The Rock Swimmers
The Rock Swimmers
The Rock Swimmers
Premonition Fire Door
The Rock Swimmers
by Harrison Kim
The Rock Swimmers
by Harrison Kim
In my fourteenth year the authorities fostered me to a religious fanatic’s fenced-in compound under the Cree people’s sacred mountain, the long-extinct volcano known as Usakam. From my locked bedroom window the ridge along the summit resembled the form of a sleeping giant.
Shem, my foster father, made his money selling gravel from a huge pit scooped from the mountainside. The pit ran like a deep cut over the side of the sacred peak.
Like all my other foster parents, Shem used me for work. In my first week, I shovelled gravel, piled stones, laboured in the large garden, and hammered rocks in the pit.
Shem helped his two daughters, dark-haired, soft-voiced Anna, who was my age, and her younger sister Ariel, winch me twenty-five feet down a well hole to dig for water. “You must earn your keep,” he told me. “Everyone does here.”
A tanker drove in once a week with enough water to fill the cistern, but Shem wanted his own well. “I don’t want to be dependent on outsiders,” he told everyone at the supper table. “Mount Usakam will provide. It’s knowing where to dig.”
A water witcher confirmed the current well hole as a source. “Fifty feet down,” the wrinkly-faced lady cackled, “is an underground spring. You have to shovel hard for liquid gold.”
The hole was already a deep one. My job was to dig til I found the spring. Shem gave me a funny look and a tiny smile as he loosened the winch. I stood in a bucket and grasped the rope as the two girls lowered me.
“I won’t let you fall,” Anna assured me, her thin arms holding the handle.
The air cooled as I reached twenty-five feet. The sky-showing hole above me formed a tiny blue O. Shem’s big, bearded face appeared there. He commanded from above in his deep preacher voice. “Dig, boy, and find that liquid gold.”
Earlier, I stood on the surface, enjoying the sun for the first time that day. Shem had stared at me with red-flecked eyes showing under his massive cowboy hat and said, “You are signing the naming document today, Kevyn.”
“No,” I told him. “My name is not Kevyn. It will always be Maskwa.”
From the day I arrived, Shem pressured me to sign a paper that would legally change my name to Kevyn, which he said meant “handsome birth.” “Accept the even tone of Kevyn,” said Shem, “and you will no longer be a moody failure of a boy.”
He believed that every letter of a person’s name represented a number, and the total number a name added up to created a person’s character. “Maskwa” added up to 13.
“That’s very unlucky,” said Shem. He stared at me and quoted from the Bible. “The Old Testament prophet Shem lived six hundred years,” he said. “I named myself after him and I haven’t been sick since. If you become Kevyn, you will live a happy, stable life.”
I looked at my foster father. I knew that Maskwa meant “fearsome bear” in my indigenous Cree language. That was my true identity. I had a strong temper and a tough will, like the animal I was named after.
“I will never be a Kevyn,” I told him.
He gave me a long look. “You will sign that legal paper, sooner or later.”
I had come to the compound from the street several weeks before. I’d run away from my last foster home, where they made me work in their butcher shop every day after school. The authorities recaptured me and slammed me back into the system. I should’ve run away again when I had the chance. Now I was locked in my room every night, imprisoned by the compound’s high fence. Shem’s wife Dorothy home-schooled me for a couple of hours every day, to meet requirements. Other than that, I shovelled, dug, moved gravel, or pulled weeds on Shem’s garden plot.
“When is lunch?” I yelled up at Anna. “I’m hungry.”
“We’ll lower you down some sandwiches,” Anna said. She smiled down at me.
“Make sure you put lots of meat on the bread,” I yelled back.
She giggled, and Shem’s face appeared at the edge of the sky circle. “You’ll eat what you get,” he shouted. “Until you sign that paper.”
“I’m not signing,” I yelled, shovelling another pile of rocks into the bucket.
“Then you’ll not come out of there,” he shouted back, “until you change your mind or we hit water.” He laughed like he made a joke.
I ate the peanut butter sandwiches Anna lowered down and kept working until evening. The picking and shovelling burned off my angry energy through the hours. I dug down at least three more feet.
“Are you going to winch me up now?” I asked Ariel, as I saw her face peer over the edge of the sky hole. She was ten, freckle-faced and straw-haired.
“Dad says no,” she said in her high child voice.
“What do you mean? He can’t keep me in this hole.”
Now Anna appeared. “I’m gonna drop you down some supper,” she said. “I bought an extra orange.”
She lowered the food in a bucket, a plate of beans and rice with the fruit. I took out the supper and Anna winched the bucket back up.
