“Instructions for the Drowning”

Steven Heighton

April 19, 2023 
The following is a story from Steven Heighton's collection Instructions for the Drowning. Heighton (1961–2022) was a writer and musician. His nineteen previous books include the novels Afterlands, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and the bestselling The Shadow Boxer; the Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize finalist memoir Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos; and The Waking Comes Late, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

Ray’s father once told him that if you ever jumped into the water to help a drowning man, he would try to pull you down with him and there was only one way to save yourself and him as well. Drowning men were men possessed and they were supernaturally strong. But they were also as weak as babies, seeing as they had lost all self-control.

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His father shook his head, his lips clamped thin, as if such a loss were the most pitiful any man might suffer. You could neither wrestle nor reason with a man in that condition, he explained. In a sense, he was hardly human anymore.

Ray — ​ten or eleven years old — ​had pictured the victim metamorphosing into a kind of ghoul, sinewy and slippery as the Gollum he had been imagining while reading The Lord of the Rings.

So you would have no choice, his father concluded, his eyes narrowing and hardening behind the steel-rimmed spectacles, a gaze that always preceded a briefing on some unfortunate but unavoidable masculine duty. A drowning man would have to be knocked out cold. For his own good. A short, clean punch to the side of the jaw — ​that would be the preferred blow. After which you could easily complete the rescue, towing the victim in to shore. (In the boy’s adaptation, the victim was tamed from raving fiend to serenely compliant human, slightly smiling, eyes closed, like those cartoon characters who always looked so gratified to have been knocked out.)

How rescuers who were not world-class water polo players were to find the leverage and stability to land a decisive blow while being dragged underwater by a panicking man was not a question the boy could have formed or would have posed. If his father said the operation worked — ​and he made it sound like one performed routinely in the summer lakes of Canada and the northern states — ​then it must.

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Over the years Ray would hear other men, usually older, mention the technique often enough to gather that it had once been endorsed, if not actually practised, by a whole generation. Now it seems as dubious and dated as the quaint medical certainties of another age. Yet this afternoon, as Ray’s wife, Inge, floating near the end of the dock, cries out and begins splashing and coughing, it’s not the sensible modern rules of aquatic rescue that first leap to mind but his old man’s advice. Then comes the thought that he’s not even sure what the modern rules are. He springs up out of the fold-out recliner and pulls off his sunglasses, his latest can of IPA tipping and rolling off the dock. The blood drains from his head — ​he is almost drunk, he was almost asleep — ​and the glasses slip from his hand as he stands swaying. His sight returns. There’s Inge, treading water effortfully, using just one arm. Her sunlit face is strained. Another cough hacks out of her, but then she calls hoarsely, “It’s OK — ​OK!”

“What? You sure?”

“Just a cramp. My leg. But I think it’s . . .”


She winces, her teeth white in the sun. From the other direction, behind Ray, a jocular voice calls down, “Hey, you two lovebirds all right down there?”

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“OK!” he shouts back automatically toward the cottage, where their hosts, Hugh and Alison, have retired for a little nap, as Hugh always puts it. Hugh and Alie enjoy a spirited, irreverent rapport, playfully and publicly physical. In the penumbra around them, other couples in their circle are never quite free of a sense of deficiency and demotion.

With a choked groan Inge vanishes as if something has yanked her feet from below. She flails back up, arms flapping and reaching. She could be a woman playing the victim during a lifeguard training session or someone just gauchely fooling around. No. She is a decent swimmer and she is no joker; she laughs readily enough with her friends and with Ray, even these days, but she dislikes physical comedy and April Fool’s pranks of the kind that Hugh loves to devise.

Ray charges down the dock and jumps off the end where a half-empty wineglass perches as if on the edge of a bar. The water here is deep, but he dives flatly, smacking his paunch and his groin and surfacing fast. He is an ugly swimmer, a heaver and splasher, his head always turtled above the water — ​he hates submerging his face — ​but he is strong, and padded enough that he floats.

All that’s visible of Inge is her face tipped sunward like a tiny, shrinking island. He calls, “Hang on!” and she stammers back, “Help, help, help me now, Ray!” It’s a shock to hear help used right on cue and exactly as it should be. And her accent — ​for as long as they have known each other it has been faint, but for rare spasms of anger or passion. Now it’s thickly Dutch. Her face dips under, comes back up, her mouth gawping, hands flogging the water. “I’m here,” he says, and extends his left hand. “Inge?” She launches toward him. Her facial muscles flex and contort and he gets a flashback of that gurning creature conjured up by his father’s words some thirty years ago. Her eyes — ​pure blue, no pupil — ​do seem half-alien, perceiving but not knowing him.

