There are times, few and shining when life’s struggles are overcome, and all at once happiness has no alternative but to grow.
Once, a long time ago, but not so far off as you would think, there was a young lad and a fine Spring day. His bright outlook and innate wisdom, gifts more of nature than of experience, had brought him to just such a time.
In the earliest part of the afternoon, he followed a woodland path through the bristling August countryside, under a great blue sky, that led to a pretty little glade on the far side of a brook. It was a bright place, peaceful, safe and alive, and he knew he belonged there.
He walked along thinking about his foregone troubles, and how he had dodged them or tricked them into disappearing. He was a happy lad, perhaps happiest when he was alone with nature as he was on this day.
Just as he began to think how little of his joy he shared with others, he came upon the brook that was deep and wide like a pond at one point and so clear that it returned a beautiful blue to the open sky. Spanning the width, and very low to the slow-moving water, was an old wooden bridge, the kind they used to carry livestock and farm folk to and from the town. As the young man approached the pond he heard a dreadful moaning and thrashing of water. It sounded as if some animal had been trapped in the mud and was desperately trying to free itself.
He stepped onto the bridge and could see that it wasn’t an animal at all but a girl; she was quite beautiful by the look of it, although it was hard to tell for she appeared to be drowning. Her face was set, cold and hard. Her brow was furrowed almost to the point of being grotesque, but her features were fair and childlike. Her slender arms and shoulders were visible only now and then as her clenched fists pounded and thrashed the water in a desperate attempt to keep her head above it. Her garments dragged her down in a spot where cut flowers lay strewn; she was like a vision of Ophelia waked from her deadly reverie. The ferocity of her flailing was truly frightening. It was a mortal battle, an ugly dance of death.
The young man leaned his elbows on the railing of the bridge and lazily crossed his feet. He called out to her, “I’ve seen people drowned before, you know.” He saw himself in his mind leaping headfirst into the water at first sight of the troubled young maiden to rescue her the way any gallant would. He shifted his weight and crossed the other foot. You see, he had indeed seen people drown before, and by experience learned the danger in attempting a rescue.
The beautiful girl gasped and choked and made pitiful gurgling noises in her throat as she twisted and splashed under the warm summer sky. He spoke to her again, “If you were going to jump in you might at least have learned to swim first,” no reply. It was a terribly cruel thing to say to someone in mortal peril. “It takes a dreadfully long time to drown you know, it’s a very messy business,” he added. He could afford to be flippant, he didn’t plan on rescuing her. He intended only to walk on by and tend to his own business, no doubt the same way everyone else had that day.
Besides, he held the belief that anyone in trouble wanted it that way, for why else with they have it in the first place. He knew for himself that all the trouble in his life he brought upon himself, and all his problems solved were solved alone. Still, he didn’t really want to see her drown. He almost regretted not trying to save her, as he turned to go. She was so beautiful and so helpless, like a monarch butterfly caught in a web. He loved Monarch butterflies.
Just then, she caught his eye. Her eyes were a cold gray-blue, but her glance was warm like sunset, highlights touched the black of her pupils and made two stars in the night sky, distant and clear. He remembered her then; having never seen her before, even so, he remembered. Two children sitting by the still waters dreaming each their own dreams, yet dreaming together. His gaze softened and warmed her a little. Everything was still as they watched each other, everything but the rhythmic sound of her thrashing.
The young lad inhaled sharply and looked skyward. He let out a long sigh then said aloud to himself, “How silly of me to think I was done with trouble.” He turned and raised his voice so that she would hear him over the thrashing. “Don’t get the idea that this is as easy as it seems. Rescuing is dangerous, and it just might kill us both.” He spoke again to himself, “I must be a fool for trying this again. She’ll only drown, I know it.” But inside he had already decided that this one wasn’t going to drown.
