The Pain Cave | Lauren Groff | Granta

The Pain Cave

Lauren Groff

The house of my childhood was thickly haunted, so we spent what time we could outdoors. This is where, I believe, the rite came from, a way to mark our joy at being released from the house’s chill and eerie confinement and set loose into the warming spring. My brother now says the rite was not a rite, that it was only a fluke that happened once, as a bet; my sister, the diplomat and wise one, says she doesn’t remember, but that of course truth is a shifty thing, dependent on the needs of the rememberer.

I need to believe that our family’s weird little rite happened every year. It was always still April, and the ice had thawed and new buds were on the trees, and in the forests that ringed our lake there were still hollows of snow gently melting. We waited until dusk on the appointed day, then came out shivering in our bathing suits and stood beside the winter-covered pool. I remember solemnity over a sense of barely held glee.

My father had us peel back the pool’s heavy black cover on which autumn leaves had melted into a brown slurry, and heave it to the deep end under the diving board. By spring, the water would be viscous and dark with algae and the disintegrated bodies of dead creatures, which we sensed there even if the water was too thick to see them. Later, after the pool was shocked with chlorine, after the release of the slime-eating robot, we’d find the skeletons of frogs in the gutters, tarry clumps of feathers that used to be birds.

The game was simple: The winner would be the child who could stay in the freshly uncovered water of the pool the longest. The prize was a dollar. In the 1980s, a dollar would have bought four cake doughnuts at the bakery on the corner of Main Street and Chestnut, or one enormous jawbreaker from the candy store that we’d lick into rainbows for months.

At the signal, we descended the steps into the searing black cold. My father was a doctor, and would pace on the deck to make sure the competition didn’t kill us. We must have all been under ten years of age, but the odds were stacked along the lines of personality. My brother is sixteen months older than I am and has always been brilliant, funny, loud, insistent. Any experienced bettor would have put their money on him to win. My sister is twenty-eight months younger than I am and has always been the baby, the one person in the family who is unreservedly beloved by everyone, because she is the kindest and gentlest. Even now, she is the one who makes all the birthday cakes and who counsels us in our sorrows. Nobody would have thought, looking at her, that she’d have made it to even ten seconds before caving. On those strange nights, it was every kid for themself. Those with the most bravado might splash the others, until splashing became too cruel or we could no longer control our limbs. Then we went deep into our own suffering, avoiding eye contact and shuddering until our lips turned blue.

My memory tells me that I always won. I outlasted my sister, who was so young and tender, and hadn’t yet come into the full flower of her competitiveness. I outlasted my brother who was surely smart enough to grok the stupidity of the game, that the winner was in fact the most obvious loser. Whether or not my memory is telling me the truth, it tracks. I would rather have died of hypothermia than let my siblings win. I think we would all agree that I still would.


Photograph © Vincent Desjardins

Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff is the author of six books, including Matrix, Florida, and Fates and Furies, all of which were finalists for the National Book Award. Her work has won the Story Prize, the Paul Bowles Prize, and France’s Grand Prix de l’Héroïne, and has been shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the LA Times Book Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Her work has been published in thirty-six languages.

Photograph © Eli Sinkus

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