I Will


His friends were also there to see what might go wrong, and Ned was fine with that.
Rising sunlight skimmed the trees lining the shore of the beach park and dispersed into a pencil-gray sky that seemed to hush them as they watched Ned wrap wool over each ankle of his long-johns and then tie it with scraps of rope he’d collected from the docks. Underneath was another layer, he explained. The water tapped and swayed below them on the narrow pier, and Ned’s friends puttered with arms crossed, impressed with their own breath rising in forced plumes and impatient with Ned’s meticulous tinkering.
None of them were as daring as Edwin James Finith – Ned, they called him – and he knew this, but it was more than showmanship that drove his curiosity and self-imposed duty to see things through. He was square-headed, had strict posture, and was lean, yet toned with the grit of growing up on the Puget Sound, lifting salmon crates, clearing lines, and tying fenders as a deckhand on weekends and after school. He carried his heavy tasks with swift, light footing and a grin that curved up his cheek with not exactly arrogance, but an invitation to come closer, to watch and learn, lean in to be wowed.
“You’ve got what under all that?” Cliff asked. He would be an imposing presence among them – was a year older, a senior, and much broader in stature – but for his patient, studious nature. He really wanted to know: “You said nylons? For women?”
The twins snickered.
“Stealing from your mom’s underwear drawer, Neddy? Shame on you!” Mel teased, his wide, ruddy face creasing with laughter. Dennis looked nothing like his twin, with his dark, glossy hair and jutting nose, but often matched his brother’s goofing. “Yeah, sick!” he felt the need to add.
Ned was too focused to acknowledge their heckling. He was driven. A touch crazy, some would say. But he had ideas, like buying up all of the WWII bomber masks and goggles from the surplus store. There was no reason not to take him seriously. And Ned had known his friends long enough to be sure at least one of them would jump in if he began to drown.
But he did not expect to drown.
I am gonna breathe under there, he had yell-whispered to them in the movie theater while they had watched the underwater scenes in The Frogmen a year back, how those military divers slid beneath the water’s surface, rocketing through blooms of self-made bubbles powered by swimfins and breathing air fed by three-cylinder tanks strapped to their backs. No one had seen a thing like that before, but Ned had seen it all along, had already been dreaming up ways to do it himself.
“What do I do again?” Mel teased, tipping the head of the bike pump into one hand, then the other. “A few pumps and then…?” he turned his palm up with a shrug.
“C’mon,” Ned said, tying the last bit of wool to his ankle. Then he stood with a tilted grin, taking a heavy step weighted by pads of lead he’d slipped into his tennis shoes. “I’ll be drinkin’ water if you quit pumping.” He laughed with them, was also one of them. Yet was also aware of their tendency to stand at his side while teasing the whole way, reluctant to fully commit, to envision the whole course without question.
He took the pump from Mel’s hands and did a quick demo, though he’d shown them all before. “Fast and even,” he said, moving his arms in a spurt of pumps. “No stopping ‘til I’m up.” He stepped over the partially uncoiled pile of rubber tubing he’d attached to the pump hose, handing the “T” of the handle back to Mel. “Take turns if you need to.”
He hoped they would have the stamina to feed him air for a good five-to-ten minutes. A much longer time than when he’d sunk that carved out water tank with an anchor, and this new method would feed him a continuous airflow, just like those Navy divers had. He wouldn’t have to waste time paddling back to a tank for every breath.
“You trust me?” Mel ribbed, tipping the pump handle from one hand into the other.
Ignoring him, Ned double-checked the clamp on the pump hose, then did a hopscotch over the thick coils to check the mask hose clamped at the other end. Finally, he took the mask and then sat with his legs over the end of the pier. He fastened one side of it to a leather helmet, and then began fitting the gear to his head, eventually snapping the last buttons along his jawline.
“Oh shit,” Dennis boomed, “he’s really doing it!”
With his hair, nose, and cheeks covered, and the mask slimming toward its hose tip like a pointed mandible, Ned looked like a bug, a misshapen creature who escaped a science fiction lab. Only his eyes were visible, and they scrunched with a hidden grin as he threw a straight-armed thumbs up to them before lowering his goggles over the only part of his face left to cover. This was absurd! Terrific! he knew his friends were thinking. Cliff, who’d been quieter than usual, stepped toward Ned with his fingers pinching his chin as if he had another question, but before Cliff could get to him—splash! Ned was in the water.
