Drowned Men Can't Have Kids

By Karina Sumner-Smith

Her father said at breakfast, "Drowned men can't have kids." He said it as if teaching Katy a lesson, or maybe as if she had asked.

"Dead people rot," he said. "They're dead. It doesn't make any sense."

He kept looking at her, his fingers twitching on the Sunday newspaper like dropped lizards' tails. His eyes were red like he'd just finished crying, but her father didn't cry. Katy thought he wanted her to say something, so she nodded.

"Yes, Daddy," she said, and that seemed to make him happy.

She ate her soggy corn flakes and didn't think about drowned men or their kids. He went into the garage and didn't say anything else for the rest of the day.

If there was one place that she was never, ever allowed to go, it was the river behind the house. Maybe that was why she loved it so much.

Her father had built a fence around the yard, tall enough to keep her in. He'd even put the latch too high for her to touch on tiptoe.

But her father had never been good with tools. Though parts of the fence were tall and straight, behind the shed it sagged like an old man's back. With help from a few logs from the woodpile, she could clamber over the fence and disappear through the trees, down into the muddy ravine.

It was not a big river, nor a very deep one. In the springtime it flooded, the deep water churning with mud and branches. In the fall it was no more than a quiet brook. But now, in the summertime, it was perfect.

Katy always took off her shoes and socks before wading, knotting her socks into tiny balls and pushing them inside her shoes, right down to the toes. The water was cold enough to raise goosebumps on her legs as she tiptoed in. This time, she would tell herself, this time I will not go any deeper than my ankles. But the water lapped up so soft and smooth that she just had to wade deeper.

Deeper, until it was up around her calves, her knees, feeling each step on the slippery rocks with her bare toes; deeper, where the water stained the bottoms of her jean shorts, and deeper still. In the middle, it was only just over her waist, and there she would crouch down, feeling the water rise up her chest, over her arms and shoulders until it licked her chin. She was not sinking; the river was rising up like a great bubble, pulling her inside its cool, calm self.

Lying still, she let the river take her, swallow her down in a single gulp. Underwater, sound was a hollow rush and gurgle in her ears, everything sounding distant and slow. Her hair drifted about her face like long, brown weeds. Her lungs started to hurt.

She opened her eyes. The water was hazy brown, flickering with tiny silver fish, the stony bottom twisting with light. She turned to stare up at the sky; the world looked far away as if it were a picture trapped behind glass. She didn't want to move, didn't want to think.

But she always had to come up for air.

Sometimes at night, a shadow peeled itself away from her bedroom wall. It did not frighten her. She could not remember a time when the shadow had not been there.

If she looked too hard, the shadow was just a shadow: the shadow of her bookcase, the shadow of the stand lamp in the corner, the shadow of her clown doll stretched long and thin by the light from beneath her closed door. She'd learned to look at the ceiling when she felt the shadow moving. In the darkness, the white of her ceiling looked a dark, dark gray, and the texture made it seem like endless mountain ranges stretched across her room, upside down.

Sometimes, the shadow would stay a shadow, just barely moving, no matter how long she looked away. But other nights, like that night, it took form. It became a man.

Downstairs, her parents were yelling again. Her mother had ventured out of bed for the first time in days, still wearing her pink flannel pajamas. Her father had come in from the garage. Katy didn't know how the argument had started. It had probably been something simple, like her mother had said hello and her father had said hello back, and then one of them asked if the other would like some coffee. The words didn't matter. They only ever talked about one thing.

Her father was saying: Stop it? You want me to stop it? Oh, that's a fucking laugh.

The shadow man moved through the darkness towards her, and she was glad. Nights like this, she felt like a speck lost in a field of cold blankets.

"Hello," she whispered.

Her mother was saying: What do you want me to say? I've told you the truth -- I've told you what happened! I can't change anything. What else do you want me to do?

"I found a shirt today in the river," Katy said. "A red and blue one, with squares like a checkerboard. It's nice, but it's too big for me."

The shadow man sat down at the foot of her bed, but there wasn't even the slightest shift in the mattress. The sheets lay smooth and flat around him, untouched by his weight. She wondered if that meant that she was imagining him.

Her father was saying: He was dead, Anna. Dead! Do you think I can't do the math? What do you take me for, some fucking idiot?

"I think you'd like it. The shirt, I mean." Maybe it had been his in the first place.

She wanted to say more, but the sound of her parents' shouting drowned everything out. She wondered, if she screamed and screamed at the top of her lungs, would they hear her? Would they even care?

Her mother was saying: You're the only father she has!

"You love me," Katy said to him. "Don't you?"

