Sink or Swim

By Barbara Kumari

You were named for the capital city of Bihar, your mother once told you. Patna. A place of dreams, where you learned to breathe underwater, traveling the length of the tides of the river to your birth, landing in a vision of fingers and sweat. The darkness of another’s belly fighting for space, for air. You were born during the monsoon, in a rain that threatened the banks of the Ganges until they overflowed, your lungs taking in the flood in a haze marking the day of your birth. It took time to register that the cataclysm of your birth was not a distant one, not an explosion in a foreign place with a name that left one’s tongue in knots, but the brink of a personal disaster, your life an ebbing wave of consciousness that took on the sea and the fire in months of degeneration. A you that should not have been.

You were born on the river, your mother tells you, born in pursuit for her theft of a cow’s milk. Plunging through the valley in a boat, floating up the Ganges, through a hole in the earth. Through an aquatic tunnel plunging inward, the recesses of the darkness. Through the soil for untold kilometers, the path from one end of the globe to the other. You followed the goats together along the riverbanks, the bleating that leads down to the banks, the entrance to the ghost mines. The hills and crevices in the earth, plunging deeper than the eyes can measure. These are things she tells you at night as the world unfolds itself in windows and doors, between the sheets with the crisp servility of love itself. When you weigh time in the palm of your hand, in the span of a second when you knew her, when you remembered what it meant to be alive.

You were carried away on the tides, she tells you, arriving in degrees, at varying intervals, following the river down, into the mountains, into the mines. You gazed up as the sky filled with water and carried you both away again, into the mountain, your body shadowing the remaining light of the first meter down into the earth, coming out again in Manhattan. This is when your mother tried to teach you to swim. This she will tell you, though you have no memory of it, no recollection of what she describes as drowning. You tell her that you don’t believe her and she laughs.

“We’ll go to the pool,” she says, leading you back. “I should have taken you there a long time ago. You’ll see half-naked people.”

She smiles, which makes you laugh.

You recall this place the way a child recalls a forgotten tongue, knowing that it is somewhere within, even if the years, the dust of time has fogged it; it is there. This is a blank space, dark and empty but for a low table surrounded by pillows, the candles and incense burning in each corner of the room, covering the table. She prays before you leave, in the dialect you’ve heard, though you’d forgotten, understanding, though not well enough. Bhojpuri, the mother tongue, humming within your lungs waiting to be released as a fever that leaves you sweating in the night. A sound that racks its way through you, with nowhere to go.

You pan up from the room, seeing it from a distant place, a different frame where you have already passed. Time itself a figment, a ruin finally permitted to collapse. Where you sense only from afar the light peering through the glass, the thin line between this world and the next. It is here that you stand, on the precipice, speaking to her from the other side, from a gash formed of madness. Hearing her voice in an echo that rises and falls, forever through an empty space. Your voices speaking Bhojpuri again, passing the voice of your youth between your joined hands.

You bathe in buckets, the water steaming up from your half-frozen bodies in a fog. Washing your feet, your clothes. She bundles you up, walking you through the streets towards the corner YMCA in a stream of coats and umbrellas, your faces covered in scarves. She pauses at a shop, her cheeks drained of color as she buys a newspaper and a bottle of wine, a bottle of cheap liquor she stuffs in her purse. You stand at the edge of the door, practicing holding your breath, a stream of air you can scarcely release but tuck inside as your own personal scandal, your words lost in the soft chorale of her footsteps.

She leads you through an alley full of trees, the branches snapping without a sound from the weight of snow. A place mute save your steps, the rustle of your pants through the vat of snow. The trees have all shifted, parting to reveal only a trace of the building, what was before, drawn out in cartoon physics across the open space. She whispers as you enter, indicating directions towards the back in pinches, in final directives as a rite of passage, your voices muffled. You speak Bhojpuri, remembering in the span of hours the tongue you once possessed complete. Speaking in the broken but passionate fashion of a child, a youth fearless in your ineptitude, and you laugh, gripping her shoulders as she opens the door to the heated pool.

Your mother strips you at the steps to your blue underwear, your body held to scrutiny under raised eyebrows. Your eyes roam the surface of the waves, your stomach catching in your throat before releasing. You stare as she pinches you forward, dreaming, a restless sort of sleep, a place where you knew what you knew with a certainty, understanding that it is now that you have traveled backwards, knowing nothing.

