>

Exploring the art of prose

Menu

Swim by Ambata Kazi-Nance


At just 2,000 words, Ambata Kazi-Nance’s “Swim” reads like a longer story, steeped in the history of its characters. With evocative, well-timed metaphoric imagery (“At night I dream of other waters, black water, knife-like and mercilessly cold, that swallows small boats.”), a commanding voice in young narrator, Sulayman, and effective use of the objective correlative—water representing Sulayman’s fear and memory—Kazi-Nance delivers emotional resonance in this immersive story. The strong opening hooks, then well-chosen details in backstory reveal how Sulayman became Simon (for discussion on naming, voice, and more, see the author’s note). Balanced throughout the story, the microaggressions Sulayman experiences provide resounding context and commentary on contemporary historical and political reckonings. By the time we reach the end, we’re right there on the beach beside our MC, moved by his interaction with his new six-year-old sister, standing at her side as he steps into the sea.  —CRAFT

 

I am the last to see the water. I look up only when John Jr. and Grace stop singing, their voices sucked up suddenly like they’ve been swallowed by a vacuum. Ms. Laura turns from the front passenger seat and gives me her accordion smile, all the lines in her face folding in, her big white teeth flashing. Her eyes are the same color as the water; they both scare me.

We crest the hill and the beach appears, the blue of water and sky almost melting into each other. I have an almost violent urge to pee. Mr. John presses down on the brake, but still we roll too quickly forward down the hill, like we are going to drive right into the water. Ms. Laura lays a hand on Mr. John’s forearm, John Jr. and Grace glance at each other, wide-eyed.


This family has a pool. Ms. V at the foster home had presented this fact to me as the golden ticket. “They have two children, an eleven-year-old boy just like you, aa-and,” she sang, “they have a pool.” She told me this as she helped me pack my clothes in the green duffle bag she’d bought me. “Top secret,” she whispered when she gave it to me. Her eyes, buried underneath inky black hair that sprang out from her head and hooded her face, were shiny brown like honey, and so was her skin. She was round and soft and smelled like bread when she hugged me goodbye. Ms. V had been the only one to talk to me at the home, but still I let her go first, escaping her warmth.

I used many excuses to avoid getting into the pool. I have a stomachache; the sun hurts my eyes; just one more chapter in my book. I was reading a book about a boy with no parents who learns he is a wizard and goes away to a wizarding school. The boy looked more like the McNally family than like me, and he lived in a world that was equally foreign, but still I liked the story and wished for a magic broom to fly away on. Though, unlike the boy in the story, I had nowhere to fly to. I had only the first book, but I read it over and over.

“Simon’s still reading that same book,” John Jr. told his mother one afternoon while we sat in the living room.

He was sprawled on the sofa watching a cartoon. Grace lay on her belly in front of the television, holding two dolls facing each other, mouthing a silent dialogue between them. Ms. Laura, sitting with her legs crossed in the armchair across from me, put her own book down in her lap to answer him.

“Well sweetie, it might be hard for him, he might not be a strong reader like you,” she said, though I had yet to see John Jr. read anything other than a cereal box. Neither of them looked at me as they spoke.

Later, at the dinner table, after Ms. Laura finished talking about the hard time she was having finding a caterer for the school fundraiser, a long story to which Mr. John responded with grunts and nods, I asked if I might be able to get a library card. They stopped eating; four yellow-haired heads turned to me, confused, squinting eyes, eyebrows meeting together. Usually only Ms. Laura talked and asked questions at the table.

“Hm,” was all she said, and turned back to her food.

“I don’t like the water,” I told her, when she finally cornered me before our beach trip.

“Silly,” she said, patting my head. “Everybody likes water.”

She said the ocean would be different.

“I bet you’ve never seen an ocean before. The beach will change your mind.”


At night I dream of other waters, black water, knife-like and mercilessly cold, that swallows small boats. In my sleep my toes curl around invisible sand. I wake and try to recite the prayer my mother and father taught me, the one for protection, but the only words I can catch like feathers floating in air are ya hayyul, ya kayyum. I try to pray the way they taught me, dropping to my knees, pressing my forehead into the floor, fumbling through the few words I still possess. I am forgetting so much: the sound of my mother’s voice calling my name, the powdery smell of my baby sister’s skin, my father’s rough palm warm on my cheek; but the water, the water I never forget.


