Sarah Remembers Drowning
When Sarah was eight years old, she drowned. It started when she dug a hole. Seawater rushed in, but it wasn’t the clear, calm pool she had wanted. It foamed in and tasted dirty and sandy, burning her chest and throat, filling her stomach like a stone.
Her memory blacked out, and there was only coughing, retching, shaking and aching. Her body was cold, and she felt herself filling it back up like it was something she’d forgotten, like water filling a hole. Then the sun was on her skin, and something was dripping onto her, and she felt like she was being born. When she opened her eyes, they ached with how bright it was and everything was blurred, but there was the unmistakable outline of her father looming over her, broad and haloed by the sun, dripping seawater onto her. She didn’t know that some of it was tears, because he had cried that day, harder than any other day of his life.
“I died,” she would tell people. “I died and my dad brought me back to life.”
Her parents asked her long afterwards why she dug the hole, and she told them it was because she wanted to be like the Underwater Girl.
As she got older she would look back and wonder if the Underwater Girl was real. She knew it was ridiculous, and told everyone it was just a childhood fantasy, or maybe a dream she’d thought had happened, but when she was on her own, she quietly believed.
Her parents told her that perhaps it was supposed happen, that she needed to be doused before she went out of control. She never knew whether they were joking or not. Things that burn too hot, they said, need to be quenched early.
Sarah first saw the Underwater Girl when she was five. She was supposed to be at a birthday party, one she had been looking forward to for two whole weeks, but now she wasn’t allowed anymore. She had to learn her lesson, her parents told her, but she couldn’t even remember what she’d done wrong. All she knew was that she was stuck here with nothing to do, while the party was somewhere else, happening without her, full of people having fun and not having to learn stupid lessons. She wasn’t even allowed an ice-cream when the van came. The air was so hot inside that it felt solid.
Being stuck in the house made her feel more and more restless, a flood-river rising until it was uncontainable, and before long she threw open the back door and ran out into the garden.
She stopped halfway down when the sun blinded her, holding up an arm to shield her face, and when she looked down at the grass she saw the girl, just on the edge of the flowerbed in the shade. It was impossible, but there was a gap that hadn’t been there before, full of deep water. The girl was lying under the surface, just like her but older, tangled in weeds and lotus stems, but she wasn’t fighting to be free. She simply lay at the bottom, her hair floating all around her head, looking up at Sarah.
Sarah turned around and looked back at the house, to see if her parents had seen, but they didn’t seem to have noticed anything at all. When she turned back the girl was holding a pale finger to her blue lips, and Sarah excitedly understood. This would be her secret.
She felt the peace that was down there, with none of the rules and lessons of up here, and she wanted to jump in and dive down with her. She walked over to the strange pool, but as she approached, the girl at the bottom fell out of sight and all the angles changed, and by some trick of perspective it was swallowed back up into the normal flowerbed, just grass and earth. She stood and poked at the point where she thought it had been, but somehow it didn’t look the same. She backed up to where she had first seen it, this time ignoring the sun in her eyes, but it still didn’t come back.
Sarah smiled to herself. She wasn’t disappointed at all, just thrilled that it had happened to her. She laughed and ran around the garden in wide circles, shouting with joy, letting the sun blind her again and again. She forgot all about the birthday party.
After that day, whenever she was made to learn her lesson, Sarah would tighten her lips and make sure to forget whatever she was supposed to learn, then she would run into the garden and see the Underwater Girl. Sometimes, if she was all by herself in someone else’s garden or at the park, as long as there was grass and earth in the shade, she would find the girl floating, looking at her. Sometimes it looked like she was whispering, but she was too far underwater to hear.
Not long afterwards, Sarah started school. She immediately made friends with Stella who was in her class, but when she tried to show Stella the Underwater Girl she was nowhere to be found.
She came less and less often after that, disappearing altogether by the time Sarah was seven. Somehow, she missed her. She missed her so much that sometimes she wanted to drown just to find her again.
“Hey, Zombie!” called Stella, waving her over.
Sarah went over. Her friends called her Zombie now, after Stella had pointed out that’s what people who come back the from dead really are. As a fifteen year-old rebel, she liked it.
“Come here,” she said, beckoning Sarah behind the old stone school buildings.
Sarah knew Stella was up to no good. She looked around and then followed her into the shade. Stella opened her school bag and rummaged underneath her books, half-pulling out a small packet of something green.
“My brother got me some really good stuff,” Stella said. “I vote we wag today. Get some vodka and get fucked up round the back, then go into town.”
Sarah’s smile widened. It was a beautiful day. It was only April, and the air was cool, the ground shady but sunny. Those were the days that made her feel alive, and the ones she always knew she would remember.
“Let’s get fucked up,” she agreed.
