A NIGHT ON MOON HILL
Budding writers could be so defensive, Daphne thought, not for the first time. The women she taught in her graduate tutorial bruised like teenagers, pouting and suffering in silence. Most of the men argued with their jaws clenched—none more so than Reuben. She picked up his short story anyway, drew in a breath, and read aloud his opening sentence.
“Merrick languished in the lazy afternoon sun.” Daphne paused and sneaked a peek at the clock on the back wall. Five minutes to go. “To be honest, this opening takes the reader nowhere. I’ll concede that it may tell us Merrick is lazy . . . or it may not. In any case, it doesn’t put us anywhere.”
Reuben raised his hand, the muscles in his face already working, and began to squabble with her assertion. Joshua, the only truly talented writer in the class, wasn’t there to take her side. So she chewed on the inside of her cheek as Reuben went on and on about the visual quality of “languished.”
When he finished, Daphne said, “I suppose you don’t care about getting published then,” and dismissed the class. As he passed her desk, she’d heard him call her “narcissistic” under his breath, along with another unflattering term. He was wrong. She hadn’t found the right word for herself yet, but she was definitely not narcissistic.
Still stressed when she pulled into the garage a half hour later, Daphne headed straight for her pool. She checked the desert sky arching over Moon Hill behind her house. No moon. She’d swim without a suit then, shielded by the wall of palms, hibiscus, and oleander surrounding her backyard. Since the death of her parents, she’d been alone and used moonless nights to such advantage.
As she started to unbutton her blouse, she noticed that one of the four dark shapes she knew to be her patio chairs had been moved back several inches from the circular glass table with the umbrella. A sense of foreboding crept up the back of her neck like a spindly-legged spider, and she shivered. She never left a chair out of place.
For a moment, Daphne considered changing her routine. But she couldn’t. The swim in total blackness wouldn’t soothe if she varied the pattern with a bathing suit, and though she didn’t understand the reason, she knew that patterns smoothed out the wrinkles in her life like lotion applied to rough, cracked skin.
She pushed the chair back in and undressed quickly, leaving her folded slacks and blouse on the deck. After stretching out the kinks in her back and running her fingers through her cropped hair, Daphne took her usual starting place at the far side of the pool and sliced into the dark water. Six quick strokes, and she flipped to push off the wall for the return. Ninety-nine laps to go.
She pulled at the water, deconstructing Reuben’s opening line in her mind with each lap.
Merrick languished in the lazy afternoon sun. Flip turn.
Merrick languished in the lazy afternoon. Flip turn.
Merrick languished in the lazy. Flip turn.
By the tenth lap, the classroom began to recede from her mind. By the fifteenth, the last memory of the evening’s unpleasantness sank below her consciousness. Buoyed by the night-cooled water, Daphne relished the pungency of chlorine and the familiar numbness spreading through her arms and legs.
If she bowed to any god, it was the god of water—the pool his holy sanctuary, the daily swim her prayer. Water freed her, saved her from a society in which she felt ill at ease. In its liquid cold and calm, her oddities were masked or erased.
At age three, when she’d first ballooned her cheeks to slip beneath a pool’s glimmering surface, Daphne had opened her eyes underwater and discovered a world of muted sounds, bluish vision, and slower motion. Here, no fly could dart around, and the yapping of the neighbor’s dog hushed. Her feet and hands, often so clumsy on land, worked together in water and found a rhythm previously unknown. Stroke after stroke. Lap after lap. A coordination so practiced over the decades that now, at forty-one, she slashed through the water without thinking.
Swimming saved her in the dry heat of Phoenix, where pools freckled the landscape. No matter Daphne’s schedule at the university, her morning swim came first. It steeled her for college classrooms full of opinionated writing students. And if a day’s teaching drained her, as this had, she swam again in the afternoon or night.
Switching to the breaststroke for her twenty-sixth lap, her right hand brushed against something mid-stroke. She jerked upright, surprised. Had she imagined it? Daphne strained to see in the blackness of the pool, but she could make out nothing. She swept her arm across the dark water. Still not a thing. She inched further and propelled her arm underneath the liquid surface. Contact. Wet cloth over a hard object. When she poked it, it moved away, but only slightly. She reached again. Feathery strands tickled her fingers. She lurched back and gasped. Something solid and strange shared the water with her. Daphne raced to the end of the pool, heaved herself out in one fluid motion, and ran past her clothes to the garage.
She paused only to lock the outer door before fleeing inside to the bathroom. After changing out of her wet underwear, she fumbled for the robe hanging on the door and wrapped up quickly. Only then did she switch on the light, half shutting her eyes to the sudden brightness.
“Come on, slow your breathing,” she coaxed herself. “It could be anything.”
She knew it wasn’t the pool vacuum; she’d removed the gangly contraption that morning. Besides, what she’d felt was definitely made of cloth plus something else. The memory of its initial drag against the skin of her arm and then the feather softness on her fingers pulled bile from her stomach. She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed it down. Fighting the urge to call 911, she realized she would have to take a look first. What if it was only debris—a cloth-covered ball or some new plaything thrown from a neighbor’s pool?
She tossed her wet underwear in the dryer and set it going, then crossed the kitchen floor and opened the vertical blinds covering the sliding glass door. Blackness. Phone in hand, she flipped on the patio light, revealing the outline of her clothes on the deck. She squinted to try and make out a shape in the water. Still too dark. Swallowing, she reached for the pool light button on the wall panel. Her finger pressed the gray oval, and the pool glowed luminescent. In its middle, suspended upright below the surface as if standing in the water, was a human body in a red T-shirt and khaki pants. Her jaw clamped shut to hold in the scream.
The body’s dark hair contrasted sharply with the outstretched arms and hands, eerie and white—the pale skin unusual in this land of everlasting sun. The figure’s only movement, the swirl of bangs with the water’s current. Daphne knew she should get him out and try to resuscitate him, regardless of how dead he looked, but her stomach clenched at the thought. Touch the lips of a dead stranger? She shuddered and lowered the phone. If she called 911, they might want her to try, and she couldn’t. She noticed bulges around his ankles. Leg weights, she realized. The kind sometimes used by runners. They kept his bare feet inches from the pool’s bottom.
Bile rose again, burning Daphne’s throat. She dropped the phone, ran to the kitchen sink, and heaved. She gagged repeatedly until her trachea constricted and her stomach muscles ached. Head down and holding her breath, she sought calm by counting. Nine times she cupped running water to rinse her mouth and face. But even after the water and vomit had drained, she couldn’t lift her head because the large kitchen window looked directly out on the middle of the pool—where the body floated.
The fear that had propelled her from the backyard now simmered into anger as she tried to regain control. Who had invaded her property, her life? She needed some answers before she alerted authorities and allowed further chaos into her home. She slapped the counter’s edge hard as if it were her face, then forced herself to peer at the man floating in her pool.
From where she stood, Daphne thought she could make out wire-rimmed spectacles on his nose. Those glasses. The T-shirt. Daphne breathed in and out slowly, her mouth open. It couldn’t be.
Frustration dissolved into confusion. Numb, she grabbed a flashlight from the laundry room cupboard and made her way back through the garage to the pool. The beam of light bounced up and down with each step, mirroring the questions in her mind. How could it be him? Why here? How long has he been here? How did he get in? Before she arrived at the water’s edge, Daphne had mustered only one of the answers. Since it was Tuesday, she’d left the gate unlocked for the pool man.
She stabbed the flashlight at trees and bushes around the deck and patio in case anyone else might be lurking, waiting to attack. Still not entirely reassured, she nevertheless approached the water. She knelt at the side of the pool and blinked at the familiar Keats quote embossed in black cursive against the red of the T-shirt. The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, He awoke and found it Truth.
She exhaled slowly. He wore that shirt every Tuesday. She didn’t need to see the blue of his eyes, fixed and open in death, to know it was Joshua. The one student who never argued, who always took her point of view. Her gifted student. His six-foot figure hung in the middle of the pool like a being drifting in space. Daphne bowed her head and shuddered. How could she have swum even one lap without sensing his presence?
A glint of silver attracted her lowered eyes to the watery bottom. A coin? No, it seemed to be attached to some kind of chain. A necklace, maybe? If so, it wasn’t hers. She never wore jewelry. She couldn’t stand the cold feel of metal against her skin—a minor idiosyncrasy among the many that distanced her from others.
Perhaps the object fell from his pocket when he entered the water.
Or did he drop it when he died? Was he at this side of the pool when he lost his grip on the necklace? Did my swimming draw him to the middle?
Again the silver item beckoned. Daphne reached behind her for the long-handled pool net but stopped herself. No matter how disturbing this all was, the police wouldn’t want anything more about the scene disturbed. The police. What would she tell them? That she’d been swimming in her underwear when she discovered the dead body of one of her students? Daphne sucked in a breath as she realized the kinds of questions that might follow.
She carefully cast the flashlight around her patio for other clues. The beam passed over something white on the deck table. Daphne approached for a closer look. There lay an envelope with her name written on it in Joshua’s distinctive cursive. She brought the flashlight up to her chest and groaned. Why was I pulled into this? I hardly knew him.
Part of her wanted to turn and run, drive north to her cabin near the Verde River. There she could be alone again and swim undisturbed. Her next class wasn’t until Thursday, and she had hinted about needing time off anyway to develop her new novel. Surely the administration would accommodate their two-time PEN/Faulkner finalist. Let someone else discover the body.