The salt in the air seizes my stomach. The ocean rolls in my belly. I keep my eyes down as we trudge through the sand. My heels sink into it. I lift my knees up high and smash my feet down, embracing the tug on my ankles. I imagine each step pulling me deeper and deeper into the sand. Ankles, then knees, then waist, elbows, shoulders, head. They will march on and by the time they realize I am not with them, I’ll be gone. “Where’s Simon? Where’s Simon?” I’ll hear before the sand fills my ears.

We walk, Ms. Laura in the lead, until she stops and turns to Mr. John.

“Here?” she asks.

He bobs his head in response. Mr. John doesn’t talk much.

He and Grace lay out beach towels in the sand. John Jr. unfolds chairs. Ms. Laura kneels on a towel and rummages through her big canvas tote bag with “BEACH, PLEASE” stamped in wavy letters across the front.

“Come here kids,” she says, pulling a bottle of sunscreen out of the bag, a wide-brimmed straw hat now balanced on her head.

We stand in a line like at school, Grace, John Jr., me. John Jr. looks back at me, his eyes watery. He looks at my skin and scrunches his eyebrows together, his lips curled.

“Move back some,” he says.

I shuffle my feet but don’t move. Ms. Laura squirts big dollops of the cream into her palm and slathers it onto Grace and John Jr. The white cream melts into their skin, leaving a thick sheen. After she finishes with John Jr., I step up but she has already closed the bottle and put it away. She rubs remnants of the cream into her hands and looks up at me, her eyes hidden behind black frames.

“Don’t I need some too?” I ask.

Ms. Laura turns to Mr. John, who squints at my chest and shrugs.

“Well, okay,” she says, handing me the bottle.

I rub and rub but the cream leaves gray streaks all over my skin, like ash but shiny. I look to Ms. Laura, my arms sticking out in front of me, but she turns away and starts rummaging through her bag. John Jr. races to the water.

“Be careful!” Ms. Laura shouts to his fleeing back. “That boy,” she mutters.

He pumps his legs and runs straight in, throwing himself at a small wave that has come to meet him. He disappears into it, then reemerges, his hair plastered to his scalp. He stands up, his body slick as a fish, and waves in our direction. He smiles in a way I’ve never seen from him, his whole face opening up. Ms. Laura and Grace wave back.

“Daddy,” Grace says, extending her hand.

Mr. John takes her hand and walks with her to the shore. He is gentle, folding his large torso down to hold her hand, shortening his strides to match her dainty ones. Grace stops when the water reaches her toes, hopping over it before it disappears into the sand. She looks up at her father and smiles. I can’t see his face but I know he smiles back. I look away, feeling like I’ve seen something I shouldn’t.

I sit down on a towel next to Ms. Laura, who sits in a folding chair, a sarong tied around the waist of her bathing suit. Her long pale legs are stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles, her toenails a creamy pale pink like cake frosting. She flips absently through a magazine. I slide my book out of my bag and open it; the words are so familiar now I can recite lines without looking at the page. Ms. Laura sniffs and turns her profile towards me.

“Simon, you know eventually you’re going to have to get in the water. Otherwise I’m going to have to throw you in myself.”

She smiles when she says it, but there’s no laughter in her voice.

“Yes, Ms. Laura,” I say.

Now she turns her whole body to me, and lifts her sunglasses up to look at me.

“You should start calling me Mom now, Simon.”

I look into her giddy, bottomless eyes. My mouth floods with saliva. I blink and look to the sea. The water is calm. The waves rise up slowly, then collapse.

Mr. John returns. Only his hairy calves are wet. I get up and walk over to Grace, who sits close to the shore shoveling wet sand into a bucket. I kneel next to her. This is the first time since I came to the McNally’s two months ago that I have been alone with her.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi,” I say back.

“Do you want to build sand castles with me?” she asks.

I shake my head. She shrugs and continues piling sand in her bucket.

“My name isn’t Simon,” I say.

Grace pushes stray hairs off her face with the back of her hand, leaving a streak of wet sand across her cheek. She looks at me. She is six years old, about the same age my baby sister would be.

“It’s not?” she asks, tilting her head to the side.

“My name was—is—Sulayman.”

“Su-la—Su-lee…” she tries.

“Sulayman,” I say again. “You can just say Simon, though. That’s what I became at the foster home, to make it easier.”

“Su-lay-man,” she says slowly.

She raises her eyebrows. The hairs are so light and thin they shine white in the sun. The same as the hair on her head.

“I come from a place called Somalia,” I say.

I don’t know why I am telling her this, but it feels good. The words, so long unspoken, are warm in my mouth.

“Where is that?” she asks, her voice a whisper.