She imagined that if he could, the shadow man would hug her and he would be warm like a blanket just out of the dryer. He would kiss her on the forehead with lips both dry and soft, and touch her hair with one big hand, and he would smile.

Somehow this thought made it all right for her to settle down into her pillow, close her eyes to the darkness, and go to sleep.

The next day it was raining and she was trapped, roaming the rooms of the house like a fly batting itself on each window in turn, seeking light and fresh air and finding only glass. In the garage her father was working. She could hear the clanging sounds of metal on metal, of metal on concrete, the static hiss of cardboard boxes being dragged across the floor. She did not know what he was building. There was nothing in the garage but a stack of warped lumber, her bike, and their Buick. She couldn't get into the garage; her father had locked the door.

In the living room she sat and flipped through old photo albums, the ones from before she was born. She didn't really like them. The colors in the pictures looked wrong, faded and too yellow. It was hard to recognize faces. She stared at one photo of a young couple, a woman with her dyed hair curled under and her hand resting on the arm of a man with a moustache and dark hair that needed to be cut. They were both smiling neat, white smiles.

It took Katy a long time to realize that they were her parents.

There was another picture, a boring one of some people in a restaurant that she would have flipped past if it weren't for a glimpse of a checked-shirted shoulder. Her mom's young face looked out, laughing. It was a strange sight; she could not remember the last time her mother had laughed. In the picture, she held up a half-empty glass with a blue umbrella perched on its rim, her other hand curled around the arm of the man beside her.

Katy knew that shirt, soft cotton with red and blue checks. It was the shirt she'd found in the river. The man in the picture was not her father. She couldn't see his face, only a glimpse of his blond hair, the pale curve of his ear.

In the kitchen she made her mother some tea, listening to the rain beat on the window as she stirred in the milk, the sugar, the crushed Prozac pills. Her mother had not been taking her medicine; sometimes Katy had to make her do it.

She brought the tea upstairs, using the photo album as a wobbly tray. Her mother was curled up in bed, sweating in her pink flannel pajamas, covered with a crocheted afghan even in the summer heat. The window was closed and the TV on the dresser was playing soaps with the sound off.

"Here, Mama," Katy said, putting the steaming tea on the bedside table. "I brought you something to drink."

Her mother rolled over and tried to smile. Her mouth looked like crumpled paper, naked and bent out of shape. "Thank you, sweetie," she said.

It was too hot in the room, and stuffy. Her mother's face was bathed in sweat.

"Do you want me to open the window? You could hear the rain."

"No, that's okay," she said. "But thank you."

Katy pulled the photo album up where her mother could see it, opening it to the page that she'd saved with her finger. She pointed at the blond man in the checked shirt.

"Mama, who's this?"

Her mother blinked and her dry lips parted. She pushed herself up on one elbow.

"Where did you get that?" Her voice had an edge to it that Katy hadn't heard in months.

"I was just looking at the pictures."

"Who found this picture? Your father? Did your dad put you up to this? Christ, he knows how I'm feeling right now. . . ."

"No, Mama, no," Katy kept saying, but her mother didn't seem to hear.

"I don't care what he told you, okay? He's a liar, a goddamned liar." Her hands were starting to shake, clutching at the afghan. "How could he do this? I don't need this right now, I don't, I don't. . . ." Tears flooded her eyes, began streaming down her cheeks. She curled in upon herself like a wilting leaf, crisping and crumbling at the edges.

"It's okay, Mama," Katy said and pulled the photo album away. She hurried downstairs and hoped that her mother would drink the tea.

On Monday, Katy found a black sock caught in the weeds by the side of the river. It was heavy, waterlogged and weighed down by a fistful of mud that had gathered in the toe. She dumped the mud out and shook the sock in the river until it was clean. Later, when the sock was dry, she got the shirt from its hiding place at the foot of a tree, then took them both up to the house and hid them under her bed.

On Thursday she found a gray sock buried in the riverbed. At first she could only see the heel protruding from beneath a rock, flapping in the current like a tiny hand waving hello. Dirt billowed in underwater clouds as she dug it up, sending silvery minnows darting away into the haze.

It was slightly bigger than the black sock, and certainly lighter, but she knew that they belonged together. They were like the two halves of an Oreo.

That night, after hiding the sock with its mismatched twin and the shirt beneath her bed, she looked in the photo album again. Curled up and covered in blankets with the album on her lap, she felt like she was doing something wrong.

Upstairs, she could hear the low murmur of her father's voice as he spoke through the bedroom door, trying to convince her mother to let him in. She got like that, sometimes; she was always worst right around Katy's birthday. Earlier, her parents had been screaming at each other, and then only her father had been screaming, and then for a while there had been silence.

