Jonathan Li

My First Swimming Lesson

There was once a time when I had a fear of water. To me, it would have been the worst way to die. The water was a trap, a trap of no screams, no movement, and no sight. This nightmare was conceived during the fifth summer of my youth. That was when I first had tea with the Reaper; he lived in the local apartment swimming pool. The wrinkled, bleeding lips on his decaying face curved into a grin, and the Reaper suggested that he could use some crumpets. I guessed that meant me, so I reached into his pantry, and then he spoke… After eleven years of swimming lessons, I am cured. The water shines with a certain brilliance and purity. Though at night, in my mind, I still remember that terrible day and the Reaper’s terrible words.

It was the perfect summer, right out of the movies. Old man sun, now 1995 years of age, drew from his well of laughter and joy, and whispered a blessing to all children on Earth. There was no use wasting such a day, so the local church fellowship decided to throw a party at the apartment pool. The children loved the pool. The elder children established their fort in the depths of the adult pool, while the toddlers sought the safety of the shallow pool. They were like a pride of lion cubs, frolicking in the tall grass while the adults slept after the hunt.

I was always a young cub, who never got his chance at the tall grass. How I longed to go in the adult pool. The adult pool, she sung a red song of lust out to me. Her voice longed me to leave my puddle, full of child urine and vomit, and to plunge under her graceful, silky covers. I wanted to slip in between her cool, refreshing waves and beat at her swirling torrents. Chest in the air, shoulders raised, I advanced towards the deep waters, the dark lady. The parents looked up, and clapping and cheering ensued. I stood as a child, but my mind convinced me that I was a giant. The water quivered before my excellence for she knew I came for her. Each step was a deeper penetration into her body. The final thrust, and she was mine, for I had conquered my quarry. Everyone could see my triumph now. I would return a hero, but then the water cackled a shrill note as she dragged me under her surface. I was hers, and hers only. I would be forever wedded to the monstrosity of darkness and silence. Before the vows were made, a single, bony hand tore me from the grasp of the demon woman and led me down a corridor. Each step down the tunnel blurred further the line between illusion and reality. As the hand released me onto the floor in the chamber of flesh, I met him for the first time. My savior took a quick glance with his yellowed, slimy eyes and told me that I had died, and he was the Reaper.

The Reaper is a man, or what vaguely resembles a man. A moving pile of bones, meat, flies, and phosphorous is the more appropriate description. His eyelids drooped, and his joints creaked as he stamped two boxes that were caked in blood. The old ghost pointed to a tea table and told me to sit. I bit my tongue, and started a faint snivel. Then I erupted in a volcano of tears and mucus. Never before had the gentle, soft smile of my mom seem more distant than ever. The Reaper seemed deaf to the cries and asked me to read off his clipboard on table as he licked his tenth postage stamp. The clipboard was titled “Entrance to the Final Gate,” but it looked as if it was a more of a laundry list: “Matthew Johanson… died climbing Mount Everest in attempt to fulfill a wager. Barbara Franken… committed suicide after losing a spelling bee. Michael Shallow… disemboweled after acting belligerent towards a crime boss.” At that moment, the Reaper stopped stamping and reached for a hollow skull on the table – it was filled with earl grey. The tired spirit nodded his head towards the pantry and told me that there were crumpets in the pantry if I was hungry. I complied so that I could get as far away as possible. My hands felt bread, but my spine felt a damned presence breathing yellow haze. He whispered into my ear: “Here’s a tip on life kid. Next time you swim, use a floating device.” And he shoved me through the pantry. The light tore open my eyes, and I realized that the ground was firm. I could use my legs. Large faces and intact bodies filled my vision as one of the adults handed me a towel; I lived.

I came home from my swimming lesson a year after, and I learned that I would have a baby brother. My parents suggested the name Allen, but I wanted Jerry. That way people could refer both siblings as “Jon and Jerry.” Life moves on, but the Reaper’s words still remain. They echo with a new meaning, not just as essential swimming precautions but also as a key to life. There are times in which I find myself drowning, but each time I remember the floatation device and understand that I am not alone. This year is one of the hardest for me. My science project is falling apart as my experimental flies refuse to stay put or stay alive. Still I press on harder in attempt to conquer the difficulties and rise to success. However, as my mind clears, I reach for the buoy, my parents and my teachers, and ask for help. Remember the Reaper, and remember that when neck-deep in water, reach for the lifeguard’s hand.


Copyright 2002-2007 Student Publishing Program (SPP). Poetry and prose 2002-2007 by individual authors. Reprinted with permission. SPP developed and designed by Strong Bat Productions.