Mama taught me to swim when I was eight. There was a large lake just beyond Belmont, bordering our land and separating us from our neighbours. In that late summer, after the fields were tilled and turned, the three of us traipsed out to the lake. Mama carried a basket of biscuits and jam for our afternoon snack, while Daddy carried his fishing line hoping to catch a small bass or two for dinner.
At the water's edge, I stripped down to my underthings. Mama pulled off her stockings and hiked her skirt up, knotting it above her knees. We waded into the shallows where she taught me how to float on my back and paddle on my front. After a week of that, she then coaxed me out into the deep. From her position near the shore, Mama instructed me on how to keep my head above the water by winding my legs below and brushing my arms along the surface.
The more confident I became, the harder Mama's challenges grew. She told me to duck my head underwater to see how long I could hold my breath. She counted out loud from her spot in the shallows.
"Stay down as long as you can, Porty-sweets," Mama said. I gulped a ton of air and whipped my face and then my head down into the cool waters. Lake noise clogged my ears; a vibrating whir punctuated only by my mother's muffled voice above counting one... two... three...
I burst upwards, sputtering and panicked. My eyes stung, my heart pounded. I flapped my way to the shallows towards Mama. She stood above me, blocking out the sun. Her face was shadowed but she likely had a flat, unimpressed frown on her lips. I knew that frown well and the circumstances under which it often appeared.
"Did you not close your eyes?"
"You never said to do that." I coughed, water dribbling from nostrils.
"Surely you can do longer than three seconds. You are young, your lungs are strong," she said. "Out you go again."
I wanted to protest and quit. I wanted to climb onto the bank and take a nap in the warm sunshine. Instead, I paddled back out to the deep. I took a heavy gulp of air and this time, squeezed my eyes shut. I sank. The underwater whoosh filled my ears, again silencing the world above. From a distance, I heard one... two...
I didn't like it. I felt trapped. Caged. Punished. Three... Four... I was torturing myself for no reason. I was drowning on purpose.
I rose, gasping. Frustrated, I slapped the water top with my hands. Mama stared, one hand on her hip and then other up over brow, shielding her eyes from the sun's glare on the water.
"Well. That was longer. One second or so longer."
"I can't do it!"
"You can do anything if you think about it correctly," she replied. "Right now, you're taking a giant gulp of air before you go down. You're holding your eyes tight, your body tight and all you're thinking about is, when can I go up? I need to go up. I can't do this anymore, I have to go up!"
"Careful with that tone, young lady."
"I'm sorry, Mama."
"Do you want to quit?"
"I can't do it!"
"Do you want to quit, I said? Say you do and you may."
I said nothing for a moment. A million and one possible excuses flew through my mind. Perhaps a stomach or foot cramp could befall me. I could burst into tears. Or, though it's my least favourite option despite its effectiveness, I could start whining.
As I considered, I notice how effortlessly I was keeping my head above the deep water. My legs cycled below and my arms brushed the surface. How easy it had become to stay afloat! When I first learned the technique, my brain told me it was too tiring, I couldn't do it and I should quit. But there I was, not thinking at all. My body remembered for me.
Mama moved her hands from her brow and her hip. She pressed them on either side of her chest, inhaling and then exhaling, her fingers spread over her ribcage.
"Let all your air out before you go down. And don't inhale again. Keep your face and your arms and legs soft. Instead of thinking, I need to go up... think... I can go up whenever I want to. I don't need to right now but I can rise at any time."
So I did what Mama said. Instead of a desperate gulp of air, I exhaled and simply did not inhale again. I released all the tension in my body. I didn't dunk myself violently, but instead drifted down, calm and in control.
I don't remember what number Mama had reached by the time I decided to surface. Though as I rose, I smugly thought it was so high she must have been worried.
But she wasn't. When I found Mama's face in the shallows again, she was only smiling.
It was hard to imagine a future time where Prince Hamlet and I would reasonably cross paths again, but I was desperate for it to happen. The dull ache I felt for him grew wide and all-consuming.
For some days after our encounter, I lingered below the surface. Luxuriating in the whirring whoosh in my ears, the calm tingle in my limbs and the fuzzy melting of my formerly sharp mind. The voices of my teachers and friends became muffled, far-off like Mama's counting from the shallows. I heard them, I nodded and perhaps I even responded, but I absorbed nothing. I thought only of him. I knew I could stay underwater for a long, long time. And I didn't want to go up.
But my haze would not last. Soon, without consent, someone reached down, curled their angry fingers into my hair and yanked me up to the surface.
That someone was Desdemona. She wanted to kill Ophelia.
YOU ARE READING
When troubled Ophelia is found dead, four of her classmates are accused. With conviction and punishment a foregone conclusion, the girls - Portia, Beatrice, Viola and Desdemona - plot a daring escape in order to unravel the conspiracy behind the mur...