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The Swimmers

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 12.57.20 AM [1]In the beginning, I think everyone was afraid. You can imagine how startling it was the day the fingertips of that enormous hand came up out of the sands of Punta del Este and reached for the sun. Reached for it in a grasp, as if it were trying to crush the sun in its fist. People were, understandably, frightened. Sunbathers on the scene said they thought it was an earthquake, until the fingers appeared, shooting out of the ground. It tried to snatch the sun, they said. One man, a Uruguayan on vacation from the interior, said he thought for a moment that the arm and then the entire body would emerge from the ground and swat them like fleas. Instead, it surfaced only as far as the wrist, and then it sank back into the sand, its fingers curled slightly, what seemed like the whole beach in its palm.

Overnight, news media and investigators arrived. The Uruguayan president, an ex-political prisoner the dictatorship had kept imprisoned at the bottom of a well, assured his country, and the rest of us, that there was no need to fear the hand, that preliminary probes and seismic tests indicated that the being under the beach would not be making any further movements. All our data suggests that the being is no longer living, said the former revolutionary. When asked by reporters if the “being” he referred to was thought to be a giant or a god, he said he would not be drawn into philosophical or mythological conversations. His speech was translated into forty-seven languages, and for three days images of the hand played across every website, television, and portable device.

Anthropologists analyzed its skin tone but were unable to draw any formal conclusions. Manicurists analyzed its nail beds and calluses but could not say with any certainty if it belonged to a man or woman. Palmists could only make the slightest of predictions, since the base of the hand, and thus the sources of the life and love lines, was buried in the sand. Heeding the instructions of the president or perhaps our own sense of self-preservation, it was referred to simply as the Hand, disembodied from any greater being or meaning. Yet, all of us, at least for a little while, treaded more lightly, stepped with the reserved feet of an upstairs neighbor, conscious of who or what below might be listening and become annoyed.

When no threat was perceived and no threat appeared, the yellow tape around the hand was removed. It became a tourist attraction. Eventually, it became a place for sun-weary beachgoers from Argentina to pile their belongings and their tired, red bodies, lounging in the shade cast by its long fingers as the sun moved across the continent.

I was in college then. Looking back, I guess the world was reeling from the discovery of the hand for most of my undergraduate career. I remember viral videos of regular-sized hands clobbering models of celebrities and politicians, and the world suddenly knew a lot more about Uruguay. But college has a way of cocooning you, wrapping you even further up into yourself. With your newfound knowledge you know just enough to be completely ignorant, to be completely consumed with understanding yourself and your relationship and the few other people around you. Everything can be diagnosed and explained. There is so little room for wonder. So it might be that I was just too self-absorbed to see the impact of that enormous hand, but I have the feeling that everyone—not just me—accepted it the way we’ve learned to accept all the things we don’t and can’t understand. We stared at it until it seemed normal, and then we forgot about it.

***

When I had been married for a while and was nursing my second child, a man in Kentucky walked out the back door of his woodworking shop to find a sinkhole had eaten up a good portion of his twelve-acre lot. He and his neighbors cleaned the debris and dirt from the hole, and what they found was not the limestone backbone of Kentucky, but the taut skin and concave slope of a vast stomach. The woodworker said he had no doubt that the stomach belonged to a woman, because of the smooth, white curve toward her navel and then the curve up and down again toward the dark earth. She’s arching her back, he said at the time, like a woman stretching her arms above her head.

Two days later, his backyard discovery was overshadowed by an elbow found at the bottom of Eyre Lake in the Australian desert. The lake, filling only in peak rain years and fed by many of Australia’s prominent rivers, exists until the rains stop and the waters evaporate. That summer was the hottest on record. Biologists studying wildlife stranded after the lake’s disappearance had noticed a sharp point cresting the water’s surface. As the water receded they realized the point was the elbow of an arm that seemed to be going back into the lake after a breaststroke. Like a giant taking a swim and this one stroke was caught, and frozen, above the water, one of the geologists said, motioning out to the lake where a group of pelicans were perched on the tip of the joint.

