1,693 words, Short fiction
Content Warnings: Depictions of near-drowning, mention of death, depictions of transformative body horror
“Well Wishes” by Lucille Valentine | 1,693 words | Short Fiction | Content Warnings: Depictions of near-drowning, mention of death, depictions of transformative body horror
I was four years-old the first time I drowned. We had gone to the lake, a dark stain seeping into the red earth’s cupped palm, and you took your eyes off me for just one moment, which was all I needed. Do you remember how time would stretch on for ages when you were small, how easily it would fray and lose its shape? After hours in a truck so dirty it was worthy of index-fingered graffiti, I fled as soon as the yoke of your gaze was no longer a weight across my shoulders.
My feet carried me across water-smoothed stones and I turned around the bend of the shore, hid myself behind boulders and laughed, shrill and raucous. The sound of my name evaporated in the air as the sand swallowed your voice, not dissimilar to how it drank the tide. “Sylvia. Sylvia. Where are you?” Cold water swirled around my ankles and I blundered my way into the lake. It beckoned and I heeded. I remember the muck and weeds between my toes, and then the glass bottle slicing open the sole of my left foot, but still I went ever forward.
I don’t remember when the lakebed dropped out from under me, when I went from standing on tiptoe to kicking like mad. I don’t remember welcoming water into my lungs with desperate gasps. I don’t remember my eardrums protesting against the erratic shifts in pressure as my head dipped above and below. All I remember is keeping my eyes just barely above the surface.
Coming to was like being born, like being ripped from the womb: choking up water from lungs scalding from fresh use. As your silhouette eclipsed the sun above my face, the lake, so famished before, turned up its nose at the gravel in your throat. “Goddamnit, Sylvia.” Goddamnit, Sylvia. Fucking Christ, Sylvia. Sylvia, callow and rampant, mercurial and irreverent. Never thinking about a single damn thing, what’s in your head, girl?
I spent the rest of the trip shackled to land by a towel wrapped around my shoulders. Call it what you want: triage, tether, or confinement. In a small pail I collected stones for skipping, for hurling, for bending back my arm in redolence of a catapult and flinging my catharsis into the waters that’d been denied of me, and of which I had been denied. There was one rock, innocuous and gray, under which a scorpion lay. Small enough to fit in my hand, sepia and glistening from damp, I stared at it. They say baby scorpions are more lethal than those fully grown; that in their inexperience, their ardor, they forget to ration their venom, forgo precision and speed in favor of adamancy. They will dig themselves in and refuse to let go.
The second time I drowned was not long after. I was five and unsupervised. There was a backyard with a pool and no fence. I hit the bottom like a stone, like a coin in a fountain. Then there were hands under my arms, dragging me out of the deep-end dark and into the sun’s harsh glare.
It took me drowning a third time for it to really stick.
I was slow to learn to drive, waiting with admirable patience for my teenage years to trickle on by, followed by the slow march of my early twenties. It was Mara who finally taught me. Mara, with faded freckles speckled on her nose, noticeable only with just enough room for amorous breaths to linger between us. Mara, who wore the same tattered Selena t-shirt to bed each night, except for those where our legs would tangle under sheets and the reek of sweat would permeate the air. Mara, of the perpetually chipped nail-polish; Mara, of the stark white scar on her left knuckle; Mara, always chuckling to herself. “Come on, Sylvia. How do you expect to ever escape this town if you don’t get your license?” Never mind how fervently this place digs into you, like a weed, like a spider weaving you into its web. Even if my feet never again navigated its parched soil, I knew I would still dream of sun-bleached cattle skulls nailed to wooden doors. I knew my mind would jump back to summers in July each and every time the oven’s sweltering breath blew across my cheeks. I knew I would dream of it, wake up gasping, pretending not to notice red dust embedded in my cuticles.
But things change. I could tell when her hand laid over mine on the gearshift. I could feel it in the rattling of the dash like a bird throwing itself against its cage. I wonder if she could hear our swan song spitting out of the exhaust pipe. Yes, things change.
After you died, I drove your shitty truck across the country, letting hours bleed into days which bled into weeks, only stopping for gas or food, or for sparse naps on the road’s shoulder. My hungry eyes watched the world turn to rainbow as crimson and orange earth gave way to lush green, bursting with clusters of blue and yellow and purple flowers. I drove until the sun forfeited its cloying colors to the gray of a lingering, dripping dusk. Sleep’s grasping hands wrapped around my throat, dragged my eyes closed, and cackled in my ear as the world faded away.
When I awoke, a streetlamp--some tired thing feigning antiquity--was bent around the front of the truck. I watched through the spiderwebbed windshield as pale steam wafted from under the hood. By the time I was able to move I was sure it would be too late, sure I would have been petrified, turned to stone, a monument to the amassing of poor decisions. I wondered what parables would form to warn of the dangers of compartmentalization and shock-induced impulsivity. I grabbed the suitcase that’d fallen to the floor of the passenger seat and and pried myself from the newly-concave interior.
As I walked I watched as small houses and buildings materialized from the shadows, swam out of the mist like fish rising to the surface of a pond. The moon above was enough to see by, but just barely, just teasing at illumination. I imagined eyes peeking out at me from behind curtains, vanishing back into the inky darkness of their homes just as I turned to catch them. With each step I felt guiltier, more unwarranted, but more for my continued presence in the hollow than for the destruction of the lamp post. Each footstep, though muffled by the moisture coating the asphalt, felt like a thunderclap. Witness me! Witness me! I only exist when I am seen and heard!
A bench appeared to my left, as if rapidly sprouted from the black soil. I set my suitcase down and began to sit, but stopped, half-crouched when my eye caught sight of a well a few paces away. Without fully comprehending why, I made my way toward it, slowly, as if approaching an unfamiliar animal. I ran my hands over its side and smiled at the stones of which it was composed. Smooth and rounded from countless years of water abrading them. I wondered where they came from, if there was a stream or a river nearby. Or a lake.
I peered down into the well and wrinkled my forehead at the way my head swam. How deep the well was I couldn’t guess, but it was enough that my features were indistinguishable in the black mirror of the water’s surface. The moon, swollen and pregnant, hovered behind my head like a halo and I laughed once, a sharp exhalation of breath. Imagine me, something holy, worthy of veneration. I reached into my jeans and pulled out a coin, silver and shining, my own private, pocket moon. I leaned over the side of the well, staring lazily at the coin held between my index finger and thumb, momentarily mesmerized by the way it glinted in the moonlight. What should I have wished for? That’s what people did at wishing wells, right?
“Here’s to,” my voice cracked, hoarse from disuse, “anything else.”
I dropped the coin from my grasp, waited, waited, waited for it to hit the surface with a splash so minute and distant the hairs on the back of my neck stood alert. Under one palm the stone of the well’s rim shifted as I leaned my weight against it, and a few others followed suit. One hit the ground with a dull thud and next thing I knew I was falling.
I fell and fell, watching the moon shrink where it floated above the well’s mouth until the water’s surface met me with a harsh slap before engulfing me completely. In the shadowy depths I was disoriented, flailing madly, breaking the skin of my knuckles against the cobblestone of the well’s wall.
Was this what it felt like to be born? To become?
I felt something ripple across my skin, and then under my skin. There was an unraveling, and then a reweaving. My flesh hardened against the frigid well water, sharpening to scales and spines. My lungs collapsed, exploded like punctured balloons, and I felt my throat slit apart again and again until it was not unlike breathing once more. The taste of blood flooded my mouth as my tongue sliced itself on newly-sharpened teeth. I reached out for the stone walls again and snarled soundlessly as claws scraped their surface.
Eventually my body quelled. I settled back in on myself, metamorphosed, my face pressed into the grime of the well’s floor. Shifting metal pressed against my lips and through the bouquet of copper and nickel I could taste something else, something new. In greedy, gulping mouthfuls I swallowed the coins, held them under my tongue, and sucked the wishes out of them like oysters from a shell, like marrow from bones. I drank until I was full, sated and distended.
I don’t know how long I stayed that way, suspended in the dark underwaters in imitation of womb. Slowly, I reemerged, keeping my eyes just barely above the surface.
Lucille Valentine is a desert rat masquerading as a voice actor, poet, visual artist, and LGBTQ+ community advocate whose works often include themes of poverty, womanhood, queer and trans experience, along with whatever her current existential crisis is. You can hear her acting across various podcasts, such as Caravan or The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray, or by pressing your ear up against a cactus skeleton on a windy night. She’s happiest reading poetry to be sad on purpose and when surrounded by hostile flora. You can find her aggravating every grammar elitist over on twitter @severelytrans.