TAKE A DEEP BREATH. Keep your mouth closed."
May hesitated, and he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her slowly down, under the water's surface. She watched silver streams of bubbles escape her nose, then came quickly up with her eyes burning, grabbed for the side, his shoulder, anything to keep from sinking. Drowning.
"Not bad," he said. And again, after she'd stopped gasping, he pushed her gently under. They did this for an hour.
"You have to be comfortable with your head underwater," he said. "Holding your breath."
Not once did he mention her feet - not on the first day, not subsequently - and the fact that he didn't earn him her respect.
If she came downstairs late for her lesson, she found him doing chin-ups on the end of the diving board, easily pulling his torso up out of the deep end. Through the trees, the sun scattered the surface of the pool with bright shards. Over and over, he lifted himself out, disturbing the water just enough to make them dance.
After breathing came kicking. He brought a life preserver and told her to hold it and kick hard enough to travel the length of the pool and back. She made slow progress and stayed close to the side. Three times she stopped to catch her breath. He swam next to her, propelling his big body as if it were weightless, turning from stomach to side to back. A gap separated his front teeth; through it he sent up silver arcs of water when he did the backstroke.
"If you don' t get so you don' t need to rest, you won't make any progress." He made the comment noncommittally, as if he didn't care much, either way. His eyelashes, bleached white by the sun, clumped together into wet, starry points, and his tanned face conveyed the benign condescension of an animal trainer. She liked it, his detachment; she preferred it. Her successes, her failures: these were not his but hers. They belonged to her.
IN THE NEXT WORLD, May had been warned, she would find a lake under whose surface swam those women who had borne children. The lake was a lake of blood. Blood lost each month and lost in childbirth. The blood of stained cloths washed in the rivers.
To ease the sufferings of the dead, the temple bell, as wide and as clamorous as that in the firehouse, was lined with their hair, a few strands taken from each and stuck to the cold metal with a dab of wax or a smear of rice syrup. With every strike of its clapper, one swimmer could come up for a gasp of air. Or so May's mother explained, many years before - a lifetime ago - when Chu'en took her past the joss house and May asked why it was that tangled drifts of dark, shining hair blew through its dusty forecourt.
May and her mother had stared past the sedan chair's curtains. "I'm never going there," May said, shaking her head. "Not to that lake." Her mother didn't answer. Instead, "Hurry! Hurry!" she called out to the boys carrying the chair. They were late returning home; May's grandmother would be angry.
ARMS WERE HARDER than legs. She tried holding the life preserver with one arm while stroking with the other, but in the end he had to support her while she practiced. He stood in the shallow end and held her up on the surface of the water with his broad palms. The feel of his hands against her ribs, his frown of youthful concentration, their formal yet physical intimacy - these reminded her of a time when she was as young as he, and working as a prostitute in Shanghai.
"No. No. Your timing is off. You turn your face up out of the water when you lift your arm. You take a breath as you lift."
WHEN SHE WAS HOME, Alice watched the lessons from the balcony outside her bedroom, her vigil silhouetted by the white curtain behind her.
May didn't do things casually. She wouldn't pursue swimming for the pleasure of it. Certainly not for the exercise, never on the advice of a physician. She must have some sort of a ... a plan?
Excerpted from The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison Copyright© 2000 by Kathryn Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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