by Mary Brunini McArdle
“Joanna, I think it’s a grand thing you’re doing, but the timing’s bad. You’ve hit the peak growth during the hottest part of the year.”
“That’s what braids are for, Thad.” Joanna wiped the perspiration from her forehead with her towel. The couple was in the car, on their way for a Saturday afternoon of swimming. “Besides, I’m late. I was hoping it wouldn’t get this hot yet.”
Thad laughed. “Joanna, it’s almost July.”
“I know, but I can’t have this done just any place. They couldn’t take me until July.”
Thad and Joanna had been married three years. They lived near Tuscaloosa, Alabama and though they were Alabamians from birth, both had to admit theirs was a tropical climate. It had its pluses and its minuses: there was a moist, sweet-smelling wind from the Gulf found nowhere else in the couples’ experience ( except in Mississippi–and that had been ruined by the effects of Hurricane Katrina), but the summers and early fall could be grueling.
The couple loved to swim, and their hunt for interesting places had led them to a favorite locale. Isolated, hidden in the thick vegetation of pine woods, was a clear water spring feeding a small lake. It was unusual in that it was surrounded by rock formations with holes that made numerous miniature waterfalls. A cavern formed a swimming run leading to the lake. The
property wasn’t posted, so Thad and Joanna didn’t worry about whether or not they were trespassing. They had never seen another soul there.
“Actually, I guess you’re kind of cute in braids.”
Before she and Thad were married, Joanna had discovered what was to be her favorite contribution to society. She was small, with large hips, blue eyes, and dainty freckles. In no way would she ever be called “beautiful.” But she had glorious hair, thick and nearly black with a natural wave. Every June Joanna cut her hair to a little above shoulder length. Then she let it grow the entire year. By summer it was long and heavy, but she persevered. She donated it for wigs for chemotherapy patients. She had stipulated that her donations go to children, children she never met. She knew some of them didn’t survive, but she felt she had made their lives a little better.
Of course she was suffering from the heat this particular summer — she looked better with her hair loose, but braids were a necessity for swimming and other activities. To her the whole thing was worth it, because when she was eighteen it was discovered that she had a malformed uterus and would never bear children of her own.
She also compensated by breeding dwarf bunnies. “Her babies,” she called them, a tear in her eye whenever it was time to sell them. She didn’t work outside her home; Thad was an instructor in the English Department at the University. The dwarf bunnies sold anywhere from $100 to $200 each. Thad and Joanna weren’t wealthy, but they were happy.
“Race you,” Joanna said, jumping from the car almost before it stopped. Laughing, she ran through the underbrush toward the lake, Thad close behind. He caught up to her at the edge, swinging her around, both giddy with the anticipation of the pleasurable swim in store for them.
They had on their swim suits under their shorts and T-shirts–the weather was hot enough for them to ride back home without dressing; towels would be sufficient. The swims were even more carefree because of this, although tennis shoes were a necessity because of the brambles and stinging nettles in the grassy approach.
They spent a couple of hours racing, lap-swimming, practicing strokes. Joanna loved to dive; at its deepest point the lake was only about nine feet. Then they leisurely swam the narrow run, marveling at the mussels attached to the rocks and the clear, sandy bottom there.
Hot dogs, corn on the cob for supper, showers and night clothes, an hour or so of television while Joanna towel-dried her long hair. “Blow dryers aren’t good for it,” she had told Thad on several occasions.
Drowsy and satisfied, they lay in the dark in their double bed, holding hands.
“I saw something while I was diving,” Joanna remarked sleepily.
“A light, deep down. A light coming from below.”
“Uh, huh. Dive down with me next time and I’ll show you.”
“Okay.” Thad yawned. “Church tomorrow?”
“Sure, in the morning before it gets too hot.”
“Wear that fluffy pinky-orange dress, the one you say is so old-fashioned. What do you call that fabric?”
“Dotted Swiss. It’s hard to find nowadays. And the color is called ‘peach.’” She smiled at Thad’s male perception of colors.
“You know, Joanna, we have a marvelous marriage. You’ve made me so happy.”
She leaned over and kissed him.
Two days later, after making a trip to a supply house for dwarf bunny food and other items, Joanna and Thad put everything up and changed into swimsuits. “I know you don’t like to dive as much as I do, Thad, but it’s not all that deep. Your ears don’t bother you unless we go below ten feet, isn’t that right?”
“Right. Eight or nine feet’s okay.”
“I think nine is as deep as it gets.”
“You did your hair differently, one braid instead of two. Looks pretty.”
“I believe it will work better, Thad, stay out of my face, you know? Since it’s even longer now.”
