When We Drowned by Leigh Camacho Rourks
Leigh Comacho Roarks’ When We Drowned is the third-place winner of the 2021 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, judged by Masie Cochran of Tin House.
When We Drowned opens with catastrophe—the setting, character, and circumstance shrouded in mystery and pending disaster. We find Rana, a young girl who cannot speak (a recent loss) or walk, stranded in the grass during what appears to be an earthquake or other cataclysmic event. From these harrowing opening pages, we move back in time two months and oscillate between characters in a choral narrative that promises to reveal the mysteries surrounding a family full of secrets. The voices and the setting of South Louisiana ring true and invite the reader into a story that is wet, dark, and dangerous. —Masie Cochran
Rana cannot speak. She’s eight years old, but Rana is incapable of yelling out to her sister that a smell—a smell not quite like gasoline spilling from the undercarriage of a rusted out four-wheeler, a smell darker and heavier than that—is choking her. It is a black smell. It burns her nose. It lays across her tongue in a crude slick. It’s so strong it hides the tangy rot from a pile of fish on the bank, a pile abandoned by their father after cleaning a catch he’d illegally shocked from the bayou’s depths, the catfish all mushed and crawling now.
The black smell is that strong, able to cover wet death and rot.
Neither of Rana’s older siblings are nearby. Her eyes roll, but she does not find Luli. Cannot find where in the surrounding woods she has disappeared as she hunts for their missing brother Bub.
Just months ago, Rana could have yelled that the ground where she sits in the grass moves—it moves beneath her thighs.
It rocks. It slides.
It feels like she is being pulled in jerks on a blanket, sort of like a terrible version of a game they play in the trailer, where Bub sleds her around corners on an old quilt and Luli screams to be careful.
Except Rana is all alone.
She cannot speak, but she has not forgotten being able to bellow out words, to make herself heard. Sitting in the stinking, bucking dirt, knowing she could have once called for help—it infuriates her.
People see her, in her wheelchair or the wagon her family sometimes uses to shuttle her about, and they imagine she is not much more than a doll. Empty.
But Rana is not empty.
The ground is becoming soft, sinking mush like the fish on the bank.
She wonders if this is what an earthquake is—the land in a constant state of becoming.
Becoming mobile. Becoming wet. Becoming not ground at all, but a soggy monster pitching Rana over her tender, doubled legs.
She cannot scream for help.
But she is no doll. And she begins to crawl forward on strong willed arms.
Collapsing only when she sees the body, pearlescent and bloated and splayed like so much swamp garbage.
(Two months earlier)
CHAPTER 1: LULI
It’s the middle of summer and unbearably hot. The Chevy Nova Luli waits for is late. She’s tired of squatting in the bushes, craning her neck to watch an empty road. She is ten days from eighteen and thick around the edges. Her legs are strong and accustomed to work, but they are starting to cramp. She shifts. Pulls at her cutoffs. Slaps mosquito after mosquito from her shoulders, her arms, her face, her scalp. She isn’t sure if she is better off in the full muggy, buggy grip of the overgrowth or just outside it, balancing on that little strip of concrete between lowland brush and asphalt, where the sun burns sweat to salt just as soon as it appears.
Either way, she’s sick of spending her life making the choice between shit and shit.
This morning, Bonnie, her mother, insisted she come out here. Do this stupid, stupid thing for the family. Again. Bonnie tapped her ragged nails on the linoleum and quieted her deep voice instead of raising it. A sure sign of hell-to-pay if Luli pushes too hard.
Which she did.
Luli shakes the argument from her thoughts. She needs to concentrate. Get her head right and good. The man driving her parents’ Chevy Nova will be tipsy. Bonnie will have slipped a drink or two into his hand while he circled the car. She’ll have acted dumb, desperate so that the man is confident, that he is the one hustling the poor, uneducated swamp rats.
Car like that. Priced like it is. They must be a couple of rubes.
