Issue 115, Summer 1990
He doesn’t know how to swim; he’s more like an elf than a water sprite. And still, he loves the water. Ever since Lord Byron and he rented the boat, they’ve gone out on the lake almost every afternoon, braving the storms. In the past few weeks the rain generally begins fairly late. During the day the sky darkens with clouds, which get thicker and thicker, and the storm breaks in the late afternoon. Every evening the two navigators return soaked to the skin, enchanted by the risks they have taken, singing refrains with incomprehensible words at the top of their lungs, which Byron claims are Albanian songs. Albania, where he had traveled in the past, and where the pasha of Janina complimented him on his hands and ears— the most delicate he’d ever seen—often comes up in his conversation. He praises the climate, the gentle ways and liberal morals of its inhabitants (to shock Claire, he boasts of having seduced children who hadn’t even reached puberty), he flaunts the rank of colonel given to him by the Albanian army, and describes his grand uniform. It’s precisely for this reason that Percy and Mary nicknamed him Albé, L.B., also standing for his initials.
A water sprite incapable of swimming, she repeats to herself. And she? She knows how to swim; she had learned quite young. It had been one of her father’s many educational principles that Percy now teases her about, having once made such a fuss over them — but in his own way, with none of Albé’s cynicism. If one thinks about Percy’s person, it is even strange to try and comprehend his total absence of spitefulness. It is as though, he lacked one of his senses: he knows no more how to be malicious than how to swim, and couldn’t master the necessary technique, even if his life depended on it. He is able to hurt people, all the same.
So Mary knows how to swim, but isn’t terribly fond of the water. She’s afraid of it, more for Percy than for herself. Every day at the same time —at precisely this hour—she imagines him drowning, getting thrown overboard, carried off by a wave and passively allowing himself to sink without a struggle. These fears amuse Percy. Come to think of it, she wonders whether this isn’t in fact a form of spitefulness—the only one accessible to him —jesting about it that way. He even enjoys frightening her. Percy, who can’t bear to hurt people, loves to scare them. He knows that she’s afraid of the water, and whenever he teases her, will ask if she had also been afraid in Dover.
It’s always Dover, always that memory. It had happened two years ago, only a few days after he had stolen her away from the home of old Godwin. It was the first time they had left England together (and already, Claire was along with them). Days of riding in the coach, bags that barely closed, flea-ridden country inns, days of wild happiness. In Dover, they had waited for the boat to Calais. It was summer—an English summer—which tonight, all of a sudden, is something she misses. The beach was only a narrow strip of pebbles. They gained access to it by climbing over a freshly painted white fence that had stained Mary’s dress. She took it off and rinsed it in the sea to get rid of the two large white stripes; then at Percy’s request, who was grinning like a child, she got completely undressed and went in for a swim. Now, stretched on the chaise longue, her writing desk open before her, she distinctly remembers the exquisite, cold sensation of entering the water. The feeling of the stones beneath her feet, their sharp edges, how she had shivered when she had gone in up to the waist, and what her genitalia had looked like. Her patchy blond fleece inflated like a sponge, as if it were no longer a part of her. Then she had moved in as far as her breasts and armpits. Her loose hair floated around her shoulders; she hadn’t cared about getting it wet. Once in the water, she glanced back at Percy, who had also undressed, and was plowing through the little waves to join her. Since he was taller than she, he could still touch bottom where she was swimming, and they made love. He had been carrying her, standing with his feet planted as firmly as possible in the sand that was slipping between his toes and under his heels, and that had slid out from under him so quickly that they were suddenly in the open sea, without realizing it. It was only once she opened her eyes after the orgasm that she was able to gauge the distance they had covered, and then realized that Percy could no longer touch bottom, that his sole anchor was not the ground, but inside of her. And now that he had emptied himself—a hot stream had erupted in her belly and the whitish threads, fine and sticky like gossamer, had merged with the foam all around them —now that Percy was about to withdraw his member from her, nothing else was holding him up. He would sink and drown. Apparently he still hadn’t realized it himself, or else he hadn’t been disturbed by the prospect. She feared that she wasn’t strong enough to bring him back to shore, and above all, that he would panic, like anyone who doesn’t know how to swim, vainly splashing about, hanging on to her and hindering her movement. In a case like that, she had been told that the only solution was to knock the struggling swimmer unconscious, or plunge his head underwater. It is easier to haul in an unconscious body than a floundering monster whose uncoordinated gestures interfere with the rescue. For a moment she had pictured herself hitting Percy with all her might, while he was still unaware of the danger, smiling dreamily with half-closed eyes. She had imagined the look he would give her, and the crazy idea that might pass through his head before he swallowed a mouthful of water. Mary, with whom he had just made love, wanted to kill him; she had always wanted to kill him; she had followed him and pretended to love him merely to arrive at this point, so that she could murder him with impunity at the moment he least expected it—assuming that a moment could ever exist in which he might have expected it more. Horrified that a thought such as this, dictated by an obvious misinterpretation, could possibly arise in Percy’s mind, even fleetingly, she had suddenly felt drained of all her strength. She closed her eyes. A violent pain throbbed at her temples; she had felt a dizziness behind her forehead and over her brow, burning into her brain; her ears pulsated with blood. Then she heard a long scream, a strange, sustained note coming out of her mouth. And at the same time—since she could hear it—she reentered the world of sound, obliterated a moment earlier. Behind the sound of her scream, was the distinct and gentle lapping of waves on the pebbles, and the waves breaking against her bare flanks, the moving pebbles digging into her back. The cries of sea gulls. She had opened her eyes onto the circle of sun, as close to her as the eye of another person. Then she had closed them, reopened them —she was on the beach. Percy, leaning over her, was massaging her shoulders and looking at her as if he didn’t know what to do, as if astonished by the situation and reduced to this useless and awkward gesture. She had fainted in the water, in his arms, he told her later. Out of pleasure, he thought, and she hadn’t corrected him. Besides, perhaps he was right, perhaps it had all gone through her mind at the moment of orgasm.