The Swim

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by Roland Howell

He stood by the window looking out at the lake and the grey mist and drizzle. Morning rains in summer seemed especially sad, he thought. According to the old adage, early day rains will end before noon and the day will brighten. But, no matter how propitious the day might become, his sadness would remain.

He looked at his watch. Ellen should arrive soon. She said she would be there between ten thirty and eleven. The funeral had seemed so eerie, like a medieval ritual in the old stone church. He had been a bearer. Ellen had asked if he would give a short eulogy but he declined. To accept would have been to accept Paul as dead and he refused to enter the purgatory of loss just yet. It was not until several days later when he returned to the cottage and looked at the lake that the memories flooded his mind and he gave in to sadness.

He and Paul loved the water ever since they were young kids. Their parents called them water rats and Paul’s father taught them to sail before they were ten. The summer following their Junior year in high school, they built a boat, a regulation “Comet”. They built it as light as regulation allowed and raced it regularly the following summer. They took turns at the tiller race to race and never finished less than third. It was the last summer before college and they chased girls, partied, drove cars too fast, and sailed. They sailed every summer for the next thirty years.

The Lake Ontario shoreline was choked with decaying algae and dead fish for many of those years. On calmer days they would sail out where the water was clean and clear. Sometimes they could see the bottom. They would drop the sails, fill the sail bag with water and tie it to the bow cleat for a sea anchor and the boat would nose into the wind while they jumped into the lake and swam laughing and taking turns swimming away and challenging themselves to catch up to the slowly drifting “Comet”. Later, they would open a beer and lay on the deck and talk about things philosophical, things personal, and how they would sail together every summer for years to come. Paul called it their ritual of friendship.

Sometimes, when the wind was certain and certain to last the day, they would sail far out to the shipping lanes and catch a freighter close up as it plied its way from the Welland to the St. Lawrence. They would be far enough out to have lost land and both would feel the tingling sense of defiance when they looked and the horizon was everywhere.

One summer they were sailing with several other boats when the wind seemed capricious and began to smell peculiar. The temperature dropped suddenly and dirty clouds and whipping winds descended out of nowhere. They had looked windward just before the squall hit and watched it streaking along the water’s surface. They had no time to drop the sails so they let all lines go, the sails snapping wildly, the “Comet” healing precariously and then fishing its bow up into the gale. He held the tiller and kept it in irons while Paul loosened the halyards and dragged in the sails. They turned off the wind and steered shoreward, water chasing over the transom, the boat pitching in the rising surf. They paddled hard at the mouth of the creek and ran the “Comet” into the sand along the shore. Water sloshed in the cockpit. They jumped ashore and several cottagers helped pull the hull up on the beach. The sun was gone and the sky was the color of smoke with sooty clouds racing across. They stood shivering. All of the other sailboats had capsized. They could see the bobbing hulls and heads and waving masts among the swells. Paul yelled “Let’s go” and they untied his father’s runabout and headed out of the creek. Several other power boats followed. The storm left as quickly as it came and the sun was back when the rescue fleet came in with soaked sailors aboard. Later, he and Paul, and some of the other power boats went out again with the boat owners. They jumped in, treading water while they de-rigged sodden sails, secured lines, and towed the hulls ashore.

He and Paul had their last sail together two summers ago, before Paul became ill. It was the first summer after Mary had been killed and Paul had asked whether they should visit, whether he felt up to their company because of the memories. He told Paul he wanted them to come. The loneliness, particularly at the cottage, was getting unbearable. They sailed together for the last time with Ellen standing on the creek bank watching them hoist the sails and catch the wind. That evening, he and Paul began recounting episodes of their youth, of summers past and sailing. Ellen sat quietly listening to the words of the two men who seemed hardly to notice she was there. After they remembered the time of the storm, Paul raised a glass and offered a toast.

“You know, in all the years we’ve sailed, good weather and bad, we always came in with the mast high and the hull upright. We never put her down. So here’s to us, sailors “extraordinaire””. They all laughed, clinked glasses, and tossed off their drinks.

He was still in memory, looking out at the lake, when he heard Ellen’s voice at the kitchen door. He walked into the kitchen. Ellen stood dripping from the rain. She wore jeans, a baggy sweatshirt, and sneakers. Her hair had lost it’s set. She held the box in front of her between her two hands.

“Oh, Ellen. You look half drowned,” he said. “Here, give me that.” She handed him the box and looked at him with her large brown eyes.

“Gee, did you come in all this rain alone?” he asked. Let me pour you some coffee.” He placed the box on the counter by the sink.

“No, no coffee, thanks anyway. Jack drove me here. He’s in the car waiting. We’ve got to get back.”

“Let me call him. Maybe he’d like some coffee. You ought to take a chance to dry off.”

“No, please don’t call him. He doesn’t want to come in. Seeing you and remembering you with his father is too much for him, just now. It’s tough enough for me.” He could see she was at the edge of tears. “It’s your turn to say goodbye,” she continued. “It’s the way Paul wanted it; just you and him like it was when you were kids, before me.” She began to sob and he walked to her and put his arms around her.

