Waterbaby – Short Story
By Iain Angus
I remember my brother and sister; Sam and Sarah; no one else does… I do. My parents moved to Canada before any of us were born. It was 1970 I think, or 71. To Charleston Lake, Ontario, cottage country. Up I-81, half an hour north of the US border. The locals called it a summer place, our house. My father gutted, insulated, rewired and dry-walled it. Part the foundation was replaced as well. It’s amazing what frost can do to cement. of Mr. Running, the old farmer down the road, helped dad when he could. Together they scraped, primed, painted and shingled. I don’t remember it but I’ve seen pictures and heard stories of struggle. In return dad helped with haying and cutting wood. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Mom taught English at Carleton University, just over an hour away, in Ottawa. She left early and came home late.
The house was finished the year I was born, 1975: the year of the Rabbit—a Pisces. We butted up against Mr. Running on one side and Crown land on the other. Three acres, most of it bush. Mr. Running and my father built a small shop for dad to write in and a dock, that summer, 1975. I remember them struggling every spring and fall; the dock going in and out bookended my summers. We loved the lake, Sam, Sarah and I. Musta jumped off that dock a million times; swam under it; played make believe. Adrift in the row boat, lost at sea for hours in front of the dock. My parents were happy back then.
The summer I turned eight my father saved me from drowning, twice. I was never a strong swimmer, not like Sam and Sarah. My Name is Daniel Hartwick. I no longer live in Canada. In 1985 my parents moved back to Pennsylvania; in 1985, after the summer Sam and Sarah disappeared. Father always waited until school was out before installing the dock. How we loved the water. My grandmother called us waterbaby. I liked that.
I had been trying to keep up with them.
“C’mon Danny” They called, laughing and splashing. I went. The cramps started, breathing hurt and I swallowed water, rusty and bitter. I yelled and swallowed more water. Sweetness stung the back of my throat. There is an image I remember, so clearly, dad racing through the water towards me, mom struggling to untie the boat—so clearly. Dad reached me, I put my arms around his neck and he dragged me to the boat. They hugged me, hard. They were angry. They yelled and screamed. I had scared them. They loved me.
The second time was Labor Day weekend that same summer. The last weekend before school; last week end before the dock is removed. After the yelling stopped I yelled too.
“They made me swim out there.” My parents looked at me, then at each other, then out at the lake. Sam and Sarah were bobbing in the water watching us, smiling now that I was safe. Mother wrapped me in a towel and carried me to the house for hot chocolate.
Canadian winters are long. The first real snow around Halloween, but it’s been cold for weeks. By mid-November winter’s set in and stays til March for sure. In April everything is soft and wet. The frost melts, the rains fall. And in May you get flowers after the showers. By May everything is green again. I loved May in Canada but not as much as I loved the summer.
In the summer of 84 I turned nine and met a friend. Mr. Running’s daughter came to live with him: divorced, single, parent, difficult. Mr. Running’s granddaughter Gillian also moved in with him. Dad thought this made Mr. Running happy. We were instant friends. Gillian loved the forest. She wouldn’t go near it, the water: scared! I played more with Gillian that summer then with Sam and Sarah. We spent most of our time climbing trees, building forts and just pretending. Still played with them though; still went swimming, on days Gillian was too busy to play.
Gillian grew up hearing stories of the waterbabies from her mother. She told me about them. Water spirits, childlike, luring children into the water; melancholy, jealous and lonely.
I was happy to play in the woods but as the summer wore on I missed the water, and Sam and Sarah. I begged her to go swimming. I explained how much fun it was with Sam and Sarah. I had been swimming in the lake my whole life and not once seen a waterbaby. In the woods I sweat; beads of it stung my eyes. My skin itched from dry grass and bark; my eyes red from the pollen and hay in the air. Our imaginary worlds began to pale and fade; the lake glistened through the trees. I longed for the cool embrace of the dark cool water. By late August I gave into those longings and Gillian went home to play alone.
My parents asked if Gillian and I were still friends. I said we were but she doesn’t like the water. I missed swimming. I missed it, and Sam and Sarah. My parents thought it strange that I preferred playing with Sam and Sarah over other children. Neither of them had siblings so they probably didn’t understand the ties.
My parents tried to find other things to interest me. Too much time in the water they said. But they let Sam and Sarah play. It wasn’t fair. We went camping or hiking or the movies. It was nice spending time with my parents, just me and them. Sometimes we invited Gillian to join us and sometimes she would. It was always fun yet… I still missed the lake. The minute we got home I would charge down to the dock and plunge in, joining Sam and Sarah in whatever game they were playing. My parents would take Gillian home if she had been with us; they never understood either my desire to swim or Gillian’s aversion to it. My parents had never heard of the waterbabies.
Labor Day weekend rolled around again. Sadly I watched as dad and Mr. Running removed the dock. Summer was over. Gillian was in my class at school. With the lake frozen we spent a lot more time together wondering through the snowy woods, building forts and playing make believe as winter wound endlessly across the months.
Gillian asked about Sam and Sarah. Why didn’t they come to school? They went to live with my mother’s Aunt when the cold weather arrived; somewhere in Florida called the keys. They went to school there. You can swim all winter in Florida. I always wanted to visit. Gillian said she had lived there, in Florida. I listened, rapt, as she described the beautiful beaches and crystal sand that stretched for miles; a place where waves crashed like thunder. Her father died there—drowned. He had saved her form the waterbabies. She remembered them tugging at her feet and scratching at her legs. She tried to swim but couldn’t find up. Salt stung her throat and eyes — a pileated woodpecker beat his skull against an old oak in the silence between her words — her dad had held her up, held her…up. I said the ocean is different. There are no water babies in Charleston Lake. They only live in salt water I said. She nodded and the woodpecker answered.
