The black-green water lapping at the rocks lets no light in. Two girls and a boy stare down at it. “I’d rather not know,” says Sonya.
“What?” Charles asks.
“What’s underneath,” she says.
Charles swivels his head back toward the lake and squints through his bangs, long despite his father’s best efforts. “This year we’ll do it. We’ll swim around the island.”
The rough rock warms Sonya’s bare feet. The sun is a hand on her nape.
“You think so?” asks Vee, Charles’ younger sister. She’s looking at Sonya.
All last year, on Sundays, Sonya went with the Remingtons to a community swimming pool. Sonya’s mother, Joy, was at home in her studio, so Asta Remington took them. Charles made Grade Nine swim team last year, and Vee aims to do the same, in two years. Sonya, on the other hand, hated swimming lessons and only just passed an orange badge level several years ago. At the pool, while brother and sister dove for pucks in the deep end, Sonya splashed around in shallower water.
The island swim is a rite of passage for kids whose families cottage there. “I’ll get you there,” Charles tells Sonya.
Across the bay is Kingston, where they come from, and where they have left Joy behind. Kingston is in fog, and from their angle you can only see two kinds of grey—charcoal and feather—where water meets shore. Sonya stands slightly behind Charles, and Vee, short for Vivian, stands a couple of metres away. Tangy sweat floats off Charles. They’ve only been here for two days, having crossed over after the end of the school year, yet his skin is already brown. Beauty marks are constellations on the whole of his back. “Okay,” says Sonya. “Let’s try.”
Sonya had been packing when her mom came into her room. Joy sat down on the edge of her daughter’s bed, her small frame dipping the mattress only by a quarter inch. “Did you stay as long as that last year?”
Sonya picked up a shirt that had slid off the bed. “It’s the same every year.”
“I was thinking you might want to see your friends here.”
Her mom didn’t touch that, of course. As usual she couldn’t take what was actually going on in Sonya’s head. “Asta and Arnold might want to be with their kids. As a family, I mean.”
“They don’t mind,” Sonya said. But she didn’t put the shirt into her suitcase.
She has overheard things. Often, she tiptoes on the Remingtons’ landing and leans over the upstairs banister. One time, Vee complained to Asta about an extra place setting. “Why does she have to be here all the time?” she said. This was last year, and at eleven years old, Vee could still get away with whining. But maybe not quite, for Asta had sent her to her room and called Sonya down to help her set the table.
“I won’t stop you, then,” said Joy. She went out of the room. In her voice were two things: a sadness that Sonya was leaving her again, and a twangy cord of anticipation that meant that Joy was already thinking of whatever task she had planned that day in her latest project. Joy is a painter, and spends most of her hours in her attic, surrounded by large canvases, the smell of turpentine, and the sounds of Beethoven coming from an old tape deck.
Each summer, the Remingtons have a family venture, and each summer, Sonya joins them. Last year they built a shed. At first, handing Arnold Remington a nail gun and helping Charles and Vee carry lumber, she imagined she was a child being kept occupied so she would feel included. By the end of the summer, though, she was climbing up on the roof and shooting nails into the shingles, all under Arnold’s approving eye. Arnold is originally British, and left his family young, under circumstances that nobody talks about. He is something she has overheard adults say is a rare thing: an academic who is also a handyman. He believes that children should be self-sufficient, and that every one of them should learn useful, even dangerous skills.
Swimming with Charles and Vee, Sonya will fit right into the Remington family. And this year, there is Charles to think of. When she makes it around the island, he will smile at her. “Well done,” he will say, his jaw set in a way that echoes his father’s. She will feel the whole of herself, her fears and her sadness, contained in the square of that chin.
Joy paints in a tradition she calls expressionist: figures bent over or broken, all suffering in some way. Sometimes she paints over them in bursts of red and yellow and fiery orange until almost nothing is left, only a pinprick of black or grey, a cut-off shin or bone. One day she will suffuse everything with light and it will take over everything, she says to Asta, her neighbour in Kingston. Sometimes she hates what she paints, tells her art dealer over the phone that her latest paintings didn’t work out, piles these canvases against a wall where Sonya finds them, on her trips upstairs to visit her mother. Sonya asked her once why she didn’t paint more of these and Joy said, “they don’t sell.” Later, she said to her friend Asta: “Really they don’t sell because they’re terrible. I don’t believe in them, you see.”
The island, she loves. The long grasses, the wildflowers, the dandelion puffs. The Queen Anne’s lace and the purple loosestrife. When they were younger they played hide and seek in the grasses, holding in their pee until they couldn’t, running to the outhouse a few metres from the cottage. The outhouse was papered with the covers of old New Yorkers. Compared to Joy’s books on Bosch and Kokochka and Picasso, the New Yorker cartoon drawings seemed silly, even though she understood none of the jokes.
Charles and Vee have always taught her things. Charles takes the lead. When she was eight, he tried to take the training wheels off her bike so she could learn to ride for real. When he couldn’t manage the bolts, he called his dad. In the end, he and Arnold pushed her off on her bike, and she cycled a good few metres before falling.
Charles and Sonya stand on the rocky, sloping shore a few hundred metres from the Remington cottage. This is where they will practice.
“You’ll have to go in for real,” he jokes. “Not like last year.”
“I did!” she says. “I do.”
“More or less.”
The point where the lake water meets her calves seems to her to be a threshold. Above the water, her legs are unmasked in the sun. When she steps down, her feet stir up silt and disappear.
“If you swim the distance from here to the rock over there,” says Charles, “you’ll know you can circumnavigate the island.”
She slips in further. The water rises to her neck like a cold glove.
She tries to remember the front crawl she learned long ago, in the overcrowded community pool where she did her first strokes. She kicks away from the shore and swivels her arms. Her limbs start to ache almost immediately.
He calls out to her. “Don’t slam your hands in the water. Bring them down on the knife-edge. You’ll glide forward.”
She gets tired halfway to the rock and treads slowly, trying not to extend her legs too far down to whatever grows up from the bottom. She turns around so she can see the shore.
Behind the cottage, on rich green grass, Asta sits on a beach chair and reads a murder mystery. Sonya wishes Asta would look up from her book and tell her to come back, that she doesn’t have to do this ridiculous swim. She would actually say “ridiculous,” for she uses the same words as her husband. Asta sits on, her short, dirty blond hair spiky from an early morning dip. A triangle of sun drapes itself over her left knee. Soon, she will move her chair a few inches over, so she can stay in the light.
Each evening, after Sonya, Charles and Vee have put away the dishes, the family goes to the living room. Arnold sits in an armchair and reads a biography of Winston Churchhill. Asta leans back into a worn love seat and reads an old Vogue. Originally from Denmark, she came over to Canada at some point and met and married Arnold. A long time ago, before she gave up a job to raise her kids, she was a hairdresser or something like it: Sonya only knows that her work involved taking care of women.
The girls are on a faded Ikea carpet. They’re painting their nails using Asta’s mother-of-pearl polish., The girls’ heads almost touch, for Vee is teaching Sonya to apply nail polish just so, not quite at the cuticle, so it doesn’t spill over.
Books on famous swimmers are scattered on the floor. Naked from his waist up, Charles kneels and puts his hands on either side of a book. He rises on his hands and knees to read the top of a page, his back arching like a bridge. “Who could even beat this kind of time?” he says.
“Charles wants to be Kutral Ramesh,” Vee says. Ramesh is the youngest person to swim the English Channel.
Asta looks up to gauge which way the conversation is going, to see if Vee is picking a fight. Vee finds her brother annoying. In the water, Vee is as quick and light as a skating bug. It irritates her that in races her brother always beats her. “Ramesh was thirteen,” Vee says. “You’re too old, Charles.”
