Swimming Whole

First Jeff Martin bought the narrow strip of land between the river and Banks Road from the town, then he spider-webbed caution tape between the trees and nailed posted signs to their bark. The swimming hole where so many of us had spent our childhood summers was no longer ours. And this with each year hotter than the last.

Martin, who also owned The Weekly Gazette, the Dollar Store on the edge of town, and a quarter of the rental properties, bought and moved into the Carter Mansion across the street from our swimming hole after the last owner died. As big as it was, it wouldn’t pass as a mansion nowadays, but the historical plaque in front of it named it the original home of the town founder. A draw, no doubt, for Martin, who fancied himself a self-made man in the way the wealthy who grew up just shy of wealthy tend to do. He didn’t live there one full summer before he convinced the town council that the strip of land—the only spot with passable access down the river-cut gorge—was nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money.

Why pay to have it mown, when he could send his landscape crew over? (And seeing as he was doing the town this favor, really, the property ought to be tax-exempt, didn’t they agree?) Like most things Jeff Martin said and did, it had the sound of a gift bestowed. Like everything he said and did, the beneficiary was definitively him.

How many generations had we kept that spot a secret from the June-to-August tourists who crowded the lake beach and left their soda cans, candy wrappers, and busted flipflops wherever they landed?

The sale went through with only the tiniest announcement buried in the back pages of the Gazette. The caution tape and posted signs were the first any of us heard of it.

Laughing, nervously, we ducked under the tape and made our way down to the hole where we’d swam all our lives. The cops arrived and bull-horned over the river that we were trespassing and had five minutes to vacate or risk arrest.

Men who had grown up there swimming with us turned their faces away when we reminded them of the summers we’d shared. They were just doing their jobs, they said.

The river still belonged to the town and some of us could make it down the opposite river bank, but it was a steep climb and likely to land you splayed and broken on the slate shelf that decked the river, worn smooth by spring and fall floods.

A group of us showed up at the next council meeting and took turns airing our grievances during the public comment portion until we were told our time was up. Two members of the council agreed that something should be done. Three members and the Mayor, who could regularly be found golfing with Jeff Martin during the week when the rest of us were at work, said this was a matter of private property now. They’d followed all required procedures in the sale and if we’d had a problem with it we should have spoken up then.

Three Sundays in a row we protested, crowded by the side of the road with our clever signs and a spirit of camaraderie. The Gazette reporter showed up. Took pictures and asked us questions, scribbling in her notebook as we answered, but we never did see a story in the paper.

Our numbers dwindled until it was just me, a handful of folks who protested everything, and the cops telling us once again it was time to move along.

No matter where I was or what I was doing, the swimming hole and Jeff Martin were there in the back of my mind throbbing like a hammer-hit thumb.

It wasn’t right.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

My husband, Andy, told me I needed to let it go. We, of all people—two men whose right to love each other out in public hadn’t been recognized even half our lives—should know there are bigger worries in the world than the local swimming hole. Racism, sexism, all the isms, and a climate crisis to boot. I shouldn’t hold it against the folks who had lost interest, preoccupied with the business of living.

I went to the river, picked my way down the steep side as the sun set and looked for the ghosts of summers past. I imagined myself teaching the child we thought we might adopt how to swim, tossing them over my shoulders, clapping at their underwater somersaults. Giving them the things my father had given me.

Sitting there, head in my hands, I worried Andy was right—this powerless feeling would consume me if I let it and there were far worse wrongs to confront. Better to change myself than give in to the growing resentment of people who didn’t care enough to take back what had been given away out from under them.

A voice startled me out of my ruminations.

“Why so down, friend?”

A three-quarters moon had risen over the placid river, lighting the snaking lines of current, wet stone bank, and the leaves of trees lining the top of the gorge on either side. I couldn’t spot a soul. A splash in the river caught my attention, and there, in the middle, a salmon the size of a two-year-old swam a lazy circle and asked the question again.

Of course I’d heard of this fish. You can’t walk a block in this town without meeting someone who knows someone who almost hooked it, or heard it speak, or watched it leap fifty feet in the air in acrobatic delight. Even my father believed it was as old as the town.

So here was my madness, finally emerging. Well, what can you do but answer when a fish asks a question twice?

I told it my troubles. Explained about Jeff Martin and the town council and the aching maw in my chest for all the friends and neighbors content to let another piece of what should be ours be pirated off by a handful of people.

The fish dipped under the water and I thought I had bored it, but then its head reappeared. “You’re a good egg, friend,” it said, “so I’m going to do you a solid. A good egg for a good egg.” It laughed at its joke in a voice like a hard summer rain. It rolled over, water shimmering off its moon-silvered scales, and popped a small shining orb out of its vent. With a flick of its tail, it lobbed the egg over to me. It glowed orange in my hand, no bigger than a pea. “In three days, when the moon is full, make a wish and eat that.” The salmon swam a circle and again came to a stop. “All the usual reminders about being careful what you wish for. You only get the one.” And with that it swam off.

I carried the egg home, cradled in my palm, and not knowing what else to do with it, I filled a glass with water and dropped it in.

I told Andy my story and he peered at the little glob at the bottom of the glass. He put the back of his hand up to my forehead. I shrugged him off.

“I’m feeling fine.”

“Okay,” he said in that way that meant if you say so, and asked me what I was going to wish for. I shrugged again and he left me in the kitchen, watching the egg do nothing.

