Death by Water Suite

A splash in dark water. Photo by Julian Böck/Unsplash
Photo by Julian Böck/Unsplash

(Heavy Water #74: going down)


the version of my father’s brother’s drowning i was raised on 
and prefer
is the one in which his friends and cousins –
having lost their week’s pay to him at cards
having drunk not quite enough to down the piddling affront –
held him there below till it was done.
they must have stood the three of them
and left him there to drift a while
the soberness of their act
falling swift as the temple virgins’ shared veil
thin chilly cover against the frank and palpitating country night. 

i like to think they did not brook the possibility of talk
though like as not they did.
like as not the younger cousin tried and failed.
and likely it was he who waded out into the water
glass-black and stroking, kissing at his hips
and tried to cry but couldn’t
until the others rushed him
pulled him to the grassy water’s edge.
must have been quite handsome that one. 

why shouldn’t he have been that smooth opaque we used to
call just-pretty-black?
in my own dreams of drowning it is always so: 

i find him handsome
almost too dear to look on in the starry swampy night
easy in his movement the way some men just are –
easy in his laughter, his gait, his clothes –
but no one’s ever said
though surely someone knows. 

how long they stood that way is anybody’s guess
before going on –
neither home nor away
but to her –
to tell the thing they’d done
to find the gumption to say they’d drowned her son
witless honesty to match the stupid intimate human act
down the path? one begins
over near where we go out wading sometime in the evening?
we killed him out there, auntie he interrupts, the younger one,
impatient to begin the clean clear suffering that will hound them 
now for all their too-short lives
we killed him. 

drowned in the night
drifted four more
coming up at last
half-eaten puffed up water-something
eyes gone
lips gone
perfect teeth exposed in nothing like a grin
no longer man or son or friend –
some freakish
cousin (once-twice-removed)
to the thing we all swam out from to the light. 

and there below the less than potent undertow
floating uncle-boy himself
face some transfigured riddled mask
realizing – no doubt too soon – this is no young fellows’ teasing gag –
only to surface in the dullish mid-late-morning of ordinary day:
icy teeth
eyeholes nests for quivering things
logged hands that carry
harmless enough brownish mosses
a something adrift
adrift agog and gaping about for kin 


these dreams run all the same:
you go into the water wearing pearls of every color
– and nothing more –
strands of ochre black and rose, steel grey and bone.
perhaps someone is calling – you’re not quite sure –
perhaps a something from behind –
and go on ahead uncaring into the still warm waters. 

if you see him then or not you never can say for sure.
at some point he is simply there and
unlike deathsheads of film and fact and children’s tales
he is lovely
lovely and still and smooth and perfectly perfectly glass-black.
and you know-him know him
know exactly who he is 

rooted then in the glass-black water
until a weight
a heaviness – 

this is drowning you say foolishly.
yes, he answers in the language of the deads
– in which you are by then apparently sufficiently fluent –
this is drowning.
it lasts a while he says, just making conversation. 

he does not smile
nor strike nor flail at all 

you breathe the salted water
and go down


he’d come into the city young my father
too young but strong and rearing to have a go
to make his living boxing.
had stamina and punch –
good punch the ones who knew agreed
good punch, swift solid feet
country-boy whose family owned near everything he could see
– none of the drive that comes from hunger or from need –
plain unshakeable ability
to do a thing dead-on
that and a punch to strike and fell and maim. 

his brothers all died violently or insane.
the one brown-skinned sister who’d left home a girl never did return.
brother drowned –
like a dog the story goes –
would-be twin sister gone just hours, minutes after birth
and him come in to the city to work the ring
brothers all died violently or insane. 


i have told this story in small after-hours gatherings of friends
and as early morning pillowtalk
have gone round it in my head now many years
and it seems to me he must have been beautiful that one.
have come to know him some –
one cannot know so lovely a man too well after all –
wouldn’t care to, truth be told. 

so so many years now
brothers and both sisters dead
old man and woman gone and buried and drifted together again
only my father left fit and well into a frank old age
now fallen too – surprised by death, they said – 

who knows which dreams and grudges the dead hold to?
who knows how long until it’s safe again
to call them one by one
by name?

Photo by Harold Baquet

Brenda Marie Osbey is a poet, essayist, and librettist working in English and French. Her six books include her collected poems, All Souls: Essential Poems (LSU Press, 2015); History and Other Poems (Time Being, 2013); and All Saints: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 1997). The first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana (2005–2007), Osbey is a native New Orleanian.