Giant koi. Three of them. Someone let them go in Walden Pond years before, and they grew to fit their container, as goldfish do. At 6:30 in the morning, wrapped in neoprene and latex, toeing Walden’s sweet, clear water, I can’t stop thinking of them.
The water is cold this early in the season, seeps shocking tendrils into my wetsuit. At various points on the pond, I see fellow swimmers cutting across the surface, their crooked arms like the painted vees of birds’ wings. I absorb the soft morning light against placid Walden, stretch my shoulders, lean forward, and take my first stroke.
At once, I am consumed by the soundtrack of solid meeting liquid, a rhythmic sloshing, agitating washing machine. I move out past the shallows to where the bottom is no longer visible, to where the koi play. I close my eyes behind my goggles. I really don’t want to encounter the koi. I imagine them prowling in a pack, and I know seeing even just one will send my heart flying from my mouth.
I adjust course toward the cove across the pond. I remember that this setting is sacred to me, these thirty-five minutes of swimming in this particular body of water something seriously special. I remember to be mindful. I think of my stroke. I think of my elbow and keep it high. I think of my shoulder and its lubricated motion. I think of my fingers, slightly spread and stiff, a catch-and-release net for Walden. I feel the water, feel my own strength, then feel rubbery neoprene with my thumb when it grazes my thigh.
I think of the koi.
I think of the snapping turtle my boyfriend and I caught, dragged up a very different shore, and knocked out with a wrench from my tackle box. I was twelve, and he was stupid. That turtle’s surely dead, not to mention 1000 miles away. That turtle is not lurking in Walden Pond.
I think of the alignment of my spine. I think of my breath. Every third stroke, I breathe in the wake my head makes and catch a glimpse of trees. Every third stroke, an opportunity is presented to me to adjust my course. And then, maybe every dozen breaths, I sight, take two or three strokes with my head lifted and become reacquainted with my destination.
I swim. My nostrils dilate when I exhale, my mouth catches a tablespoon of water between each breath then trades it for air when I rotate and turn my face to our accustomed medium. Walden has no taste, unlike my home pool, which is practically solid with chlorine. The black line running below me, the plastic lane markers, the tile walls that have seen hundreds of my flip turns don’t exist here.
The cost of that freedom is giant koi.
And, though I fear those goldfish like I fear nothing else, I’m okay with that. I breathe, I stretch, and I swim.
Amanda Kabak has had stories published in Midwestern Gothic, The Quotable, Perceptions Magazine, and other print and online periodicals. She has won the Betty Gabehart prize, issued by the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference, was a finalist in december magazine’s Curt Johnson prose contest as well as the Iron Horse Literary Review chapbook contest, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA from Pacific University, and her first novel is forthcoming from Brain Mill Press.