Everything was gray.
A pallid sky, heavy with clouds, mirrored the snowy landscape. A single tree broke the scene, its leafless arms bending over a lifeless pond.
Stepping closer, there appeared two — no, three — more figures beneath the tree. One paced worriedly on its thick-soled boots, etching tight circles in the fresh snow. The other knelt a few paces away, stooping down to a small, prone bundle at the base of the tree.
Heaving sobs emanated from the mother as she paced, choking out directions to a distant ambulance over her cell. The husband, his brow knit with worry, knelt down again to the wet bundle. A path glistened from the pair to a gash in the pond’s surface.
A pale child’s face, no more than seven, appeared as the father’s trembling hands compressed her chest. He drew his mouth to hers again, forcing steaming air into her still lungs.
The mother kept crying, the father kept pressing, the child kept silent.
It wasn’t that she stopped breathing.
She had forgotten how.
An eternal thirty minutes before, the girl was walking towards the tree. “Towards” is a bit of a stretch here, as she meandered in every direction — visiting a mountainous snowdrift here, bidding a sparkling, snowy bush a good day there — paying homage to every landmark now transformed with shining ice and snow.
She giggled as she ran along, stuffing her pockets full of marvelous treasures: frozen juniper berries, the odd pinecone, and dozens of ice-crusted leaves and needles deemed too lovely to leave behind. The air stung her cheeks as she ran about the biggest place in the whole wide world: the sprawling fields and hills surrounding her grandparent’s countryside home.
Following a narrow pathway in the snow, she came upon the tall tree by the pond. The somber scene detracted little from her excitement — she sprinted along the shore as she eagerly sought precious, smooth stones. The wind whistled in the tree’s branches, stiffly clattering over her hurried footsteps.
Gathering up her newfound treasures (her pockets were frozen stiff), she turned to go back — hesitating by the edge of icy pond. Fear flitted across her face. She was a whole seven years old now, and didn’t quite believe her father’s stories of monsters under the water’s surface. She didn’t quite not believe him, either. Gathering herself, she clenched her fists and held her breath, inching towards the water’s edge and daring to peek into its solid depths.
She stared wide-eyed. Her heart pounded in her chest as time slowed to a crawl. After a moment of utter stillness, she burst with relief, absolutely certain nothing below was looking back. Growing bolder, she edged out onto the ice. Her arms tingled while butterflies fluttered in her stomach, floating above the darkness.
Moments stretched into minutes, and she waited. For something. Anything. The butterflies slowly subsided, her fingers and legs now numb and tired with cold. She turned to make her way back home. But wait — a flash! Twisting back, she hurriedly fell down to the ice, straining to catch the movement again.
Staring intently, she suddenly realized the pond was not frozen at all. Underneath her mittened hands, there were plants, and fish, and creatures of all kinds — and they were all moving!
And with that, the ice cracked.
The world had gone silent. She fell deeper and deeper into the pond, the pale surface disappearing as she sank. She waved her arms furiously and kicked, flailing against the water as it pulled her under. Her chest burned, a pounding rising in her ears. Grabbing her throat, she gasped wildly for air.
Only she did not drown. Shock turned to relief, her heartbeat slowing, her breath easing — but she wasn’t really breathing, you really can’t underwater — and looked about this strange new world.
Am I a fish? she wondered. She looked at her hands and wriggled her fingers — her mittens had floated away. No, I am definitely still a girl. She lifted her gaze, marveling at the thin streams of sunlight as they penetrated the deep, dark blue of the pond around her. Only calling it a pond would be like calling the Seven Seas a puddle. She was floating in the largest expanse she had ever seen. The depths stretched endlessly around her.
And yet she was not afraid. I am welcome here.
With a kick, she darted away into the expanse. The pond teemed with life — forests of kelp swayed lazily as she swam by, revealing timid schools of fish and docile, mammoth-like squids. Forests of sea anemones and magnificent coral reefs begged to be explored — and explore them she did! Juniper berries and polished stones were forgotten as she discovered whales, starfish, and sea horses.
The waters went on forever, yet she was not afraid. She was one with this vastness, and it was one with her. Everything that was, that is, that ever would be was in these shadowy depths with her. The universe filled her young mind.
And then it happened. A shot of ice stabbed into her heart. Her chest tightened again, the ringing in her ears beginning their crescendo. The icy grip extended to her shoulders as she flailed, the deep, icy blue disappearing below her as she rose faster and faster towards the surface.
Suddenly she saw the gray sky again, the sunlight dimmed with low-hanging clouds. She felt the solid ground beneath her as she watched her mother, sobbing and endlessly pacing, while her father rhythmically pushed against her ribcage.
She stared silently into the gray sky. She wasn’t breathing. She had forgotten how.
Spring had come to the fields. Long tufts of grass waved ceaselessly while large clouds sailed overhead, dotting the landscape with shadow and light.
She walked the same path as she had, six years ago. The dirt path was overgrown now, requiring some care to find one’s way. The tree loomed in the distance — it was as tall and spindly as ever, now graced with fitful sprigs of green, tossed about by the constant wind.
Her sandals crunched on the pebbly shore. Her long, auburn curls whipped about as her eyes reconstructed the play. My mother paced there, she thought. My father knelt there… and there I was.
It was a graveyard without a marker. Her parents parted ways that day. Her grandparents had since passed, the house behind her boarded up and sold as she stood here, taking in the scene one last time.
Slowly she walked towards the shoreline, the light playing on its rippled surface. She still didn’t believe her father’s stories. They were hers now.
Holding her breath, she edged into the pond. The chilly depths sent prickles across her skin, making her shiver in the hot noonday sun. She edged further, arms lifted, waiting to enter the depths. A large inhale, and she plunged beneath the surface.
The water rushed in her ears as she dove in. Her chest began to burn as the water pushed her up towards the surface, keeping her from diving deeper. She struggled against it, clumsily swimming against its pull. Chest tightening, she finally opened her eyes. Her heart sank at what she saw: dusty motes hung in the water, obscuring the sun’s journey to the rocky pond floor. No plants, no creatures were to be seen.
She shot up towards the surface, breaking into the sunlight and gasping for air. The water continued to hoist her up as she made her way to the shore, coughing and gasping on all fours. Sitting back on her heels, she looked back at the scene under the tree. There her father, there her mother, and there she…
She reached into her pocket, gingerly pulling out a small starfish. Your fingers were clutching it pretty tightly, her father’s voice echoed. It’s a starfish. Where did you get that?
Her shoulders shook gently as she tried to hold it in. Big girls don’t cry. Big girls shouldn’t cry. Big girls…
She covered her face with her hands, her body racked with sobs. She cried for her father. She cried for her mother. She cried for her grandmother and grandfather.
But most of all, she cried for the world beneath the pond.