I am lost. . . . These are the words the swimmer addresses in panic to the sunny universe into which he emerges, blowing water, disoriented. Ten minutes ago, perhaps twenty, he had set some fishing lines and slipped over the side of his tiny craft - a wooden insect with two bamboo outriggers - with a cord tying its prow to his ankle. He had been lying face down in the ocean, sun on his back, staring through the first thirty of a thousand meters of water. In the tropics these upper waters are flooded with light. Bright spicules drift past his eyes, crimson and electric blue, the jeweled phytoplankton streaming about the globe performing infinitesimal acts of chemistry which, much multiplied, succor all earthly life. By swimming down a couple of dozen feet he can look up and view other creatures from below: a shoal of garfish (whose bones are bright green) so high up their backs graze the rumpled mirror of air, the occasional flying fish breaking out and vanishing. The swimmer reflects on this mirror, imagining the sky weighing down on the sea and the sea holding up the atmosphere, curious about what exactly can be happening at the interface. If it were possible to magnify the activity, surely a buzzing skin of molecules would be revealed? Water molecules and air molecules so intermixed and saturated with atoms in common it would be undecidable which medium they constituted. At what point did these milling particles become water? The swimmer loses himself in this quantum pun, in his speculations about boundaries, then suddenly an awareness breaks in that something is missing. There is a steady tug at his ankle, but too light. The long cord trails downward, still firmly knotted to one foot. It is the boat which has gone.
His first act of panic is to spin in the water trying to stand up in it: once, twice, three times, quartering a featureless horizon. Nothing. He is anchored by twenty feet of thin abaca hemp to the ocean. His masked face rams back through the surface as if by a miracle of misplacement he might discover the boat floating at ease in a fourth dimension some fathoms below. Nothing. The cord hangs down like the corals called sea whips, slightly kinked, whiskers of fiber standing out clear in this awesome lens right to the bobble of the knot in its end. The word this knot transmits through the water is "adrift."
The swimmer jerks his head up into the air again. Everything is plain. It is not possible, yet the boat has gone. I am lost. Panicked, he pants and spins, boatless, landless, and with the visceral ache of pure fear at what he has abruptly become: all alone and floating in the Pacific Ocean. Reason attempts to be reasonable. How far away could a boat possibly drift on a windless day? Also, eye level is barely six inches above sea level; a boat whose freeboard is little more than three times that could easily be hidden by the least swell. It is no doubt bobbing in and out of visibility even as he happens to scan the wrong horizon. . . . In any case, something altogether calmer is taking over: a lassitude, a fatalism whose roots reach back not to the beginning of his own life but, like the rope on his ankle, down into the sea itself. The twisted fibers, like ancient strands of DNA, connect him with vanished deeps, to primordial oceans lying in different beds. If he is lost now it is because he was already lost before ever setting foot in a boat, before infancy itself. He has no proper existence at all, being only a tiny hole in the water shaped like the lower two thirds of a man. There is no way the tons of ocean can be held apart and prevented from filling the mold.
Yet it is not possible to give up, to go within minutes from being fit and happily occupied to renouncing life as if fatally injured. Fear returns in cycles. Looking around the liquid wastes beneath a brilliant sky he is set upon at intervals by the adrenal thought: This cannot be happening to me. . . . But it is. Then for a little while it is not; and in between assessing his chances of death by drowning, shark attack or exposure, into the swimmer's coordinates, he sees his own head occupying a fixed place. He pictures it sticking out of that expanse of curved blue ocean, a little round ball burnished with sun like the brass knob of a school globe. In his moment of loss he becomes the pivotal point about which the entire Earth turns.
(To be continued.)
James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds