Sometimes the water lies still. Sometimes it flows. Sometimes I wonder where it goes to when it floats on. Does it go home?
There is no coming home for us anymore. For some of us, maybe, there never was. Not that it matters now.
We watch you, those of you who walk on land and in the air, whose faces feel the comforting fire of the sun. Some of us can remember when we were like you; others just ebb and flow, no longer separate from the water, no longer separate. I can remember being separate: a child of the air, walking and breathing and playful….
I am about seven. I was about seven: the years flow heavily here and we no longer count them, but I was about seven then. I remember a house, a garden, the laughter of children. I cannot hear my own laughter amongst them, but I was there: the earth pushing up against my feet, the air holding me. There is a ball. It is bobbing about in the air between us. We are playing with it: hands, feet, other parts of our bodies all touching it as the game demands. There is a woman watching us, dark haired like me. She gulps at her drink, fidgets with a lit cigarette, the smoke flowing away from her, pours more drink into her glass and swallows again. Always swallowing. Always fidgeting. That is how I remember her. She does not smile. She never smiles, not even when the children are laughing.
There is no laughter here, but sometimes the water ripples.
Back then the woman is unhappy. She takes pills to make her happy, but at best they offer her numbness, a slight easing of the chaos inside her. She used to think that it was a type of happiness; I learned to think that too.
I like calm. I float where the water is most tranquil, seeking out the places where the stream settles rather than moving on. It is easiest to think where there is no motion pulling at your thoughts.
And so I am seven, watching the laughter of other children as it ripples from their mouths and the stagnant despair of my mother, although I do not know that is what it is. My mother is unwell. The doctor gives her pills. She takes them with the drink and the medicinal cigarettes. None of them seem to make her well or truly happy, but they do make her distant, different and some of that difference rubs off on other people. We have fewer friends than we used to. I had a Daddy once, but he couldn’t cope with the difference and left us. He said he was leaving her, but he really meant us because he never came back to see me. Her difference rubs off on me. I rarely laugh in the then that was now. I go through the motions of playing with the other children, applying feet and hands to the ball as necessary. At times I still look normal, but inside I am empty.
At least here I am no different from the others. We are all children of the water. Each of us has accepted its soft caress somewhere, somehow. All water is connected. Eventually it flows into itself. It does not matter where or when we entered it. All water is our bed. Here we stay. Until we let go of ourselves and flow away.
We are all children. There are no grown ups here. We entered the water as children. We had so much life ahead of us that I think some of it lingers behind, clinging to our memories. Some have memories like clear crystal pools, but they grow sluggish and dark as they become one with the water. Others drift like me. My memories have never been totally water clear. I can remember times before I flowed here, but I cannot recall how I got here. Others can. They can remember the slip into the icy lake, the leap from the bridge, the salty tide that came in too fast, even the few sad inches of drained fish pond that they fell into. Despite a few brief splashes of memory I cannot, but I am not yet ready to let go of what memories I do have and flow on.
My mother is still unwell. If anything she is worse. People come to our house, but they do not know what to do anymore than I do. I listen to what they say when they think no one is around. Then, I listen at the door. Later, I listen from the raindrops on the window glass. All water is connected.
They do not know if it is the drink and drugs making her worse or if she takes so much of them because she is getting worse. They want her to stop taking them, but give her more drugs of their own. They wonder if she would be better in a hospital, but they think it is better for me to stay with my mother. They debate whether I would be safer if taken into care, but they think it might be better for my mother’s state of mind if I were to stay with her. They are trapped between the ebb and the flow of their indecisions and I am trapped with them. I understand. There are always choices to make: to stay or to go, mother and child, now or memory, death and life. It is easy to get stuck in the spaces between them.
I am a little older, a little bigger, or at least taller; taller but thinner. My mother says it is a growth spurt and I will regain the weight when I stop growing, but I only eat properly when I am at school and increasingly I am not. More people come to our house, but we all remain adrift in the no-man’s land of their uncertainty. They try to contact my daddy, but he has sailed off to an unfound place and my mother’s not telling, even if she knows and it is no longer clear what she knows and what she doesn’t. Her head is as leaky as a sieve. The people coming to our house grow increasingly concerned, but no less uncertain. They carry on hesitating. It is easy to seep down between the cracks in life. More of us is water than you think.
Perhaps that is why I struggle to remember my coming into the water? Perhaps I poured there gradually, a little more of me oozing away each day, rubbing away at the stones that held me in place until I had drained away completely. I can remember walking on my own beside the black canal and thinking how peaceful it must be down below in the dark, but I can also remember when I was small, four or so, and my mummy almost well and her telling me always to be careful near water because accidents can happen and so I was, always careful that is. Yet I can also hear the people at our house saying it cannot have been an accident and I remember the weight of the water pushing me down. Why do I remember that when I can’t remember how I entered the water?
There is a bathroom in our house, blue and white and very clean. It is the only room in the house that is really clean, the only place my mother bothers to keep spotless. She says it is her duty, but why I do not know. She keeps her pills in the bathroom. I have seen them and have wondered what it would be like to try some. There is also a shiny bottle of perfume, pretty and delicate, but I am not allowed to touch that at all and then there is the razor that she used to shave her legs when she could be bothered, but these days she can’t. So many things I am not allowed to touch in the nice clean room. She does not like me even going in there in case I make things dirty. When I wash I wash in the kitchen sink. I remember the feel of tepid soapy water running between my fingers. I like remembering my house, but I stopped going there after my mother went away, after they decided that my body seeking out the water was not an accident.
I am in the bathroom, in the white bath, under the pinkish water. I am so far under the water that I would be breathing it in, if I was still breathing.
Flow back. How did I get in the bath? What can I see? What do I know? I am still in the bathroom. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am upset. I can feel the salty water drying on my cheeks. Mummy is having one of her turns. She has them more often these days: talking to people who aren’t there, yelling at me for being dirty. It’s not fair. The whole house is dirty apart from the bathroom. I am trying to make myself clean for her. I am running a bath, leaning over the tub and so I don’t hear her come in. She startles me and I overbalance. I fling my arms out wide and I knock the bottle of perfume onto the edge of the bath where it breaks. Mummy screams at me. I try to pick up the bottle pieces, but the perfume has all gone and the pieces are sharp. I cut my fingers, red blood dripping onto the white floor. Mummy is screaming again. She calls me dirty and other words I do not know, but do not like. I am crying. The tears soak my face. There are more blood spots on the floor. She pushes me. Hard. I end up in the bath, in the water I have just filled it with. I feel the water flowing over me, its weight pushing me down, but it isn’t the water that is holding me down. It is my mother. It is her weight I feel. She holds and pushes, irresistible like a torrent. The water splashes and bubbles as I struggle and I can’t see her, just feel her, pressing down. Then the water goes still and I can see up through it into her eyes. Her eyes are as blank as mine and mine are dead.
She didn’t want me anymore, just like Daddy didn’t, but she is the one who gave me back to the water that first held me.
There is so much of us that is water that we can’t live without it, yet we can’t live in it either. Our first cradle and it rejects us, or kills us if we try to go back, but now the water is the only thing that loves me enough to hold onto me and not let go. So I shall stay here, learning to let go of myself until I can flow away with the water to wherever it goes: its home maybe. There is no coming back home for us anymore.
Photo credit: Daiannie Vera
Books by J.S.Watts: The Submerged Sea (poetry), Dempsey & Windle – ISBN 9781907435591; Witchlight