The Man Who Talked to the Sea
He stands by the hour on the edge of the beach, staring at the sea.
He stands near the water’s edge, in the roar of the breaking waves, his eyes scanning the horizon or focused on a single point, or gazing at a cloud.
He sometimes paces up and down the little patch of beach, his eyes still seaward, but usually he just stands and gazes long across the expanse of water.
He usually wears an old battered suit, in a neutral color – dark brown or black – and scuffed shoes – he looks as if he just walked out of his office on Main Street – and sometimes a hat, a businesslike fedora, though more often than not his head is bare, and the tufts of thinning white hair stir like strands of straw in the slightest breeze. He wears a fraternity ring on his left hand, but otherwise no accessories, not even a watch.
His eyes are a watery blue, and his skin is pale despite the many hours he spends on the beach in the sun. He sometimes takes in a deep breath of the brisk sea air, briny and ion-charged from the churning waves, then slowly exhales, a refreshed look on his face.
His eyes sometimes watch the small craft as they cross just beyond the swells: a motorboat, a sailboat, jet-skiers, wind surfers. Or he watches the surfers down toward the beach’s heaviest waves, a quarter mile away: he watches them with detached interest as the young men – and increasingly young women – lurch up on their boards and shoot the curls of crashing waves one after another, hour after hour, never tiring of the monotony, the endless repetitions, taking nature’s challenge personally, it seems, and never taking a wipeout as permanent.
He watches aircraft crossing the sky: the biplane with banner advertising hair dye or a new movie sagging from its tail, the helicopter pursuing police work and suggesting a spider swinging down from the sky’s rafters, the commercial air carrier lifting off from the local city airport like a silver cigar with wings, the high-flying air force jet leaking a contrail over half the sky – a contrail that disappears in an instant or spreads across the azure, becoming an ice cloud as it expands until it looks like the wing of an enormous dragonfly.
What he most loves to watch are the freighters and occasional cruise liner coming and going from the mouth of the nearby harbor, piled high with a motley heap of oblong containers like boot boxes, or tall and white, striped with balconies or spotted like a collander with portholes, keeping their grace despite all attempts to ruin it for the sake of profit, and even retaining a little of the old-fashioned romance of sea voyages, as they appear on the horizon, small points and dirty smudges, and slowly grow as they come in, their bows growing sharp and high, their bridges straight and cool as a captain’s gaze, their smoke stacks saluting, whether false or not, as they pass down the shoreline like the bodies of great whales, or leaving the coast at whose edge he stands and heading out to sea, their sterns turning toward him as they fade away to dots, the smoke turning into rust and ash on the horizon as the ships disappear into the far away haze.
And of course, there are the birds: terns; sea gulls; crows that accompany the gulls, standing at the margins of the flocks resting on the beach, and flapping up now and again like black flags of anarchy; sandpipers nibbling nervously at the surf wash as it pulls back into the ocean; an occasional heron; a rare Canada goose caught in a flyway too close to the shoreline; ragged lines of pelicans, with their awkward bills and heads cocked like triggers and wings angled for either a long, leisurely drifting or an abrupt plunge to surprise a fish for dinner.
He never tires of watching the restless commerce of the sea and its denizens: they are infinitely various, ever changing, never the same or doing the same. And yet at the same time they always seemed the same: the sea and sky mirrors of one another, the sea and land complements, like an old married couple with the same quarrels and same need for each other, even the stars and moon over the night sea reflections of the shells and sand, fish and seaweed, foam and flotsam that lay at his feet. Just as they seemed reflections, as in a small mirror, of moon and sun and stars.
Sometimes, when he is sure no one is close enough to hear or see him, after taking a little furtive glance around him, up and down the beach, he talks to the ocean. The crashing of the waves would prevent even a nearby listener from hearing him clearly, since he speaks quietly, almost caressingly, with a look of tenderness and trust. He speaks for a long time, sometimes nodding or shaking his head or shrugging, as he might when speaking with a friend, and sometimes he pauses and appears to be listening for a response from the confusion of the waves.
After a time he turns away with a vague smile and quiet look of satisfaction, as though he has gotten whatever it was he was looking for in his tete-a-tete with the ocean, and slowly walks away, his face bent to the sand.
He stands by the shore at all times of day: in the uncertain light of early morning and the flat blaze of noon, in the dimness of evening and the silvery seaside night. He is almost never seen approaching the shore: he just seems to appear, a landmark that local people have long grown used to and now take for granted. “Oh yes, that’s the old man who stares at the ocean all day,” they say, if anyone asks. “He’s a little cracked, but he’s harmless.”
It is the local children who find him especially amusing and unfathomable: they sometimes watch him from afar, while playing fort in the dunes or catch on the hard sand, digging wells in the beach or sandcastles near the water. They stop and stare at the man staring at the sea, wondering briefly to themselves or passing rude jokes before going back to their games.
