Trina Hikel, Hinesburg, VT
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
First Place in Category: Nature Writing
I hadn't been skinny-dipping in years.
Times were tough. I lived for a while in a condo with a pool where bathing suits were required. And there was one interactive episode with a security guard at a local beach, who threatened action if I didn't put my top back on -- because there were children around. Weren't breasts invented primarily for children? This was another crushing reminder that the Woodstock era was dead and gone.
Some time after that, on a sweltering July day, I was invited to meet a friend and her children at a pond I'd heard about - a small reservoir surrounded by woods, which never seemed to be patrolled by any authorities, and where swimsuits were optional. Here was the chance I'd been waiting for. I packed up my toddler and our lunch, and we were off.
My friend Marisa was visiting from Texas, and I was glad to see her. She had been my midwife, guiding me in all the preparations and traditions of a home birth. We'd hit it off, and remained friends. She was smart, fun, and good to be with. She had great hands; in a prenatal exam, she said she could "feel fingernails." She made all sorts of things with those hands: clothing, furniture, flowerbeds, big productive gardens. She foraged for wild greens and mushrooms. She baked dense, grainy breads. She was, of course, a vegetarian; we did diverge on some points, but I recognized her as disciplined and dedicated in her intent to live in reverence for life. And she didn't nag me too much about my own less energetic approach. And I admit enjoying some of her herbal remedies. The timely application of a few drops of echinacea pickled in hi-test vodka worked, I thought, pretty well during cold-and-flu season.
She knew all the flora that grew around the pond, and told me their names as we walked along the path: St. John's wort. Plantain. Yellow dock. All weeds I'd mostly ignored for most of my life. There were signs of wildlife -- porcupine, muskrat, deer -- and the chattering of birds; and there were no automobiles, boats, or ATVs. It was clean, serene, and it was the middle of the week, so there were no other people around. We found a spot on a gentle slope down to the water where our kids could play. We spread out our blankets and opened our lunch baskets.
Marisa had brought raw vegetables, whole-grain bread, and some kind of spread made with chopped-up tempeh or tofu, or both. She wouldn't eat anything that had eyes. I'd brought tuna on rye, plums, and chocolate cookies from the supermarket bakery. I could see that she was a little annoyed when her kids hovered over my stash, helping themselves to forbidden pleasures. I told her that it was on her account that I'd left the salami at home.
The children took off their clothes and played in the water. Marisa and I took off our clothes and lounged on the blanket, sipping iced tea (herbal, with honey, for her; Lipton, with sugar, for me). We are both olive-skinned, loving the sun as Mediterranean women have always done. She's taller and slimmer than I, supple and flexible from years of yoga. We talked and basked in the sun, rubbing oil into our skin - a homemade blend of comfrey and olive oil for her; Bain du Soleil for me. She told stories about her work - about teaching prenatal yoga in Spanish; about slipping a loop of umbilical cord from around a baby's neck as its head emerged; about using her capable hands to massage and hold a birthing woman's perineum so that she could deliver a ten-pound baby with no cutting or tearing - and teaching these skills so they will not be lost, in this age of technological intervention.
Our children were playing. Marisa did some yoga stretches on her blanket. She demonstrated a couple of advanced poses, which I could barely manage, my blanket slipping down the slope as I cranked my ears toward my knees where they were never meant to be. She moved from one pose to the next effortlessly, like a dancer. Then she stood up, stretched her lovely bare self, and said, "Race you across the pond."
Oh, yeah, I thought. I've got her now. I'm a pretty good swimmer. I've trained in the ocean; I swim indoors all winter; I can rip off a mile in the lake without even thinking about it. Marisa had spent the last year teaching midwifery in a clinic in El Paso. The desert. Dry, hot, arid. I'd heard about the conditions there from another friend: "Brown dirt, brown grass, and the only blue water's in the toilet bowl."
She can't be in any shape for this, I thought. "You are on," I said.
We told the kids to time us. We dived in.
I love being naked in water, outdoors. A Zen friend once told me that sunbathing nude is considered to be the highest form of meditation; but I think nude swimming is. The water felt like a whole-body massage. I stayed under, dolphin-kicking like the Olympians do to get an easy lead; I came up, figuring she'd be well behind me, but no -- there she was by my ear, freestyling away. A little choppy, but moving right along.
She can't keep that up, I thought. We were barely a quarter of the way across.
I'm a breast-stroke specialist, and I kicked it up into about second gear, prolonging my glide under water, which I knew would keep me ahead with little effort. After about ten strokes I broke and looked around -- there she was again, flailing a little more, but still right off my shoulder. She had to have been doing road work or something, back there in Texas. She was much faster than I thought.
I slowed down a little to let her get ahead so I could watch her. Her stroke was messy; she was plonking her arms all over the place, and breathing awkwardly toward the front, but her cadence was steady, and she wasn't even winded. She made a wake like a motorboat.
I let her lead to what I guessed was the halfway point, then I brought it on. As I passed, I looked at her; we both grinned, and then I saw something in her face that said she was into this challenge. She charged ahead, and I suddenly found myself having to work to keep my lead. We had about thirty yards to go.
Then she screamed.
And then she went under.
We were out over our heads. I treaded water furiously for a few seconds, trying to see where she was. She broke the surface, yelled again, and streaked for shore. I lit out, staying a little ahead -- this still being a race -- but switching to freestyle so I could keep my eye on her over my right shoulder. She plowed through the water like a woman possessed.
I touched the shore, and stayed in, treading water; she pulled up a half-second behind me, panting. She clambered onto a rock, and bent down to inspect herself Down There.
"Oh, my God," she wailed, "I'm bleeding."
Wow, I thought. This is the most dramatic onset of menses that I have ever seen.
"Something bit me," she said.
I dogpaddled in for a closer look. Sure enough, a trickle of blood meandered down her inner thigh from somewhere in the raven curls of her bush. I saw the glint of something metallic, and leaned in to see.
"Whatever can that be?" I said, pointing.
She grimaced, and showed me: a tiny, shiny, silvery-purple labial ring pierced her dusky outer lip. A spot of fresh blood welled up nearby.
"Oh. My," I said. It was my first genital piercing.
She said, "We had a slow day at the clinic a while ago. It seemed a good time to practice sterile technique. We all did them on each other."
You do get a unique view of the world when you are working constantly Down There, as midwives do.
"I see," I said. Obviously some innocent pond creature -- a turtle? a frog? a fish? -- had found the bling appealing, and moved in for a nibble.
"Well," I said, "I think you've got the right lure. Your trolling speed was a little too fast."
"Shut up," she replied.
We paddled back to our picnic. The kids said we'd done the half-mile in about thirty minutes, which was not bad for a nursing mother and an inhabitant of the Southwestern desert.
Ever since that day, whenever I go skinny-dipping, I take off everything. I mean everything -- jewelry and all. Because you really don't know what's out there. Just waiting.