The buyer wouldn’t notice Bonnie and White deliberately liquoring him up. He’ll sip absently as they chatter around him, oblivious to the way the drinks refill themselves. He won’t worry about the dents in the Nova’s hood, dents that fit the curve of a small, thick shoulder. He will barely glance at the notch above the right headlight from the time two years ago when Luli’s back hit wrong and her crying hadn’t been faked.
This is what Luli’s role is in the family. She gets hit.
And she is fucking good at it.
The Nova is beautiful, but it isn’t exactly cherry. The thing is, the car is rare. A ’68 SS with a 396 big block that White claims he won on a trick shot bet over in Natchez when he was seventeen. The same year he married Bonnie.
While Luli waits in the bushes, the guy back at the house, the buyer, will be oblivious to her parents circling him while he circles their very, very underpriced gem.
Vultures, the three of them.
He’ll be tipsy at best. Drunk at worst. He might slow down the Nova when Luli lunges in front of it, but he might speed up. Might even stop in time. No way to be sure.
But, Luli repeats to herself, she is good at this. She is great. White, her pop, would even say she’s the best.
He’d started her on an old trampoline he’d scavenged when Luli was maybe five. Maybe younger. Teaching her how to be fast, limber. How to twist in the air. How to fall. Making it fun. Other kids went to soccer or T-ball or gymnastics. Luli went to White’s school of slip and fall. House of fuck ‘The Man’ and fuck whoever White thought might be ‘The Man,’ maybe even anyone who sat next to ‘The Man,’ who voted for ‘The Man,’ or anybody at all who was better off than White and his brood and therefore obviously in cahoots with ‘The Man.’
She was Pop’s star pupil back then.
After all, Bub wasn’t made for this part of the family business, and Rana was, well, Rana.
There is a small noise, far off, and Luli’s head snaps up. She lowers her body.
The chittering whine of the Nova’s loose fan belt zips through the air. She pumps her legs to get feeling back but stays as low as she can. Mostly out of sight. She tenses her calves. The big rocks she wedged in the front right tire tread click toward her. The noise is at first easy to mistake for ambient sound but grows. Bonnie’s radio station pours down the road.
First rule: Know when the hit is coming.
Second rule: Control your body.
The key here is to jump at just the right moment so you land high on the hood, miss the grill. The key is to turn your body just so, make sure your soft spots are safe. It is to relax because tight muscles equal broken bones. It’s a shot of liquid courage—cheap whiskey or vodka or rum, whatever you like—long enough before you hop the curb and step in front of an oncoming car so the booze can do its thing, turn your body to rubber and let you bounce.
The key is to close your eyes and call on the Mother Mary and see her light and step right into the warmth of her voice and tell no one ever that you think you talk to the wife and momma of God himself.
That you hallucinate.
Luli closes her eyes. The Mother smells like peach cobbler and jasmine blooms and tells Luli everything, everything today and tomorrow and the day after and the one after that will be okay.
The Mother sometimes lies.
Luli launches out of the bushes. Sneakers hit the road. Knees bend. And then she is flying and The Mother is humming Pearl Jam and everything is light and good and then Luli hits the hood of the Chevy Nova and there is noise like dough hitting a kitchen counter, a solid noise, and then The Mother is gone and then there is the spin and the road and the tight, familiar pain.
“Temporary pain,” White will say. “Everything is temporary, baby, except the fun.”
That’s what White always says as he checks her over for breaks among the bruises, when he puts the ice then heat on her aches.
But for now, she screams. She makes herself scream.
In the real world, the world outside of the con, Luli never screams or cries. In the real world, when Luli is hurt she clams the hell up. But for the benefit of the guy, the buyer, panicked and stepping out of her parent’s Nova, she screams bloody murder.
“Holy crap, holy hell, holy shit!” That is Bonnie’s voice. Momma. She won’t mention to the man that Luli is her oldest daughter. They don’t really look alike. Bonnie is taller, bonier, hair a little darker, skin a little darker.
The guy is a white dude. A gringo in a leather jacket. And he is hyperventilating, cool slipping out of him with each breath. “Crap. Crap,” he says. “Are you—” but he stops himself, “Hey kid, what the hell were you thinking?” He’s scared, not mad, and he has a nice deep voice, even if he tries to blame her for the accident. She can see the sweat and shake of panic spread across him and feels bad. But she pulls herself together, finds her own anger, her courage. Only a douche goes on like that without even checking if the person they hit is okay.
