Brooke White is a Michigander with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Entropy, Iron Horse Literary Review, March Xness, and Honey Lit among others. She received her MFA from the University of Minnesota. She’s currently at work on a book of literary nonfiction about desire, transformations, and fairy tales. Her latest ponderings and delights can be found on Instagram and Twitter @brkthewriter.
That Big Eye in the Sky
When I visit my father and pull a book from my childhood bookshelf, memories crash into me and I am swallowed by the undertow. The Water Babies is originally by Charles Kingsley but this copy is a retelling by Josephine Poole. The book is large with jubilant babies swimming across the bright blue cover.
I sit in a room which, come summer, will house a storage container of crawdads, bait for my dad’s fishing. Blessedly, the stench and the sound of the bubbler in that make-shift tank are gone by fall and the room is quiet. I open the book and am reminded of the story of a poor chimney sweep child with the same name as my father, who ran from his life until, parched and exhausted, he slipped into a stream. We are told that his body was only a shell. Fairies transformed Tom into a water baby the size of a minnow, washed clean of his memories on land. All at once, I am reading about the fictional drowned child and I am there in that story, and I am there in the crawdad room, and I’m returning to an island in Greece in my mind.
My mother went to Greece with my step father on their honeymoon and brought pieces of the place back to the Midwest in photographs and little bags of stolen sand, seashells, and rocks. And so, when I heard of a residency in Greece where I could learn the art of storytelling, I spent my savings and scholarship money on a ticket. On an island in the Aegean, I wore my mother’s slip beneath my dress.
I joined other young writers on our host’s fishing boat. The sun had set hours ago. By moonlight and the light of the boat, the old man pulled in heavy nets. Three octopi were nestled among the mass of wriggling fish. One octopus was small enough that it might have been thrown back, but as it was pulled from the net it detached arms. The sick, wet ripping sound of limbs torn from body was louder than I expected. I looked away when the knife came out.
In The Water Babies the full moon beckons Tom to the surface where he sits on a rock in the rippled reflection of its glow. He stares at the moon and the moon stares at him, and Tom decides it looks like a great big yellow eye in the sky. And so it was as I looked at the moon and she looked at me, until our boat reached the shore.
Near the end of my stay in Greece, the host invited the writers on an octopus hunt. He donned a camouflage scuba suit and students followed him into the water like ducklings. I stayed behind. I feared the long swim to deep waters. Only a few days prior, I had the beginnings of a panic attack while swimming. I was daunted by the living things I couldn’t see swirling around me. One of my new friends spoke to me in the kindest voice and swam achingly slow so I wouldn’t feel alone in that expanse. She showed me a rock arch beneath the water and asked if I wanted to join her there. I said no and watched her dip below the surface. The arch looked like the front of a castle, not unlike the home of the water babies where coral and anemones bloom and snakes stand guard.
On the day of the octopus hunt I watched the cohort swim out into the sea. I stood on a craggy cliff overlooking the water. Perhaps it would’ve been romantic if the wind would’ve rippled in my hair, if I loved someone in that water and awaited their return. Mostly, it was lonely. Our host saw one of the girls in the cohort almost fall asleep the day before and told her, live harder. I wondered if I needed to be living harder. I’d spent so much to be here, and I was alone on a cliff watching. I’d become so content just watching.
The writers returned, the loot heavy in an orange bucket. The water babies help fish evade nets, set lobsters free from cages, re-plant seaweed which was blown asunder in storms. They give directions to confused birds and clean rock pools. I imagine, had they been there, the water babies would’ve tipped this bucket upside down and let that octopus slip through our fingers. But as it was, the octopus was subjected to a litany of how-do-you-dos and peppered with questions about life beneath the waves. The group decided they would set the octopus free. But first, their fingers needed to know the feel of its body and their eyes needed to drink up the sight. There were hands and more hands reaching out. The octopus was small, so much smaller than I thought it’d be, the size of both my hands.
The sea drained from the bucket and the octopus cleverly snaked its arms through the holes, creating stoppers to keep water inside the leaky trap. We filled the bucket with more water. The arms which spilled from the bucket were a deep umber then pale and paler still, until they were white. At last, our wonder was sated. A few of us swam to the deep to return the creature to the sea. One of the children put the bucket beneath the water and tipped it over.
This would be the scene in a cartoon when the octopus would wave, give a wink, and swim away. This octopus did not swim away. In the story of the water babies, Tom, in his loneliness and curiosity, peels back the cocoon of a dragonfly. The dragonfly’s kin scold him, saying she won’t be able to transform and now she will die. Her life, the cost of his wondering. And so it was with the octopus. It sank, then bobbed, lifeless in the waves.
One of the leaders of the program was a poet. It was hard to tell her age. There were wrinkles near her eyes, she was covered in freckles and smiled easily. Her long dark hair was almost always swept up. I mostly saw her lounging on the beach in sunglasses and a strappy black bikini. When she wasn’t on the beach she wore tank tops, skirts, and a silver octopus pendant. On the beach, she wore an octopus tattoo on her lower back.
She didn’t eat octopi, not anymore, she said. She specified, she wouldn’t eat anything she wasn’t comfortable killing. The most humane way to kill an octopus, she said, was to stab it in the eye, deep enough for the blade hit the brain. She said she’d seen a fisherman with his hands full bite into the head of an octopus to kill it, tearing the flesh behind its eyes with his teeth. Since then, she couldn’t bring herself to eat octopi.