The afternoon was beautiful. . .a dazzling blue sky with high puffy clouds–the lake sparkled as Thad and Joanna shed their clothes. Joanna favored one-piece swimsuits; she wanted to swim, not show off. Nonetheless, she looked good in her bright yellow. She had three suits–the others a black with a lace cut-out on top and a red with a white stripe. Serious swimmers, she often avowed, needed more than one suit.
“Let’s dive,” she said, wading in at the edge of the lake, not bothering with the run or the rocky waterfall areas. “Over there, where it gets deeper.”
The couple stayed under as long as possible, Joanna showing Thad where she thought she had seen the light. Then they surfaced.
“There’s a cave opening, Joanna. The light’s coming from the far end of a cave!”
“Fascinating. Wouldn’t you love to try for it?”
“You mean swim through the length of the cave?”
“Listen, love, just as long as you never try something like that alone. One of us has to watch the other. Why don’t I go a little ways in, see if I have enough breath? A first step. Then if you or I can get all the way to that light, we could judge if the hole is big enough for a person to get through and if the water’s not too deep on the other side.”
“It’s possible there isn’t much water on the other side. Could be just a couple of feet,” Joanna said hopefully.
“Then are you ready for another try? Let me go in this time; you watch.”
Thad surfaced, grinning. “Piece of cake. Got all the way to the opening on the first try–it’s not that far. And it’s large, Joanna, taller than me, wider than two people!”
“What about the other side? Any judgment on how deep the water is?”
“Well, I didn’t go through the opening this time, but there’s a lot of light.”
“Let’s sit a minute,” Joanna suggested.
She and Thad swam to the edge of the water, climbed out, and sat down on one of the rock formations, dangling their feet.
“How about this?” she said. “You go through once, and see if you can see the surface. Then let me try to go all the way. I can hold my breath longer.”
Thad laughed. “You can stay under longer than anyone I’ve ever known. And you’re a strong swimmer; powerful legs. It’s a deal.”
“Joanna,” Thad announced on returning from his trial run, “it’s very shallow. Only three to four feet deep.”
“That’s nothing!” she sniffed. “Can I give it a go?”
“Sure. I’ll follow as far as the opening–make sure you’re through it and come back for more air. Then I’ll dive periodically and watch from the entrance on this side until you’re on your way to me.”
“After that, dive one more time to meet me and we’ll surface together, Thad.”
“You got it.”
Thad kissed her on the nose and they both took deep breaths and dove. Joanna used a traditional breast stroke after entering the cave.
There’s nothing like this feeling, she thought as she swam toward the light. The feeling of strength, of the water around me, of the underwater world I’m experiencing — not enough time to really look at the cave interior — I have to make it safely to that opening and further.
She had breath to spare as she swam through and, looking upward, used her arms and legs to propel herself to the brilliance above.
Shaking the water out of her eyes, she scrambled to her feet and studied her surroundings.
Behind her, a rocky formation similar to the other side, above, blue skies, and across — she gasped. There was a sandy beach several yards from her, and there were people sitting there!
Wavelets lapped gently just below her chest. She realized none of the people were adults. Rather they were children of varying ages, ranging from around two to adolescents. The children had dark hair, very nearly black, but differing slightly in shading and intensity and length. Gold and red highlights hit where the hair curled or waved, not as much where it lay straight.
“Hello, Joanna!” the children said in chorus. Then they all stood and bowed.
“Who... who are you?” Joanna stammered.
The tallest boy rose after the others seated themselves again. He looked to be about twelve, and evidently was the spokesman for the group. “We are your children, Joanna. All of us. We are the ones who didn’t live. But we received such joy from you that we will be forever grateful.
“And you have pleased the Lord, also, with your generosity. To give of oneself is always pleasing. It is especially so when you give of your own body. Your beautiful hair. We decided not to choose our original hair color is this new life, but rather to keep your gift. That is how much we treasure it.”
”Oh,” Joanna whispered. “This is magical. A magic moment.”
“We’ll see you again one day. Now it’s time to rejoin your husband.”
“Goodbye, Joanna.” This time the boys and girls sang in chorus, light sweet voices.
How can I describe this to Thad? Joanna wondered as she reached the original cave opening and saw him swimming down to her. He’ll believe me though, I know he will.
They clasped hands and bobbed gently at the top of the water. “Thad, oh, Thad! I have something to tell you. About what I saw on the other side.”
He listened with eyes wide. “Joanna, I believe you, I always do. But do you mind if I see for myself?”
“No, of course not, if they’re still there.”
She sat on the rocks and waited. When he returned he had a surprised look on his face.
“That was quick,” she remarked.
“Joanna, the cave is gone.”
“The opening, the light. It’s not there anymore. It must have been meant only for you. Because it’s gone.”
Joanna put her arms around him. “Maybe it was just for me to see, but you’re the one I shared it with. You and you alone. I love you, Thad.”
Copyright © 2007 by Mary Brunini McArdle