Still his voice is nice.
Luli heaves her chest and wails.
“You hit her.” Bonnie again. It’s a script. Luli knows all the parts. She fights the urge to mouth along with her mother. Instead, she keeps her eyes closed tight, tight, but she knows Bonnie is pulling out her phone. Taking pictures of the guy.
“Hey, what are you doing?” His voice roars like a train.. It’s deeper than any voice she has ever heard. It’s like a tornado. Like maybe if she stayed very still and Bonnie shut the hell up and the birds and toads and crickets stopped chirping, she could hear his voice in her chest and not just her ears. That deep.
If she were another girl, she’d hear that voice in a café or behind her in line at the movies and try to flirt. But she isn’t.
Her head hurts and she is having trouble concentrating. But she didn’t hit it on the fall. She is positive.
Third rule: Protect your brain pan. Always.
Bonnie keeps pointing the phone’s camera his way. “And you’re drunk,” she says, as if astonished, ashamed. “You hit that poor child and you’ve been drinking,” saying it for the camera.
It is past time for Luli to stumble out of the scream and look the man full in the eye. The hard part. Luli may be good at falling and landing and getting the crap kicked out of her and hollering and screaming up a storm, but she doesn’t much like the part where she has to interact. “You,” she says, “you hit me.”
It isn’t long before the man’s wallet opens , the cash he’d come prepared to buy the Nova with sliding into Luli’s hands—”to help her get checked out.” See a doctor to tell her that her leg isn’t cracked up. “I’m sure it ain’t broke, honey,” the man says, trying to pat her arm and not touch her all at once.
No need to call the cops, right? No need to get anyone else involved. You see that, don’t you? Is that enough, honey? That kind of money will get you all checked out and then some. You know that, right? You’re okay, aren’t you, honey?
It is a fat, fat wad of cash. And Luli is happy she met the man here and not somewhere else, like in line at a coffee shop, where she would be charmed and think he was nice and have no idea he was the sort of guy to buy his way out of trouble. Is glad for a moment to know the secret: ultimately, everyone is that sort of guy.
This is the gift her parents, flawed as they are, gave her.
Bonnie tells him what a good dude he is, doing the right thing by that poor, poor girl. Puts him in the passenger seat and drives him back to their trailer where his old boring car waits for him to get in and forget the Nova and Luli and their tiny bayou forever. Her mother and the man will leave Luli to pick her own self up. Dust her own self off. Limp on home slowly enough that he’ll be good and gone by the time she gets there.
Under Bonnie’s capable hands, the Nova spins into a tight, three-point turn and purrs away. White may have originally won the car but it is Momma’s baby, and though she leaves that belt loose for special occasions, Bonnie keeps the engine and transmission in perfect fighting shape.
Luli pushes through the bushes and slumps onto a small, clear patch of thorny grass.
There’s blood seeping through the knee of her jeans. She rolls them up to inspect the damage. A bruise blooms around a wide scrape, looking like a rose opening in a time lapse video, like squid ink billowing across a lens. It is a fast thing, faster than biology allows. It is The Mother’s virgin mouth.
It is a cavern opening and swallowing the world.
Circling Luli on the grass, Bub’s shadow is a squat, fat blob. A lie. Bub is Bonnie’s boy, her spitting image: tall and thin, all marathon legs and broad, cool guy shoulders and thick grown-out hair, a wide, dark halo, just a little greasy from sweat. Him and Luli look enough alike that you could tell they are related, same snub nose, same tall forehead, same curls and cowlicks in their hair. But different enough you could imagine Bub stuffing Luli’s five foot frame in a locker.
“Stop looming,” Luli says.
He nudges her with his foot. “Bonnie sent me to find you, says stop fucking around and come home. She wants to put that cash up.”
Luli checks the flip phone she lifted from a corner shop in New Orleans. Thirty minutes lost this time. Longer than the last time she had one of her episodes. “Since when are you the errand boy. Don’t you have practice?”
“Since when do you care?” The nudge becomes a kick. “Or stay and give me the money. Whatever.”
Luli puts a hand out and lets her brother pull her to standing. “Race you to the water,” she says, like they are twelve again, and she launches into a wild run, all loose legs and flying arms, before he’s even straightened himself. She leaps over knobby fire ant mounds and rotting stumps and dewberry tangles, ignoring the echoes of impact on her aching bones and muscles, echoes of classic car hood and suddenly stopped kinetic energy and crumbling asphalt all pressing painfully into her body.
She is free. And Bonnie and the trailer—’The Shit Shack’ as her pop christened it—are in the other direction.
She doesn’t check to see if Bub is behind her. He’ll catch up quick enough without help. He is a lightning runner. Instead, she closes her eyes in short spurts, just long enough to feel exhilarated and afraid running in the dark, but not long enough to lose complete sight of the ground, to miss a hurdle. She runs. And runs. The edge of the bayou coming clean into view. The ground getting softer, damp.
Then a shaking pulls her up short, stumbling her over a root.
For the smallest moment, the earth groans, trembling and rippling under her feet, a little like a wet dog trying to shimmy loose a day in the river. Off balance and confused, she falls to the bruised knee and scrapes her palm against a rock that, as far as she can tell, has moved of its own volition. She lolls her head sideways to see behind her.
Bub stops in his tracks, stock still. Head cocked to the side. Staring at the ground.
He’s felt it too, then. It really happened, the quivering. It is not in her mind. Not another episode.
In front of her a spot in the water, maybe two feet around, bubbles. Boils.
“Did you feel that?”
He trots up next to her and she points at the roiling water, and they stand there watching it like they might watch a pot on the stove. Nothing to say. But their hands touch like when they were kids. The same as when Bonnie and White came home with bruises and thick breath, and Luli and Bub had to be the ones to heat the milk for Rana’s bottle.
The sound of both of them breathing mixes with the sound of burbling water and, listening to it, Luli is afraid.
CHAPTER 2: SILVA
Silva bobs in the Atlantic near enough to Biscayne Bay that the lights are visible despite the bright sun. She kicks at empty water, trying to find the footing that was just there. And now just—isn’t. She’s drifted too far past the edge of the sandbar. The ocean floor is gone.
She slows her breathing. This is water she’s tread many times. She turns her face upward and closes her eyes for just a second, imagines she can feel the cloudless sky etching wrinkles ever deeper along her eyelids. Warm water swirls through her searching toes, but she concentrates on the heat on her eyelids, her cheeks.
Calmed, she adjusts, turns her flailing kicks into small, figure eights that keep her upper body fairly still. She clears the water from her snorkel and considers clearing her mask as well. Her hair will be one kinked black knot along the edge of the cheap rubber strap. She doesn’t have the will to tear at it. Leaves the mask on.
She tries to gauge the distance to the boat, ignoring the bit of fog that has gathered on the edges of her lens. Except for the green tinge over the sandbar, the ocean sweeps dark and blue in every direction, a blanket of slow, gentle swells giving her few clues.
There it is.
She waves. Hank, the captain, waves back from his bowrider. A little shadow man outlined in sky so clear and bright it glares white in that direction, instead of blue. He can see her. He is watching out for her.
She is good and safe. For now.
Tomorrow she will take two Dramamine and sleep through her flight from Miami International to Lafayette Regional, the airports are less than a thousand miles but also a thousand years apart from each other, and then she’ll have to get off the plane.
Drowning might be better.
She slips the snorkel back into her mouth and arches into the water, pulls closer to the boat in broad, strong strokes, eyes darting. The school of barracuda that flashed past earlier, snaggletoothed and shining—that had caused her to duck her head, suck in that lungful of hot salt water, lose the sandbar and, with it, her footing—is now long gone, but she searches and searches just the same. When she was a child, her father had told her a barracuda’s needle teeth would puncture you so deep you’d bleed free before anyone could shut up the little holes. No stitch would work on those wounds, he said.
