The Man Who Talked to the Sea
By Christopher Bernard
He stands, hour after hour, at the edge of the surf, staring at the sea.
In an old battered suit and scuffed shoes, he looks as if he just walked out of an office on Main Street. He sometimes wears a hat, a businesslike fedora, though usually his head is bare, the tufts of thinning whiteness stir like grass in the sea breeze.
His eyes are watery blue, his skin pale despite hours in the sun. Every so often he takes a deep breath of air briny and ion-charged from the churning waves, then slowly exhales with a look almost of happiness.
At times he focuses on small craft: a sailboat, motorboat, jet-skiers, wind surfers. Or surfers near the beach’s heaviest waves, a quarter mile off: he watches them with detached interest as the young men – and increasingly young women – lurch up on their boards and shoot the swells as they rise and collapse one after another, hour after hour.
Or he gazes at the sky: a biplane with a banner advertising hair dye or a new movie, a police helicopter like a spider swinging down from the sky’s rafters, a commercial air carrier lifting off from a local airport like an aluminum cigarillo, a high-flying air force jet leaking a contrail over half the sky – that disappears in an instant or spreads across the azure, becoming an ice cloud as it expands until it looks like the wing of an enormous dragonfly.
What he most loves are the freighters and cruise liners coming and going from the mouth of the nearby harbor, piled with oblong containers like boot boxes, or tall and white, striped with balconies or spotted like a colander with portholes, keeping their grace despite all attempts to ruin it for the sake of profit. They even retained a little of the old-fashioned romance of sea voyages, as they appeared on the horizon, small points or dirty smudges, and slowly grew, their bows sharp and high, their bridges straight and cool as a captain’s gaze, their smoke stacks saluting as they passed down the shoreline like the bodies of great whales – or leaving the coast at whose edge he stands and, heading out to sea, their sterns turning toward him as they faded to dots, the smoke turning into rust and ash on the horizon as the ships disappeared over the horizon.
And of course, there are the birds: terns; sea gulls; crows flapping up now and again like black flags of anarchy; sandpipers nibbling nervously; ragged lines of pelicans, with their awkward bills and heads cocked like triggers and wings angled for either a long, leisurely drifting or a sudden plunge to surprise a fish for dinner.
He never tires of watching the sea’s commerce: infinitely various, never the same yet always the same: sea and sky like an old married couple with the same quarrels and the same needs, even the stars and moon over the night sea reflections of shells and sand, foam and flotsam that lay at his feet. Just as they seemed reflections, as in a small mirror, of moon and stars and sun.
Sometimes, after taking a furtive glance around him, he talks to the ocean. He speaks quietly, almost caressingly, for a long time, sometimes nodding or shaking his head or shrugging, as he might when speaking with a friend, and sometimes he pauses and appears to be listening for a response.
After a time he turns away with a vague smile and quiet look of satisfaction, as though he has gotten whatever it was he was looking for and, his face bent to the sand, slowly walks away.
The local children sometimes watch him while playing fort or catch, digging wells in the beach or dribbling sandcastles. They stop and stare, wondering briefly to themselves or passing rude jokes before going back to their games.
More than once a few crept up behind him and tried to hear what he was saying to the sea. They crouched down and listened, hitting the one who threatened to giggle. But they couldn’t catch his words, soft as they were against the noise of the surf, and they got bored and crept away. One time they beat a retreat in full cry, and the man turned to them, a look of surprise on his face that turned instantly into a rueful smile. He shrugged and glanced back at the sea as at a wise and sympathetic friend, as if sharing a quiet joke and relishing it, even if the joke was at his own expense.
One day a young couple was walking barefoot down the beach. They were silent, avoiding each other’s eyes, their faces grim, a wide distance between them. The beach was otherwise empty: the sand showed only their footprints, parallel lines of spoor disappearing in the distance. The waves fell with unusual quietness, and the tide was out leaving a wide swathe of bright wet sand.
A breeze stirred the hair of the young woman, slender and soft, though angry and hurt. She let the wind pull the hair across her eyes as though wanting to hide behind it, from the light and the young man beside her.
He looked exasperated and glum, his mouth twisted, and walked with exaggerated emphasis, his footprints emphatic, like gashes, the woman’s softer, as if she hardly wanted to touch the ground.
She seemed to want to disappear. He seemed to want to hit something with all his might.
