The fathers drowned and scientists were baffled.
All over the world fathers met their end in water. Fishing fathers drowned in rivers, swimming fathers drowned in lakes, tanning fathers drowned in backyard pools. Bathing fathers drowned in tubs and surfing fathers were sucked in the sea’s undertow. Fathers panning for gold drowned in creeks. A father was found dead with his head in an overflowing sink near dishes slick with syrup from breakfast. A father in a bathrobe was discovered face down in a puddle in the parking lot of a department store. Deep within a national forest, a father was found upended with both black rubber boots stuck up high from a primitive outhouse’s chamber hole. He would have looked funny if he weren’t dead.
Fathers in other countries, fathers of celebrities, rich fathers, poor fathers, fathers only known in passing, cherished fathers, stepfathers, fathers of strangers and fathers of friends. They drowned and drowned.
The accountant decided to hide her dear aging father, her only parent, in his inherited cabin up in the mountains with enough food to last for months. It was a dry cabin without plumbing. The accountant installed a fan to keep the father cool. The accountant gave the father plastic water bottles of modest size. The accountant brought her father his best oil paints and his favorite pair of binoculars so he could paint wildlife. The father once had a moderately successful career as an artist. Later, the father had taught experimental filmmaking at a state university. He’d always painted beautifully. He’d always loved wildlife. The accountant wondered whether her artist father was disappointed that his lone child became an accountant, though he had never mentioned anything.
On a video call, the father showed the accountant a new self-portrait. In the painting, his eyes were like holes. The circles of skin around the father’s terrible eyes shone green. He looked dead. “Wow,” the accountant told him. Her heart started to pound.
“I’m having a renaissance,” the father said. “A nest of sparrows in the eaves! Their pure little voices sing me to sleep.”
“Paint me the birds, as a present?”
“Lady, not everything belongs in a damn painting!” the father said with a mean chuckle that startled her. Mountain air must have been doing his spirit good.
Scientists’ tests showed a heat dome over the earth. Layers of warmth got caught in a feedback loop that killed wind, dissolved clouds, and threw weather systems off. Fathers loved nothing more than water and heat inflamed their desire to soak themselves. If everyone could make it through the worst part of the season, it would probably be okay. Meanwhile people had to guard their fathers.
“I walked out toward the valley to find beautiful things to paint,” the father told the accountant over the phone, “but the wind gusted so hard. It blew waves of grass toward the cabin. Smoky pollen swirled over the ground. A bush waved frantically by the door, lit up in the sun like that Moses bush.”
“Don’t leave for non-emergencies,” the accountant told him. She wondered if her father ever felt the lust for water. What was it like? An overwhelming full-body urge or softer, like an irritating thought on loop? She was afraid to ask.
“Trees don’t need to run around like us. Don’t you think they feel, too? They trust themselves. They’re more deeply in the world. I want to be a tree, in place forever.”
“You shouldn’t have left the cabin at all, in this case.” She had no idea what he was talking about.
“I’m saying that I don’t have to,” the father said. “But I want you to know I could.”
“Better not go outside until it’s safe!”
“Live in a house and it will never fall.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Her father hung up.
The accountant looked at the black screen, a pressure of blood throbbing through her temples. When had her father gone from a frail elder to whatever this was?
On the internet, the accountant read about a glacial lake newly formed by ice melt in a valley near the cabin. Alarmed, she clocked out of the office of the downtown construction company where she worked, and she raced up the mountain.
“Do not go near the glacial lake,” the accountant told her father. “Please promise me that.”
He ignored her. He was busy painting.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light inside the cabin, and she noticed the paintings hung on the walls; dozens of portraits of her father’s face observed her dispassionately from far away. The terrible faces were painted in cool, gray tones. Pale greens. Washy violets. A forehead bled from a square wound between the eyes. A tongue stuck from blackened lips. A rosary was slung around a wizened neck. In every painting the father looked like a corpse. The images together made a dark space in her. It hurt.
He saw her staring: “Looking at your own father bothers you? You’d rather I painted the birds! Happy little birds.”
“I would love to see this famous nest of sparrows.”
“Go look yourself.”
“No, I mean I want to see your painting. Your interpretation.”
“I’m trying a larger project. This is the beginning.”
“I’ll tell you this: you can learn more from staring at your own face in the mirror for an hour than you will from years in stuffy lecture halls,” the father said. “If you see yourself for who you are, you transcend your body.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Retirement puts things in perspective. That’s all I’ll say!”
“Remember not to go to the lake,” she said weakly. “Because of problems with temptation. Better listen to the science.” By then, lunch hour was over, and the accountant had to return to her job. There were bridge trusses to account for, and tractor insurance.
Alone in her small apartment near the bustling heart of the city, the accountant rolled around on sheets tangled over her mattress. It was dark and humid, and she sweated. She held her father in thought. His contradictions. His buried fears. The father had always stayed away from others. Unknowable in his mind. Yet the accountant had come of her father, from somewhere in the night of him into now.
They used to be closer when they were younger, before the accountant became the accountant. Now she was entering middle-age, and he was old. But long ago her father had lifted her onto his shoulders near a path by the train tracks and took off in a dead sprint. They fished off the pier. They built castles with Legos. They wrestled. He pretended he was a tree and she’d chop him down. At some point, she’d left him behind, or he went on without her. She had to guide him back. In the accountant’s mind, she raised her father up out of the water. The body dripped.
At last, she fell asleep. She dreamed of a glacial lake. The father’s portrait with its holes for eyes stared up at her from deep. The lake was clear and without end. The father’s eyes rose through the water. She heard a faint cacophony, like an orchestra pit warming up before the curtain opens for a show, and she woke with tears on her cheeks.
The father called. He sounded proud. “You might like this,” he chuckled. “Oh, I’ve really done it now.”
“What did you do!”
The accountant drove fast up the mountain trail. She panicked. She listened to a Russian orchestral quartet to calm herself down. Music and scenery filled her mind, the high melodic shrill of the violin in harmony with the bass drone of the cello. Dry trees bent low in the windless air under the deep, deep blue of the sky, limestone parting ahead to reveal the mountain path’s sudden curves. There was a rickety guardrail. Potholes scraped along her drooping bumper. Diaphanous moss veiled a rock face pale as death. A waterfall bled from a hole. The accountant climbed in her little car. She felt terrified of what she might see. She drove fast but time moved slow.
A thin column of smoke coiled ahead. She pressed the gas and the car squealed up the paved driveway of the cabin. A boulder-sized object sat in the middle of the yard. It crackled with fire. Sparks hissed in the grass. The father came out of the smoke. He wore his bathrobe. His face had an alert, mocking expression, as though he’d already rejected whatever she could think to say.
“It was a bust of myself,” the father said, “but I have immolated it. Just like old times!” He cackled.
“Why are you lighting fires on the lawn?”
“As you can see, I’ve dug a trench for safety. I’m not stupid. Way back when, before you were born, I’d do this with the arts league for three days straight, swapping out burned busts for new busts. The goal is to never let the fire go out while the faces change.”
“This is performance art?” she said. She’d never felt more like an accountant than when her father explained his weird art.
“A phase!” the father cried. “A ceremonial bust of myself as I looked in my youth! I have sacrificed the dream. You see?”
“I thought you’d caught the cabin on fire,” the accountant said, feeling relieved yet angry. “But this doesn’t seem like an emergency. Couldn’t you have told me about this little project over the phone?”
The father shook his head and smiled grimly to himself. The fire was dying. The sculpture of the father’s head blackened and rippled with seams that glowed orange. The artwork did not in the least resemble him. It was crude, with a severe brow, hollow eyes, and an upper lip that sloped out over the top of the mouth. It looked prehistoric. The accountant wondered where the father had found such a large ugly piece of wood. How deep in the forest? How near to the lake?
“Youth lives on hope,” the father said, clucking his tongue, “but old age lives on memory.”
After the fire hissed out, the father made the accountant a peanut butter sandwich, like he used to do mornings before she caught the bus in fifth grade. The father made wonderful peanut butter sandwiches. The secret was lightly toasting the bread, only a touch of local honey, and two layers of creamy natural peanut butter.
Scientists found the cure for fathers’ water lust. They synthesized a pill. It was free for all registered fathers. Thrilled, the accountant called her father, but the father was skeptical. “Has the government ever fixed anything, really, if it’s not in their favor?” he said. “They work you to death and then they make you pay for your funeral.”
“It’s free!” the accountant said. She’d been so happy to tell him but now she felt helpless with despair.
“Don’t you wonder why?”
“Because we have to protect everyone.”
“Why isn’t insulin free? Or antibiotics? Couldn’t an infection kill me too?”
“Exactly,” the father said triumphantly. “A car trip is dangerous. But do I think twice about going to the grocery store?”
The accountant didn’t answer. The father had no car. The accountant delivered his groceries.
“I do not need pills,” the father said.
Though she knew numbers well, the accountant had never been good at arguments. She couldn’t think of the points she wanted to make in enough time. The emotional part challenged her too. The longer an argument continued, the further she sank into frustration at being misunderstood, compounded by sensitivity toward the other person’s mounting annoyance with her obtuseness, thus she lost track of the debate itself.
Later that night she realized what she wished she’d said: “It’s free because there’s an epidemic of drownings that we have to work together to stop so fathers can go on with their lives like before, and also, it’s not a private issue, all of us are intimately connected, and I want you to live because you’re the only family I have.” But it was too late. The father would be asleep.
To take her mind off her frustrations, she messaged a woman she’d dated before with a haircut she remembered liking, high and feathered on top and short on the sides, often dyed green or blue. They always had fun together, and they purposefully only discussed light, meaningless things.
Her date had a new hand-poked tattoo of a paper airplane on her neck, and when the accountant asked her about the tattoo at the bar while they ordered wine, the woman told a long rambling story about a friend she’d had as a child who’d push handmade paper airplanes through her chain-link fence, and how one day her friend had been hit by a car and the tattoo was in remembrance of her. It was the most vulnerable she’d ever been with the accountant, so the accountant impulsively confessed that she’d hidden her father in the mountain cabin.
“It’s a dry cabin,” the accountant added.
“Isn’t that a little cruel?” the date said.
“I check on him every day.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound judgmental,” the date said, touching the accountant’s face. “I’m sure you know him best. It’s just, wouldn’t he get lonely? Everyone gets lonely.”
The warmth of the date’s hand on the accountant’s face left her buzzing with desire, and the lights glowed low, and she couldn’t take her eyes off the other woman’s lips and her hair and the rosy blossom on the skin around the fresh tattoo. The accountant wanted to be touched again, and she knew her date felt the same. They ate quickly and ran hand in hand, laughing, to the woman’s apartment down the street.
Later, the accountant fell into a heavy, drunken sleep next to her date. She kept hearing the date’s words in her head. Isn’t that cruel? Everyone gets lonely. She dreamed she was underwater looking up. The sun flashed over and through. Specks of plant matter rushed past. The water was clear, lit by rays strained into shining threads.
A shadow fell on her. Her blood seized up. Something was coming to take her life. It would be the end of all she knew.
She woke with a strangled yelp. Her head hurt terribly, and the bed felt unsteady under her.
Back in her own apartment, she poured a large drink of water from the kitchen faucet. Day after day, year after year, cycling water through the body. It seemed strange to be afraid of water. But she had only showered since the epidemic began, no baths. Full tubs repelled her.
She had a sickening realization: her father didn’t need to go to a lake to drown. There was an old pump for well water by the cabin’s shed. She’d forgotten. Her poor father was no safer in the cabin than in the condo where he’d lived before.
How could she have been so stupid? There weren’t any neighbors! He would scream and scream into the howling wind.
She rushed up to the cabin, but the pump was rusted over, and it broke away in her hand. Her father looked at her quizzically as she hid the ruined handle in the shed. Still, the shock was enough to ask her boss to let her work remotely for a month. Accounting’s easy from a distance. She moved to the cabin to be with her father until cooler days came.
The father welcomed his daughter. They’d always enjoyed each other’s company. The accountant had never known her mother. The father had barely known her either. The mother was an absence they shared, and her gravity held them near to each other.
They fell into a pleasurable daily routine. By the large kitchen window, where light shone in, the father would sit bare-chested before two easels. One easel had a painting and the other had a mirror. There the father would paint his face.