Silva still believes him, though she doubts his warning is actually true.
Belief is like that. It takes you and shakes the sense right out of you. Lives in your gut where your brain can’t interfere.
Lives in the same place fear lives.
A shadow moves below her.
Not a shark, she says, chewing at the snorkel, her lips not breaking the seal. Just her tongue talking, no noise or air escaping. The calm she’d achieved is all gone.
Not a shark.
Silva is afraid of the open ocean. And deeply in love with it. Madly so. She pays Hank to bring her out every other weekend. And every other weekend a moment hits where panic swells so far in her chest and throat, she thinks maybe it will drown her down, that bile and adrenaline will fill her up, weight her, and sink her. That she will die in the water, where she sort of always hoped she would die and absolutely does not want to. Each time she swims so hard her arms and legs tremble as she pulls herself up the side of the boat and into the air, Hank’s hand yanking her roughly up the bowrider’s aluminum ladder.
Ears ringing, Silva swims like that now. Tries not to pant into the snorkel.
Breath normal. Not a shark. Do not hyperventilate into your snorkel. Not a shark.
She scrapes her foot on the boat’s underbelly. Barnacles. Then Hank’s hand pulls her. Then she rips the snorkel and mask off, knots and hair and maybe even scalp going with them. She doesn’t care. Then sweet air. Air so much cleaner and cooler than you can ever get breathing through a black rubber tube.
Still, drowning sounds somehow better than getting on the plane in the morning.
“Done?” Hank says.
Silva adjusts the strap of her top, where it bites into the soft of her back and nods. He hands her his flask. Five years she’s been hiring him and five years he’s been hauling her up that ladder. They’re good friends now. She takes a pull. Vodka today. The sort that burns like diesel. Hank is not a man who believes quality trumps quantity, but he shares his flask as a matter of course and charges her barely more than the fuel to bring her out (which is all she can afford).
“May not be back for a few weeks. You keep her safe for me?”
Hank pats the boat, “Concordia? I keep her safe for me.”
“Not the boat. The ocean. Make sure she’s here when I get back.”
Hank snorts, a small laugh at just the right time so that vodka trickles from his nose, making him cough. “You’re not a normal woman, Silvy.”
She nods. “You should meet my grandmother.” Starboard, a shadow breaks the light from the ocean just where it bounces from surface to sandbar, a flash of deepest grey where green had been. Maybe three feet long. Shark shaped. Or maybe just a light trick, the swelling, rolling water laughing at her.
The condo is empty, not just Memo-has-left-her empty, but Memo-has-swung-by-and-cleared-it-out empty. He warned Silva. “You’re going to need to buy a new couch, chica. A new bed.” It was all his stuff. Everything. Even the condo. He’d let her keep that, though. Easier than fighting to get her to leave, he said. “You can pay the rent.”
He gave her time. Plenty of time and fair warning. Five missed calls blink on her phone, all Memo. Every day another one. If she listens to the messages, she knows what she’ll hear, Memo a broken record: “Don’t forgot, Silvy. I’m coming. I’m getting my stuff. You need to prepare.”
He’s that kind of guy. The kind who wants Silva to grow up. Be someone. Prepare.
She is forty-two and as grown as she plans on getting.
She is fine without a couch, without chairs. At least the TV is hers. He left the remote in the middle of the floor, framed by a room full of nothing. She sits next to it. Alone on the expanse of clean swept linoleum, the remote feels like an indictment. Memo didn’t watch TV. They’d fought about her shows. Fought constantly about everything he wanted to improve about her. Until they didn’t. Until he stopped fighting and they stopped talking and stopped fucking and stopped eating together. Stopped sharing anything about their lives, except their home.
Now even that.
Everything else she owns, the things she kept scattered across their living room—comic books and novels and notebooks and field guides and field kits, glittered plastic pop culture figurines, roaring dinosaurs, spangled purses and muddied swamp boots, her gun, her keys, a half pack of Marlboros she didn’t smoke before she quit, her cross, a few pairs of earrings, tubes of tinted Chapstick, sad single flip-flops all unmatched—bits of herself made strange by being piled up neatly on the kitchen bar.
