I am learning to breathe underwater. What most people don’t know is that the lungs are a muscle; we can make them bigger, if we want. I heard this in science class and that’s how I decided it, that I’d train my lungs to be strong enough that they could tread water. It wouldn’t even take that long. I wish my uncle had known this, so they’d have never found him face down, dead in the lake beside the interstate. My mother tells me not to say this because she’s sure they would have found him dead on dry land, even if I could have taught him. Breathe in—breathe in, hold. I don’t see her point.
On the first orange evening of spring, I stand at the top of the stairs wrapped in the twin-sized comforter I pulled from my bed. My mother is in her bedroom with the door closed, like she does when she wants me to leave her alone. I could try the handle to make sure, but if it’s locked, my feelings will be hurt. I am wearing a pair of sweatpants over the tights I wore for the Christmas play, and above that I’m wearing three shirts. It’s early in the year and the water will be cold. I drop my blanket there, and head downstairs and out the door without knocking or saying goodbye to my mother. I will grab my raincoat from the hall closet and my water shoes from inside the mudroom bench. I want her to be surprised when I don’t need to come up for air; I want her to let me go.
The lake is not far from my house, and this fact bothers my mother. My uncle was close enough that he could have called out to her, if he’d been loud enough, that she could have drug him from the water in time, if she’d seen him. Today, I walk slowly, counting my breaths in preparation, and it takes me only five or six minutes—only about two hundred careful breaths—to reach the bank of the little lake. On my way up the path to the water, I passed a group of Boy Scouts, but I walked more quickly than they did, and with more focus, so I beat them to it. The lake is mucky and brown, but the blank white of the sky is reflected against the top layer of crust, so at first, someone might mistake the water for the clear, bright stuff that gathers in places far away from places like this.
Along the bank to my right, there’s an older boy and girl, maybe eighth graders, kissing. Behind me, the dark wet-green of old pine trees closes in; the interstate is close enough in front of me that I could throw a rock and hit it, roaring and alive. I feel myself waiting for those Boy Scouts to approach; I am listening for the things that break beneath their feet. I look out into the empty water—no one swimming, no one floating—and remind myself why I am here: Breathe in—breathe in, hold. I think about the water’s weight, which will press at me from all sides. Breathe in—breathe in, hold. My lungs are so strong.
The lake was closed for two days after they found my uncle no-longer-swimming, inside it, and my mother hasn’t been back since, except to drive past. Even then, she merges into the farthest lane of the highway above, where the lake falls out of sight. I always try to look, and I imagine my uncle’s dark hair in the water: swimming long after he’d stopped.
As I pull on my second water shoe, the Boy Scouts make it to shore. They are a couple of years younger than I am; I don’t know any of them, and as their instructor talks, gesturing toward the lake as he does, a few of the boys eyeball me, deciding for themselves whether or not they recognize me beneath all my layers, beneath this raincoat. One boy stands a foot or two behind the rest of the pack, staring at me, not blinking. Just outside the short sleeve of his uniform is the abrupt end of an arm, which stops and rounds off unevenly without ever angling into an elbow. The skin is red and thick-looking, like the plastic coating they use to cover wires. My uncle worked with wires, so I know all about them, about insulation, combustion. With his other hand, the boy plucks at a badge ironed onto and peeling like a scab from his sash, and I wonder how he ever learned to start a fire with just one hand.
After a second, the Boy Scouts’ leader turns and waves them down the bank, away from me, and they follow. I look down, take a step toward the water. It laps at my feet. My uncle’s feet were much larger than mine, but I imagine the wet clay pulled at them the same. I step into the lake and the water rushes in through the fabric of my sweatpants, through the runs in my Christmas tights, scrambling up my legs and drawing me down. I look around me at the last dry things my uncle saw.
Later, I will learn about bogs. I will learn how they keep us inside, how they help us to breathe underwater, until someone comes to find us, still whole, our lungs still full. I will wonder if my uncle ever knew this, if he’d always meant to swim in the direction of a bog, if he’d hoped it would simply open up, welcome him inside.
My mother won’t look down here for me, but if she did, she’d watch me go and see what I mean. I wade three steps, ten steps, plunge beneath the dirty water. Breathe in—breathe in, hold.
A. KATHRYN DAVIS — A. Kathryn Davis (one of many, yeah) graduated with a degree in writing from Grand Valley State University, where she worked as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. She writes and produces films for the time being from the southwest corner of Michigan.
Art by DREW DIONNE — Drew is an illustrator and digital artist based out of Maine. He makes art for his enjoyment on his Instagram page @sketching_randomly.