The water is where I belong. It’s where I always belonged: submerged and concealed from the world. I blink and examine my surroundings. I don’t remember my journey. One minute, I was on the ward and the door was open; the next, I was here. I don’t recall ever knowing this place existed. I am wet from the storm, and the wind shrieks, slapping my face. In front of me, a metal ladder leads into an abandoned pool built at the edge of the sea. My feet sink in a carpet of low-lying weeds around the rim. The water is almost opaque and thick with algae. Over the pool’s outer edge, facing the horizon, the ocean crashes against the boundary, fighting to enter. The constant impact of the sea has weakened the barrier, and salt water seeps through, disturbing the glassy surface. I watch the gentle undulations and the pattern of the rain, mesmerised. The movements are an invitation. They beckon. Come. Come. It’s her. She brought me here. I put my bare foot on the top rung of the ladder.
Water’s always called to me, wanting to share its secrets; tell its story.
It recounts its narrative in many ways: the trickle of a brook, the drip of a tap, the rain beating against a window, the foamy flurry of a waterfall, or the lapping of a lake. Hearing its urgent whispers pricks the hairs of my neck, and makes my nostrils flare. With every watery sound, the world intensifies for me, sharpens. And yet, I don’t understand. Its a language I recognise, but one I’ve forgotten. It’s at the back of my brain, on the tip of my tongue, on the periphery of my hearing. Unable to begin a dialogue, I lose myself in the small communications that are offered: drips become my punctuation; ripples are my music; tears, my art.
It was early morning when they found me at the shore of the lake all those years ago. I imagine the dew glinting on the tips of the long grass, the perfume of the water hyacinths, as the sun rose over the horizon. I was six years old, they think, wrapped in tendrils of pondweed, green scum knitted in my hair and eyebrows. I was exposed, naked, for hours, but the summer night protected me, caressing my skin with kisses that should have been borne from my mother.
I dream of her sometimes. Mother. Dream of her and others. She speaks to me from the water. Twisting, meandering messages I can’t quite grasp the meaning of – though I know she wants me back. She urges me to return, but in my dreams the surface of the water is impenetrable. Instead, I am left gasping on the rocks, suffocating in sunlight, limbs flapping helplessly. When I wake, two nurses enter the room, and shackle my wrists with leather bindings. Once I am bound, one injects my arm, and waits till I sleep.
I step onto the second rung. Rust rasps my ankle bone, and my foot sinks and slips on thick moss. There’s comfort in the sensation that I could suddenly slip off, my body falling without restraint. The plants beneath the surface are barely visible.
I could hide in there. Forever.
The world above the water is hard and sharp, like its words. I’ve never spoken – not wanting to wound others like words wound me – but I understand what I hear. Depression, abused, attachment, disorder. These words make me flinch, yearn for sanctuary, forcing me to curl foetally in the warmth of a bath, submerge my face in a puddle, or lick away the tears of a child – but there’s little refuge for me now. People remain distant, bathrooms and kitchens are locked, drinks tightly lidded. These days, I experience only basic hygiene, which is provided in the form of a cold, wet cloth. It’s like heaven to me – I nuzzle it, pretend it is her – though tranquility is fleeting. Eventually, all moisture evaporates like the memories of a loved one. The fabric stiffens, and in frustration, I rub and rub the desiccated coarseness over my skin until I am raw. More words are cast at me: damaged, obsession, psychosis. Silence is my defence.
The third rung is moss free, but my foot disturbs the fatigued paint, and flecks fall onto the pool. They circle on the surface, in suspended animation. I grip the ladder, looking at my white-knuckled fingers. Last night I dreamed again. My mother and sisters surrounded me in the water, their hair red like mine, tails bending sinuously, nuggets of sunlight flashing off their scales. They called to me and sang: the tune familiar, but the words indiscernible. For the first time I woke without screams. It was clear what they wanted – she left the ward door open for me – and through the barred windows I saw the enticement of the storm.
The fourth rung sits an inch beneath the water’s surface, and the cold soothes my bare skin. Plunging one foot into the water as far as the knee, I relax. The white cotton around my lowered leg rises to my thigh. I hesitate, holding on to the ladder. The fourth rung is the final rung. There are no steps left.
I let go.
Down, down my body winds through murky wetness, my mouth closed tight. Bubbles rise from my nose. My hands swirl and dance, and my pyjamas surge upwards, as if wanting to return from where they came. In swift movements, I remove them, and watch as they float upwards. I wait, flanked by anorexic weeds undulating in the brown waters. They won’t be long.
I see them – my sisters and my mother. They’ve broken through the cracks in the pool wall. My lungs ache as they swim to me: their hair fanning behind, their breasts hanging low, milk white and full. Dragging me deeper, deeper into the mat of waterweed, they sing in shrill, pulsing modulations. The beauty of their voices cuts away the last vestiges of confusion, though within my chest, the pressure becomes unbearable, desperate for release. My lips remain closed – the habits of a lifetime dying hard. Their hands fondle and skim over my legs, flaccid and useless next to the muscular, silvery weaving of their tails. Gently, they caress my mouth, and I nod, comprehending. It is time to cast off all ties to the land.
I open my mouth to speak.
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Photo by Tomek Dzido