A human face turns blue without oxygen. The skin grows slack and the lips turn berry-purple. I saw it happen out in the woods, about a mile inland from the coast, in Southern Oregon, on a hot Sunday in August, as I stood in a silty river up to my thighs. My sister was upstream. She and I, along with my husband, my brother and his wife, and most of our children—four of them between our three families—had gone for a swim. Others lined the banks, too: strangers with beer, chips, blankets, towels, and dogs. It was a party.
There are people who dive into cold water and those who ease in. I'm okay ignoring those who shout, “It's fine! It feels great once you're in!” I know how it feels. A mountain stream is fed with melted snow. I let the sun heat my back, the water numb my legs, and minnows gather around my white calves.
A man drifted by in an inflatable raft. He said, “Is there a reason this person's under water?” Sun hit the current in blinding flashes. I squinted in the glare. He asked again, “Is there a reason there's a person here?”
A person under the water? It was hard to imagine.
In some places that river is shallow as a stone and makes ripples over small rocks. The man's boat was in the deepest stretch, a pool only a few feet across where I couldn't touch the bottom without going under. He said it again before my sister and I realized he meant it, then he dove off the side of his boat.
My sister yelled, “Where are the kids?”
Our brother, who as a teenager had been a certified lifeguard, though now with that certification expired by decades, dove under the water too.
Where was my daughter? The water churned with children, our own and others, splashing. They hadn't noticed a problem yet. The man's rubber boat blocked my view. I couldn't count children fast enough, couldn't find my girl, the youngest one of our family, six years old, the one who couldn't swim. I yelled her name. With myopic vision, my glasses off, I scanned the water and the banks until I saw the aqua and orange of her swimsuit against a backdrop of green blackberry vines and fern, far downstream. She was picking berries with her dad. A butterfly flitted near her head. And the rest? My niece and nephews: Delphi, Miles, Griffin. Where were they? Delphi, a ten-year-old, made her way to the shore. Miles, her cousin, just a little older, came up alongside her. We couldn't find Griffin, my teenage nephew, my brother's son.
My brother, Moss, was still under water. A minute felt like an hour. He's good at holding his breath. I went for my cell phone. When I picked it up, the screen was blank. The heat of the sun had shut the phone down.
The man from the inflatable boat and Moss broke the surface of the river with a person held between them, a man's limp arms laced over their shoulders. Even buoyed by the water, the man looked heavy. He was young, in his twenties. They put him on the first piece of dry land they could reach: a narrow, isolated patch where the steep bank jutted and extended into the water. The man's head lay at an angle against rocks, his skin blue, his lips plum. I held my own breath.
It was a man I'd just seen on the shore. He was distinctive, one of the few at that swimming place with darker skin. When did he go under?
“That's my brother!” a black-haired man yelled. They looked nothing alike. The man on the bank was white as chalk. He barreled toward the river, toward his brother, but maybe he wasn't a swimmer because he didn't cross. He rubbed his face, then went back to his blanket, to his girlfriend, got on his knees, put his palms together and prayed.
My own brother tipped the drowned man's head to get the water out. He and the man from the boat started mouth-to-mouth. They pumped his chest.
“We need to get him to flat ground,” the man from the boat said. We were at a bend. There were two banks. Earlier, when we arrived, my family had waded across to spread our blankets on the narrow bank opposite the side that connected to the only path in to the area. The water had eroded the bank where the river curved, but perhaps a logjam or submerged rock redirected the flow and caused the erosion to leave a slim peninsula. That's where they had him. Now they moved him toward the broader bank, across the river from us, and the crowd closed in.
“Out of the way,” a woman shouted. “He's a fireman, he knows what he's doing.” She was thin and rangy, with five tan boys gathered around her, none of them higher than her hip. Her words were clear and practical. She was the wife of the man with the inflatable boat, the fireman.
“He's a fireman,” people repeated. “He knows what he's doing.” This was what we had in the way of hope. Somebody managed to call an ambulance. The black-haired man was still praying, his lips moving. His girlfriend rubbed his back as his pale skin turned red, a sunburn on the way. We, the rest of my family, other than Moss, stayed on the opposite bank. Everybody was out of the water now, even the kids, as though the water were suddenly toxic. Our dog watched from the shade where he was tethered, where the bank gave way to thick bushes.