“Vee,” Asta says.
Arnold glances at her. “When you are as hardworking, you may tease your brother.”
Vee blushes and concentrates harder on applying nail polish to her smallest toe.
Throughout July, they practice twice a day. Vee is always the first one in, tiptoeing on the rocks as if they are too hot to linger on, and sliding in. Charles moves slowly but efficiently. Sonya is the last one in, and only after a good minute or two of stalling by pretending to adjust her bathing suit. The suit is one of Vee’s old ones. Asta gave it to her after seeing Sonya shiver in her own. She had only brought one bathing suit and had been wearing it when it was still wet.
Each day, Sonya increases the number of laps she swims by almost an entire lap. Some days her muscles ache and twice Charles tells her to take an afternoon off. “Your muscles need recovery time,” he says. After each day of rest, she swims further than ever before. By August, she can swim twenty-five laps. The water is no longer so frightening. With each stroke she creates a wall between herself and things that lurk.
One day, she catches her reflection in the mirror of the room she shares with Vee. Her fingers are long and brown. She’s stopped biting her cuticles: they are smooth as beach stones. When she turns she sees that her upper back has developed muscle. She is beginning to resemble, not Vee who is lithe like her father, but Asta and Charles, whose large-boned, Scandinavian bodies give off an impression of reliability.
Neighbours, Jean and David Thomas, are expected for dinner. Everybody knows them: five years ago, their daughter was the youngest person to swim around the island.
To host them, Asta wears an old, Sixties-style dress with enormous flowers. When she appears at the living room door, Arnold says, “That’s a bright piece.”
Asta frowns. She makes Sonya think of a piece of yellow glass polished by the sea. So unlike Joy, who is so thin she almost disappears. Whenever Sonya makes dinner for Joy, which is more often than not, Joy says, “God! If it weren’t for you, I’d forget to eat!”
Jean Thomas is a compact woman with blunt fingernails who wears a blue anorak at dinner. Their daughter isn’t with them, she explains, for she is on a sailing trip for exceptional teenagers.
“Ah yes,” she says when introduced to Sonya. “The young lady whose mother is an artist.” Mrs. Thomas keeps each food item separate on her plate. Halfway through dinner, she puts down her fork. “I always wonder,” she says, “If there’s anything else to say about the Holocaust.”
Sonya sees herself as a tiny figure pummeling Mrs. Thomas’ face that is as dense as an acorn. Words fly within her brain like mosquitos and she has trouble choosing which ones to put to Mrs. Thomas. It’s always like this, not finding the thing that fits.
“If someone is saying something more about it, then there’s more to say,” Asta says.
“Well.” Mrs. Thomas picks up her fork and tidies pork chop bundles into her mouth.
Sonya wants to hug Asta and also hide from her, for she is ashamed of what Asta knows.
Just before the summer, Asta and Joy had tea at Asta’s house, and Sonya overheard their conversation.
Joy was saying, “You don’t know what it was like. My dad and his moods. He used to shut himself up in his office with his war journals.”
“Your daughter needs you,” Asta said to Joy.
“I know, I know. I get carried away. But I’m getting closer, you know. I finally figured out the painting had to be from the perspective of the child. A baby who stares at her murderer. Complete ambivalence.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What, with Sonya? She wants to be with you this summer. As usual.”
“Oh, Joy. If you want her home.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll keep at it,” Joy said. “It’s for Sonya, you know. Maybe after this summer, we can leave it behind. We can live more lightly, you see.”
Sonya and Vee go suntanning on the shore that faces away from Kingston. Here there are no cottages, only the rustle of grass, the crackling of tall pines, and the occasional rumble of a motor boat.
They close their eyes against the sun. Vee wears a purple bathing suit. She is on her back, her budding breasts thrust toward the sky. Sonya lies on her stomach with her head turned and her chest up against the bed of the warm stone.