He dove in and glided effortlessly across the pond to where the girl was. As he reached her, a cold fist smashed across his face, a rake of nails tore across his cheek as he was pulled by the hair down beneath the foaming water. He tried to grab her waist from the back and force his way to the surface but a knee planted itself firmly in his chest and the wind was driven from his lungs. He tried again to surface but was scratched and bruised until he was finally kicked to the bottom of the pond. Feeling dizzy and out of breath, he tried to swim away from the frenzied legs that pummeled him into the stream bed pinning him to the muddy bottom.
The young lad knew just what to do to save himself, he pulled his legs in tight to his chest, planted two feet firmly on the bottom of the pond, and pushed as hard as he could. He came up with a great gasp into the sunlight. As he fell back into the water, he realized that he was standing in water that barely reached his chest. The water level where the girl was thrashing was well below her shoulders!
The young man walked over to the girl and stopped just outside her reach. “What are you doing?!” he said, “Stand up, the water isn’t even deep enough to drown you!”
“I can’t!” she said.
“Why not!” he said, annoyed, rinsing the muck from his face and clothes.
“I’m… afraid! she said between gulps of water.
“You see me standing, don’t you?”
“Well then, stand up. The water isn’t deep enough to drown you. It’s not over your head, it never was. JUST STAND UP! All you have to do is plant your feet and stand. Come out of this cold water, and we’ll find a nice grassy hill and dry out in the sun.”
“I can’t.” said the girl.
“Try it.” he said.
“I can’t, I’m too afraid!
The young man struck his palm against his forehead. He shook his head and slowly trudged back to shore.
“Please help me!” she said, and as he walked he thought he wasn’t quite sure what she meant by help.
The poor confused fellow consoled himself while drawing himself out of the water by pointing out the fact that drowning people are not the most rational kind of person one might meet. Besides, it was clear to him now that this was not the proper technique for rescuing, despite the popular traditions. He shook off some of the water, wiped the blood from his cheek and limped back along the bridge. There was no question of giving up. What he started, he had to finish.
He sat himself down, dangling his feet over the edge of the little wooden bridge, watching her struggle. He watched silently for a long time, trying to remember her, watching her every expression. After a long while, he said, “What made you decide to drown?”
“Because my mother drowned,” she replied.
He wasn’t really expecting an answer to the question. He leaned toward her, and his voice grew very soft and warm.
“That’s really very sad, but it doesn’t mean that you have to as well.” he said.
He thought of how good it feels to speak from the heart, to speak from the house of kindness and not out of defense. He truly cared for this girl, for her own sake, and it made the best in him show.
“Don’t be so smug, and stop patronizing me; shut up and help me, please!”
The young man’s face turned sullen, the wound on his cheek began to bleed again. There was a long pause. Finally, she spoke,
“You don’t understand, she was my mother; I loved her. They came, they did terrible things to her, unspeakable things, and she drowned! Now I drown.”
Her head submerged completely for a moment before she resurfaced and resumed her pounding.
“You don’t know what it’s like to carry this! My fear is SO heavy! I am so sorry!”
“It isn’t your fault; it was your choice.” he said.
“You will walk by like everyone else!”
“I am not everyone else.” He was beginning to take this exchange quite personally.
“Do you know how it feels to drown?” she said.
His look was midway between love and contempt as he spoke, “Do you know how it feels to hold out the key to someone’s prison and watch them turn away?”
“She…drowned.” She said it slowly and looked right at him so that he could see deep inside her. He didn’t need to ask if she had once tried to rescue her, it was understood. Both of them knew how hard rescues were, and how they never seem to work.
The sun was high in the sky now. The young man laid across the hot planks of the bridge and began to dry in the sun. The light, he thought to himself, from that great fountain filters down to touch every living thing. He was staring at the light pouring through the tops of the great Oaks and Maples that lined either side of the brook. The sky was a deep blue. Tufts of clouds rolled by. Across the bridge to the west was his meadow. The path sloped upward through stands of bramble and flowers, and beyond it, grassy drumlins rose that shimmered with a hint of silver. Clover, he thought. A place bettered only in the sharing of it, he mused.
