“The Lake” by Jessica Afshar (excerpt)

–Inspired by the Margaret Atwood poem “This is a Photograph of Me”

The photograph was taken the day after I drowned. I’m not sure who took it, but
I saw it in the newspaper the next day when I was trying to find my mother, to tell her
what happened. She was at the police station explaining what she knew for the ninth or
tenth time, to the ninth or tenth officer she had met. “I didn’t see her go outside,” my
mother said, not looking up from the linoleum tiled floor of the station. “I was cooking
dinner and didn’t hear the back door. She always likes to be outside.” Her eyes were red
but momentarily dry.

The newspaper was lying on the desk of the officer. By that time my body had
been found, deep in the lake, by the divers trained specially to find dead people. When
the photograph was taken, though, I was still in the lake, in the center of the picture,
somewhere under the surface. It is difficult to say where precisely, but I was there and
soon I would be found.

The picture in the paper is very poor quality. It is a bit smeared around the edges and
has that grainy look of all newspaper pictures. On the right hand side you can see our
small frame house on a gently rising slope. The left hand corner is blurred by part of a
tree branch the photographer probably should have avoided. And then, there is me. It is
almost as if you could see me if you just looked long enough.

I loved that lake. Ever since I can remember, I loved it. The summer I was four my
dad taught me to swim in it for real, and I dove again and again under the water until
my skin wrinkled and my lips turned blue with the cold. He showed me how to hold
my breath and sink my body down deep into the center. I remember looking up to the
shimmering surface above my head, feeling completely cut off from everything that
was happening above. The winter I turned six I taught myself to ice skate, around and
around the lake until I could hardly stand. I caught tadpoles with my mother’s spaghetti
strainer and brought them inside for her to see. I made boats out of anything I could
find that would float, and sank many things that wouldn’t.

I was out there every day the rain didn’t keep me inside, and even that didn’t always
stop me. The glassiness of the water fascinated me. I knew it hid all of the things that
were happening underneath the surface. My dad had told me that there was an old
tractor at the bottom, way out in the middle, though he wasn’t sure how it got there and
I could never figure out how he knew. Dad loved the lake too. When he was around, he
was hardly ever in the house. Whether swimming in it, walking around it, or staring at
it with sleepy eyes in the evening, Dad and the lake were, and now always would be, one
whole complete thought to me.


Anthony Swift sat down on the edge of the sofa, and slowly eased his body back
against the sagging cushions. He lifted his hands to his head, using them to push his
too-long hair back out of eyes. His fingers still felt waterlogged from the three-and-a-half
hours he had spent in that wretched lake. A chill clung to him, despite the clammy heat
of the South Carolina summer. His small apartment lacked not only air conditioning,
but even so much as a ceiling fan to stir up the heavy air. Yet Anthony was cold inside.
At 32, and after eight years as a Dive Rescue Specialist, he had built up a resistance to the
emotional aspect of his job. He had seen plenty of dead bodies. He had also saved dozens
of drowning people as well, but that seemed hard to remember at the moment.

Anthony was not terribly sad about the dead girl in particular. He felt bad for her
parents, and sorry she was dead. Of course he was always sorry about the ones that
turned out to be recovery rather than rescue missions. At the end of the day, though, he
did his job and went home, always with the feeling that the job was not completely done
and never would be as long as there was someone else to save or find. But this time was
different. This time he had not held his own feelings in check. He was ashamed to admit
it, that he hadn’t been executing his job to the high level he expected of himself, that his
focus had been off, that his mind had been looking for something other than the girl.

It was a normal call for a diver. Suspected drowning, search and recover, ten-year-old
female, way outside of town. He and the rest of the crew, boat in tow, headed out as
always. The water was colder than he expected. With all his gear in place and a last nod
at the other crewmembers on board, Anthony dove beneath the surface. Many hours
and several breaks later the rest of the team was ready to give up. The lake was small but
terribly deep. Some of the police officers who had joined the fray on the shore started
talking about draining some of the lake to get to the bottom easier. While Anthony knew
that was an option, he hated it. It meant a lot of wait time followed by, more often than
not, a disappointing result.

Anthony went down again, despite his already long dive time. He headed straight
for the middle and down. The water was murky and swimming with stirred-up debris
from all of the previous activity. The sunlight was thin but enough came filtering down
through the water to allow him to see well enough, with a little help from his flashlight.
Failure in this case not only meant disappointment and a lot of wasted time, but it
would probably mean a return trip at some point-the height of frustration.
Pushing forward, Anthony thought he saw something ahead of him. It was a slight
variance in color and shape that usually meant something was in the water. Squinting
through his mask Anthony focused on the spot where he thought the movement had
been and moved in that direction. Another shimmer of movement off to the left made
him turn quickly, but he saw nothing there. He briefly considered the possibility that
he had been down too long, or perhaps his breath tank was malfunctioning, depriving
his brain of oxygen. Anthony readjusted his mouthpiece and looked all around him and
turned in a slow, desperate circle.

Then, through the dim water he saw a figure, a human form. Only a shadow at first,
it started to take a clearer shape as Anthony swam towards it. It was the girl. Anthony
realized he hadn’t even bothered to remember the name one of the officers had told him
before they launched the boat. He blinked his eyes, trying to rid himself of the slight
guilt he felt. The girl’s back was towards him. Her long hair streamed upwards in the
tiny underwater current making her look as though she was hanging upside down. As
Anthony reached her, he held back for just a second, not yet wanting to touch her bluish
dead skin. Finally, with a gentle push Anthony turned the girl towards him, bracing
himself for the first glimpse of her face. Her eyes were open, mouth gaped in an O, tiny
air bubbles clinging to her skin. Face to face they floated. Anthony’s heart stopped. His
sister’s face looked back at him.


(Fall 2012)