They walked in silence beneath the morning sun and an almost cloudless sky.
Neither of them noticed the man gazing out to sea till they almost walked into him – or rather, the young man did, who was walking near the water.
They stopped, a little disconcerted. The man didn’t seem to notice them. He was staring intently at the waves, his face full in the brilliant sunlight, his eyes seemingly blind in the glare. He seemed far away, in his own world. And he was speaking, softly, and – given the quietness of the waves – just audibly. They listened.
“Thalassa, thalassa,” the old man said, “sea, o sea, you who murmur across the world’s seasons, who bear life in the cup of your seabed, who bore life from the beginning, who crash and swirl along every coast, who are both thing and symbol of the thing, of being and destruction, life and death and love and birth, of joy and suffering, ecstasy and despair, ephemeral, perpetual, in change and permanence, water and crystal and gold and ash and mud and wine and earth and sea, o sea, thalassa, thalassa, you are the comforter and destroyer, the ever-kind and ever-ruining, lover and demolisher, betrayer of promise, builder of promise, creator of hope, betrayer of hope, image of the eternal, image of God, thalassa, thalassa, o sea, o sea, speak to me with your tongue of many voices, chant to me your music, and grant me ears to hear and know, with love and awe and patience and faith, as you give me being and take it away, thalassa, thalassa, o sea . . .”
And the old man murmured on in the same fashion, and the young couple stood there listening and wondering, the man is crazy, he’s talking to the sea, astonished and a little repelled but frozen to the ground. He paid them no heed. He spoke to the sea as if he were, as usual, alone, as to an intimate friend.
The couple, almost despite themselves, turned to look to the sea as well, and listened to the waves
And it was almost as though they could hear words in the ocean sounds, as though the old man and the ocean were speaking together, even though the old man never stopped to listen; they seemed to have an understanding, seemed tender together, one might almost think they loved one another, and the young couple was curiously moved.
After a time longer than they knew, as the sun rose higher and the wash turned back at the turning of the tide, a wave rushed up and crashed against their legs. The woman stumbled, cried out, fell . . .
The young man leapt over and tried pulling her away, but the wave yanked her from his hands and dragged her, choking in the foam, down and out toward the ocean. He dove after her, slipping, falling in the wash as a second, even bigger wave, crashed over him. He bobbed up, spitting and choking, and saw her arm flailing a dozen yards away in the swirling foam as more rollers swept toward them.
He lurched again toward her, grabbing her hand just as it disappeared under another wave, and reached out just in time to catch the elbow of her other arm and, managing to get a grip on the sand, pulled, almost lost his hold, then pulled and dragged again with all his might in a brief lull between the backwash and the next wave. The young woman appeared out of the water, sputtering and frightened, like a naiad, half drowned as she was born from the waves.
The two struggled and stumbled up the slick tract of sand just as another big wave raced in pursuit of them.
Once back on dry sand, the couple, drenched to the skin and shivering, turned to each other, their frightened eyes darting, opening, deeply, each into the other, and a moment later they fell into each other’s arms.
“I almost thought . . .”
“I know . . . “
They slowly caught their breath, then wiped the water out of each other’s eyes, and, still wrapped in each other’s arms, walked slowly away, keeping just out of reach of the tide as it washed up the beach like a violating hand or an invading army.
“Where did the old man go?” the young woman asked, stopping and, smoothing back her wet hair and peering across the now empty shore.
The young man shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he was just a hallucination!” He laughed, nervously. But the woman kept peering, worriedly, out to sea. . . .
Perhaps he had been caught in the same waves they had. The riptide here, at times of the tide’s turning, was known to wash the unsuspecting off the beach, sweeping them a mile out to sea, drowning them and sweeping their bodies miles away down the coast.
Or maybe he had walked away just in time. Maybe he had grown tired of staring at the sea and talking to the waves. All good things come to an end, they say.
Or maybe he had accomplished his task and he could go home with a good conscience. It was the right time for him to move on.
For whatever reason, he was never seen again after that day.
But according to some, if you listen closely to the surf, you can hear the words, “Thalassa, Thalassa, sea, o sea . . . .”
Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org). His books include In the American Night and Other Stories (where this story first appeared in a slightly different version), A Spy in the Ruins, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café and the award-winning poetry collection, The Socialist’s Garden of Verses.