“Have you kissed anyone yet?” Vee asks.
Sonya opens her eyes. “Have you?”
“There’s a guy I’m supposed to go out with when I get back to the city.”
“I’m saving myself,” Sonya says, then regrets it.
Vee props herself up. “For who?”
Sonya shuts her eyes.
“It’s not my brother, is it?” Vee asks. “Gross.”
The light under Sonya’s squeezed eyelids goes from yellow to red-black. In the distance, a motorboat approaches, a hum getting louder.
When they return to the cottage, Asta is leaning over an open oven. The kitchen is filled with the scent of roasting chicken. “Your mother called, Sonya,” she says. She takes a baster to a trussed chicken and curtains its skin with gravy. Rising, she says, “There’s a flashlight by the door. And take a quarter for the phone.”
The only phone is located in the middle of the island, in a hut. When Sonya sets out, it’s already dark. Her flashlight creates a small, full moon on the dirt path before her. In her periphery, giant pines sway.
The small hut, where from the ceiling hangs a naked bulb, is comforting until she catches sight of the cobwebs netted up and down its corners. The coins clatter within the phone’s belly.
“I’m just checking in on you,” Joy says, her voice coming from far away at first.
“Listen. I think I’ve figured some things out.”
Sonya strains her ears for Beethoven. “Are you calling me because you’re on a break?” This is how it is: the pity she feels for her mother when they are apart evaporates in her presence.
“No, honey. I just thought. If you wanted to come home.”
“Everything’s fine.” She longs to be back in Asta’s kitchen, its warmth and its scent of roasting meat. “I’m good.”
“Right,” Joy says. As usual, she gives in to Sonya.
If only she persisted, if only she tried to get more out of her daughter, something might change between them. This conversation is no different from those before it, after all.
“I have to get going,” says Sonya.
The next day, Sonya is in bed with a cold. Asta brings her ginger ale and feels her forehead. “Stay right here in this bed,” she says.
Charles comes in later that morning. “You missed practice.”
“I’m sick,” Sonya croaks. Her entire neck aches.
“Okay.” He shrugs.
She spends the next hour thinking of him swimming, his shoulders flashing above the water. She drags herself out of bed and puts on her bathing suit. The grass down to the shore pricks her bare feet.
Charles is sitting on a rock facing the lake. He looks up. “Ah. Great.”
He points to a figure further along the shore, in the water. “She’s moody, as usual.”
The cold water makes her breathless. She kicks out, concentrates on technique: rotate arms, kick strong, breathe efficiently. Soon, her body unlocks, glides forward as if it has a will of its own. She sees herself as if from above, a sea creature with water running off its oiled back.
Afterward, she’s breathless, aching. Soreness returns, coats the inside of her throat. Charles hands her a towel. “You see?” he says. “You have to push through.”
Across Charles’ right shoulder and descending diagonally across his back is a red welt. After morning practice, he took a canoe out. Balancing on the stern, he bounced up and down to move the canoe forward. The islanders call this “gunny jumping.” As he tried to walk on the gunwale (like a tightrope walker, thinks Sonya), a motorboat wake unbalanced him and he struck his back on the gunwale’s hard edge.
At dinner, Arnold says, “It wasn’t smart. You’ll need two or three days at least.”
“It could have been worse,” says Asta.
“He certainly won’t do it again.”
Charles eats steadily, his nape flushing.
After dinner, Sonya goes to Charles’ room. The room has a desk, a single bed, and a shelf, all wood. Charles is seated with his back to her. His legs, too big to fit under what must be a child’s desk, are splayed on either side of the chair. A lamp casts a pool of light on some papers. As Sonya approaches, he starts. “Woah,” he says. “What’s up?” He covers the papers, then removes them when he sees it’s her.
They are drawings of warships, in delicate blue ink. “Those are amazing,” she says.
“That’s the Achilles,” he says. “The first ship battle in double u double u Two.”
