The Opposite of Drowning

by Susan Moorhead

We would sail right past this house,
just stones by the cliff,
and not know it as home.
Summer leaves, waves, and wind,
traveler anchored by the silver strands,
stars anchored by stars.
Sail right out of this house, the waves of leaves,
the night boat, not know it as harbor.


My first memory of the sea is drowning. Three times I have nearly drowned. The first time I was pulled up from the water by someone's hand. I was little. I don't remember the sound of my own voice. The sea pulled at me and I was swept in, washed along with the scattered shells and dried seaweed, the broken bits of crab the gulls left behind. I was pulled under the water, the sea water a sheet, tucking me in. Did I try to stand? Was I unable to lift myself up? It was a short near-drowning, perhaps not particularly life threatening. Stories vary. I remember the muffled sounds of people's voices, the churning sound of waves pushing their voices farther away, the wavering blurry shapes of them above the layer of water pressing me down. Being lifted out, the bright light, the clear sharp noises.


My mother never swam. I wasn't sure she knew how since I had never seen her do more than wade out in the sea up to her knees and splash some water onto her thighs, her chest, maybe her arms, but never her face. Sinking below the surface so all of you, scalp to toes, was thoroughly wet, that was for children, not the mothers who sat on the beach like mine with their sunglasses and magazines, the delicious smell of Bain de Soleil mingling with salt air as they tanned. I still have a sketch of her I did at age 10, at the age I almost drowned for the second time, as she stood in the water to cool off.

We lived in a coastal town and spent our vacations going to other coastal towns. I was on easy terms with a horizon of blue meeting blue, with summers where my skin was coated with dried salt from seawater, hours spent constructing castles made from sand and shells, collecting mermaids purses and smooth-edged sea glass, hunting for tiny silver fish in the reeds. I ran up to my mother where she sat in a beach chair reading, eager to show her each treasure, hermit crabs, a bucket of fish, a clear blob of jellyfish, the kind that don't sting.

I had a working relationship with the deeper part of the sea, loving the otherness of it, the language of tides, the mystery of the endlessness of it linking ocean to ocean under a scatter of continents. I was not at home in the sea, I knew it was not my place yet I loved it anyway, even as I was afraid of the eels that lurked under the floats, alarmed at what might be lurking in the deeper water. Upset each time my father insisted I swim with him from what was called the Point, a long cement walk that led past all three floats to a place so deep that my sister told me nurse sharks prowled below. Stroke after stroke as my lungs burned and I tried to not think about whatever might be swimming beneath me.

My sister, the other kids, they all seemed to find swimming just sport and fun. I was mad at myself for being afraid. I was already afraid of too many things. I would force myself to join the other kids to swim out to the floats or even the Point, thinking that maybe if I did it enough times, I would stop being afraid.

There may have been a storm coming but it was hard to say. The only sense of storm was something in the air, something my body responded to, a hum on skin informing me that the sundrenched blue of the sky, the thickening puffs of clouds, might be considering a change. My mother had to hold her beach wrap close as the wind had kicked up a bit. If a storm was coming, it was still a ways off and my mother walked with me to the Point to stretch her legs.

She chatted with the lifeguard as I stepped down the stairs, afraid as my feet went beneath the water with each step down the seaweed and barnacle covered wooden staircase. I had asked my sister once if they went all the way down and she said no, just far enough that if you kept walking you would be well over your head. I had tried a few times to hold my breath and walk down the steps, but as soon as my head was under water, my body was lifted up and my feet would not stay on the steps any longer.

An old lady stood next to me. She smiled at me as she tucked the last bit of gray curls under her swim cap. Her skin was a leathery brown and she reminded me of a sea turtle. When she entered the water, a low skimming dive from where she stood mid thigh on the steps, there was such a natural ease in the way the water accepted her body, in the sureness of her strokes as she swam. I looked up to where my mother stood in shadow beneath the sun's glare and asked if I could go in.

I never swam over my head without my father and fear, always waiting at the edges, gripped me as I walked another step down. I leaned into the water and tried to ease in like the old woman had done, a wide welcoming breast stroke into the water, but the cold of it caused me to stiffen up and revert to a panicked dog paddle, the kicking of my legs against nothing but water made me clench up with fear. I wanted to swim out like she did, with confident strokes of someone comfortable in their efforts. I headed out to the deeper water with a mix of breast stroke, crawl and doggie paddle and made it out as far as she did.

Proud, I turned back to look at the Point. My mother and the lifeguard were silhouettes in the glare of the sun, the brightness intensified as light bounced off the water's surface and fractured like broken glass. I squinted, trying to rub the sting of salt water from my eyes as the choppy waves kept smacking me in the face. I turned to feel the safety of the old lady near me but she was gone, already stroking her way back to the Point. The water was rougher than it usually was, swells of waves lifting me up and dropping me down. I was treading water at an increased speed reminding myself of my next door neighbor who knew how to unicycle. I fell off her unicycle the few times I tried but now I was doing it, my legs spinning rapidly under the water as my arms tried to catch the surface of the waves and stay afloat.

I thought I saw my mother waving me in, but it was hard to see, water slapping my face, and when I tried to wipe the sting of salt water out of my eyes, I sank further down water rushed into my mouth, choking me. I tried to push my body forward, kicking hard, but I couldn't seem to go very far. The clouds threw shadows dousing the sun's glare.

More water in my face, coughing, choking. I sank down exactly as a wave rose up, surprised to find myself under the water entirely. I pushed myself up, bursting through the lid of the ocean, the muscles in my legs and arms burning. Larger waves like those from the wake of a boat swirled all around me. I didn't understand how the water had changed so fast. I kept kicking, so tired I was just dog paddling now, the bigger strokes too exhausting. Another wave hit, then another, and I was under water again,

rising up, sinking under, rising up, sinking under, rising up, sinking under.

It was a strange relief to sink beneath the surface of the water. The waves stopped hitting me, the noise and pain of them smacking against my ears was gone, and I opened my eyes to see the water like a shimmering green wall before me, light from the surface flickering like lighter green and yellow ribbons. I couldn't breathe and I kicked up, the surface was farther away than I thought, and my arms and legs were so tired now.

Breaking through to the surface, I took a deep breath only to swallow more water as a wave hit me. I treaded water but I was sinking more than rising, so exhausted, I wasn't sure what I was trying to do anymore.

I heard blasts of a whistle piercing through the noise of the sea against my ears. The lifeguard, so far off now, was standing up on the rungs of his tall chair, waving his arms, and I had a little spark of righteous indignation. I knew I was supposed to come in, what did he think I was trying to do? The next slam of waves, water rushing into my mouth as I tried to choke it out, doused my momentary energy, and I started to sink again.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing before I went under. My mother who could not swim was diving into the water. As I felt myself sinking down again I thought, oh, her hair will be wet. She never let her hair get wet or it would ruin her hairdo. I must have been mistaken, I thought, under the water where the ribbons of light were now turning from light green and yellow to more colors, blues and reds, ribbons curling towards me like beautiful strands of hair, maybe mermaid's hair looked like this, so lovely and magical in the welcome hush of the water beneath the angry waves. It seemed pointless to tread water anymore, my legs had filled up with a burning pain and I stopped kicking them, stopped flailing my arms, slowing down, with a thought of trying to catch one of those beautiful ribbons.

There was a sharp pain as something grabbed my hair and yanked me upwards. I broke the surface retching up water, my mother holding my long hair and powering me towards the steps at the Point. I couldn't ask her how she had suddenly learned how to swim, couldn't think about anything except struggling to keep up, forcing my arms and legs to imitate her movements, then grabbing the thick wooden banister of the stairs at the Point, my feet finding purchase on the slippery seaweed coated steps, and stumbling up. The lifeguard was yelling something, my mother was saying something, it was all noise, terribly confusing noise.

There was chaos, then there was quiet. I sat on the beach wrapped in a giant towel, my hands cupped around the thermos mug, a treat, my mother letting me sip some of her precious coffee, sweet and dark. There were people stopping by, my mother talking, the heat of the coffee going down and filling every part of me with an aching warmth. Past their voices, past my toes, down the sandy beach, the water lapped the flat wet sand.

Overhead, the clouds darkened and the wind became insistent. It looked like it might storm.


Examples of DROWN 1. Three times she nearly drowned in salt water.
2. She sank below the surface and drowned.
3. She claims that the ocean tried to drown her.
4. Or did she try to drown herself?
5. The sea overflowed, drowning the wading woman.
6. Were all the sorrows drowned in those hours before dusk?
7. The mermaids singing drowned her calls for help.


He claimed to love it but fishing didn't love him back. Our little Toyota had been crammed with fishing gear on the ride down, hollow plastic tubes for staking down the long poles on the beach, shorter rods to fish off of long piers like the one we were on. On the beach, on the pier, he caught a little something close to nothing except a cranky disposition. We had been married one year.

On our celebratory trip to North Carolina we would be driving down country roads shouting out the lyrics of Bad to the Bone and laughing one moment, sitting in a furious silence the next.

During one stop at an isolated gas station on route to Cape Fear, he walked towards the rest room, turned back and reached past my thighs and pulled the key out of the ignition just in case I had the mind to drive away and ditch him on the side of the road. I was furious but I gave him credit for insight. The thought had crossed my mind.

Now he was waiting for something to bite and I was roaming the long high pier with a restlessness that had passed boredom an hour ago. I had already noted the certain charms of little old ladies fishing in honest to God bonnets and long skirts, avoided the groups of men who looked shady even under the bright noon day sun, wondered how the mothers of the families casting their lines far out into the rough surf didn't fret about their kids getting fish hooks in their eyes.

The pier was so high up and so long that it felt like we were on a stranded ocean liner with very poor room service. I wandered up and down, peering into buckets of hapless guppies, noting the gruesome gutting of fish that had taken the bait, swapping rueful smiles with the few children who wandered about looking as bored as me while their parents concentrated on willing the fish to leap onto their lines.

At one point a man was about to chop up the most beautiful blue and orange crab to use as bait.

"Oh, no," I protested, "he's too pretty to kill, please don't."

He hesitated, knife in air. "What would you like me to do with him then, missy?"

"Pardon him, an honorable discharge back into the sea."

He grinned at that, revealing gaps of missing teeth in a pirate's smile. He shook his head. "Can't believe I'm going to do this," and he stood up and tossed the crab the long way back to the water.

Happy with my success, I moved on to the snack stand in the middle of the pier where you could get chips and a cold drink from the girl behind the counter. I sipped on a root beer and studied the long rows of photographs dated from the fifties up until just a month ago. Terrifying photos of sharks, some of them so big I had to verify it with the girl behind the counter.

"These sharks from off of this pier?"

She nodded, and I was glad I had kept to the small swimming pool the motel offered.

After an hour more of nothing, my husband announced he was giving up. As we drove back to our motel, he rallied. "I'm going to try another spot I heard somebody talking about."

"Really? More fishing? " I was incredulous. At the hotel I read a magazine on top of the bed as he fussed with gathering what looked like every piece of fishing equipment he owned. He was going to war on these fish and I was glad I was opting out and missing the big sulk that was sure to follow the next few hours of empty fishhooks and a whole lot of muttered curses.

After an hour I strolled down to the beach. It was mid-September and despite the heat that suggested an endless summer, the beach was deserted. I poked around at the frothing edge of the water looking for shells. Not much to see, the Atlantic pounded everything to smithereens before it reached the sand. We had more interesting shells back home in New York, I thought with mild displeasure. I waded in the water up to my ankles. Maybe I'd go back to the room and put on my swimsuit and take a dip in the pool.

The ocean water was funny, pulling at me and the meager shells, and I laughed at the grooved lines my toes left behind in the dark wet sand. From my ankles to mid calf with just a couple of waves, I shook my head with wonder at the playful ocean. Took a step towards the beach and a bigger wave hit the back of my legs. When I stood up I was waist deep, my shorts and tee shirt soaking wet. I felt the water reaching around me like many hands on my waist and I sputtered and took big strides to the beach.

I didn't even feel the next wave hit. I was under and being pulled backwards and upside down, arms flailing, legs still trying to find footing on the sand. I bobbed up to the surface choking and spitting and I wiped the sea water from my eyes. I was so far from shore I couldn't make sense of it. Hadn't I just been walking on the beach? I tried to swim forward and immediately felt the hand of the ocean upon me, holding me, pulling me slightly with a warning that forward motion might mean another ride in the rip. Maybe this time the ocean would forget to let me surface.

Not one soul on the beach. I was trying to tread water with as little motion as possible. I had always hated being over my head when swimming. It made me think of all the room something might have to swim underneath me. All the room I would have to sink since I was never a very strong swimmer.

I thought of my husband. He would come back to the room and see I wasn't there. Would that be in an hour? Two or three? Would he think I was off walking somewhere and decide to take a shower before taking a look for me? Could I stay like this that long? This minimal treading of water to fool the ocean into thinking I wasn't anything worth bothering with, my nose barely staying over the water, my chin submerged.

I moved my head to the right. Nothing down the long empty beach. I was already feeling tired. I called my husband's name in my head. Would I flash into his mind? Would he flick the image of me away like a nattering fly as he tried to concentrate on finally landing a big fish?

I turned my head to the left. That side of the beach was empty as well. All these little beachfront motels. Were we the only tourists? It was almost ludicrous. The only thing to my left was the fishing pier, so far to my left that I couldn't make out any people so I knew they couldn't see me either. I was shocked to realize that I was two thirds of the way as far out in the water as the pier was. Deep water. My mind flashed on the photographs of the sharks caught off the pier and the fear was electric, shooting up my throat, tightening my body until it released into a spasm of shudders. I felt screams beneath my tightened throat like soda shaken in a bottle, ready to burst out, and I fought my body's response, trying to calm my movements, to take small breaths, spitting out the water that sloshed in my mouth with the rough waves.

Think. I knew not to thrash about. I knew that sharks will think you are a dying fish and be attracted to you. I had read somewhere that fear also puts out an scent. It's the adrenalin, and animals can smell it. I couldn't do too much about that. This level of fear was a new thing for me, so strong I felt it trying to take me over and shut me down. The ocean still held me in her hands, a loose grasp tightening now and again, just so I'd know she could still pull me under and drown me.

I looked towards the pier again. I wanted to think someone had binoculars, someone would see me and start running down the pier yelling for help. I was match for match to the end. Without feeling it, the ocean had tugged me farther out. Panic won for a moment and I flailed in the water, swallowing some, feeling little rings of activity from my arms and legs energizing the water. Alerting things that I was there.

Stop it right now stop it right now calm the hell down. I forced myself to go back to my slow treading in the water. In my mind's eye I could see shapes circling beneath me. If I feel a bump, I thought, maybe my heart will stop. I knew sharks sometimes bump you first just to make sure you won't harm them. As if. Oh, God, Bill, where the hell are you? I called to my husband as loud as I could inside of my head. Couldn't he hear the echoes of my cries for help when it felt like they might split my head? I thought of him looking for me later, worry clouding his face as he went from the room to the beach to the hotel manager, asking about me, fear beginning to creep into his thoughts, and I felt so sad for him. I sent him love. Love he might feel as he searched for me, even if that was all that was left. I closed my eyes and pushed my love for him towards the beach. It made me feel better but it also made me feel I was accepting a wrong outcome.

I took a tentative kick towards the shore and felt the water tighten around me. Damn, damn, damn. I went back to treading water, to imagining dark shapes rising, and I asked God to hold out his hand and help me. I didn't expect much of an answer since I seemed to only remember God when it was convenient and half the time didn't put much store in my Sunday School upbringing anyway. But the act of talking to God made me feel less alone and feeling less alone helped to clear my head that was so gripped by fear.

An inventory: I was pulled out to sea by some undertow. I couldn't swin back to shore because the ocean wanted to yank me under water in the worst way. There were probably sharks all over the damned place but at the moment I was still intact and maybe it wasn't eat a Yankee day in Sharksville. I was floating out past the pier now. I had to do something or I would drown before the sharks became a problem. I officially hated this one year anniversary trip.

I smiled at the last bit and then made myself stop since it the movies it always happens that someone laughs or smiles and boom, they get killed right then. It was not hard to stop smiling.

Tread water. Tread water. Tread ... wait a minute. Didn't I just read not so long ago that if you are caught in a current or a rip tide you need to swim parallel to the shore? You cannot go forward but you can go sideways and an eensy bit forward. Maybe.

I tried it. Pushed myself sideways and realized my legs wanted to cramp up. My arms were so tired. I swam tentatively to the right and the sea did not try to pull me under. Leaning forward in the water, my arms in a slow breast stroke, the only stroke I really knew how to do well since I could not swim with my head in the water, I made a few more strokes sideways but slightly forward. Yes. It was working.

I looked at the beach so very far away. I looked at the fake lighthouse tower of a restaurant rooftop to my far right. I told myself that I would swim to that tower, slowly and steadily, sideways and slightly forward. I realized I was crying as I told myself this. I made myself promise that I wouldn't stop no matter if my legs cramped, if my arms couldn't move, no matter if I felt a bump. I would not stop swimming. I asked God to swim along with me.

I am not sure how long it took me. I think an hour or more. When I got closer to the sand, the water tried to pull at me harder, and the last few feet I dug my fingers so far into the sand as I hauled myself in that my fingertips were cut and bleeding when at last I pulled myself onto the beach. I laid there, a few feet safely up from the murmuring touch of water, curled into comma on the long blank beach, breathing in, breathing out.

Susan Moorhead's fiction and poetry have been in a variety of online and print journals and in several anthologies. An essay of hers was nominated for a Pushcart prize. Most recently a poem took first place in the Greenburgh, NY contest for New York State.

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