While the father painted, the accountant would sit at the small rickety desk in the bedroom, where she would use a mobile hotspot for her morning video call in. She would take notes on her ledger and present her figures and fill out her spreadsheets. After the meeting ended, the accountant would resolve any loose ends and pay invoices. Without the usual distractions of an office, she could finish quickly. The father would paint until early afternoon. After they’d completed their tasks, they would eat a modest lunch of roasted vegetables and grilled tofu. Then they would go for a walk and talk like they’d talked when the accountant was smaller. They’d converse as the sun set. The father seemed calmer and saner. Less frenzied. She listened to her father snore in the night. It helped her sleep to hear her father near.
The father began to tell stories. Some stories the accountant had never heard before and some she remembered but only barely. She learned about when the father rescued her from a train rumbling down the tracks. She heard about when she was a baby, and a gland infection swelled her head up like a melon. She heard about when as a toddler she ran under a zoo fence into the savannah habitat and a zookeeper scooped the accountant up in front of an angry mother hippo lumbering after her to murder her. The accountant seemed to have imperiled herself often, but the father would always save her.
Later, the father told her about when he’d met her mother at the bar, and the day she left him forever. They’d never gotten married, and the father thought it was better that way.
The accountant’s presence did the father good. The father confessed it to her in his new measured manner, with no trace of the previous mania. “I guess I worked through what I needed to,” the father said. “I explored the abyss and now I’m back, I suppose. I’m sorry, lady.”
“Welcome to earth,” the accountant said, and she grinned an awkward grin. “Maybe we could get you the pill soon?”
The father’s eyes darkened. He forbade her to raise the issue again. He never took pills. He didn’t get sick. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d had a cold. It was a private decision and nobody else’s business. He thought he’d already explained it to her, and besides, he didn’t want to leave the mountain again. He hated hospitals, and he despised civilization, which offered only inanity and noise.
“I’ll die up here,” the father said. She laughed, because it was such a dramatic thing to say, like a soldier charging from a trench in a movie, but he only stared past her and shook his head.
The father painted less and less. Instead, he sat on the porch with binoculars. He’d name the birds out loud as he saw them, bobwhite, lark, swamp sparrow, red-tailed hawk.
Maybe the father never was in danger of drowning. It wasn’t unheard of for there to be exceptions in the condition of water lust. No two fathers were alike. The accountant watched him carefully, day after day, tabulating each of his actions. The father bathed with a washcloth using light splashes of bottled water. He only drank sodas. He almost never found occasions to put himself near water. After a while, she started to feel a little ridiculous for worrying so much in the first place. Of course, she would never admit this to him. He was an artist, unlike her. He’d had gallery shows all over the east in his prime. Artists were eccentric, stubborn people.
She started to love living amid the strange paintings of her father’s face. She couldn’t believe his father had painted himself so beautifully, in so many styles and from so many angles. The pallor of the faces invigorated her in the morning and calmed her at night. She felt as though her ancestors had gathered in the cabin. It was holy. It was like the father had given birth many times.
Scientists reported a significant drop in drowning deaths among fathers. Even better, fathers who took the pill could help unprotected fathers through the clear-eyed wisdom the pill had brought them, unburdened of their lust for water, ready to help their fellow fathers know life without fear.
Yet scientists were concerned. Many fathers refused the pill. Globally, drowning remained the fourth highest cause of death for fathers behind heart disease, cancer, and car accidents. There was even a rash of copycat deaths, a teen girl who’d jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge before a gathering crowd, a mother who held her own head down in an infinity pool atop a skyscraper, a childless wealthy entrepreneur who drank from a million-dollar gold-thread-woven diamond-encrusted hose until he exploded all over the grass.
Scientists threw up their hands. Who could cure fathers of folly?
The accountant woke up from a sweaty dreamless sleep. Something was wrong. Pale red light trickled through the gauzy curtains. It was early morning. She couldn’t remember where she lived. Then she recalled the cabin, her father, and the drownings.
Birds chirped noisily in the eaves. “Dad?” she called in a strange, hoarse voice. She thought she could hear a trickle of water in the main room of the cabin. She threw off her covers and leapt from the bed.
The silver basin was dry as ever. It held an oily thumbprint in it.
His bedroom door swung open on its hinges, blowing gently back and forth in the air from the fan he kept by his bed. His bedroom was dark.