Sometimes a few of them creep up behind him and try to hear what he is saying to the sea. They crouch down and listen, hitting each other when any of them threatens to break into a giggle. But they can never catch his words, soft as they are against the noise from the surf, and soon they get bored and creep away. One time they beat a retreat in full cry, and the man turned to them, a look of surprise on his face that turned instantly into a rueful smile, and he shrugged and glanced back at the sea as at a wise and sympathetic friend, as if sharing with it a quiet joke and relishing it, even if the joke was at his own expense.
One day a young couple was walking down the beach. They were silent, avoiding eye contact, their faces grim, and walked with a wide space between them. Except for them, the beach was empty: the sand showed only their footprints, parallel lines of spoor fading away in the distance. The waves fell with unusual quietness: the swells were low, the ocean calm, the tide was out, leaving a great breadth of flat sand that seemed almost prepared just for them to walk on.
A few gulls wheeled and puled overhead, and a black crow followed at a distance, knowing that wherever there were gulls, food was sure to follow.
The sea breeze stirred the hair of the young woman – not a great beauty, but slender and soft of aspect, though now with a look of anger and hurt on her face. She let the wind pull the hair across her eyes as though she wanted it to hide behind, to veil her from the light and the young man walking beside her.
He looked exasperated and glum, his mouth twisted, and walked with exaggerated emphasis: his footprints were sharp gashes, deep thrusts at the heel and broken along the sole, whereas the woman’s were softer, shallow at the heel, clearly defined at the toe, as if she hardly wanted to touch the ground.
She seemed to want to disappear. He seemed to want to hit something with all his strength.
They walked in silence beneath the bright morning sun and a sky touched with only a few widely spaced clouds.
Neither of them noticed the man gazing out to sea till they almost walked into him – or rather, the young man, who was walking near the water, did.
They stopped, a little disconcerted. The man didn’t seem to notice them. He was staring intently at the falling waves, his face full in the brilliant sunlight, his eyes seemingly blind in the glare of sky and sea. He seemed far away, in his own world. And he was speaking, softly, and - given the quietness of the waves – just audibly. And they listened.
“Thalassa, thalassa,” the old man said, “sea, o sea, you who murmur across the world’s seasons, crash and swirl along every coast, you who bear life in the cup of your seabed, who bore life itself from the beginning, you who are the symbol and the thing itself, of being and existence and destruction and life and death and love and birth and rebirth and joy and pain and destruction and endurance and death and life, in perpetuity and in ephemeralness, eternity and mutability, ruthless change and adamantine permanence, water and crystal and gold and ashes and mud and wine and sand and sea, o sea, thalassa, thalassa, you are the comforter and the destroyer, the ever-kind one and the ever-destroying one, lover and destroyer, demolisher of hopes and betrayer of promises, and builder of promises and creator of hope, image of eternity, image of God, thalassa, thalassa, o sea, o sea, speak to us with your tongue of many voices, chant to us your music, and grant us ears to hear and know, with love and awe and patience, as you give us being and take it away, thalassa, thalassa, o sea . . .”
And the old man murmured on in the same fashion, and the young couple stood there listening and wondering, the man is crazy, he’s talking to the sea, astonished and a little repelled but frozen to the ground, listening to him. And he paid them no heed, though at some point he must have realized their presence: they stood not far from him, even though silent. But he paid no heed and spoke to the sea as if he were alone as usual, spoke as to an intimate friend, neither raising his voice nor lowering it, just talking as usual to the waves.
And the couple, almost despite themselves, turned to look to the sea as well, and listened to the waves and the surge and hiss of the wash as the surf surged toward them and away, hissing, and they listened to his voice as it mixed and blended with the sounds of the ocean, and it was almost as though they could hear words in the ocean sounds, a response in the murmur of the water, and it was almost as though the old man and the ocean were speaking together, even though the old man never stopped to listen, they talked back and forth, they seemed to have an understanding, understood one another, were tender together, one might almost think even loved one another, and the couple was curiously moved. Then after a longer time than they knew, as the sun rose higher and the wash of the ocean turned back at the turning of the tide and the water rushed suddenly up and crashed against their legs, and they ran up the beach, crying out, to escape being caught by the water and drowned in the surge, the riptide that had been known to wash the unsuspecting off the beach, sweeping them out a mile out to sea before they were even aware, they jumped together out of the way of the water and turned startled to each other, and took each other’s hand in a tight grasp once they had a footing on the dry sand, and then walked slowly away down the beach, keeping just out of reach of the tide as it washed up the sand like a grasping hand or an invading army, in ever stronger surges.
They didn’t notice the old man or what happened to him – he seemed to have vanished - they were so taken up with each other. With a laugh they danced out of the way of the advancing waves.
Copyright 2009 Christopher Bernard
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