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Red Paint

/jo varnish

The Fragility of Bees

1. I am a child who saves things. I open windows to shoo out fat flies, I trap spindly-legged spiders under glasses to release them outside, I move worms drying on the road to the safety of the damp grass. I use a leaf to scoop a bee from the trough of water my dad has in our garden. The minuscule legs press on the memory foam meniscus, skating atop three feet of stale water, algae and goldfish. I dip the leaf slightly in front of it, taking care not to create a wave that overwhelms the little body—although this happens sometimes, and that calls for a swift emergency ladling action—and allow the bee to move onto the leaf, and into the rest of its life. I rescue anything I can, but my favorites are the bees.

2. I stand chatting to my friend, poolside, at our rented vacation home. Our youngest children—my 20-month-old son Luko, her two-year-old daughter Issy—throw pool toys in the water. The intermittent splishing provides a soft beat to the late afternoon. I am aware of Issy standing beside us and of her quiet words, on a loop during our conversation. And then, a natural pause in our talking. In silence, I hear Issy’s mantra: “Luko fell under the water. Luko fell under the water.” I turn. My baby is under the water. He is flat, face-up, an inch or so beneath the surface, suspended. I tear down to the pool steps. I am moving quickly but time has slowed: it takes the longest moment to move to him. My thoughts, as I try to run through the thick, heavy water, are slow and deliberate: Have I lost him forever? Is he dead? Please, please, make my baby okay. I see his little face, the shape distorted by the water’s ripples, tanned and freckled, his eyes open. I grab his tiny body, tall for his age, but skinny. I rip him from the water’s clutch and in that moment I don’t hear the surrounding commotion, adults yelling, a fearful flurry of activity. Doll-like, still in my arms, neither rigid nor limp. I tip him over, slap his back for the water to leave his lungs, his mouth, him. There is none. I turn him back and he sucks in a long, deep, controlled breath, widening his ribs. His eyes still wide, I wrap him in a beach towel and hold him close. For hours, my fidgety, playful baby is still in my arms, awake and silent. His clammy arms and wet chlorine hair dry slowly in the Floridian humidity. I still have three children.

3. I don’t believe karma or God or gods or my late mother’s guidance saved my baby. Little Issy, born bright and wise, saved my baby. My pediatrician tells me that his age kept him alive, that babies will often shut down at the moment of extreme trauma. They don’t move, they don’t struggle, they don’t breathe. Had he been older, he says, my baby would have fought and gulped and inhaled water. He would have died.

4. I include the Florida pool incident in a fictional story I write and submit to my writers’ workshop. As the creator, I remain quiet as my fellow writers offer their critique. “What kind of mother is she?” “What makes her so negligent?” “I wonder how she could be such a terrible parent.” I explain it actually happened to me, to my son, years before. The mother was me. My fellow writers are kind and generous and immediately adjust their feedback. “Ah, it was a momentary lapse.” “I see, it isn’t that she is a negligent person.” And yet.

5. There’s a photograph of my baby and me taken an hour or so after I pulled him from the water. Or: there’s a photograph of my baby and me taken an hour or so after he slipped under the water without me realizing. Without me watching. Without me checking. He is wrapped in a red and orange beach towel. I have my ribbed pink pajama top over my wet tank top. He is on my lap on a lounger at the end of the pool, damp dark hair sticking up, his tanned skin sallow, tiny lips together. In the photograph he’s solemn. He’s drained. He’s alive.

6. Today, on this New York vacation, fifteen hundred miles and fifteen years from that late afternoon in Florida, I wake and walk out onto the deck. The sunshine warms my face and bare arms immediately, there are no clouds, the cicadas chirp. I look down to the lawn where my two sons, now young men, are crouched by the pool. Their strong, tanned arms reach into the pool to save a bee and a beetle. My youngest son holds the crawling, drenched bee, dragging its wings’ skeletal frames across his palm. He walks to the hydrangea by the side of the shingle house and waits for the bee to make its way to the globe of baby blue petals.

Originally from England, Jo Varnish now lives outside New York City. She is the assistant editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, Brevity Blog, The Coachella Review and others. Jo has been a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers for two years, and is studying for her MFA. She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1.


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