Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of three books, most recently the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). His stories can be found in WhiskeyPaper, decomP, New World Writing, PANK, Monkeybicycle, DOGZPLOT, and elsewhere. He was cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016.
1 story by Sheldon Lee Compton
Drowning the Witch
Shy Anthony was laughing because I killed him. He and the others laughed lowly and from a distance somewhere in the deep black. Anyone hearing them would likely wonder why they were so happy. But I knew them, and they have every reason to celebrate.
I stood at the railing along the pier with my elbows stuck in place, chin in my hands. I had never been in the ocean and for good reason. I couldn’t swim. Nightfall, at least, spared me the anxiety of actually seeing very much below. I counted to ten, held my breath, and jumped in one clean motion, a lanky shadow falling fast into the mouth of a larger shadow. The water was colder than I expected and I immediately sucked in a mouthful and lost most of my air in one violent cough. I checked the four large stones stuffed into the pockets of my dress to make sure none had fallen out. They were there, two on each side.
In the weeks prior, I read a lot of material on drowning, all of which flew spitfire out of my mind less than one second after my body hit the water.
I forgot it is easier to drown in freshwater than saltwater because freshwater more closely resembles the composition of our own blood.
I forgot about delayed drowning, a rare occurrence where a person can inhale just enough water to fill their lungs but still be able to walk, talk, and be generally fine until, seemingly out of nowhere, they drown, because they had inhaled just enough water to slowly drain the oxygen from their lungs.
What I did remember, though, was shy Anthony and the others. I focused so clearly on them I could almost disregard the fear leaving my body in a sonic boom of panicked energy. My heart struck so hard and so fast it nearly collapsed in on itself.
Shoooop CLUD shoooooop CLUD clud.
The power rush of my blood cleared the way for names I hadn’t thought of in years.
Jimmy Steadman. Age 12.
Catherine Einstein. Age 11.
Benjamin James Sommers. Age 4.
Ming-Na Eng. Age 14.
Donovan Riley. Age 11.
And more names. And photoflash glimpses of sweet memories.
Nester Karlsson. Strangled with wire, weighted with concrete blocks, dropped in a pond half a mile from her home. Age 10.
Casey Andrew Smith. Beheaded, dismembered, left where he fell. Age 7.
András Csonka. Hanged, cut in half, dissolved in hydrochloric acid, and taken to a secluded abattoir for disposal. Age 12.
Afanasiy Konstantinov. Fatally shot, buried on a hillside nine feet deep. Age 9.
Jerry Stockholm. Throat sliced, dismembered, dissolved in hydrochloric acid, dumped in the Ohio River. Age 11.
These are the names of the faces that slither out at me from the kitchen sink and bite the bed sheets around my feet in the middle of the night. There are more children, but I can't remember their names, only their faces. Everywhere, Everywhere. Before hearing them laugh I used to turn their names like pebbles over and over in my head. I thought of them a lot like this, as things collected privately. I thought of them while eating my soft eggs for breakfast and while walking in the sun. I saw their twisted mouths and wide eyes on the underside of leaves, beneath park benches, pushing up through the root systems of large trees. Everywhere, their faces.
But I think I know when the laughing started. It had to have been shy Anthony, my last boy. His shyness, his absolute innocence, offended me most of all. This more than anything rattled my sensibilities while I followed him to the tiny townhouse where he lived. Normally, there was some other trait or imagined slight that offended me and turned the switch on, but not with shy Anthony. It was the way he checked his parent’s mailbox with such care and sense of duty on the stoop before taking his spare key and unlocking the front door, holding himself with a mature poise. It was unbearable, and I knew I would follow him in.
He stepped into the apartment pretty as you please, shut the front door behind him. I waited, listening to the shoop clud of blood rush. On the stoop, the air where he had just stood still smelled of the evening sun baked onto his skin, how it mixed with his sweat to create a musk he would have carried with him throughout life, the odor his wife would have found familiar after a time as it lingered on bed sheets. I took in this scent deeply and my blood took power again shoooop CLUD shoooooop CLUD clud.
When I grabbed shy Anthony at the throat, he didn’t struggle. That’s what I recall most clearly. I curled my fingers at the back of his neck and pressed my thumbs into the front of his throat and his eyes went soft as a lover’s gaze. Far below the surface of the water, his face at that moment years and years ago broke my resolve and I clawed the stones from the pockets of my dress while kicking in large arcs the way I’d seen swimmers do. When the last of the extra weight was gone, I started to pinwheel my arms with no idea whether or not it made any difference.
I forgot about the instinctive drowning response, the way the body reacts when drowning. It’s not the way it’s shown on television. Instead, a person goes very still and floats vertically with the surface of the water, head back and mouth hanging open.
I forgot about deep water blackout. When you free-dive and the oxygen left in the lungs is enough to keep you conscious while dropping but then fails as you ascend resulting in hypoxia.
That’s when I heard it. Shy Anthony and all the others. Crying now, wailing, gnashing their teeth in the watery darkness. I began to remember things forgotten, and I laughed as my shoulders broke the surface.
I remembered to stay calm and not panic.
I remembered that keeping your arms beneath the surface displaces more water and improves buoyancy.
I remembered that floating was easy.