Round the back meant the huge old graveyard which surrounded the adjoining buildings, where the grass grew too long and the elements wore down the stones. The oldest graves were by the original church, half-buried and uneven like broken teeth, but they had spread over the centuries, taking more and more of the land as it had swallowed down more of the town’s people. Houses had been built next to the church, and in time they too had been surrounded by the dead. Now that it was a school its age was still heavy and hung in the air close by it, an almost audible memory of order and rules laid down long ago and never changed. If anywhere could teach Sarah discipline, her parents had reasoned, then an all-girl faith school steeped in unbroken tradition would be it.
So far, it hadn’t worked.
Neither she nor Stella had even set foot inside the school today. Sarah still had her fake nose ring in that she usually had to take out when she went in. Instead they made their way to the small Tesco, where Stella hung back to let Sarah flirt her way into getting a half-bottle of cheap vodka bought for them.
“Can you believe he asked for my number?” Sarah laughed when she came back. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious I’m still at school.”
“How old was he?”
“Dunno, maybe twenties?”
“Dirty bastard,” Stella said with mock horror. “Did you give it him?”
“Fuck yes!” Sarah laughed, holding the innocuous-looking Tesco bag up.
Stella laughed, pretending to be horrified, and they headed back to the school. The grounds were big enough to get lost in, and were the perfect starting place to get blasted on drink and weed.
A tall wooden fence ran all around the main part of the graveyard, with a locked gate near the church. It had been put up in recent years to stop the girls sneaking out with the boys from the next school, or sometimes with each other, hidden between the long grass and the shadows of headstones and statues. It hadn’t taken long for gaps to appear though, and Sarah knew them all. They sneaked under a low-hanging tree behind the art building, and through the dead leaves that still hadn’t rotted from last autumn, finding a hole in the damp wood right in the corner. They ducked through and into the silence of the graveyard.
The paths were all overgrown now spring was arriving, and they walked along them until they saw the large stone sarcophagus in the middle. There was moss growing on it, and a useless iron railing around its edge which was rusting and collapsing. The writing chiselled into the side had long been weathered away, and no-one remembered who was in there. The air always felt cold around it. Behind it, out of sight, the girls found their favourite pair of husband-and-wife headstones, then sat down and leaned back on them, shading their eyes against the blinding blue sky.
It was a beautiful morning. Sunlit grass and gravestones as far as they could see, a forest of forgotten people.
“I do love it here,” Sarah said, pulling the vodka from the bag.
“Where did you go yesterday?” Stella asked.
“Oh yeah, I was walking somebody home,” Sarah said, handing her the bottle for the first sip. “She was really upset.”
Stella unscrewed the cap and took a sniff. “Upset?”
“She was being bullied,” Sarah said. “She was by herself, and they’d surrounded her, and I hate that. It’s so unfair.”
“Wow, you stopped them? You’re kinda badass sometimes,” Stella said proudly, smiling at her. “You’re braver than me, anyway.” She took a big gulp from the bottle, wincing as she swallowed, then coughed, handing it back.
“I fucking hate bullies,” said Sarah. “Anyone on a power trip.” She took a swig, and also winced. “Christ, this is rough.”
Stella’s coughing fit erupted into laughter, and her face turned red trying to do both.
It wasn’t long before leaning on hard stone became painful, and soon they were lying back on their graves in the sun, just warm enough to ignore the chill in the air. When half the bottle was gone and they were light-headed they got restless and stood up, unsteadily wandering the grounds. The air and sun made it feel like a dream, and they stumbled and laughed their way to the far corner where there was a round patch of grass beneath a weeping willow, and a semicircle of crypts behind it with sealed-up doors. Stella went over and knocked on them while Sarah lay down in the moving shade cast by the branches.
“Hey Stel,” she called. “What would you do if someone knocked back?”
Stella laughed, then suddenly looked very serious. “Shit, yeah,” she said, and came back over to Sarah. “I can only take one zombie at a time.”
They rolled the weed and lit up, sharing the first one, and they lay back head-to-head, passing it to each other as they talked about everything. Never get married, was Stella’s issue now she’d broken up with Dan. As with all of her boyfriends, she’d thought he would be The One, and they’d grow old together with their hundred grandchildren. My parents are dicks, was Sarah’s issue after a lifetime of being held down. She couldn’t wait to move out and get away.
Even so, when she closed her eyes she still saw her dad as a young man, his sun-blinded skin beading with seawater, the unbearable look of loss on his face. Their reasons for living had merged and crossed just then, with the rest of his life useless without reviving her, and the rest of hers now owed to him.
“Where do we come from?” Sarah asked. “I mean, if I’d drowned that day and never come back. Where would I be?”
“Jeez, Sar,” Stella laughed. “That’s kinda deep. I don’t even know. I think we go back to where we came from, but where that is… I don’t know.”
