We don’t choose the skin we live in, she’d said.
Our little fish girl. She knifed through water like a hungry seal, sleek and black.
Our little fish girl, swimming the darkness.
It had started as a small pinkish patch of skin on Olivia’s cheek. It was diamond-shaped, the size of a small button and hard to the touch, like plastic, like the skin of a doll, and shiny and iridescent like fish scales. We paid it little heed at first, thinking it was a rash or eczema, which ran in the family. It would go away. It would go away. Except it didn’t. It spread. Ichthyosis. And it spread.
Our little fish girl.
She might live into her teens.
That seemed a cruelty.
So, I am going back. It isn’t calling me. Not like it called Dad. Not like it called Olivia. Especially Olivia. No, I am going back because I have nowhere else to go. That’s what I tell myself.
Grief is an open wound, raw and always healing. You wear it like the skin of the dead. You can never completely slough it off.
Olivia had been gone a year now. But the grey fugue that held me had changed. It was still a weight, but I carried it differently. It was like black clouds in a dark sky—sometimes, if you were fortunate, a little light peaked through. Sometimes. It was manageable, like a dark stone in my pocket that I could pull out and throw away. But I didn’t want to throw it away, didn’t want that release. It was too final. I wanted some small measure of pain. Deserved it, even.
Olivia is still with me, of course. Just in another form. And she always will be.
Over distant hills the sky is leaking red, like a bloody mouth. The road is a grey, twisting ribbon, endless and uncertain. The car wheezes and sputters. Angie loathed the car. She probably loathed me. She hated that I didn’t take care of the car, the house, our marriage. Or Olivia.
Olivia. I grip the steering wheel tight, roll down the window. The tang of the sea air makes my eyes water.
I should have paid attention. She’s suffering, Ethan, Angie had said, exasperation in her clipped tone. She hides it behind smiles, is all.
Angie was right, I should have paid more attention. It would go away. Should have taken better care. She said that’s what men did—took care of things. But I wasn’t very good at being a handyman. Wasn’t good at romance, being a husband, or a father. Not anymore. Not really. Instead, I spent time in the study, or, more increasingly, at the cottage.
Angie would call from outside the study door, “I’m going to bed, Ethan.” I’d mutter something about being up shortly, but I never was. It’d be hours before I silently crawled into bed. In the dark, in the near quiet of night, I could feel her silent, tomb-like recriminations. It got to be that the cottage suited me better. Suited us both better.
And Olivia. Poor Olivia. Smiling. Always smiling, despite the pain, despite her daily rituals: the ointments and emoluments; the washing and scrubbing; the endless medications and hospital visits.
This narrow two-lane road wends through hilly countryside. Thorny brush and tangled branches claw at the vehicle as it bumps along the pitted road.
I’ve been driving a couple hours and should be close now, but the scenery has taken on a peculiar quality. Perhaps, in my grey fugue, I’d made a wrong turn.
I had made many wrong turns, I knew. Done things I shouldn’t have—and hadn’t done things I should have. This, though, finally, is the right thing. Angie deserves the house. She doesn’t need me, a constant reminder of what was and what would never be. And after Olivia . . . she’d never want to visit the cottage. And who could blame her?
“Why would you go back there?” Angie said. “Especially now. First your father. And then Olivia. Why?”
“For Olivia,” I answered, and Angie just stared.
The road grows narrower and bumpier. The sky pulses redly. A thin sheath of grey mist forms. It is like looking through parchment. I can smell the distant sea. It’ll be dark soon and I don’t want to be travelling these roads at night.
The trees fall back, and the road opens up to fields and distant, mist-cloaked hills. Then, on the horizon, a dark shape looms, and beyond it I glimpse a black bar of sand, and a glint of blacker water. The fugue I constantly carry lifts, somewhat.
Minutes later, I pull into the large unpaved driveway. The cottage is long and narrow like a coffin, and the colour of an old mop, like the life has been leached from it. I step out of the car and glance around, suddenly uncertain. But I’ve nowhere else to go, really. The wind is strong, brackish. My eyes sting. And the sky still bleeds. Another open wound.
The water was the only place where she was free from pain. At first, as a toddler, it was at bath time. She’d splash and roll like a cork, bobbing. When we’d try to pull her from the water she’d scream until her face was tomato-red. Then it was the small inground backyard pool we’d installed. She’d wear a full wetsuit—My real skin, she joked—to cover her red and ruined skin. She would rocket back and forth under the water, bashing into the sides, hardly taking a breath. It wasn’t enough to appease her. It was confining. Then the cottage. We’d anchored a floating dock in the middle of the lake, and Olivia would dive from it, slice under the dark water and resurface many interminable minutes later. She’d be down there entombed in the chilly darkness so long that I always feared she’d never return. My little fish girl.