He drew a deep breath as if to drink in the sunlight. He smelled the moist earth and moss that surrounded the pond. The scent was pleasant but cool and thick. He took another breath as a warm breeze blew from the meadow, setting the leaves in motion. Its scent was of sunbaked grasses and wildflowers, the smell of summer memories; friends on the porch, sandals and swings. His mind drifted and wandered through Augusts of long ago.
A drop of cold water touched his lips and brought him back. He turned his head to watch the beautiful drowning maid. Her face was red as she snorted and spit. Her head was sinking lower in the water now, her leaden arms rhythmically pounding the surface, vaulting long splashes into the air. He turned his face back into the sun, took another breath and let out a sigh, then shot up fast,
“Damn you!” he said as he rose to his feet. “Inhale and lean back or by God, I’ll drown you myself!” This she did, and gradually the pounding subsided for the most part. She was now able to keep her nose and mouth consistently above water.
I wrote this story when I was twenty-three years old.
I never wrote the ending. (I didn’t know how.)
I found it recently in an old journal. Notes scribbled in the margins suggested several endings. Neither involved the maid being “rescued” by the young lad, owing to the author believing, then as now, that it isn’t possible. The main theme of this little tale is that we are the progenitors of our own misery, and our own sole source of rescue. Help from others comes only in the form of support and illumination—the key for the lock, the latch for the window. We ourselves crawl through the chinks and cross the thresholds. Do we really choose to create all the terrible things that we experience, even the ones that other people do to us? Yes. Not with our conscious mind certainly, that would be ridiculous. But in the great ocean of our unconscious, that sea granted us by some unknown hand, we are the writers of the story that when told will lead us to preserve the learnings we seek. This is the great and perilous Truth that once embraced, frees us utterly. The boy never asked the maid how she got there or why she was drowning, he asked, “When did you decide to drown?”
In one ending, she finally gives up her struggle, goes completely still and sinks to the very bottom, then she just stands up and walks out of the water.
The other takes place after several more bruising attempts at rescue and sees the battered lad walking away alone across the bridge to his beautiful sun-lit meadow, the sound of fists thumping the water slowly receding behind him.
It’s worth noting that the characters in this allegory can be seen as separate individuals (pick the one that applies to you), but also can be regarded as two warring aspects of our own psyche.
How would you end it, my friends? My experience in life has been much like the latter ending. What have I learned in the thirty-five years since my “young lad self” wrote it? This:
“If you choose to help others, choose only the ones who are swimming toward you.”
If not, you’ll find yourself buried in someone else’s darkness, and this serves no one. In love, there are takers and there are givers. If you are one who has built your house among takers, know that you deserve a giver.
It isn’t your fault; it was your choice.
ADDENDUM TO: “The Drowning Woman: A Rescuer’s Story”
The more I re-read this piece the more fascinating it is to me. It is so weird looking into my head 35 years ago, and the stunning thing is that so much of what I thought was a growth in awareness over the years was already there, it was just unproven. (I have stood on that bridge since, more times than I would like to admit, and have also spent some time in the water.)
There is actually more to the unfinished story buried in the notes. The two may have actually known each other, through letters only, and betrothed having never met. And it offers some very timely insights into how we know each other through words conveying how we want to be perceived as opposed to the visceral connection of being present with each other.
The notion that we must take responsibility (response-ability) for our lives and embrace the belief that we choose or are “at cause” with all the events of our lives (somehow), is the very thing that gives us our personal POWER and allows us to create the outcomes we desire and frees us from a self-imposed and unjust victimhood (drowning). Cool stuff! Smart lad!
If you are curious, and you can read my ancient chicken scratch, have at! The first and last pages containing notations are pictured here.
So I further the question, “How would you end it?”