I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup.
There is always water.
My memory is fluid, rippling out.
I am three or four years old when someone throws me into a pool. My eyes and nose sting with chlorine, but instinctively I know not to let the water rush into my lungs. I kick my feet, propel my arms, until there is air again. I breathe fast and hard before slipping under once more. This is how I learn to swim, how I come to believe at five or six that I am a mermaid, and the water is where I belong.
I spend years of my childhood along the Jersey shore. Sand in my hair. Salt on my skin. When I’m ten, my father teaches me to body surf, and the ocean becomes my summer home. I learn to time my launches, to slide down the face of each wave. And I learn something, too, about fear, about how to tuck my head and tumble when the momentum of the sea grabs hold of me, refuses to let go.
It takes only seconds to drown.
The dreams I have are of the deepest blue.
I wake, feel the weight of my body falling, my lungs bloated, pushing against the cage of my ribs. The house I live in fills up with rainwater. That is real. Not part of the dream. Like Noah in the Bible story, but there is no boat. Only forty days and forty nights of driving rain.
So much floats away.
My water breaks in that house. Twice.
Two daughters are born, twenty-one months apart. The year the youngest is born, a tropical storm floods the streets of our town. In thirteen houses along the creek, water rises to the second floor.
I stand on the front porch of that house beside a husband I hardly know. Twice, he’s become a father. Not once has he marveled at the changing shape of my belly. Not once has he pressed his hands against the jutting bones, wanting to feel the movement, his own blood orbiting.
I don’t even know if he can swim.
I become buoyant.
After the storm, I leave with my daughters. The three of us are mermaids, drifting to another shore. Scales of emerald and sapphire. Aquamarine. When a wave takes us, we are ready. I teach my daughters: head-tuck and roll.
The summer the oldest turns seven, she begs me to let her jump from the diving board into the deep end of a pool. I agree, but only if I am there to catch her. With her knobby knees turning inward, nearly smacking up against one another, she bounces for a while on the end of the board. She needs to go over exactly how this is going to happen. I can sense her uncertainty as she looks down into the water.
I remind her that she doesn’t have to do this now. Then I glimpse her body in midair, the blue bathing suit, her long limbs extended, knees bent slightly, arms out to the side, splashing as she breaks the water’s surface. But she does not jump far enough toward me, her slender body slipping in between my fingertips, barely grazing my skin.
In a single moment, she drops to the bottom of the pool.
Nine feet down.
Numbers lurch through my mind. Whole numbers. Fractions. Depths. Percentages. Odds. On average, ten people die every day from unintentional drowning. More than half of those deaths occur in swimming pools.
My daughter had only been able to hold her breath to the count of sixteen-Mississippi when we’d practiced earlier in the shallow end.
I dive straight down, adrenaline pumping my heart so fast I am dizzy.
Struggling to grab a hold of her, I try hooking my arms under hers.
She kicks and flails.
I slip beneath her and propel upward. She finds air. I can hear her coughing and gurgling, but I remain below. Still underwater. No strength left in my arms. No air left in my lungs.
If I give up, we will both sink back down.
Not now, I think. Not like this.
I learn to scuba dive in a quarry. This is something I must do. Find how easy it is to let myself drop sixty feet below the surface. To steal air from a silver tank. To watch my own breath ascend like tiny torches of light.
Years later, I am diving from a boat in Indonesia. It is the last dive on a ten-day trip. At forty feet, I hook into a rock as I feel the current getting stronger. It pushes against the mask on my face, tugs at the regulator in my mouth. My breaths are shallow, fast. The moment I release the hook, I am swept away by something so intense it feels almost like grief. I strain to kick against it but at some point I surrender, pray it will take me to a calmer place. And it does. At fifteen feet, I stop for a few minutes, let my bubbles ascend before I do.
There is victory in this stillness.
Reverence in remembering water’s capacity to overwhelm.
There are people here who live on the sea. Clustered together in protected coves, small floating villages. The water is their way of life. By lowering their oars beneath the surface, they can feel the tides, the currents, find where the sea will be calm, where fish will be abundant.
They learn young to dive deep for oyster pearls, to hold their breath for five minutes at a time. No silver tank filled with air. No weights to help them sink. Only the propulsion of their bodies. Hunger driving them further down. I become fixated on how it is they survive, the way they head straight into the earth’s belly and take from it what they need.
The tide here keeps time.
Waves come fast on the wind.
At night, under the new moon, our boat makes passage. The storm is sudden. Fierce. Swells slam the boat like fist-punches, lifting it then letting it fall. Hard. I lean my body into the sway, look to the horizon, a fixed line. The water, a force.
About Kristina: Kristina Moriconi received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared most recently in Rathalla Review and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and her chapbook, No Such Place, is due out in the fall of 2013 (Finishing Line Press). She teaches writing in the Philadelphia area and runs a writing workshop with Mothers in Charge for women who have lost children to violent crime.