Chandelier in the Water

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She stands in the middle of the North Dakota plains. Her bare feet growing roots into the earth. Her palms turned outwards to catch the sun from the early autumn sky--a perfect blue. Perfect blue to match the perfect gold of the endless plains. It’s nothing but rolling hills for miles around her. She feels desperately alone, desperately awake, desperately aware, desperately alive.

***


Her hand hovers over the half finished canvas, poised with a thin brush in her fingertips. The hem of her sleeve has flecks of green paint on it. She hesitates, not sure if the teal really is the best fix for an evergreen wheat field. Her mind roams around the crowded sunroom she stands in. Her skin glows in the early morning light dustily shining through the screened windows; bringing with the scent of grain and the hum of cicadas.

“Elizabeth! Breakfast!”

“Coming Mother!”

She runs with the elegance of a deer, dropping the brush on the floor.

***

Elizabeth, can you tell us your secrets? How did you get so strong? How did you get so lovely? How did you get your grades so good? Please tell us, how did you get so perfect?
She hears their whispering down the hall and back up again. It’s too early in the morning to have them actually ask her how she swims so fast, paints so steady, sings so delicate. She is glad of this, for her head lays heavy at the top of her spine, making everything fuzzy and hard to process. She struggles to remain solid, unwavering. The air she ate for breakfast rests in her stomach like the bitter aftertaste of coffee. Thoughts come jagged, splintery, like clipped words out of magazines--incoherent patterns that trace through her mind and race to her eyes, building up like unshed tears.
“Elizabeth, what did you do with your weekend?” His voice echos in the hall, even though it’s packed with the late rush of people.
She turns to him slowly, feeling the weight of the unfinished painting and the laps waiting to be swum in her limbs. Her head bobs. Her mind speaks: I did things that people never talk about because we all feel the same and we’re so scared of never being different.
Her real voice pushes out the air to form a sentence, “Nothing much, homework mostly. What about you?”

“Same, it was pretty lame. You should hear what I just heard about Joan and Charlie...”

***

The tight swimsuit clings to her dry skin, which is ready to peel and flake at the first touch of the chlorine-filled water. The absolute humidity coats the inside of her lungs and she feels as though she is drowning. She stares at the smooth, unbroken water, only to be broken herself by a shout from the coach, “Ralters! Those laps aren’t going to swim themselves!”

She dives into the water, sinking too fast. A whisper from the back of her head murmurs “Perfect girl in the water. It’s over your head.”

She breaks the surface, floundering and gasping for air. The voice wasn’t hers, but she knows it to be right. Her empty limbs float too easily on the surface of the water, and she feels as a marshmallow in the sea would. Too easily floating, carried by every little gust of wind.

“Ralters! What on earth are you doing?”

Sorry Coach, I seem to have an intruder in my head telling me truths that the water is over my head and I’m floundering, floundering, and there is nothing I can do but try to stay consistent with my breathing. Her mind answers this while her lips move, “Sorry Coach, I really don’t feel so good. I think I need to go lay down.”

She is the best swimmer on the team, and the Coach can’t afford to let her overstrain herself, she is sent home.

***


It is six miles from the school to her home, and she walks every inch of them with her hands limp by her sides, the backpack pulling her spine all the way down. She feels compressed by every little word said to her. A chandelier they say she is, but they’ll never let their minds do the talking.

“A perfect girl, a chandelier of unusual beauty they say I am, yet the water is in over my head,” She whispers to herself around two miles from home.

The golden prairie sweeps a fierce wind across her face, whipping her dripping hair all about. She clears her throat as if to sing, but can’t even find the energy in her empty limbs to open her mouth. The water is over her head.





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