“Black Water” | a short story by Sang Lee (1966-2010)
A small ribbon of water ran down the side of a hill, past a well near my grandmother’s house. I was playing with my cousins. Their callow hands roamed over snow-blown bark, frozen grass and packed snow.
Fish were jumping up from the stream like polished greetings. Trying to catch one, I reached out with both hands as it arced through the slow, biting air. The fish hovered over the black water of the well and glistened. And when I looked into the well, it looked back at me — like a shark’s eye before it rolls over.
Gravity let go for a moment and I was flying. Then the water slapped my face like a sheet of wet glass. I shattered it. My fingers clawed at the wet stone; my legs kicked against the sucking threshold. I shut my mouth tight to keep the air in.
I heard my cousins shouting, wondering, panicking, crying. I swallowed the water — maybe I could drink enough of it away. I felt a shoe come off my foot as I kicked against all the things waiting for me at the bottom.
My mother had bought me an oversized coat with a hood and cotton stuffing. It was brown and it was supposed to keep me warm. It was drowning me.
She meant well. Like the time she sent me out to play in the snow and a dog chased me into a dead end. The glare of his teeth was brighter than the snow. Something demonic pulled his lips back to a jagged line of fangs. Panic set my legs in motion until I reached the closed alley and the rusted-shut door.
I heard the dog around the corner and time turned slippery – like a fish jumping from a stream. But there was time enough for fear to rot inside my stomach like buried flesh. It shot out of my nose when the dog stopped barking and growled.
She meant well. She said I spent too much time in the house, too much time drawing and daydreaming, not enough seeing, not enough living. She didn’t let me out alone for months after the stitches.
The water filled my lungs — I kicked at the shark’s eye. It pulled me down and twisted me through its cold stomach. And for a moment I thought I could breathe down there. I’d done it before; I’d done it for nine months.
I was clinging. To stay awake, to stay thinking, to embrace the terror that was pumping through me like liquid fire. I had to swim, stay afloat. It didn’t matter if I never learned. I had to swim. It didn’t matter if I wanted to give up or not. My body wouldn’t let it happen. I would struggle until I seized, twitched until my blood froze.
Though everything burned I couldn’t stop shuddering. My arms were heavy. I couldn’t feel my legs. Something told me to sleep – like a warm bed on a cold morning. It’ll stop burning if you go to sleep, it said. I stopped kicking. The fear ebbed. I let go.
In the black water, I saw my father’s face. Across a room made from rice paper screens, smoke from incense like a newborn ghost. He was talking to my grandmother. Something about my birthday. My first birthday.
I was like a stone inside my mother – two hundred and twenty of them if I’d been born in Liverpool. My sister came six years before me and almost killed our mother. You can’t have a girl born first; it’s bad luck. Everyone said so for six years.
They put me in front of a pile of coins, a piece of string, a book and a bamboo brush. They stepped back and watched me with smiles on their faces.
Someone else was there, wearing a silk costume and clown makeup on her face. She was waving burning sticks and chanting in flat pitches. My mother clapped in rhythm and said something to me.
If I grabbed the coins, I would be wealthy in my coming life. The string would mean I’d have a long life; the book would mean a life of scholarly pursuit; the brush would mean artistic gifts from the spirits.
I reached across the table and grabbed all of it. My parents looked at the lady in silk. She told them I was greedy. She told them the spirits weren’t happy. How could she read my life when it hadn’t written it yet?
My father put money in her hand and walked her to the door. My mother held me and hummed a song about good fortune traveling with a lonely journeyman.
Echoes of the song played softly behind my ears. The dark water took my memories, pulled their weight from my bones, and let me drift.
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