Excerpt from 'How to Breathe Underwater'
How to Breathe UnderwaterStories
By Julie Orringer
Knopf Copyright © 2003 Julie Orringer
Editor's Note: The following is a portion of the first story in the collection.
It was Thanksgiving Day and hot, because this was New Orleans; they were driving uptown to have dinner with strangers. Ella pushed at her loose tooth with the tip of her tongue and fanned her legs with the hem of her velvet dress. On the seat beside her, Benjamin fidgeted with his shirt buttons. He had worn his Pilgrim costume, brown shorts and a white shirt and yellow paper buckles taped to his shoes. In the front seat their father drove without a word, while their mother dozed against the window glass. She wore a blue dress and a strand of jade beads and a knit cotton hat beneath which she was bald.
Three months earlier, Ella's father had explained what chemotherapy was and how it would make her mother better. He had even taken Ella to the hospital once when her mother had a treatment. She remembered it like a filmstrip from school, a series of connected images she wished she didn't have to watch: her mother with an IV needle in her arm, the steady drip from the bag of orange liquid, her father speaking softly to himself as he paced the room, her mother shaking so hard she had to be tied down.
At night Ella and her brother tapped a secret code against the wall that separated their rooms: one knock, I'm afraid; two knocks, Don't worry; three knocks, Are you still awake? four, Come quick. And then there was the Emergency Signal, a stream of knocks that kept on coming, which meant her brother could hear their mother and father crying in their bedroom. If it went on for more than a minute, Ella would give four knocks and her brother would run to her room and crawl under the covers.
There were changes in the house, healing rituals that required Ella's mother to go outside and embrace trees or lie face-down on the grass. Sometimes she did a kind of Asian dance that looked like karate. She ate bean paste and Japanese vegetables, or sticky brown rice wrapped in seaweed. And now they were going to have dinner with people they had never met, people who ate seaweed and brown rice every day of their lives.
They drove through the Garden District, where Spanish moss hung like beards from the trees. Once during Mardi Gras, Ella had ridden a trolley here with her brother and grandmother, down to the French Quarter, where they'd eaten beignets at Café du Monde. She wished she were sitting in one of those wrought-iron chairs and shaking powdered sugar onto a beignet. How much better than to be surrounded by strangers, eating food that tasted like the bottom of the sea.
They turned onto a side street, and her father studied the directions. "It should be at the end of this block," he said.
Ella's mother shifted in her seat. "Where are we?" she asked, her voice dreamy with painkillers.
"Almost there," said Ella's father.
They pulled to the curb in front of a white house with sagging porches and a trampled lawn. Vines covered the walls and moss grew thick and green between the roof slates. Under the porte-cochere stood a beat-up Honda and a Volkswagen with mismatched side panels. A faded bigwheel lay on its side on the walk.
"Come on," their father said, and gave them a tired smile. "Time for fun." He got out of the car and opened the doors for Ella and Ben and their mother, sweeping his arm chauffeurlike as they climbed out.
Beside the front door was a tarnished doorbell in the shape of a lion's head. "Push it," her father said. Ella pushed. A sound like church bells echoed inside the house.
Then the door swung open and there was Mister Kaplan, a tall man with wiry orange hair and big dry-looking teeth. He shook hands with Ella's parents, so long and vigorously it seemed to Ella he might as well say Congratulations.
"And you must be Ben and Ella," he said, bending down.
Ella gave a mute nod. Her brother kicked at the doorjamb.
"Well, come on in," he said. "I have a tree castle out back."
Benjamin's face came up, twisted with skepticism. "A what?"
"The kids are back there. They'll show you."
"What an interesting foyer," their mother said. She bent down to look at the brass animals on the floor, a turtle and a jackal and a llama. Next to the animals stood a blue vase full of rusty metal flowers. A crystal chandelier dangled from the ceiling, its arms hung with dozens of God's-eyes and tiny plastic babies from Mardi Gras king cakes. On a low wooden shelf against the wall, pair after pair of canvas sandals and sneakers and Birkenstocks were piled in a heap. A crayoned sign above it said shoes off now!
Ella looked down at her feet. She was wearing her new patent-leather Mary Janes.
"Your socks are nice too," her father said, and touched her shoulder. He stepped out of his own brown loafers and set them on top of the pile. Then he knelt before Ella's mother and removed her pumps. "Shoes off," he said to Ella and Ben.
"Even me?" Ben said. He looked down at his paper buckles.
Their father took off Ben's shoes and removed the paper buckles, tape intact. Then he pressed one buckle onto each of Ben's socks. "There," he said.
Ben looked as if he might cry.
"Everyone's in the kitchen," Mister Kaplan said. "We're all cooking."
"Marvelous," said Ella's mother. "We love to cook."
They followed him down a cavern of a hall, its walls decorated with sepia-toned photographs of children and parents, all of them staring stone-faced from their gilt frames. They passed a sweep of stairs and a room with nothing in it but straw mats and pictures of blue Indian goddesses sitting on beds of cloud.
"What's that room?" Benjamin asked.
"Meditation room," Mister Kaplan said, as if it were as commonplace as a den.
The kitchen smelled of roasting squash and baked apples and spices. There was an old brick oven and a stove with so many burners it looked as if it had been stolen from a restaurant. At the kitchen table, men and women with long hair and loose clothes sliced vegetables or stirred things into bowls. Some of them wore knitted hats like her mother, their skin dull-gray, their eyes purple-shaded underneath. To Ella it seemed they could be relatives of her mother's, shameful cousins recently discovered.
A tall woman with a green scarf around her waist came over and embraced Ella's mother, then bent down to hug Ella and Benjamin. She smelled of smoky perfume. Her wide eyes skewed in different directions, as if she were watching two movies projected into opposite corners of the room. Ella did not know how to look at her.
"We're so happy you decided to come," the woman said. "I'm Delilah, Eddy's sister."
"Who's Eddy?" said Ben.
"Mister Kaplan," their father said.
"We use our real names here," Delilah said. "No one is a mister."
She led their parents over to the long table and put utensils into their hands. Their mother was to mix oats into a pastry crust, and their father to chop carrots, something Ella had never seen him do. He looked around in panic, then hunched over and began cutting a carrot into clumsy pieces. He kept glancing at the man to his left, a bearded man with a shaved head, as if to make sure he was doing it right.
Delilah gave Ella and Benjamin hard cookies that tasted like burnt rice. It seemed Ella would have to chew forever. Her loose tooth waggled in its socket.
"The kids are all out back," Delilah said. "There's plenty of time to play before dinner."
"What kids?" Benjamin asked.
"You'll see," said Delilah. She tilted her head at Ella, one of her eyes moving over Ella's velvet dress. "Here's a little trick I learned when I was a girl," she said. In one swift movement she took the back hem of the dress, brought it up between Ella's knees, and tucked it into the sash. "Now you're wearing shorts," she said.
Ella didn't feel like she was wearing shorts. As soon as Delilah turned away, she pulled her skirt out of her sash and let it fall around her legs.
The wooden deck outside was cluttered with Tinkertoys and clay flowerpots and Little Golden Books. Ella heard children screaming and laughing nearby. As she and Benjamin moved to the edge of the deck, there was a rustle in the bushes and a skinny boy leaped out and pointed a suction-cup arrow at them. He stood there breathing hard, his hair full of leaves, his chest bare. "You're on duty," he said.
"Me?" Benjamin said.
"Yes, you. Both of you." The boy motioned them off the porch with his arrow and took them around the side of the house. There, built into the side of a sprawling oak, was the biggest, most sophisticated tree house Ella had ever seen. There were tiny rooms of sagging plywood, and rope ladders hanging down from doors, and a telescope and a fireman's pole and a red net full of leaves. From one wide platform-almost as high as the top of the house-it seemed you could jump down onto a huge trampoline. Even higher was a kind of crow's nest, a little circular platform built around the trunk. A red-painted sign on the railing read dagner! Ella could hear the other children screaming but she couldn't see them. A collie dog barked crazily, staring up at the tree.
"Take off your socks! That's an order," the skinny boy said.
Benjamin glanced at Ella. Ella shrugged. It seemed ridiculous to walk around outside in socks. She bent and peeled off her anklets. Benjamin carefully removed his Pilgrim buckles and put them in his pocket, then sat down and took off his socks. The skinny boy grabbed the socks from their hands and tucked them into the waistband of his shorts.
The mud was thick and cold between Ella's toes, and pecan shells bit her feet as the boy herded them toward the tree house. He prodded Ella toward a ladder of prickly-looking rope. When she stepped onto the first rung, the ladder swung toward the tree and her toes banged against the trunk. The skinny boy laughed.
"Go on," he said. "Hurry up. And no whining."
The rope burned her hands and feet as she ascended. The ladder seemed to go on forever. Ben followed below, making the rope buck and sway as they climbed. At the top there was a small square opening, and Ella thrust both her arms inside and pulled herself into a dark coop. As she stood, her head knocked against something dangling from the ceiling on a length of string. It was a bird's skull, no bigger than a walnut. Dozens of others hung from the ceiling around her. Benjamin huddled at her side.
"Sick," he said.
"Don't look," Ella said.
The suction-cup arrow came up through the hole in the floor.
"Keep going," said the boy. "You're not there yet."
"Go where?" Ella said.
"Through the wall."
Ella brushed the skulls out of her way and leveled her shoulder against one of the walls. It creaked open like a door. Outside, a tree limb as thick as her torso extended up to another plywood box, this one much larger than the first. Ella dropped to her knees and crawled upward. Benjamin followed.
Apparently this was the hostage room. Four kids stood in the semidarkness, wide-eyed and still as sculptures, each bound at the ankles and wrists with vine handcuffs. Two of the kids, a boy and a girl, were so skinny that Ella could see the outlines of bones in their arms and legs. Their hair was patchy and ragged, their eyes black and almond-shaped. In the corner, a white-haired boy in purple overalls whimpered softly to himself. And at the center of the room a girl Benjamin's age stood tied to the tree trunk with brown string. She had the same wild gray eyes and leafy hair as the boy with the arrow.
"It's mine, it's my tree house," she said as Ella stared at her.
"Is Mister Kaplan your dad?" Benjamin said.
"My dat-tee," the girl corrected him.
"Where's your mom?"
"She died," said the girl, and looked him fiercely in the eye.
Benjamin sucked in his breath and glanced at Ella.
Ella wanted to hit this girl. She bent down close to the girl's face, making her eyes small and mean. "If this is so your tree house," Ella said, "then how come you're tied up?"
"It's jail," the girl spat. "In jail you get tied up."
"We could untie you," said Benjamin. He tugged at one of her bonds.
The girl opened her mouth and let out a scream so shrill Ella's eardrums buzzed. Once, as her father had pulled into the driveway at night, he had trapped a rabbit by the leg beneath the wheel of his car; the rabbit had made a sound like that. Benjamin dropped the string and moved against Ella, and the children with ragged hair laughed and jumped on the platform until it crackled and groaned. The boy in purple overalls cried in his corner.
Benjamin put his lips to Ella's ear. "I don't understand it here," he whispered.
There was a scuffle at the door, and the skinny boy stepped into the hostage room. "All right," he said. "Who gets killed?"
"Kill those kids, Peter," the girl said, pointing at Benjamin and Ella.
"Us?" Benjamin said.
"Who do you think?" said the boy.
He poked them in the back with his suction-cup arrow and moved them toward the tree trunk, where rough boards formed a ladder to the next level. Ella and Benjamin climbed until they had reached a narrow platform, and then Peter pushed them to the edge. Ella looked down at the trampoline. It was a longer drop than the high dive at the public pool. She looked over her shoulder and Peter glared at her. Down below the collie barked and barked, his black nose pointed up at them.
Benjamin took Ella's hand and closed his eyes. Then Peter shoved them from behind, and they stumbled forward into space.
There was a moment of terrifying emptiness, nothing but air beneath Ella's feet. She could hear the collie's bark getting closer as she fell. She slammed into the trampoline knees first, then flew, shrieking, back up into the air. When she hit the trampoline a second time, Benjamin's head knocked against her chin. He stood up rubbing his head, and Ella tasted salt in her mouth. Her loose tooth had slipped its roots. She spat it into her palm and studied its jagged edge.
"Move," Peter called from above. The boy in purple overalls was just climbing up onto the platform. Peter pulled him forward until his toes curled over the edge.
"I lost my tooth!" Ella yelled.
Benjamin scrambled off the trampoline. Ella crawled to the edge, the tooth gleaming and red-rimmed between her fingers, and then the trampoline lurched with the weight of the boy in purple overalls. The tooth flew from her hand and into the bushes, too small to make a sound when it hit.
When she burst into the house crying, blood streaming from her mouth, the
longhaired men and women dropped their mixing spoons and went to her. She
twisted away from them, looking frantically for her mother and father, but they
were nowhere to be seen. There was no way to explain that she wasn't hurt, that
she was upset because her tooth was gone and because everything about that house
made her want to run away and hide. The adults, their faces creased with worry,
pulled her to the sink and held her mouth open.