Caroline M. Mar

Stage 1: Cold Shock


There are an average of seven drownings per year in the lake, most due
to cold water shock, even among those who are capable swimmers. Or were
before the water folded them into itself:
                                                                           a pocket of failure, a slipped
                            seam of darkness out of the summer
                                                                                                       sun’s light.


My body in the summer heat, skin a prickling of sweat, the stick
of flesh to seat before I rise, look out over the edge, and dive.

My lungs seizing together inside my chest: a cavity curling inward.
The body, built for survival. The water still icy from snowmelt.

Difficulty holding your breath

It takes a certain force to move your limbs
               as you tread water. Remember to cup your hands,
like this. To kick just so, and steady.
               To keep your neck above the waves, to gulp air
like guilt, to hold it before you let it go.

Feeling of suffocation

I have felt this shock in my own body. The delicate line
between body and brain. The pain
of doing the thing that keeps you alive.

Italicized text from National Center for Cold Water Safety, “Cold Shock.”

Stage 1: Cold Shock
Threat No. 2: Heart and Blood Pressure Problems

Cold water immersion causes
an instantaneous and massive
increase in heart rate and blood pressure because
all the blood vessels in your skin
constrict in response to
sudden cooling, which is far more intense
in water than in air. In vulnerable
individuals, this greatly increases
the danger of heart

my body to shudder, to shock,
exuberance and joy,
there is racing doubt, possibility of failure, might explode, or might survive, might
the body? A live wire, electric, dangerous, it is
against the water’s conductivity, deeper
cells, the cold awakens something,
my certainty that my life has meaning.
silly heart, hopeful heart, busted heart, swim through

failure and stroke

Italicized text from National Center for Cold Water Safety, “Cold Shock.”

Stage 1: Cold Shock
Threat No. 3: Mental Problems

aquaphobia: fear of water, specifically of drowning
claustrophobia: fear of suffocation and restriction
hydrophobia: fear of water
               though the human body is 80% water  
ichthyophobia: fear of fish
               that time we ate lobster on a beach in Cuba and you laughed and laughed, delighted
               that your fear had subsided, you no longer believed
               it was swimming around inside you
xenophobia: fear of the unknown
chromophobia: fear of a color
              in this case, I suppose the color
              would be blue
achluophobia, or nyctophobia, or schotophobia, or lygophobia: fear of darkness
               most children have this, it is not abnormal
               to fear the loss of a sense, sight being
               one upon which we rely heavily to understand what is happening
               around us, just look
               how many names, though none
               are clinical
thanatophobia: fear of dying
phobophobia: fear of fear
              : fear of not being found
                             those rumors, again—
                             all those bodies
              : fear of being found
              : fear of being too late

Stage 2: Physical Incapacitation

When the waters rose, the forest stayed. What else can a forest do
but stand. There would be no fire inside the lake.

There would be no ground to tumble down. Just water rising,
cold and blue, the floods of the next era.

Sometimes the change comes over you like that all at once. A drowning.

Hundreds of coolies were tied together and weighed down
with rocks. Straw hats removed, queues tangled, thrown in to save

the cost of their pay. The historians say this is unlikely. Given
the railroad payrolls showing each Chinese contractor paid,

given how little Chinese labor cost, given the distance
from the Truckee railroad camp to the lake. Given

every other history I know:
chains, bodies of water, ghosts—

Sometimes a person isn’t a person at all, but a weight
to be freighted onto someone else’s shoulder.

Why not the silent lake? Why not a flood of furious bodies
fighting toward the coldest surface?

The forest stayed, and drowned.

Stage 3: Hypothermia

The lake is steel-shirred grey, a sheet of velvet,
soft-napped. Water barely stirring. The snow
is loud as an earthquake, house shaking

with dropped weight as the slide overcomes
the roofline. Winter’s thundering reminder:
some things cannot be stopped.

The snow is loud beneath the plow, its spray
an arc of meditation. The snow clings, a sticky sheet
to the sides of the sweating trees. This cannot last

forever. Snow melts into the lake, the icy rocks.
Winter: grey and grey and grey; crystalline
whiteness. The greydark water will not freeze,

the lake too deep. And what can survive
that kind of cold? Nothing, nothing, my mind’s
lie: the fish are fattening, swimming slow.

Yes, too, the snow is quiet. Muffling every sound
but the crunch of my footfalls following
the shape of your boot prints, as I follow you.

Stage 4: Circum-rescue Collapse

an erasure

Original text from National Center for Cold Water Safety, “Cold Shock,” found at

Caroline Mei-Lin Mar is a high school teacher and poet. A San Francisco native, Carrie is doing her best to keep her gentrifying hometown queer and creative. She is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, an alumna of VONA Voices workshop, and a member of Rabble Collective. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, New England Review, Connotation Press, and CALYX, among others. You can follow here work here: