WHEN THE SEA COMES
By D. Alexander Ward
Like my father, I was raised to be a fisherman on the narrow strip of land east of the bay and facing the Atlantic that is the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Though this destiny would be thought to be inescapable and predetermined by my family’s roots in the Shore – roots as deep and far-reaching as the first white men to ever set foot upon it - I had proven to be uncooperative and a disappointment at an early age.
As a boy, I often played with my friends in the crashing waves and foam on the Atlantic side of the shore. Our house stood along the southern edge of Bogue’s Bay, with the sprawling sea only a short bicycle ride away. During the hot summer months, we frequented the beaches almost daily. Such a childhood would be considered idyllic by the standards of any mainlander but at the age of ten, during one midsummer’s day, as I splashed about with my friends, I found myself caught in a riptide and dragged beneath the waves. Though I fought with all the heart I could manage at such a tender age, I could not escape the grip of the sea and was pulled away from the shore. As strong a swimmer as I was, I found myself panicked and the skills which I had been taught and had practiced were no longer at my command. I drifted ever farther toward the endless, rippling blue.
It was only by the grace of God that, as the last reserves of air bubbled from my lungs, I felt my father’s arms embrace me and carry me aloft to the surface, to the sunlight and to the air that my body so desperately craved. From that day on, however, I was unable to set foot in the sea. So great was my fear that I could not even bring myself to board the St. Marie, my father’s boat which had been seaworthy for more years than I had known life. To my father, this was the very reason that I had proved to be an utter failure, for it was known that a fisherman feels a kinship with the sea, not an all-consuming, paralyzing fear of it.
One evening, as he returned from fishing, my father gifted something to me; an enormous shell, a conch, that had been caught in the nets. Its contours were the pink tones of flesh and the white of bone with accents of silver that brought to my mind the way the sun glistened on the foamy tips of a cresting wave.
“Quickly, Gerald! Come see!” my father exclaimed and ushered me off the dock into the dark confines of the shed at the edge of our yard.
Gabriel, the odd-lot Brazilian immigrant who worked for my father, stood on the dock and pleaded with him not to keep the shell. “What you take from the sea, the sea will come to claim!” he shouted.
In my father’s estimation, Gabriel was ruled by pagan superstitions common in the remote forests where he’d been born but father had little patience for such childish nattering aboard the St. Marie. He waved him off and shut the door. Inside, he told me to rub my fingers over the shell. As I touched it, I was amazed to find it radiated a bright and ghostly blue light. I beheld it, awestruck.
“It’s a magical shell, Gerald.”
“What does it mean, Papa?”
I could see his smile in the ghostlight. “It means the sea apologizes. It welcomes you back to it. Calls you back to it.”
I know my father had hoped that this moment would inspire within me wonder and trust in the god-like sea and I hoped for it also, if only to be looked upon by him with favor. I kept the conch displayed on the dresser in my bedroom with all the pride I knew he wished. But in truth, I found it often made me anxious to have it there. Not in the sense that I judged it to be an omen of some ill fate - in the way that the Brazilian fisherman had - but rather as a terrible reminder of the power of the open waters. As for Gabriel, his superstitious ranting eventually wore on my father’s last nerve and, shortly after that day, he was let go from his employ and I never saw him again.
Despite our hopes and the beauty of the conch, I never retuned to the sea. It remained in its place until the time came when it was apparent to my father that I would never be a waterman like him. I had recently taken a position managing a crew of men at one of the nearby farms and was content to coax from the ground whatever fruits it had to bear. My father died with such knowledge and disappointment one day out on the rough waters of the Atlantic, the St. Marie gone with him beneath the waves. It was both hazard and tradition in our family, you see. His body had been taken by the sea, just as with his father and grandfather. When we buried his casket at Greenwood Cemetery, we filled it with his nautical maps, a sextant, a fisherman’s net and various personal trinkets. That was twenty-odd years ago.
