I didn’t know I was going to drown that day, otherwise I would have stayed home and prayed or something.
I woke early to the scent of summer and the sound of daddy’s snores. Morning was always my favorite time of day. I’d slip out of the bed I shared with my sister and tiptoe into the kitchen to let the dog out for his morning pee before going to the bathroom to relieve myself. I was supposed to wash my hands after, but I didn’t always. Sometimes they seemed clean enough already.
Don’t let Mom catch you, I thought. She has this thing about hands and where they might have been, whatever that means. Where can they go? I wondered.
Quietly stepping onto the back stoop, taking care not to slam the screen door, I headed out for my morning walk. No one minded my early morning forays. Kids wandered unaccompanied all over our small town back then. If someone misbehaved on our block she was in trouble long before she got home. Bad news always traveled faster than I did and I got more spankings because of that, but it wasn’t a nosy neighbor that got me in trouble that day, no siree, this time I did it pretty much on my own.
Once outside I just started walking, headed nowhere in particular. I liked wandering. I know I wasn’t going to the store, it wasn’t open yet and my steps took me in the opposite direction.
Talking about that store reminds me how sometimes I would walk by there and look at the sign out front. ‘Wilson’s’ it said in big green letters, and underneath in black, ‘Groceries, Milk, Ice Cream, Sundries.’
Now what, pray tell, is a Sundry? I was eight years old that summer and I could read real good but I didn’t know that word. Often when I went to get a loaf of bread for my mom, I’d spend a little extra time walking the aisles looking at things, trying to find something that was marked Sundry. I never did find one. I asked more than once what that word meant but I didn’t get a satisfactory answer out of anyone. Since it came after Ice Cream on the sign I often wondered if I could get an ice cream sundry. And if I could, would it be better than a hot fudge sundae? I doubted it. I was convinced some poor fool didn’t know how to spell and refused to admit it. But, on this particular day I didn’t care. I was just walking along Talcott Street, thinking about going swimming later. Everyone in the neighborhood was planning on going to the new municipal pool that was scheduled to open that afternoon. Up until that day, we’d all made do with the creek down the road. Everyone seemed to like it just fine until all the talk about this new pool started.
“The water’s clean. There will be lifeguards to watch the kids. It’ll be in the center of town for everyone to use.”
That’s what everybody said. Progress they said. There would even be a baby pool for the little ones.
Some were none too happy about having to pay to use it. That part worried me too. Money was hard to come by and I didn’t foresee many dimes or quarters being doled out for swimming but I‘d check out this pool anyway along with the rest of them.
I was deep in thought about the whole day ahead, not just about that pool, when I heard a strange sound. It’s impossible to describe it, but I heard it all right, plain as day coming from the vacant field on my right. The very same field I passed everyday on my way to school. Sometimes kids would gather there and play football or tag but most of the time it was empty, except for the wild flowers and the weeds that grew there every summer. I’d go by and look at the goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s Lace, dandelions and bluebells and never think anything of it. Never heard anything from there before, so of course I had to pay attention this time. Thought I was imagining things just like everyone would tell me later on. But it was real, I promise you that.
A ripple started moving across the flowers reminding me of a gentle breeze blowing across the creek on a hot day, but nothing else moved at all. There was just a delicate hum, a sound so soft and low you might not hear it if you already had a thought or a memory rattling around in your head. I heard it though. Low and clear and sweet. Fairy music I thought for a second, until I remembered I was much too grown up to believe in fairies. As I stood there being as quiet as I could be, a big cloud of butterflies lifted out of the flowers and hovered over the field. They seemed to stay there for a very long time but it may have been just a moment or two. I held my breath, afraid even a sigh might disturb them and I didn’t want them to go. I thought they might be trying to tell me something. Something too important to miss. I’d have stood there all day if I had to. I was that determined to hear their message. They were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, small and colorful beings of varying shades of blues and greens shimmering in the sun. They were trying to tell me something, I convinced myself, something real important and I tried hard to hear it. Tried so hard that I wanted to cry from the ache of it. But I couldn’t make it out, all I heard was a whisper of wind and that lost message echoing in the air as they lifted off from the field and flew away, scattering across the town.
There wasn’t much point in walking any farther after that. Nothing else I might encounter would compare with what I’d just seen. I turned and headed back toward home, my steps slow and my senses tingling. I could smell the tar heating up on the road as the sun rose on a day meant for trying out the new municipal pool.
I could hear Louie, the collie who lives down the street, barking good morning to the milkman as he strolled up the walk. Bottles of milk and cream clinking against the wire basket Mr. Miller carried to the porch each morning.
Somebody had bacon on the stove and I stopped for a good whiff of that, wondering who was being so extravagant when it wasn’t even Sunday. In our house bacon came after church, and that’s it. Not that I minded. It gave me something to look forward to during the sermons. I’d hear the priest’s words and try to pay attention but before he was halfway through I’d start thinking about bacon and a pancake or two and forget all about repenting my sins. I knew that thinking about bacon in church was a sin. Knew I ended up farther behind with God each week. No doubt about it, I had better plan on living a long time because I was going to hell for sure. All because of that bacon.
I spent a good bit of time examining a dead frog along side the road. There were a lot of them showing up these days, squashed flat by the family cars and milk trucks that went up and down the street each day. By the end of the week the road would hold one every few yards, flat and desiccated enough to resemble leaves from a very strange tree. I wondered what happened to them after that. I never saw anyone pick them up but soon enough they would be gone and a new crop would start to appear. Life is strange, I thought, wondering how much of it I missed while sleeping each night.
The toast was buttered and on the table when I got home. I took a glass from the drainer on the sink and poured myself some milk before sitting at the table with my brothers and sister.
