It’s cold. I couldn’t possibly be here, but there we are: by Lake Wilcox, in Sensei’s backyard. It’s dusk and December in Aurora, Canada. The sun is a crimson smear in the west. It’s minus-19 Celsius but a breeze makes it feel like minus-25. Sensei, my fellow judoka, and I run onto the ice. We’re in swimsuits and boots. Their winter coats and my fur parka hang on a coat rack, which Sensei’s wife had set out earlier on the snow-covered lawn for our convenience.
This is how you build a mind sharp as razor, tough as armour, he tells us. How you temper the steel. Though judo is known as the gentle way. In a Russian version of the Simon Says game, we judoka listen to Sensei’s barked orders and mimic his movements.
“Warm-up!” Sensei jogs out toward the centre of the lake, then back. We follow, shivering, the clouds of our breath vanishing into the air.
Memories of my childhood come to me, unbidden.
“Push-ups!” Sensei drops to the ground, barehanded, muscles flexing. We drop too, and the ice stings my hands. My nose gets cold and I imagine it must be as red as my fingertips.
I was capering at the sandy foot of the ocean.
“Crawls!” Sensei presses against the ice and moves quickly, elbow by elbow, dragging all 6′2″ of him. We all do the same without complaint. I’m too nervous and excited to say much. By the looks of it, the other judoka share my sentiments.
My mother was lying on a beach towel.
“Grab some snow!” Sensei stands up, takes handfuls of snow, and rubs it roughly on his torso and thighs. Some melts, some falls to his feet, and some sticks to his skin and shines like glitter. We hesitate. Vera – Sensei’s daughter and the youngest judoka – grabs some snow and applies it to her skin. She looks like she’s taking a shower. The rest of us break into grins, then do the same.
The water was warm. I laughed and splashed about in my pink swimsuit.
We’re all Slavs, all white, and our lips are turning blue. The snow is a shock to the skin, already bare and chilling in the winter air. I tremble in my boots. It’s the first time I’m doing this. But not the last.
I waded in, a few feet deep into blue-green waters.
“Boots off!” Sensei kicks off his sneakers and moves towards the prorub, the ice hole that exposes two cubic metres of black water. It’s close to the lawn, so it can’t be too deep. But we don’t know how deep.
A smooth rock slid under my foot. I fell – I couldn’t swim – the tide rushed up all around me.
“Get in!” Sensei lets out a whoop and jumps in feet first. We’re hooting and laughing – terrified – as we plunge after him. I hurry, my stomach constricting. I’m third in, after Sensei and Vera. Then, all of us – five walruses, or polar bears, or whatever they’re called – are in. The water is 30 seconds worth of piercing cold. It takes the breath away. My feet touch lake bottom.
I choked and heaved for air and, for a few milliseconds, died.
We bounce in the water, heads bobbing, immersed so flesh contracts and mind splinters. The waves we make as we spasm are choppy and black. We daren’t splash each other. This is not a pool. But Sensei is hooting with pleasure. And soon, we are too.
But today – today, I am alive. My name is Marina. I’m 16 years old.
“Everybody out!” Sensei jumps up, hands on the ice, and climbs out of the prorub. We scramble after him, breath ragged, lungs on fire. Sensei puts on his sneakers and judogi, waits for us to get our coats and boots on, then leads the short jog back to his house.
I have a green belt in judo. I know karate and jiu-jitsu. I will learn to swim in the world’s lakes and seas and oceans.
Once inside, we change into our clothes in the bathroom, in turns. My sweater and jeans feel so good, I never want to take them off. And yet, it seems like the dip was cut short. Leaving too little time to reconcile with the unknown deep that once almost took my life.
There is nothing in those wet depths that can steal the breath out of my body.
Sensei’s wife lays out a spread on the dinner table with bliny, borscht, and rye bread. Black tea steeps in an ornate teapot. We sit around the table, Sensei at its head, and eat politely – that is, in silence – while Sensei praises us. He pours himself and the eldest judoka some vodka and the two clink shot glasses. “Cheers!”
I am alive. I breathe. I will survive much more than this.
After, we pile into his van and Sensei drives us back to the dojo, where our parents are waiting to pick us up.
“Thank you, Sensei,” I say.
“You did well. See you on Monday,” he says.
That night, I don’t sleep. I’m pulsing with energy. This is what it’s like, I realize, to be invincible.
Maya Sokolovski works as a technical writer while dabbling in creative writing in her spare time. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Agnes and True, RIDE 3, The First Line, and the Journal of the Society of Classical Poets. Her first book, Double-Click Flash Fic: A Chapbook of Short Fiction and Poetry, was published in 2016.