The dim yellow light from her bedside lamp slid across the plastic photo covers, reflecting and obscuring the images. She bent close, flipping through page after page. There were pictures of a party, the inside of the house strung with blue streamers and balloons. Across the dining room wall there was a banner with "Welcome Home" written in swollen bubble letters. Outside, it was snowing. Both of her parents were there. She looked for the man in the checked shirt, but if he was there she did not recognize him.

This was the party to celebrate the end of her father's six-month jail term for drunk driving. He didn't drink anymore. In the pictures, she could just see the swell of her mother's growing stomach, the roundness of a pregnancy that would later be her, Katy. With the tip of one nail she traced that image of her hidden self, waiting to be born. Her finger brushed the unhappy image of her father in the photos as she closed the album; she put the album aside and turned off the light.

Beneath her bed lay the shirt and two socks, folded and pushed right against the far wall. If she breathed deeply enough, she could almost smell the green smell of river water.

"You can walk now," she said to the ceiling. "I found your socks, too."

She thought she felt the shadow moving in the room, but when she opened her eyes there was only black.

Her father took her mother a cup of coffee the next morning. He returned a minute later, dumped the coffee down the drain, then washed and placed the mug in the draining rack. He said nothing. Katy stared into her cereal bowl. It was not the first time this had happened.

He sat down at the table and opened the newspaper, spreading it flat across the tabletop with his sweaty hands, smearing the ink. He flipped the page, and again. Katy chewed and swallowed, fishing with her spoon for the last few corn flakes swimming in the milk.

Her father looked up, opened his mouth and then shut it again. Looked down at the newspaper.

Katy finished her cereal. Taking a spoonful of milk, she raised it high above her bowl and then slowly tipped it, letting the yellowed milk fall in a long, thin stream, splashing into her bowl and splattering the newspaper.

"Katy," her dad said, but she didn't think it was about the milk. "I think that you should know . . ." He paused, tried again. "Before you were born . . ." His voice trailed away and he looked back down to the newspaper.

"What is it, Dad?"

He swallowed, his Adam's apple moving like a small stone buried in the flesh of his neck. "Nothing," he said. "Just take care of your mother, okay? She loves you. It's not her fault that she's sick."

"I know that, Daddy."

Her father nodded. "Good." He rose from the table, went into the garage and closed the door behind him.

Katy did not know what reminded her. Perhaps it was the restlessness of the shadows in her room as she touched the shirt beneath the bed, the way they shifted and tried to form when she closed her curtains to the last of the dying sunset. Perhaps it was because her mother's bedroom door was still locked, and her mother had fallen silent, or because her father refused to come in from the garage, even to get a drink.

"Today was my birthday," she said.

It seemed to her that the shadows moved, like the shadows of trees did when shaken by the wind.

"No one remembered." She sat on the edge of her bed and looked at the carpet, her bare toes just brushing it as she gently swung her feet back and forth.

She remembered birthdays when she was little. One birthday, she had chocolate cake with pink icing, and she and two friends spent the entire afternoon running through the sprinkler. Her father had never been there for her parties, but she hadn't minded too much. He'd still wished her a happy birthday, and left her tiny presents on the table beside her cereal bowl. Little things: pink hair barrettes, a plastic diamond ring, a tiny bear dangling from a key chain. But as she got older, her father was around less and less, the presents became fewer until they stopped, and her mother followed suit as if dragged down by his example.

But she'd never thought that they could forget altogether.

She crept downstairs, her feet sticking to the hardwood floors, through the kitchen with its sink stacked high with unwashed dishes, and down the hall. When she got to the garage door, she pressed her ear against it, the painted metal cool against her skin. She heard nothing. She held the doorknob like she was holding a small brass world inside the grasp of her fingers; she turned it, and pushed the door inward.

It was cool in the garage, and dim, the big door open to the summer evening and the fading red light. Her father sat on the concrete floor, his back against the side of the Buick, his oil-stained hands sitting limply in his lap. The Buick's hood was open, and pieces of its engine were scattered across the floor like the shards of a broken plate.

He turned to face her, but his eyes were blank and staring, as if he did not know his own daughter.

"I can't fix it," he said. "I tried and tried, but I can't. What am I supposed to do?"

He turned to look out the garage door. He looked as if the space outside was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, a thing he could never have. Katy looked too, but all she could see was the long curve of the gravel driveway, the stretch of brown uncut lawn, and the distant line of the road.

"Dad," she said, but her voice came out as a whisper. "Daddy--"

He looked at her and tried to smile.

"Go inside, Katy," he said. "Go say hello to your mother. I'll be there in a moment."

