Authors: Meg McKinlay
As I watched, he brought his hammer down hard into the centre of a light-brown tile, shattering it into a pile of uneven pieces.
Beneath my hands, I felt the cool, slick surface of the tiles. It was a strange idea when you thought about it – smashing something up so you could piece it back together.
I didn’t miss an afternoon at the lake.
When the siren rang at the end of school, the town kids veered left towards the main street and the farm kids went right towards the bus stop. And I doubled back along the fence, heading for the break in the trees. From there I could cut across the hills, zigging and zagging until I met up with the track I’d begun to etch back into the hillside, with the warning signs I barely saw any more, with the hole in the fence I’d learned to knit back up so it couldn’t be found by anyone who didn’t already know it was there.
I never thought about skipping my swim, the way I used to with the pool. Not even when the temperature soared past forty degrees and the hill seemed steeper than ever and the bush around me felt so dry it might ignite at any moment out of sheer desperation.
It wasn’t just the lack of bandaids. It wasn’t just the quiet. It was the way swimming up there made me want to go further and faster and harder, the way it didn’t feel like doing my six or digging in, but just like cruising across the surface.
And maybe it was also something else, something I wasn’t quite letting myself think about, something I had shoved years ago into a box under my bed.
Something that lay far below, something I didn’t realise was about to come rising up to meet me.
On the last day of school we finished our essays. I crumpled up the one that began “My Lower Grange is fifty-seven metres underwater” and tossed it in the bin.
We finished our handprints. I chipped jagged bits of clay from the edges of my fingers, then smoothed over the rough bits with a slick layer of spit.
And we finished our mosaics. I closed the doors on Tuckers. Liam pegged all the way to the top of the fire tree. Amber added the last square of blue to the lake.
It looked nothing like the lake, that colour. As I stood in the shallows that afternoon, it wasn’t blue I saw. It was a hundred mixed-up shades of brown and blue and green, all of them blending into something you could never reproduce with a bunch of smashed-up tiles. And none of what was visible on the surface told you anything about what was underneath, about the bands of warm and cool, light and dark, that led you down to where the chill lay at the bottom, settled over the mud and the silt like a heavy blanket.
I pushed off across the water and began my swim. I was trying to practise breathing on the left as well as the right. Mr Henshall always said we should but I always got muddled on the left and ended up with a mouthful of water.
Breathe right-stroke-stroke-breathe left-stroke-stroke-breathe right-stroke-stroke
. Slowly, I settled into an awkward rhythm, following the line of the shore as it curved away to the east.
Breathe right-stroke-stroke, breathe left-stro
As I turned, there was a flash of something, something cutting through the glare of light slicing off the water.
It was nothing, probably. A spot on my goggles.
Funny, though. The spot wasn’t there when I breathed right.
Which made it not a spot.
I breathed left slowly this time. Just to be sure that there was nothing. That it had been, if not a randomly appearing goggle-spot, then some kind of trick of the light, a reflection off the surface of the water.
But there it was again, that flash.
I gulped a mouthful of lake water, brackish and dark, and stopped, treading water. Leaned forward and squinted.
There was definitely something.
Something that hadn’t been there yesterday.
Not a fish. Or a bird. It wasn’t moving.
It was long and kind of straight. It looked … sticky.
I snickered to myself. It was my favourite joke when I was little.
What’s brown and sticky? A stick!
It did look like a stick. But it was deep out there. Too deep for it to be a stick all on its own. There would have to be something holding it up.
I couldn’t help imagining it – a long arm beneath the surface, a pale white hand rising up to offer me this stick.
That would be just my luck, to land in the middle of a mythical adventure, and instead of a magic unbreakable sword which will give me dominion over many lands and make me a figure of legend for generations to come, I get a stick.
Was it really a stick?
I leaned further forward.
It wasn’t that far away. It wasn’t in the middle of the lake or anything. Maybe a hundred metres?
A hundred metres there, check out the whatever-it-was, a hundred metres back.
Not even six laps.
It was deep out there, of course. Deeper than here. And here was deeper than where I normally swam. When I stretched a leg down, a foot, then a toe, as far as it could go, I still couldn’t touch the bottom.
But that didn’t matter.
I’d never understood the big deal about deep water. If you can swim, you can swim. It doesn’t matter what’s underneath as long as you can get to the other side.
I put my head down and set off, breathing and stroking, breathing and stroking.
After a couple of minutes, I looked up. I figured I must be just about on top of the thing and I didn’t want to crash into it, especially if it was a sword that was going to give me dominion over many lands.
Except … where was it?
I swivelled my head. Had I swum off course? I should have thought of that. It was easy to do in open water. Mr Henshall had warned us about it, said we should always line ourselves up with something and keep checking our direction.
That’s what the stick thing was for, if only I could find it.
There was something over there, but that couldn’t be it. It didn’t seem any bigger, any closer at all.
But it must be that. What else could it be, this far out? It just didn’t seem to be getting any closer, even though I’d swum all this way.
How far had I come, actually?
That was something else that was hard to measure without flags and black marks and people whacking you randomly with tennis balls.
I looked back towards the shore then out at the stick thing.
Okay, so it was more than a hundred metres. It would still be all right. I had probably been doing way more than that the last few weeks. I felt good. I felt strong.
I kept going, lifting my head every few strokes to stay in line with the stick.
It was getting bigger now, definitely.
Slowly, though. More slowly than I’d expected.
When I started thinking about it – how far I’d come, how far I might have to go, I felt a familiar tightening in my chest. My breath started coming in short, ragged bites.
