WickedEye's Quotient

6/04/2008 at 05:51


The sea taught me the feel and taste and sound of distance; the meaning of depth. My world and my eternity would be flatter without the sea.

I study the stars. When I was in grade school I would sit in the summer dusk, watching fireflies and stars. Watching the stars become brighter as the fireflies dimmed. Looking at the spaces between the shining points. Wondering at the idea of infinity. Trying to plunge further amongst them. I could never make the spaces between stretch as they should. I could never make them deeper the further I went.

But I have loved the sea far longer than the stars.

When I was 3 we spent the summer at Norfolk Beach. On first sight of the sea I slipped out of my mother’s arms and ran toward it saying “Big water.” My memories are of sand and jellyfish and the crash of waves, shimmering heat and cold water and the smell of salt. I didn’t know how big the big water was then. But I knew that I could swim in it and that waves could tip me over and that it got deeper the further I went.

When I was 10 we spent a week in Pensacola. I was an accomplished swimmer, but the force of the waves surprised me. I went out far enough that I could pretend not to hear my mother calling me back. Far enough to leave the bottom in the breakers, bobbing back down to it after leaping through the curls like a fish. I wanted to go farther, but didn’t; I knew what the dangers were. I remembered that it got deeper the further I went.

When I was 12 we spent the summer in a South Indian village not a mile from the sea. The beach is called Thirimiruvallum, a brief curve of sea-borne sand in the granite seawall. I was the only girl swimming, surrounded by a cortege of male relatives. We swam until I lost the bottom for the first time, I and my brother dolphining over the swells. But we went no farther. The water, free of the riptides that spin further up the coast, is still dangerous. I could feel safety drop away beneath my feet, lying deeper and deeper the further I went.

When I was 15 we returned to India for the summer, and Thirimiruvallum waited for me. It had grown longer during the monsoons, a new half-moon of sand curving against the seawall. I watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean and looked at new stars and wondered again about depth and eternity. I had swum again, farther and deeper—though not much. The bottom had been carved away during the monsoons, dropping steeply within a few feet of the beach, getting much, much deeper the further I went.

When I was 16 we spent a week in Panama City. There was too much shrieking and eye-straining color and fake-coconut-scented suntan lotion on the beach. I would walk there during the day, but came late to the ocean, slipping in a few hours before sunset while it was being deserted. I kept it company as the tide rose and the crowd ebbed, almost alone, so I didn’t go in too deep. But I struck until the long shallows fell away beneath my feet, rejoicing as, finally, it got deeper the further I went.

When I was 19 we spent a week in Cape Fear. There were no crowds on the small private beach behind the cottage, nothing to stop me from swimming to exhaustion and napping and then swimming again. I wanted desperately to swim at night, to find out what the inky silk of the farther waters would feel like. But I didn’t; it was too frightening, even for me. I knew that the blackness beneath me as the sky darkened would feel so much deeper the further I went.

When I was 27 I spent 10 days in Hawai’i. I swam in the secluded grotto, open to the ocean but protected from the tides, at the exclusive hotel. I learned that there are fish I am afraid of: eels. And what it feels like to swim with a sea turtle—my hand just touching the giant shell as I swam above it all the way to mouth of the sea. And that even in the presence of the most exotic of marine life, the water can bore me. It didn’t feel like the ocean; it didn’t rise and fall and pull. It didn’t get deeper the further I went.

I’ve longed for the ocean for years now. It is an odd, contented ache; I will go, whether sooner or later. It soothes me to know that soon or late it will be there waiting, sand and rock still falling away beneath the singing waves.

It comforts me to my center to know that when I am gone from it entirely, no more than a memory and then not even that, the sea will remain. It will roar against whatever coast it has shaped for itself, wearing ceaselessly against sand and stone. It will sustain its slow and swift and shimmering grace, its shallows’ turn and thrum and tumble, its deeps’ scored stretches falling and falling and falling away.

There is solace in the knowledge that the sea will continue long past the time when there are none to name or recall it.

Stars were, long before the ocean, and long after it they will endure. But I will never submerge my body in their lives, never swirl my hands through their substance, never comprehend the spread of their shores, never swim in the endlessness between them as it falls away beneath me. I will study all these things, yes. But I will never feel them against my skin.

The sea waits for my touch: here, now. While I am still here to remember it. While I can still cherish its teaching.

While I can still understand that all things get deeper the further I go.

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