Learning to Swim
One of my strongest memories as a child is Cattails following me everywhere I went. After that fateful day by the river, he was my constant companion. Since I was older and taller, he was always three steps behind me scurrying to keep up with my longer stride.
At first I was embarrassed to have a little baby follow me around. If I was climbing a tall tree, Cats would be at the base watching me while sucking his thumb. Or if I was weaving a basket for Mama, he’d be sitting nearby clumsily attempting to weave a similar one with his chubby hands.
One day while I was gathering clay to mold into bowls, I asked him, “Why you always hanging around me, Cats? Go play with the other kids your age.”
“Don’t wanna play with no babies,” he said as he slapped the mud he was sitting in. “Wanna play with sis.”
I merely shook my head in wonder while hiding a smile. Cats was covered chest high with mud while making shapeless mud cakes. His lighter brown hair spiked every which way from where he ran his fingers through it and his face with almost tribal patterns of mud. Occasionally he would forget that his hands were covered in dirt and would try to suck absentmindedly on his thumb as he played. This led to hilarious facial expressions as he spit. In the middle of the most basic baby play, he declared he didn’t want to play with babies.
Most of the time, I didn’t mind his company. It was like having a little brother I could leave somewhere else at the end of the day. Other days I could scream with his constant tagging along. Although I am generally a sociable person, I have moods where I just need to be alone. I would become overwhelmed with the presence of others and need to find some quiet place to be left with my own thoughts until whatever darkness in me passed and I could seek others out again.
There was also the matter of his mother. I never felt comfortable with that woman. I think a large part of it was that she called herself “Whimsical Lie”. My first memory of her is when I brought Cats home from the river. She was sprawled on the couch, her eyes glazed over from having consumed the bottle of strong rotten smelling booze that was by her good hand. Her hair was greasy and tangled and her clothes fared little better. I always remember her skin having this white cast like the underbellies of dead fish. Her flesh was doughy like yeast left to rise and never baked properly.
I think she was supposed to have been a beauty once, at least according to Mama who told me we should pity her. Whimsical had been in a fishing accident several years previously which resulted in the loss of her right hand. Instead of the normal appendage, Whimsical’s hand ended in a tapered stump.
It wasn’t uncommon for folks to have been crippled in some manner or other. We were a fishing community so hooks catching in flesh and subsequent infections were common. One slice of a hook or tangle of a net would lose a fisher his foot or leg or cost another his eye. To lose your hand was another level of disability entirely. Those who were not very mobile could still contribute by cooking, weaving, pottering or any number of stationary tasks. A woman with one hand wasn’t good for much.
Whimsical supposedly contributed by watching the children while other adults attended to their own chores. Realistically she spent most of her time in her hut drinking herself into dreams of better days. As I grew older, I understood better the whispered gossip of young men learning their trade as men from her. It was something that always made me grimace for I could not imagine willingly finding female comfort from those doughy arms or that lumpy, pale body, but I never spoke about to Cats. Because despite anything else, she was his mother and he loved her dearly.
Even at the age of five, Cats took care of his mother as best as he could. That was why he was down at the river gathering crabs by himself. Any other parent would have been wise enough to keep their small child away from the swollen waters, especially if he was going to go alone. But there had been no food in their small home and Cats had realized it was up to him for them to eat that night.
I remember watching with stunned horror that Cats was the one to carefully prepare the fire so he could boil the crabs as his mother lay in her own filth before he gathered discarded bottles that she had carelessly let drop to the floor. There were days I wondered how he survived those early years, especially when he was just a babe. I can only assume that Whimsical had enough maternal instinct to care for her child until he had some semblance of being able to provide for himself before descending into her permanent fog of apathy.
I never knew who Cats’s father was. Mama told me it was believed that he had been a passerby trader because Cats had a lighter hair color and skin tone than the rest of the village. Cats’s features were slightly leaner and pointed like tribes to the west which lent truth to this theory. Others whispered maybe she had made a deal with the river spirit—for what other man would plant his seed in her?—and her hand had been the price. Regardless, Whimsical was Cats’ only family he knew as a child.
When an opportunity to find someone who would return his affections and help take care of him presented itself, Cats took it. He needed someone who would pull him out of the mud, wipe his face clean and hold him close while he was scared instead of being quietly ignored as he did all those things by himself.
He needed someone whose approval he had a chance to win. Someone who could actually see him and say “You did good. I’m proud of you.” Which is what caused the incident at the river and why I firmly decided he was worth keeping around despite being a little kid.
It was about three or four weeks after the rains had ended. The river had receded back to its normal level, everything had dried out, and the days were getting unbearably hot. I had wanted to swim across the river to the other side to go crabbing. Our side of the river was getting bare of spots the crabs gathered and I knew if we went across it would be easy pickings.
Crabbing was an easy chore and much more fun than fishing. Fishing would require one to sit still for long periods of time to get a nibble. Even then you might lose your catch. It was dull, tedious, and the worst way one could acquire a sunburn in my humble opinion. Crabbing consisted of getting a long length of string and tying some meat on the other end. My preferred bait was a chicken’s leg. You would go to the river during low tide when the current is its slowest and toss it in while holding the other end of the string. Usually within minutes you’d feel pulling and you’d slowly troll the line in to find one or two crabs hanging off the flesh. A quick flick of a net and you could deposit your catch into a cage until you were ready to head home.
The previous year during one of my solitary moods, I had wandered across river and noticed huge cast of wild crabs in the marshes. Unfamiliar with humans, they were as bold as kings. A single throw could drag in three or four good sized crabs clutching the same piece of meat instead of the one crab a normal throw would snag.
“We could catch our dinners and be back in less than an hour,” I argued. “There will be plenty of time to play and swim instead of standing in ball busting heat.”
