Cory reflexively starts before snapping her mouth shut. She throws herself forward again, grunting when she’s roughly pulled back. “I’m not lying! She can’t swim. Delia, tell him.”
Delia closes her eyes. She’s trying not to throw up. She’s also trying not to cry, because her daddy always said that crying was a weakness. If people were messing with you, then you had to be strong. Despite herself, small tears leak out of the corners of her eyes, marking their own path through the fine layer of the road’s dirt on her face. She can feel as the boys swing her higher. For one moment, the creek is silent. She can feel you watching her.
You never asked for a hoard like this.
Sometimes, you sit on rocky ledges against the ocean spray remembering. You have seen infants and mothers who had no better choice. You have come upon children with their eyes still open. You have come upon bodies that you could scarcely recognize as such; burned, broken, dismembered, abused. You have no one to share this with. The burden is all yours and, sometimes, you wish that you could submerge yourself so deep into the ocean that you could not see again. But there is no way to disconnect. So instead, you sit on slick ledges and you scream.
Today, there is no sound. The girl arches through the air and, for a second, you are mesmerized. You wonder if all introductions are a dance, a cursory touch of fingers as bodies twist through the air. Is this how death decides who stays and who goes, seeking out what impresses them like a bird on a branch waiting for the most splendid display?
You wonder if all introductions are a dance, a cursory touch of fingers as bodies twist through the air.
The girl is not a drop of rain when she breaks the surface. This is a collision. For a moment, the creek recoils in on itself. It has not seen this type of violence in so long. She hits her head on a rock, blood blooming as an underwater flower. You ignore the panic of the boys overhead. The water is not particularly deep here, but it is still enough that she begins to sink. The water collects itself and together you (the water, the weeds) cradle her.
She is suspended with one arm arched above herself as if waiting for her partner’s next move. Opening her eyes again is easy. She looks at you and it’s the first time someone has ever known who you are. You blink at her, slowly, watching as the bubbles stop coming from her mouth. You would throw her back if you could, but your job is to collect what has been discarded.
Somewhere above, there’s frantic splashing in the water. Taking the girl from her body is easy. She looks back at it once. You think her body looks almost like a doll; completely still, a small spider web of a crack down her forehead. You grab her with your one hand, pulling her in close as you propel yourself backward.
You wrap your arms around her, sinking deeper than this creek should allow. Before the light is gone, she lifts her head from where it rests on your chest. She reaches out, curiously, oh, she rounds her mouth, you have hair like my mother.
You are not sure who you are.
You are not yourself, but a collection.
Not all of you lost your hands to a shark, but you all still came to cradles with underwater creatures. Some of you were pushed, some of you were held under, some of you fell. Some of you walked yourselves in until you could walk no more.
There are names for you. Before she was a part of you, Delia called you a mermaid. None of it matters. You are just . . . this. An expanse all your own, unique within the water. None of you are dead now and none of you will die later, because you have decided that you will not.
There is no one around to tell you otherwise.