Swimming by Katie Munnik
Our featured Short Story of the Month is ‘Swimming’ by Katie Munnik.
A woman and her daughter at the beach. The cold sea is a refuge on such a hot day but, further from the shore, it no longer feels like a sanctuary.
Katie Munnik is a Canadian writer living in Cardiff. Her prose, poetry, creative non-fiction and reviews have appeared in several magazines and anthologies (The Cardiff Review, The Dangerous Women Project, The Welsh Agenda, FlashFiction Journal, and Geez Magazine), in newspapers across Canada and on CBC Radio. Recently, she completed a fiction mentorship through the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, Canada. Her latest short story has been produced as a podwalk by Echoes of the City in Edinburgh, and her first collection of short fiction will be published by Wild Goose this autumn.
Light and water and sand and warmth. Peace on the way here, too, which can’t be guaranteed these days. Seems of late we’re getting slammed doors and tears every day, and then I stand in the kitchen, taking long, deep breaths. It’s not as if I can’t remember what it’s like to be her age, but try convincing her of that. In such a rush to grow up. She doesn’t see how soon it will all be coming her way; how few years we have left before she’ll be leaving. We could almost count it out in months.
But not today.
Today, she is relaxed. Stretched out on a beach towel, her pale skin courting that perfect, golden glow and her nose already freckling. Long-limbed and lovely. She’s lying on her belly, reading a paperback from the library and chewing on a pencil. From time to time, she underlines something or scribbles in the margin. I’m only watching out the corner of my eye and I wonder what she’s adding to the story, but I don’t ask.
We left her dad at home, working on the new cedar deck. He’ll be sunburnt and spent when we get home, his skin covered in sawdust. He’ll be happy.
This beach is a favourite of mine. It’s not far from the city – only half an hour in the car – and we usually have the place to ourselves. My mum loved it here and used to bring us along on the bus, with a travelling rug and a thermos in the tote bag and her long hair tied back in a scarf. I’d steal her sunglasses and pull faces, pretending to be a bug, and she’d take them back and set them on top of her head, then straighten my pigtails and tell me to go collect some shells. She looked like a movie star, my mum. She’d like to be here now, I’m sure. I’d like that, too.
The sun is already hot on the sand and my skin feels tight. ‘You okay here?’ I ask, ‘I was thinking of going in for a swim.’
‘Fine, Mum.’ She doesn’t look up from the page and her voice is soft and distracted.
The sand is warm and dry under my feet. A breeze blows gently. Not enough to turn the pages of a book. The horizon looks hazy, and I wonder if it’s the heat. Does heat do that over water? I’m wondering about this when I hear a call from the dunes, so I turn to look back and there’s my daughter looking up from her book. Then I hear the crow call again. I smile, catching my mistake, and my daughter waves her hand and lets out an echoing caw. I wave back and turn again to the sea.
The water is cold, but it always is and I don’t hesitate. Step after step after step until I can lower myself in and let the water catch my weight. Long strokes pushing out, the water deepens under me. Further along the coast, there are rocky stretches and cliffs, too, but this bay is gentle and so is the sea. Everything is quiet. The birds must be further out, fishing where the water is deeper or tucked away on their cliffs to watch the world. All I can hear is the sea’s song, lapping and rippling around me.
I swim out a hundred strokes, counting with each breath.
A wave catches me with my eyes closed, mouth open, and I flip onto my back, full of sea. I spit out my breath and taste my heart in my mouth, wondering how a wave caught me unaware like that. I’m blinking now and everything shatters into reflected light as I find the surface again and try to balance, but another wave is coming, so I take a breath and tuck myself safely under the surface. The strength of the running water somersaults me and I can’t fight it. Surfacing again, I look for the next wave, but there isn’t one. The sea is flat. Relief stretches out along my limbs and then a colder thought takes hold. I look for the shore and it is gone. I turn and look and nothing. There is only white sea fog. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that earlier. That haziness on the horizon. Why didn’t I see it for what it was? The heat must have confused me and now the fog has drifted in, obscuring everything. I do not know which way to swim. The fog is white and thick, beautiful but frightening. I try to raise myself above the water, reaching higher to see, but everything is white and shrouded. How far out have I come? There is nothing – no rocks or cliffs, no sound of birds. I could be anywhere.
I call out to my daughter, strain my ears but nothing. Nothing but the lap of water on water. My hands and feet circle to keep me afloat and I think that’s for the best because I don’t want to swim the wrong way and waste energy. But staying here would waste it, too.
I could waste it all either way until – until there’s nothing left.
I’d always imagined death would come to me slowly. Creeping and painful. I’ve imagined age and decline. But this was new, this idea of a sudden end. A quiet slipping away. So here I am. As easy as pushing on until I am too tired and then letting go. Letting my gripping fingers relax, myself fall away. Self? But my self feels safe, even now. My breath and my body are stretched, stitches threatened in my gut, and fear rises but somewhere tucked away inside, my self will remain, secret and contained as a child. All will be well.
But my daughter, my daughter. How long will she lie on the beach before panic floods in? What will she do – manage the car somehow or hike back to the road? Find help? And my husband? When would he hear? How would tomorrow unfold? I could see the abandoned tools on the deck, my daughter’s crumpled clothes. My soft and private death would cut them, changing everything, even the scent of cedar.
So I choose. I know it is based on nothing but will, and still I choose. My arms grip the water, my legs kick as strong as I can and I blink against the sharp and shining light, counting my breaths, my strokes until again I feel the graze of sand on my skin, the perfect warmth of land.
I wonder if I will remember this afternoon when my time comes. The beautiful whiteness of the fog wrapping what’s most fragile and the peace of letting go, a peace more beautiful for being mine.