Authors: Erika Swyler
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
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For Mom. There are no words.
Books have an awful lot of working parts; what follows are the essentials.
My agent, Michelle Brower, fixed a mess and didn’t flinch when I said I intended to hand bind the manuscripts myself. Before giving me good news, she advised me to sit down. She was correct in all things.
My editor, Hope Dellon, steered the book and me with such gentle cheer. She and St. Martin’s Press have been nothing short of fantastic.
Much of this book was written in the Comsewogue and Brooklyn Public Libraries. Circus history is wild and hairy, and an excellent reason to work in a library. When unable to invent towns, I relied on the historical societies of Charlotte, North Carolina; New Castle, Delaware; and Burlington, New Jersey. Any faults are mine.
A long list of names should go here, but there are too many. This book would not be were it not for Rick Rofihe and Matt de la Pe
a. Stephanie Friedberg called in the middle of the night to yell a chapter number at me, letting me know I was on to something. Karen Swyler was instrumental in the way only a sibling can be.
Finally, Robert. Out of all the endless coffee, you are the best cup.
Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger. Last night’s storm tore land and churned water, littering the beach with bottles, seaweed, and horseshoe crab carapaces. The place where I’ve spent my entire life is unlikely to survive the fall storm season. The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.
Measures that should have been taken—bulkheads, terracing—weren’t. My father’s apathy left me to inherit an unfixable problem, one too costly for a librarian in Napawset. But we librarians are known for being resourceful.
I walk toward the wooden stairs that sprawl down the cliff and lean into the sand. I’ve been delinquent in breaking in my calluses this year and my feet hurt where stones chew at them. On the north shore few things are more essential than hard feet. My sister, Enola, and I used to run shoeless in the summers until the pavement got so hot our toes sank into the tar. Outsiders can’t walk these shores.
At the bottom of the steps Frank McAvoy waves to me before turning his gaze to the cliff. He has a skiff with him, a beautiful vessel that looks as if it’s been carved from a single piece of wood. Frank is a boatwright and a good man who has known my family since before I was born. When he smiles his face breaks into the splotchy weathered lines of an Irishman with too many years in the sun. His eyebrows curl upward and disappear beneath the brim of an aging canvas hat he’s never without. Had my father lived into his sixties he might have looked like Frank, with the same yellowed teeth, the reddish freckles.
To look at Frank is to remember me, young, crawling among wood set up for a bonfire, and his huge hand pulling me away from a toppling log. He summons memories of my father poised over a barbecue, grilling corn—the smell of charred husk and burning silk—while Frank regaled us with fishing stories. Frank lied hugely, obviously. My mother and his wife egged him on, their laughter frightening the gulls. Two people are now missing from the tableau. I look at Frank and see my parents; I imagine it’s impossible for him to look at me and not see his departed friends.
“Looks like the storm hit you hard, Simon,” he says.
“I know. I lost five feet.” Five feet is an underestimate.
“I told your dad that he needed to get on that bulkhead, put in trees.” The McAvoy property lies a few hundred yards west of my house, farther back from the water with a terraced and planted bluff that’s designed to save Frank’s house come hell or, literally, high water.
“Dad was never big on listening.”
“No, he wasn’t. Still, a patch or two on that bulkhead could have saved you a world of trouble.”
“You know what he was like.” The silence, the resignation.
Frank sucks air through his teeth, making a dry whistling sound. “I guess he thought he had more time to fix things.”
“Probably,” I say. Who knows what my father thought?
“The water’s been coming up high the last couple years, though.”
“I know. I can’t let it go much longer. If you’ve got somebody you trust, I’d appreciate the name of a contractor.”
“Absolutely. I can send someone your way.” He scratches the back of his neck. “I won’t lie, though, it won’t be cheap.”
“Nothing is anymore, is it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I may wind up having to sell.”
“I’d hate to see you do that.” Frank’s brow furrows, tugging his hat down.
“The property is worth something even if the house goes.”
“Think on it some.”
Frank knows my financial constraints. His daughter, Alice, also works at the library. Redheaded and pretty, Alice has her father’s smile and a way with kids. She’s better with people than I am, which is why she handles programming and I’m in reference. But we’re not here about Alice, or the perilous state of my house. We’re here to do what we’ve done for over a decade, setting buoys to cordon off a swimming area. The storm was strong enough to pull the buoys and their anchors ashore, leaving them a heap of rusted chains and orange rope braid, alive with barnacles. It’s little wonder I lost land.
“Shall we?” I ask.
“Might as well. Day’s not getting any younger.”
I strip off my shirt, heft the chains and ropes over a shoulder, and begin the slow walk into the water.
“Sure you don’t need a hand?” Frank asks. The skiff scrapes against the sand as he pushes it into the water.
“No thanks, I’ve got it.” I could do it by myself, but it’s safer to have Frank follow me. He isn’t really here for me; he’s here for the same reason I do this walk every year: to remember my mother, Paulina, who drowned in this water.
The Sound is icy for June, but once in I am whole and my feet curl around algae-covered rocks as if made to fit them. The anchor chains slow me, but Frank keeps pace, circling the oars. I walk until the water reaches my chest, then neck. Just before dipping under I exhale everything, then breathe in, like my mother taught me on a warm morning in late July, like I taught my sister.
The trick to holding your breath is to be thirsty.
“Out in a quick hard breath,” my mother said, her voice soft just by my ear. In the shallow water her thick black hair flowed around us in rivers. I was five years old. She pressed my stomach until muscle sucked in, navel almost touching spine. She pushed hard, sharp fingernails pricking. “Now in, fast. Quick, quick, quick. Spread your ribs wide. Think wide.” She breathed and her rib cage expanded, bird-thin bones splayed until her stomach was barrel-round. Her bathing suit was a bright white glare in the water. I squinted to watch it. She thumped a finger against my sternum.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“You’re breathing up, Simon. If you breathe up you’ll drown. Up cuts off the space in your belly.” A gentle touch. A little smile. My mother said to imagine you’re thirsty, dried out and empty, and then drink the air. Stretch your bones and drink wide and deep. Once my stomach rounded to a fat drum she whispered, “Wonderful,
. Now, we go under.”
Now, I go under. Soft rays filter down around the shadow of Frank’s boat. I hear her sometimes, drifting through the water, and glimpse her now and then, behind curtains of seaweed, black hair mingling with kelp.
My breath fractures into a fine mist over my skin.
Paulina, my mother, was a circus and carnival performer, fortune-teller, magician’s assistant, and mermaid who made her living by holding her breath. She taught me to swim like a fish, and she made my father smile. She disappeared often. She would quit jobs or work two and three at once. She stayed in hotels just to try out other beds. My father, Daniel, was a machinist and her constant. He was at the house, smiling, waiting for her to return, waiting for her to call him
. She called me that as well.
I was seven years old the day she walked into the water. I’ve tried to forget, but it’s become my fondest memory of her. She left us in the morning after making breakfast. Hard-boiled eggs that had to be cracked on the side of a plate and peeled with fingernails, getting bits of shell underneath them. I cracked and peeled my sister’s egg, cutting it into slivers for her toddler fingers. Dry toast and orange juice to accompany. The early hours of summer make shadows darker, faces fairer, and hollows all the more angular. Paulina was a beauty that morning, swanlike, someone who did not fit. Dad was at work at the plant. She was alone with us, watching, nodding as I cut Enola’s egg.
“You’re a good big brother, Simon. Look out for Enola. She’ll want to run off on you. Promise you won’t let her.”
“You’re a wonderful boy, aren’t you? I never expected that. I didn’t expect you at all.”
The pendulum on the cuckoo clock ticked back and forth. She tapped a heel on the linoleum, keeping quiet time. Enola covered herself with egg and crumbs. I battled to eat and keep my sister clean.
After a while my mother stood and smoothed the front of her yellow summer skirt. “I’ll see you later, Simon. Goodbye, Enola.”
She kissed Enola’s cheek and pressed her lips to the top of my head. She waved goodbye, smiled, and left for what I thought was work. How could I have known that goodbye meant goodbye? Hard thoughts are held in small words. When she looked at me that morning, she knew I would take care of Enola. She knew we could not follow. It was the only time she could go.
Not long after, while Alice McAvoy and I raced cars across her living room rug, my mother drowned herself in the Sound.
I lean into the water, pushing with my chest, digging in my toes. A few more feet and I drop an anchor with a muffled clang. I look at the boat’s shadow. Frank is anxious. The oars slap the surface. What must it be like to breathe water? I imagine my mother’s contorted face, but keep walking until I can set the other anchor, and then empty the air from my lungs and tread toward the shore, trying to stay on the bottom for as long as possible—a game Enola and I used to play. I swim only when it’s too difficult to maintain the balance to walk, then my arms move in steady strokes, cutting the Sound like one of Frank’s boats. When the water is just deep enough to cover my head, I touch back down to the bottom. What I do next is for Frank’s benefit.
“Slowly, Simon,” my mother told me. “Keep your eyes open, even when it stings. It hurts more coming out than going in, but keep them open. No blinking.” Salt burns but she never blinked, not in the water, not when the air first hit her eyes. She was moving sculpture. “Don’t breathe, not even when your nose is above. Breathe too quickly and you get a mouthful of salt. Wait,” she said, holding the word out like a promise. “Wait until your mouth breaks the water, but breathe through your nose, or it looks like you’re tired. You can never be tired. Then you smile.” Though small-mouthed and thin-lipped, her smile stretched as wide as the water. She showed me how to bow properly: arms high, chest out, a crane taking flight. “Crowds love very small people and very tall ones. Don’t bend at the waist like an actor; it cuts you off. Let them think you’re taller than you are.” She smiled at me around her raised arms, “And you’re going to be very tall, Simon.” A tight nod to an invisible audience. “Be gracious, too. Always gracious.”