Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Swimmer part four

But there is no reef after all. The swimmer pursued the dark shadow in the water, counting his strokes, until he realized it was receding at every stroke. He gave up and swam in what he hoped was the reverse direction until now he thinks he has returned to his original position.

Still no boat. It has made no effort to materialize during his brief absence. Maybe there never was one. Maybe he has been out here in this radiant deep for days, even weeks? Only the rope's empty tugging at his ankle as he swam reminded him of how recently he had been anchored to his precious craft.

Surely the sun is lower than it was? For the first time he considers what it will mean to spend the night out here. He is not afraid of the dark, nor is he afraid of the sea at night. Yet out here the sharks are maybe not so timorous as they are in the shallower waters near a fringing reef. They like the freedom of a good depth beneath their bellies. Since he will be neither kicking nor struggling he has hopes of not attracting their attention. Like certain predatory humans, they are beautifully attuned to the sounds of distress. No; he will hang here quietly, counting the stars or trying to see the lights of land. Perhaps it will be impossible to resist peering into the Stygian, sparkling gulf he treads, even though the sight of a great swirl of luminescence turning suddenly in his direction might well herald his end. No doubt the strike will be shockingly abrupt, but for some reason he is more frightened by the thought of a first inquisitive tugging at the painter hanging beneath him like a bellpull. He does not want to hear his own terror pealing out across an empty ocean. At all costs he will be stoical. Fishermen say shark attacks are painless. One feels great bangings and slammings but no actual pain.

This is stupid. It is still broad daylight and the boat has only just gone. There is no possible way in which it could have drifted more than fifty or a hundred yards. A hundred and fifty at the outside . Well, he will not wait passively in the water until death in one form or another heaves up alongside to gulp him down. He will now try to swim a grid pattern. It will not be easy without any fixable starting point, but nevertheless he will try.

He heads for the sun, fifty strokes, then turns at what he calculates to be ninety degrees and swims ten more; then another and back parallel to his original course. He is pleased to find the surface of the water undulates more than he had thought. This convinces him that the chances of happening on the boat are excellent. No sooner has he thought this than, halfway along the new leg of his search pattern, he spies its prow. There is no question. No piece of water was ever that shape, black and slender and curved like a beak. With a cry he abandons the stupid grid and heads for it. Thank Christ, and about time too. That was close. God, that was close. Never, ever again will he do something so damned stupidly careless. . . .

There is nothing. No prow, no boat, not even a length of floating timber. Nothing but empty water taking its shape from him. His grid is broken and lost. He will never find his original position now. He turns and turns in despair and dejection, incredulous to think he will not be seen ever again while the bloody boat will probably be wrecked on some inshore reef to gladden a poor beachcomber looking for useful spars and panels of marine plywood.

James Hamilton-Paterson, Nine-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

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