By Ruth Spack
“Hakshivu, hakshivu!” The wake-up call blasts through the loudspeaker, shattering Beth’s dreams. Cold New Hampshire air bites her nose. Reaching for covers, Beth discovers she’s already covered, tightly tucked, in a narrow cot. At home, in Rhode Island, where it’s hot in summer, she’d be lying on top of her soft chenille spread, comforted by a breeze from the whirring window fan. She would not be hearing creaky wooden shutters opening up to dampness and fog. Or croaky counselors nudging ten twelve-year-old girls out of bed. She certainly would not be taking today’s pre-test for junior lifesaving, which will likely trigger an asthma attack and end in disaster. Most of all, she would not have to listen to Zev, the hairy scary head of swimming, as he yells the test instructions in Hebrew, a language she barely understands.
Beth had longed for a place where, as a child, she could be a child, to break free of the sadness at home. This must be so hard for you. There are no words. May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Fool that she was, she’d ended up in a place where she felt even more wretched than before. She’d accepted a scholarship to attend Camp Akiba, which abides by Orthodox rules and is Hebrew speaking, even though she’s not Orthodox and doesn’t speak Hebrew. Back home, in Hebrew school, where teachers taught more reading than speaking, Beth was at the top. Here, she’s at the bottom. How was she supposed to know she wasn’t adequately prepared? Now she has no choice but to suck it up.
It is time to pray. Filing out of the bunk behind her best camp friend, Arielle, Beth walks past the shower house up the hill to the community hall: Beit Ha’am, House of the People. A divided people: boys on one side, girls on the other, in rows of backless benches. No romantic distractions that way, or so the dopey rabbi thinks. In the opening prayer, the men and boys thank God for not making them female. “Thank God for not making me the kind of person who would say such a thing,” Beth whispers to Arielle, who also isn’t Orthodox, hoping for a laugh. But Arielle presses her finger to her lips. Beth looks up at the high pointed ceiling. Its wooden beams seem warped, threatening collapse. The room smells like sweaty armpits, or is it sour milk, or... mold. Beth’s chest tightens. It’s hard for her to breathe just sitting here. How can Zev expect her to breathe long enough to swim two miles around Natacook Lake?
It is now time to learn. School in summer? At camp? After breakfast, Beth sits at a desk to study Hebrew, through pictures, with nine-year-olds. Humiliating. At least the class isn’t the waterfront, and the teacher, Moreh Goldstein, is no Zev. He uses English, for one thing, making sure every kid comprehends. Wearing a white baseball cap backwards, he draws comical stick figures on the blackboard that make Beth smile. His tanned arms make her swoon. When Moreh Goldstein catches Beth’s admiring gaze, she turns away, mortified. Through the torn window screen, Beth sees the camp director’s wife on the porch of her cabin, swaying back and forth on a white wooden rocker, her long black hair pulled back in a red ribbon. She looks down, adoringly, at her nursing baby. His whole tiny body fits in her arm, snuggly and safe.
It is time to change for swimming. Beth returns to the bunk with the rest of the girls, all of whom, unlike her, have sprouted breasts. Arielle holds up a towel and promises not to look while Beth slips into her flat-chested swimsuit. Is there no end to the embarrassment? Last one out, in no hurry to get to the lake, Beth heads toward the waterfront, terrified of drowning, of death. Arielle and the others sprint down the stony path, casting no shadows. The fog has lifted, but the air, still murky, feels as thick as syrup. Beth moves tentatively through the gauntlet of pines. Tiny pebbles wedge between her toes. Stopping to shake out her sandals, she looks toward the sacred grove. Beit Knesset, House of Assembly, they call it, though it’s just a space in the woods. The whole camp gathers before sunset every Friday, dressed in white. Pure, peaceful, heavenly. When they welcome the Sabbath, L’cha dodi, Come, my beloved, it moves Beth almost to tears. Nothing like Friday nights at home, which always bore her to tears. After dinner, in a straight-backed chair, her mother reads to Beth from the Bible. Not that she’s religious. She’s just searching, she says. In Beth’s mind, she’s just squeezing the joy out of life. Not that there’s much joy left to squeeze, now that Beth’s father is no longer alive.
