[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Prose & Water
1. I always heard if you got lost in the wilderness that you could follow a river downstream and the river would know the way. Even in the thickest, darkest forest, the river knows. No compass, no map, and no guide could ever bring you home the way the river does. However you got lost, for whatever reason, the river keeps rushing down and up and around. The water changes temperature and glistens in all the right spots. There is a life inside of the river— a life that we cannot explain because it is not the same as our life. The river never seems lost: It always knows which curves to take and where it’s going.
2. When my grandpa taught his daughters how to swim he did so by chasing them around the pool with his belt. He said I won’t have my daughters afraid of the water like I was.
3. We have no rivers where I’m from except for the Ohio River but everyone said it was contaminated and that three-eyed fish lived in the water. We had plenty of creeks though. I grew up swimming in deep creeks with limestone floors: Nature’s own custom built swimming pool. I was baptized in a creek one day in April too. I lived next to a creek, a smaller one, all of my life. It was situated in front of the yard and remained subtle shades of green or brown. Minnows, frogs, turtles, and the occasional copperhead snake inhabited it. We were always told never to play in the creek because there was a hunch that sewer followed into it but, sometimes, we played in it anyway. The sandy banks along the creek became a campsite where we would catch crawfish and minnows. One of the older kids would pull the pinchers off of the smaller crawfish and make them fight the larger ones.
4. There’s a photograph in a book somewhere of my father and his three siblings swimming in the creek in the front yard. It was deeper then and muddy. The photo was taken in the seventies.
5. In the summer the tree frogs come in droves: Their green bodies blend in with the grass and trees and they make chirping sounds when people get to close to them. They have beautiful pale bellies and sharp yellow eyes. I have olive skin and amber brown eyes—not so sharp and not so beautiful. I caught a dime size tree frog once and kept it in a pink plastic container. Her name was Grace and she had a grey scar on her belly.
6. The creek water was never warm and anytime a stray kickball rolled into the water every kid began to point at one another in hopes that someone else would have to retrieve it. You go get it! You’re the one who kicked it in! I can’t get my pants wet my mom said so! Throughout the summer, large snapping turtles would live in the deepest parts of the creek. They were a sandy brown color with sharp edges all around. The females were always smaller and less curious than the males. The male turtles would extend their necks and poke their heads up out of the water and stare at us while we sat on a grassy knoll and stared back at them. My mom would joke that their necks were phallic shaped and the turtle would seem to sense the joke and burrow down into the dirty water, away from us.
7. My grandmother fed the turtles scraps of watermelon and apples. Sometimes they got leftover meat or vegetables, but they like watermelon best. Out of all the wild animals that lived on Camp Creek my favorites were the snapping turtles.
8. Human life has always been directly related to water: We drink it, we swim in it, and it swims in us. My mother joked that I had been a fish in a past life because after taking swimming lessons at the local pool as a child I couldn’t stay out of the water. I would swim laps around the pool every chance I could and practice holding my breath for long periods of time. I’m not sure I ever mastered actual breathing but holding it in I could do. At home, we had no pool.
9. My grandmother went through inflatable pools over the years but the water only ever came up the chest. I didn’t mind though. The only thing I ever hated about pool water were the chemicals involved in keeping it clean. Chlorine always made my hair lighter and frizzy and burned my eyes. The smell wasn’t pleasant either. I would beg the adults to stop using it because I wanted to see underwater and I couldn’t do it if it meant my eyes would burn. I wanted to see the world but not at the expense of my vision.
10. I don’t remember swimming lessons. I remember the red mushroom-shaped structure with the falling water that fell out of its cap. The sheer joy—the laughter—that arose from my tiny chest was what made it memorable. The water would rush over my face like exploring hands and I would laugh and laugh. I welcome you here, water. I want to be like you. My mother said I took to swimming naturally and never struggled like the other kids did.
11. I never mastered the doggy paddle though. No, I would rather be in the water and kicking down down down until I nearly lost my breath. That’s what I liked to do. I liked the feeling of when the temperature of the water would change and suddenly it would be chilly even though the top foot of water was warm. And the other kids would stick to the top of the water with the blue and yellow plastic floaties, but I would venture further, deeper.
12. I am the sort of person who goes the extra mile—who swims that extra lap—and I don’t know why. I never saw anyone go out of their way to be kind when I was a kid. I saw the world not through rose-colored glasses but through my open eyes. Whatever I learned of kindness I learned from books. I liked non-fiction best as a kid. I didn’t read Harry Potter, but instead read the same biography about Eugenie Clark. Eugenie Clark studied sharks and spent a lot of time in water. I wanted to be Eugenie.
13. Once, when a relative was sitting in a kayak and hyperventilating over falling out of it, I waded barefoot into the water walking out to them to steady the boat. Stop moving. Yes, I’m here and yes I know you’re scared, but stop thrashing. See? You’re fine. And then when they were settled they paddled to the shore and got out without saying anything else to me.
14. The first time I ever went to the beach I was in elementary school and we had taken a family vacation with my mom’s family to a beach in North Carolina. We rented a beach house and my cousins came with us. I remember my mom buying me a pink two-piece bathing suit from the mall that had a little rhinestone palm tree on the breast of the top.