In 1985 I turned 10 and Gillian turned 10. It was a summer of lasts: last time I went swimming, last time I played with Sam and Sarah, last time I saw Gillian, last time my parents were happy… We fought, it was the first time. I yelled at her. She went home. She upset me, said my brother and sister must be really weird to spend so much time in the water and miss my birthday. Kept asking why they weren’t at my party. I yelled at her. My parents took her home. I went swimming.
I apologized, asked her to come meet Sam and Sarah. She didn’t want to but she agreed to come as far as the head of the dock. They weren`t there. I called for them until my mother yelled down asking what I wanted. I was sure they had swum out to the rocks, a small island a couple of hundred meters out from the dock. I wanted to swim out but she wouldn’t. I got angry. I stamped my feet. Demanded that she swim out and meet them. She owed me. What kind of friend she was, she wouldn’t meet my brother and sister, especially after insulting them the day before. She was uncomfortable but I didn’t care, she owed me. She kept looking back, up at our house, even took a couple of hesitant steps backwards. I moved between her and land, refused to let her go until she had met my brother and sister. Finally, softly, she consented. She said yes. She would swim out to meet Sam and Sarah. I remember asking if she was sure, she looked past me to the woods, I thought she would run but she nodded. She wouldn’t look at me. We stripped to our underwear and jumped off the dock. She treaded water for a moment before following me, casting a glance at the shore before stretching into a strong front crawl. She was a much stronger swimmer than me. Steady and even where I was jerky, changing strokes often. We were about half way to the island when Sam and Sarah joined us, on their way back.
“Here they are.” I was excited. Gillian stopped swimming and started treading water evenly.
“Where? “She asked.
“Here. Right here.”
“Stop it!” Sarah had pulled her hair. But Gillian was yelling at me.
Sam tugged on her feet from below, teasing. She came up sputtering.
“STOP IT!” she yelled at me and turned back to the dock swimming fast and strong. I tried to catch up but Sam got to her first. He pushed her under again, Sarah was there laughing. She helped Sam dunk her. Both of them laughing. Gillian was thrashing and spitting and screaming. I was scared, I remember that. Gillian was swallowing a lot of water and fighting hard. She went under again. She broke the surface with a scream that seemed to stop time; I watched as beads of water haloed her head, sunlight prismed through each one. Her gasps for air cut short as she disappeared once more below the surface. And then that image, the one etched on my mind, my father tearing through the water, mom fighting to untie the boat. Gillian no longer had the strength to resurface. She stretched out a hand to me as she drifted below. I returned the gesture, reaching for her but she was too far away. The lake went still, my ears pounded with silence. Then dad was there, diving down, again and again.
“WHERE? WHERE?” He was screaming at me and I was scared. My arms and legs burned with exhaustion. He went under again, and then my mother was pulling me into the boat. She was shaking me, yelling at me. What happened? Danny! What happened Danny? I couldn’t understand. I tried to tell her that Sam and Sarah had pulled Gillian under. My mother was white.
“I’m sorry.” I said though I don’t know why. I wanted to cry. Not only had I lost my best friend, I had lost my brother and sister. I was shaking. I was crying. I was dizzy. Mom just looked at me. I wanted her to hold me but she didn’t, she held me away looking at me. Then my father was there, dripping all over us. He was pulling at something over the side of the boat but I don’t remember much else.
I sat on a chair wrapped in a blanket and stared at Gillian’s wet, limp body stretched out on the sofa. Gillian’s mom was crying and screaming at me; dad was holding her back; she was out of control; kept yelling at me.
“You killed my daughter! My Gillian! You Killed her!” I didn`t understand. Gillian was my best friend. I was terrified, why weren’t my parents defending me? Why weren’t they telling her to shut up, to go away? Why were they letting her scream at me? I looked at Gillian’s body and started crying again. I tried to explain. It had been Sam and Sarah. They pulled her under. It was a mistake. They only wanted to play. My mother slapped me hard across the face. The shock of it rattled my teeth and scared me to silence. I started to shake. I looked to my dad but he wouldn’t meet my eye. I ran to him screaming at him that it wasn’t my fault but he pushed me towards my mother, tears streaming down my swelling cheek but she wouldn’t look at me. I screamed at her, at him, at them. I screamed and screamed and screamed.
I never heard the ambulance arrive but I felt the needle. It must have been days, if not weeks later, when I met Dr. Alvarez. He was really nice, always willing, almost eager, to talk about Sam and Sarah. It was so nice to be able to talk to someone. I missed them and Gillian of course. Dr. Alvarez wanted to hear every detail of how Sam and Sarah had killed her. I told him it was an accident, they just wanted to play, but she hadn’t been a strong swimmer and things just got out of control.
I only got the chance to talk to Dr. Alvarez a few times because by the end of November my parents had sold the house and moved back to Wilkes-Barre. Once back in Pennsylvania I went to live with a bunch of other children. Children with “problems” like mine. I wanted to know what problems but no one ever told me. My parents visited seldom. I was sad and scared and I cried and cried. I pleaded. I didn’t have any problems. I begged them not to leave me. Not alone. They had tears in their eyes as they turned and walked away. I was led to a room by Dr. Sandra Oey. Dr. Sandra, as she likes to be called, isn’t as nice as Dr. Alvarez but she’s ok. I soon ran out of tears. Dr. Sandra told me not to worry that I would be allowed to see my parents on weekends. She’s a liar.
It hasn’t been too bad here. I have grown to like Dr. Sandra, she is nice to me and all the other Doctors and nurses are friendly. The other children scare me a bit but I keep to myself spending most of my time in my room, reading, so it isn’t too bad. Dr. Sandra told me this morning that maybe next week I might be able to go home for a bit. I am really excited. Next week is my birthday. I will be thirty eight.