Undertow, Wolf’s Head Lake


Joyce Carol Oates

These late summer waves break slow, flat, spent,
soothing, the blood’s subdued beat,
for instance if you lie in bed
neither asleep nor awake
and you’ve eased down inside your body
where the heart is no larger
than a baby’s fist
barely needing to pulse,
then you remember swimming this lake,
twelve years old, long legs, arms
narrow and hard with muscle,
the breath, the beat,
dusk easing up from below,
frothy craters warmed from a long day’s sun,
that giant eel
brushing cold against an ankle,
a leg, the sudden icy caress against the shoulder-
now the current shifts,
now the lazy pocked surface slips away
and you are breathing black water,
snorting, choking,
dusk in the mountains too swift to be believed-
your legs heavy, knees gone numb,
the breath quick and thin
in slivers like glass-
You kick loose, you are swimming away,
overhead a small flock of Canadian geese passes,
the beat, again the beat,
Nothing has touched me, you think, swimming away,
as the familiar waves break spent, warm,
flat, sleepy, you rise dripping in shallow water,
toes clawing the sand,
The undertow? you say, Oh was that the undertow?

You might have drowned. You lived,
and immediately forgot.
What to make of old surprises, old loves,
broken shells between the toes?
These dull spent late summer waves at Wolfs Head Lake?

And here I am, you say,
here, still, I am.