by Rais Tuluka
How I survived my drowning is fuzzy. In my memory, it looks like a polaroid or an 8 mm film print. My mother calls my 8-year-old brush with death a baptism. But at that point, I built up the confidence to swim to the other end of the church pool, seeing a handful of my classmates and church-mates splashing in the water, others dry, lounging around the perimeters.
The grill was doing its job, smoking a fat catfish Pastor Scott had caught earlier that weekend. It weighed 95 pounds, a puffy, gasping, hideous underworld beast that could’ve swallowed Jonah. BBQ vapor filled my nostrils as I waded in the water to journey toward the pool’s deep end.
All the children on that side were gliding, legs kicking in coordination with pivoting arms. I saw grace and elegance in the middle of the pool, like a ballet, and Pastor Scott was organizing water games, surrounded. I stepped slow, stomping closer to the group inch by inch, until I suddenly couldn’t feel the floor, not even while on my tiptoes. Then, the pool floor vanished, causing slight panic. I plunged without anything to catch me, battling consumed water, gasping for air. My body turned into an anvil, and before long, the water won our fight, filling my lungs. When I realized that I was not elegant, my world went completely dark.
I woke up on the cement by the pool. Everyone hovered over to examine me, staring like I was a beached whale. My mother was among the parents and children. She cut through the crowd and said, “I heard you calling for help.”
Later in the evening, right before dark, when the sky was orange and purple, the stars appeared, and fireflies emerged from the grass. With a towel draped around me like a cape, I watched the fireflies while listening to the groan of nearby bullfrogs. I was sitting with a couple of kids, but I’d see other kids and parents staring every now and then.
Mrs.Chiang came walking over and hunkered beside me. She was dressed as if for a party better than ours, with sequins on her dress and flat leather sandals. Her toenails were dark blue, but her feet were covered in dirt from walking barefoot in the grass. I could smell the wine on her breath and her clothes, and I wondered where my mom had gone.
“You almost drowned,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said quietly.
“Did your mom tell you how you got out of the water?” she asked. “An angel saved you.”
The Chiang family held a bible study for my brother and me in their living room on Mondays. We’d gather after school, usually at 5 p.m, just as the best cartoons started to air on television. I’d watch the clock that hung above the tv as time crept by. It moved slow. Time moved so slowly, I thought their clock was broken. Even when it was my turn to read scriptures, my eyes would glance up at the clock, and I would pray my Mr.Chiang would want to end early and turn on the tv.
Dennis Chiang was Pastor Scott’s best friend and had knees that cracked when he stepped, loud as two cannons. He had a long thin nose, and unexpected dark freckles running across the bridge of his nose and beneath his eyes, disappearing into his beard. His and Mrs.Chiang’s children were fully grown and out of sight.
The Chiang’s were good people, but Mrs.Chiang always seemed to have plans. They lived right next door to us. She was always ready to leave our neighborhood for a tropical vacation in Jamaica or Barbados. I’d eavesdrop on my mom and her conversations. According to Mrs. Chiang, Mr. Chiang had accomplished his fatherly duties, which had involved his role as a deacon.
Mr. Chiang was out in the field during the party, lighting the bonfire. Then, a distant whoosh, a pillar of light shot up. The drunk woman twisted her head away from me for a second and studied the growing fire with confusion on her face. Then she turned her attention toward me again, reaching out an unsteady hand, placing it on my back to reestablish her focus.
Dusk was over, the fire became bright in the night. Mrs. Chiang rose, bumbled, slipped in the mud, cursed, and struggled to her feet, then wandered off into the dark, away from me, away from the fire. She walked out of my sight and into the darkness, as if beyond where I could see she had some confidential cloister.
A man’s voice came from behind me, saying, “Glad to see you’re breathing,” and the next thing I knew, a plate was in my face. It was Pastor Scott, and he was holding a plate with a large piece of the smoked fish.