“Do you think we can split? Like there’s a me that didn’t make it. Two of us, one alive and one drowned.”
“I think so. I think we have to.”
“We have to?”
“Yeah, for our lives to stay whole we have to split up. To follow all its paths.”
“Not sure that makes any sense.”
“In my head it does,” laughed Stella, and she passed over the almost-finished joint. “Told you this was good. You’d better have the rest, I need to rest my eyes.”
Sarah took it from her and got up, walking over to the crypts. She stood in front of one of the sealed stone doors, a blank expanse, and she felt a sudden rush of frustration, throwing the still-lit joint at it. She wanted to scream at the smooth stone, scream at the top of her lungs, kick it, hit it. Sink inside, into the dark, and feel all the dead bones beneath her. Set fire to it, burn them all down.
She sighed, and with Stella half-sleeping in the shade, she went over to the fence, where drifts of old grass and earth had collected under its shadow. She squinted as she saw something move. As she approached, new angles seemed to open up, an impossible gap that couldn’t fit, but there it was. Calm, still water in the grass, with a pale young girl at the bottom, looking through the surface at her.
Sarah stopped still. She looked back at Stella, still lying oblivious under the tree, then back at the Underwater Girl. There was so much peace down there, under the perfect surface, it reminded her of the day she drowned. Perhaps she had floated just like that when the water had come, or perhaps she had simply floated beside her waterlogged body for a while. She wanted to go back, to sink underwater with the girl. She felt tears welling inside her, first deep in her belly, then her chest and throat, then sobbing out of her in streams of saltwater, dripping onto the grass. She couldn’t remember the last time she had cried, and she fell to her knees.
“Help me,” she sobbed quietly. “Help me.”
The Underwater Girl simply looked back at her from the bottom of her pool, and lifted a finger to her lips, then she seemed to sink back into grass and mud.
“Come back!” Sarah yelped, louder than she’d intended.
“You okay?” said Stella from somewhere behind.
Sarah turned around, red-eyed, and stood up.
“God, Sar, what’s up?”
She came over and hugged Sarah tight, and Sarah felt more tears wringing out into Stella’s shoulder.
She pulled away, feeling embarrassed.
“What’s up?” Stella asked again.
Sarah shook her head, and they both sat down on the grass. “Just… I don’t even know. Do you ever feel like you’re drowning in it all?”
“Yeah.” Stella sighed and nodded. “Yeah, sometimes.”
“Or I wish I could. Just skip living and dying and come straight here. End up in one of those crypts, sealed in, full of water. Just floating in there forever.”
“God, you’ve really got it bad haven’t you? I’ve never seen you like this.”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said dismissively, wiping her eyes.
Stella rolled her a new joint and handed it to her, lighting it for her. “There you go, Zombie.”
Sarah took it, took a long inhale and smiled at her friend. “This is why I love you,” she laughed, smoke pouring from her mouth and nose.
Sarah lay on her bed, on her back with her hands folded on her stomach, like a dead body waiting to be viewed. She was here because her parents wanted to argue about her in privacy downstairs, but they were raising their voices loud enough to hear.
“It’s not just us and her anymore,” said her mom’s pleading voice.
“I don’t care, they can’t live here,” said her dad.
Just after her twentieth birthday, Sarah had to tell her parents about the baby. She wasn’t going to keep it at first, but decided she had to. Dave was supportive either way. So she had to tell them about him too, about the past four-and-a-half years with him.
“She was a minor!” her dad was yelling. “I should be calling the police on him!”
He couldn’t get over how Sarah had been sleeping with a man four years her senior since she was fifteen, a man she had met when persuading him to buy her vodka on a school day.
“If I ever meet him,” she heard her dad say threateningly.
“Nothing would happen,” Sarah muttered to herself. He was all talk. King of his own little castle, tyrant in his own family, and a coward outside where he held no sway.
She was no longer a teenager but she still thought her parents were fucking idiots.
“That is it,” she said aloud, and sat up, determinedly leaping from her bed.
Her suitcase was already half-packed. All she had to do was finish packing, leave without saying a word, and start somewhere fresh with Dave. She had no idea how, but anything was better than staying here for another second.
They were still arguing in the kitchen as she left, and she began walking to Dave’s house where he lived with his parents, pulling the wheeled suitcase impatiently behind her. She didn’t have a car or enough money for a taxi, but he only lived about two miles away, so she would walk. She would spend the night there, then work out their next move.
One mile in, she was tired and her legs and arms ached from pulling her suitcase. She was halfway there, just as the road dipped down, thick with trees on both sides. They were now red and yellow, and were steadily shedding leaves across the road and pavement that collected like riverbanks. They were ankle-deep at the bus stop where she had to sit down, suddenly feeling heavy. She felt like the life was seeping from her, needing to escape the pressure of her body, opening the window and floating out. She remembered being eight years old, the sun bringing her back to life, and how dense and useless her body had felt.
