“You could have drowned her”: at the lake

On the first day of summer, the whole family goes to the lake. It takes about half an hour to get there, husband and wives and kids and all. They arrive in two cars. Lunch supplies have been packed, and one of the women stays behind on the sand to prepare food and take care of the babies.

The man and the other two women take the girls over to the water. The women are wearing bathing suits and big hats with sunglasses. The girls are all very excited. The water is still and green. They pretend not to notice their father wearing a speedo, or the pearlescent burn scars across his chest. His body is upsetting and foreign.

The lake is very shallow near the shore. There’s an island in the middle, where the water becomes much deeper. The edge of its shore is neatly bordered by large rocks with pockets of sand in between. On the top of the island is a micro-forest, made of a few very old trees growing together into a dense copse.

The adults take turns ferrying the girls across the water. The water never gets higher than the parents’ chins, but the kids can’t swim across on their own yet. When all five of the girls are on the island, the parents swim back towards the shore to rest on the sand, leaving them alone to climb up the small hill. The girls can see their parents on the opposite shore. They wave.

Then they explore the tiny island, with its few trees and surrounding views. They take turns leading each other around. They slip down the back side of the island, onto a pile of rocks that match the cliffs on the opposite side of the lake. In between the rocks is a pool of water—it’s not very large, but it’s deep. The water is stained brown by tannins from leaf litter. There’s a faint white glow at the bottom of the pool. A fish is lying on its side underwater, its body the shape of an oval cut in half. The girls see its eye and its mouth, which is more like a beak.

“What kind of fish is it?” the oldest girl asks.

“It’s a moonfish,” the next-oldest says.

The children all crouch down to look closer at the fish.

“Is it dead?” A middle child swirls her finger through the water, waiting for the fish to react.

“No—its eyes are moving,” another girl says. “Look.”

The fish is watching them closely, following them with its eyes. Its lips move, as if it’s whispering into the small pool.

“Her house is too small,” the toddler says. She points to the fish and then the lake.

They all sit and watch the fish for a little longer, then get up one by one and wander off to look at other things.

Eventually the time comes for the parents to return and ferry the children back across the water. The oldest girl swims across herself, beside her mother. The youngest two are carried back first. The two middle children are left on the beach. They get restless and push each other around. It feels like forever to have to wait for their parents to make the trips back and forth between the island and the shore. The time stretches uncomfortably. The girls bicker, before one pushes her older sister away and gets into the water herself. She paddles away from the shore, out into the deepest part of the water. She’s a confident swimmer; her paddling strokes are calm and even. The older sister follows in a panic, scared to be left alone. She plunges into the water without thinking and tries desperately to catch up. The water covers her neck and chin, cool and velvety. She’s splashing too much. Her arms are uncontrollable, and when she catches up to the younger sister, she hits her over the head accidentally.

As soon as she feels the other girl in the water, she latches on. She wraps her arms round her sister’s neck and chest, pushing her head down. The younger sister’s nose and mouth fall beneath the water, and she isn’t strong enough to keep them both above it.

They go down together in a tangle of limbs and violent streams of bubbles. There is messing and clawing of arms and heads. The younger girl is blonde and never cuts her hair; it becomes green underwater, spreading like a cloud of corn silk. Her eyes close as she tries to get her head above the water. The older girl’s eyes are wide open while she pulls the blonde girl down.

They start swallowing water at the same time, cold and painful gulps of it, making their noses and throats and chests sore. They take turns gasping at the surface, trying for air and getting only mouthfuls of water. They try to scream underwater and raise their hands above the waves, before falling down farther into the deep green, the messes of eelgrass and sparkle of fish beyond.

And then they’re being grabbed roughly under the armpits and wrenched from the dark water. They cough and struggle and they’re still yelling. The other girls are watching from the shore, wrapped in towels and being handed fruit leathers by their mothers.

The two girls are still tangled in each other, almost wrestling, and still barely able to breathe. They’re carried through the water until it becomes dry land. The adults put them down, and the younger girl is taken away to be towelled off and checked. The older girl stands and shivers. Her father bends down over her and pins her arms by her sides.

“You never push someone’s head underwater like that.” He shoves his finger in her face. His eyes are angry and black. He stares violently, without blinking. “She could have drowned. You could have drowned her. Do you understand me?”

The girl nods her head.

“I don’t ever want to see you do that again.”

She nods her head again.

“Did you hear me?”

Her head is still nodding. Her whole body is shaking.

“I said, did you fucking hear me?”

The women are standing back and watching.

He is squeezing her arms so tight it feels like he could pop them off.


“Good.” He pushes her towards her mother, who is waiting a little farther away than the other women.

They all eat the lunches. The food has the tiniest bit of sand in it, so it becomes gritty and salty. The children aren’t allowed back into the water, and they play in the trees at the edge of the park instead. The girl sits in the sand and fills her pockets with it. The parents lie out in the sun or dip their toes into the water.

Then they load everything back into the cars and drive home. The highway cuts through the forest, concrete snaking back towards the city. The girl pretends to fall asleep on the drive, so her father will have to carry her inside when they get home, sand spilling from her pockets.

Taken with kind permission from the short story collection Tahou by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30), published in  late 2022.

Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, WñSÁNEƒÜ) won the 2020 Adam Foundation Prize and was runner-up in the 2021 Surrey Hotel-Newsroom writer's residency award. She is the author...

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