She leans over him.
“And here is HMS Prince of Wales,” he says. “Because of her, the German KMS Bismarck sank.” He looks at her. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t talk about the war.”
“Oh,” she says. “It’s not the same. Well, I guess it is.”
“Does your mother talk about it?”
“Not much,” she says.
“Is it true that her older sister was killed in a concentration camp?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Do you know how?”
“If you don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
How she wishes she could talk to him, but where would she start? How once one of her uncles took her aside and showed her an article someone had written. She couldn’t sleep for weeks. She felt like she did when she was seven, that time when her mom tried to talk to her about where babies come from. What her uncle had told her was far worse. For nights she imagined the story he had repeated. She tried to make up a new ending. In her script, the soldier put his gun down, took the child home. But each time she replayed this version in her head, the real narrative would intrude, superimposing itself on her made-up story. There was nothing she could do. For a long time after that, she couldn’t look her mom in the eye: it was the shame of knowing something like that.
“Her name was Sonya,” she says. Unbidden, tears come to her eyes.
“Forget it,” he says. Absentmindedly, he brings his arm around to his back.
It’s too late: he has scratched the sore. He grimaces. “Shit,” he says. He picks up a pen and weaves it between his fingers. He sees her looking at them. “What.”
He pushes his chair out from the desk. “I’m supposed to do everything well,” he says. “But you are good at things.”
“Right,” he says. “It might be nice to slack off. My dad—”
“He’s pretty scary.”
He laughs. “He doesn’t scare me. He annoys me.” He looks at her. “You’re lucky to avoid all this. Family.”
Her mouth opens.
“Anyway, I might pass on the swim.”
She steadies herself with her hand on the bed. “But you worked so much,” she says, her voice whispering. “I thought I might follow you. I mean, you know what I mean.”
A look crosses his face that she can’t read. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
On the day of the swim, the sky is blue. They go out to the grass above the shore. Asta is seated in her lawn chair at the starting point. Arnold, who will paddle beside them in the canoe, stands beside his son. He puts his arm around Charles and pulls him into his embrace. “You’ll hold up,” he says.
Charles smiles shyly and returns his dad’s pat on the back. A few second later, he starts to jog on the spot. He looks a little silly, like 1930s Olympic films that makes the athletes’ movements robotic. Sonya searches for signs that he’s going to change his mind again.
Standing there with a towel around her mid-section, she looks out at the water that is cold and black and maybe something that can be tamed, if only temporarily.
“Don’t bother him,” says Vee, who has come up beside her.
“He’s concentrating.” She’s wearing another one of her bathing suits, a navy blue and white suit bought when Vee got her bronze cross.
“He has a girlfriend, back at school,” Vee says.
“You’re not his boss,” Sonya says.
“He doesn’t like you,” Vee whispers. “He feels sorry for you.”
When Vee walks away, the scoop of her bathing suit shows off her thin, tough back.
Vee and Charles are already in the lake when Sonya drops her towel on the grass and moves toward the shore. There’s a cool edge to the wind and the hairs on her upper arms rise. She stands on a rock and lets the water lap her toes. She is thinking of how, when push comes to shove, the Remingtons help each other, stick together as a family.
For a moment Sonya forgets what comes next. Her calves strain like a dog on a leash, but her feet grip the rock. As if, if she goes in, she risks everything: her family, herself. The swim, like all the things Sonya does with the Remingtons, separates Sonya from her mother. Standing there, she feels, behind her ribcage, a languid caress of guilt.
Sonya pictures her arms windmilling, pushing aside things that give shape to horror and grief. Her hands pushing them aside, back down to the bottom of the lake.
Vee and Charles tread water at few metres away. Charles puts his hands around his mouth. His voice arcs over the lake. “Are you coming?” he says.
work has appeared in Prairie Fire: A
Canadian Magazine of New Writing, Existere: A Journal of Art and
Literature, and Found Press, among others.