Breathe Deep, Duckling
Keiran says you’re not meant for this world. He tells you snails are just snails, when you step on one in the park, feel its shell pop and leak beneath your shoe. He says snails don’t deserve tears, nor do fledglings fallen from nests, or veterans without homes, or the elderly couple that walks past your apartment every morning, holding hands, weakening your grasp on soaped dishes as you watch from the kitchen window. This is life, he says. It is what it is. He tells you toughen up, steel yourself against the planet beyond your door, or be forever disappointed – that the world’s edges aren’t as delicate as you imagined, that life moves on and leaves everyone behind. Tough love, he tells you when you make up after fights, a phrase he says you never learned. But he is a beautiful man, his spilled laughter makes you forget every callus, and his hands are just soft enough that sometimes, when he touches you, they feel like the feathered weight of your mother’s palms, holding you up, tender beneath your belly as you kicked across the water, as you learned to swim.
Hold your breath, she’d tell you, before she pushed your head gently under, hand guiding your forehead. She held you for only seconds, suspended beneath the water of the pool in your backyard, increasing by time until you learned to bind your lungs. But underwater felt like death, silent billow of blue, a lack of sound without her that sheathed you in some foreign womb. Every time you surfaced, the air you gasped in washed a monsoon through your body, the sunlight honeyed a warm coat across your hair, and the strands lost their weight through the gentle pull of your mother’s hands, so welcome you exploded into giggles. Your mother tickled you, fingers troubling the water beneath your body, and as she laughed you felt her hands hold you only tighter. Duckling, she called you, as adept by sea as you were on land.
Keiran has never known the nickname, a word you’ve never told him like every other secret you keep. That you capture spiders in paper cups, release them to the porch. That you once bought a homeless man lunch, and he thanked you with tears. And that sometimes you laugh so loud in movie theaters that people turn to look at you, something he’s never noticed, until he finally suggests a comedy one Saturday and you laugh so hard your voice booms above the surround sound. You don’t look at Keiran, but you feel him staring at you anyway, the side of your face growing hot. In the car on the way home, he tells you everyone heard, everyone was looking, and his words remind you of sixth grade, the first time the sound felt like something it shouldn’t be, when at recess you laughed so loud jumping rope while everyone else just giggled, a crystalline sound, a chandelier. You felt yourself expand beyond your own borders then, as if you lived outside of your body, looking in. You came home and strapped on your swimsuit and crawled into the pool, floating face up, hair billowing out in tentacles, arms extended like a starfish, ears held beneath the silence of surfacing, some placid hush.
When Keiran suggests a walk around the neighborhood, like the old couple he’s seen you watching out the windows, you notice the trees bunched with the budding speckles of fruit blossoms, their fragrance through your hair like jasmine. The tips of each tree are so green, so lush, that you can’t even remember early spring, slow opening of leaves, the way tree tips unfurl their gentle, grass-stained hands. Keiran says there was nothing you missed, that this happens every year. He tells you seasons are predictable, that what is verdant will soon fade, that rusted brown becomes bare, becomes ice, becomes birth. You consider this, the truth of this world, and as he takes your hand and leads you down the sidewalk, his palm is not your mother’s. But you take a breath, inhale the scent of hyacinth, you pull in all the air your lungs will need, to sustain your body beneath a soundless surface, to hold your heart underwater.
Anne Valente’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Redivider, CutBank and Sou’wester, among other journals. Her short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the 2011 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition and will be published in 2014. Originally from St. Louis, she is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah.