Good Swimmers – by E. Williams

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when we lost her. It was a gradual, sneaking thing, like watching our little brother grow up. One day I looked up to find him rising miles above me, without any realization that he had been growing at all. It seems most things in life happen this way- things are rarely so immediate and life changing as people often make them out to be. Life is more of a steady lull, all the tediousness of everyday clouding your vision until you have no idea as to how you got to be where you are, only that you had kept your legs moving. This was no different. My sister Anna was a slow motion disappearing act, little pieces of herself leaving- pieces so small that their absence was unnoticeable at first, like the way she would ruffle our brother’s hair in the mornings, or the big, genuine, hearty laugh she reserved for our dad’s worst jokes. She shed these pieces of herself like dust behind her, until there was nothing left at all.

Our town grew up around a great expanse of lake, so deep and wide that it was nearly impossible to see the thin, blue, water-colored line of the other side that separated sky from glinting water. Anna and I shared a bedroom with single window facing the lake. In the summers we would creep through the window on to the overhang of the roof, tracing the line of the opposite shore with our finger. Sometimes the lake seemed so wide that we forgot it was a lake at all, instead believing was an entire ocean, that the other side of the world was lay just barely visible to us, calling out our names. We had never been to the other side, our father’s boat was old and seemingly pieced together by wishful thinking alone, good only for daytime outings and recreational fishing trips. Anna liked to tell me how it was exactly the same on the other side as it was here, only a little backwards. She described it as a kind of funhouse mirror, that there was another me and there’s another her, but all a little wrong in a way, like being inside a dream. She would tell me these things in the same way she would tell me about her math grades or the boy who wouldn’t stop calling, no hesitation or hitch in her voice that would give her away. I knew well enough that it wasn’t true- but for whatever reason, when I would look out at the expanse, I only saw this other me, terrified in the idea of her existence.

My sister did not swim. All the children in our area swam practically from birth. There had been a long history of drowning from the very beginnings of our town, so swimming safety was always prioritized. But Anna never swam. She would wail anytime my parents brought her towards the water, refusing even to drop in a single toe. While my parents were at first concerned, they decided that a child so instinctively fearful of water would never go near enough to be in danger of drowning anyway. When we were younger, she would get teased for her refusal to get into the water, but when she was older it no longer seemed to matter. She would lay by the edge, browning her forever perfectly tanned legs and making it seem as if swimming was the most juvenile thing in the world. Other girls, girls who had before taunted her, flocked around Anna, shrieking when a little brother or other such creature would splash water in their direction, reading magazines and spraying lemon juice in their hair to lighten it in the sun. But I loved to swim- something I never really grew out of like a lot of the girls my age. My favorite days were when my dad would take us out on his boat, out to where the lake seemed to be infinitely deep, where I could dive without ever touching the bottom. I would dare myself to dive as deeply as possible, to try to reach its deepest point and bring up a little sand to show to my father. But sinking below, the water turns colder and colder and the sun starts to slip away. At the furthest depths, it is only darkness and deafening silence. I would kick my legs as hard as possible, sure that this time, I wouldn’t make it back to the surface. My sister once in cruelty told me that there were sirens living at the darkest depths, ready to snatch up little girls like me, to drag them under, never to return. I remembered shouting back that she was only telling stories because she couldn’t swim before diving back under, ashamed at the fact that I had kept my eyes clamped shut, for fear of seeing a flick of a mermaid’s tail, or pale hands reaching out to me from the depths of the lake.

After Anna’s disappearance, people liked to say how she was different in a way, that she was never good at being young. This wasn’t exactly true. Youth was Anna’s best quality. She did it better than anyone I knew. My transition into young adulthood was marred by grasshopper legs and hunched shoulders, knobby knees and nervous, toothy, braces-filled smiles. Anna floated into adolescence like The Birth of Venus, beautiful and miraculous. Other kids in town would grow quiet whenever she came near, a palpable, heavy sense of equal parts awe and envy. It wasn’t just her beauty, which certainly didn’t hurt- but what they really seemed to ache for, what I myself ached for, was her ease. She walked in her skin as if it was the most effortless thing in the world. After her disappearance, people described watching as if they were watching someone swim through the air, muted and graceful, suspended in slow motion, her hair floating around her face as if it were pulled by unseen watery currents. I think when people said that she was never really good at being young, what they meant was that she was too good, that she was unnatural somehow in this effortlessness, this smooth ascent into adulthood. And maybe that’s why it took us all so long to see she was leaving us. The warning signs were never there.