She closed her eyes. Eyes are supposed to be the windows to the soul, she reasoned. Perhaps if she closed them, it would stop leaking out.
There were sharp pains in her belly which made her wince, but her doctor had told her that was normal. She’d just have to sit them out, get herself together, catch her breath. Just a few more minutes.
Her phone started vibrating in her pocket, but she ignored it. She knew who it was, and she didn’t want to see or speak to either of them ever again.
She thought back to that impassive crypt door, no way in or out, drowning in bodies. She wanted to scream again.
Opening her eyes, she looked across from the bus stop at the big houses with neat gardens, and she got up and left her suitcase behind, crossing the road and stepping over the low garden walls and looking into the corners by the fences, peering into the flowerbeds and borders.
She didn’t know why, but she wanted to see her, needed to see her, now more than ever. But there was nothing, not even a ripple in the ground.
Please come back, she thought. Please.
Sarah laughed as she looked through her old photos with little Amy. She was four now, and wouldn’t believe that the girl in the pictures with the nose ring and black nails was her mom. There weren’t too many pictures of her dad. Dave hadn’t lasted long, just like the others after him until Ryan.
Now that she’d seen four years of Amy growing up, she realised how similar they were. She realised she had still been stubbornly sulking as an adult, clamping her lips shut and refusing to learn her lesson. Blaming the world for walling her in, like a crypt, making her irrelevant behind its timeless door.
Then, one day, Amy came running in from the garden and told her there was someone there, under the water. They both rushed back out to look, but when they got there the water had gone.
That same night, Sarah couldn’t sleep. She was too hot with the covers on, too cold with them off. Restless on her back, uncomfortable on her side. And all she could think about was the Underwater Girl. Ryan was sleeping soundly beside her, completely unaffected by her moving around.
“Fucking men,” she muttered.
She sighed and stood up. She kicked the side of the bed, trying to stir him, angry that he wasn’t sharing her insomnia, but he slept on.
When she pulled the curtain back, light flooded in. It was a full moon, and it made the surface of the garden look like a frozen lake. She smiled and opened the window, letting in the cold air, and breathed deeply. She closed her eyes and imagined the moonlight streaming into her lungs and stomach. When she opened her eyes again, she saw something glisten in the far corner, deep in the shadows. Her stomach churned.
She quickly put on a dressing gown and slippers and left the room, hurrying downstairs, fumbling in the dark to find the back door key and locate the lock.
“Come on,” she admonished herself, now in near-panic. She’d opened this door countless times, why had her hands forgotten where everything was just because it was dark?
The lock clicked, and she opened the door and rushed out across the grass. It was so quiet out here, her breaths deafening as they steamed out. As she approached the dark corner she caught a faint glimpse of something that looked like a girl’s face, a finger on her lips, deep under the surface of water that could not possibly have been there. She hurried nearer, but it turned back into moonlight and shadow and grass. Perhaps it always had been, she couldn’t quite tell. It was all so dark.
Ryan’s voice carried across the still air from the open window behind her. Of course, now he was awake. She rolled her eyes, then span around and nodded.
She looked back at the corner, and swore the grass rippled slightly, like a pond. She smiled to herself and stood for a while, feeling unusually peaceful, then went back indoors and back to bed. Ryan was concerned about her, but she told him not to worry and assured him everything was fine. Better than ever, in fact.
Ryan couldn’t get back to sleep after that, but she slept better than she had in years.
It wasn’t until the day she died, aged ninety-two, that Sarah really remembered drowning. She remembered what dying was like, that once the pain was far enough away it was not so bad after all, and she laughed as she thought of the hole she had dug. She thought of the hole in the ground that she would be lowered into, and how no-one now alive on Earth would remember her all those years ago when it had first happened.
Over thirty years earlier Sarah had lost her mother, but it was the year after that, at the moment her father passed, when something finally unlocked in her. Her memories of him in the sun had flooded in just as wild and reckless as the seawater that day. She had realised then that it’s impossible to know which parts of your life you’ll miss until they’re done.
She hoped that if Stella was right that time in the graveyard, she might get to see all the other split branches that her life took. Perhaps this was the only one left now.
Just before she died, she wondered who would be sitting on her grave drinking cheap vodka in another hundred years’ time. Growing up amongst the graves, and having already joined the dead just for a few moments of her young life, Sarah was unafraid of death. She had only ever been afraid of other people dying and leaving her, but now even that seemed like a small thing. Soon, there was only one thought left still pressing on her mind. She wanted to see the Underwater Girl one more time before she left this place for good. Just to look, listen, see if she could finally decipher those whispers.
But she never did. Instead, she slipped away, very slowly, like she was sinking underwater herself. Her own underwater girl, slipping her old skin and drowning in glorious pure sunlight.