INITIATION, An excerpt from a novel in progress
A text by the 2016 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Charlotte Crowe
Prophecies work in reverse. I see them only now. How the heat lightning flashed across my bedroom through the night, cutting my dreams short and sending me spinning in place, face squashed every which way into the mattress though the light persisted blue-electric on the insides of my eyelids. How I woke to my mother reciting my full name, Katherine Leland Katherine Leland Katherine Leland you've done it again, her anger so loud I heard it all the way from the basement, where I found her clutching a t-shirt splotched with ink, the washing machine's mouth gaping open and smelling of burning. How she yelled, I ask you to do one thing around here – and how I eventually knelt to scrub the machine with bleach-water, my palms darkened purple, bleach on ink on skin, such a small thing – an overlooked pen – and everything a different color. How after just a few light-headed minutes, I left the bucket on the floor, traded pajamas for my bathing suit, and let the screen door slam in the middle of I'll finish later, prompting my mother to say something about what my father would wear to work, to thunder, as I mounted my bike, The world does not revolve around you, as if daring it to prove her wrong.
There could have been more signs – the road empty of the usual morning traffic, a quickening of breath disproportionate to my pedaling, or a momentary swathe of goosebumps – but I was too blind to read them then, and can no longer remember. I hardly remember arriving at the reservoir on that morning, or if I do, it's probably amalgamated from other, similar mornings. It was my second summer working as a lifeguard at the Ledyard Reservoir, and already July. The motions were automatic: slinging the bike lock around the rack, tracing the path beneath the pine trees, emerging onto the artificial beach and stomping through the warm sand, climbing hand-over-hand up the lifeguard's tower, white paint flaking beneath my palms, and plunking down to wait. My red plastic whistle hung from a lanyard around my neck, and I slid it back and forth between my breasts. Though I had never considered myself pretty, that summer, at eighteen, there was a creeping sense I was squandering something, stuck on the splintery lifeguard chair amongst the crowd of diapered children and discarded fruit snack wrappers.
When I lifted my eyes, a swimmer was treading out by the boundary of red and white buoys. It was difficult to discern, from that distance, and with only the head above water, whether it was a man or woman. While I considered, the head disappeared beneath the surface and, after a few long seconds, emerged again on the other side of the buoys. I blew the whistle halfheartedly, just loud enough the head swiveled in my direction, and waved my hand in toward shore. The swimmer tipped forward, revealing the shoulder straps of her suit, and crawled back within the enclosure.
I was soon distracted by two little boys near the water's edge who were taking turns holding each other under water. When the smaller one started thrashing, I hollered and watched as their mother went crashing in after them. There were no clouds in the sky, and every little wobble of the water threw off white hot flashes of light. I closed my eyes as I smeared sunscreen into my face, and when I opened them again, there was the head, dipping below the line of buoys and surfacing again. This time I exhaled harder into the whistle, and called out.
"Not allowed! Please swim within the designated limits!"
The head swiveled back again, and looked like it nodded in consent. By then I recognized most of the swimmers, and I squinted harder her face, wondering if I had ever seen her before, but she quickly ducked back into the water and began rotating her arms in an expert crawl toward shore.
It could have been another prophecy, that she ducked the buoys three times. My father had taught me the waltz in the living room when I was still small enough to dance with my feet atop his, and though I didn't quite remember the step, I always remembered the rhythm, one-two-three, one-two-three, and counted in my head whenever I felt nervous or afraid, waiting for the trios of numbers to cluster into relief. One-two-three times she ducked beneath the buoys, and the third time kept on going, her hands sluicing easily through the water, pointed right for the lake's heart.
I huffed into the whistle as I descended the ladder and stomped across the sand and into the water, bracing for a shock of cold that never came. It was lake water in midsummer, tepid as I waded deeper. I turned once to take in the beach, half-full of mothers in skirted bathing suits, squawking children, and girls braver than me wearing two-pieces and lying flat in the sun, who tilted their heads up to watch the rare event of the lifeguard spurred to action. I waded up to my chest, my red suit gone maroon, and scanned the water for her, considering what to do next. She stopped swimming and seemed to consider, too, treading water as I blew the whistle a few last, lame times. Then she started back toward me, this time keeping her head above water while her arms shot out and circled back again in a precise breaststroke. I waited until she could touch before removing the whistle from my mouth.
"What's your problem?" I yelled. The other swimmers had stopped splashing.
"I want to swim out there." I instantly detected her accent, though I couldn't place it.
"You can't! It's posted!" I yelled back, though that suddenly seemed like a dumb reason, and I tried to recall something about water contamination. She was wading toward me, first her shoulders revealing themselves, then her chest.
"You're saying I can only swim in this dinky rink?" she asked.
Rink? What she was saying implied exasperation, even anger, but her voice sounded amused.
"Yes," I finally said. She was close enough now I could see one of her bathing suit straps had fallen down her shoulder. The suit looked borrowed, so big it sagged down onto the bony plate between her breasts, though the nylon clung to her in other places. The world does not revolve around you. Yet there was Io, striding through the water until I could see the freckles burned into her nose, the fat tear of water on very tip of her braid, as if the world had been turning from the very beginning solely to conjure her up.
She was the last one on the beach, still stretched on the purple rectangle of her towel after all the others had folded up their chairs and stuffed everything into tote bags. I lingered on my chair. My shift was long over, but I was in no rush to return home to the stinking washing machine and heap of blotched clothes, to my mother's disappointment, which was palpable on every floor of the house, even the basement. So I stayed put on the chair, one knee cocked onto another, my only movement that of my eyes, which alternated between the water's placid surface and where she was lying, one hand flung over her eyes, palm up, as if she had fainted in perfect form. But then I looked over, and her towel was blank, and a voice came from below.
"Are you on duty?" it asked. I put my sore foot down, peered over.
"The sign says Lifeguard On Duty Nine to Five PM."
She dropped her head back to look at me. She dropped her head back so she was looking straight up, and her mouth was slightly open. Her hair, which had dried in clumps, fell just past her shoulders, and was a shade lighter than mine.
"I guess I'm not on duty then," I said.
"So I can swim now," she said, without the intonation of a question.
"Well – " I started, but she was already striding toward the water.
She looked small, from my chair, in her strange bathing suit, but she was still commanding, so that when she paused and swiveled around to ask, "So you can swim," more like an instruction than a question, or so I wished it, I stood and followed her into the water and under the line of buoys, kicking straight toward the lake's center. Though I was a lifeguard, it had been a long time since I'd really swam – a formal stroke, the even side to side rhythm of my head, the gulps of air and water churning between my legs. I could feel the water deepen, space yawning beneath us. The water was a bit cooler, and though my eyelids were closed, the dark a bit darker. When I lifted my head, she was already treading. I had to catch my breath and was relieved I could hear her breath, too, though her face looked serene. On the shore, my chair shrunken. I hoped no one would wander onto the beach and spot us so far out, smack in the middle of the town's water supply, or at the very least not recognize one of the interlopers as the lifeguard.
"See?" she said. "Isn't this much better?"
The water had darkened her hair.
"Let's just hope we don't get caught," I said.
She laughed. "Aren't you the one who would catch us?"
I stretched my legs out in front of me, and let myself float on my back for a moment, toes poking out of the water. The sun was lower in the sky, but still warm, and I closed my eyelids to feel it.
"Have you been here before?" I asked, though I had wracked the beaches of my memory and couldn't recall ever seeing her.
"No. It is my day off," she said. She was working the summer for a family in the Pheasant Ridge development who wanted the children to speak Greek, she explained. Their father was a family friend from Athens, where she lived with her mother.
I pulled my feet down again, righting myself so I could face her. "When do you go back?"
"Three weeks. End of July."
I often think about us treading water in the middle of the lake, but when I do, it's usually from above or below. I don't know why. I don't see Io as I must have then, her hands slicing back and forth, water dripping from her eyes. I see our two darkened heads, hair slicked to skulls, two dots floating in the sky's reflection. Or I see our bodies, bright skin in black water, veins of light trembling over our arms and legs as they kicked and clawed at the darkness, which seems to extend forever below us.
"Have you ever been to Greece?" she asked.
"You should come then."
Before I could reply, she ducked just beneath the water, a few silvery bubbles expanding in her stead.
Charlotte Crowe grew up in Connecticut. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MA in English from the University of Oxford. She currently works at the Brooklyn Public Library.
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