I am usually not a fan of caveats or throat-clearning, but I must disclose that I am most certainly not a fiction writer. I adore fiction of all stripes. I adore fiction writers. And when it comes down to it, I subscribe to the school of thought that writing great fiction is a far more daunting task than writing great non-fiction. Everything I put to paper or screen is truth, down to the letter. My great task is figuring out how all of that truth fits together, and separating what’s profound from what’s pompous, sorting out what’s compelling to others and what’s only interesting to me because it happened to me. But creating an entire universe that actually functions in a consistent manner, and doing it from nothing but a bunch of letters and sounds in a language that lacks color and rhyme? Much more difficult.
That said, I made a rather pitiful attempt at participating in National Novel Writing Month in 2012. I was in California that Nov. 1, recovering from a Halloween glut during which I had my favorite black peacoat stolen by some dick in a rainstorm and then got hit on by both the Duff Beer Man and a balding playwriting from Los Angeles (one of whom I am still meaning to e-mail … argh!), and working away at a Starbucks in Oakland, when I unhappily recalled my vow to participate in NaNoWriMo, and my vow to write as fast as I could for 1-2 hours each day of the month, revising minimally, until I’d stitched together a rough opus of some manner or other. Just sort of literary diarrhea, I guess. Just to see. Just to practice finishing, which is incredibly hard for all writers. (Or at least for this writer. Harder, even, than starting, which can be very hard, indeed.) My efforts that day in Oakland went reasonably well, despite my peptic exhaustion, but I am ashamed to admit that I never wrote another word the entire rest of the month. A sorry showing, indeed!
But I like my failures, especially when they are so unapologetic. Besides, I was organizing my computer files a week or so ago, as I am wont to do at a year’s end, and I came across that NaNoWriMo folder titled, oh-so-hopefully, “The Man Drowning.” I had a whole elaborate magic realism kind of concept sketched out for my novel, full of talking fish and shifting perspectives and color symbolism.
Although that maybe-opus never came to pass, as I spent the rest of my SF trip eating noodles, drinking wine, and jogging up and down Nob Hill in recompense, I figured I’d offer up that one day’s worth of writing to the world. Not because I think it is particularly well-written, although it has a few nice bits, but more for posterity and whatnot. Because it’s a new year and I’m feeling prolific and motivational.
I spent about 2 more hours editing this piece during the past week, which means I’m shoving it out the door in under 4 hours total. That’s less than half the amount of time I spend on a non-fiction essay, on average, and it leaves plenty of room for polishing. Which I will not be doing. Because, as I said, I am not a fiction writer. So nothing much is at stake, except, I guess, you thinking I am cool and impervious. Which has never really been my schtick. I’d definitely say I’ve gunned more, during this past decade or so of blogging, for lovably haggard. So if you find mistakes, friends, don’t bother to point them out, because I’m not interested in correcting them this time around. Writing – not writing well – is the point here.
Thusly. Just for fun, just to see. Here you go.
“The Man Drowning” by Erin J. Bernard
Never in all his days had The Man seen water such a brilliant and terrible shade of blue.
Blue like icicles and blue like Depression glass, blue like infinity, blue like a hand that grabs you by the throat and starts to squeeze.
The Man knew he was too far out. He was bobbing up and down and up and down in the warm turquoise sea like a bloated, fleshy cork. He was fumbling with a tangle of snorkeling gear.
He pulled at his mask, which released itself from his face with a juicy, reluctant pop. He positioned it upon his forehead and looked around.
A few hundred feet to his left, The Captain and The Man’s wife were waiting in the little hired speedboat.
The Wife had thrown a patterned sarong over her eyes to block out the infernal glare of the Caribbean sun. She burned easily. The Man thought suddenly of their honeymoon on a nearby island, when even her eyes had burned.
The Captain was bent over a knot of fishing line, doing something with his fingers. His shoulders bunched in concentration as he worked.
Little tickly blue waves were lapping at The Man’s own, softer shoulders. He was treading water. The sky looked vast and empty and hungry and The Man imagined he could feel, for the first time, the true weight of the universe. Pressing down on him from above. He was human-shaped flotsam. It pained his gut to think of it, all that that heaviness.
The Man waved a cursory hand in the direction of the boat. A congenial wave, a test wave, just to see. Nobody looked.
The Man was too far out. He knew this. He would swim for it.
“I’ll swim for it,” he said aloud, and the sound of his own voice make him startle. It was gravel and liquid. Too many Mexican cigarettes. Too many years.
With effort, The Man kicked his feet back until they popped up to the surface behind him. He dipped his hands into the water. He adjusted his red flippers. He replaced his mask and he bit down on the snorkel.
He would swim for it.
The Man kicked hard, right foot, then left foot, angling his body westward, toward the little boat. He kicked and kicked and soon he was swimming, his face below the surface. He was breathing wetly through the mouthpiece and staring straight down into that infernal blue.
So many things down there. The calcified, cratered remains of an old fishing rig, coral castles, strange flashes of light and low, moaning sounds. Families of fish scattered slipshod in front of him as he cut forward, then closed ranks behind him as he went. He could feel them back there, forgetting already.
The Man felt that pressure again, this time from below as well as above, and he kept on kicking. The pair of legs below him looked puckered and vaguely trunk-like – two great pumping albino fish that propelled him forward through the universe.
He thought of other blue things: the glass eye of his father, the glittering, manic-depressive sheen of a Kansas Summer Sky, the achy blue of his toes after a pre-adolescent afternoon lost in a Michigan snowstorm.
Something was yanking him, from all sides. He stopped kicking momentarily and lifted his head out of the water, just to see. The boat was further to his right, but he thought he might be getting closer.
Again he waved, with a little more urgency. The captain was still busy with his line and the caught fish was now flip-flopping on the deck in a ghastly heat.
The Wife was plastered flat to the boat’s rear deck like some great, blubbery starfish, her breasts cutting points against the horizon like menopausal mountain peaks.
He was still too far out, but he would not panic. The Man dipped his head back into the water and started to kick again. The low, mean rumbles continued under the water as he plowed on, albino legs pumping, the pressure keeping pace at his side like some ghostly companion.
He stared down and saw in the rippling water the bed in their hotel room, with its blue flower-pattern spread. Or was it a duvet? He pictured wife’s hand sweeping across those tropical petals. Hibiscus? No matter.
He thought of lobster for dinner, and drinks on the beach, later.
He thought of breakfast. The ghost was poking at him, now, an accusing and bony finger sharp in his side.
The Man stopped again and pulled off the mask. The eyepieces were clouded over. He spit into it, as The Captain had taught him, and rubbed at the plastic casing.
The boat seemed even further off to the right.
“Hey!” he cried, throwing his garbled voice upward.
His breath was coming in sharp, angry pinches. He thought of his hotel breakfast, the eggs and the sausage, and he felt the sickness rising.
He angled his body until he until he was floating on his back with his belly rising out of the water like some beaching, bloating thing.
He needed to catch his breath, to rest for just a minute.
He closed his eyes, but a new session of waves came washing suddenly over him, splashing into his nose and mouth until he coughed and sputtered.
He was just so tired. The Man kicked his legs back down and felt his stomach heave with a sudden jerk as he popped upright. The ghost was in his throat, now, in his chest, plowing its fists against his insides.
He wretched into the infernal blue water, once, then twice. Eggs. He kicked his feet against the pain, moving away from the sick, and felt one red flipper drop off. Peering down into the water, he saw it drifting slowly toward the ocean bed.
Never, ever, ever had he seen a thing so blue as this.
He hurtled himself forward violently, paddling full-force in the direction of the boat. But those tiny waves kept coming, pushing him to the right, too far out, farther out than he’d ever meant to be.
It wasn’t working. He started to splash, balling his fists and smacking the water.
He was screaming.
His Wife was still splayed out. The Captain didn’t turn.
The ghost had become a part of him. His heart felt too big for his body, his blood was too heavy and too much, his stomach was contracting.
The little waves kept coming. He was treading water.
He thought of the hibiscus bedspread and threw his chubby arms skyward. The tropical sun was a tiny, angry eye a million miles overhead.
The first mouthful of water was surprisingly salty. He coughed and choked in protest as it washed down his throat. Spitting and gurgling, he cried out again.
A lucky gust of wind sent the sound hurtling toward the boat.
The Wife and The Captain looked up in unison. He saw The Wife leap up from her perch, the sarong dropping, as the captain threw down the fishing line and dived for the engine.
More water came.
The man heard the tiny boat engine roar to life as he caught the third mouthful of saltwater. He choked and drank and waved.
He noticed that the other flipper was also gone, and that he was still gripping the mask in his left hand, and that the mouthpiece was still hanging near his chin.
He splashed and kicked and felt the current picking up, and carrying him. He bit down on the mouthpiece and took another mouthful of water, and a gasp that sent it into his lungs.
So terribly, terribly blue. He let the water pull him under. Far, far below, the two red flippers waved softly in the current.
Time slowed, and The Man found he could examine his thoughts one by one.
Down at the bottom, the flippers were waving at him. Yes. Or maybe clapping?
Two orange fish swam past, a few feet away, and he watched their little mouths pucker as if they were deep in discussion.
Long strings of seaweed wrapped themselves around the boat skeleton banked far, far below. Mermaid’s hair, he and his brother used to call it when his sister gathered strands from the lakeside and braided them into elaborate knots. Green, green mermaid’s hair.
The water came in, more and more, until he could no longer tell if he was breathing or drinking or eating it, until the roar of the approaching motor grew quiet, imperceptible above the strange symphony of blips and blups, as he sank into the in-between place.
The ghost had retreated. Now, there was only quiet, a feeling of being held.
The man opened his mouth and watched a little row of bubbles floating out. The thing delighted him, somehow. What was he becoming? All mermaid hair and blips and bubbles.
His fists opened with his mouth and the snorkel fell away, moving in a slow, uncaring trajectory toward the bottom. It hit softly, kicking up a little sand.
Everything settled. The Man’s eyes grew heavy. He was all light and air and water. He felt his body only vaguely, the uncurled fingers and toes, the tickle of hair, the heaviness of the chest where a heart and lungs once worked furiously. Things were slow, blessedly slow.
Above, a dark shadow loomed, something strange and foreign that The Man could no longer place. His ears registered the sounds of a vague and distant chaos, the splash of a body breaking through the surface far above.
It was all so terribly, terribly blue.