Boston-based writer L. Scully recounts their experience wild swimming while on a literary residency in Wales, exploring how the water awakes old memories and incites fresh emotion.
I The River Teifi
When I enter the water I am cured.
The River Teifi winds gently through the village of Cenarth, warm and green. The group wanders up to the bridge that can’t quite hold twenty people but my eyes stay fixed on the water, calculating how to get in and how to get out before anyone can stop me. Dominic tracks my gaze and tells me not to think about it, but on the way back from the dodgy bridge, he whispers, “Go on, then! Run!” and I hurtle with a smile down the small hill to the river’s edge. Kids jump off the little cliff ledge into the water and I fear for their heads as they go plunging down into the unknowable depths. I remember cliff jumping in Ohio with my first love, my ass hanging out of a little white swimsuit and their chest flattened not quite to perfection. We were the only gay kids on the cliff that day and stole kisses when the confederate-flagged locals weren’t looking. In the Teifi I don’t take the cliff route but lunge trustingly into the water from the side of the bank, the group catching up to me just in time for me to take off my clothes and dive. When I come out my legs are shaking and someone says I must be lying about how cold it is. The truth is that the water is temperate and inviting and it is me that is shaking on my own account, with nervousness at my luck and with pleasure at my breathlessness. On the cliff ledge in Ohio I jumped because I would follow my lover anywhere. Here in Cenarth, no one follows me. I am pleased at my private audience with the river.
When I enter the water I release the breath I’ve been holding for days.
I make the frigid descent from Aberystwyth’s pebbly shore into the Irish Sea and feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. Teenage girls give each other piggyback rides and scream the lyrics to Blink 182’s “I Miss You,” oddly enough the song I was listening to on the minibus minutes before we pulled over at the shoreline. The girls giggle and drop one another but seem unaffected by the cold, though no one else dares to go in the water on a cloudy day. My things parked near the little fleet of singers, I pull off my blazer to reveal my swimsuit underneath. As I submerge I open my eyes under water, stinging myself with salt and cold and a desire to see. “Hello there…the angel from my nightmare…” pierces the air as I surface. I smirk a little to myself and realize I am bleeding. I quickly exit the water and pull off my suit, jam my legs into dry underwear, and hop half naked back to the water’s edge. Little girls with buckets flank me as I turn my swimsuit inside out and try to launder out the blood in the tiny crashing waves. They watch me curiously and I feel a mix of shame and pity because they don’t quite know what’s coming.
III Llyn Y Fan Fach
When I enter the water I grieve.
Sweaty from the uphill walk and only slightly wary of the toxic algae signs warning me not to bathe, I approach the edge of the low lake cradled by mountains. There is a single person swimming and I ask, breathing heavily, how the water is. The young man with a pentagram above his nipple gives me a thumbs up with one hand and treads water with the other as I get closer. “Can I join you?” I call out to him and he offers another thumbs up. I unlace my shoes and inquire about the toxic algae situation, to which he responds unconcerned. Good enough for me, I think. We become acquainted as I paddle in my underwear, Freddie’s lilting voice moving across the water in introduction. I tell him I’m swimming before the group catches up so no one can tell me not to do it. His elderly mother walks over to take our picture, floating in this low blue lake in the high green mountains, both of us pink and tattooed and smiling. There is a part of me that resents Freddie’s mother, upright in her aliveness, unparalyzed in her camera screen, almost a body double of my grandmother when she was alive and could walk. I quickly wet my face like the psychiatrist told me to do when I need to cool my brain down, unnerved by my guilty thoughts of wishing ill on Freddie’s family. I lay on my back with the sun facing my chest and think about the way my grandmother’s feet turned towards each other in those last few years spent in bed, almost as if she were swimming a breaststroke.
IV New Quay
When I enter the water I smile.
I stay smiling as I flutter kick and call out to Dominic to join me in the water. He rolls his trousers up to his knees and wades in to photograph me. He tells me to swim out and I am happy to obey, eager to face outwards from Cardigan Bay and into the sea that pulls me deeper. I say to myself, “I think what you are feeling is called joy.” The shallows are so warm it feels like the Bay of Biscay, where I swam with my lover in Northern Spain. That day comes back to me as my muscles tense and relax in time with my stroke: the cheesecake on the beach, the rolling high that left me dizzy and blubbering in the sand, the shouts of “I love you!” as they flashed me their tits at high tide. I think if I could bottle up a memory it would be this one and as I swim the shoreline the waves lap me like my lover did in bed that night. I can’t remember the last time I felt this happy without the touch of another person.
When I enter the water I am home.
I am jumping off a cliff and I am listening to a sad song and I am at the foot of my grandmother’s bed and I am in the arms of my lover. Seaweed rubs against my thighs and my calloused feet brave the rocks to get deep enough to sink under one last time. A rainstorm is coming but I don’t mind because in front of me the sky is clear. I do what I always do before closing a swim: I touch my hand to my lips then put my fingers in the water. I am thanking the sea for allowing me safe passage, for my clear head and my muscle ache. I try not to think too hard about what it means that I feel most alive holding my breath because for now I am satiated. When I climb out of the water my hair is sopping and my underwear is dripping and the people on the promenade are looking at me like I’m crazy but the important thing is that I came back to shore.
L Scully is a trans writer and double Capricorn currently based in Boston. They are the co-founder of Stone of Madness Press. L’s work has appeared in print and online in Jellyfish Review, Heavy Feather Review, and Hobart, among others. Their debut chapbook, “Like Us,” is available from ELJ Editions, Ltd. L can be reached in the ether @LRScully.