Hyphemata, or Seeing Underwater Above - Uncharted

Hyphemata, or Seeing Underwater Above

By Ra'Niqua Lee

I told my love to meet me inside of a pearl Chevy, backseat amputated from the body of a 1955 Bel Air. A bench and lunch table sit in place of the front half. Lights line walls slick with fry grease as thick as sinking.

**

In between town and nowhere, this super-niche restaurant with too much sun in the windows welcomes passersby with promises of coffee, pie, and a curated flash of past delights. Plucky guitar notes drain from the speakers. Peering behind sunglasses, I pick over a slice of banana cream served on an Elvis Presley plate and empty extra sugar packets into a mug gone cold. The door doesn’t open, but I’m staring hard for the red-horned face of the one I love.

**

When my mother asked me how I learned to love a devil, I told her that I went swimming one day and came back seeing red, like I had surfaced in tinted contacts. I thought it was the chlorine, the almost drowning, the holding my breath too long. I lay flat on sun-cooked concrete, gasping and waiting for my vision to return, other colors to re-emerge. I waited, but the only thing that had changed was me.

**

The couple at the next table talks about boating and swimming on nearby Lake Lanier, ink-black water that swallows something like a dozen souls a year. They’re cozy in their own Chevy and sporting matching crew cuts with their backs to me. They say when you go under the water in Lake Lanier all light disappears and up becomes down. They say another world awaits at the bottom. An entire Black neighborhood, and Cherokee lands before that. A racing track, parks, houses, and churches with bells still attached all submerged when the government built the dam over the Chattahoochee. Haunted, they say. The lake is a watery valley of unrest.

**

Four upsides to dating a devil*:

  • Red is red when you suffer from frequent hyphemas. A devil looks the same with eyes clear or eyes half inundated from their own ruptures.
  • Drowning doesn’t scare me anymore. Neither does losing my sight. Death is always possible, and we are already split in more ways than we admit. Kissing a devil is like kissing the skull in Hamlet’s hand or pressing your face to a timeline unfurling. The devil is memory and prophesy, past and future at once.
  • No judgment about anything ever, not my student loans, my credit card debt, the tattoo of my ex’s birthday on my wrist. Our sins are the stories we share in the dark, seeking rest and finding none.
  • No pretending to like his food, his singing, his jokes, or his job. When he comes home late after seeking whom he may devour or destroy, I complain about the hour and the smell of brimstone in his clothes. He complains about my waiting up for him every night when I know how difficult it is to convince those who count themselves as “pure” to bite the apples and keep themselves from starving. Then we get naked and forget that we disagree.
  • Our baths together never turn cold.

*Not all devils.

**

The couple still goes on about the lake. One of them especially chats to the waitress about someone he knew who went into the water and never came back. They hadn’t bothered with a life jacket because they took swimming lessons as a kid and had been a lifeguard, practically an expert, and experts need no other protection until they do.

The waitress has on a diner get-up, blue and white striped with an apron. Her cherry-red lips scowl even as she nods encouragingly.

“There’s a whole world beneath the water,” the chatty one says to the waitress. “Like Atlantis, but muddy as the grave. We’re going after it one day.”

The waitress offers the check before the couple shares any more of their plans to seek death.

**

Four downsides to dating a devil:      

  • Death and dying follow me everywhere, and it’s always the living toting it around in their back pockets, whipping it out over dinner and casual conversations about the weather.
  • I don’t know what right is anymore because there is no right. Right looks too much like morality, and morality looks too much like hardlines around fuzzy people. A swirl of red and blur.
  • I have begun to think that “right” and “death” have too much in common. Ditto for “blood” and “water.”
  • My family won’t speak to me because they think my current devil looks too much like the last one.

**

Elvis stares up at me from my empty plate. My devil is still MIA, but I’m not bothered until the death-bound couple turns to me from their booth. Although they have the same haircut, one of them has a mustache and the other has a beard. The differences must not end there, but I can’t trace them all.

They ask me what I think happens to people who drown. Is it all straight like fishing wire, down, down, down? Or is it cyclical, down and up, up and down? Life, death, and rebirth? Can water make a phoenix?

I want to tell them that I can’t really say for sure since I’ve never tried drowning but the once, sinking junior year while the devil I loved then held me under. I want to tell them to mind their own business. No sense in passing sins around from table to table like communion trays at church. Mostly, I just want to ask which one of them is a devil. The hyphemas sometimes make it hard to tell.

**

They tell me it was a mistake to drown Oscarville, and I think they are right, although I don’t completely know what they’re talking about.

They say that the Corps thought the town would go under, never to surface again. They say that there are always other worlds. They say that the only difference between this world, the one before it, and the next one is time that can’t keep itself straight. All that’s left to do is wait. No better place than the backseat of a halved Chevy.

**

My devil comes in time to pay the check and tell the chatty couple goodbye in terms more cordial than I can manage. Another benefit of dating a devil is that their kindness is always genuine because they don’t care if they hurt your feelings. (Again, not all devils.) He places a tip in the waitress’s hand and walks me out into the afternoon heat.

Outside, I ask him about Lake Lanier. We can’t see it, or I can’t, but I can smell it, the sludge and swamp, a mixture of earth and water.

My devil laces his hot fingers with mine and guides me to the car, a doorless Jeep. He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about Lake Lanier. Too many layers.

I nod, wanting to respect his boundaries, the same way he has always respected mine.

**

Devils have layers—what is seen, what they do, and what they know. The horns and red, the part we see. Beneath that is the job, the constant push toward disruption, toward new truths. Deeper still is a knowledge untethered from the pole of universality, and that is a world thicker than mud, malleable as clay. This, the center of it all, reminds me that the same layers exist inside of me.

**

I convince him to ride over Browns Bridge since talking and crossing are two different things. Riding in the Jeep is probably the closest I’ll get to flying. The sun is still out, so I know that the sky is a chlorinated blue. The world is swirling in wind. A quarter of the way across Lake Lanier, I undo the seatbelt, and stretch as far outside as I can get. Fighting vibrations and my own bad balance for stability, I cling to the side of the jeep as if holding tight to the devil himself, trying to see what can’t be seen, sunken worlds, layers beneath layers. Water so deep it paints the blurry pictures all by itself.

About the Author

Ra'Niqua Lee writes to share her particular visions of love and the South. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Indiana Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. Every word is in honor of her little sister, Nesha, who battled schizoaffective disorder until the very end. For her always.

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