The Drowning Line

To Anna–Maria, my roots, my strength

It’s the satellite phone duct–taped around my left bicep that wakes me up. Not the late October noises in the deep night, nor the ice–cold water that cleaves my body in half at the abdomen. It’s the desperate ringing, muted under layers of plastic to keep it dry, and the death–rattle vibration that bruises my skin.

There’s a brief moment of silence where the brick–sized satellite phone draws a deep breath before launching into another fit of ringing. I scratch at the duct tape, but I’m slow working in the pitch black. The phone goes on and off five more times until I pick up. David breathes heavily into the receiver. I can’t decide if it’s in relief or disappointment.

“Where are you?” His voice drawls out, slowed down by the weight of deep sleep—something we’ve both been losing steadily.

“I don’t know.” The phone’s illumination does a piss poor job at showing me where I am. I move a little to get a feeling as to what body of water I’ve ended up in this time, but the cold has numbed my body. This could be any place at night. Water sloshes as I take bolder strides and finally pain shoots through my numb calf—thin, sharp, and searing.

“I’m feeling stones? Twigs maybe?”

“Call me when you know something useful, Reinhart. A street or a road or something.”

“Just give me a second…” David hangs up and cuts me off. I stand alone with the deaf silence in coffin darkness, smooth and thick as if it’s been ironed, pressed, and folded layer upon layer until I feel erased altogether.

A chill of a different nature spreads through me. Not of what I can’t see, but what comes after I fail to convince David to stay on the line with me. We can’t afford it anymore, he said after the fifth time sleep took me to swimming pools, fountains, and decorative ponds—always further away from my home. Always East. Back to Germany.

Home. Back where everything started.

A haunting brightness, one I’ve come to learn in intimate detail, bleaches the world into existence and draws the contours of my surroundings. I should search for escape. I should call David again. I should do anything to stall his appearance.

Instead, I welcome his luminescent arrival in the waters. The founder of my bloodline, Hartrich the Drowned, presents himself naked and erect, broad–shouldered and tall, milk–skinned where he had flesh and blood–haired—a body made for worship. A body that wears death well, always submerged in the water. Ribs peak through slivers in his chest and empty sockets stare me into submission, knotting ropes I can’t see around my limbs until my body is stiff like rigor mortis.

With one elegant swipe, he extends a hand in invitation. Hartrich had centuries to play this game and he knows I’ll allow him to drown me. We both know that in the end I’ll fly back to Wasserburg, walk the roads until they turn to gravel lapped by the lake’s waters, and join him. I can go and pretend to ignore the thirst to drink Lake Constance whole. Or I can stay and allow him to bestow his gifts. My head opts for the first, yet my body yearns for the second.

The light that leaks from him bathes me as he draws near, touches me at the waist, and pulls down my briefs. His fingers feel colder than the water and rough where bone has worn through the meat. I tighten my grip on the phone; can’t afford to drop it in the water.

I grow hard fast and come even faster. In the glowing water, my cum is phosphorescent. Hartrich smiles all teeth, opens his mouth and rolls out his fat tongue that used to be pink once, now aswirl with promise, if only I were to go where he wants me.

He dismisses with another swipe, but doesn’t move. It’s a challenge to see when I’ll give up on leaving. Each time it takes a little more effort.

Ashes to ashes, flesh to flesh. Such are the rules of relation and I’m a mere servant, my nature neutered of revolt.

In the light of the apparition and my satellite’s screen, I distinguish the shape of an unfinished foundation, flooded no doubt from the heavy autumn rains. Plastic sheets and scaffolding make for a makeshift roof and that is how I get out. My leg hurts, pounds with pain with every step. Outside, the lights of Denver shine bright.

It takes David thirty minutes to reach me on the outskirts of the city. The familiar bulky headlights of our Volvo cut through the pre–morning veil and blind me for a second until the car stops. It’s this moment I crave most—when I can be alone with David, wrapped in thick blankets and holding his hand. The faint hope that maybe this is the last time this happens hangs in the air unspoken. I’m so tired I could drop on the ground.