But another part of her—the part drawn to words—pulled Daphne to the envelope even though she suspected that if she opened it, she’d never leave. She glanced back at Joshua’s still body before fixing again on the missive left for her. He had written her full name, including her title, in blue ink: Dr. Daphne Lessing.
The use of her first name unnerved her. Joshua had always been so circumspect in their conversations. Almost shy. Never had he broached any kind of familiarity, not even the times he had come to her office. Why now, and in this awful way? The letter had baited her, like a fish, and she had to take it. Some detective couldn’t be the first to peruse her talented student’s final words.
Her neighbor’s rear screen door scraped against the silence. Daphne stuffed the envelope into her bathrobe pocket as the toenails of Mr. Carson’s chihuahua, Moxie, clicked across the neighboring patio to the yard. No doubt the dog had been let out to do her nightly business. Before Daphne could turn off the flashlight, Moxie picked up her scent and began yapping. She hurried inside to turn off the pool and patio lights in case her neighbor came out to investigate.
In the kitchen, while the shrill barking continued, Daphne deliberated. Should she call the police immediately and wait for them to open the envelope, or should she open it now? After one last halfhearted yip, Moxie settled down. Daphne assumed she’d found an appropriate spot. Unable to resist longer, Daphne opened the envelope in jags with her little finger and pulled out a single piece of paper—a poem, handwritten, with nothing on the other side. She sat at the table, looked out in the blackness toward Joshua’s floating body and then back to the poem. She blinked several times as she read.
Born of water,
Water in her womb,
Liquid droplets loom
At quivering, batted edges
Of the portals to her soul.
And chooses to ignore
The infant offered to her young,
Ill-fitted arms. Her heart is hung
Upon his wailing in retreat as
He is carried off . . . away.
The choice of mother
Passed to brother.
Shall he depart or stay?
His duty shouts him to his feet as
He regards ill-fitted arms undone
By growing impotence among
The other signs of war.
To bathe his suffering soul,
Parry the pain. He hedges,
Returns the choice to whom?
The mother of his womb.
Tomb in water,
—Joshua Mercy (April 5, 2012)
Daphne bit down on the edge of her bottom lip, holding it curled over her lower teeth. Her eyes scrolled back up to the title and lingered there before she began to read again, this time aloud. She paused at the midpoint. The poet in her longed to savor the phrasing, contemplate the many possible meanings. Had Joshua been given up for adoption? Did the brother refer to Joshua or someone else? She read on. What had he meant by ill-fitted arms? She loved the poem’s womb-like shape. Knowing Joshua, it had been intended.
Moxie started her high-pitched yipping again, trespassing on Daphne’s thoughts. She set the paper down to turn and peek through the blinds. Could a dog smell death even in water? Then she remembered her clothes, left on the pool deck. She didn’t want anyone to know she had been swimming in her underwear, especially not Mr. Carson. And certainly not the police. They would no doubt sketch vile mental images of her and Joshua, start inventing a lustful scenario right out of some murder mystery.
Outright lying was out of the question. It wasn’t in her. But deception by omission might be called for in this situation. After years of embarrassing pauses brought on by blunt observations, Daphne had learned to treat conversation as a kind of cat-and-mouse game. She kept quiet unless spoken to, and even then only answered questions directly. She never held herself responsible if people didn’t ask the correct questions. Perhaps if she handled things right tonight, there would be no need to outline the entire evening.
She left the poem on the counter, grabbed a swimsuit from the freshly laundered pile next to the bathroom, and headed back outside. Ignoring Moxie’s incessant yapping, she carried the suit to the water, dipped it thoroughly, and squeezed it out by the pool stairs. Quickly, she took it back into the house along with her clothes. She opened the dryer door, removed her now-dry bra and panties, replaced them with the dripping suit, and started the timed cycle again. The police might question her use of the dryer for her swimsuit, but it was, after all, her normal routine. She had never cared about a dryer’s effect on her suits. A wet suit in the dryer meant less to her than the mess it would make on the floor of the bathtub if she were to hang it over the shower nozzle. After getting dressed again, she wiped up the wet puddles on the linoleum with a towel, which ended up in the dryer as well.
That done, she returned to Joshua’s poem. She couldn’t keep it from the police, anymore than she could keep the body from them. In a few moments her home would no longer be her own. Fear swelled in her again, this time lined with melancholy. She longed to postpone the invasion, play a digital recording of Albinoni’s “Concerto in D for Trumpet and Organ.” She closed her eyes and recalled the haunting musical phrasing of the adagio. Certainly she could take a moment to savor what little peace and solitude she had left. What difference would a few more minutes make?
The flapping of the suit and towel in the dryer mocked her. Daphne moaned and picked up the phone.