Fiction — July 16, 2017 13:15 — 0 Comments

A Swimming Lesson – E.M. Hubscher

“Don’t you go gettin’ any ideas about sneaking up there for a swim, Cora,” Pop says. He lifts his lowball to gesture at the hills. She doesn’t meet his eyes; she’s watching beads drip down the glass.

On days like these, everything sweats. Her legs stick to the porch swing slats. The sun’ll be setting soon, but for the time being it’s a blazing ball of heat setting their faces on fire. “They don’t call it the Devil’s Washbasin for nothin’. Harrigan boy drowned up there awhile back, day just like this.”

Cora knows the forbidden pool in the woods, knows Gladys and Earl Harrigan. At the edge of Pop’s western property line, their house is folding in on itself, shrinking from the road and neighbors. Its clapboard siding is the same sad gray as Gladys’s hair, save that one spot over by the shed—a strange ruddy brown place Cora doesn’t like to think about.

Pop’s still talking. “County dragged it, never found a thing. Could’ve told them they was wasting their time. It ain’t got no bottom. Sure, it looks nice up top, real tempting blue. Below’s a different story, boiling red all the way down to the center of the earth.” He pauses, waiting for the distant groan of a stubborn screen door opening. “Steer clear of that place, hear?”

“Yes, Pop.”

Gladys and Earl stumble out of the rundown farmhouse; the door smacks shut behind them. Their shouts echo across cracked soil rows where pathetic yellow clumps should have been green and lush, with long cucumbers protruding. They need water; like the girl, they’re dying for it. The Harrigans spend these summer nights trying to quench their thirst with moonshine; it sloshes from the jars in their hands, spills from their mouths, unintelligible. But then (and even Cora knows this) theirs is an emptiness that can never be filled.

The wind comes, hot and thick with humidity. It brings as much relief as pea soup, but Cora won’t complain. She’s watching Earl stagger toward the coop, dust devils swirling around his feet, willing the wind to push him back to the porch. The hens lift their heads; brown feathers, blood-red combs ruffle in the stiff breeze.

“Woman! Watch!” The order was meant for Gladys who’s crumpled under a magnolia beside the porch, but Cora complies, eyeing Earl as he lunges for a chicken. The birds scatter, squawking. He plunges into the chaos and emerges with a hen, a writhing mass of bright white and vermillion in his filthy hands. Thunder rumbles, or perhaps that’s just Earl hollering into the gale. The bird struggles as he carries her back toward the house. Does she know the way of a farm; a blade brought down roughly on a neck, feet tied with twine, blood drained, feathers yanked. Simple acts. A scrub and salt and into a pot of boiling water it’ll go.

Back on the porch, Pop finishes the rest of his watered-down whiskey. Cora stares at the bird as it careens through the air and slams into the stained siding, its limp neck still tight in Earl’s fist.

Pop glances up at the sky. “Storm’s coming.” Lesson over, he pushes up from his chair. “Crops could use a good rain.”

Cora can’t answer. Earl is winding up for another swing.

“Time to head in, girl.” There’s no mistaking his tone even through the screen door.

She should hurry into the house and make another whiskey for him, one with fresh ice cubes, like her mother used to; he’ll drink it and fall asleep in his chair, like always. But she’s transfixed. Earl’s on his knees in the brittle grass now, feathers floating around him like snow.

Pop presses his lips together. He’s fueling for a cruel backhand to Cora’s cheek, but she’s already off the porch—pale hair trailing out behind her, spindly legs churning over the dying crops toward the tree line and the rising hills.

“It’s just a worthless bird. Dumb enough to drown in a bucket of water.” A gust of wind carries Pop’s words away.

He tracks Cora until she’s a speck of light, something like a firefly, he thinks, though they’ve already gone for the summer. Had her feet been bare or was she wearing those Mary Jane’s, the ones her mom had bought her last season, shiny black toes worn down to dull; the god-awful melody of Gladys crying and the chickens clucking in refrain has become a kind of fugue, and he can’t be sure of anything anymore.

The forest trail to the pool is beautiful, beckoning, nothing like the festering fields Cora crossed to get here. Through the trees, the sky peeks, purple and peach, soft. Cora is not afraid. She presses on, pausing only to remove her shoes, hang her pinafore on a rhododendron; mauve blossoms litter the forest floor. Though she’s never made the trek before, she knows the way. The earth is cool and moist beneath her feet.

There’s a cascade at the top of the climb with a rocky ledge like a diving board, slick and flocked with moss. Mist coats Cora’s face. Its touch is gentle, something strange and foreign, but the water’s roar, like Pop’s, brings a familiar tightness to her chest. She climbs down from the ledge. Rough stone scrapes her bare knees.

Away from the churning, the water is calm and so inviting. Just like Pop warned. Cora climbs to the edge, scoops water in her hand, lets it fall through her fingers. The Devil isn’t here, she decides. Now, she steps forward until her skirt is soaked and heavy. It pulls her. She gulps air—she’s not a good swimmer—and sinks. The light fades along with everything she’s left above. Lungs burning, she continues her descent, cupped hands paddling down. Maybe if she goes deep enough she’ll find something lost: the Harrigans’ long-gone son, her mother, or the bottom Pop swore did not exist.


E.M. Hubscher is a writer and toxicologist. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Eunoia Review and Lost Balloon. Her non-fiction is featured in several scientific journals and a textbook. She lives in North Carolina with her family.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney