The Great Explorer
The beach is quiet, almost empty even in the high season. But music drifts along the sands from small shacks scattered along the back of the beach. Each shack has its own ice-filled tray at the front, displaying the fish caught on the beach that day; orange snapper, silvery pike, blue lobsters. Tourists sit on plastic chairs and drink arak and murmur into the night.
One evening a tiny boat drifted around into the cove from the east. It was drifting, powered by no sail or motor. The arrival caused alarm among the few evening surfers when it was noticed that an arm, thin and dark and frail, hung listlessly over the low side of the craft and trailed fingers in the water. They guided the boat around the rock to the beach, where a small crowd helped drag it ashore. The lips of the man inside, cracked and white, and the crust of parched saliva around his mouth, told of terrible dehydration. They brought him water from the shacks, and white rice. Three or four people attended to him. An American held the man’s head in his lap as shack workers poured water into his mouth and over his chin, and another cleaned sores on his legs and torso. He tried to keep the alarm in his eyes out of his voice as he cooed softly and soothingly to the man from the sea. Around them, the crowd remained. They stood and watched in silence because nobody wanted to disturb the man as he was dying and nobody knew how to leave.
The destruction wrought by the ocean was in evidence all over him. Countless wounds had opened up over his body, and the edges had been turned grey and purple by the salt water. His brown skin seemed covered with a fine pale dust, which shimmered from his body when disturbed before settling again. His deeply lined face was emaciated and drained of colour, as if no blood flowed beneath his skin. White hair flowed freely over his shoulders and his white moustache grew over his mouth and into his long beard. His eyelids remained closed, but behind them his eyes twitched and flicked restlessly. They continued to water him into the night while the doctor was called, and slowly, eventually, his yellow eyes opened.
He looked vaguely at the faces that hovered over him, and blinked slowly as if his eyelids gummed together anew each time. After a time he eased himself up and hooked his arms around his knees and sat silent, facing the ocean. They began to question him, the Sri Lankans in Sinhala and the American, helplessly, in English. They beseeched and begged him to tell them where he came from, why he came, how he had lived, even his name. The doctor listened to his heart and took his temperature and asked him if he hurt and where. The noise of their voices mingled with the music and chatter of the night, but did not disturb the little sphere of silence around the man from the sea. He sat and stared at the waves which glittered silver now in the dim light from the crescent moon.
He was still there at dawn. He had sat there all night accompanied by the three men who had attended to him, and who had stayed after the doctor had left and after the crowd had realised that the man from the sea would not die. One of the men from the shack brought rice and sweet tea, and they ate as the sun rose warm and red. The man from the sea used sandy fingers to roll the rice into little balls, which he passed into his mouth to chew slowly. All the time he stared at the sea. The others ate more quickly, but just as silently. When the sun began to burn more fiercely they erected a parasol, and throughout the day the four men continued to sit together, in silence and without knowing why. In the evening the silence was broken by the man from the sea. When he spoke it was in lilting English, in an accent unfamiliar to both the Sri Lankans and the American, and in a voice deep and solemn and cracked by the sea. ‘I am a fisherman,’ he said.
‘My boat was a small one. We were three. We fished for tuna in the deep waters. We had been at sea a long time. The fishing was good, and the fish boxes were full to bursting. We should have come home. But the fishing was so good that we wanted to take more.
‘The last time we lowered the net, the water looked so beautiful. I remember asking my oarsman what colour it was because I couldn’t say myself. He did not answer because he was watching the lines. We had something too big in the net. All three of us leaned over the edge to see as it came close to the surface. What we saw was no fish or shark or whale. Just a shadow, endlessly big. It filled the sea as far as I could see. At last we saw its eyes. Huge black eyes, like a shark, even blacker in the centre, and looking at us. Then it turned and dived. We didn’t have time to cut the lines. Maybe we did, but we were too afraid to move. It pulled the boat under and tore her to pieces like paper.
‘I thought I would drown. For a long time I could not see the surface, only the shadow beating its tail as it dragged the boat downwards, and us with it. And when I saw the surface it was so far away. I watched the sunbeams for some moments, reaching through the sea like spears. It took all my strength even to try and make for it.
