“Meditations on Water (Ode to Escambia)” by Stella Meadows

I didn’t always know I was a woman.

That’s one of the myths – that every trans person knows it from Day One. I guess I knew from pretty early on, but Day One? No, no, absolutely not. And I didn’t find the words for it until later. First I had to discover myself, the looseness of my form, the pliability of my spirit, my ability to transform. There were many battlegrounds on which the fight for my identity was waged. But first and foremost among those battlegrounds is the water, that holiest of holies.

Let’s talk about water a bit.

Imagine yourself, if you’ll indulge me, submerged. A bathtub, a swimming pool, a river, lake, sea – doesn’t really matter. All water is holy water. Feel it on your skin. Really feel it. Let it needle your flesh, etch a tattoo upon you, seep into your bloodstream. Let it lift your hair and separate each strand, one by one, and hang it all like a halo overhead. Accept that a process has begun; that some scars cannot ever be hidden (not from the water) and that healing doesn’t always mean recovering; that moving forward does not always mean moving on.

Do you feel a hole in your heart? Worm-gnawed, flesh flapping ragged, strings of necrotic flesh clinging by threads of cells? That hole won’t simply vanish, no matter how much you wish it away. The water cannot heal you of your wounds. It can only reflect them, and therein lies its magic. Whether it be the warm and mucky riverbed suckling your ankles, tickling hips and shoulders with fish kisses and passing gnats; or the rheumy whitecaps crashing over you – frigid from ceiling to cellar door – and scattering stinging salt upon you, while great mumbling sea beasts knock between your knees and stir the deep beneath your feet; whether it be warm or cold, calm or enraged, shallow or deep, the water can never fill that hole in your heart.

Have you sunk in deeply enough? Try going deeper. Let the water cover your nose and mouth, feel it in your ears. Feel its pressures upon you. You must submerge yourself fully if ever you’re to understand.

They say that all life emerged from the water. Now, I’m no biologist – I couldn’t tell you the how and when of that process. But when you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? We all need it to live, anyways. It’s our most precious resource. The discovery of water on the moon is one of science’s most exciting discoveries, and why? We drink water every day, destroy our planet in an effort to bottle it. We waste millions upon millions of gallons of water to grow food in deserts. To keep lawns in California green. In California, for chrissake! Have you never heard of gravel? We even build shrines to the majesty of water – waterparks and reservoirs and man-made lakes, as if we didn’t have lakes enough, all so we can store up our water and worship it. So we can sweep our hands over the waves and say, “This is mine – I did this.”

What surprises me is that we haven’t yet recognized water worship as a major world religion. I think, perhaps, because we are too flippant in our worship. Water must be recognized in its natural state to be holy; you can’t just cage Jesus in a Nalgene. But if we ever could recognize water for the holy element it is, I’d be the first to drop to my knees. How’s this for a scripture?

The Gospel according to Water: The ebb and flow constitute the great god’s moods, the lack of stillness being the forward drive of life and time – measured only in the slow erosion of earthly crust beneath the mighty footfall of the sea. And, yea, mark all the creatures of the deep: from the packs of mackerel; to the pods of whales – from the many-toothed Sperm, diver of the deep, Leviathan-devourer, to the lumps and scrapes of that wrinkled Methuselah, the Humpback, to the breadth of the colossal Blue – to the chambered nautilus, golden ratio in the flesh, reeking of alien invasion; to the nudibranchs and slugs and hagfish; to the snapjaw sharks and their Basking cousins; to the seal and sea lion, oil-rippled skeins of fur slipping through the body and soul of the Lord; to the domed turtle; to the yellow bite of the Moray; to the whiskered faces of shrimp, like men caught red-handed in sin, as they scuttle the sea-floor; to the bulbed strands of kelp wavering slowly in fathoms-deep chambers, pillars of ancient fortresses whose corridors are plumbed by the passage of immense and uncaring presences, mighty beasts that draw diminished souls in their wakes by way of unyielding pressures, stirring silt and mire from the walls of cliffs; all these and more, from greatest to smallest, without distinction, are as priests and angels of the the most Holy Deep.

…Now that I think about it, religion ain’t as popular as it used to be. What’s more, the encroaching sea is being seen more and more as an existential threat. Even if we begrudgingly admit that, yes, it just might be our fault it’s rising in the first place.

Alas.

But if it’s rising, shouldn’t we learn to love it? Hear me out (if you can still hear me, that is, beneath the surface). Whether it’s coming in two weeks, two years, or two hundred, it’s coming. Knowing that, I say, Do away with fear! Go on, throw it out! We need no more of that where we’re going. Frolic on the shore and relish the fact that the seas will reclaim you; it will be a pleasant return to the place of our birth, so let us make merry and slaughter the fattened calf. Let us shed all semblance of fear and run, arms spread outward, into those sibylline sheets.

Once we’re submerged, we’ll undergo the final change. And believe you me, the water is a place of changing.

I spent much of my childhood around water. Mostly swimming pools. Quite a length of time has passed since I went swimming for fun, and even then it was mostly to remember how I used to pass the days. It was a bit sad, really. At twenty-four I spend the hottest afternoons indoors, creeping about in the shade, stripping off everything but the paper on my bones. I’ll drink warm beer, or root about in the freezer for ice cubes to plop into cheap wine. God, where did it all go wrong? Summer used to be so simple!

Years back, when I lived in Tennessee, I would get down on my knees and pray that my parents would take us swimming. In Knoxville, pools weren’t a backyard convenience, but an excursion. If my prayers were heard, my siblings and I would be bundled up in towels and shipped off to Karns Public Pool, where we’d ride the world’s smallest waterslide amidst hordes of germ-riddled children. Afterwards, if we were extra lucky, we’d shovel fluffy scoops of tasteless white ice cream down our gullets (all you could ever taste was the wooden stick you’d use to scrape it from the styrofoam container).

But before even that, I remember the poolside adventures of the long Pensacola summers. I was barely a toddler then, but I remember it well. The air was thick and gummy, and it draped itself over your shoulders and stuffed itself inside your lungs. You practically needed scuba gear just to breathe.

We would run shrieking beneath the latticed netting that enclosed the pool. The extended family used to meet there, at Yia-Yia and Pappou’s house, and we’d all swim together. I remember lying on the hot ground and feeling my skin, so soft, against the rough stone. I happened to move too quickly, once, and felt the flesh tear. The recollection of a childhood scraped knee must rank amongst the most exquisitely traumatic of all memories. By degrees, the balm of a parent’s patient nursing must rank amongst the greatest of all reliefs – and the greatest frustration of adulthood is losing the ability to see parents as the benevolent gods they once were.

Perhaps my oldest memory is of stepping into the pool. Here I was, barely old enough to walk, and I just stepped right in. It was only the shallow end, mind you, and all my familial matriarchs were sitting with their feet in the water, watching. But I still sank like a stone. I remember fire in my nose and light in my eyes – but just as I registered pain, and panic, my mother scooped me out, blinking and crying, and I was surrounded by love and tenderness. I was hugged, consoled, lightly reprimanded, sent inside to find my floaties, and Don’t you think you need more sunscreen? Ask Daddy to help you with sunscreen.

So I marched back in, dripping cold water all over the green patio tiles. The light clicking of stones proclaimed the beginning of a game of tavli, which I never understood, although I loved to watch from afar and imagine myself (someday) playing. I looked between my father and Pappou, watched the tumbling dice, small as thumbnails, as they offered up their pitted faces in remuneration to the players. I didn’t know what the pips meant, but I could recognize that the cast of their fall evinced both joy and despair in the figureheads of battle. In my memories, it seems, they used to play for hours, never giving ground to the other, winning then losing, back and forth ad nauseum. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve seen the board recently, and the tallies etched into its surface show that Pappou was up by one game – a lead he’ll hold for eternity, I suppose. I still carry the image of those games as Olympian struggles, two gods of comparable strength, one older and more experienced, the other younger but more resolute. Every match between those gods was worth watching, worth betting on, worth holding up to the heights of all of history – as if those battles were the foundations of all civilization, and everything in the world of man sprang fully-formed from the surface of that board, it’s backside etched with Greek warriors.

But of course, my father was still the benevolent god back then. He’d step down from the killing floor to help me affix my floaties, to rub sunscreen into my back, to kiss my head and send me walking – not running! – back to the pool.

It was there that I learned a game called Sharks and Minnows. We always played in the deep end (a frightening prospect), the six feet of water a veritable abyss beneath me, so that when Uncle Greg and Uncle John dove to the bottom and swam across I stared in awe; every time they did that, I could see them not as people but as sharks, truly sharks, and I began to equate adulthood with being able to dive, to hold one’s breath, to swim without pinching the nose or closing the eyes (and all without goggles!). Auntie Yolande and Auntie Sheila would just clap from afar, but everyone could see how impressive it was.

We only ever left the pool with the arrival of sudden rains, a common enough occurrence in the Panhandle. When the skies turned black and the thunder began to rumble, we’d duck inside, and us children would stand shivering in the kitchen, trying our best to ignore the wind shrieking between the trees – sounding so much like human screams that, twenty years on, I still get goosebumps. We’d watch the wet pooling between our shrivelled toes while the grownups cooked dinner, then we’d entertain each other with the Gameboy Color and remote-controlled robots, or by pressing our faces into the glass of the side table and watching the imprints recede, like some rare amoeba contracting beneath a beam of light. Then we’d be marched off to the master bathroom where we’d build Babylonian constructs of bubbles. It was after one such washing up that we took an excursion into Pappou’s closet, finding a religious tract about the Rapture. We were fascinated by the imagery and demanded an explanation, forcing strange new pedagogies from the mouths of our parents.

