Learning to Breathe

Winner of the Aesthetica magazine Creative Works competition 2009

 

I’m home, he called, his belt buckle as polished as ocean stones, his tone an undercurrent more dangerous than the words…

Bubbles carry Kate’s hurt to the surface. Some spiral, fast, swirling like tiny kites caught in a playful wind. Others zigzag through freezing water, lazy, burdened with the heaviest of pain. She hears them popping at the meniscus, sees her worries dissolve in a soapy haze and fly out through the cracks in the tiles. It is all there is. She is. The water is. The bubble is. 

Dad pulled the cloth from the dinner table and the plates and cups scattered, sending spaghetti to the floor, and he yelled, you shoulda put a bigger brick in front of the garage door you bitch, you shoulda known that little one wouldn’t hold it, I had to get out of the car, open it, in that rain and wind; and he paused for breath, and on his way to the door he turned to Kate and said, your mother’s a clown, are you listening to me, you never listen, just like your mother…

Under the water there are no words. There are no tears. The salt does not run down her face, onto her tongue, bitter and sarcastic. There is cold and echo and the syrupy feel of water caressing her throat. She opens her eyes again. Hair floats in front of her face, fanning out like a mermaid’s tail. Swim little fish, swim to the bottom of the bath, where the words don’t penetrate. She waves her hand in front of her eyes, mesmerised by the graceful slow motion of her fingers, by the tiny, fairy bubbles that fly away from the movement, by the changing light, the changing life.

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Mum picked at the spaghetti on the floor but it slipped through her finger like eels and she hid her face and said, Eat your tea off the floor sweetheart, for me, and then go do your homework and get your bath before he comes back, but don’t lock the door, I hate it when you lock the door, and it just annoys him, don’t annoy him, for me, for me…

Kate should breathe. It hurts a little now, but not like the words. She should float back up, inhale again, but she is waiting to hear the sound. She’s held her breath before, for longer, much longer, until her lungs throbbed and her head ached, before she gave in and burst back into the other world. The other world is far away now. She can see the plastic fish on the side of the bath, a green one with emerald fins and tail that spits out water if you squeeze its tummy, and she considers that they have swapped places. The fish has been drowning on the bath side for years and so is she, in her home, in the classroom, in her heart. She waits for the sound.

The click, click, click sound first captured Kate in bed, half asleep, half dreaming, protecting her ears from the bastard, bitch, whore words downstairs, good at the not hearing thing, at zoning out the external sounds, tuning in to the internal, to her heartbeat, her pounding eardrums, her blood, the oxygen, her self…

She wants to hear the clicking; it is worth the pressure building in her lungs and throat and head. So she concentrates on the cracked wall tiles, on the undulating lines in the lime mosaic, clouded by the water and the ache. Her heart slows. Her blood flow slows. It is not enough; she has to breathe, she has to breathe, she has to breathe…

Click, click, click was a frequency new, fast, high, intoxicating, following Kate into the bathroom where she ran water until it was cold and then dunked her head in the sink, following her into sleep where she swam with creatures that glowed silver and responded to their eerie burst-pulsed sounds in a voice all her own, there when she woke, like the breeze teasing the wind chimes outside the back door, there and then not there, in her mind, merging with the foghorn on the water, there and then not there, there and then not there, there and then not there…

The clicking begins. It was always there.

 …there and then not there, there and then not there, soon she would not be there…

There are no more bubbles. There is no more breath. There is no more pain.

Mammals Cute Wild Ocean Animals Rays Nature Wildlife Dolphins Dolphin Wallpaper

Homework done, Kate went back to the dining room where Dad stood over Mum, belt in hand, buckle flashing in fluorescent light, yelling, words that took an age to reach the air, words about defiance and slovenliness and antidepressants, and he raised his grey-sleeved arm again, in unison with her yellow fluffy one, his crashing down, hers pushing back, meeting in a mess of splattering red, and grey and yellow, and red, and words, and red…

The clicking is closer. They are here. They have come. She knew they would. She never doubted it, even when she doubted it. The mosaic tiles have fallen apart and drift away into the sky. The emerald-tailed fish is smiling on the bath side. I hope you locked the door, he says. She did. They will be cross. None of it matters. The bath sides dissolve; there are rocks and weed and red sea urchins.

Kate ran from the circling sharks, slammed the bedroom door, turned the TV as loud as it would go, so that the presenter’s words drowned out the thrashing below, and learned about the individuals that communicate using a variety of clicks, whistles and other vocalizations, who use ultrasonic sounds for echolocation, whose membership in pods is not rigid, so interchange is common, who  establish such strong bonds between  one other that they stay with the injured or ill; and she screamed when they thrashed in the nets, pushing against the mesh that tightened like a belt, clicking, thrashing, clicking, until the water filled with blood…

There is movement. Kate reaches out. There are two, then three, and then more. They are the grey ones. They surround her, from each side, in front and behind. Noses nudge gently, an invitation, so she reaches over and touches the one on the right and then the one on the left. They are as smooth as the leather lounge sofa in that other place, wet and warm, and it feels familiar. Do you remember? She hears the question in the whirl of clicking and whistling and splashing. The water cascades deep blue, and she cannot see, but she might remember.

Grabbing the belt from him, Mum shouted that the teacher was wrong; Kate should not be suspended from school for waving her hand, clicking, whistling, waving, shouting no, no, they communicate through the blowhole on top of the head, not the mouth, and they can see inside other animals, sensing a shark’s empty stomach and letting others know of the danger, sensing a beating heart, and pain, they sense the pain; Dad said that the other children laughed at their idiot child and the teacher told her to leave the classroom, and she did, clicking, as the children laughed; Kate smiled because only the red haired boy, who kissed her once and made her pores tingle, didn’t laugh, he shoved his desk mate, shouted at the others to stop, stop laughing, stop, laughing, stop… 

The grey ones are exchanging sounds, taking turns at pushing, pulling, guiding. They ask her to come and play with them. Follow us, you are perfectly safe. You need not fear; we are here to teach you about breath, and to remember. She does remember. She remembers the diving reflex, the water when she was a baby, her home. It is hard to keep up with her silver friends so they slow and allow her to catch them, and to change.

She ran to the bathroom, switched on the cold tap and jumped into the tub with water that spat, frothing and filling, splashing and calling, remembering when Dad pulled her out by the arm, bruising her wrist, and she begged him to let her go, to leave the water be, but he yanked out the plug and the sea swirled down the drain, taking her tears, her hopes, leaving only ache, until he’d gone, belt undone; she only wanted to be safe…

Now she is safe. She is changing, changing and remembering, and instead of arms and legs she has a dorsal fin and pectoral flippers, enabling her to swim faster, to keep up with the pod. Her body is sleek and grey, adorned with silvery dots. Though her sight has diminished she can hear the waves, the wind, the silent words. She has become one with the dolphins. She is a dolphin. She is home.

Mum yells outside the bathroom door that they are killing her, that she and he are destroying her, that she no longer talks, only sits in her room, whistling, and reading about the dolphins, but Dad covers Mum’s mouth, takes the words, warns her that he will take them forever if she doesn’t stop, and slaps her and pushes her and closes the bedroom door and locks it, so that Kate won’t hear the screaming; and she doesn’t, she doesn’t, just the clicking, faster, faster, faster…

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She swims faster and faster. She breaks through surf, leaps in the air, flipping, turning, and dives back into the water where hundreds of fish scatter like sparks of rainbow. When the air within is gone she moves upward and blows with force, expelling the breath that has stagnated inside for ten years.

Dad kicks in the door and they are in the bathroom; Mum screams, Kate, for God’s sake, come back, come back, breathe, breathe…

She is breathing. She is not breathing. She remembers how. And then, with a great inhale of new air, she dives down again.

Mum calls, Kate, come to me, come back to me, click, click, click; Dad drops the belt and it falls, like a stone through water, onto the tiled floor…

Kate swims and looks back and swims and looks back. I was never there, I was never there, click, click, click. Kate’s voice is gone. The words are gone. There is only the music of the ocean, wordless, melodic, soothing, and the dolphin song, and the nets sinking, empty, to the bottom of the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe

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