It was in my fifteenth summer that my sister and I diverged. We had been almost inseparable until that summer, but then something shifted. While my sister grew into near mythological status in the town, I began to grow inward and silent. I sought out the places where no one would find me. I read and swam and daydreamed and hid from the world. My sister glittered and shone, forever followed by long strings of the envious and the heartbroken, by awe and longing. But, what I then thought of as two separate paths, I have now begun to think of as one, simply different manifestations of the same goal. It was in this summer, the one where I believed my sister to be rising to greet the world that she actually receded. It was then that we started to loose her. It was little absences that I noticed first. She stopped asking for me to braid her hair at night. She no longer crawled into my bed during the long thunderstorms that rolled in the heat of summer, when the wind and rain would shake the windowpane, when thunder drowned out the sounds of our breathing. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night to find her bed empty. On these nights, I would stay up to witness her creep back in in the early dawn, her shoes leaving puddles on the wooden floor, trailing in the earthy smell of mud and lake water. I never asked where she went. I’m not sure why I never wondered, at least not until it was too late. I think a part of me resented her, her secrets and her ease, the life she seemed to be living. I had always felt suspended inside of my own head, as if I were sitting in a train car, looking out to see the world rushing by me, damned to be always slightly removed. My sister, on the other hand, was all action. At that time, I felt she did not shy away from the world as I did. And maybe this is why I didn’t wonder, because it was too painful to watch her live in a way that felt I couldn’t. She felt destined to me, to everyone, for bigger things. That’s what I believed that summer to be at the time, a way hurdling herself towards the sun. What had always seemed so far away and incomprehensible to me, like that thin water-colored line of the other side of the lake, was a part of my sister’s reality, an otherness she seemed to be running towards. And so I let her run.

The summer had come to its peak when my sister left us for good, like an overripe fruit, beautiful and full and sweet, but quickly fleeting. It had been the kind of day where you can sense fall waiting in the eves, a certain smell of decay clinging to the cool of the late evening. My sister had been leaving almost every night by that time, coming home just before the sky turned pink and the lights in our parents bedroom flickered on. This night was no different. I lay on my side, and watched her bed as sky outside our window begins to lighten. I watched as the birds begin to sing and as the sounds of my parents making breakfast in the kitchen rose, as the sunlight poured down the floorboards of our bedroom, slipping over the empty space where she was supposed to be sleeping. I watched as the morning lengthened, until it was morning no longer, and I knew she was gone.

            They found my father’s boat in the middle of the lake, much farther than any of us had ever traveled before. The motor had given out, as my father had always predicted would happen if any of us tried to venture out too far. From that point, from the dead center of the lake, you could see clearly to the other side. It rose like some great phantom from the water, black forests and distant mountains identical to the ones that spread themselves across our own shoreline. From that middle point, you could not tell the difference between them and us. There was no other side, just a trick, and illusion, a perfect-mirrored reflection. They found my father’s boat in the middle of the lake, but my sister was nowhere to be found. They only found her jacket and a towel, folded neatly on the center bench, as if waiting for her when she would emerge from the lake again.

            My sister has been gone now for two years and I am the same age as she was when she left us. There is a bodiless grave in a meadow near the shoreline, and a tree planted in her honor at the high school, complete with a wooden bench with a shiny plaque underneath. Closure, they said. But for me, this has never been enough. I feel my sister as if we are still connected, some strange invisible line cast out into the lake, out to the land that rises opposite us. I still trace that blue line separating land from water of the other side, but now, instead of seeing a backwards world, I only see Ana, living another sort of life, one where she and I could be different, where she is united with that strange other version of herself. Now, when I dive deep into the lake, I keep my eyes wide open, unafraid, searching for the beautiful face of my sister, for a glimpse of the flick of her tail, hair waving around her like sea grass, pale hands reaching out to me, welcoming me home.