Storytime: A Soft Touch.

September 13th, 2017

I used to make fun of my big sister whenever we went swimming. I’d hold my breath and go down deep, deep, deep as I could and feel around with my eyes shut against the grainy mud until I had a fistful of soft muck. Then I’d push off and – up up up and UP and throw it at her, laughing as she shrieked and yelled and splashed me until I either swallowed water or mom told me to stop.
“It’s just seaweed,” I told her. “It’s just seaweed.”
“It’s GROSS,” she told me. And I loved hearing that, because it meant it’d work again next time too, and the time after that at least.
“Why?” I asked her. “It’s soft. Soft things can’t hurt you. See?”
And I’d throw the other fistful at her and oh it’d get louder still.
“It’s SQUISHY,” she said. “GROSS.” And then she’d finally catch me when I was laughing too hard and I’d get dunked over and over until mom yelled something. It was fine, it was routine, it was reliable, it was my very own private manufactured and malicious version of the old man-on-a-banana-peel comedy.

But then there was that one, that other time.

It was a little late, but it was a little lake and a little ways from the little cottage. So it wasn’t a problem, was it? I knew how to swim better than most of the fish in there.
And the sun wasn’t down yet. Nice rosy water, still warm from the day and with no wind to whip you when you came out damp. A padded sort of moment, when the whole world was as calm and slow as a grandparent’s hug.
Then something grabbed my ankle and I went down.

And farther.

And deeper.

And darker – but only to a point. There was light down there, at the bottom of the deepest part of the lake. I’d never touched mud farther than a body-length off the dock, but here I was nestled in its lowest guts, and surrounded by fuzzy glows that made me think of fireflies.
I was in a chair.
Well, more than a chair. It had a high, tall back and the arms were more decoration than support. The word was ‘throne.’
Around me, soft and green and wavering gently, the seaweed gathered and talked and mumbled in their rippling voices and ambling minds.
“Why me?” I asked.
Because someone has to make the hard choices, they told me. Look, look!
And they stretched themselves out very thoroughly and I could see that there wasn’t a hard part in any of them, not a speck. They were algae with ambition and not much more.
So I was in charge. And it was a wonderful hour. I ruled, I judged, I decreed, I pontificated, I got to fulfill every petty tyrant’s ambition that a modern politician dreams of.
It was a wonderful hour but a lousy hour-and-a-half.
At first I tried being random. Then I tried being spiteful. Then I tried making deliberately bad decisions.
But all around me, all those things I did just rippled through those soft jelly-bodies without so much as leaving a mark.
I tried to leave, but my throne was seaweeds too. And the harder I hauled away from it, the tighter it clung to me. Ten million little tiny ropes tautening into wire cables. Scream and twist and shout and swear every bad word I’ve ever known and nothing happened.

I almost fell asleep there when the sun went down and the water ran cold over me. Wore myself out. But in the end there’s no amount of tired that can’t keep a little kid from crying from homesickness, even when they’re asleep. When I’d finally shaken myself free of that nightmare I wiped the tears off my face (don’t ask me how that happened underwater, because I’ve never found my answer), and that was when I found my arm to be free.
So I jumped up and my throne held me down again, and again, and oh I was a stupid child because it wasn’t until the fifth time I’d nearly choked myself on my own fear that I realized that the secret was to move just like the weeds themselves.
Then I took my time, and I made it careful, and I softly, slowly, smoothly slipped free of my chains and my crown and my rulership and I skedaddled.

Kicking was the problem. I shouldn’t have kicked. I wanted to get home fast, I thought that throne was the last obstacle, but oh I made a real ruckus when I sped for the surface. My lungs hurt, you understand. They’d remembered they were there, and were aching.
But as I kicked I felt my feet tickle, and my legs, and I looked down and was nearly blinded by swirling muck. The bottom was rising after me, with a thousand feathered arms and hands and it was gripping as tightly as its damp little palms would allow.
Those wire cables were on me again, that squishing touch that meant the droning voices and the unending hours and the chair that wouldn’t let go, but my hand broke the surface before theirs broke my skin, and at that moment – that very moment – they gave up, and went limp.
And that’s when my mother found me, lying on the shore, screaming my head off and covered in dirty old seaweed.

I still don’t swim by myself. And I can’t bring myself to eat anything too slimy, or too soft.
But on the whole I was pretty lucky, I think. Imagine if they’d ever done what I told them to.

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