Monday, 23 July 2012

Short Story - this won a prize for me many years ago.


Every morning I sit at the shore. An old travelling blanket is wrapped around my skinny legs and tucked beneath my blue feet.... I feel the cold so much more now.... Feel it deep down in my bones. It is there from the moment I first come awake until at last I manage to slip away for a few hours of ancient dreaming....

Every morning I sit and watch him row. This early there are two noises daring to disturb the waking day. There is the soft lapping of the sleeping water and the dip and lift of his two oars.... Dip then lift.... Dip then lift.... Even the gulls are still asleep. Not he. He is always rowing. Slowly, he etches himself across the ocean. A star traversing the sky. The action does not appear effortless, rather, the power defies imagining.

Sometimes he has but one passenger and at other times two or three. Never have I seen him with more, though his craft could likely seat twice three.

He never acknowledges his passengers. Never worries them with a sharp glance.... He rows, his back to them, his thick, tanned arms lifting, moving.... A silent reproach.

Often I catch him alone as he rows out of the early morning mist towards some point beyond where the cliffs jut out into the ocean. Where does he row to?

My stomach grumbles. A second mouth. A nagging pit inside my guts. These days I am always hungry yet I am unable to face eating once I confront my food. I sit at the table and hunger flees like a rat before a fire.... Why?

I still possess all my teeth. All white. All shaped to fit the expected norm. All regularly flossed and brushed. It is a habit I maintain, along with so many other habits gradually perfected over a lifetime. Each habit has replaced a moment of spontaneity.

People pass by  softly. They believe I am asleep as I lounge in my chair with my eyes shut. No, I am not asleep. Simply caught up in the swirl of red patterns upon my closed eyelids. Each pattern a direct descendant of a long, lost memory. With memories come the ache, as if a sacred part of me has gone missing... And it has... And it has...

The intensity of this memory gazing causes me to sit so still I am convinced people believe I have already past away. Occasionally one of them will carefully reach out to touch my shoulder, fascinated and repelled. It is hard to touch death. Hard and irresistible. How they jump when I open my eyes and catch them with a smile.

She arrives every afternoon around three. An old, old woman, wrinkled and creased like a screwed up piece of paper. Beautiful nevertheless. She always wraps herself in an old, black shawl. She always wears the same grey dress. The same thick, black stockings.

She shuffles across the sand, her cane an overgrown crab pincer. She sits in the chair next to mine. Every afternoon, the same clothes, the same shuffle, the same chair. She is like the rising moon and the turning seasons. She can be relied upon.

Each day the old woman navigates the shifting tide line. With her free hand, she clutches her shawl around her stooped shoulders and sits herself down with a grunt, suspends her cane from the arm of her chair and reaches out to take hold of my right hand. She holds my hand with such strength that at first I was terrified. Now I find it reassuring. I feel my blood caper through veins grown momentarily soft. I miss that energy, that belief in life. I miss the surety of my own strength. At times I grew dizzy with the joy of my strength, the sense of muscle, the glory of sinew....

Sometimes I am angered by my frailty, my inability to carry out even the simplest of tasks. Even tying a shoe lace has become a trial beyond my capabilities. It is why old men take to wearing slippers: We do not need the constant reminder.

Through the first hour or so we sit in silence and listen to the soft lapping as water weakens earth, takes minute fragments on impossible journeys. We sit and let the silence build.... It is as if the need for words must sprout like a plant. Must first reach into our hearts to spread roots and branches and leaves until words pop out of our mouths like lush pieces of fruit.

Her conversations always touch upon her relatives. There is nothing too sacred, too secret. She talks about this sister or that cousin or this niece, on and on through the afternoon. Rarely am I asked to comment. Sometimes I might sit through an entire afternoon and not say a word. Just sit and let the words touch me.

At other times I might let something slip. Something somehow connected with what she is talking about. Always it is a scrap of me. A nail begging to be prised loose from an old, weather beaten board. I am always surprised by what I let loose. Today, for example, it was such an ancient nail. So rusted that I had forgotten it was there, forgotten that it needed to be removed.

Once when I was six or seven I stabbed Peter Weir. I was lined up with my class outside church, preparing to enter its cool shadows and I lost my temper and stabbed Peter Weir.... It never ceases to amaze me how a name will suddenly drop on to your lips. A name not mentioned in seventy or eighty years and then there it is, fresh as the day you first heard it....  It was a glorious day  and I stabbed Peter Weir in the back with my fountain pen. Stabbed him so hard the pen hung for a moment from his back. I stared at the nib, at the tiny hole in his blue, nylon shirt. Stared fascinated, at the point where nib entered flesh, where blue ink and red blood mingled.... Stood, rock still, amazed at my act.

After I have spoken to the old woman I breathe easier. The air tastes cleaner.

If the man rows past while she is sitting next to me he always lifts the oars straight out of the water and nods, once, to her. She is the only person he recognises. The one person who impinges upon his  existence. It is as if his whole being is for the completion of a single chore and she is his overseer.

She never acknowledges his salute. Always he is defeated.... He lowers his oars and slowly, sadly, rows away....

I wonder if he would cease to row if she would, just once, acknowledge him. Would that be the end for him? A penance finally lifted? A labour completed? They are like the sun and moon... He blazes for all to see and is seen by all but by the one person he wishes to see. The moon never notices, not even during those moments when they almost touch.

As soon as the sun kisses the horizon she ceases her words, releases my hand and leaves. Never has she uttered a parting word. Never a goodbye. She simply ends the day by ushering in the night.

I usually stay seated a while longer. I  remain until the chill builds itself into an unbearable pain. I lift myself out of my chair, though I fear I will fail, will find myself stranded on the beach, frozen by the night, discovered by an anonymous wanderer the next morning, already stiff; covered in dew as if the earth shed the tears I could not.

