Father threw me off the sailboat, gripped the rudder with his left hand, did something with the rope in his clean, right palm. The boat swung around and went away, leaving me cold, kicking, sinking. Mother waved from the shore in white shorts and the blue-striped tee she had sewn in preparation for the trip. Sister, naked except for the diaper that sagged to her knees, squatted on the beach, shook her head, no, no. Come back, Katie, thought Sister at me. Sister picked up a handful of coarse sand, threw it. Each grain of sand became an animal in flight, a bird arcing and falling; several hundred sparrows swooped in the air over the lake, leveled their beaks to the surface to scoop a small, brief ring from its plane. Several hundred sparrows collected gray lake water in their bills, then spun, vanished into their own cool shadows. How many birds were required to drain the lake so that I might live? I didn’t know. I urinated, and the warmth felt good on my thighs.
Come on honey, swim! called Mother. She held her arms out, fists raised. Sister sat on the beach, shook her head, no, no. Sister threw more and more sand at the water while I shivered, kicked. Eighty yards beyond me, Father fumbled with the rope in his clean right palm and swamped the boat. I could hear the tone of his curse but not the words. It wasn’t long afterwards that I was up in the sky, watching myself—my little chin above the lake’s surface, hair fanning behind, legs treading stiffly. I had no desire to return.
Instead of reentering my body, I drifted toward the farther shore, where, up on a small rise in the mixed pine forest and in between three crisscrossed fallen trees, I found a boy crouched in front of a squat, concrete obelisk. The boy was about my age, possibly younger. He had straight brown hair that flopped into his eyes. The boy held a rusty nail in his right hand, pointed at me, then to the obelisk, a shape I had never seen before. Is it magical? I asked, and the boy nodded, crouched low, and scratched the image of an eye into the obelisk’s east-facing surface. When I asked him what he was doing, he pointed to a winter deer coming at us on the path; the deer had this bulbous, leathery growth on its face, and it approached us so closely that I thought it must be blind. Rain fell in the leftover spaces. The deformed deer picked its way along a chain-link fence containing a private graveyard. Let’s go, said the boy, and stood up. He threw the nail into the woods; it was then that I saw that the boy carried a plastic bag containing a brown box pillow—it looked to belong to someone’s sofa. I followed the boy along a gravel path until it split. The boy pointed to the path with the steeper slope. Does this path lead to the water? asked the boy. It’s a secret, I said. Then the boy pushed me to the ground, covered my mouth with the pillow. His hands were around my neck, too. Stop hitting me, I said. His hands softened, became my mother’s.
Mother wrapped me in a large white towel and draped me over her lap in the front seat of the station wagon without a seatbelt and with the heat on high. At the cabin, I took a scalding shower, stole a bottle of vanilla extract, drank it in two gulps, and slept on the nubby brown sofa while Sister waited for me to thank her for saving my life. Sister squatted next to me and rubbed my chest: wake up, Katie! Hands on my legs and my feet, hands lifting my own above my head. What’s wrong with her? asked Mother. She’s pretending, said Father. He opened the front door—it was a knotty pine, flimsy. The sun was setting at the bottom of a hill behind the two small timber frame cabins across the way. The radiator whistled and the record skipped. On the carpet, Sister squatted rhythmically. I remember the low thud of the drums—da-da-da-da, da, da-dum. I remember the scratch of the needle on the record, and I think now about how difficult it is to describe what it is that I felt then. How we laughed at my sister, my small dancing sister, while she scowled, set her chin and clenched her fists, squatted deeper and with great control! She can do things with her body that no one else can do, said Father. A little of this, a little of that, sang Sister, and Mother turned to stare. Sister sang that song in a low voice, a man’s voice. A little of this, a little of that, sang Sister, squatting and bouncing. My parents approached each other, nodding, fingertips out, as if to dance.
My father didn’t believe in God, said Mother. She touched her husband’s left hand with her right. My father didn’t believe in factors outside of his control, though everything was, said Mother.
I’m sorry, said Father.
This ambition, this arrogance. This testing of the world—what if you two had been alone out there? asked Mother.
You’re a good swimmer, said Father.
I should divorce you tomorrow, said Mother.
I lifted my head off the brown, nubby arm rest and saw Father standing in the doorway of the small cabin, saw Father sitting in the sunfish on the lake, sailing away, away. Holding a rope in his clean palm, he looks back at my small wet head sunk to the nostrils forty yards from shore. The dry green leaves and the new evergreen shoots of the tree line on the far shore, they wink. Come back, Father, I gasp, but he’s off to the races toward the farther shore, doing something with ropes, and cursing. Looking back at me, looking at his hands, looking at the sky. Do it! says Sister, and she throws a fistful of sparrows towards me with her left hand. Several hundred sparrows arrow across the brown-gray water, swarm my eyes. Don’t ever forget the this and the that, sister whispers into my ear. She smells like sunflowers. I have a headache and my cold legs pain. Mother screams on shore, a hoarse and bloody noise. Mother’s fists in the air, white shorts wet now in the cold brown water. Mother dolphins into the space between us. Swim, Katie! Sister’s fingers in the coarse wet sand, flinging fistfuls of sparrows across the water to save me. Several thousand sparrows coalesce, transform into a large, diamond-shaped fish with blue and white stripes; it bites me on the neck and rafts me to shore.
Years later when I was a teenager and no longer lived in that cold place but in another place nearly as cold, I would come home from doing the morning paper route and run hot water in the porcelain bathroom sink. I would perch on the countertop with my cold feet dangling in the hot basin, sipping vanilla extract. The thaw excruciating, joyous.