(from a work in progress)
The water is flat as glass which he shatters with each stroke, his arms operating like mistimed pistons, his strokes short and choppy. His legs barely muster a kicking motion and his feet hang low like sinking weights. He breathes in awkward gasps. He gulps mouthfuls of water. His splashing and coughing upset the silent morning.
It is the start of a long June day, the sun already a disk above the tree line, but on the lake the layer of mist has not yet melted. He cannot see where he is going. He pierces the fog, the shoreline behind him obscured and the way forward a gray mystery, unaware of what direction he swims—if you could call these stilted motions swimming: he wouldn’t recognize this man who’d once finned through the water as naturally as fish.
His right side is stronger than his left, and with each stroke of his right arm he slightly rudders himself toward the wider part of the lake, but he had no sense of this, only of swimming, only of the next stroke, the next slap at the water. His mission.
He does not recognize the signs of his accelerating exhaustion. There is less momentum behind his strokes. When he tries to kick, his sciatic nerve burns deep in his hip and leg. He is no longer executing a stroke that could be recognized as the crawl. His body is no longer parallel to the surface of the water. His arms no longer reach in front of him. His hands no longer scoop.
He has stopped turning his head to the side to catch breaths. Now his head is above the water, his chin just sticking out, but he has trouble staying above the surface and he swallows too much water and it clogs his lungs. He spits and coughs and forgets the next stroke and for the first time he sinks below the surface but an instinct fires and he kicks his way up and he can breathe again through his coughing fit. A few more strokes. Flailing now, not moving forward or in any direction. Another stroke. One more.
What a mistake. What a terrible, terrible misjudgment. He isn’t ready. He’s still a competent, healthy man. He still has time—but only if he makes it back. He looks around him. He’s somewhere in the lake encased in a gray shroud.
His fear is so paralyzing he begins to sink again but the animal surge takes over and he pushes his arms so violently that for an instant he’s like a missile breaking the surface of the water. He starts pummeling the water with hard strokes. Right-left, right-left, like a boxer delivering a combination. It’s an instinctive twitch more than an athletic movement. He must reach the shore.
He can’t. He’s too tired. The left-right is slowing down, his arms and legs useless, his lungs sluggish with fluid. He’s underwater and this time he’s not coming up. Sinking. A drowning man. A dead man. There—you’ve got your wish.
Something grabs his leg. He tries to kick away. His other leg now. Both legs.
It’s the bottom of the lake. His feet are touching. Then he’s kneeling. His face is out of the water. Gasping, coughing, choking. The shore right there in front of him.
He can’t walk but he can maneuver through the shallows on all fours. He emerges from the water onto the pebbly shoreline, like a prehistoric sea creature crawling onto land to launch the next era of evolution.