October 02, 2015
When they first put Beth in the water, she sprouted metallic gold fins from her shoulders. Then her ankles and wrists erupted with the same, slippery matter, the fins’ edges serrating sharp but wave-like. They were very much what most wanted to compare them to, but few came out and said: Mercurial wings, lifted from the deity himself, built for speed, fluidity, transcendence, immortality and —this time around—displaced into the deep blue water. Beth, the two-year-old girl whose first dip into the cool, gentle pool had at that moment become a scientific phenomenon and impending national treasure, gazed at the new appendages in surprise and wonder. Her parents froze in shock, staring agape at their fish-daughter, until Beth’s large eyes crinkled into a smile, her tiny mouth giggled out a seal-like yelp, and she dove under the surface.
Her parents, of course, battled conceptually with the event for a day or two. But seeing their tiny daughter, fish-wings neatly folded in and playing, happily, with her stuffed toys on the living room floor, they began to calm. A happy, healthy baby is a happy, healthy baby, after all, they spoke quietly to each other in the dark of the night. Perhaps, at this point, we should call someone.
It was that next morning, then, or maybe trickling into the early afternoon, that Beth became an international celebrity. Her first appearance, led in by her adoring, quivering parents, one on each hand, was on Good Morning America. She spent the next few weeks taking time to speak with The View, The Tonight Show, Global Talk Show in Korea, Apostrophes in France. The family even, despite the original hesitation to bring the usually sleepy young girl into the late-night environment, made an appearance on The Late Show before finally calling it quits for a while. They had much to think on.
People and USA Today and even TIME covered the story, of course. The National Enquirer, ironically the first print media outlet to break the story, ran an illustrated image of little Beth similar to that of the Weekly World News’ 1992 rendering of “Bat Boy,” although this time the crude pen-and-ink drawing was accurate.
Beth’s mother gazed at the illustration lovingly, tracing the lines of her daughter’s little image on the thin, fluttering paper. Her brow crinkled just slightly at the sight of the cartoonish water-wings springing dragon-like from the cartoonish shoulders. It was not a normal thing, she thought. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. She looked up over the paper and at Beth drawing in the corner of the room, fins fanning in the air. Beth is magic, she thought. I’m proud.
But within all that traveling, amidst all the interviews, between all the smiles and demonstrations, Beth swam. She swam in hotel pools, in rivers, in foreign oceans. She swam almost as fast as many Olympians, for infinitely longer. There was, in fact, no limit to her swimming. Miles upon miles she could go, her parents watching from a following boat.
“Mommy and Daddy,” Beth sang out confidently one morning by the pool, a few months after the discovery, “I don’t mean to be impolite, but I’d like to swim alone from now on.”
Mr. and Mrs. Little Swimmer (or David and Pat, which were their names) were startled by this for two reasons.
First, they were still alarmed by their toddler’s sudden eloquence. Since that first day in the pool, it was as if the screws that are still slightly loose in most two-year-olds’ heads, bouncing around in their brains and making them every once in a while spout adorable gibberish, had suddenly tightened in Beth’s. Her voice had taken on a disturbing maturity, the words themselves clear and succinct. David and Pat couldn’t help but miss their child’s former babbling, squeals of delight, out-spewing of impish nonsense.
But they were mostly startled by Beth’s declaration because their daughter’s swimming was a wondrous thing to behold, and they couldn’t bear missing any opportunity to enjoy it. They loved being able to feel the wind generating form her speedy kick, the water misting their arms when she finally came dolphin-like up for air; they loved to see her muscles grow stronger with each stroke; they loved to hold her hand as they walked her back to the house, still unsteady on her tiny legs.
They sighed and agreed, having no like-situation to compare it to, no section in their parenting books about handling the elfin independence of fish-children, and kept their distance from the water.
In the absence of parental infatuation and media attention—the latter having long since faded away—Beth became better. Without the flashing lights of cameras to distract her, she was able to discover her fins fully, get to know them, learn how to use them. She spent hours a day in the pool, spent afternoons exploring the spooky bottoms of Lake Wallenpaupack, spent lazy weekends at the shore in New Jersey, diving under waves. Her parents now would stay on the sand, fearful but proud, waiting to take her in their arms and wrap her in warmth—warmth of their love, warmth of the sun-soaked, sandy beach towel they held at the ready.
But it was only a matter of time. It is constantly surprising how acclimating human beings can be though they receive no recognition for it—adults are as adaptable as babies are resilient—and it was only a few months until Pat, herself, was shocked at her ability to read a book on the sand, sun-tan and patiently relax while her two-year-old girl swam out alone into the deep, blue sea. When Beth emerged from a few hours swim in the bubbling, ocean tundra and informed her mother that she’d quite like to swim the 25-mile distance from Atlantic City to Long Beach Island (“The Island,” she’d said, and her mother understood), Pat took it relatively well. They’d start slow, she thought, and it might be a nice way to get the girl back in the public eye.
The drive to Atlantic City was not an easy one, and David grumbled for the first hour, from the first load into the sun-scorched trunk of the car, past the “Honesdale, PA” sign. Past Hawley, where he grumbled even harder due to the Wally Lake Fest that caused a brief sensation of traffic near the water, eager families honking and accelerating to see live rock and roll on a barge down the lake. He calmed down as they glided out of Wayne County and Pat slipped in an audio book. He grew happy at the tinkling laughter and occasional hiccup from Beth in the backseat, pink tankini sticky with sweat from the Pocono summer and glowing in the late morning sunlight.