I recall noticing the fish when Pastor Scott brought it out of the cooler. Its giant black eyes, obsidian eyes, which had a golden rim, like pyrite. It was still alive when they tossed it on the grill, panting, feeling the heat surround it like a fortress. The fish squirmed, sucked for oxygen or water or whatever fish need to survive on land, and found nothing, but somehow from someplace bottomless within itself, mustered and supplied enough power to flap its tail once. Just once.
I remember glancing at the fish and comparing its size to all the men, women, and children from church who came, wondering if this monstrous fish could feed all of us.
Pastor Scott told me to follow him to the pool. He still had the plate of fish. The full moon reflected in the pool, and as we approached, the bullfrogs stopped croaking. I could hear the sounds of the party in the distance, the giggles of children and the cackles of drunken adults, but down by the pool, with the moon’s gold eye stern upon it, I heard only stillness. Pastor Scott lowered the plate of fish in front of me, prompting me to take it. Thin wavy noodles were on the plate, along with a Thai-like gravy.
“Do you know why Christ’s symbol is a fish?” he asked. Fireflies floated across his face. His eyes were red.
I shook my head.
“The fish symbol let early Christians talk to each other without words. When a Christian met strangers, one would draw one-half of the outline of the fish on a rock or in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other half, both knew that they could freely share their belief in Jesus Christ. It’s called the ‘ichthus.'”
He said that the fish symbol was also marked on walls to pinpoint where Christians were meeting in secret, at ever-changing locations. An equivalent sign had been used by non-Christian Greeks to denote the location of funerals, so the Christian usage combined with that one. The church father, Tertullian, would later refer to the early Christians who were being baptized as, “Little fishes, after the image of our Ichthus, born in water.”
Ichthus contained the Greek letters Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, and Sigma, and to the early Christian community, this signified, “Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter,” or in the English translation of the Greek, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
Pastor Scott looked like Jeff Foxworthy and had a son, Jake, who trouble often followed. Jake served in the United States Army and died in Afghanistan. I remember my parents going up to Jake’s funeral and leaving me behind. But when they came back, she gave a full report, saying the Pastor didn’t cry one time. Actually, they were outdoors, and it was raining, so it washed everyone’s tears away, she said.
The Pastor was a recovering alcoholic. After Jake’s death, he drank and drowned himself in whiskey and cigarettes. Even as he spoke with me by the pool, I smelled whiskey and smoke on his breath and skin, trying to hold my breath and listen simultaneously. The Pastor’s scratchy voice was thuggish in its reference points, its clipped confidence. “My son Jake died ten years ago today. Don’t be embarrassed about almost drowning, son. You still got breath.”
Pastor Scott examined my plate of fish. Mosquitoes cartwheeled through the air, landing on my arms—and landing on the fat fish’s saucy back, where they clung to its flesh like feathers, their wings still fluttering.
My mother said an angel saved me from drowning, and until this day, I don’t question her recollection of events, but I don’t question mine either. Instead, I keep both unchallenged, locked away in my mind. That memory is just an amulet, just a belief, now. But every once in a while, the memory gets resurrected, a vital thing, a moment in the world, the flickering flame of memory—not its own, but that of others—subordinate to it, attaching to mind like mosquitoes.
I take the memory out and glimpse at it sometimes, and occasionally wonder at the disregarded and unknown and unacknowledged items that we are forgetting, images vamoosing, little bit by little bit and breath by breath. As my mom remembers it, I floated to the top of the pool on my back, the other swimmers then guiding my unconscious body toward the pool’s safe edge. Once I regained consciousness, gasping for air, I told my mom, a black figure with expansive wings swept the bottom of the pool, forcing my body up gently from beneath the depths. As the effigy raised me upward, it affirmed me, “Swim! You won’t drown if you swim!” I don’t really remember telling my mom that, but why would a scared child lie to their mother?
Rais Tuluka is an author and a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at the University of California, Davis. He lives in Davis, California, and is happy there among the trees.