Excluding Cats and me, there were about a dozen kids gathered that day. I don’t recall any of their names or even really what they looked like. My memory holds them more as kid shaped silhouettes than real people. One girl stands out because of her whiny voice, “I don’t knoooow, Rain, we could get in trooooouble.” Her nose was wrinkled in distaste as if she had been ordered to clean the goat patties from the yard instead of swimming.
“I know what you can do, you can shut up,” I retorted. I was getting irritated with this group’s constant naysaying. They never wanted to try anything new or try something that could possibly be dangerous in any way. Only after my forward scouting proved fruitful would they participate. Even then, some of the more timid would wait until I had produced the same results three or four times before joining.
“You all are welcome to drudge up and down the river looking for leftover pickings like a bunch of babies,” my disdain dripping over every word, “but I’m going across.” Following action to word, I ran off the dock and dove into the river.
Cries of “Rain, Rain!” followed me, but I ignored them. I felt confident I’d get across and that would shame a fewer of the older boys to following and then the girls would eventually follow. If it didn’t, who cared? I’d have some tranquility and crabs bigger than my hand with minimal fuss.
I was halfway across when one boy’s cries finally caught my attention. His tone carried the urgency the others had not been able to, “Rain, BEHIND you!”
I turned in midstroke and saw that Cats had jumped in behind me to follow me to the marsh. Only the top of his head could be seen as his arms flailed in the water. The current was sluggish that day; he should have had no problems. “I don’t think he knows how to swim,” the same boy yelled.
Every child my age could easily paddle in a calm stream and most could swim with confidence even with rougher currents. There was no reason someone could not have simply jumped in and grabbed Cats themselves. Instead, they were all frozen in panic as Cats floundered five feet from them.
For one moment, it looked as if Cats had figured out the time and true method of learning how to swim by just doing it. His head popped up from the water and he gasped for breath. The next he was down again, sinking like a stone.
I was already turning back. I prayed to the river spirit that I found the exact place Cats went down. If I didn’t, it was very likely I’d never find him in the swirling river water. As I dove down, I blindly thrust my hand out, not worrying if I would strike bottom or a sharp rock. Miraculously my hand hit along the side of his head. Later he would have a huge bruise in the shape of my palm along his forehead. Without trying for a better handhold, I grabbed his hair and pulled him towards me.
I had been prepared for Cats to struggle as I grabbed him. It would be the most dangerous moment as his efforts would drain me of power and could turn us about in the water losing our direct to the surface. Instead, he was as still as a bag of grain as I dragged him to me, which scared me more than if he had been fighting back.
When I burst to the surface, I vaguely remember screaming, “Help me, you sackless idiots!” I have no idea if anyone understood a damn word I said because no one ever mentioned anything about it afterward. Strong hands grabbed my shoulders and hauled me and Cats to the riverbank.
I laid him on the dried earth as gently as I could. He lied there completely still. Not even his chest moved with breath. I screamed his name over and over to no response. As I knelt over his body with the crowd of kids standing awkwardly above me with not one of them with the sense to go for adult help, I had the frantic thought, “How am I going to tell Mama that Cats is dead?”
In that terrible moment where I thought a child had died, I should have thought of his own mother’s concern at the loss of her child. It should have been Whimsical’s eyes staring accusingly at me instead of my own. In the few weeks since I had befriended Cats, he had become a constant staple around our house and Mama looked onto him more as a son than his own did.
I grasped his thin shoulders and shook him. “Don’t you die on me, don’t you dare fucking die! You stupid little baby!”
Suddenly, Cats gasped and coughed up enough water to have bathed in. I pushed him to his side so he could spew without getting more of it on me. “I’m not a little baby,” he gasped leaning on his elbow. His eyelids were still a frightening purplish color. “Why Rain gotta be so mean all the time?”
Cats had been listening with great intent on my argument and had actually agreed with me. More importantly to him, he wasn’t going to be a baby like the rest of the big kids and had promptly jumped in without taking into consideration he didn’t know how to swim.
I had never once considered Cats when I had arrogantly jumped into the river. I was so used to the other kids my age or even older to hesitate or outright refuse, it never occurred to me that this kid three years younger than me would faithfully follow my lead.
We didn’t have any crabs that night for our dinner. Cats was tucked into my bed, resting from his ordeal. He was sucking on his thumb and looking at me fearfully with his big eyes which still held dark shadows. I could tell he was worried I was mad at him for almost drowning. I smoothed his hair back and kissed him on the forehead. “You showed some real balls today, Cats. You were tough. Dumb, but tough. Tomorrow, I’ll start teaching you how to swim and we’ll go together for those crabs as a reward. You rest up. I’ll let your ma know where you’re at, okay?”
It was dusk when I went to Cats’s home with a covered bowl of food. Mama had speculated that Whimsical had probably not made any dinner. When I arrived, I noticed her hut’s shutters were closed and a man’s weapon leaning against the outer doorway. Had she even noticed that her son was not home with night approaching? Did she even care?
By all rights, Whimsical should have been there. She should have been present watching the kids, doing her job instead of spirits knew what else. Even if she hadn’t felt confident about her ability to swim or pull Cats out with one hand, she could have been the older boys the parental direction they needed to act instead of standing around like a bunch of scared sheep.
Disgusted, I left the covered bowl by the spear. I figured either her “visitor” would notice it when he left or she could go hungry that night. Either way, I didn’t care.
That day was the first of many where Cats followed me when others wouldn’t. He was the only one who did and for that I loved him more than anyone else. He didn’t follow blindly; there was more than one occasion he’d propose an alternate solution to my plan. He never told me “I can’t” when he meant “I shouldn’t”. Most importantly, he was never afraid to find out the difference if he didn’t know.