“Pass the Cheerio’s, please,” I said, just as if nothing strange had happened in that field.
I might tell them all about it later but I wasn’t ready to share the secret just yet. In a house full of people it was often best to hold back a bit. If you didn’t you could be swallowed up whole and disappear in the crowd.
That afternoon we all piled into Uncle Jim’s car and headed into town. I have to tell you I wasn’t much impressed by that pool, even before things went wrong. It was big and it was clean I’ll say that much for it, and a lot of people seemed to like it, but not me. It smelled funny, kind of like laundry day when it was time for the whites to go through the wringer, and the concrete deck around the pool was hot as fire on under my feet with not a bit of shade to keep the sun off. And there were no rocks to mark my spot and keep my towel from blowing off if a breeze did blow in. The baby pool was just as bad. It was just a big square bathtub with not a minnow in sight to keep a little one entertained. Mothers looked bored and babies cried.
The worst part in my estimation was the lack of a big oak tree to mark the deep end. Without one there could be no tire swing for the big kids to ride far out over the water before jumping off and doing a cannonball. All this pool had was a thin old rope stretching from one side to the other. One side shallow, other side deep. Now how in tarnation could that be? A rope can’t decide how deep the water is. It just didn’t make sense. But it did give me an idea.
I always wanted to jump into the deep water, to find out what it would be like, even for a little while. Trouble was I couldn’t swim. I just paddled around in the shallow water with my hands touching bottom or walked around in waist high waves and splashed other kids like me with no talent for swimming I watched for a while as the ones who could swim hopped off the deck into the deep water. I noticed that some of them were real close to that rope when they went in. Others were way across on the other side near the lifeguard. After a while I thought I had it figured out. If I jumped into the deep end of the pool, just on the other side of that rope and went right to the steps leading out of the water, I could fool people into thinking I could swim. This municipal pool could be OK after all.
I took one more walk around the pool, checking things out, confirming my suspicions that it was impossible for the pool to be shallow on one side of a rope and deep on the other. No way could that be true.
I picked my spot, making sure the steps weren’t too far away and jumped in, stretching my long skinny legs out as far as possible. I figured I was just tall enough to touch bottom with my toes if I made myself as long as possible. Then I would push off and bob up like a cork, grab the railing and run up the steps. Piece of cake.
I knew I was in trouble almost immediately. I couldn’t find the bottom with my feet. I just kept drifting down farther and farther. Panicked, I opened my eyes in the hope of finding my bearings but all I could see were the legs and hind ends of other swimmers, all oblivious to the sinking girl right under them. After what seemed like an eternity of regret for my foolishness I felt my left foot scrape along the bottom of the pool. That was gonna hurt later, I knew it. Desperate I dragged it under me and pushed off with all my might. Finally I was moving toward the surface, I could see more clearly with each inch upward and the sun was brighter as I neared the top layer of water.
“I’m gonna do it!” I told myself, giddy with relief as I broke through the water, gulping in a huge breath of air.
I didn’t even have time to look for the railing before I started to sink again. This time I fought every inch of the way and was able to stop my descent before I actually hit bottom. Again I bobbed up out of the water and took in a breath of precious air and again I was pulled back down. Real fear robbed me of my ability to reason; my lungs were burning from lack of oxygen. The few breaths I had been able to take on the surface would not sustain me much longer.
“Breathe!” my body commanded and I obeyed. Inhaling in spite of the water all around me, commanded by a small and desperate body, I took a breath and felt water fill my nostrils and pass down my throat. Luckily I had once again reached the surface and I broke through long enough to cough and spit and take in a small amount of air before going down again. I couldn’t help myself after that. I continued to try to draw a breath taking in more and more water. I was weakening and no longer able to fight my way to the top.
I’m going to die, I thought. Right here in this municipal pool that everyone thinks is so great.
I could still see legs above me but they were hazy now and moving much more slowly.
I’m going to miss Mom and Dad and even my pesky sister and brothers, I thought. I’ll never find out what a sundry is, or if you can have one with ice cream. Funny the things you come up with when you’re about to die.
The voices and echoes from above started to fade as I took in more water, trying to relieve the hunger in my lungs. I could no longer see the sun above me.
The world went black.
The next thing I knew I was back in that field with the wildflowers and the weeds, the bluebells and the dandelions. The butterflies were hovering over me and this time I could hear what they were telling me.
“Wake up,” they seemed to say. “Fight for your life,” they whispered repeatedly.
There was more to the message but the whisper of wings was fading as black turned to grey and I pushed off once more, fighting with every ounce of strength in my body, tearing through the water, groping and pulling my way to the surface. Finally momentum kicked in and I popped up like a cork, right in front of the stairs. I grabbed that railing and pulled hard, heaving my body out of the water, choking and spitting, with snot hanging out of my nose just like a baby.
“You OK?” a passing lady asked with concern.
Unable to talk I just nodded and wiped my nose on the back of my hand and ran for my towel. I sat there in the sun for a long while, feeling a little sick and a lot dizzy, looking for the butterflies, hoping they might come back but they were gone for good this time.
When I told Mom what happened, she said it must have been a dream, butterflies don’t talk and if anyone tried to drown in that pool, the lifeguard would jump right in and save him.
“Stop talking nonsense,” she said.
Now I know that lot’s of people see things when they think they’re about to die. Some believe the stories they tell, others say it’s your own brain talking. No one knows for sure and I admit that I’ve never seen a cloud of butterflies like that again, but I have heard them.
The next time they spoke to me was the day Uncle John pulled me onto his lap and wouldn’t let me go, touching me where I had no business being touched. The day I learned that you can drown even if you’re nowhere near the water.
They came to me again as I began to fight him. Wondering if anyone ever asked him where his hands had been.
“Wake up and fight for your life…,” they whispered.