Brenda Peynado’s mesmerizing story follows the seventh-grade class of an unusual town; each year, the community loses some of its youth to a mysterious string of drownings. “The Drownings” is a fantastical story grounded in the real struggles of coming of age and coming to terms with the limitations of life. We are proud to add this smart and powerful piece to our New Voices roster.
“The mysteries that tempt us are many. We think knowing things means growing up.”
The water glimmers in the corners of our eyes. Even if we’re not swimming, the pools are always within sight: in patios behind our houses, reflections on glass doors opening to the kitchens, water waving in the windows of our bedrooms. We all know someone who drowned. We all have our own close calls and scars from slipping and falling in the deep end. Still, we return to the pools daily. The water calls us back, all that blue veined with light. We want to be swallowed: the splash, the blue slipping over our heads, the rush of sinking.
The teachers at school often explain things to us with liquid. When we were little, we saw how the water level rose when we all jumped into the pool, how the blue and white tiles sunk. What did it mean? we asked. Displacement, said the teacher. In sixth grade, our science teacher explained chlorine and how pH balance kills cells and other life. The music teacher explained rhythm as waves or swimmer’s strokes. Why do we float? we asked, and the teacher said, Relative density. Our parents explain nothing. They are the ones who escaped the close calls, who survived the childhood of drownings. When we ask, Why them? they have no answers.
The new girl, Rosa, arrives from somewhere north and cold at the start of seventh grade. Rosa cannot swim. When the homeroom teacher introduces her, Rosa’s dark hair slants over half of her face, and we remember new means depths we do not yet know. In Mr. A’s science class, Zach throws paper airplanes at her, meant to antagonize her into giving up her secrets. The airplanes are badly made; they flail back and forth in the air and do not reach her.
After school, Rosa stays on the edge in her brand new bathing suit, watching us screech and splash. We can see she wants to be one of us. In the water, none of us are awkward. When we plunge our heads under the skin of the water, we watch others’ legs kicking and standing, surrounded by pinprick bubbles of air, the way they glimmer. The muted screams of laughter above. The girls and boys we all want to be are those who slip sharp as knives into the pools, those who dive the deepest, those who hold their breath so long that when they rise back up, they are gasping. Zach can hold his breath past all our fears. At parties, Jocelyn waits until everyone watches her, eyelashes clumped wet and black, smooth ponytail like an eel behind her. Then she jackknifes, plunging straight down beneath the wavering surface, waiting until the last possible moment, until we’re sure she’s hit bottom, before pulling up. She tells us she kissed the mica glimmering down there. We gasp on her behalf. We want the pressure of crushed stone on our lips. All of us are pulled to the depths, tempting the drownings that come every year.