Only the limitless dark-bottomed lake held infinite possibilities for her.
I wake early, cold and trembling, as the first frail fingers of pink dawn reach into the dark cottage. I make a cup of instant coffee and take it out to the back porch. Dark sand. Black water, still and smooth like an occluded mirror. A lone dark bird high against the grey unending sky. One fat black cloud, its swollen belly scraping over a stand of dark pine.
I blink, squint against the fuzzy grey. A wave of hot anger surges through me, and I shake, spilling coffee. I squeeze my eyes and hands shut and my rage dissipates. Slowly, I unclench my hands. I open my eyes, stare at the black lake. A deep moan escapes me, and a sudden brisk wind makes my eyes water.
I wipe my eyes, put down the coffee mug, step off the porch and walk down to the small wooden pier.
I spent two weeks with Olivia at the cottage last summer. It had been Angie’s idea. “Go,” she’d said. “She’s not a child, anymore. Get to know your daughter.” And, left unspoken, but hanging in the air like a dark cloud—Before it’s too late. It was Angie who usually spent summers with her at the cottage; filling their hours with swimming until the light faded and darkness took hold, as it always does. I was always working; always too busy.
And Olivia swam and swam that summer; morning, afternoon, and sometimes at night. Swimming the darkness. Hours and hours in the dark lake. I’d watch from the porch or lake edge as the sun dripped into the black waters, as the stars coldly observed, unblinking, as time seemingly slowed in a syrupy, summer haze. She would stand on the dock, thin and lean like a cormorant, then dive, and the lake would swallow her up, gone, gone . . .
Olivia had grown so much that summer. Angie had been right. Suddenly, Olivia was a young woman, on the very verge of adulthood. Strong and independent. It was as if I’d blinked and she’d bypassed those early, awkward teen years. And somehow, I’d missed it all. It was a blur. My heart broke a little seeing her seemingly grow into adulthood that summer. Too soon, I thought. Don’t grow-up. It was selfish, I know. Soon she’d be gone, and her presence would be an occasional thing. I spent that summer at the cottage in her company, overcome, wondering how much time we’d have together.
Not much, as it turned out.
It was an anomaly—you could smell the sea, but you couldn’t see it.
All I ever knew was that this lake was good for fishing and swimming and if you followed it along, through the adjoining lakes, somewhere distant lay the sea.
I told that to Olivia.
“I want to see the sea,” she said, smiling, a dark light shining in her eyes. “Swim the darkness.”
I smile at the memory. I sniff. Always, the hint of the sea, and something underneath it; oily and fishy and tainted.
Tainted. Even the word is sour. I’m on the porch again, looking out across the grounds, across the black lake, to the far side with its dark woods and rocky outcrops and secret coves. The late-morning sun throws down a prismatic rainbow of light. Beautiful.
My father had spent his last summer at the cottage as the taint and corruption of bone cancer ate him from the inside. And knowing our time together was waning, I had joined him at the cottage; played euchre with him; drank scotch; sat quietly with him on the back porch as the moon glinted off the black lake and the stars shone coldly. Just the two of us, wrapped in sweaters and memories and stardust. During those moments I had secretly despaired, wondering why I hadn’t made more of an effort with my father while I had had the time. Too late, I realized. We always leave it too late.
And that last night together, under the darkening night sky, I had tried to make my meager amends.
“Dad, I . . . I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner.” I remember raising my whisky tumbler. “This is nice. Just us.” He was so thin. The skin clinging to his sharp bones. And a quiet sob had wracked me. “I should have been here more. I should have told you how much—”
My father had waved a hand, cutting me short. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t do that to yourself. You’re here now. That’s what matters in the end. You’re here at the end. We all gotta go sometime. Down there deep in the dark. Most don’t get a chance to do so on their own terms.” And father had drained his glass and turned to gaze out across the still water. He’d smiled. “It’s been a life.” Then, “Come on, I want to see the dark water.”
He stood and stumbled down to the water’s edge as I followed. The lake was a glassy obsidian darkness. Father stared, transfixed, at the black surface. “When it’s time,” he said, “it calls to you. You’ll know.” Then he smiled, clapped me on the back and stumbled back to the cabin.
From the porch the next morning, dazed, I watched father row our twelve-foot rowboat—the boat we’d fished from for years—out to the center of the mist-covered lake, drop the oars, stand, and slip silently into the dark water, never to resurface.
Just another of life’s unseen wounds.
Olivia was in agony that summer, and I should have noticed sooner. Should have done something. But she’d been eager to come to the cottage.
“It will be fun, Dad,” she said, eyes glimmering. “Just the two of us and the stars and the lake.”
And in that moment, something inside me broke. Just the two of us. I was a wretch. A failure. We only have a finite time with our loved ones, long or short, and I’d frittered it away.