When the octopus floated the children were shooed to the shore and the poet walked into the water. I hadn’t seen her in the water before this day. Per her request, someone retrieved the body and brought it to her, an offering. She didn’t see any sense in wasting the meat now that the creature was dead. And so, clad in a bikini and large sunglasses, with her bun freshly unveiled from a fashionable sunhat, she grabbed the wadded body. She dug her manicured nails deep inside it, pulling its guts out and tossing them into the water. Then she tenderized it. She ground the pulpy carcass against a rock, then lifted it in the air and beat it on a stone, water flinging off the limp tentacles in rings circling her. She was strong, so strong, and sure in her movements.
In the story of the water babies, a poor woman steps into the stream and is transformed, her rags replaced with green moss, white water lilies floating in her dark hair. So it was with this poet in the sea, now a goddess in my mind. She was sure of herself. She was sexy and powerful— I hadn’t known it was possible for a woman to be both.
Before I tell you this next part, I think I should preface by saying that I am very rarely naked. I’m jealous of friends who say they walk around their house in the nude or sleep in their birthday suit. I wear tank tops under my shirts, slips under my skirts. When I was young, my mother said the elderly women across the way asked if I still lived in the condo. They lamented that my sun catchers weren’t shining in my bedroom window any-more. This was when I realized that even at home I am not really alone and I might not ever be hidden. For a time, I was intent on preserving my secret, sacred body as an unspoiled gift wrapped much too tightly. And then I worried my maidenly body was expiring. I avoided seeing myself naked to dodge my stretch marks, the prominent vein on my chest, the unsymmetrical shape of me, and the hair which sprouted in increasingly creative spots.
On that island in Greece, there was one night in particular I remember vividly. A woman in my cohort asked if I’d join her for a moonlit dip. She was a few years my senior and had a habit of maintaining eye contact I found delightful and unnerving. Her long hair, often tangled by the wind, grazed her shoulders. She was one of the tallest women I’d ever met, and laughed at my macabre jokes. She wore the shadows of sleepless nights beneath her dark brown eyes. She had a generous smile despite the deep well of sadness which seemed to inform her joy.
The beach was empty. The moon was still full, and we’d heard there was bioluminescent algae near the shore. When she suggested we take our clothes off I did not hesitate. We were already in the water. She balled up her swimsuit and threw it to shore. I tossed my top onto the sand and looped my swimsuit bottoms around my wrist. Her long limbs looked even longer in the water. It was strange to see her cast in the cool blues of moonlight after so many summer days when she soaked her hair in sunlight, swallowed light whole with her eyes and trapped it in the pulsing colors she wore. On this night, her eyes and hair were dark like the water surrounding us. She was melting into the sea, and so was I.
In this moment, I was not afraid of the water. I was not afraid of my body. I was not afraid of being seen. The sea was crystalline by day, under the full moon it was just as clear. I could see myself beneath the water, shining in the light which hopped from one ripple to the next. I floated on my back, presented myself to the night. I felt safe with her. I felt beautiful. I felt cradled by the water. My body was kissed by flashes of phosphorescence.
And then a guy from the program lumbered down to shore. I pushed my body below the water. He asked if he could join us. She said yes, so I said okay. He took his shirt and pants off but kept his briefs on. He strutted through the shallows, breaking the calm sheen of the water into many little waves, then dove into the sea.
He led us to a rock with a ladder. He said he wanted to get a better look at the moon. The woman I was swimming with hadn’t brought her suit and didn’t want to climb the rock naked so she stayed below, parting the water with her hands, bending her body as she circled the rock like she belonged to the sea.
I took my swimsuit bottoms from my wrist and slipped them on. I waited for him to climb first, then I sat behind him on the cool stone. We didn’t talk, just shared the rock in the water and the rock in the sky.
When we’d had our fill of moon, I climbed back down the ladder and he dove headfirst into the deep. The woman I’d been swimming with was already making her way to shore.
On the last day of the residency, tipsy on tsipouro, the woman from that night stood alone in the dining room and danced a zeibekiko. I joined in her spinning. My bright hair and blue dress whirled about me, her dark hair and red dress rippled in the warm air she made restless. We spun separately but orbited one another. The director of the program took pictures of us dancing and posted them online. In one picture our backs are turned, in the next, I look up at her and smile.
In the tale of the water babies, there is a woman with many faces. She is the beggar in the beginning, she is Queen of the fairies, and Mother Carey— that old iceberg of a woman. That summer, I was the girl on a cliff watching her friends swim away and I was a girl who was terrified of the sea. I was the girl who bristled at the idea of being seen and was anxious about creatures in the water. I was the girl who swam naked under the full moon, and I was the girl who did not fear the water by night. I was a girl enchanted by other women. I was my mother’s daughter, swimming in the same sea which once embraced her.
Amidst many transformations, I was afraid of who I might become. My idea of who I was seemed a slippery thing I tried and failed to hold for long enough to understand. I didn’t know what would come next and so I wanted to drift, to be ferried from one chapter of my life to the next with my eyes closed, but I knew I’d have to return to shore and soon after return home. The girl I was that summer was a brief wink between me and that big eye in the sky. Some nights, I imagine watching from above as this past- self wades through the water, small as a minnow. Others, I swim with her in the moon-glow of my memories. It’s so bright you can spot all the little worlds at work in the water down to the ocean floor. It’s during these moonlit dips I imagine cradling the girl I was, rocking her with the waves, telling her not to fear what she can’t yet see.