It isn’t the first time I hear a woman howling from the water.
The river that flows alongside my property keeps me close to Karma, even as it reminds me of my apple-cheeked friend who drowned when we were fifteen-year-olds in the girldom-womanlost space where Karma got caught, where she ghosts the borderlands between almost-woman and never. In my Mexica culture, a woman forever yowls beside a ditch bank. Or a girl. Depending on which story you believe. She’s supposed to be a mother, but in some versions, she never grows beyond round-breasted girlhood. She bears the body for mothering but drowns before she’s given the chance.
* * *
The water laps over the sides of the tub, jarring me back. I flip the faucet off with my toes and recline deeper, staring out the window at the waxing moon. A sliver of candlelight against the glass sends a shadowing across my center. Where it aches. I hold my breath and lower my head into the bathwater, eyes wide, suds filming across my eyeballs as I attempt, again, to view the world the way she saw it, in the end. Each time I plunge myself beneath the surface, Karma appears. Girl I loved most in the world. Girl they say I drowned.
Nothing comes we haven’t conjured or called, one way or another.
I blink the spume away, staring at the bloated moon above, its face as round as last I saw Karma’s. The alcohol sopping my memory doesn’t help. Vodka tonight. It sloshes at the edges so I can’t remember when I went from my hot shop—where I must have spent hours, the furnace running, unable to create anything worthwhile, just imperfect glass for the junk pile—to the tub. Nor can I recall why I chose the bathwater over the warmth of my bed and Jericho’s body, or why the water beckons, perpetually calls me under.
When I shut my eyes again, the moon disappears. How long did Karma hold her breath—I wonder every time as I hold my own—before she too vanished from this world.
* * *
An oxbow lake stillwaters. It begins as a meander from a river offshoot, then, if the earth were a body—and of course the earth is a body—where the limb breaks, the blood-water pools. And it pools past the wrists into the palm of the land, where it lingers. Horseshoe or half-moon. A crescent lake. A scythe.
We swam there, Karma and I, in the frog pond that belonged to Sammy’s uncle, out past the fields of alfalfa, onions, and honeydew, beyond the river that slues across the border, frothing and foaming as it rolls from Mexicali to Calexico, like sisters sprung from different families, like Karma and I, as close as friends could get before one of them drowns the other.
It was toxic, that water, that night, every subsequent night, corroded by the swamp of memory. We three friends under the cover of mesquite and moonshine, only the weak beams of a porchlight streaming across the backyard.
Inside his uncle’s house, Sammy’s older brother Dom must’ve been watching television; I can still see the faint blue haze of the screen through the undraped windows.
But it’s the image of the three of us outside that crystallizes, the moments before we step into the water—Karma in the clearing, her body and mine rounded in similar ways, making us both appear much older than we were, and our faces were round too, in the way of girls still emerging from pubescence. Beside us, Sammy is stringbeaned and lank, tall enough to be a man, but so thin he’s more like the outline of a man.
Crickets chirping. Desert beetles scuttling. Devil weed and sandbur scratching our naked calves and thighs, and as we tiptoe closer to the water, the hardpacked dirt and bramble give way to softer, loamier mudwater that squishes between our toes until the grasses grow softer too, soothing the scrapes on the pads of our feet as we ease into the dark body.
We slide in deeper and deeper, until we’re up to our necks and treading, unbothered by the grunge and slick of river weeds and mossy plants floating upward like witch’s hair.
Sammy swims closer to us, splashing playfully.
We’re laughing and splashing back, the water cool from the nighttime but not so cold we can’t catch our breath. Between our gulping laughter and the sloshing of a broken-river lake, if Karma speaks, her words are only a mirage—a manifestation of my longing to hear her voice again. Desire compels me to fabricate what I can’t remember. She might’ve joked about our breasts floating on the surface of the water or warned of leeches clasping our slick skin, to which Sammy might’ve rejoined that only frogs populated this pond, perhaps catfish or carp. Certainly not leeches.
Karma might’ve said she was thirsty. Or had I asked for something to drink?
Who sent Sammy inside for Cokes?
We watch, giggling, as Sammy scampers giraffe-legged and bare-assed as a newborn toward his uncle’s, slamming the door behind him.
I’d like to believe Karma whispered, “I love you, Eva,” before she dove to the murky depths.
Instead, I remember the horseplay, the pushing each other harder and holding each other longer under the water, until we shove each other in the ribs or kick each other’s knees and burst through the surface, coughing and spluttering. Our bodies press together, at first maybe in annoyance or mock anger, and then in something stickier, something that pooled inside me when we grabbed hands to run through the alleyways toward the donut shop or fell to my bed laughing.
In the shadows, her blond hair, soaked and matted to her face and neck, nearly matched the onyx of my own. Her blue eyes grayed. Her breath smelled faintly of pepperoni and Dr Pepper.
And as she pulls away from me toward the swampy bottom, before she disappears, I shake and shake the memory, but it will not tell—
Was I grasping for her fingers as she slipped downward, out of my reach—
Or was I pushing her under?