‘When I broke the surface, I was alone. Not even a board of my boat to be seen, and no sign of my crew. No land. I dared not look down, but there was no comfort in looking up. The sun was low and the sky was clouding over. The last rays of the evening lit the clouds like the heart of a fire. It was beautiful, but I cried as I watched. I was so afraid as the light died. There was no moon, no stars. The night was as black as the eyes of the monster underneath me. I could only listen as the waters heaved and splashed around me. I swelled the ocean with my tears that night.
‘I screamed when I felt sand beneath my feet. I waded for an eternity until I heard waves breaking on a shore, and another eternity until I found a beach. Once again that black night came alive with noise, land noises now of rustling trees and baying animals, both a comfort and a threat. I curled up and thought of my boat and my drowned friends and my mother.
‘I opened my eyes to see faces, like I saw yours when I awoke on this beach. Such beautiful and terrifying faces, with the darkest skin decorated with white ink. I could not run nor scream. I was too afraid. But they spoke to each other so softly, in a language that sounded like song, that I was soothed. Perhaps they took me for an explorer. They brought me fish to eat and coconut water to drink, and they beckoned me to follow them. I was afraid to leave the beach, but to stay was worse. They lead me through dense forest to an enormous clearing filled with small huts and hammocks and animal pens. In the centre smoked a huge fire, around which had been hung fish of all sizes, and land animals too, smoking and spitting. They lead me to a bed of palm leaves, and laid me down. I slept and slept, slept away all my terrors and sorrows and memories of the monster.
‘I don’t know how long I stayed. They did not mark time and neither did I. I learned that these were the gentlest people I have known. I had no desire to leave. I watched as they fished with spears and tried to learn. I watched as they built with earth and wood, and hunted with arrows. I listened to the music of their language, and of their instruments. I could have stayed with them and been happy there.
‘The children fell sick first. They began to sweat in the night, and to cough like their bodies were bursting. They were given brewed leaves to drink, and moss was laid on their burning foreheads. The adults began to succumb too, the strongest with the weakest. None could be helped, and none lived. I watched so many as they died, and I tended the last of them myself. Within a week I was left alone again on an island of bodies. There were too many to bury, too many even for the sea to swallow.
‘I returned to the beach and appealed to the stars for the strength to die, for the plague that I had brought to the people to take me as well, but the stars offered no response. I begged them for the courage walk into the sea, or to open my veins with the spears of the dead, but they offered me only cowardice, guilt and grief. That boat is one of theirs. I took it and pushed out to sea, and lay back and tried to flood it with tears. My heart broke once more when I opened my eyes here to find myself alive.’
With that, the great explorer fell silent. None of the three men in attendance spoke. After a time, one by one, they stood and walked away, for none of them could speak for fear of sharing his burden. For many years the silent man from the sea remained on the beach, and they brought him water to drink and rice to eat. One morning, after a night on which the stars were brighter than anyone could remember, he was no longer there.
It would be a disadvantage in this line of work."
That is why you grew this moustache,
It hides the softness of a mouth,
Cuts short the frayings and brayings,
Tell-tale spittle, tongue trembles, all hidden.
It can curl itself this way and that,
Like the tail of a very masculine rat,
Under the brim of an 1860's hat,
And that will be that will be that will be that.
uhum, clears throat, "God save the Queen!"
Yet, sometimes in the evenings,
The firelight swerves off the tin of your cup.
And your brain starts to beat with a different kind of birdsong.
Searching for something else.
Something you don't quite know yet.
Onwards at any rate.
But no, you never feel loneliness.
The adventure is too great to allow for such,
Such mutterings of the heart.
And do you ever doubt?
Do your prayers ever sound hollow when you pronounce them into the humidity of a landscape which isn't your own?
Doesn't the hugeness of the sky and trudging of the miles make your own country seem smaller?
Or is your country still a gilded box which must be filled,
A frame which must be fitted over other people's houses?
Do you look at other people's kings and leaders,
And see your own sovereign's vision reflected in their greedy eyes?
Your pen bobs in a perpetual chicken scratch after truth.
But, look, aren't the pages of your notebook beginning to crumble?
Pores of ink laden paper tumbling back into the red earth.
And do you ever look at these un-baptised children playing on the banks of an un-baptised river and think that God must love them anyway,
Or else that there is no God?
Pushing through hydrangeas
And old galvanised sheets
Leaving behind wasps in watery bottles
A once great estate
Marrying under its exotic heart shaped leaves
When we were 8
Our wedding feast
And odd shaped pears
Booty taken from behind the brick walled orchard
Our flag of conquest
A striped red teeshirt
Billowing on top