Is that how it will end? I cannot rise, cannot escape night’s icy tendrils? Will I pass into the night alone, unremembered, without consolation?

At night in the cottage I sit by the tiny heater. Its single red band glows in the dark like a familiar pet, a shaggy dog, a purring cat. The heater brings me companionship. Even in summer I must have the heater on. A guardian through the long, dead hours of night. We share the night, the heater and I. We share each passing fragment, each laboured breath, until finally my eyes sink beyond fear and I begin to dream.

Once I saw a passenger stand up as if preparing to attempt the swim back to shore. The man never slowed, never altered the rhythm of his oars and it was as if that was enough.  Totally defeated, the passenger sat back down, shoulders slumped forward to accept the load and I imagined the passenger's eyes vacantly fixed upon that broad, strong back. How terrible the power of his back.... The judgement of his oars....

Today it is raining.... A soft rain that beguiles all who love the dry. I don’t mind. I like the feel of rain, whether soft, hard or between. I like the way it gathers in mass to slide down my wet forehead. I stretch out my tongue as a landing platform. I keep my eyes open to let the water swim through....

As a child, the rain touches our most primitive aspects. It touches our oldest memories; memories buried so deep they inhabit the genes. Is it that we remember, in some primordial way, how it rained for sixty thousand years when the first clouds burst upon the cooling earth? Does some ancient part of our psyche celebrate that first cloudburst? That first step towards life?

Now the rain is like a mother. She washes away the intensity. She relieves the anguish. She welcomes the prodigal home.  Somewhere deep within the rain I hear her voice soothing me. Calling me.... I feel like that ancient dry earth touched by the hands of fate.

He parts the mist, a performer’s entrance.... He rows with such purpose, such a sense of belonging.  I wonder, was the ocean created for this? For him? His muscles? The shifting of his oars? Are all waters a descent from these waters? Once I watched as he rowed directly out of the rising sun.... Oars touching fire, water, fire, water.... I believe I discerned the line attached to sun and boat....

Who is he? What is his secret?

My daughter paid me a visit today. She brought my grandson with her. Usually she doesn’t, but today she did. How he has grown. His bright orange hair catches the sun. His clear, blue eyes are filled with the future, touched by the tide of the past. I see me, my father, see past and future mingle in his every movement, in each of his mannerisms. When he concentrates he even bites his tongue like my dear departed brother.

He makes me cry and that is why she rarely brings him. She wishes to guard against the madness of old age, the way tears slip so easily from old eyes.... I think she should not. I think it is better he see. Better he retain a faint memory. She thinks the tears are pathetic. She thinks they are proof of my descent into senility. She does not understand that my tears hold a truth, a wisdom I had never expected to touch. They are a gift. An exchange for the withering of flesh.

He detests sitting in my lap. I don’t blame him. She makes him of course. She is ruled by manners.  Manners and civil conversations. No warmth. No display of affection.

I think she has never forgiven me for that one slap which sent her tumbling down the back steps. She broke her arm in that fall. Often, when it is cold, I catch her rubbing that arm, that break, and in my soul I sense something that needs to be rubbed also.

How can I explain to her that I am sorry.  Once in my madness I begged for the removal of that single act from the universe. Now I let the act remain.... I accept it. I accept the change it wrought in her. Wrought in me. The act brought about so much, like a ripple through our lives, our contact with each other.

Once I tried to ask her forgiveness but she moved away, fearful lest her anger burst passed her guard and burns me forever.

How did I manage to cause so much pain? Did she need so much more than I could give? As did her mother.... As did her mother....

They stayed and chatted to me until my grandson grew impatient. I love him. I love his honesty. She became embarrassed but I could see she wished to leave also. I told her I was tired. I helped her on her way. I love her.

I grow curious.... The need to know where he rows to, from whence he rows, has become an itch.... A sting that refuses to rest.... Is this his gift? His parting wave?

Summer has returned.... Some days the sun almost thaws my bones, but not quite.... Never quite.... Only the moon refuses to lose power. The sun burns so brightly, but, truly, he lacks the mystery.

The first tourists have arrived.  We are lucky, only a few hundred tourists seek sustenance in our waters. Most of them are familiar now. They recognise the old man. They leave his chair alone. Ignore him as they indulge in their yearly rituals.  People assume I do not have the energy to be disturbed, or perhaps they think I can no longer understand social intricacies. I understand so much more, though the old woman is wiser still.

Where does he row to? Where does he row from? What lies beyond the cliffs? I have never seen the land beyond. I have never before wanted to. Now my poor, white legs lack the belief to carry me.... Yet the desire grows....
I asked the old woman if she knew what lay beyond the edge. She laughed. I knew if I should repeat the question  she would laugh again and continue to do so until I asked no more. 

I begin to understand. I sit watching him row and I begin to make the connection. I even jiggle the two coins in my pocket. Now I know why I have hung on to them these many years.

It grows easier.... A thing I never expected. With each passing day, it grows easier....

I bade farewell to the old woman today. My time is close and I thought she would want to know. She took my hands and kissed my autumn knuckles. Her cracked lips were still amazingly potent. A last stirring blossomed with that kiss. She too possesses power.

She sat with me through the setting of the sun,  her hand gripping mine in understanding. She gave me strength. Both of us watched the light falling.... As if jewelled insects danced upon the water.... Even at the last a surprise. She stayed.

She is sitting with me still. It is night. It is not cold. The full moon rises, its silver rays catching the waves of the whispering ocean.... Everything is whispering.... Everything is aware.... Everything is bidding farewell....

Out of the mist, the moon creating a path, I see him rowing his boat towards the shore....

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