My husband and daughter walked upstream toward us. I called, “Go back. Pick berries.” Keep her in the world of ripe berries, butterflies, and sun. Water came out of the man's slack mouth. Delphi was at my side, close enough to see it all. “He'll be okay, right?”
My sister whispered to me, “When the ambulance takes him, let's say he'll live.” Maybe he really would.
My nephew Griffin was there now too, accounted for and out of the water. He came to sit on the bank and tossed a rock. His brother, Miles, kicked at the ground, restless. I had a glass of wine resting in the mesh cup holder of my folding chair. It didn't seem right to drink it now. My brother's wife took our blanket to offer to the fireman. Nobody needed it. She wrapped herself in it instead.
My husband and daughter joined us, and she whispered in my ear, with bubblegum breath, “I need to pee.”
My brother waded back to our side of the bank. He said, “His eyelids fluttered.”
Mostly, though, the drowned man lay motionless on the stones, arms and legs spread like a sunbather. He blocked our way to the narrow trail up to our cars. He kept us from swimming. He stopped us from eating Doritos, oranges, and smoked salmon, from drinking our sodas and wine.
Our air mattress blew into the water. The wife of the fireman waded in to retrieve it, then put rocks on it to hold it down on their side of the river. A kingfisher darted past in the trees and called out with its chittering staccato laugh. I usually feel lucky to see the elusive kingfisher here.
We've been swimming at this bend in the river most every summer of my life. This is the spot I conjure when I'm in a dentist's chair, when I have insomnia or need to be calm. I can draw it in my mind in minute detail: the bank is covered in white stones, some shaped like teeth, laced with silvery lines like old fillings, and others shaped more like hearts.
In that green river, if you're still, you'll find crawdads and darting fish, young salmon, trout, and then silt-colored bullhead along the river's floor. Orange and brown rough-skinned newts tuck their limbs and swim like snakes. Year after year these creatures tell us the water is still reasonably pure. In particular, crawdads, omnivorous scavengers, are biologically fragile and can't live in pollution.
My skin started to burn. Even slathering on sunscreen seemed a wrong gesture. My husband took our daughter to pee in the tall grass.
The bottle of white wine grew warm in the sun.
Finally there was the sound of a vehicle, the ambulance. We heard a car door open, then slam, and voices. Eventually a young woman in an EMT uniform walked down the dusty path to the bank. She pulled on blue latex gloves. Others came behind her with equipment, all of them in heavy shoes, dark slacks, white shirts—clothes too hot for the day, too serious for a river. The woman kneeled down, took a pulse, and shook her head. Her blonde braid scratched back and forth against the collar of her white shirt.
She stood and peeled her gloves off again.
There was shuffling. Somebody put a blanket over the man. The paramedics spoke to the praying brother. They talked to the fireman. They'd take the body away. He'd leave, and after that, we'd leave. I took a deep breath. The paramedics went back up the trail, carrying their unused life-saving equipment.
They'd come back for the body, I was sure of it.
We heard the car doors again, then the ambulance's wheels against the gravel. We heard it pull out onto the country road, skidding for a moment where the gravel met asphalt. They were gone.
We were left with the body; the body was left with us.
I don't know why they left him there. Maybe somebody didn't want to sign for the ambulance, pay the county fees. Maybe nobody wanted to claim responsibility.
The man's life ended on a hot Sunday at the river. We could either stay longer, indefinitely, or parade past him with the kids, dog, chairs, snacks, and air mattresses to our cars. We wanted to leave—the older kids were restless, maybe even bored in that teenage way, there in the face of death, because they couldn't do the things kids do at a river, like swim and horse around—but mostly I wanted to leave and come back again. Soon. That seemed suddenly the whole luxury of being alive: we could come back.
We untethered the dog.
“He'll be okay,” we said to Delphi. As a troupe, single-file, my extended family and I, along with the dog and our camping chairs, waded against the current to the side of the river where the body lay.
My daughter asked, “Then why does he have a blanket over his face?”
I bent down and pulled her toward me. She smelled like sun and sunscreen. Her skin was stained with berries. Her fingernails were dirt crescents, her hair was tangled, but her eyes were steady. She studied the form of the man on the rocks, under his blanket. I whispered, “He's dead, honey.”