She hugs and envelops him, the way she might an exciting new man, as perhaps she already has, who can say? They’ve been sleeping separately for almost a year, although not on this visit, and the bed sharing up here is not merely for show or to pre-empt gossip — ​and Hugh and Alie are gossips — ​no, they really are trying to give it one more shot, and the sex last night was good, partly because it had been a while and partly because of the fresh setting and the voluptuous breezes floating in, and also, sure, because they both knew without saying a word that they would team up and show Hugh and Alie, ostentatiously coupling in the next room, that they too had a marriage.

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Her skin last night was hot as always, much hotter than his. Her crushing embrace now is icy. She’s all over him, clinging to him like the one thing afloat on an empty sea. Grasping at straws. Now he gets it. It’s not about drawing lots but about grabbing handfuls of the useless stuff floating up from the hold of a sinking ship.

She’s pulling him down. Grappling — ​Inge, don’t! — ​an arm, trying to wrench free. Impossible, just like his father said. His eyes are above the water, then below: a glimpse of locked, thrashing forms, bubbles swarming, her skinny white legs hooked around his waist.

They surface. He inhales a breath, she choking and gasping. Somehow he’s facing the shore. Hugh and Alie, in the matching aqua sarongs from their March holiday in Goa, are running down the flagstone steps from the cottage. Inge is climbing Ray as if he’s a dockside ladder — ​his knees, his thighs, his shoulders the rungs. Kicking her way up, she forces him down. Water floods his yelling mouth and he gags, digs her clawing grip off his shoulder, fends her off with both hands, flattening her breasts under the one-piece she always wears up here because of Alie, who makes her untypically shy. Nice, she says, I get the pot-belly but not the baby, though it’s not really much of a belly, not compared with his. She surges toward him again. He parries her arms, but her legs pincer around his hips with fantastic strength and she pulls him back down. You’re going to kill us both! Inge! Her face underwater is deathly pale and yet frantically alive, wild eyes unseeing, hair billowing. He grabs at the surface, the light, somehow drags them both back up. He spews out water and gasps. Without thinking or revisiting his father’s crazy advice, he hits her.

The blow misses the jaw — ​the jaw, as if it’s any old jaw, not Inge’s jaw — ​and grazes her cheek. Her eyes open even wider. He has never hit her — ​though a few times recently her charged silence made him wonder if he would have to duck a punch of hers. He has never punched anyone, not since grade school. He forgets whatever technical instruction his father once gave him. Her legs pincer tighter. Feet scrabbling for traction, he swings again. At the same time, she jerks her head sideways, toward the blow, reinforcing it. Fist and jaw meet with a crack and her eyes roll upward. Her leg-grip slackens, her whole body sags. Panting, spitting, he half turns and cradles her torso with his left arm, scooping at the water with his right. “It’s OK. I’ll get us back. I’m sorry. Hang on.” He frog-kicks, hindered by her dragging legs, aiming for the dock where Hugh and Alie now loom, leaning forward, hollering like swim coaches exhorting their athletes on the home stretch.

Inge tenses, twitches as if snapping out of a doze. He looks at her face on his shoulder. Her reopened eyes focus. Her fist leaps out of the water like a fish and she clouts him square in the nose, slipping under after she connects. “Jesus, Inge!” His eyes, already blurred, tear up from the punch. He twists free of her. Hugh and Alie stand staring, hands lax at their sides, as if it’s occurring to them that maybe no one is drowning here, maybe Ray and Inge are just having a fight — ​a real, physical fight, not like a professional couple on a long-weekend getaway but like a pair of locals, those trailer park townies whose bonfire parties at the public beach down the shore so obviously test Hugh and Alie’s liberal tolerance . . . ​All of this he absorbs in a moment as he opens his mouth to call out — ​but then Inge jumps him from behind and hauls him back under. He tears at the pale, magnified hands clamping his rib cage, the rigid fingers with their bitten nails. Around them the water grows darker, colder. Bubbles boil upward in silence, lighting a route back to the surface. Suddenly, already, it looks too far. He could surrender, he could just inhale, it would be less painful, painless, he has heard, but he rips himself free as if from a jammed seat belt in a sinking car and shoots upward.