“Far away from here,” I say, the only truth I know.

I plunge my hands into the wet sand, grabbing fistfuls. I scoop them into Grace’s bucket. I rub what remains into my forearms and over my head. Somewhere else, the sand can be used to purify.

I stand and walk to the shore. The water curls around my toes. It is warm and welcoming, it does not cut. It licks my thighs and my throat closes up. I swallow and continue on. Waist, elbows, shoulders, neck, only my head above.

Once I tore a picture from a newspaper lying on a chair at the foster home. It was a picture I had seen several times on the news, and glimpsed from the screen of Ms. V’s phone as she sat frozen, her thumb hovering over the image. A little boy on a beach, lying face down in the wet sand, arms at his sides. It was his arms, his small arms limp and lifeless, that told me his story. I kept the picture under my pillow for weeks, carried it with me tucked into the waistband of my pants.

A wave rises in the distance. I sink deeper into the water, it touches the corners of my mouth.

“Simon! Simon!”

Ms. Laura. I ignore her and push out further.

“Su-lay-man!”

I whip around. Mother?

Grace. Legs splayed, torso bent forward, hands balled into mighty fists.

“Su-lay-man!”

I turn back and forth from the shore to the water.

“Su-lay-man!”

The wave comes. I brace myself and let it pick me up and push me toward the shore. I rise with it and swim.

 


AMBATA KAZI-NANCE is a writer, editor, and teacher born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. Her writing has been featured in Midnight & Indigo, Peauxdunque Review, Cordella, Ellipsis, and Mixed Company, and is forthcoming in Muslim Writers at Home, an anthology of writing by Muslim writers on homeland and identity. She currently resides in the California Bay Area with her husband and son. She can be found on Instagram @ambatakn musing about books, writing, and life.

 

Author’s Note

I don’t often write stories in first person, and hardly ever in the present tense, but both felt right and true for this story. First person, to me, means this particular character’s voice is unique and matters greatly for the story. Who’s telling the story must matter as much as the story being told.

This story originated from a name, Simon, given to me on a slip of paper at a writers’ workshop. The name made me think about the Arabic name, Sulayman, which actually translates as Solomon in English. A hazy image began to emerge of a boy named Sulayman who has somehow become Simon. I wanted to know who this boy was and what happened to him that made him lose his birth name, a name with religious and cultural significance for Muslims.

I have a fascination with names and the ritual of naming, the stories and histories behind people’s names. I was thinking about the theme of naming in Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon. Our names aren’t just what we are called. They have meanings, literal, spiritual, and generational, that connect us with our ancestral history and heritage. To lose your name, or have it forgotten by your descendants, is to lose the story of who you are and where you came from.

Sulayman is losing himself, piece by piece, clinging to faint memories to hold on. He has to tell this story, and he has to tell it now, in the present, in the moment that might be his last. Sulayman’s voice is the voice of a child who hasn’t been a child for some time. He’s seen and endured things no child ever should, and his tragic experiences have shaped the way he sees things, and the depth with which he interprets people and the things they say. He sees the McNally family in ways they likely don’t even see themselves.

In working to capture Sulayman’s voice and perspective, I had to consider what he would reveal and what he would withhold. He would be more willing to share what happens to him, what people say to or about him, but less so how these words and actions make him feel. Separated from his family and homeland, he doesn’t exist in a world where his feelings matter to anyone. He’s gotten used to blocking them from even developing, which I see in his willingness to let go of Ms. V when she hugs him goodbye, and his turning away from Grace and her father’s special moment at the beach.

The greatest withholding happens at the end, when he immerses himself in the ocean water. Does he plan to drown himself, or is it a courage-building exercise? Does he believe he can somehow swim back to his homeland, or return to the night his family drowned and save them or die with them? Is he choosing life or death? We can’t know for sure because he doesn’t know for sure. What we do know is that hearing his true name called across the water by Grace gives him something he desperately needs. There’s a proverb about how a person can die two deaths, one when they leave this world, and the second and final being when their name is no longer spoken. By revealing his given name to Grace, and having Grace call him back to the shore with it, his name, his life, and his story are revived.

 


AMBATA KAZI-NANCE is a writer, editor, and teacher born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. Her writing has been featured in Midnight & Indigo, Peauxdunque Review, Cordella, Ellipsis, and Mixed Company, and is forthcoming in Muslim Writers at Home, an anthology of writing by Muslim writers on homeland and identity. She currently resides in the California Bay Area with her husband and son. She can be found on Instagram @ambatakn musing about books, writing, and life.