“Don’t ever think that you and the kids weren’t the most important people in Paul’s life by far,” he replied.

She continued to sob and he held the embrace and began to sense something. It made him feel guilty but it wouldn’t leave. Hell, why not, he thought. Widow and widower. She was still an attractive woman. But later, not now. He pressed the thought from his mind and released her.

“Thank you for being Paul’s good and best friend for all these years,” she said. She turned and started for the door.

“Take care, Ellen. I’ll call you in a couple of weeks.” She turned and nodded and then walked out of the door into the rain.

The weathermen of the adage were right. By noon the sun was bright and the air dead still with birds chirping and the lake so flat it rose up into the sky with no horizon. Carrying the box down to the dock, he felt a peculiar disappointment. There was no wind. He would have to use the motor.

For a moment he thought maybe he should do his duty tomorrow. But he dismissed the idea. He knew if he and the box were together overnight he would begin to drink and make stupid pitiable toasts and get unproductively drunk.

He stepped off the dock into the “Comet” and placed the box in the large bailing pail. When he went forward to loosen the bow line, his eye caught the big willow on the beach. It had stood there as long as he could remember sucking its life’s sustenance up through the soggy sand. It’s branches were hanging straight down without motion, their slender leaves glistening wet like streaming tears. He pushed the bow out then moved to the stern and loosened the line while the boat spun slowly into the creek. He dropped the motor shaft into the water, set the choke, and started the engine. If it were not for the boat’s wake it would appear to be a craft moving on glass.

He headed straight out into the lake. From time to time he looked at the pail and the top of the box inside. He decided about three quarters of a mile would be an appropriate distance. The gulls were active, following along, lighting on the water, and then flapping up into the air again. When he reached his estimate, he cut the motor and pulled the sail bag from under the deck. He took out the sails and crawled onto the foredeck and tied the cord of the sailbag to the painter and dropped it into the lake to fill with water. It was poor seamanship to leave loose sails aboard. He rigged the jib and then slid the fittings of the main into the mast track, the rope foot into the boom slot, and snapped the halyards. Then he slipped the three batters into the packets on the luff of the main.

He sat for several minutes looking at the box and at the lake and back at the shore. There were no other boats in sight. He opened the box and looked briefly at the gray powdery contents before lifting it from the pail. Then, standing with the box at the starboard edge of the cockpit, he began to empty the ashes into the water. He poured them slowly, watching them drop and drift away. Suddenly he stopped, pulled off his sneakers, and emptied the box. Just as the last ashes fell on the lake, he dove off the boat.

The water was colder than he ever remembered and he began to swim vigorously. He swam next to the last of the ashes and around the area where he had seen the first ashes disappear. He swam around the area twice. His heart was pumping rapidly and he did not feel much cold anymore. Then he thought to look for the boat. It was still close by. He swam to it and pulled himself up over the freeboard onto the deck and swung his legs into the cockpit.

He sat for several moments, breathing deeply. The sun was pleasantly warm. He looked back over his shoulder but nothing remained on the surface of the lake.

He noticed the small styrofoam cooler under the port deck and wondered. His son and some friends had sailed the “Comet” the week before. He removed the top and found one unopened bottle of beer. He snapped the cap on the opener screwed to the cockpit cowling; a mandatory accessory, Paul had called it. Then he lay down on the deck next to the mast, his head on the collapsed jib, his legs down along the port deck, his legs held on board by the side stay. He lay there holding the beer on his chest, tipping it to his mouth from time to time, and looking at the sky and wisps of clouds. The sun dried him and he played Rorshach games with the cloud patterns.

When the beer was gone he got up and faced to the east, the direction of the ashes, and gestured the empty bottle like a toast. Then he held it gurgling in the water until it filled before letting it go and watching it woggle downward out of sight.

A soft breeze began to creep in from the northwest. He pulled the motor off the transom and dropped the rudder in the fittings and went forward, pulled in the sail bag, and hoisted the sails. He pointed the “Comet” to the wind and then fell off onto a broad reach toward the mouth of the creek. With all our intellect, our progress and our capacity to improve the human condition, we are still a fragile lot, he thought. Mary’s car accident and Paul’s galloping cancer. There is a threatening caprice that hangs over us all.

At the mouth of the creek, he jibed, the boom swinging lightly in the soft wind and the boat drifting lazily toward the dock. He secured the bow and stern lines to the dock, dropped the sails, and derigged them stuffing them in the wet sailbag. He heaved the bag onto the dock and stepped from the cockpit. He paused a moment and looked at the old willow. The dangling branches and their leaves were dry from the sun and were swinging gently, as if dancing to the silent music of the zeyphyr. He watched a moment. Then he swung the sailbag over his shoulder and walked up the bank to the cottage.


Copyright Roland Howell copyright


Read Part Two of this story, the sequel, A Flicker in the Ashes.