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The Sea as Past
Bernard Steeds comment 0 Comments access_time 11 min read

ON THE FIRST day of January, Jacob woke to find that the harbour had been drained of its water and filled with golden light. He stood at the window, overlooking the hooked fingers of land, the glistening high-rises, the layer of cloud, all tinged mustard-brown by the strange glow. ‘Louise!’ he called to his wife. ‘Come and look at this!’ He had dived in many countries and only once, thirty years ago in a small bay on St. Kitts, had he seen the sea turn gold. On that occasion the whole population, about twenty thousand people, had rushed into the warm light and swum among the shoals of tropical fish, exclaiming at the miraculous healing powers of the strange, bright sea until, at dusk, it turned back to its usual turquoise and they drowned with great, happy gulps. He had read recently that St. Kitts still had the smallest population of any country in the world, and took it as proof that diving was a branch of metaphysics and should only be practised by people who had meditated for years on the many possible meanings of salt water.

‘The sea is a junk shop,’ he told anyone who would listen. ‘You will find bargains there, portraits and jewels from lives more glamorous than ours. It is also a menagerie – stranger life exists there than on other planets; there are fish with no eyes that swim in depths beyond light and reproduce by breaking themselves like coral. And it is a graveyard, of course. I have seen more bones than I can remember: the bones of children, bones made of gold and glass. All events exist simultaneously in the ocean, it is like a rock-face with layers of fossils.’ At this point, finding that his companion’s eyes had glazed over, he would resolve to keep his thoughts to himself, but the silence would last only a few seconds before more thoughts came bubbling out. ‘The contents of history can be found in the sea,’ he would say. ‘Those who want to avoid repeating the past should swim.’

The lines were clear on Louise’s face as she stood in the doorway of the bedroom, trying to block his exit. ‘Jacob, you are too old!’ He knew that she did not really care for his obedience, and was secretly tender for his boyish stubbornness: whether for the vicarious thrill or for more motherly reasons he could not tell, but he was certain that if he did not override her protest some of the air would drain from her love and when he squeezed her next she would squeal and go limp in his arms. He needed her love to be hard, something to batter himself against, to bear cuts which would sting poisonously; how else could he tell it was alive, when it grew so imperceptibly that whole genealogies could swim among its brightly-coloured branches without once seeing it move?

Jacob balanced himself on one leg as he removed his trousers. The golden light lapped over his ankle, leaving a residue of salt spray. The light was warm, just as he remembered from St. Kitts; it would be like diving in bath water. He had not dived for several years and, as he undressed, splinters of apprehension pricked him above the eyes. He stood for a moment, examining himself. His skin had grown old. He was disturbed by its pale translucence, its soapiness, its smattering of brown leopard-spots, its tobacco-coloured shadows and scoops of flesh, its faint, curving dunes and rippled sandscapes. These things sent him into a melancholic whirl and he stood for minutes on one leg, naked, paralysed, his wetsuit around his ankles, wishing for his own past, until he was disturbed by voices and saw that a crowd had gathered to listen to the crash of light on the shore.

‘Father,’ said a boy some distance away. ‘Do you see that crab, as big as a house? Do you taste the wind, with flakes of sugar? Do you see the colour of the water? How wonderful! How strange!’

‘When you see things you can’t understand, you must refuse to believe them,’ said the father.

Jacob watched and listened. He felt a shiver of disgust as the father took the boy in his arms and squeezed him. ‘You think you can float,’ the father said, ‘but knowledgewill sink you.’

Jacob need not have worried about diving again. The muscles of the human body contain a memory more constant than time, a memory immune from the leakages that occur in the mind, a memory that stores every twitch of fibre, every axe-swing, every tug or expanse or unfurling, in a place so deep that light cannot reach it, and waits for unconscious signals to release each action, like a flood of hormones, into the bloodstream. As Jacob swam about just below the surface he felt this tide of memory, felt his anxiety dissipate and the blood flow faster in his veins as his hands stretched out and his feet kicked just as they had when he was a child learning to swim in a shallow pool. His eyes seemed to focus more quickly as they adjusted to the dense light; the skin on his hands tightened as it was filled out by younger muscle and smoothed by the ocean’s pressure. He was like a burnt autumn leaf, slowly rising up from waste ground, reattaching itself to the tree, and turning green.

He swam about in the shallows, among clouds of tiny, darting fish whose silver fins took on reflections of glinting gold and flashed at him, like the eyes of dancers, winking from under a tide of gauze. Other divers joined him in the current and swam past, naked and glowing; some stopping to wave to him and smile broadly, calling out greetings which were lost in the swell.

