“Swim, swim, swim!” Martha screamed.
It was in that moment–in the breaths between each word Martha shouted–that Colleen realized that it didn’t matter whether she lived or died. It wasn’t that she was indifferent. She just knew that life and death were indistinguishable. She did not cling to the surface of the water. She did not panic. Maybe, she thought, I am in my element.
Water. One part oxygen, two parts hydrogen, atoms connected by covalent bonds. Snow, fog, dew, ice, steam, cloud. Lake. This lake. How did she end up in the middle of it? She had swum too far. As incautious as any 13 year old, Colleen had not known her limits. She was fearless. Impatient. Now in the center of the lake, she only thought of chemistry.
The sun dappled down onto the ripples curving out from her body. Colleen heard music in the lake, like a cello string sustaining an aching D note. She lifted her right arm from her side, out of the water, turned her head right to breathe, head down again, punched her fingers into the water ahead. She lifted her left arm from her side, head still down, looking into the green shimmer beneath her floating body. She imagined trout, tadpoles and slinky eels; she thought she saw a tortoise flapping lazily. She plunged her left hand into the water ahead, and she glided in this way, like a paddling riverboat drawing steam, forward.
She was alive, from head to toe, but she could drown in this moment, soaking up the green light below, the sun dapples above. She was full. Complete. She understood the word “epiphany” for the first time. All the love in the world gathered in her lungs. The music wrapped around her waist, in the same way her mother would wrap the telephone cord around her finger while she waited for someone to answer on the other end.
So she swam. She swam and turned her head to breathe, gulping in the bright blue sky and the calls from Martha along the north edge of the lake. The cello sounded deep and breathy and Colleen pictured its dark curvy body.
It would be OK if she drowned here. It would be OK to sink to the bottom with the tortoise and the slinky eel by her side, her hair stringing behind her like seaweed, holding the note of a cello on her blue lips. It was all chemistry and math – the cello strings, the depth of this water, the breath she inhaled. Some divine being chopped the strings, the depth, the breath into intervals and created meaning, composed songs that made us weep, gave us life.
* * *
“Swim, Colleen, swim!” Martha had shouted from the edge. It all happened so fast. One minute she had watched Colleen dive into the lake, settling into long breaststrokes, self-assured. Martha had looked down to continue reading from Song of Solomon, but then she had looked up and couldn’t find Colleen. She stood and ran left and then right toward the lake, trying to see beyond the needled edges that framed the spot they had picked for this Saturday morning. It was hot and the lake shimmered away from the pine tree shadows.
Martha spied Colleen as she popped up out of the water due south. She thought to dive in after Colleen but then Colleen swam toward her. Martha breathed deeply, relieved. Then Colleen disappeared again.
“God help me,” Martha said as she dove into the water in her shirtdress and tennis shoes.
Colleen tried to wave to let her know she was OK. The world was going white and she was OK. Maybe she was too far away. She paddled, lifting her arms, turning her head, breathing.
This moment was sacred.
All the chaos of the world, all the choirs and echoes and screams, leveled out into a single slow, deep note. She felt a tingle across her shoulder blades as they worked the water. The eel and the tortoise lifted her up, held her above the lake’s horizon, into oxygen, that most reactive of elements. Liquid oxygen combined with liquid hydrogen becomes rocket fuel. Colleen imagined her body as a rocket. She burst out of the lake and gasped.