She let the door swing closed and said to its surface, "It's my birthday."

Katy walked upstairs, came to the bedroom door and knocked. There was no answer. She didn't know what to say.

Knocking again, she called, "Mama." No answer.

"Mama!" Louder this time. She curled her hand into a fist and pounded on the door until it rattled against its hinges.

"Mama, let me in. It's my birthday. Don't you know? It's my birthday, let me in!"

But no matter how she shouted, her mother didn't answer. Katy pressed her ear against the crack by the hinges, but couldn't hear anything, not even the sound of her mother's breathing.

She let her forehead rest against the door, frightened by the silence. The space beneath the door was dark, the dark that waited outside windowpanes on nights when the wind howled, the dark that hid at the bottom of a flooding river.

"Dad," she said. "Daddy, I need you." Shadows shifted around her. But her father was in the garage, sitting lost on the concrete floor, and couldn't hear.

As she reached for the doorknob, all she could smell was river water. The white door seemed far away. "Mama," Katy said, touching the doorknob with her fingertips. The knob seemed too cold, too hard; it dared her to open the door, making her bite her lip and pull her hand away. Katy realized she was crying as she whispered, "Dad, I need you, I need you, where are you?"

And then he was there, one firm hand pushing her aside and opening the door. Katy rushed to the bedside, fighting to see her mother in the dim light of the room. She lay tangled in her afghan and pajamas, head thrown back against the pillows, one hand hanging over the edge of the bed, twitching. Katy saw it all as if underwater.

"I'm here," Katy said. Her mother's face was slick with sweat, her breathing thin and shallow. "Dad's here." The Prozac bottle sat on the bedside table, half empty. Its white plastic lid lay alone on the carpet.

"I feel sick," her mother said. "I think I took too many." Her eyes fluttered open. "You. . . . You're here."

"I'm here, Mama."

Her mother tried to smile. "I told him," she said. "About us. The flood. What happened after you. . . . He won't believe me." Her voice sounded so tired and weak. "It's good to know . . . know that you . . ."

Katy felt a big hand come to rest on her shoulder, holding her steady, keeping her calm. The strong fingers were so warm that she could feel their heat through her T-shirt.

Her mother laughed a sad, empty laugh. "I wish you could have been here."

Katy turned, and the hand was gone from her shoulder. There was no one behind her, only the watching eye of the doorway and the shadows that cupped the room as if holding it in two big hands. "Mama," she said, but her mother wasn't listening. She had turned her head to one side and a tear squeezed out from underneath one tightly shut eyelid.

"I'll get Dad," Katy said. "We'll call a doctor." Her mother said nothing.

As she turned to go, Katy saw the small pile of clothes lying on the floor: two socks, one black, one gray, and a red and blue checked shirt lying with its arms outstretched.

She knelt down and pulled the shirt to her. It felt stiff around the edges, the cuffs and collar faded to white as if coated with a layer of dried salt. She wanted it to smell like something, like fabric softener, or sweat, or cheap drugstore cologne. But when she buried her face in the fabric, all she could smell was the wet, muddy scent of the river.

She wondered if her parents needed her, if maybe this time they would notice she was gone and be scared. But the river pulled her to it as if she were nothing but a raindrop, helpless to do anything but flow downhill. Katy shivered and pulled the shirt tightly around her.

The river drifted past, sweeping itself away into the unknown and leaving her behind. Today the water was clear, the distant bottom brown with settled mud, dotted with the green of life, the gray of stones.

She did not take her shoes off this time, or her socks, but walked into the gentle current one careful step at a time, feeling only the water and the sway of her clothes around her. She lay back in the center of the river, her arms spread wide, and let her feet float to the top, the tips of her white sneakers just breaking the surface.

The water ringed her upturned face until her skin felt like a mask, just a fleshy mask of a girl's face that had permission to sob and crumple in upon itself with the weight of being alone. The water held her like a great hand, cradling her head, her back, her legs, and let her cry.

Looking up, Katy thought about her mother lying in bed, unwashed hair spilled about her pillows, curled like an infant in her pink pajamas. She wondered about her father, wondered if he was in the garage, sitting amongst the greasy car parts, his big hands lying helpless in his lap.

The sky above her looked so bright, as blue as plastic thumbtacks, as soft as crayons left in the sun.


Copyright © 2003 Karina Sumner-Smith

Reader Comments

Karina Sumner-Smith is an erratically published author, a confused student, a graduate of Clarion 2001, and one of the winners of the Isaac Asimov Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing in both 2002 and 2003. She currently lives just outside of Toronto, Ontario. For more on her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at ksumnersmith@yahoo.com.