Dennis gave a hoot, Mel worked the pump up and down, up and down, no longer laughing or smiling, and Cliff remained stilled in place.
Ned was descending, six feet, then eight, he pushed water up in a backwards stroke to aid the weight in his tennis shoes, drifting down, down, down, the water extending above him, turning greenish-brown to darker brown as he sank. It was surreal, air reaching his mouth, not full and sure, but there, rushing his throat in dry bursts, providing just enough to sustain him, and there he was, bubbles tapping down his chin, in the sea taking breath. His feet touched bottom, and by his count he was 15-to-20 feet down and had as much time as his friends could endure pumping.
Already he thought himself victorious.
Any second now, he’d see what few men had ever seen. He had become supernatural, swaying his arms under water and breathing, like a spirit peeking in on the sea, where so many creatures he’d caught and observed lurked: the hard shell crabs, spindle-legged shrimp, and darting salmon. The oddities he and his friends had collected in glass bowls: tubesnouts, bombers, moon jellies… A finned something darted past in the distance, then was gone. Something large, swift. A dogfish? Mud shark? Or—? He couldn’t resist the image prodding him again: a boy riding a fish. Not a fish, a dolphin. A boy riding atop a dolphin as if on horseback as it leaped out of the ocean.
Ned took a weighted step forward, then two, careful not to pull his tubing taut, but eager to see, wanting the animal to reveal itself. To ride a dolphin! Always this triumphant image from a childhood book called to him in moments like this, as if he was already a wise, aged man reflecting on a lifetime. As if he already knew—
His chest tightened and breath tapped a staccato. The airflow had slowed, the gusts arriving less measured, a tad weaker. But Ned kept his feet at bottom, looked this way and that, with a small, yellowish cod zipping by his nose and a desire to see more, more, so much more, something much bigger. His racing heart and the erratic bubbles spurting from his mask were not symptoms of dwindling air but of adrenaline, a tease at a challenge.
Next time, I will swim deeper, stay under longer, Ned decided, before ascending to safety, before even knowing whether he had succeeded. This was how a goal existed in him, never as a question of whether or not, but rather a certain: I will.
He stepped forward again. This time pulling the tubing tight and causing the right side of his mask to unsnap. Water rushed his nose and mouth, and bubbles galloped over his lips and scattered the view through his goggles. How quickly he’d grown accustomed to breathing among the fish, because as he turned his head attempting to clear his view, the bubbles kept coming, kept escaping until he remembered: he would need another breath. He needed to adjust the mask quickly or his next mouthful would be seawater. With flailing arms, he brought the mask back to his mouth, then gulped one last gust of air before kicking off the sand, rocketing himself towards the surface and letting the mask flap his face and spill bubbles as he ascended.
“Just don’t stop!” Cliff told Mel. Mel reenergized his pumping as they all looked to the surge of bubbles breaking surface and the tubing bobbing like an umbilical cord, rust-shadowed and vague in the water. They guessed Ned was right under there, close, each of them wondering if maybe they should have protested against their oddball of a friend going under like that, yet their bodies coursed with the very energy they suspected had thrust them into life in the first place. Or at least made life an adventure to be lived.
“There!” Dennis shouted.
Gasping at the surface, water splashed into Ned’s eyes, a result of his own thrashing. His goggles were gone, though he did not know how or when. Soon Cliff was gripping him hard under the arm, so hard a pinching squeeze radiated across Ned’s chest. He coughed, but could not help smiling as salt water stung his nose and struck a lightening of pain between his eyes.
“Ned, man, you did it!” Mel said, standing over him, hands to his hips and rapt with an enthusiasm Ned took pleasure in.
Cliff snatched the towels Dennis held out to him and draped one over Ned, who was now crouched on the shore. Ned lowered his head to rattle off another cough. Then he raised it, dizzy with swallowed bubbles and the buzz of a real-life superpower. He punched his fist into the air, and his friends cheered.
“Who’s next?” he asked without expectation. In a couple of years they would each give it a go, using wetsuits made of neoprene and manufactured regulators and tanks no longer exclusive to the Navy. But not this first time, not today.
“Ah, Neddy!” they said to him, failing to subdue their excitement, their fright. Their relief to have him as a friend and not be him.
He coughed and coughed, spraying his palms with blood-speckled saliva this time, and then bared the red gloss in his teeth with a wide, hungry grin.