They got in later than expected. Beth was resigned to swimming in the hotel pool. “It’s the Little Swimmer!” other, older children shrieked gleefully, voices echoing against the concrete. Parents watched in awe as Beth swam powerfully back and fourth, sideways and backward, cutting through the water like a shark. The pool cleared out. Young vacationing couples inquired, half-inspired and half-ironic, if they could take a picture with the little girl.
The next morning’s swim was a success. She didn’t go all the way to the Island, of course. Pat and David had specifically instructed Beth to turn around and swim back to shore the moment she began to feel a twinge of fatigue. “When it starts to hurt, just a little,” they sternly said, holding her tiny shoulders and looking into her cupid face, “you come back. That is the rule.”
Beth winced. She was growing less and less receptive to being told what to do and, like many two-year-olds, more and more disposed to mischievous, defiant behavior. She agreed, however, nodding her toddler-chin (which was growing thinner and thinner, to Pat’s quiet chagrin).
They surmised, however, that she went about 11 miles out, based on the time and what she reported back. The boats, the buoys, the sudden change in temperature, the time it took her to dive to the bottom. Pat looked out at the sea as David dried the girl and felt content. The morning tide was a mere ripple. Almost still, she noticed. Enough even to handle her own mile or two, she remembered, that she wasn’t so bad a swimmer herself.
They fed her spaghetti with brown butter at a restaurant along the boardwalk. They bought saltwater taffy from an aging Puerto Rican man under an umbrella and when the wind started to pick up they thought it might be a good time to let Beth get in her second round, before it got uncomfortable.
The two led Beth up to the water and felt the shock ever so slightly when she unfolded her fins, braced for the current. They watched the little jet stream she made in the water, swimming straight as an arrow towards the deep and parting the ocean in her own tiny wake. They walked back to the dry sand, sunk down on beach towels and sunk deeper into their books, pausing every few minutes to chit-chat before falling silently into their respective paper worlds.
The first sign was that Pat started to shiver, asking David for her old junior varsity swim team parka that she wrapped around them like a blanket. The second was David’s difficulty turning the pages of his novel, the wind flapping them about. The third was the gusts that blew both their hair across their faces, and they looked out onto the sea and saw it grow, in the matter of minutes, tempestuous, the waves crashing in gusts that had neither rhyme nor reason—if they did, it was hidden within the cold, furious swirls of the Atlantic.
After three and a half hours they began to seriously worry and called the police. The police notified the Coast Guard, and it took the guard about thirty minutes to have a full team on the bumpy ocean, looking for the Little Swimmer.
Pat and David were moved a variety of places—they were on the boat before Pat went into hysterics, in a helicopter before David physically threatened the co-pilot, back on the beach to see if the Little Swimmer had returned unbeknownst to them, unaware of how much trouble she’d caused. They were in their hotel room staring at the television, their many phones sitting in their laps.
It was 72 hours until Beth was pronounced dead. When the news first hit the media stream, a few headlines ran—“Death of ‘Fish Girl’;” “National Wonder ‘Fish Girl’ Drowned;” “World-Famous ‘Little Swimmer’ Drowned in Atlantic City,;” “The Little Swimmer, Age 2, Drowned.”
Pat and David waited for her to come home. They stayed in Atlantic City for weeks, receiving mourning family and friends glassy-eyed, faces the color of a grey, restless sea. “Maybe she turned into a fish,” their little nephew said, hugging Pat, who buried her face in his hair to cry as the family gathered around. And while they waited, the reporting stopped. The insensitivity shown towards the Little Swimmer’s parents was, finally, vocalized by a snappy writer in The Atlantic and the sensational headlines died down in shame.
Her parents went back to Wayne but they rented an apartment overlooking the shore, right above the taffy stand and about one hundred yards from where they’d last seen Beth wobble, walk, and dive. It was a bad apartment, one where ocean sand crept through the crack under the door and wedged itself between the shoddily-lined fixtures. It had thin walls and no air conditioning, which was a plus, because the couple wanted to be sure they could hear the wet fluttering of fins, the clumsy footsteps of a baby girl, the quiet fist on the door in case she came home. It was nonsensical, and yet.
The county newspaper wrote an obituary on its own, after repeated declined phone calls and emails to the grieving couple. “Beth Rafferty,” the sad journalist wrote, overcompensating in his simplicity, “Beloved daughter and granddaughter. Drowned off the coast of New Jersey, age 2.” He did find a picture, however—a shot of Beth used to publicize The Late Show, standing proudly on the lakeshore, water and rocks spreading behind her into the unknown horizon. The photo editors zoomed in on her face—her short curling hair and wondrous eyes—cropping out the gleaming pink swimsuit, the splendid fins that bloomed from her arms and feet.
When the people in Honesdale, Hamlin, Hawley and the rest picked up their papers that Sunday they sighed. A drowned two-year-old is not news to many, they thought. It’s horrific, they said, but so sadly unsurprising, since most of them cannot swim.
EMILY HUNT was raised in Petaluma, went mad in Santa Barbara, developed a tempestuous affair with Paris, and currently lives and writes in Los Angeles. She holds degrees in Comparative Literature and French from University of California, Santa Barbara. She was a selected participant in the inaugural Ashbery Home School writers’ retreat and workshop in 2014. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Artillery Magazine, Yay! LA Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, Knit Wit Magazine, Robb Report, and others.