After the double-immersion of swimming and bathing, we’d tear out across the lawn, making up new games to play and pushing the limits of our tender young bodies. It was there that I tried jumping off a stepladder with an open umbrella, chunking open my foot on a pointed stick, before limping back inside, crying, to be patched and cleaned and sent back outside, to return, grizzled, to the scene of the crime, to resume running, only slightly more cautiously than before, reminded again that we are fragile, we can be hurt, we can bleed, then forgetting because we’ve seen a cow ant – a cow ant! – a marvelous new creature we’ve never before encountered, fat and red and furry, and told that it won’t sting if we leave it alone, that most bugs won’t bite if you just don’t touch ‘em, advice I never forgot, and even today, even still, decades later, I still hesitate for fear of being bitten in nearly every aspect of my life.

It was a good time, and my memories, formative as they are, center around the oasis of that backyard swimming pool. But I’ve never quite reclaimed the feeling – what did Thomas Wolfe say? You can’t go home again. Those days laid the foundation for everything, before any old specters of pain came swimming in through that hole in my heart. I think of all life after Pensacola as a sort of death, or a post-death limbo; as if my time in Pensacola constituted the full extent of my time on Earth, and everything afterwards has been a crossing over the threshold of the grave into some cold and steady oblivion. I’m not so naive as to believe that those years were perfect, but back then I couldn’t grasp the significance of the changes life was going to throw at me. I couldn’t feel dissatisfaction and despair weave their rot into my history.

By the time I moved to San Diego, where pools were more prevalent, major changes were occuring in my life. I’d gotten particularly good at reinventing myself, or at least, re-orienting myself, having moved half a dozen times before the age of eight. I think all children are good at reinventing themselves, but I felt particularly proficient. In the pools of California, I began to see the water less as a playground and more as a stage. With my friends and siblings we used to enact scenarios from our favorite franchises – Sonic the Hedgehog, Star Fox, Power Rangers, Naruto – you know, the classics. In the water I could imagine myself as anybody or anything, and I put those skills to use every chance I got.

No surprise, then, that in the coming years – as puberty took hold of my body and wrecked my young bones with testosterone, violent and white-hot – I began to dissociate from my physical form. I didn’t know how to picture myself as a person, as something real, let alone as a man. Nor did I know how to feel about the fact that my mind and soul were forever bound to the body into which I’d been born. The thought was, quite frankly, daunting. So I continued to dive deeper into my poolside fantasies.

I was fifteen years old when I learned I was trans. Things began to fall into place – the predilection for female characters in the poolside games we used to play was perhaps the biggest indicator. The waters were my proving ground for the first stirrings of identity. And no surprise that the revelation brought new water with it, coursing down my cheeks when I understood that these feelings could run deeper than the games we used to play; that my identity was not inherently bound to the water in which we swam; regardless of my body, I could be who I wanted to be, in the water and out of it; and fresh tears were offered every night for years, a sort of offering to the gods of the deep who’d first woken that woman within me. I never realized that the water was changing me, making me into something other than myself, something that could only ever have been me. I spent years meditating on that waterbound heart until I could finally accept the girl I had always been growing into. I’d be lying if I said that water never impacted me.

It made me who I am.

These days, I live by the sea. On weekend mornings I walk to the shore and stare at the waves, thinking hard about what it all means. The great and fathomless deep is coming for us, sooner or later – but I’ll be ready. When it comes, I’ll allow myself to bend without breaking. I’ll make my body limber and strong. I’ll become supple as the weeds in the shallows. I’ll become a citizen of those Protean halls, an angel of the deep – a whale, perhaps, or an otter. I’ll test the waters with my webbed feet, my rudder tail, warm beneath a coat of fur and fat, and plumb the depths of God.

I’ll be ready and willing. I’ve changed once before, you see – I’ve changed already. I know what to expect, and I won’t shy away. I’ll embrace it. I’ve been through it all before, I’ve lived through flux, and I have nothing left to fear.

What about you? Can you say the same?


Stella Meadows is a writer to know. Born in 1996, she’s been active since the age of eight, ever in search of the perfect sentence. Her first story was published in Quirk Literary Magazine in May, 2020. Her other work is forthcoming. Meadows takes a personal approach to story-telling, focusing primarily on issues of identity and self-expression. When not reading or writing, she can be found drinking espresso and chasing down scared raccoons (they need affection too!). A student of Humanities and Communications at California State University, Monterey Bay, she will graduate in early 2021.

Photo by César Couto on Unsplash

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