Sky Stage Reading Series in Frederick, Maryland

Sky Stage Eco-Urban Reading Series

Frederick Arts Council and Eckleburg are excited to announce the Sky Stage Reading Series, a new literary arts initiative in Frederick, MD. Heather Clark’s Sky Stage, framed by historic stone walls, will include an open-air theater that will seat an audience of 140 people among trees.  The centerpiece of Sky Stage is a digitally-designed sculpture with ribbons of drought-resistant plants that will twist and wind through a wooden lattice structure.  State of the art green roof technology will be modified to support the spiraling plants.  Rainwater will be collected from the adjacent roof and stored in a bright-colored cistern.  Stored rainwater will irrigate the plants and trees. Sky Stage is a public sculpture and outdoor ampitheatre for local events: music, literature readings, performances and more. If you are a writer of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction or any literary hybrid form, and would like to read at one of our events, please CONTACT US.

Heather Clark is the artist behind the Sky Stage project, which reinvents a currently vacant building downtown as a piece of interactive, public art. The sculpture and open-air theater planned for the building at 59 S. Carroll St. is set to open in September.

FNP: How did you to come up with the idea for Sky Stage?

HC: Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by historic architecture and thinking about the stories of all the people who have occupied our buildings throughout time. I am particularly drawn to boarded-up buildings, because they represent unharnessed potential…. (Nancy Lavin, Frederick News Post)

Heather Clark

In her artwork, Heather Clark builds systems that critique our current world predicament. Her work plays on what she calls cultural neurosis: the human tendency to over-consume, over-build, over-groom, etc. in lieu of direct physical exertion to ensure survival.  She views this as a misdirected attempt to satisfy basic primal urges for shelter, food, and clothing in a society where actions are grossly amplified because one gallon of gasoline equals five hundred hours of human work output.

Heather’s work and perspective have evolved from her background in green redevelopment and ecology, and most recently from her life in exurbia, where she has lived and worked for the last four years.  She is embedded in a landscape that feeds on cultural neurosis.  Meadows, forests, and farms transitioning to tract homes and cul de sacs have become her muse.  As an inhabitant of exurbia, Heather is both complicit and trapped in the consumption economy and its byproducts – climate change, inequality, unhealthiness, boredom.

Here, the uncanny valley, which is usually discussed in relation to artificial intelligence, appears to Heather in the industrially designed and generated vernacular; she works with her hands, in defiance.  She dissects infrastructure, places, and the meaning of the built environment and its relation to nature.   Her work becomes a metaphor for the greater ills of a consumption based society.  It is within this landscape that Heather attempts to reveal the messiness that lies beneath over-constructing the perfect life and the near impossibility of escape.

Heather’s work and life has led her to believe that greater satisfaction can be achieved through physical proximity to meeting one’s basic needs – building with one’s hands, using one’s body, growing one’s own food. She yearns to reinvent how we live, using art, architecture and public interventions to catalyze built environments that power themselves, cleanse themselves, transform waste, provide wildlife habitat, produce food, and deeply satisfy inhabitants.

Heather holds a Master of Science in Real Estate Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture and Planning, and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University, summa cum laude, in Environmental Science and Community Planning, a self-designed major.  Heather founded Biome Studio.  As principal of Biome Studio, Heather previously designed and developed green affordable housing.  Attempting to lead the path toward zero-energy buildings and neighborhoods, she oversaw the largest deep energy retrofit in the U.S., converted historic mills into green affordable housing, and installed over one megawatt of solar pv on 2,300 low-income apartments.  Heather is also an environmental activist, creating the Play-In for Climate Action, a family-oriented climate change protest held in 2014 and replicated many times since by Moms Clean Air Force.


