Sunset over Pickmere, by Len Gates
Words: Kate Feld
You walk out into the shallows and the water line climbs up your skin. You wince. You know that it will get much colder now and you think about turning back. You stand there until your feet feel warmer than your body which is exposed to the wind. Everyone on the shore is watching you; the barbecuing Polish families, the Triathlon trainers, your own sand-caked children. You’re not wearing a wetsuit and it’s the first of June.
As with most difficult things, the best way to do it is all at once. When the water closes over your head it’s cold enough to tear your soul from your body. You have to keep moving.
Now you can stop and feel. You’re in the middle of a lake in Cheshire. The lake is black, speckled with constellations of greeny yellow pollen. The water is rusty; your body in the lake is an amber filter photograph. You pretend you’re floating in space and you close your eyes and think about zero gravity. You like the water’s soft resistance, it’s good to have something to push and kick against. The air seems too easily moved through.
You swim a long way out and dive down until your fingers brush weeds. The sun-warmed top layer of water in a lake is called the epilimnion, one of the most beautiful words you know. Under the epilimnion the chill slides into your bones like a paring knife, sharp then dull. When you break the surface the water makes channels down your face. You hover there and spend a long time paying attention to the scent of the water, a mineral smell with rotting plants in it, but clean. It has nothing to do with people.
You float on your back, letting your head fall and your arms drift out. The sun beats through your eyelids. When the water covers your ears all you can hear is the faint grinding of speedboats far away. You did this when you were young, lying so still for so long that lifeguards would shout to make sure you hadn’t drowned. Once you didn’t hear and they swam out to save you. That was in the deep glacial lakes of the Great North Woods, which smell of pine pitch and snowmelt and have icy hearts, even in August.
You dive again, and come up facing the shore. You can see your children playing in the sand and beyond that the picnic blanket where your husband sits. You know they’re waiting for you to come out of the water, but you stay in the lake. You stay in until your fingertips pucker and your body temperature drops and you imagine what would happen if you just didn’t come out. How your husband would get angry, and then scared, pleading with you to be sensible, look at the children. The children would start crying. You would sink down under the water so you didn’t hear them. They would eventually pack up the car and leave you there, and you would get colder. Shuddering. Then you would get warm again. And when the real stars came out above the pollen stars it would be like you really were floating in space.
But you come out of the water. You walk out blazing with alivenesss, like your skin is giving off a charge where it meets the air or resonating at a different frequency. You throw your body down on the towel and a deep peace rings through you like a bell. This is why you do it; it’s a shortcut, a jump start. It’s the best way you know of peeling the skin back from the world.
We all have our own epilimnion, that sun-warmed top layer of being ourselves. It is good, now and then, to get under it.
Kate Feld is a writer of short stories, creative nonfiction and journalism, living in the pennine foothills outside Manchester. She runs an online journal and live reading night in Manchester called The Real Story.