The belly and the arm were determined to be much older than the hand on the beach. Archeologists confirmed that they might have surfaced several thousand years ago and then changing climates and shifting plates had hidden them from view. Their stony skin, calcified and hardened by the pressure of years, showed signs of wind and water exposure, effects that had just recently begun to appear on the hand in Uruguay. Once it became clear that these mammoth body parts had existed for millennia, people started looking more closely at the geological abnormalities around them. They looked at outcroppings and gorges and saw instead the heel and arch of a foot, the raised wing of a shoulder blade, the bend of a kicking knee, the tight m of a man’s bottom, the stair-stepping knuckles of a bent neck. In one of the most unusual cases, a woman in Russia reported that a cave in a wooded area near her home where her children liked to play was, in fact, one dark nostril of a sideways nose. Clearing away the earth and brush around the cave revealed the half-submerged bridge of the nose, a mouth, open and grimacing, and above the nose, the brow and lid of an eye. The hill against which the cave rested was actually the sharp incline of a cheekbone. It was a head, or at least part of one, looking as if the face had just turned to take in a breath after being underwater for a long time.

We started calling them the Swimmers. Scientists, who had been struggling with the idea of gods and trying to avoid the word giant, argued that given the amount of water on the earth’s surface it was possible that these beings had been surprised by the sudden formation of landmasses, perhaps chilled by the ensuing ice age, and, much like the dinosaurs, come to an untimely end. At this, my seven-year-old asked why big things like the dinosaurs and the Swimmers always died, and I remember telling her it was because there is not enough room for the big things, that they had to adapt and become animals like alligators and giraffes and learn to swim in pools like we do. That seemed logical to her, I’m sure, because by then she could see, like everyone, that the Swimmers were just bigger versions of us.

The sites of their surfacing became protected sites with resorts nearby and picnic areas, and they were relegated to guidebooks and the kinds of lists that include the Grand Canyon and the pyramids. There were books and T-shirts and movies. They became a popular topic for children’s books about how the earth formed, about swim safety, and about looking carefully at the world around us. Naming them and giving them an everyday activity shrank them down until they only existed for the smallest people. Like all big mysteries—dinosaurs and ghosts and galaxies full of planets and suns and monster trucks and the Bermuda Triangle—we handed the Swimmers over to our children and grandchildren in the form of stickers and coloring books. And, relieved of them, we got big again.

 

My husband long dead and my grandbabies grown into people with cars and boyfriends and full semesters, I was following the news one afternoon when a story came on about the Swimmers. It had been sixty years since the hand came up in Uruguay, and a Brazilian sociologist was discussing the delayed impact on the Uruguayan people of the hand being alive when it surfaced. I was watching more than listening, looking at the early images of the body parts from all over the world. Many of them I’d seen before. Once we vacationed near the Butterflier, and Marty had taken our picture there, me standing on her neck, and one of the girls on each shoulder blade. The girls were in their teens, and that was the last vacation we all took together. But there were Swimmers I’d never seen, like the Russian Nose. I had only ever read about it, and seeing it that day was the reason I didn’t change the channel.

There at the base of an overgrown hill was the nose and the cheek and the face it was making, the grimace said to look like a freestyle swimmer taking a breath. I was prepared for its exaggerated lips, twisted to pull in as much air as possible. I used to swim. For years after I retired I swam breaststroke at the YMCA. I taught my girls to swim and the grandkids. I was at the pool when Marty’s car hit the ditch and he flew through the windshield. I was always in the water. But there was something wrong with the face on the television, something that didn’t match the easy inhale I’d imagined. What I saw in the face of the Russian Swimmer was the face a person makes when they are gasping for air, when their reserves are empty and they have just one breath left.

I thought about the day the hand pushed its way out of the sand, the whole world on top of it, the sun just beyond its grasp. I thought about how young I was then, just starting to break out of my shell. I had broad shoulders and long, straight fingers, strong legs and good lungs. I had believed in big things. I had been on the other side of everything.

 

RANDI EWING holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. She is currently living in Argentina but will soon be moving home to Kentucky, where she hopes to begin work on a novel about Argentina. This is her first publication.