Olivia put on a brave face, but near the end I could see the pain. Saw it in her movements, saw it etched in her face. The same sting of worry and sadness and grief—yes, living grief—that eventually carved a path on my father’s face. It’s hard to hide our pain. Maybe we should stop trying.
After breakfast one morning, Olivia and I took a canoe out on to the lake. The air was still, pine-scented with summer. The sky the blue of fairground cotton-candy. The lake rippled and wavered like an inky dream, mossy and black. Olivia, though, was in long pants, long sleeves, wearing a large, floppy sun hat. She’d spent a considerable amount of time and energy applying her ointments, and covering herself up. I’d seen her grimace as she eased herself into the canoe.
“We can stay inside,” I said.
She half-smiled. “No. I’ll be okay.”
We rowed out to the middle of the lake, then let the canoe drift and bob in the tiny waves and eddies. Except for the occasional bird call, all was still and quiet. For a brief moment the world and everything in it was perfect. I closed my eyes, and an image of my father came to me. He was floating past our canoe, just under the water’s surface, his grey face up, eyes wide and staring, mouth moving as if he were trying to communicate. My eyes snapped open and the image dissipated like so much smoke. Then I started to cry. For Olivia, her pain, and the life she was dealt. For my lost father. And for Angie, also lost to me. For me and my selfishness, knowing this very act was also selfish, yet unable to stop myself. I batted uselessly at my face.
Olivia looked at me, eyes glistening with care. Had I ever looked at her with the same compassion?
“It’s okay,” she said. “Really.”
“I—I . . . ”
Olivia smiled, eyes crinkling. “It’s normal. It’s life.”
She looked down at the black lake, leaned over and trailed a hand through the water. “Do you smell that?” she asked.
I breathed deep. I did. The sea. Some mystical, distant place. If we paddled and paddled we might find it.
As if reading my thoughts, Olivia said, “You can’t find your home if you don’t start the journey.”
“Your true home,” she said. “Where you’re meant to be.”
“Where are you meant to be?”
She surveyed the lake. “Out there,” she said, nodding. “Swimming the darkness.”
“As long as you don’t lose sight of the shore,” I said.
She looked at me warmly. “We all lose sight of the shore at some point. That’s life, too. That’s normal. How else can you discover new lands?”
I’d drifted too close to the shoreline my entire life, I realized.
Dad’s disease was internal, corrupting his organs. Olivia’s was external, corrupting her cells. All disease corrupts. Live with it long enough and it corrupts your mind.
That’s what I like to think—that Olivia wasn’t in her right mind. But I know that wasn’t true. I know it was her choice. The brief note made that clear.
I woke at first light that morning. Perhaps I sensed something. Or maybe I heard Olivia fumbling with the canoe at the pier. When I got down to our pier a meager silvery light bathed the black lake. Olivia was already on the dock, an inky shape, limned in a silver halo. She turned to me, held my gaze. I imagined a faint smile creasing her pain-lined face. After a time, she turned back to the silent dark water and dove in. A small splash, then concentric ripples. And it was like all those times before where I waited and waited for her to reappear, bobbing up to gulp some air and laugh and do it all again. But I knew she wasn’t coming back up. I knew. I sank to my knees, held my breath, waited. There was a pain in my chest. My paper heart ripping. A lone crow cawed overhead, breaking the silence.
Olivia had taken the canoe, so there was nothing for me to do but wade in and swim out to the dock. And I waited there as a pink light etched watercolour daubs on the horizon, as dark birds disappeared into darker trees to tell the forest their secrets, as lazy thick clouds dreamed and drifted across a rough canvas of blue-grey pages, as the sun woke, warmed, then winked away to sleep in a cloudless indigo night of brilliant stars. And in the dead of night I canoed back to the cottage, and in her room I found Olivia’s note, resting like a feather on her pillow:
Do not grieve overly long, for I am accomplishing my one true dream. I am swimming the darkness. I am going home. Hold me in your hearts. Hold me in your minds. And one day I will see you in the dark.
I found the wetsuit on the cottage’s tiny strip of sandy shore. The suit was flat and smooth and perfectly laid out as if it had been placed there and not just washed ashore. I picked it up and pressed it to me. I could smell her; her oils and creams; her sweat.
I turned the suit over. The unzipped back flapped open. And now I could see her. Olivia’s raw skin was crusted to the inside of the suit, in parts pulpy and glistening, in others dry and flaking. She’d shed her skin, sloughed off her former life. And I pictured here out there somewhere in the black water, swimming skinless into the darkness.
When it’s time, it calls to you.
I stripped my clothes off and pulled the wetsuit on. Grief is an open wound, raw and always healing. You wear it like the skin of the dead.
Then I turned and faced the black water.