“Dad?” she whispered into the room. It smelled heavy with his familiar musk, like nutmeg and aluminum. In the light from the window, she could see the glow of the rumpled white bedsheet. The thick fake-fur comforter piled on the floor below the bed. A bathrobe hung over the back of the office chair angled away from the desk. The wood of the floor was dirty with footprints.
Outside in the yard, wind whistled through the narrow slats of the fence she had built long ago. Big pink rhododendrons nodded like heads without bodies. The morning sky was rosy. The grass smelled sharp. “Dad!” she shouted toward the trail through the forest. She could hear faint echoes of her voice from the canyon beyond the edge of the yard, somewhere out where the glacial lake lay.
It felt like forever before the forest thinned. The scent of the glacial lake was ancient. It burned into the softness of her brain, and it turned the air red. The lake opened out before her, and the father crouched on the shore, his form blurred by the sun off water.
The accountant ran toward him. “Don’t go in!” she shouted.
He turned with a mild smile. He was on one knee. Next to him sat an enormous black wheelbarrow piled high with paintings. With a grunt, the father winged a small rectangular portrait across the lake. Other paintings floated on the lake like neat little ice floes. His masterpieces. Generations of fathers in the water. First, the art with him destroyed, then the art of him destroyed, and later, him, destroyed.
“Stop!” she shouted, but he held her away with one hand while he calmly tossed another painting in the lake. It floated face up, only a few feet from where she stood. She plunged her left arm full into the freezing water for stability and she caught at the painting with her fingernails. “Why would you do this?” she gasped. A sharp rock dug into the palm of her hand and a fire shot up her elbow. When she jerked back from the pain, the painting fell out of her reach. It slowly tilted toward her in the water until it faced her. She looked in its eyes. She couldn’t move. Her spine felt broken. She saw the immobile features contorted in pain. The empty stare sent a warning: “As I am, you will be.”
The father shouted. She couldn’t understand him. All her being was frozen by the face, the father’s painted face, but also her face, and every face the accountant had known; the faces of friends she had loved who’d left her for reasons she could no longer make out through the smog of memory; the lovely round open face of the woman with the paper-airplane tattoo on her neck; her father’s mother of whom the father had lived in terror when he was small, who’d beat the father for falling asleep during the Sunday sermon, who’d belittle him for poor grades, but whom the accountant had only known as a shy old woman who liked to watch soap operas while she bounced the accountant on her knee; the accountant as a child, smooth-skinned but already fearful; the accountant now, a woman aging out of her youth, the greying hair and the sprinkle of sunspots around the temples; and the accountant’s mother, a face she knew she’d know when she saw it, and she knew it now, her mother’s face. She reached for the face she recognized.
This was when she became the face in the painting. She switched places. She left the accountant behind.
She saw the accountant’s hand reaching for her. The accountant’s face full of sorrow withdrew to the shore, and she saw her father grinning at the accountant.
She felt herself tilt backward into the water. She understood the heaviness and the darkness of the water around her. She was saturated until she drowned. She drowned like the fathers had drowned. Fluid held her like a womb. It wasn’t death or life. It was larger.
The next day, the accountant returned. From her place at the lake bottom, she saw the accountant reach her hand down through the water toward where she lay, but the accountant drew her arm back once the accountant grasped how far she was. The clarity was deceptive. Water bent space, light, and time. The accountant didn’t visit again.
Now, she stares up with painted eyes she’ll never close. Sometimes trout zig shiny above her, stirring the mud into a cloud that shivers across her canvas. Sometimes a lake snake slithers on her with its rough, slick belly.
When the sun warms the lake, the heat in the water fills her with an expansive joy beyond any mood she’s known. She can reach back to the first parent. She feels them in her.
When winter freezes over the lake, bubbles collect against ice, and she likes to watch the bubbles push against the hard surface until they collapse back into the flow beneath. Winter water’s cold but she can bear it.
It’s all the same, the lake, the ice, and the bubbles. Everything’s always in motion, so nobody’s ever themselves.
You tried. Now let him learn. Drowning’s part of a story beyond you.
That’s what she will tell her own worried face, if the accountant ever reappears above her, and if she can find language in time.