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Sunlight detonates. His lungs erupt, shooting out water, blood as well, his nostrils hot with blood, his eyes half-blind. She pops up beside him, gagging and coughing. She throws another, limper punch but misses. He is breathing ammonia, briny mucus. She rears toward him again as if to attack, but no, she is churning, sputtering past him on the right, toward the dock, seemingly restored by her rage. He’s furious himself now. Alie is calling in a thick and breaking voice, “It’s all right, you two. Don’t worry. Come on. Just come in!”

Ray keeps coughing, though weakly. He’s still in trouble, in fact, and could probably do with a little help himself. Hugh is tearing off his sarong, crouching, flicking it out so that one end trails in the water like a rope, a few strokes short of Inge’s reach as she labours toward the dock. Hugh should be naked now but isn’t. (Is that underwear?) Beside his splayed feet, Inge’s wineglass still stands. Alie is poised to dive in, but Hugh cups a hand over her kneecap; Inge is managing just enough not to need rescuing. “It’s OK, girl!” Alie says, kneeling down beside Hugh, her voice throbbing. “You’re there!”

Ray’s legs feel heavy as anchors and his pummelling heart skips beats as he side-strokes toward the dock, toward Inge, who now grabs the floating end of the sarong with both hands. Hugh stands up — ​he actually is wearing underwear, baggy white boxers — ​and tows her in. She glances back at Ray. Her stricken gaze might be fixed on a dangerous pursuer or, yearningly, a loved one falling behind in the course of some desperate escape. One of her hands releases the taut sarong as if she means to point, wave, beckon. Alie grabs the free hand and tugs upward; Hugh reaches down as well; Inge is suspended off the end of the dock, continuing to gaze back at him.

It occurred to him later that the crisis, from the moment he realized she was in trouble until he himself was dragged up onto the dock, could not have taken more than three minutes. A few hundred heartbeats. It felt interminable, of course. His memories — ​resolving into vivid fragments, like violent few-second cellphone videos posted on a news site — ​felt hyper-real and indelibly stable, as if exempt from memory’s normal fading and smudging.

But he could not test their accuracy by discussing them with Inge. Her refusal to revisit the crisis — ​their near deaths, their mutual violence, her once-in-a-lifetime relinquishing of all self-control — ​was hardly surprising, especially given what they learned soon afterward. Still, in spite of everything, she surprised him the following year by wanting to return to the lake for their customary long-weekend stay. Hugh, he warned her, would certainly try to discuss the incident and his and Alie’s own roles in it. But Inge was adamant. She seemed to view the return not so much as a form of trauma exorcism but rather as a way of salvaging an important tradition, in a matured, familial form. She meant to swim as much as ever (though in the end, as it turned out, she chose not to go back in at all). As for Hugh and Alie, she realized they could be annoyingly self-satisfied, but they were true friends and that mattered more than ever now.

For the first five years of their marriage, Inge and Ray had tried to have a baby, suffered miscarriages, consulted specialists, and in due course accepted that there would be no children. No way to know if children would have prevented or accelerated the fraying of their marriage over the following three years, leading up to that struggle in the lake. But a few weeks after it, trying to work out the details of a separation, they discovered Inge was pregnant. At first, pending the re-test, she was tense, touchy, guarded, as if she dreaded either outcome; with the second positive, an unqualified joy overcame her, an exultancy that seemed to astonish her as much as her condition. Ray, his two black eyes now faded to yellow, felt himself bumped into the role of designated worrier, the sober, tentative one, although he too felt more pleased by the surprise than he would have predicted. That the summer’s lone interlude of carnality, however mutually satisfying, had resulted in conception — ​a result supposedly impossible — ​made him wonder, ever so slightly, if Hugh could have been responsible.

The boy was born in April. He could not have looked more like Ray. At the cottage in August, their first afternoon, after Hugh and Alie had retired for their nap, Inge, on the dock, unwrapped Isaac and handed him down to Ray, who was standing in the shallows by the tiny beach.

“Inge, are you sure?”

“Don’t be silly, Ray. Go on, let him get the feel of it.”

Ray held his naked son so that the boy faced away from him, out over the lake, Ray’s hands all but encircling the rib cage and feeling the thudding of the tiny heart. He dunked him to his navel. Isaac’s pale legs began frogging promisingly, his whole body writhing as if longing to be released.


Excerpted from Instructions for the Drowning by Steven Heighton. Copyright © the Estate of Steven Heighton, 2023. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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