Story: Touching Bottom by Kari Strutt
“I know about currents now...Swim toward shore and you battle the current until you die.”
“How many fingers?” Dad asked at bath time.
I was afraid, but I ducked my head into the half-full white tub. I opened my eyes, then came up sputtering.
“That’s right.” Then his hand, broad as a rainbow, covered my head all the way to my ears, and slicked back my sopping hair. He wrapped me in a clean yellow towel, and the fear, what was left, evaporated.
I could open my eyes under water.
The summer I turned seven I went to Camp Kinaird with fifty other girls. “Where young girls learn to swim,” Dad quoted from the black text between the brochure photos of smiling kids.
“You should learn to swim,” he said, “you never know when you’ll end up in water that’s above your head.”
The camp instructors told me I was a good swimmer. My spindly arms cut the water like fins, and I could circle them at a furious pace. I learned to put my face in the water, turn my head for air. I was quick, like a water beetle, and I liked the feeling of the cool water pushing through my hair.
On the fifth day of swim lessons, the fat girl came to shore with a dark glistening streak on her back. Somebody shrieked, “You gotta leech on you,” and the shoreline became a seething mass of squealing, blue-lipped girls. The terror rang in my ears long after the camp counsellor salted the girl’s back and caught the writhing leech in an old tin can. She was still whimpering when we went back to the cookhouse for lunch.
For the rest of the summer I refused to go in the water. The other girls backstroked and side stroked and perfected their Australian crawls. The fat girl and I sat on the dock watching a black bloodsucker make its way across a yellow plastic bowl lodged in the sandy bottom near shore.
That fall my Dad signed me up for Red Cross swimming lessons. In a pool.
“You can start again,” Dad said, “I’m sure there are no leeches at the YMCA, but I’ll come and watch, just to be sure.”
When we got to the YMCA, Dad and I walked around the pool together, looking for leeches. I thought I saw one, but it was just a Band-Aid.
The pool water was clear blue-green and with my goggles on I could see the bottom. There were wide black lines painted along the length of it. I used the lines to make sure I was swimming straight. I finished all of the Red Cross lessons, then I joined a swim club and learned to race. I trained every day, back and forth in the pool, guided on either side by the lane markers—bright strings of plastic bubbles, led from blow by the thick black lines.
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