Over the next three days I imagined all manner of wicked ends for Jeff Martin as I worked. If not death, then public humiliations that left him impoverished. In my kinder moods, I considered wishing him a change of heart. A Scroogening. But wasn’t there always another Jeff Martin, waiting to take his place?

I thought of personal gain—a windfall of money that would set Andy and I up for life. But then I would be the Jeff Martin, wouldn’t I?

On the third night, when the moon rose full and gleaming, I stood on our front lawn and wished the wish of my heart: that good people believed they could make a difference if they tried. I drank the glass of water, the glowing egg sliding over my tongue and down my throat.

I slipped into bed and apologized to Andy for not wishing something for us.

He laughed, “don’t be a fool,” and kissed me until we were peeling each other’s sweats off in the dark.

In the morning, I walked down to the diner for a cup of coffee before work, hoping to find the world changed.

But it was just as it had been the morning before. The Gazette followed a developer looking to tear down waterfront buildings and put up luxury condos along the lake. Old white men grumbled at the counter about immigrants taking away jobs, and when I got to work the foreman told our crew we’d have to put in extra hours to make sure the plumbing was roughed in on schedule, but we’d be shorted hours next week so the company didn’t have to pay overtime.

Frustrated and exhausted, I got home no longer furious only with Jeff Martin and the people who wouldn’t stand up to him, but with myself, for having hoped. Color drained out of the world. Everywhere I looked were signs of the inevitability of everything crumbling to shit.

Andy tried to cheer me, but most evenings ended with me scrolling through the news, finding proof of all the terrible things in the world and the myriad ways people make each other suffer. I had been earnest and optimistic and what had it gotten me? Nothing but a broken heart.

My neighbors were right. Better to tend to your own affairs and hope the burning world arrived at your doorstep last.

Three weeks into my festering, I arrived home to find Andy sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of papers in front of him. I eyed them as I bent to kiss him and he nodded for me to sit down. He handed a page over to me, a yellow stick-on arrow pointing to a signature line, “Sign there.”


“Just sign.”

He was trying to play it serious, like he was in the law office where he worked as a paralegal and I was some client in a suit and tie. But you don’t spend fifteen years with a person and not know when they’re buzzing to tell you something, so I played along.

I signed three different papers before he hit me with the sidelong smile—his charming snaggletooth crooked and jaunty—that first caught my attention all those years ago. He unfolded a surveyor’s map, smoothed it across the table. There was Jeff Martin’s house, devil horns drawn out of the roof and a fish penciled in the swimming hole. I followed Andy’s finger down to a spot marked with an X.

“About seventy feet south of the swimming hole, the Jenkin’s property line starts.” He pointed to a spot where the river swung a wide arc away from Valley Road and back towards Banks Road before tumbling down a series of small waterfalls out into the inlet and beyond that, the lake. “Liza has agreed to deed access rights for this portion of land,” he circled a rectangle formed by dotted lines, “to the Friends of the River. A nonprofit of which you and I are the founding members. It’s steep, but you can build a good set of stairs that would do the trick and then it’s just a matter of walking up the bank,” his finger trailed back up to the swimming hole.

The world was still on fire, the wealthy were still fucking over as many people as they could, and all manner of horrible shit still needed to be torn down. But look at this man and how he loved me.

I started on the stairs that weekend, clearing a path through the brush and saplings from the street to the cliff edge. About an hour into my work Liza Jenkin’s daughter, home from college, arrived with a tool belt slung over her shoulder and a cooler of cold drinks. By lunch, three more neighbors had come to lend a hand.

We worked every Saturday for a month, our numbers growing so large that half of us were just standing around offering encouragement and memories of summers past (somebody’s story of a talking fish got us all sharing our own).

Where one person’s knowledge faltered—the sturdiest way to anchor the stairs to the rock face, where to get the best price on this material or that—another stood up and offered what they could.

When it was finished we made our way up to the swimming hole, laughing and whooping, our voices amplified off the gorge walls. We cannonballed, or waded in, or sat on the rock-shelf and dangled our toes, and no matter how many police cars Martin called they couldn’t stop our jubilee.


Author: E.C. Barrett

E. C. Barrett (she/they) writes folk horror, fabulism and dark speculative fiction. She is or has been an academic, journalist, bookseller, editor, and obituary writer. A Clarion West graduate, E. C. has stories in Bourbon Penn, Baffling Magazine and elsewhere. E. C. is queer, neurodivergent, and enjoys more maker hobbies than is entirely practical. ecbarrett.com

3 thoughts on “Swimming Whole”

  1. What a lovely, clever story to warm a cold soul. Loved the dialogue throughout. Miigwetch, thanks for publishing this gorgeous sunny piece. It was just what I needed!

  2. Hmmm. You like, a, live here? Painfully familiar x 2. (2 swimming holes, same creek here).
    Taught my boys to swim there, saved my dad from a nasty fall there(no Virginia, its not “safe”), and generally
    made us feel like our little town was paradise until the evil oggers (2) came, one from Manhattan, one a native son.
    My grown boys still swim whenever they want but its a stealth thing now and its not the same.

  3. Beautiful story! Like a fairy tale for grown-ups. The moral: never give up hope that the good people of the world, working together, can continue to make this a better place, is illustrated by the creative act of writing and publishing this story. Thank you to the author and the publisher. I needed this!

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