However, this time the car is filled with people—Una, our eldest sitting in the passenger seat, wearing the same sleepy worry on her face as David, and Clive, sleeping in his baby seat at the back.

“The children know?” I ask David when he welcomes me with blankets. My teeth chatter and graze on every word. I’m angry with him for showing them what I’ve become, angrier at myself for allowing the drowned man to touch me like that, again. There’s shame that burns through the cold and I’m grateful it’s still so dark David can’t read it on my face.

“Of course they know. This has been going on for months. Everyone knows now! People are just too polite to say anything.” He talks fast without stopping to breathe. The blankets dance up and down as he gestures to the car.

“Una woke up and wouldn’t…” David launches into a monologue in an attempt to stop the silence settling in, to avoid having to acknowledge this happened again, then ceases mid–sentence. “You’re bleeding.”

“Shit.” I am. Blood smears my right foot below the knee. The wound on my calf leaks in lazy waves synced.

“How long have you been bleeding? You should have said this when you called me. I’d have come faster!” David discards the blankets and drops down to inspect it up close.

“Will Dad be all right?” Una’s already out, doing her best to show she’s an adult now that she’s leaving junior high next year, but her voice breaks when she sees my bleeding leg.

“Yes, all I need is to patch up the wound, honey. Don’t worry.” I fool no one. A first aid kit will solve nothing.

“Don’t bullshit her. The wound’s deep, Hart.” David says, crouching, all fingers bloody as if he’d been clawing out of a beast’s stomach. I can hear the exhaustion in his voice.

“We need to go to the ER,” he instructs as he paces off to fetch the first aid kit. Despite the commotion, Clive still sleeps in his chair. It’s Una who needs calming down. Even in the dark I can see her pale. I stroke her hair with one hand, the best I can do to soothe her. All I do is wet her hair. She shivers at my touch, but comes in for a hug around the blanket.

“Don’t frighten her.”

“I’m frightening her?!” David does all he can to keep his voice low, working on bandaging the wound in a squat. His hands move fast. His touch is unforgiving. “You can drop dead from blood loss any minute now. Don’t talk to me about fear.”

“What do you want me to do, David? I go to therapy. I take the fucking meds. You want me to chain myself to the bed now, too?”

David flinches at that last bit. So the though had crossed his mind.

“It’s five AM and I have work in four hours. I startle every time I don’t feel you next to me. I fear next time I wake up to an empty bed, it’ll be the last. This is fucking unbearable.”

He breaks down. I have never seen him cry like that. Una breathes more laboriously low, on the verge of crying. I comfort them both as I guide them inside the car and take the driver’s seat.

I drive on the way back and tell my husband everything he needs to hear—slowly and with conviction, a recital of sweet nothings. What I really do is think about the man in the water, my family’s legacy and undoing. The one Una will inherit once I die.

The first time I see Hartrich is when I drown at the age of nine. It’s November and the water is cold, but my chest burns as mother holds me down against the rounded rocks in Lake Constance. We drive out in the late afternoon from our old flat in Wasserburg and by the time we reach the resort houses and tourist attractions painted to look like the houses from old folk tales, it’s already sunset. Windows already sprinkle light in the gathering twilight. Mother says it’s to honor my Father who drowned in the same lake two weeks earlier.

She lies. The first thing she does when we reach the waterline is to grab my ankles and pull so I slam face first in the water. Breath stolen, drowning immediately.

Even though it’s day, the lake’s massive body is dark, or maybe it’s the darkness that creeps in once you run out of breath. I’ve stopped struggling. The violent part is over. Mother has won with the vice–like grip of her hands on my neck, and my arms and legs grow slack as she squeezes out the last of my life. We’re far enough from the houses to conceal what she’s doing and deep enough to catch his attention.

It’s when she releases me that I catch his face, a shade of white in the depths of the lake, looking at me, biding his time for my mother to retreat so he can come and steal me. Take me to where my father went willingly. His face grows bigger and bigger like a waxing moon on a clear sky.

I don’t mind. This is the last thought I have before I die.

All is pain as I take my first breath anew and I hear my mother scream at the lake, patting my back. Water weighs down my clothes and feels like I’m dragged into the earth.

“It’s done! He drowned! You hear me? He drowned! You have his last breath. You took his father, now leave us alone.”

That’s the first time I hear about my family curse—the bloodline that drowns in the lake.

She’s crying now as she strips me down and there’s nothing else to be heard in the night—her sobbing and my teeth chattering as she strips me from my wet clothes and towels me in the open. The sun has set for quite some time now and the only light crawls from the houses in the distance.

I stare into the illumination until my eyes sting. Until his face has been burned clean from my memory. For years, I pretend I don’t know what he looks like and he pretends I’m safe from his curse.

In the years after the drowning, when my Mother left Germany after the Berlin Wall fell, I tried to grow up fast. I ran into puberty and never stopped running. An ocean distanced me from the lake, but I ran even further, shedding everything—the weight of home, my accent, and the names of people I once loved. Those belong to the other boy, the one who drowned.

I didn’t know I’ve been running until Mother died from tuberculosis and I finally caught my breath. The lightness in my chest tickled me—a fit of giggles almost escaped as her coffin sank in the ground and damp soil covered it up. I imagined her face under water, trapped in the lake, never to escape that place. I buried Mother and with her, I buried the lake. David held my hand through the whole ceremony, squeezing it in silent support. Her death is what I needed to believe I had severed all ties that led to Hartrich.

I said yes when David proposed.

I said yes, when David wished for a surrogate mother to carry our children. One child for me—Una, first–born with salamander red hair and the pale blue eyes of my grandmother who also drowned in the lake—and one for David—Clive, the dark–haired one who came years later. Now as I watch her play with what her future could be and the joy she gets when her body hits the water and competes, I wish Mother had waited longer back then. I wish I’d never woken on that shore.

Now, I find I’m holding my breath again as I run through time to make Una happy. I need to burn my face in her memory in a way my father never could; to compensate for the loss I knew as a child, which still nests in me. A loss so harrowing it caved my ribcage and made a home for Hartrich, wherein he lived, away from his watery grave.

In a perverse way to taunt me, he first appears at my daughter’s junior high swim meet. Parents line the swimming pool with breath held back—it’s only to be used to cheer on the winner. Any body of water makes me weak at the knees, but I’m there with David, holding hands the way we did during my Mother’s funeral. We’re so close to the water the air bites with the sharp smell of chlorine, enough to make my head swim and pound with a headache.

I watch Una slice the water with her butterfly stroke with such concentration I don’t see him straight away. At first, I think it’s her shadow on the worn–out blue tiles of the pool, distorted by the bright afternoon sun. It takes a blink to register the shock–white skin and copper hair. It takes another to realize he’s naked, a patch of burning hair covering his crotch. That same man I thought I’d escaped swims belly–up underneath my child like a mirror image, limbs in perfect sync with hers. Can she see him? I squeeze David’s hand so hard he pulls away, but I don’t let go. I can’t let go.

As she makes it to the end of her lane and does a flip turn, he stops and strokes her whole body from head to toe.

“Get her out of the water! Una, get out right now!” I scream and jolt from my seat.

I’ve never screamed as high or as loud. The couples and lone parents around us jump with me. Smaller children scared half to death burst into tears and the swimmers startle mid–stroke. Una breaks the surface, her face already turning scarlet with embarrassment. Hartrich lingers right beneath, his empty sockets filled with the darkness of Lake Constance the day I drowned and I step forward, making myself big. As if you can scare the dead with force. What I do is scare my daughter instead.

“Calm down, Reinhard. Una is fine.” David soothes me from the side and pulls me by the arm. Clive cries on his shoulder. I take a step forward, ready to charge in the water, then I meet Hartrich’s eye sockets and step back.

“Just take her out and let’s go. The pool is not safe,” I command and cut through the crowd back to the swimming pool’s entrance. My skin turns a bright red, part in anger at my outburst and part in shame for choosing to run than be a father and protect my child.

Back home, I avoid the mirrors. I’m afraid to see his features hidden with skill in the foundation of my own.

Growing out of my corpse and into my body in America, I spent hours wondering how a person could give in. What makes a person want to drown?

A haunting lasts forever. It’s erosion of the mind, a wearing of the heart—meticulous and slow in perforating reality. All water has sided with Hartrich.

I hear clinking inside the fridge on a Sunday afternoon and find his hands tapping the ice cubes in the pitcher of iced tea against the glass. Another day I peer into a pot where I’m boiling water for ravioli and stare into his skeletal face. Bubbles rise through his eye sockets and nose. His hair and beard toss in the boiling water like red seaweed caught in currents.

His head bounces up and down in a watercooler bottle. His sole presses against the laundry machine’s glass door as it spins with the kids’ laundry. I gasp on cue when someone offers me any container with liquid.

David notices. The kids do, too, and I wonder if I can remember the moment I knew my father would go to the lake. He’d gotten the call early so the only thing I recall is his laughter—a loud and rough sound that shook my whole body as a little boy. That and his many tattoos.

One day, Hartrich wakes my Father from death and delivers him to my bathtub. All that remains of him are a few pictures, an old videotape eaten by mold long before I could digitize it, and short news clippings from Wasserburg—written in mock shock at his suicide. Time has worn his face pale and smooth in the river of my memory, which is why I don’t scream when I see his face peek through the patches of bubbles in the tub as I’m drawing water for Clive’s bath. I’m too busy recalling his features, sharper and thinner than mine, and his eyes the unforgiving blue of an iceberg. They follow me and beg me to lean over and see him whole.

My hand trembles as I clear the water. Beneath the foam are slivers of clear blue where sunlight dances and runs alongside stones and weed. Small fish swim in undulating strands and at the bottom I see my father, body cradled in a gentle rocking motion, his hair the color of bleeding rust fans around his head, and his eyes burn a brighter blue than any photograph I have of him. The nakedness of him is what scares me, because it’s foreign to me to see him in anything else than bandanas, denim shirts, and a leather jacket. The person staring at me from the bottom has no semblance of the man in the photos other than the snakes on both arms—a nest of blue and a nest of green, fighting each other, fangs piercing each other’s body.

His skin bears many more markings, which can be found in no photograph or video. That is how I know he’s real. I stop at the one right at the center of his pelvis—a purple rose that blooms to reveal an eye at its center and I rub my right thigh where its sister looks on.

He smiles at me as if he knows that even though we’ve never met, we’d have been friends and that it’s all right, because in the end we will meet. Nothing is lost. Not the least in death. The light on his skin makes him look almost alive, but I know better.

How dare he look so happy in death!

I pound the water, which feels fresh, cool, summer–chilled. He reaches up and I feel our hands will meet. My punches grow faster and harder until his image blurs and I’m left with bubble water everywhere and blood from my knuckles staining it red.

“Hon, keep Clive occupied for a little while. I think I made his bath too cold.” I yell and try to keep my voice even.

The bath drains along with my blood—the thing that binds me to Hartrich.

After my drowning, the shivers and I have become conjoined twins. My teeth chatter no matter how long I sit in front of the fireplace. Sometimes I’m so close to the fire, my Opa has to pull me away from it with rough hands before I joined the cinders. November stiffens into deep winter where December and January fatten the mountainside and cover Lake Constance with thick white ice.

The frost keeps me home unable to get warm.

“You’ll catch on fire and then burn the whole house to the ground.” My Opa jokes every time he yanks me away from the fire, always cheerful but even I could feel something lurking in the depths of his raspy voice. If only I could shovel in its gravel, I’d hear what he really wants to say.

I decide not to wait.

“Am I dead, Opa?”

I’m more lake than boy. I hear it in the silence in my veins. In the faint sounds my heart makes as if it has sunk by the rocks where mother drowned me and I can’t reach it. Doesn’t even hurt, this hollowness—I just know it belongs to him. The man with the red beard that I dream of at night.

“No, you’re not dead.” He insists with less cheer in his voice.

“Is he going to kill me?”

“I don’t know.” This is the first time I hear a grown–up admit ignorance. My grandfather’s admission scares me more than drowning again. “This curse runs in your blood.”

He makes a pause that seems unbearably long.

“Blood is always thicker than water and his blood has tied generation after generation in a chain that sinks at the bottom of this lake. Like his mother and father did to him a long time ago. It doesn’t matter that it’s not you who tied his legs to a stone and dropped him off a boat. Killing your kin is a cruel sin. One Hartrich can never forgive even in his death. Now he can’t stop punishing his family even centuries later.”

Opa trails off, but then his attention snaps back in my direction.

“Your mother is a brave woman for what she did. Don’t ever hold it against her. The pain of losing someone does terrible things to the soul. Try to understand her. God above, I hope it’s enough to keep you safe.”

David cries when I tell him what happened to me when I can no longer hide what I see. He doesn’t believe in the curse, what I know will happen to my daughter and I, and I don’t expect him to. I agree to see a therapist, though I know my old home calls to me and my bones rattle in response.

Summer reaches its prime and the family spends the vacation at a lake house in Vermont—as part of my exposure therapy. I sit on the peer and gaze into the lake, its depth bared by the high noon sun and Hartrich looks at me, sitting on a boulder, elbow on his knees, his beard and hair a scarlet cloud around his face. We’ve been staring at each other, until reality is reduced to his eye sockets and the children’s commotion. I don’t notice the heat, which now has made my skin bright red. It will sting in the evening. It will peel for a week after.

“You see him, don’t you?” Una asks from behind and I startle, fast to turn and search for her gaze, hopeful to confirm she saw him, too, but there is no understanding on her face—only concern. The fear that I’m insane, that it’s hereditary, that it’s all true.

I mask my longing to be proved sane with a smile. I don’t want to doom her.

“No, honey.” She doesn’t believe me, which is fine. I wouldn’t believe myself either and I dive in the water for the first time in years. I jump in faster than I can think about it. I’m faster than my fear this time. I’ve failed her so many times already, pretending the therapy is taking hold. This should be the easiest fatherly act.

The water is far colder, having baked for so long in the sun; almost carrying the same chill of that night. I force my eyes open even though I knew he’s there in front of me. Somehow I don’t choke on water when his skull faces me so close that all I see is the dark abyss where his eyes ought to be.

Another splash and Una joins me. I focus on her as we chase underwater. If only we had more time. Hartrich waits and his blood calls to mine.

We have this conversation in public—Una and I. There’s ice cream involved and Denver is haloed with just the right shade of summer glow that leaves you with the unspoken promise nothing can go wrong on a day like this. I choose to go outside, hoping the busy park on a warm Sunday would stall her realization her world is about to end.

A child’s intuition to sense tragedy, however, is not a thing to underestimate. It’s a sharp thing and starved thin of all myopia. Una regards me from behind her cone, yogurt and blueberry ice cream raised as a shield. There’s the teenage resilience in her eyes that says “Try me,” and tired helplessness that hurts me into silence.

“I’m so sorry.” I say when I run out of good ways to start.

“It’s OK. It’s not your fault you see him.” She’s so considerate, even though it should be me doing the comforting. It’s not why I’m apologizing, but she won’t learn that until later.

“I owe you answers. You deserve the conversation I never had. It’s cruel to learn all this from gossip and newspaper clippings.”