“It’s cold!” I yelled. Dust and gravel covered my clothes. “I have to get out of here.” Anna threw down a coat.
“Dad says you have to stay,” she said, and moved away from the edge of the hole.
A few minutes later, Shem’s hawklike face appeared.
“You can come out if you sign that paper,” he told me.
“This is abuse!” I yelled back up. “You can’t do this! I’ll tell the authorities.”
“When your name is changed, you’ll mellow,” Shem shouted. “Until then, enjoy your time in the well.”
I threw my shovel up to get him in the face, but it fell far short and clattered back down, bringing rocks and dust. I kicked it out of the way and put the coat on. It was a good, big parka, thanks to Anna. She was the only one who’d been kind to me. I reached my hands to the sides of the hole and pushed myself up. I raised myself a few feet, but rock kept crumbling off. I made a bigger effort, and a great burl of stones and sand broke off and tumbled around my shoulders. The whole well could collapse if I tried to clamber up without a rope. I’d be buried under. I sat at the bottom of the hole and looked towards the sky. I shouted and yelled, “Come get me out of here, you coward!”
As night fell, the sky hole became a ring. Above the ring, stars sparkled. When I turned my face away I couldn’t see my fingers, but the ring circle above me twinkled bright from its centre. I continued to roar like my namesake the bear. Nobody answered. I sank down to the floor, looked away from the stars to my feet. In front of me an outline shimmered. It appeared as the shadow of a shadow. After a time, it started to move. Then there were others. The first shimmers resembled inkblots, raised forms on dark paper. I thought maybe my eyes were still adjusting to the dark. The inkblots took on a blue, creeping aspect. They flowed in from the sides of the hole. I rubbed my eyes and opened them again. The forms danced around me. I watched, scared but also interested. Maybe all my yelling had tripped something crazy in my brain, or maybe something shared my space here. An hour passed. I tried to make sense of the shapes. As I did, they slowly grew definite outlines, arms and faces rippled from out of the rocks. I backed up against the side of the well. The outline figures filled the blackness.
“What the hell are you?” I shouted.
I heard a whispering within my mind. “What is your name?”
“Maskwa,” I said, then louder, “My name is Maskwa. It means ‘bear.’”
The voices floated in my head. At first, they vibrated and echoed, then they calmed and became one tone. “You are alone with us beneath the earth,” the voices whispered. “A bear lives alone inside the earth in winter. Your name sound is from the Cree tongue.”
“Yes, my name is Cree,” I said out loud.
“Then you know about us,” said the voices. “Why are you here under Usakam?”
I discerned their features more clearly, more in my mind than in the dark. They appeared as animal creatures of all descriptions. Some resembled eagles, others salmon, still others more like owls and coyotes. They protruded from the rocks in every direction. Their teeth stood out, long and canine-like. I sensed the figures waving, like anemones in the stone. For some, only their beast-like heads showed. For others, their entire bodies moved loose. They swirled around in shimmers within the rocks and changed position. Their whispers lingered long after they spoke.
“My foster Dad made me dig this well,” I told them. “Now he won’t let me out until I change my name or find water.” I stared around me. “Who are you?”
“We have always existed here,” the voices hummed. “We are the rock swimmers who serve the sleeping giant.”
“My grandfather always said this mountain possessed strange spirits," I answered.
“Your Grandfather was very wise,” said the voices. “We’re hungry.” The forms around me showed their shimmering teeth. “We need to eat.” One of the voices rose louder than the others. “We need to take a human soul,” it said. “Gain back power from the ones who destroy Usakam.”
The part about the soul made me think. “You don’t want mine, do you?” I said.
“As you are named Maskwa, you’re protected here,” the voices chorused. “Greedy people mined Usakam, they logged off trees. Their forest fires burned the rest. Our spirits are weak. These people have made us hungry. They must pay us back.”
“I only want to get out of this well,” I said.
The voices came back fast and indignant, the figures weaving faster, in and out of the stone well wall. “Who put you here?”
“My foster father Shem. He’s the one who wants water.”
“Bring him down with us,” said the voices. “We’ll answer his request,” and I heard a cackling, a dry laughter.
“He won’t let me out til I agree to change my name,” I said.
“Will he let you out for water?” came the distinct voice.
“There’s no water,” I said.
“Oh yes there is,” said the voice. “We can gather it from anywhere under Usakam and bring it here. We will take you from this hole, and not just from this place, but from the place in your life where you do not belong.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“We help those who belong,” they replied. “In return, you will carry our voices.”
“What does that mean?”
“You will always have our voices inside your mind, we will be part of you, as you will be part of us.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You’re saying I’ll be possessed.”
