Amphibian Summer

By Meg Caddy

Charlie hurtles past me and flings himself, long-limbed, though the air. He is a spider, then a brown frog as he plunges deep beneath the oily skin of the river. I pull myself further along the bank. My stomach is bare against the soft, damp ground, and my nails are rimmed black. We’ve been searching for tadpoles all morning, and I’m mud-slick from prying into plants and pools.

The river is lazy and fat here, and there’s hardly any pull. The bank eases down and chews at time-wearied rocks. The bushes are thick and the mud looks like chocolate. Once or twice, I’ve seen snakes down here, so I don’t come often. I’m only here now because Charlie talked me into it. He comes here with his friends almost every day of the summer. I like Charlie, but I don’t like his friends. They pull fun when I strip to my bathers, and I’m too aware of my body as it grows and changes. I prefer when it’s just Charlie and me. It’s different with Charlie. He can talk me into just about anything.

Charlie and I went to the same primary school. He’s fierce and funny, and he’ll fight anyone. We are oddly paired. Our parents despise one another, and he gets me into trouble at school. He makes me laugh like no one else, and I help him with his homework. Not because he’s stupid, but because he has better things to do with his time than equations and essays.

‘Jupe!’ Charlie flings his head out of the water. His hair is longer than mine and hangs about his face like dreadlocks. He grins. ‘Jupe, get in here!’ He misjudges the depth and his head disappears; he re-emerges a moment later sputtering and swearing. I don’t like it when he swears, even when there are no adults around. I feel guilty for him. At home, we don’t swear. Charlie’s family members swear all the time. They drink, too. I’ve never seen my dad drink more than one beer in a sitting, and my mum never touches alcohol. Sometimes, Charlie comes to school reeking of booze. The smell has grown comforting to me now. Whenever I smell beer, I think of Charlie.

I slither over the dirt. I can dangle my fingers in the water from here. ‘I told you, I don’t swim.’

‘Jupe!’ He splashes at my face. ‘What, you never learned?’

Of course I learned. Australian children must learn to swim, I remember my dad saying. Stupid not to, when it’s so hot and we’re surrounded by ocean. It’s the ocean putting me off, though I can’t find the words to tell Charlie this. I remember the slap of salt water on my face, brine scalding my throat. I was sucked down and out again and again by callous waves. I was buffeted so hard that my goggles and one of my contact lenses were knocked off. When I came to the shore, high-pitched ringing wormed in my ears and my teeth crunched with sand.

Now we’re in high school, I can find ways to avoid swimming.

‘No.’ I lie, because it’s the only thing I can think of to do. Charlie’s my best friend, but sometimes he can be hard to handle. ‘I never learned.’ Charlie has never seen me swim, because we were in different P.E. classes in primary school. He has never seen me turn into a salamander, slimy and clinging to the edge.

‘Bull. If you can’t swim, why are you wearing bathers? Swimming’s easy, and you’re a chicken. Get in the water, Jupe!’

The water thick and green, slow enough to gather slime. Tadpoles wriggling between our toes, leeches making a lethal plunge for our skin. Fastening tiny teeth in my flesh and gorging themselves on my blood. Sharp rocks against bare feet. My lungs strain, and I have to remind myself to breathe. I wish I didn’t sweat so much.

I can’t do it.

‘Nah,’ I say.

Charlie spits a mouthful of water at me and ducks under. His pale foot sticks up, and then I lose track of him under the murky surface. He’s down there for too long and I lean out over the river. My heart bounces off my ribcage. Where is he?

The silence is swallowed by the rush of water. Wet arms lock about my shoulders and drag me in. I flip over, swallowing a lump of river-filth as I go down. Bubbles blurt from my mouth and I thrash. My eyes and lungs burn. I try to roll, but the arms still hold me. They drag me, stronger than my own, and only let go when it is too deep to stand. I break the skin of the river and suck in the music of air. Some of the drops running down my cheeks are tears.

Charlie cackles like a loon. He turns over in the water. He’s nimble and able, and I can’t quite keep my head above the sharp ripples of silk surrounding me.

‘It’s not funny!’ I feel a child even as I say it. Charlie keeps laughing. His face is broad and well-formed, and he seems to have skipped over the acne the rest of us have to deal with. In that moment, for just a moment, I hate him. I hate him for laughing at me. I hate him for dealing with the world so easily.

What gives you the right, Charlie?

I feel sick. The ground is too far beneath me, and I can’t see through the turbid depths of the river. I lash out to try to grab his shoulder, but he whoops and swims away from me. I tip my head back and look at the sky. The water crosses my vision every so often, spotting my gaze. To keep my mouth out, my ears have to be covered, and my eardrums pulse angrily.

Something wraps about my leg and tugs me down. My scream turns to bubbles, but this time I am released again in a matter of seconds. Charlie is close again, and now his smile has a touch of concern, or perhaps irritation.

‘Calm your farm, Jupe,’ he says. ‘Hey? It’s fine, just keep your arms and legs moving –’

I sock him in the mouth. My knuckles burst on his teeth. Charlie crashes back and sinks. There’s blood on my hands. There’s blood in the water. He lurches up and spits a glob into the river. He’s swearing and shouting, and he comes at me with wild hands. I fling my arms up to protect my face and he batters my twiggy limbs. I slip beneath the fold of the water. Charlie hits my head. Nausea rocks my stomach and I can’t see anything. I’ve stopped trying to block out the water and it just rushes into my throat. I choke and choke, and now I’m fighting the river instead of Charlie.

I’m gone, then. I’m gone and done. My body sinks like a stone, but my mind puffs out on the air like dandelion wisps. I watch bubbles spiral away from me. The river is all black, a giant leech, and it swallows me whole.

‘Jupe! Jupe!’

The sound is so clear I know I’m either out of the water or dead. There is ground beneath me and I roll onto my belly to retch. The river courses out of my mouth. It burns as much on the way out as it did on the way down. I’m at the mercy of my stomach as it pumps out the fear of the last few minutes. When my gut is done, I lie shaking on the mud with my face flat in the dirt.

‘Jupe. I’m so sorry, Jupe. Jupe, I’m sorry!’

I can see his knees, skinned. Brown and green with stains of the riverbank. He tries to haul me up, but I am heavy and limp and eventually he lies beside me. His eyes are red-rimmed. Snot, tears, and river-water. His mouth is still bleeding, and his lip has swollen; it looks like a purple amphibian, clinging to his face.

We look at one another. All I can hear is the rasp of our gasps. Charlie and I. Then he drags himself over and puts a dirty arm across my shoulders. I have never been held so long or so tight. My arms are heavy but I drape them about Charlie. I’m too tired to sob.

An hour passes, perhaps longer. We lie so weighty in the dirt; we must look like statues planted in a garden. Our skin, pressed together, is stone. We are wet and frog-like, our limbs tangled. Charlie has one hand on the back of my neck, the other clutching my arm. My palms are on either side of his face.

He’s the first one to speak, as always.

‘I’ll never do that again.’

I don’t know whether he means the teasing, or the way he hit me, or both. Now the spell has been broken, feeling seeps back into my body. My lungs, throat, head are sore. I run my tongue over my lips.

‘Never again,’ I repeat, my own promise. We roll away from one another and stare at the sky.

‘Knew you were chicken,’ Charlie mumbles.

I scoop up a handful of mud and rub it in his hair.