We talk then. She asks and I answer. Together we untangle the thread of my history, smoothen it out, and lay it bare. I keep out as many details as possible until it all sounds like a folk tale itself. No particulars. No names to prove this is real. That this has happened and has left me without a father and then without a mother.

“Why won’t you tell me his name? Where you grew up?”

“It’s best to know as little as possible. What kind of father would I be, if I tell you where to go and meet him?”

I pray this is how I beat him. She doesn’t know her ancestry at all. She doesn’t even speak the language. I hope I’ve watered down her blood in her veins so the call will cease with me.

“But that won’t happen. Right, Dad? Because you’re getting better.”

“Right. I’ll never let him come near you.”

It’s the promise I made back in Vermont and not even death will stop me from keeping it.

We shouldn’t have lasted with David. We should have gotten a divorce a long time ago. We shouldn’t have had children. This is what goes round and round in my head as I step off the road and walk to the edges of Lake Constance. Dying would be easier, if my life had fallen apart. It’s so late at night even the houses sleep and the only light comes from him.

I see him in the shallows and witness his beauty, which distance has eaten through. His hair is spun fire sparks and his skin moonpath pale. His flesh is smooth like the marble of the funeral home where I buried my father and no bones peek through. The running is over and he waits. In his hands, a net glimmers like pearl necklaces.

He invites me to drown and I oblige.

He’s patient with me as I take my shoes off, roll my socks into a neat bundle and place each in its shoe. I bend down to fill my pockets with stones, big enough to fit and weigh me down. Big enough to conceal the unsheathed knife in my right pocket. I straighten and take the first step into the water.

Does one speak to their executioner? This I wonder as the water reaches my knees. There are so many things I want to ask Hartrich, but what good are answers now.

The water laps at my chest when I reach him and I see he’s the moon’s reflection made flesh. Cold, but so desirable. I wonder whether Una will ever forgive me for abandoning her. Will he come to her next, if I fail? Seduce her like he does me?

Our greeting is a kiss. He throws his net over my head with gentle hands, handling the ropes with adoration reserved for wedding veils. One by one my cousins and uncles, aunts and forgotten ancestors, flicker into existence like candles lit during mass. The whole family rises from the dead to witness the admission of the latest to join their ranks. His tongue tastes of rot and I choke, but by then it’s too late.

Hartrich drags me down. I never forgot what drowning feels like and now that I’m older and stronger I fight against the kiss. I don’t want this fate for me.

My chest burns. I pull against the net, although I know this is what I chose. Each tug only winds the net tighter around my body so the ropes cut into my skin. The surface flickers with faint light above as the school of dead souls descend into the depths. Water crushes us, but the burning inside hurts more than the pressure. I wait out the violence of my body as it struggles to survive until I hold onto the last scraps of consciousness. At this depth, my ancestors shine in marble white and richest red.

I let go, grow slack. This my body also remembers how to do and Hartrich undoes his net so it dissolves into nothing but strings of bubbles, most likely the last breaths of all victims he’s ever claimed. Here he’s the most corporeal and he doesn’t need charm or good looks anymore. Muscle and fair complexion liquefy to expose yellow bone laced with the green of lake sludge. A frayed rope has rubbed itself through his waist tight around his vertebrae.

I tremble as he embraces me in his bone–bare arms. It takes every bit of strength to pull out the knife.

The blade glides through his remaining phantom flesh with ease. Once, twice, thrice until he lets go of me, his chest oozing something foul in the ghastly light, before I take the knife to my throat. It doesn’t matter if I hurt him or not. What matters is for our blood to mingle.

It’s like Opa said—blood calls to blood. If Hartrich can tie his descendants into a drowning line with no end, I can tie them in a noose.

Haralambi Markov

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, Markov enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors… usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets at @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Electric Velocipede, Tor.com, Stories for Chip, The Apex Book of World SF, and are slated to appear in Genius Loci and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on a novel.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.