Last month, I ventured into the attic to clear some room and dispose of the unwanted items one collects living alone in a home generations old. My practicing faith in God having fallen long ago to spiritual apathy, I was sorting through a box of dusty, neglected Christmas ornaments when I came across the conch wrapped in faded newspaper.
Finding it brought forth in me a sentimentality that I had not known in many years and so I carried it down into the main part of the house. Paying homage to my father and to my family, I gave it a place of distinction upon the mantle over the fireplace. From my childhood, I remembered the trick of putting my ear to it to hear the sound of the ocean as if its essence had been trapped within. Forlorn in my reminiscence as I was, I did attempt this, though the sound filled me with an abiding dread, having dragged to the fore vivid recollections of the terror I had once experienced at the clutches of the ocean.
Shaken, I set out a glass for myself and poured three fingers of whiskey. The liquor quickly disappeared down my gullet and was soon followed by more. My father had never been a man prone to running afoul of the law, except in his disregard of the prohibition laws of the dry county in which we lived. This, if nothing else of him, had passed to me. An old codger at the general store could be relied upon to always have a cache of bourbon that he procured from the mainland and I had long been in the habit of keeping a bottle around. For many days, I passed the hours of night with a glass of whiskey, reading and occasionally glancing at the conch shell on the mantle which only caused me to reflect on the failures of my youth. I hoped and prayed that I would, through the rediscovery of this object, find within me the fortitude to approach the ocean with the fearlessness of childhood and with the fervor that the patriarchs of my clan had always possessed. I prayed for a transformation; that I would not die as the fearful boy that I had been, but a man salted with the sea’s embrace. A man deserving of my father’s pride and hope.
Soon thereafter, I began to distrust both my eyes and mind.
One morning, as the coffee percolated on the stove, I smelled with absolute certainty the salt and sand of the sea. While I dismissed it outright, I could not drink the resulting brew, for its taste was polluted with that of the roiling waters that I so hated. This was to be the first of many odd occurrences. Having never been one to retain a keen memory of my dreams, in the days that followed, my sleep became fragmented by vivid dreams filled with images, sensations and sounds of water. In my dreams, I slumbered beneath the waves and lay beside something vast and formless which seemed the embodiment of the sea itself. In my dreams, it was something I no longer feared. Indeed, my apathy was shocking and the water did not drown me but peacefully filled my lungs. While awake, I began to experience sensory hallucinations. Oftentimes, upon rising in the morning or waking from an afternoon nap, I would find my house filled with sea water up to my knees and I would wade about in search of the source, sloshing through the murkiness only to find it completely disappeared as my attention was pulled to some other thing or occurrence entirely mundane in nature.
These unsettling tricks of the mind only escalated. One evening, as I soaked in a hot bath, I dozed. I dreamt of being underwater and of my father’s embrace as I had felt it on that day, the rough whiskers of his face prickly against my cheek. It was a true memory in every aspect but one. This time he dragged me not upward toward the light, but down, down into the deep; a darkness impenetrable and lit only by flashes of bright blue from pockets of glowing algae. When I woke, I found myself sunk beneath the bathwater and rose quickly to spit and retch it from my lungs, a great part of me racked with terror while another part regarded the experience with a strange sense of pleasure. That night, I left behind all distinction between the waking and the dreaming world.
Tonight, the tide comes. The moon regards the world with its pale, unblinking leer and I stand naked at the seashore. In recent days, I have been unable to hold down a meal except that of raw and living things from the ocean. All efforts to the contrary have resulted in my emaciation and no balms or ointments are able to affect the peculiar skin condition that I now display. The surf crashes upon the shore and the waves glow a magnificent blue. The change that I have hoped for is upon me and I shall disappoint no longer. Holding the conch uneasily with what remains of my transfigured fingers, I step into the waters. With wide, Neptunian eyes I look outward and into the long deep. The radiant surf is my welcome, a greeting filled with the smallest of creatures from which life on a weather-torn rock once evolved. The one who dwells beneath has sent them. The sea is father and legion. It is the Great and Dreaming Fear. The sea has come for me, and at long last, I now go to embrace it.