Standing on the narrow wooden dock with the other Sharks on this overcast day, trembling in the chilly air, Beth glances beyond the dark, still water toward the faraway trees. They are motionless against the gray sky. The canoes and rowboats lie empty, stirring in the wake of a townie’s motorboat as it skims across the lake. Only one camp boat is manned with a skipper: the one Zev will ride in safety, while the swimmers risk their lives. At day camp, before Akiba, Beth had advanced from Flying Fish to Shark. She’d learned to float, fully clothed, for six minutes, tread water for seven, and do the butterfly for twenty-five yards and the backstroke for one hundred. In a swimming pool, not in a freezing lake. Shark is the highest level she wants to achieve. But Zev is forcing her to take a test that will qualify her to take another test that will qualify her to save lives. If she passes, which she won’t. Her form is pitiful, which Zev has seen, and her asthma wreaks havoc. Zev doesn’t care.
Marching from one end of the lineup to another, his lips moving rapidly in Hebrew, Zev explains the procedure and rules. An occasional word breaks through in the translation section of Beth’s brain – jump . . . tread . . . swim — but she hears no instruction for rescue. What if a kid can’t make it? Zev points at the first camper in line, who eagerly jumps in. Icy water splashes up and nips at Beth’s bony knees. Camper after camper takes the plunge and treads water, until it’s Arielle’s turn. She vanishes beneath the surface. Ripples of water expand where her head used to be. Beth is next, and last. Stepping back, she catches her breath and coughs, involuntarily, like a barking seal. Zev taps his forefinger against his brow. No words are necessary for Beth to understand he thinks asthma is all in her head. Almost everyone thinks that. Even her mother sometimes. Her father would have believed her.
“I’m not ready,” she rasps in English. “Please don’t make me do this.”
Don’t make a scene in public, Beth hears her mother say. Hide your feelings. Never mind that her mother broke down and cried in Benny’s Hardware last month.
“Jump,” says Zev in Hebrew.
“I’m allergic to fish,” says Beth. She’d say anything to get off the hook. Her father used to laugh when she talked like that. Then he’d let her have her way.
“I said, ‘Jump,’” says Zev.
Hot urine seeps into Beth’s crotch. If she doesn’t obey, the kids will see pee dripping down her leg. “I’m sorry,” she says for no reason. Down she goes, like a nail hit by a mallet, piercing the bitter cold water. Momentarily numb, she arches her back, instinctively, and thrashes upwards. Thank goodness when she was a Minnow she learned to rise to the top.
Zev blows his whistle. The forward crawl begins and she joins the long, slow line for the perilous journey. Sediment stings her eyes. In the wake of Arielle’s splashing feet, her throat constricts and she chokes. Waving for help, she spits into the air most of what she has swallowed, snorting the rest out through her nose. From his seat on the safety boat, Zev yells through his bullhorn, in Hebrew, to keep moving. You’re an American, like me, she wants to yell back. Why won’t you use English even now, when one of your campers might sink like treasure to the bottom?
Zev screams Beth’s name, or rather the Hebrew version of her name: “Beit!”
I’m Beth, not Beit, the voice in her head screams. I’m not a house; I’m a human being
Oh, to hear “Beth” again, spoken softly. Beth! Beth!
“Kick!” shouts Zev. “Kick!”
Beth struggles to flutter her feet and establish a rhythm. It’s uneven. Still, all of her limbs are in motion now, which feels right. Using her whole body means regaining control.
At the far edges of the lake, trees hang in mid-air, as if the solid earth has dissipated into thin air.
The whistle blows. “Backstroke!” yells Zev.
Face up in the cool air, Beth puffs her breath to loosen her throat. Breathing in slowly, deeply, she counts three beats to exhale. The lake seems to have calmed. The tight muscles around her lungs release. Her whole body relaxes. Flutter kick, right arm behind, left arm behind, repeat. Relief. She can’t go under lying on her back like this.
“Hey, Beth!” calls Arielle.
“Hey, Arielle!” she calls back.
“You can do this!”
Tilting her chin up, Beth contemplates the white-gray sky, as grimy as an unwashed bedsheet. Why is it easier to feel happy when the sky is blue? It’s strange because when people are feeling blue, it means they’re sad. Maybe a clear blue sky feels sad without clouds for company. Sometimes Beth feels like an empty sky. Maybe her mother feels that way, too, with no husband to hold her. Breathe in, breathe out, gently, repeat. Fluffy pink clouds would be nice. Dark clouds would not. Beth remembers the warnings posted at Scarborough Beach whenever black clouds appeared. Once before a storm, a grown woman ignored the red flag and swam out too far. Bucking the rip tide, a lifeguard pulled her back to safety. On the sand, he pinched her nose and breathed into her open mouth. Everyone clapped when she coughed. The clapping stopped when she vomited.