15. I remember walking into the water until it reached my knees and automatically being filled with fear: Fear of sharks, of electric eels, and sea urchins. A fish would swim by and rub against my shins like a cat begging for attention and I would turn around and run back to my beach towel. During that first trip I scarcely ever went out into the water. The waves scared me.
16. I have dreams about monster ocean waves. Dreams where I’m standing in the sand and all around me there seems to be a structure not unlike the coliseums in the days of old. The waves are thirty feet high and threaten to drown me violently. I have to climb the sand structure to get away. The dream always ends the same way: The waves keep coming and I can’t climb out fast enough.
17. My Nana joked, “Just remember, Lydia, if you see a shark fin hide behind a bigger person and you’ll be okay.”
18. I remember seeing these brown and green toads everywhere at the beach. The house we rented had a small shack in the back with a shower so you could rinse off before entering the house. I hated the idea and wanted to remain sandy at all times, but my mom preferred that I rinse off before tracking my little sandy feet through the white carpet of the rental house.
19. “Lift up on your suit, Lydbug. Just like that so I can get the sand off your butt,” my older cousin Courtney would laugh and spray me as I turned circles for her in my pink bathing suit. I wore my new pink Hello Kitty sandals with it because my mom liked it when my clothes matched. The little toads would be everywhere in the shack and Courtney picked one up and tried to slip it down the back of my suit bottom, but I ran from her.
20. I laughed so hard and squealed as I tore through the downstairs door as my wet feet slid over the concrete floor of the home’s basement and I fell hard on my backside. Still better than a toad down your pants. I couldn’t breathe but I fought my way through the pain, laughing anyway.
21. My favorite film is Jaws: A movie that was released twenty years before I was born. Growing up, the movie was always played on AMC during the summer months and when I was old enough to finally pick out movies at the Movie Gallery we rented from I picked up Jaws. I was deeply fascinated by the movie and never moved an inch when it came on the television screen. My father used to find it fascinating that I could sit through Jaws and Cujo at a young age but never be frightened by it.
22. Robert Shaw’s character Quint is my favorite fictional character. He’s a drunk: A mean drunk. Something about his devil-may-care attitude pulled me in. I think I wanted to be the person people turned to when they needed help. More importantly, I wanted to be the one people listened to, the one who sat in the seat and harpooned the man-eating shark: I wanted to be important.
23. Everyone remembers the grand Indianapolis speech where Quint tells Hooper his story: The story of a crash and being stranded at sea while sharks circled the men. But hardly anyone ever mentions that line where he says, “You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.” That was my favorite part. In all of my life, I have never been afraid of water, of the dark, or of the elusive boogeyman. But I have been afraid of the waiting.
24. When I think of all the times I was happiest growing up, it was when someone drove a little too fast, when a rollercoaster reached its peak, or when I played outside in a thunderstorm. I have a hunger for a life that cannot be given to me while wearing a lifejacket.
25. Once I got in trouble for deliberately not listening to my grandmother. It was raining outside and I had decided I wanted to play in the rain. It was big drops, I remember that much. The kind of drops that would be cool but as they ran down your face they warm up to you. I was wearing a blue floral printed dress and no shoes. As I recall, if there were ever an opportunity to take my shoes off I took it.
26. “Granny said not to. She said we’d get sick and we have to go inside.” My cousins were standing underneath the white awning on the sunporch too scared to cross into the rain.
“Granny isn’t out here is she? How would she know what we’re doing unless you were a tattle tell?” I challenged them. Tell on me then you little rat. Go ahead.
“Whatever, we’re going inside,” one of them said and they both opened the sliding glass door and disappeared.
27. I don’t remember what I was doing besides standing there and looking into the gray sky. The water felt so clean and safe that I had no desire to watch the rain from the inside of the house. But out came my grandmother grabbing me by the arm with one hand and smacking me on the rear with the other. I would get whipped again later by my dad because he said I should’ve listened to my grandmother and not have been outside. I would have preferred pneumonia.
28. I’ve always thought of rain as a mark of time and place. I never feel like a semester of school has started until it rains, sealing in the idea of time. The rain for me is always a revival. It washes away the dirt and grime that collects. The rainwater provides for us and allows us to grow.
29. I remember this squall of rain I watched roll in one summer. I was reading a book while sitting in the sun when suddenly the air got heavy and humid. I looked up for just a short time and saw a wave of dark and brooding clouds come rolling in towards me, like waves. I tucked my book away for safe keeping and watched as the water came down with biblical force. It was the heaviest rain I had ever felt and the drops would sting my skin. The streetlight went out signifying the loss of power and the world became very dark.
30. The smell of the rain was overpowering. A smell that I can only compare to the feeling of crawling into freshly cleaned bed sheets or buttoning yourself into a crisp linen shirt. My black sundress was stuck to my skin and it felt like an extension of myself, my body. The water was running through my thick hair and I could feel the warm trickles of water running down my face. I ran, barefoot, across the driveway to join the other onlookers as we marveled at the sheer suddenness of the rain. Few things in life bring me such joy as being caught in the rain.
Lydia A. Cyrus is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work has been featured in Thoreau’s Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, Catfish Creek, and Luna Luna Magazine. Her essay “We Love You Anyway,” was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don’t End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural. She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Appalachia. You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world.