I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
The Little Mermaid is the first movie I ever remember seeing in a theater. My dad took us when it was first released and we undoubtedly ate popcorn and Ursula made my sister cry and Sebastian made my dad laugh and Ariel made me angry. (I mean, really; who trades the entire ocean for forks and dresses and a pair of knobby-kneed legs?)
I used to spend entire summers poolside, my chestnut-colored hair streaked bright blonde and infused with strands of auburn, perpetual sun and perpetual chlorine my only salon. I practiced diving for hours. I learned to hold my breath as I swam four entire pool-lengths. I fearlessly honed all of my strokes, kicking my legs faster and harder and more comfortably, propelling myself from one end of the pool to the other with speed and a grace reserved for water and water alone. My mother called me her fish. I willed her words to magically gift me gills. I only left the water when she or my grandmother insisted I eat, or when the last tendrils of sunlight wrapped themselves around the moon. Years later I’d be allowed the privilege of swimming even then.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
When I wasn’t pretending to be a mermaid who would never consider trading her superior fins for uncoordinated legs, I was probably lakeside, biking to and from trails to explore, paddling my sister and myself to islands surrounded by sunbathing turtles in my grandpa’s ancient but formidable aluminum canoe, the Selkirks shaded and stunning in the distance. Excursions to the lake were always magic, sacred, slow to be shared with anyone because they’d first been shared with him.
Priest Lake was my dad’s favorite place on this earth. My grandfather’s too. It was where I learned to swim in water without a bottom I would ever see and to lose a trail and find it again. It was where my sister and I first learned what thighs riddled with exhaustion from a full day biking paved and dirt roads as fast as we could felt like. (And where we fell into giggling heaps on top of our bikes as soon as we’d made it back to my grandparents’ cabin.) It was where we caught our first fish and promptly decided we’d do well without ever having to remove a hook from a mouth while said mouth was attached to a slimy body wriggling and squirming in our hands.
It was where we learned to play outside. Whenever we were with my dad, and after he died, whenever we were with my grandfather, we were always outside, where life was abundant and fresh and would forever tell you stories if you could just walk long and quietly enough.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
Priest Lake was where my father and grandfather discovered beloved common ground to repair the rift caused between them when my dad decided he could no longer feign to believe what my grandfather so devotedly did. They found peace amidst water so deep it always looks black, and the still-deeper forests rife with deer ferns and huckleberries and granite-encased waterfalls.
Pristine wilderness was their church, the only real place that made sense to them. Years later I’d discover it was the only real place that made sense to me, too. Born from distance running stock but recruited into sprinting, I’d unlock a sacristry with my legs I’d never known I could find outside of water.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
Now: mountain trails run alongside superhero legs are home, alpine lakes my swimming holes of choice, even as so many of them prefer to stay inhospitable for consistent submerging for most of the year.
I smile thinking about how my dad and my grandfather would understand. How they understood long before I did.
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
What else is there to find at the bottom of any body of water but him?
He who voluntarily dove into the river that day in April. He who should have thought twice, three times, five-hundred times before removing his wallet from his back pocket and leaving it on the shore. Before leaving both of us there.
She hardly remembers and I can’t decide if that stings more than the salt of you seventeen years gone, seventeen years drowned.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
I am the girl who lost her father, yes. The girl who lost her father when she was still learning how to live, how to love, how to use her words and what she yearned for, what she hoped to find waiting for her at the bottom of a beautifully shapeshifting sea.
I will always be her: the mermaid with the dark hair circling silently above the wreck, the woman with sun-streaked hair and a face like his older sister’s waiting quietly on the riverbank for some trace of him rushing back to me. If only for a moment, so I could show him, so he could know: How well it is with my soul.
But I am more than that, more than both of them, and will always be. I am more because I lost him. Because I know what it means to lose, what there is to lose. Because I know what it’s all worth, how much there is to love.
*Poem pieces from Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.”