With every stroke, Mr Henshall was in my head. Don’t try and judge distances in open water. Line yourself up with something. Don’t overestimate your ability.
I swam the last few metres, which was probably more like twenty, in grandma breaststroke.
Partly it was so I could keep my eyes locked onto the stick thing, so it wouldn’t disappear.
Mostly it was because I was exhausted.
I was past the point of digging in.
And I was remembering, all of a sudden, the crucial thing about deep water. That it doesn’t matter as long as you can get to the other side. But there was no other side here, not that I could reach, and depth was in fact quite important when you’ve grossly underestimated distance and need somewhere to reach down to with a leg, a foot, a toe.
Because there’s nothing to hang on to. Nothing but water and sky and something you haven’t quite managed to identify yet.
There it was, right in front of me.
It was indeed sticky. It was indeed a stick thing.
For a second I stopped, imagining the hand holding it up, the arm reaching all the way from the bottom of the lake.
Then I shook my head.
Because I was an idiot.
It was a stick thing in its natural habitat. In the middle of a lake, yes. But also, at the top of a tree.
And a tree was something to hold onto for a little while. A tree might have a branch where you could perch and wait for a bit, gathering yourself for the much longer than expected swim back.
My toe brushed something and I jumped. Then I sent my toe back down again for another feel, because this was what I was after, wasn’t it – a branch, something I could stand on?
A wide, flat branch, even. A branch wider and flatter, in fact, than any branch ever before found in nature.
Which was weird until I realised.
Not a branch, but a platform.
A platform at the top of the tallest tree in Old Lower Grange, in the whole shire. A platform with a peg ladder spiralling below it all the way down to the silty mud.
The fire tree!
I felt around with my toes. It was definitely a platform, going right around the trunk. The wood was rotting and falling away but the metal frame was still there and it was enough for me to rest my feet on, and lean back against the tree and close my eyes, just for a second, and rest, and breathe.
I was here. I was somewhere.
When my breathing had slowed, I took a long look around me. I inched around the metal frame with my toes, felt the slippery bark around the trunk with my fingers.
The fire tree! How did it get here? I mean, not how did it
here. That was quite possibly the world’s dumbest question. Obviously, it had been here all along, for hundreds of years in fact, growing and growing and slowly leaving behind everything around it while it reached for the sky.
But still, how did it get
Up into the actual sky above the water? And how had I never noticed it before?
I looked back the way I had come, across to the shoreline where my orange towel sat flapping on a low-hanging tree branch.
And I saw something. A dark stain around the lake, a line along the water’s edge like you see at the ocean when the tide has gone out.
Except that there were no tides at the lake.
My eyes flicked from the water to my towel and back again, from the water to the tree line and back again.
And then I realised.
Something that should have been obvious days ago, maybe even weeks.
The water level was going down. It had been a dry winter, a dry few years, and now summer was sinking its teeth in and the lake was, well, sinking.
It was lower than I’d ever seen it.
That meant water restrictions over summer. It meant watering one day a week and Mum sticking an eggtimer in the shower.
But it meant something else too.
It meant this tree, the old fire tree, the stuff of photos and stories and a hundred crayon drawings, was suddenly reaching up from the deep with its spindly fingers.
I stared down through the water at my feet, at the platform, at the pegs that spiralled down and down into the dark.
Old Lower Grange was down there. It had always been there, but now it was right below me. Now I was standing on something that was actually connected to it, something I had seen in photos and heard about in stories, and there was a road, right here, leading down, saying
How deep could it be?
How far could it be?
A thought lodged in my throat like a stone.
I looked out across the water, all the way to the shoreline, and my heart sank.
It was so far. It seemed obvious now. Maybe it was because I’d already swum it once. Maybe it was because the shore was bigger and wider and made it easier to get a sense of things.
It didn’t matter why. It was a long way. Just getting here I’d probably swum further than I ever had before.
But I didn’t feel like patting myself on the back for that.
I was bigger now, and stronger, but I was still an idiot.
I was in Old Lower Grange, where the water was dropping to meet the town. I was on top of the fire tree. From here, I could dive down into my own secret Atlantis.
But right now, all I could think about was how I was going to make it back to shore.
It was getting late. I needed to be over there. I needed to be on the shore, pulling on my socks and my shoes, bumping my way back down the hill.
It would be easier this time, I told myself. It was always easier on the way back, when you knew you didn’t have to turn around and do the whole thing again.
I would breaststroke it. Maybe some sidestroke. Survival strokes, Mr Henshall called them.
That seemed like a goal worth aiming for – survival.
I would keep my head up and my stroke
long and slow and relaxed
. I would have Mr Henshall in my head and my eyes fixed on my bright orange towel, all the way over there in the distance, and I would swim absolutely straight, adding not one extra metre to the left or right.
I pushed off from the tree.
The tiredness returned almost immediately, not the welcome buzzing in my limbs I felt after a good, hard swim, but a deadening heaviness.
I put it out of my mind.
I would think about something else. My arms and legs knew what to do all on their own. So I would take my mind somewhere else and before I knew it, I’d be all the way over there.
Old Lower Grange. That was it. I would swim it as if I was walking the streets of the old town, and they would carry me out.
I called up the mosaic, the maps piled in layers in the box under my bed.
The fire tree behind me, the shore ahead. And the sun – which way was the sun? That put the dam wall to the east, the bike track to the south.
In my head, the map spun and turned, roads and buildings bumping from slot to slot. It was a puzzle, that was it – one of those frames with the little plastic tiles you move around piece by piece until the picture snaps into focus.