LONG TIME ago, in a town
beside the ocean, where the evening wind blew so hard it struck people like
needles and the morning sun was grey and thin, there lived a boy, who was
curious, and his father, who was careworn and had forgotten how to smile. The
boy was full of questions like ‘why is the wind so hard?’ and ‘do fish swim
upside down?’ and ‘why don’t frogs chirrup?’ which he asked in a tone as light
as helium and with brightness in his eyes, but his father was tired and could
only shrug and raise an eyebrow over his own dull eye and say, in a faint
voice, ‘Who knows, whatever.’
It was life that made him sad. He worked long hours in a
job he loathed, and all through the day in his musty office he missed his son
as if a hole had been shot through his heart. When he got home, he was so tired
his thoughts were confused and the boy’s face reminded him of his long hours of
absence. He felt he was a poor father and that his son would grow up to despise
him, so he embraced the boy quickly and snuck away to his room, where he cried
until his pillow was soaked with tears.
One day, the boy came to him and asked, ‘Father, what
would make you happy?’ The father shrugged and looked at him ruefully and said,
‘Who knows, whatever.’
‘What would make you smile?’ said the boy, and the
father said, ‘Who knows, whatever.’
The boy went exploring. He walked to the flax swamp at
the edge of town and found a bullfrog that chirruped like a bird. He went for a
swim in the sea and saw a halibut basking on its back. He also discovered that
the daytime wind was light and soft, like the fur of a persian cat, and the
afternoon sun was bright and sharp. At night he told his father of his
discoveries and his father shrugged and said his usual words.
The boy explored shops and markets and rubbish bins and
gutters. He explored beaches and fields and hills. Each evening he presented
his father with a new gift. Once it was a shell, amber in colour, marked with a
spiral pattern that grew narrower and narrower until, at the shell’s centre, it
ended in a tiny point as if it had disappeared into infinity. Another time it
was a stone that had been polished by stream water until it appeared as smooth
as an egg. Once it was a kiss on the cheek with lips still wet from swimming in
the sea – but his father did not smile.
Over the years, the boy also forgot how to smile, and by
the time he was fourteen he had come to resemble his father, with a face like a
brassica because it was so long since it had been used as faces should. When his
friends teased him about his sad appearance, he simply shrugged and said, ‘Who
But one night the boy dreamed he had gone swimming in
the sea, and when he had swum so deep his lungs were about to burst he took a
tiny breath of water. He woke immediately and was amazed to find he was still
alive. In the morning he asked, ‘Father, is it possible to breathe water?’, and
his father, who was still in bed and had his eyes peacefully closed, shook his
head slowly. ‘No,’ he said, between snores. ‘It is impossible. Anyone who tries
it will drown.’
That night, in the dream, the boy dived into the ocean,
holding his breath as he went. As he plunged deeper, the air in his lungs
expanded until it seemed they were going to burst. He swum to the limits of his
pain, then flipped over and looked up. On the sea’s surface he saw the moon,
cut into hundreds of thin crescents by the choppy water. Casually, he let the
air out of his burning lungs and took a breath of water. He held it for a
moment, then breathed it out, and took another lungful.
It did not kill him.
He woke in the morning feeling peaceful, and told his
father at breakfast: ‘Father, it is
possible to breathe water.’
His father shrugged and said, ‘Who knows, whatever.’
That evening, the father found his son coughing in the
bathtub because he had tried to take the soapy water into his lungs and it did
not go down like the cool water of his dream. ‘Silly boy,’ said the father. ‘I
told you not to breathe water.’ But in the corner of his eye something glinted.
The boy kept having the dream, and each day he tried to
breathe water. He breathed it from a slimy pond in a vacant section at the end
of his street and coughed up algae and mud. He breathed it from the swimming
pool at his school and his skin turned green. He breathed seawater and caked
his lungs with salt. Then one day he forgot himself during a rainstorm and
tipped his head back and breathed the soft clear water in and out as if that
was the most natural thing in the world.
From then on, he breathed water at every opportunity. He
dived into the harbour and took deep breaths which struck him like ice. He
breathed the water from streams, rivers, gutters and taps. Before long, he grew
happy again and started to smile, but when he spoke to his father of happiness
his father said his usual words.
The boy would not give up. Every day he went to his
father and asked him to try to breathe water, and every day his father
shrugged. The boy tried to trick his father. One night, as his father slept in
a chair in front of television, the boy tipped water into his open mouth, but
the water spilled out and ran down his shirt and he woke, spluttering. Another
time, he asked his father to come with him to the sea. He waited until his
father had waded deep into the water, then leapt on to his back and took hold
of his head and forced it into the water. He watched for minutes as the air
drained in bubbles from his father’s mouth, but his father wouldn’t breathe the
water and before long he shrugged his son off and waded back to shore.
Nothing worked, until one day a mystical storm blew in
from the sea. Its clouds formed a great black canopy over the town and bit by
bit dissolved into a shower of silver rain. It came down so hard that the sea
overflowed and the streets were flooded to a depth of three feet.
Trees drowned. Shops were closed. Everyone was sent home
from work and school.
But the boy stood in the flooded streets with his face
heavenward and his tongue hanging out. Each droplet entered his mouth so softly
he felt as if he was swallowing light. The boy cupped his hands and allowed the
rain to fill them.
He carried the water to his father, who took a small,
tentative sip, and smiled at its sweet taste, and then took the deepest,
hardest breath he could.
From that day on, neither father nor son could keep themselves from smiling at the merest provocation. The father spent his working hours in a daydream, and the son breathed so much water he could make a person smile simply by whispering their name. After a few years it was forgotten that the father never used to smile, and he and his beloved son became known as the happiest people who ever lived on land. They continued to breathe water for the rest of their lives, and shared their secret at every opportunity, though they were generally not believed.
The Boy Who Breathed Water was first published in the collection Water (Penguin Books).