Zev’s whistle blows again. “Butterfly!” he shouts.
No way will Beth stick her face back in the water. That would be suicide. She conjures up pink conch shells with tall spires. Barnacles on rocks. The tantalizing smell of French fries wafting over the sand. The camp’s fries taste like leather shoelaces. Not that she’s ever eaten shoelaces, or leather.
“Beit, I said Butterfly!” shouts Zev, as his boat pulls up beside her.
Oh, how she hates him! Onto her stomach she goes, plotting his murder. Pull, push, recover. Pull, push, recover. Her shoulders feel as though they’re loaded with lead. Every time her head comes up, she sees Arielle and the others circling in front of her. They’re better swimmers, and stronger. They’ll survive. Beth remembers when she fell against a cast-iron radiator at age five, cracking open her head. She didn’t cry when it happened, not even when the doctor sewed her up. “A regular little Buddha,” he said. “Not crying means you’re special,” said her mother. She still likes to say it. Sometimes Beth wishes she were ordinary.
“Tread water!” shouts Zev.
“Hey,” says Arielle, “you’re doing great.”
“How would you know? I’m swimming behind you.”
“You’re still here.”
Whistle again. “Sidestroke!”
More than halfway there. Pull, push, glide. Pull, push, glide. It’s supposed to feel relaxing, but her rib cage aches. Why do they make children experience such pain? Beth remembers the first day of camp. A huge splinter speared her foot as she slid, shoeless, across the bunk floor. Beth didn’t make a sound, not one peep, when the nurse sliced open a sliver of skin to remove it, not even when she swabbed iodine into the wound. What would have been the harm if she’d cried? Maybe the nurse would have hugged her instead of saying, “You’re so brave, such a stoic.”
The whistle. “Breaststroke!”
Last stretch. Pull, breathe, kick, glide. Pull, kick, breathe… breathe… breathe, glide. Breathe… breathe. She is tempted to give up and disappear into the deep. Make it Zev’s problem.
The dock comes into view between the water and the sky. Only a few hundred strokes until she reaches land. Arielle and the other front line swimmers pick up their speed. Now she does, too. No way will she arrive on shore far back from the pack. Enough humiliation for one day. She swims hard, fast, pushing past the pain. And then, gasping for air, her stomach cramping, she breaks the surface, parts the water, touches rocks, and stands on her feet, unsteady at first, but alive.
“You did it!” cries Arielle, waiting with her hand raised to a high five.
Beth looks around to be sure Zev can’t see her. “I did it!” she says, smacking Arielle’s hand with joy, feeling like a goddess of Victory.
Now on shore, towering above Beth, Zev uses English to praise himself for pushing her to the limit. “I was right,” he says. “I knew it.”
Shivering, shriveled, her toes seeking warmth in the pebbly sand, she nods, knowing she’s expected to acknowledge the lesson she’s just learned about true grit. But an angry spirit rises from her gut, grabbing her throat.
“So what if I swam around the lake?” she shouts at Zev. “I couldn’t care less.” Her skin tingles as warm blood courses through her veins. She feels physically different: better.
“I got you to do it,” Zev says with a cutting smile.
“You scared me into doing it,” she shouts. “That’s nothing to be proud of. Anyone can scare a kid. All you have to do is yell.” She clenches her fists behind her back to keep them from socking Zev.
Zev shrugs and walks away, which makes her hurl the biggest insult she can think of. “Why can’t you just be nice?” she screams at his back. “Weren’t you a kid once? Or did your mother give birth to a monster?”
Arielle smiles, which makes Beth feel good.
Back at the bunk, she flops like a wet dish rag onto her cot, face down. Her arms dangle almost to the floor. Arielle touches her shoulder and asks if she’s okay. Beth shakes her off, fighting back tears. Her insides are no longer raging, but they’re filled to the brim with sorrow. Zev was wrong: she shouldn’t qualify. How can she be a lifesaver if she herself is still waiting to be saved?