She pushes you to the edge of the pool, straightening your hair, pushing you over the edge, your ears absorbing the shrieks from behind as you plunge, your weight escaping you. You breach the surface with a clap of your torso, your feet, your limbs leaving you behind, taking up residence on the waves. You sink; feel the infused rush of water into your lungs, into your bones twisting prematurely under the weight of water, of time. The rush of your flesh falling to sleep, swallowed, blistered, into the tides below.

You wake, adrift, finding yourself at the other end of the pool, under a fever, to the sound of your feet clapping under the surface, startled in a haze drifting out of an endless pale. You dream; awake, you dream of the ocean, your eyes staring through a bleary haze, the first rays of light escaping a dark partition, a single moment slipping into an hour. Under the waves where the water reacts as air, bending time and space, the hours and kilometers beneath you to accommodate the weight and breadth of you. See your skin shattering, into a trail of wandering dust, your body becoming a flight of particles splitting the atmosphere into smaller atoms. You are a stream exploding and reforming, collapsing and bonding into the sea, offset by specks of light. Spinning, colliding with the water until you become the tide, gliding in curves of white torrents.

You pin your arms to your sides, charging through the undergrowth, the fog of green water, the dust pouring into your eyes. A lagoon collecting in the depths of the pool, filtering through the layers to meet you. This is where you collapse, floating without rising. Spiraling, engulfing the sprays of water from below, an agitated current separating and elongating as you sink. Feel the folds of your flesh bending, an obscure thrill that shakes you through the thick receptacle of your newfound flesh. See the limbs taking shape under your skin in fits and starts, in gradations you notice rather than track. Your flesh bonding once more into a surface thicker, smoother, a rubbery consistency. Your voice nameless, hovering just behind your lips as you slide, gaining speed with the transformation of your body, adjusting your hands, your feet. Half-blinded by a blur of lights below.

You see the ships, all of the great wrecks beneath in a single sweep: the Titanic, the Hunley, the submarines of World War II with war planes and canoes and metal fishing poles, the waste of the world collected and wheeled with the force of a gravity pulling you down, a magnetism operating of its own accord, a physics unique to the sea in the space of dreams. You see the mountain below, the curvatures, the weight of the ridges pushing themselves between, forcing their heft between the sand with the delicacy of angels as you float its ridges. In the last hours, when you hold yourself between this world and the next, a place of your design.

You catch a sliver of rope in the spindrift with your foot, its slack collapsing in upon itself around your ankles, drooping but steady. You pull it up, draping the rope around your neck, feeling the weight of your throat, your lungs constricting without sensation, without the fervor of pain or regret. The sensation muted, but residing, somehow, in the pit of your abdomen, its bloodrush making its way up and down at once in tandem. You are at once alive as the life rushes out and back again…

We hear an overture, a Parisian piece by Satie that you’ve known before though you cannot place it as more than from another time. Spinning in the deep hum below, the reverberation that only darkness can accomplish, one bearing its own weight, its own life. You hear the crescendo of your mother’s voice above the music, answering with your eyes though you cannot speak. Her voice emerging in a visual static, a cloud breaking over the spine of the mountain. You’re sleeping; you come to know this with the instancy and assurance of God, praying for the end. Pushing upwards, up against the gravity, but sinking still, your limbs a feather against the weight of the world, against the siege of time waging its wars against your body as you twist, writhing as the water fills your lungs.

You fall asleep on a rush, on the sound of the wind, the waves surging above and below the layers of pitch. You close your eyes, remembering, without placing them, the figures disappearing, dissipating into vapor. Closing your eyes to a trace of what you knew when you were small, the songs of your birthplace, the history you tell in sleep, almost forgotten, but not. This is where you dream, letting the depths take you captive, the space between the worlds with all the vigor of God,  hearing prayers you kept in the deepest part of yourself, in a truth etched under your skin. A child, you grow small, tumbling in midair, where you make no sound. No indentation save the forethought of your own voice pricking the blackness, a final prayer for your salvation.