This killer whale broke surface twelve feet out, arching its oily mass out from the water, and then it dove, aimed in our direction. One of us grabbed the shotgun. Our catch was good, but orcas could eat our salmon right through the nets, swarm us in packs of up to forty. We knew the risks. It was the wretched ‘blackfish.’ We’d heard how a pack of them had come up on a whaler’s catch recently, attacking its haul in a fury of relayed darts and tears, mucking up the water with their methodical peeling back of the blue whale’s skin.
With the top speed of any sea creature, we figured this one could ram us into a tumble, and then skin us open. Or maybe just chomp us in one go. Unloading a few rounds into its blubber would at least scare it off, if not bleed it out in a few days’ time.
“No, no,” Ned said, swatting his hand backward at us without turning around. Even the military bombed the hell out of these whales to clear the water, but Ned had his own ideas about orcas. Instead of being tense, Ned was an enlivened beam of his usual energy, his back straight and rigid, head set to the waves beyond. He wasn’t saying anything, which meant he was thinking and dreaming the way he did, like how he’d had us bring in live fish to showcase at the World’s Fair and paint a sign with one of those black devils on it.
‘Aquarium,’ the sign read.
He’d had us put it up to announce the 6,000-square-foot waterfront space adjacent to the fair’s helicopter terminal. Most of the aquarium tanks were empty, aside from the lumpsuckers, pipefish, and other Puget Sound specimens, and a few warm water tanks holding seahorses and tropical fish, but it had already become the city’s main attraction.
“Now people can watch bull cod hatch a mess of little codfish right before their eyes,” Neddy had told the local papers. “Something even most skin divers have never seen.”
“Would you look at that!” he said now. “The big boy’s headed this way!”
We forced chuckles from our nerves, and then said to Ned, “A boy, you say? You got a name picked out?” It was a joke, and we laughed, but Ned didn’t, didn’t even hear us, and this made us wonder what he could be thinking. What he could possibly have on his mind, as the beast spouted close enough to expel a faint fish scent and then show us the flap tightening over its blowhole as it sucked air.
“Whoa-ho!” we shouted with tremored excitement, readying the shotgun. It was a magnificent, terrible thing, that slippery beast in the water so full of contradictions — immense, but nimble; threatening, but curious; foreign, yet so damn close. It was a thrill. So dangerous the way Ned was stepping his foot onto the low rail to hoist himself up. The way he began leaning over the boat’s edge.
The beast’s head emerged right there, right next to us. It was bluntnosed and had a patch of white in front and above its black, marble-ish eyeball that slipped with unexpected dexterity. We’d never been so close to one before — its tank of a body pushing water gracefully off its sides, tipping to show its moving, single wet orb of an eye.
“Hello there!” Ned hollered.
“You wanna die, Neddy?” we called to him, our humor wearing thin and adrenaline rising high. That was Ned for ‘ya, speaking to animals as if they’d be compelled to answer, his energy cheerful, yet forever serious. “A marvel!” he said, certain, with his all-knowing gleam, as the mass of skin dipped back under, pushing deep with its wide ukes, and leaving behind oily rings in the water.
Ned, now standing on a higher rail and leaning out past the side of the boat, peered down in amazement still. “He saw me!” he told us. “He looked right at me!” We looked to each other with a knowing concern, but also the unspoken question: what does he mean? What is Neddy thinking this time?
We watched and wondered, sensing how deeply Ned yearned for the animal to reemerge, how fanatical he’d silently become. We could see how he wanted the whale to find him there, still looking back at it with that unguarded wonder, a wonder that grew and grew far beyond Ned’s little self, far beyond us, yet Ned was one to always reach for it, to extend.
“Friend, friend!” he called to the animal that was nowhere in sight, one of us with the gun pointed at the unending expanse of water, unable to anticipate what would come next, though in a way having expected it all along, having begun to crave the rush of whatever brewed in the electrified eyes and erect posture of our longtime friend.
We couldn’t know exactly how he would bend the world to his own designs. Only that he could, was capable. Willing.
A dark shadow passed under the boat, the white patches of the beast showing even through the pale green water, then disappearing beneath, and before we could shout a word of caution, before we even understood one was needed, Ned burst, saying “I will join you!” and dropped himself in.
“Jesus! Get ‘outta there!” Had he jumped? Had the beast nudged the boat undetected, drawing Ned in with a force beyond our senses?
We tossed a lifesaver that smacked the water behind him, but he did not turn around. We hesitated to jump in after him.
“Neddy, c’mon!” we said, angered by our inability to see this one coming, the impulsiveness, the adrenaline quickening in our necks like netted fish. The forty-nine degree temps alone would be a shock, let alone the mass of blubber roaming deep. Those puzzle-perfect teeth.
Ned floated there, treading, with an occasional slap of water, unrushed, unconcerned, peering out over the vast ocean, and in deep. That was when we knew he wouldn’t be turning back. None of us would.