She pulls out her phone.
His mouth sounds full when he answers, a bit of smacking before he speaks, so instead of saying, “Yeah?” it is more like, “Yurh?,” as if he’s tried on the tongue of one of the old men back in her hometown, their words both long and round, loose dentures swarming along their drawl.
“The end table is mine,” she says. It isn’t. “And the curtains.” They aren’t. “You need to give them back.”
He doesn’t rile though; doesn’t shout she is acting ridiculous. He doesn’t stand down with a weary, hangdog agreement, either. Just says, “No,” the same way he might if he were turning down an offer to refill his water glass, a no without any intimacy, any care.
“Yes. They’re mine.” She understands she’s being unreasonable. Is lying. But Silva wants more from him. Needs more. Needs something to say that yes, this thing they had was dead but it also was worth a storm, worth mourning.
It was real.
“No,” he says again, same as before. In the background, Silva hears someone say, “Guillermo,” and he says—not to her, but to the woman calling him—“Sí, pero solo un poquito.” Maybe a waitress. Maybe a lover asking if he wants his coffee topped off before they go again.
“You’re not even listening,” Silva says.
“What I’m doing is not fighting, chica. You should try it. Look, I’ll answer if you call. I’ll listen to what you say. But I’m okay. I’m done. Now, you go be okay. Be done.”
Silva hangs up. Throws her phone at the television, rocking it on its base and cracking the screen open like a maw.
As soon as she steps out of the airport, Silva’s dress starts sticking to her. The air is heavy, sodden. When she was a child, she once spilled a pot of boiling water on a wet blanket she had dragged across her grandmother’s kitchen, wearing it like a too long cape. Her punishment was to wear the sopped blanket, cooled only enough to not a blister her skin, wrapped tightly around her arms and chest, pinning her. “Is it a toy now?” Gran said. And when Silva nodded fiercely in return, refusing to give in, refusing to cry despite feeling as though she might suffocate, that she might die under the weight of it, Gran bent to her bare knees on the hardwood floor and wrapped the blanket tighter. “You ruin my things, you keep them, whether you want to or not.”
Silva sits in the rental car, her left leg on one side of the open door, the right inside the small cabin. Sits there and breathes in the humidity. The heat. That is what this godforsaken state is. Her grandmother’s ruined thing wrapped so tight around Silva’s body; she cannot escape it no matter how far she runs.
Miami is hot, but South Louisiana is hell.
She doesn’t move until rivulets of sweat slip into her eyes and across her lips, not until her dress becomes limp, then damp, then soaked right down to her bones. Then she sits in the heat a little longer, amazed, once again, by how much hotter summer seems here and how that never, ever changes.
When her cousin Wayne called yesterday morning, he said there wasn’t much he could do if the state got a real inspector out, but maybe they could stop that from happening. “She burnt the damn thing to the ground,” he said. He was sheriff, but he was also the only relative who still spoke to Gran, so he’d called Silva rather than put the old witch in jail.
“You don’t know it was her. Or even that it was—” Silva didn’t say “arson,” was careful not to. “That it wasn’t the wiring or something. You can’t know.” But they both knew. Mabel burnt the damn thing to the ground just like she always said she would. At least she hadn’t made good on her promise to burn it down chock full of ungrateful guests.
“No one here will take her in.”
“No,” Silva said. “Why would they?”
Wayne seemed to wait for her to say more, filling the silence with a small cough. When she didn’t, he did. “You need to come. I’ll put her up tonight, but no more. You need to come.”
Silva thinks about calling him now, telling him she’s landed, that his cavalry is less than two hours away. But if she calls now, any choices she still has, or at least pretends she still has, will be gone. Poof. So Silva heads west into town instead of traveling the long road home and keeps her phone deep in her purse.
LEIGH CAMACHO ROURKS is a Cuban-American author from South Louisiana, who is an Assistant Professor at Beacon College in Central Florida. Her debut story collection, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, won the St. Lawrence Book Award. She is also the recipient of the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, and Greensboro Review.