This is how it works. With my marathon over, this month’s project is a short story a day. Each day, I will take a writing prompt from the frontpage of reddit.com. There is no length limit and as this is a writing exercise, I will try my best to write something worth reading, and will invest in your comments, but make no guarantees (not that I ever do) as to the quality of my work. Enjoy!
I had a penpal when I was seven: Jeremy from Rochester, New York. I learned what a penpal was years later, when I came to the U.S. on a student visa. As a child, Jeremy was just another English lesson, a trick given by the unhappy teacher in our regional school.
The morning we got our first letters (there were only two), we could tell something was different in the classroom. Instead of writing our English words on the board in clean, big letters, our teacher handed out crumpled pieces of paper with shaky, smudged lettering. I panicked, for a second, thinking that it was a piece of homework that I had done. Any work that was smudged earned us a scolding and an opportunity to redo it twice. But the paper had only been used once, so it wasn’t mine, or any of my classmates. What a waste, I thought.
Usually, we had to carefully copy whatever the teacher wrote on the board onto our paper, and then read it in measured tones back to her until she was satisfied with everyone’s pronunciation. Today, she wrote nothing on the board, and gave us our own pieces of new paper from her special notebook, which no one was ever allowed to touch.
We were told to read the letter, and then write about our lives. If there was a word we didn’t know, she would write it on the board.
Jeremy was my age, 8, and he was learning to swim. He didn’t like the water, but his father said it was important. His bathing suit was blue and he was worried about sharks. He was stupid and his handwriting was terrible Some of the letter I couldn’t read, so I brought it to the teacher. She looked at it a long time, frowning, then said to just copy down the words I could make out and make sure I wrote neater than that. I stood fidgeting while I watched her carefully fold and tear my piece of paper out of her notebook. Someone else in the class finished, and stood behind me, idly poking me in the back, waiting for her to check his work.
She handed me my piece of paper, and I took it after wiping my hand against my pants, gingerly grasping it between thumb and forefinger. I walked slowly, almost afraid the paper was going to tear if I walked too fast, and partly to show off. Everyone else was still working, and stared at the clean, white paper I held in my hand.
I wiped my desk off again, and sat down. I looked at the paper, deciding what to write. I had to tell him how old I was, how many brothers and sisters I had. My parents names were Amma and Baba, and nothing more. I could tell him about my grandparents, or what my brothers did, or my favorite bedtime story, the teacher said. But I wanted to tell him something short. If I was careful, I could use less than half a page, and maybe the teacher would let me save the other half for another assignment.
I decided I’d tell him about the time I learned to swim: that was easy. I never learned how to swim. In fact, until he mentioned it, I thought it was something everyone could do, like breathing or walking. There wasn’t much to say, so I told him about the time thatmy father tried to teach me to fish.
We went out in the boat with two brothers. He told me to stay in the boat while they grabbed the spear gun and they put on the goggles they held together with bits of twine. As we sat in the hot sun, the smell of fish leaking from the boat’s bottom, they leaned over the sides of the boat, putting their faces in the water, unconsciously shifting to balance each other as the boat rocked.
When they got to the spot they wanted, my two brothers slipped over the sides of the boat, and disappeared into the water. My father looked back and glared at me, told me to watch carefully. Then he took two quick breaths and then a deep one, and slipped over the side after them.
I looked over the boat to watch the bright white soles of his feet get smaller and murkier, and then I could see almost nothing. I looked out into the blue sky, and back towards the shore. I could see some of the girls running along the treeline and a group where the old men usually gathered in the shade.
I waited. Looking back at the sky, I needed to squint, it was so bright and hot. They were taking so long I started to think that they were playing a trick on me, and had swum back to shore. I looked at the stains where yesterdays fish had been left lying, at the splinters in the wood, and where it was rubbed smooth on the seats. There was sandy water at the center of the boat, and it rocked with the water.I looked back to shore, scanning to see their swimming heads, getting nervous that they had forgotten about me.
I wanted to row back, when with a burst of air, my brother appeared about 15 feet from the side of the boat, and just after him, a little bit further out, another two heads appeared, laughing and brandishing fish on the end of their spears. My father swam back to the boat, and threw his fish in. He looked at me, and told me it was my turn, and not to come back with out a fish.
I looked down in the water, hesitating. It was so far, I knew. My brothers always boasted that it took them hours to get to the bottom, and they–my father told me to stop thinking, grabbed me by the neck, and pulled me in. I looked at him, surprised, but he was already climbing back into the boat. He would ignore me until I obeyed, so I took a deep breath and dove.
Down I swam, the water quickly got colder, and it got darker, but I’d dove before, so I expected that. My ears popped and then they started to hurt, I looked back and I could still see my brothers’ faces, watching me. I hadn’t gone far. I wanted air, but I had to catch a fish first. I couldn’t breath, and everything was being squeezed, my arms moved so slow, and water was leaking into the goggles, stinging my eyes. I was going to die, I knew, but I squeezed my eyes closed and kept swimming, feeling everything burn, ache.
My hand touched something cool, solid. With surprise, I forgot my fear for a second, and looked around. There was nothing, not even the rocky outcrop where the fish hid. I was lost. With this new horror, I remembered I needed breath. I looked up, to where it was barely light, and decided to just say I didn’t see any fish, which was sort of true, even though I had barely looked.
I pushed off, and swam frantically, using up what little air I had left. I told myself to calm down, but I didn’t listen, either, how much longer could this go? The water started getting warmer and lighter, I could see the boat off in the distance. I thought I was there, I told myself I was there, and the air I’d been holding blew out of my lungs with such force I could hold it in my mouth. I breathed, in, but got nothing but warm salt water, it burned my mouth, my throat, and as I broke into the air I coughed, spasming as I tried to force the water back out my flaming throat.
I was too weak to swim, and I could hear my brother’s laughing as they motored towards me. I floated back, still coughing, and they grabbed my arms and started to pull me in. I took two breaths, and then vomited all over the bottom of the boat, on the fish they had caught. They shouted and jumped back, cursing at me. My father let go of the rudder and reached out to cuff both of them on the neck, to leave me alone, and rinse off the fish, that neither of them had dove so far when they first tried, and they cried as well as vomited. If they didn’t shut up, he warned, he’d tell everyone in the village about the first time they dove.
He looked at me, and nodded.
I didn’t have anything more to write to Jeremy, but when I looked down, I cursed myself quietly: I had used almost the entire page. I’d written my first story. I checked carefully the spelling, and erased some of the smudges my pencil made, and handed it to the teacher. She looked at it and smiled, glad I had used the whole page.