You stretch your arms up from the depths, between the lines of a drawled lull of time, where you filter the words for something else. Your body to you as a single weight in your hands. You remember Patna, where you once lived, the road you traveled to arrive here, through the clouds. Your head spinning with smoke, careening with a fever that would not disband. Seeing it from afar, as a face you recognized once, though it’s been a very long time. There and still here. The hours still pulsing through, into a shape as you form, humming. Spinning through a cloud of dust, your fingers unfurling. When you knew all from afar, whispering in Bhojpuri, looking through it at nothing.

You dream you are thin and floating under a cloudless sky, a flock of low birds falling across the broken foreshore to the tide. You rise with the faint trace of a tuba, opening your eyes to the alternations between sounds birthed and vanished. A motion borrowed. The partial surrendering of light and sound.

You don’t sleep.

You pass through the waves you follow as a progress, your steps through the patches of water, pale and clean. Speaking with a Slavic murmur you’ve heard, though you’ve long since forgotten. Feel your fingers swell until you can no longer grip, distending in a flash, your veins working themselves loose of the thin barrier, the layers of water that can no longer hold them and they burst inside of your palms. See the trickles of blood on your left and right palms, the ease with which the blood releases itself, your hands still swelling.

You inhale, a prolonged breath caught halfway between, invisible from above and below, your lungs filling with water, sucking and releasing it with the ease of air, knowing it is that which is not. Sinking from a distance like eons, time itself slipping out from below. You push your feet up, outward to no avail, only feeling your own body pulse, shooting through the darkness a tenor pulse of vibration against the dark tides. Your motions are robotic, a calculated chaos as you drift, bobbing up and down. Your limbs phantoms acting apart from you, the you that would sleep, that would dream if not for the wish to preserve the dangling thread of your life.

You hear your children above with your mother, children that are to come, miles away, in another life, as if they knew you. Remembering, your thoughts still intact, still locked behind the glass of antiquated vessels, under the fishing boats above, on the horizon, the shouts of boatmen on the sea.

You see your mother overhead, the black oval vessel, the boat where you must have fallen just three kilometers away from the border of Patna. A time you unravel with the incorporation of weather and emotion into this spectacle recalled. An event invariably at the forefront of your youth, of your adventures. Days that you greet as a posthumous farewell to an old friend.

You sing to yourself, humming a song she taught you as a child.

You spot your mother’s hands pressed against the edge of the boat, see her screaming, without hearing her, hearing it in the heave of her shoulders, the flail of her arms, though she does not come down. She waits for you, but you do not come, do not surface, only watch the twist, the unfurling of light and darkness between the wooden mass, the woman inside.

You see the fires on the shore, somehow, from below, a place drugged with heat and steam. The boat floating into the distance, into a dark, spindling body turning from side to side, propelling into the opposite direction, and you know that this is where you must go. You move together, your limbs operating as a unit, a choreography instinctive, operating under a single mind split into limbs with the same intention. This is what you remember of a place that cannot be, that only time itself could have fashioned. This is when you catch the limbs with your hands, your fingers tracking the arms, your legs twining with the body in the darkness.

You cannot say how you arrived, only that you reach the surface of the water in the arms of a sweaty, heaving woman with gray hair slicked back in thin tendrils, her eyes saying that these days are over for her. She drags you to the edge, your breath returning in fits and starts, in heaves. You vomit as you mount the steps, your mother standing above you, her arms folded over, her eyes narrowed. You follow her through the doors, through the lobby with your clothes in your hands, through the steam of the vents pumping irregular bursts. You trail your mother’s swagger, her heels pounding a makeshift rhythm against the tile. Coughing until the water in your lungs is replaced by oxygen, your limbs a bobbing feature under a space lit by the single bulb.

You take the subway home, taking the same route, the same trip backwards, your eyes edging at the limits of decency. You push into the crowd, nudging the lines of pride as the doors slide open, the great rub of fabric and heat pouring its way through you, their limbs digging through your flesh as any unavoidable violation. You leave lower Manhattan in a rumble, your mother speaking of the wars she’s lived, betrayed by both health and reason. On the turn of the twenty-first century, when her words tumble together in your own throat. See the fog lift, the shifting light turning the gray snow into water, a steady green a distance behind as you scan the map of the city, chasing the white dots, the express stops across, to Patna. The pocket where the hour stays, remaining in your eyes alone, traveling with no other destination, a point in time for no one but you.

None of this has happened yet.


Barbara Kumari currently holds two graduate degrees in psychology and family and human development. She divides her time between the United States and India with her husband and son, Elijah.