An older man in a brown shirt and brown pants, a sheriff, passed us on the trail, there to sort out what would come next.
The drowned man stayed with us. Mostly we didn't talk about him, but sometimes one of us would, and then we'd all talk about him until we'd suddenly stop again. We walked together on the beach and saw barnacles, starfish, and chitons in tide pools. We held tiny hermit crabs. I let my daughter feel their delicate claws on her palm as they skittered sideways. We found the pink and green rock gardens of sea anemones, some opened and others closed, each one fat and damp and inviting as sex, and we put our fingers in to let them spray salt water and press against our skin. In the dry sand of a beach we found a skull that to me looked like a dog's, not a seal's, the way my brother said it was. It was the exact same size as my own dog's head.
We saw things that were alive, and things that had died, and sometimes we talked about the drowned man.
“We did what we could,” my brother's wife said.
“He was probably under water at least ten minutes,” I said. Drowning is a silent death. Every second makes a difference. I'd been trying to remember when I'd last seen him alive. He'd been inflating a massive inner tube. Maybe he disappeared down the center of that inner tube, then lost hold of it. We wouldn't notice if he went through the middle of that black rubber doughnut. Maybe he couldn't swim.
The next morning's newspaper told us his name, an ordinary name that offered no hints. He was twenty-two years old, from Coos Bay, about an hour north of where he died. He was alive in the sun, and then in the water he turned into a body, heavy and blue.
We went back to the river the next day. Again it was hot out, now with a breeze that turned leaves on the alder trees, showing their silver backs. We walked the trail, down past where the air was rich with the scent of sun-ripened blackberries, sweet as homemade jam where the bushes encroached on either side of the narrow path, and we came out onto the pale rocky bank of hearts and teeth. My daughter had our dog on a leash. We brought food, wine, and sunscreen. We had our family and the afternoon ahead of us and later we'd eat freshly caught fish and walk on a beach and watch the dog run until he was a tiny speck on the distant sand and then he'd come back, and at dusk we'd have a bonfire. We'd look for meteors against a dark sky in the Perseid meteor showers of summer. We'd sleep in tents and wake up to the menthol and bay scent of myrtle trees. I'd let minnows nibble my chilled legs.
When we came from the path onto the bank, the rocks were white and empty where the man had lain the day before. There was no chalk outline. It wasn't a crime scene. Still I could almost see the shape of his body sprawled there.
My daughter slid her free hand into mine. She swung my hand back and forth in hers, and spoke as though picking up an ongoing conversation: “He's lucky. At least he got to be alive for twenty-two years.”
I'd been swimming in that exact river almost twice as many years already, and it wasn't nearly enough.
I zipped her into a sun-bleached life vest, snapped one canvas belt around her waist and another that came up between her thighs, then attached over her stomach. She was secured like a wrapped present.
My brother's wife spread out a blanket, put her face to the fabric, her back to the sun and the river, and she cried. She had doubts about going back in.
The older kids peeled off their clothes, ready to swim. My brother got in.
There was a group of new people up the river. Their voices sang up and down. They didn't know what had happened. If we hadn't been there the day before, we wouldn't have known either.
Through our movements, we made a group decision: We could give the river over to the dead man in tribute, act as though he were the first person in the history of the planet to die there,or we could keep it. Who knows what else has happened in that place, our personal paradise? Turkey vultures rode the thermals high overhead, dark wings spread like hands against the blue sky. If we were lucky we'd see the kingfisher, that crazy fast-flying bird.
We were lucky—lucky to be there.
I adjusted my swimsuit with a snap, crossed over the stones, and took a step into the current. I pushed my way into the water. Cold bit my thighs and climbed over my pubic bone. It wrapped around my skin. I didn't linger. I let the chill claim my ovaries, my uterus; that serious cold told me I was a warm body alive. I pressed forward, water moving over my kidneys, ribs, and lungs. I put my goggles on. It'd never been more true: Once I was in, the water would be fine.
I took a breath, ducked my head, held my eyes open and went under until I saw blue-gray fish swim past. My hair drifted like kelp. I held my breath, kicked down into the deepest rocky shelf, my body fully submerged.
I was in.
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