Bottom of the Pool
Katy Rose de Leon
The slapping of the water as it hit the top of the pool filter bounced between brick walls. It was a quiet night. Dusk filtered in our backyard through the setting sun; it scurried through the shadows. My sister and I stood at the edge of the pool; her in her neon leotard she still had on from gymnastics and I in my strawberry bathing suit. Barefoot, the soft concrete beneath us radiated a mellow heat that it kept us warm as the evening chilled wrapped its arms around us.
The sky above us was indigo–clear, and the air was crisp. I could see Momma. Beyond the white fence that divided the pool deck from the grass, beyond the long stretch of green velvet where Cinnamon (who would soon become known as “la reina”) sprawled her small, sturdy body, Momma was setting the table on the back porch for dinner. We liked to eat outside, my family. Summer time was the best time for salty pork chops with rice and sweet tomatoes on the porch.
Rachel, who is 3 years older than me, had just come home from gymnastic practice and had promised me that we would go swimming once she were home. Summer was always a beautiful time for us as sisters. We spent most all of our nights together, alternating bedrooms, staying up late, giggling and playing until our parents convinced us to sleep so that we could wake up early the next day and have more time to enjoy the sunshine. But last night had not been a pleasant night.
It was a night of anxiety and tension for me and my sister. Our parents could only do so much to comfort us but they couldn’t solve this problem. Looking back on it now, I’m sure Rachel had been wrought with distraught more than I had been because she was the one who had left the cage open earlier that day after she had cleaned it.
The following afternoon we stood together at the edge of the pool that lay behind the small house on Ellen Drive. We were calm with anticipation to uncover a truth we already knew existed: what was that flickering speck at the bottom of the pool? The motion of the water in the pool was subtly set off by the gentle wind and the effect the current had on the object was like an old film. Flashes of clarity clicked in front of our eyes for brief half-second; the blot that rested at the bottom of the pool seemed to waver with the curves of the water’s surface.
As we waited for our father, the gatekeeper to our truth, my sister and I watched as the unsteady image of the blotch at the bottom of the pool seemed to pulsate in rhythm with our breaths. I cannot remember now who had discovered the tiny speck at the bottom of the deep end but my sister and I looked down upon it in a frightened unison. We never left toys in the pool; what could this be?
I could hear my father rustling behind the garage, through the whirling of the jacuzzis water heater. Rachel began to crouch next to me, balancing on the balls of her feet with her thighs pressed against her calves and her palms curled around the pool’s edges. I studied her movement, like all little sisters do. Her eyes were squinted, looking down upon the stop motion movie of the spot at the bottom of the pool that the blue water played for us. Her chocolate brown eyes focused in, as if trying to freeze the cut-and-paste movie to gain a clear image of what had really sunk to the bottom.
Through the corner of my eye, I could see my father emerging from the empty space we had reserved for pool equipment. As I looked across the vast ocean of chlorine, he was carrying our pool skimmer, hoisted up on his right shoulder as if he were a soldier marching into battle and the skimmer his weapon. His face carried a look of duty, of important weight, and as he marched towards his daughters I saw a compassionate fearlessness.
It was a gentle bravery that erupted from his chest. A bravery born out of love for his children to help shield them from the dark, inevitable truth. A bravery so strong and contagious that I had almost forgotten about what was preventing me from jumping right in. It was a bravery so flexible and soft, it hugged and comforted us from across the pool as our soldier strided towards us. It was a bravery projected by my father that was so just and vibrant that I could not blind myself to the sinking reality of what the pool had swallowed.
Finally after hours of admiration of my father’s spirit, he appeared between my sister and I. My sister, still crouched to his left, looked up and gave a nod of approval,
“Go ahead,” it seemed to say, “We are ready.”
My 6 year old fingers clutched to his khaki shorts. I could feel his strength maneuvering the heavy metal skimmer–reaching down into the depths. The skimmer in the water had erased any clarity I had of the object that lay at the bottom of the pool and my father heroically glided the twisting skimmer about the watery coffin. He started to tug the skimmer out and the pole grew in length behind him as his strong, dark hands descended one after another along the length of the dark blue metal.
It happened so quickly, my eyes could not keep up. The netting of the skimmer burst through the surface of the water with a deep, wallowing “glug!” and a thick splash. I caught a flash of white laying in the middle of the skimmer’s net, her casket, but my father fought to keep the skimmer above my eyesight as he turned towards my sister who was older and could handle such boldness of life and death and destiny. I let go of his shorts and my hands flopped like dead fish to my sides.
My father squatted towards the warm concrete, just as my sister was doing and rested the pool skimmer flat on the floor. His back was towards me but I could see my sister’s expression over his shoulder.
“Tickles.” She whispered.
I gasped and pressed my hands to my cheeks. My father wrapped an arm around Rachel and twisted his body so he could pull me towards him with his right arm. I stood with my back to the pool–my fortress of summer had taken my best friend, had hurt my sister. I buried my face in his neck and let hot water run from my eyelids. I sobbed. I cried from a pain so innocent; I had never seen Death before.
After a few minutes of drooling and blowing snot into my father’s collar, I gathered up the courage to turn around. My father started to tighten his arms around me as I tried to wiggle around as if to ask if I was sure, if I was ready. I pushed his arms, signally that I sure, and his embrace fell from around me, leaving only the palm of his hand on my back as if guiding my heart with his courage.
That’s when I saw her: our Tickles. Her eyes were squinted shut and her mouth gaped open as if she were mid-yawn, exposing her small rodent teeth that had never dared to press against my skin. Her white and brown fur was separated into small, thick dreads as fur usually does when it’s wet. Her legs and toes were stiff with chlorine water and her body did not flutter with the usual movements of her breath.
I could examine her no longer. I let out a wail as a I turned towards my father. We stood there, us three, at the edge of the pool in a group hug. We mourned the loss of our Tickles.
After a while, my father stood up and directed Rachel, “Take your sis-sis inside.”
Rachel squeezed my hand and led me away. She opened the tall, white, wooden gate to the yard and Cinnamon sprung up to greet us like an expecting relative. She was not yet fully grown; she still smelled like a puppy and was generous with her soft pink tongue. Rachel scooped her up and turned around to press Cinnamon into my chest.
Her fur warmed me instantly. I had forgotten that night had slowly encapsulated our little world on Ellen Drive. The look Death left on Tickles’ face left me numb and entranced me so that I had forgotten about nearly everything. But Cinnamon jolted me back into reality with her wiggly breath and fluttering kisses.
By that time the table was set and dinner was ready. I sat down on the back porch around the square table that always had a spot for each of us. My mother guided me to a chair whose back was towards the big, living room window. Leaving me to face the yard, the fence, the pool. She tried to maintain a sense of normalcy as she glided around the porch, into and out of the house, grabbing napkins and silverware and the plastic rice paddle and the pitcher of ice water and–oh! the salt!
“It’s no one’s fault.” her actions chanted, “We’ll all be okay.”
My sister sat across from me, blank, expressionless, staring down at the stewed tomatoes. Through the darkness and citronella candles, I could faintly see my father emerging from behind the garage once again, this time empty handed. By the time he joined as the table all of his girls were sitting in their spots, silent.
My mother passed a watchful glance from behind her thick glasses at Rachel, then me. Her hazy blue eyes landed upon my father, seeking guidance, seeking reassurance, seeking heat for the glue she beaded between the four of us with her dinner routine. My father took a deep breath, bowed his head, set his elbows on the table, and laced his fingers together in a ritual not common in our dinner routine as Cinnamon licked the salt off of my face,
“Dear Lord, thank you for this food we are about to receive. Thank you for keeping us together and safe as a family. Thank you for watching over Tickles as you guide her to Hamster Heaven. Amen.”