“You will be guided by our voices. This is the deal we offer. These are the conditions.”
I looked up. Already the sky seemed to be brightening. “I have no choice,” I said. “I have to get out of here.”
I glanced around me at the growing light. The forms faded back into the rocks. As they did, I felt something wet burst out of the side of the well.
“Here is water,” the voices whispered in my head. “Bring Shem to us.”
"It’s freezing cold!" I said.
A rock tumbled down from the surface, and I saw my foster father’s head in his large cowboy hat loom over the sky ring.
“Good morning, Kevyn. Have you decided to sign that paper yet?” he yelled.
“I found water here!” I shouted. My voice cracked some. “Come and see.”
I reached down and took up some of the liquid in my hands. I cupped my hands, reached down, and drank.
“It tastes delicious!” I yelled.
Shem’s shadowy face peered in at me. “I want a working well, not some crazy story,” he said.
“Give him gentle words,” I heard the rock swimmer voices.
“I heard you praying to the mountain, Dad,” I called. “You must take a look at this water. It will answer your prayers.”
I saw the bucket coming down.
“Did you call me Dad?” Shem’s voice sounded.
“Yes, I did, father,” I said. “You have taught me a lesson by leaving me here to think.”
“I’m glad you’ve learned,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a night or two of serious contemplation.”
When the bucket hit the bottom I scooped some water in it, grabbed the rope, and started to climb. I had to be fast. I braced my legs against the rock and pulled with my arms.
“What are you doing?” Shem yelled. “You stay down there!”
“I’m coming up with the water, Dad!” I said.
I climbed the twenty-five feet of wall in seconds.
Shem jumped back as I emerged.
“Look, Dad!” I said. I scrunched my eyes up at the day’s brightness, then winched the bucket to the surface. “See the water?”
Shem looked. It shimmered, silver and cool. He dipped his hairy arm in. “It seems like the old witcher was right!” he said. He whipped off his cowboy hat. “It was a good idea to leave you down there!” he laughed. “You’re a great worker.”
I let him jump around in his victory dance, his big arms waving, legs stomping.
“Make your next moves carefully,” the voices sang in my ear.
Shem swirled the water in the bucket with his huge calloused hands. “It’s really cold!”
“You should go and take a look,” I said. “I can winch you down there, Dad.”
He looked over the edge. “I like the way you call me Dad,” he grinned. “Maybe you will sign that paper now.”
I heard the voices of the rock swimmers. “Tell him yes,” they said.
“I’ll go into the lawyer’s office with you, after you’ve checked that water out,” I replied.
“I can’t tell you, son, how happy I am to hear you say this.” He swirled his arms in the water again. “You will become a much more agreeable person.” He took the water from the bucket and emptied it carefully over a tiny fir seedling poking up nearby.
“In ten years,” he said. “That will be a strong sapling, just like you will be a strong boy, Kevyn.” He grinned. “Lower me down,” he said. “Remember, I trust you.”
“I will remember,” I told him. He grabbed the rope, stepped into the bucket, and I winched him over the edge. I watched the top of his cowboy hat as he descended.
“When he reaches the bottom, roll that big rock down the hole and grab that plywood well cover,” said the voices.
I’d noticed the rock before, it was one of the first I’d dug out of the hole. On its other side was the huge slab of hammered-together plywood pieces, made big enough to cover the well hole so no one accidentally fell in.
I looked over at the house. Anna stood on the porch. She waved. I felt the rope go slack as Shem reached the well bottom.
“It sure is dark in here,” he shouted. “But you are right, I feel water all around me!”
I let go of the winch.
“Get that rock. Get that plywood!” screamed the voices.
I bent down and pushed the rock. It moved slightly. “Push harder!” the voices yelled. They were screaming in my ear; I had to obey. I grabbed a crowbar lying in the dust and wedged it up and the rock tumbled into the hole. I heard a tremendous crash downwards, and a scream muffled by a roar. I dragged the plywood over the hole, then stepped on top of it.
“Now what do I do?” I asked the voices.
“Keep the lid on!” they yelled. “Stand tall like a true walking bear.”
I put my weight on the plywood and felt a whirling and a vibrating below me. In my head I heard the echoes of the rock swimmer voices repeating, “We are very hungry. We must eat!”
I saw Anna moving towards me across the gravel turf from the house.
“What are you doing, Maskwa? I felt sorry for you all alone in the well last night.”
Shem’s wife Dorothy leaned on the verandah. “Where’s my husband?” she shouted.
I said nothing. There were too many rock swimmer voices in my head.
Anna ran over. “How did you get out of the hole?” she asked. “Where’s Dad?”
“I think he went to pray at the gravel pit,” I said.
The turbulence and vibrations disappeared from below the plywood.
“Why is the cover on?” Anna asked. “Did you feel an earthquake? The earth kind of jerked and rumbled a few minutes ago.”
Dorothy came puffing up on her short fat legs. “You’re supposed to be digging,” she said.
“I’m taking a break.” I stood with a slight grin, hands behind my back.
“Lift that cover off the hole, Kevyn,” Dorothy commanded.
“I’ll throw you down there too,” I muttered to myself.
Then I heard the rock swimmers in my head. “Do as she says.”
I reached down with all my strength and tossed the plywood up and over. Anna gasped.
“You threw that so far!” she said.
Dorothy stepped back. “I’m afraid I’ll have to give the authorities a bad report if you keep losing your temper,” she shouted.
I looked down the hole. The sun shone directly in. I saw nothing, except a dark rippling at the bottom.
“I didn’t lose my temper,” I told her. “I found water.”
Dorothy peered over the edge. It was all I could do not to grab her arm and pull her down.
“What’s wrong, Maskwa?” asked Anna.
I leaned forward, gazing at the empty well.
“Go down and get us a sample of that stuff." Dorothy looked at me. “I want to taste it!”
It took me a moment to answer.
“If Anna can work the winch I’ll do it,” I told her, emptying the bucket and grabbing the rope.
“Get ready,” said Anna. “I’m strong enough to hold you.”
I nodded. “I trust you,” I said.
As I descended, the circle of the sky became a ring once again, the sun angling in and light vanishing as I went deeper. A burning odour and steam like smoke rose around me as I reached the bottom of the well. I stood up to my knees in the water, my runners soaked. Something floated in the wet. I reached down and held it at arm’s length as my eyes adjusted to the light ... a dripping cowboy hat.
I looked around the sides of the hole. It took a few minutes, but packed among several stones I saw what looked like the image of a pair of lips and an open, toothless mouth. The mouth aligned along a crack in the rock. Water trickled out of the mouth and into the well.
“Shem the taker is giving back now, Maskwa,” whispered the rock swimmer voices.
I threw away the cowboy hat and pulled on the rope. “Get me out of here!”
“Are you bringing up some water?” yelled Dorothy.
I didn’t answer. I climbed up the rope like a crazed ape; clumps of gravel and rock sloughed off as I felt for footholds.
I reached the surface.
“Wow, you look so shivery!” said Anna. “You’re covered with dust.”
“You forgot the water, Kevyn,” said Dorothy.
“Get it yourself!” I told her. “And my name is Maskwa.”
Anna looked at me. “What did you see down there?”
“Nothing,” I told her.
“I’m going to get Shem,” Dorothy yelled. “You’re out of control!”
“You told us he was up at the gravel pit,” Anna said.
“I don’t think so,” I shouted as I grabbed a shovel. “But he’s somewhere around all right.”
I jogged up the hill, pretending to look for Shem. I stopped and stared at Mount Usakam, with its towering peak and burned-off forests from all the fires, at the roads that crisscrossed its sides from the logging, then at the big gash that was the pit itself.
“I killed my foster father,” I thought.
The rock swimmer voices answered back. “You have no responsibility, Maskwa. We pulled him into the rocks. He’s swimming himself now, within the mountain.”
I thought of the mouth spewing water at the bottom of the well. I wondered how long I’d hear those voices.
“I am Maskwa, the Bear!” I yelled. "Get out of my head!"
“We will be with you always,” murmured the rock swimmers. “We will help you find your voice, your life way with the mountain spirit.”
“Then I’ll never be free of you,” I told them.
“We will whisper lightly,” they said. “Carry your shovel, Maskwa. There is a weak spot in the perimeter fence.”
Below, several pickup trucks pulled into the compound. “Dorothy must have called the neighbours to search for Shem,” I thought.
I ran across the pit to the compound fence, holding my shovel. Anna came running to meet me halfway.
“I don’t know what you did to Shem,” she said. “But I’m glad he’s gone.”
“Isn’t he your real father?” I asked her.
“He never was,” she said. “And Anna is not my real name.” She stepped closer.
“My real name is Onocaya. It means ‘hawk,’ and I see you clearly, Maskwa the bear.”
We stood there on the pit, staring at each other. She nodded, smiled, and we jogged to the fence, where I noticed a gap across a low dip.
“There is the weak spot,” said the rock swimmers in my head.
“Dig us out of here, Maskwa,” Anna whispered, and for the first time in many years I willingly obeyed a human voice.