As he swam deeper, the gold darkened and took on a greenish tinge and Jacob felt himself sink into a layer of denser light, which sucked at him like treacle. Breathing became harder and his limbs were buffeted with litter: McDonalds wrappers and hubcaps, old tennis shoes and swarms of supermarket bags bloated with water, their handles like tentacles wrapping around his face until he could not see. He brushed off the bags, rubbing a little salt into the welts they left, and broke through the layer of litter, swimming deeper until he found himself overlooking the vast landscape of the sea floor.

Though it was darker here, the gold still showed through, guiding his way with alternate fingers of light and shadow. Spiky hillsides stood before him, and green floodplains coloured by whorls of golden sea. He pinched his nose and blew, feeling a storm gather in his ears. ‘History is written by winners,’ he reminded himself, and floated down towards the beginning of time, past grapevines and apple trees drifting in the depths, past television sets flickering silently in the mass of light, past the wrecks of fishing boats, past a mall with a Lotto shop and a superette with cigarette signs in its window and a boarded-up post office, past a swarm of disputed statistics and a bundle of yellowing weather reports, past a social welfare office, past the jagged pieces of a torn-up ticket to London, past a haul of rusting Holdens carrying families towards the city, past some shattered bones and flecks of soil from Monte Cassino, past a swagman on a dusty road.

Two or three times on the way down he encountered himself: once as the dead man he might soon become, his skin flaccid, his eyes rolled back and his lips dried out like flakes of lemon rind; once as a young man, forcing himself on an unfortunate girl in the back seat of a rusting car; once as a child clutching his own bee-stung hand. Finally, he floated past a chopped-down flagstaff, through a vista of flax swamps and shadowy bush, around a village of wooden houses razed by fire and devoured by shuddering land and swelling rivers, past trenches and brown stains on the ground, past faces with family histories carved into them, and into the twisted landscape, the shower and splinter of rocks, the black wall of geology.


Louise sat at the window overlooking the harbour, a pot of tepid tea on the table beside her, her legs crossed, betraying impatience, watching as the golden light spilled over the rocks and sands and jetties, and lapped over the streets and flooded into basements. ‘A fifty-year storm,’ the radio crackled from the kitchen, static confirming what she already knew, for she had seen every storm for half a century and more, had tasted the rain of each on her tongue. Tobacco clouds whipped across the sky. Mount Victoria swooned and shuddered. It was not a fifty-year event but a fifty-three year one, for that was the length of time, with the embellishment of two months and four days, that had passed since she and Jacob had married in the chapel of a monastery she could see, now, on the hillside opposite.

She stirred her tea and wondered if she should phone anyone. ‘I think you should come over,’ she could say. ‘It looks as if something has happened.’ She had known for as long as she could remember that something would happen, or that nothing would, that one day he would go out and not return, and she would be left with a void to grieve. How many things he had seen on his travels, while she had remained at the window, watching; had brought up children; worked at the school; quietly gone about the business of caring; waited for him to come home and waited for his absence. How many stories he had told, how many photographs he had brought of strange, underwater creatures, of phosphorescent planktons like life forms from other planets; of young men and women in wetsuits, wearing smiles beneath their masks; how much romance he had brought into their lives, she and the children; and yet, how much more she knew than he! How much she had divined from the veins of her hands, faint mauve rivers under the web of her skin; from the years of watching the movements and growth of the city, the ebb and flow of commerce and transport; from the life-giving scars she bore; and the taste of sweat on her upper lip when she took her morning walks.

Jacob would swim until he was tired. He would find some hillside in the seascape and follow it into a valley, into a cavern that would be dark on land and doubly dark at so many removes from the light, and even if the sea was gold he would be unable to see but would go on anyway, believing that he was bursting with something bright and new, until he couldn’t remember which way was up. His skin would slacken and the tiredness would begin to show around his eyes, and sleep would settle on him.

A tear ran down her cheek. The window was misting up as a cool breeze rolled in, and the sky turned brown in night-time reflection of the sea, as if the small town which she preferred to call a city had been pressed flat and dipped in a bath until an image formed, then left to dry on a sill. She looked out at the hills opposite, the buildings of the city, the sea now fading to its usual colour. Shadows formed among its ripples. The moon turned to brass. The tea tasted of salt.


The Sea as Past was first published in the Sunday Star-Times after winning that newspaper’s annual short story competition. It has since been broadcast on Radio New Zealand, published in the collection Water, and re-published in the anthologies Sunday 22: The Winners of the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition and The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories.

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