Once upon our time, there was an earthquake: but this one is the most powerful ever recorded since the invention of the Richter scale made possible for us to measure apocalyptic warnings.
It tipped a continental shelf. These tremblings often cause floods; this colossus did the reverse, drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken. The most secret level of our world lay revealed: the sea-bedded – wrecked ships, facades of houses, ballroom candelabra, toilet bowl, pirate chest, TV screen, mail-coach, aircraft fuselage, canon, marble torso, Kalashnikov, metal carapace of a tourist bus-load, baptismal font, automatic dishwasher, computer, swords sheathed in barnacles, coins turned to stone. The astounded gaze raced among these things; the population who had fled from their toppling houses to the martime hills, ran down. Where terrestrial crash and bellow had terrified them, there was naked silence. The saliva of the sea glistened upon these objects; it is given that time does not, never did, exist down there where the materiality of the past and the present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing – or all is possessible at once.
People rushed to take; take, take. This was – when, anytime, sometime – valuable, that might be useful, what was this, well someone will know, that must have belonged to the rich, it’s mine now, if you don’t grab what’s over there someone else will, feet slipped and slithered on seaweed and sank in soggy sand, gasping sea-plants gaped at them, no-one remarked there were no fish, the living inhabitants of this unearth had been swept up and away with the water. The ordinary opportunity of looting shops which was routine to people during the political uprisings was no comparison. Orgiastic joy gave men, women and their children strength to heave out of the slime and sand what they did not know they wanted, quickened their staggering gait as they ranged, and this was more than profiting by happenstance, it was robbing the power of nature before which they had fled helpless. Take, take; while grabbing they were able to forget the wreck of their houses and the loss of time-bound possessions there. They had tattered the silence with their shouts to one another and under these cries like the cries of the absent seagulls they did not hear a distant approach of sound rising as a great wind does. And then the sea came back, engulfed them to add to its treasury.
That is what is known; in television coverage that really had nothing to show but the pewter skin of the depths, in radio interviews with those few infirm, timid or prudent who had not come down from the hills, and in newspaper accounts of bodies that for some reason the sea rejected, washed up down the coast somewhere.
But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination.
Now listen, there’s a man who has wanted a certain object (what) all his life. He has a lot of – things – some of which his eye falls upon often, so he must be fond of, some of which he doesn’t notice, deliberately, that he probably shouldn’t have acquired but cannot cast off, there’s an art noveau lamp he reads by, and above his bed-head a Japanese print, a Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave’, he doesn’t really collect oriental stuff, although if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings, it’s been out of sight behind his head for years. All these – things – but not the one.
He’s a retired man, long divorced, chosen an old but well-appointed villa in the maritime hills as the site from which to turn his back on the assault of the city. A woman from the village cooks and cleans and doesn’t bother him with any other communication. It is a life blessedly freed of excitement, he’s had enough of that kind of disturbance, pleasurable or not, but the sight from his lookout of what could never have happened, never ever have been vouchsafed, is a kind of command. He is one of those who are racing out over the glistening sea-bed, the past – detritus-treasure, one and the same – stripped bare.
Like all the other looters with whom he doesn’t mix, has nothing in common, he races from object to object, turning over the shards of painted china, the sculptures created by destruction, abandonment and rust, the brine-vintaged wine casks, a plunged racing motorcycle, a dentist’s chair, his stride landing on disintegrated human ribs and mettarsals he does not identify. But unlike the others, he takes nothing – until: there, ornate with tresses of orange-brown seaweed, stuck-fast with nacreous shells and crenellations of red coral, is the object. (A mirror?) It’s as if the impossible is true; he knew that was where it was, beneath the sea, that’s why he didn’t know what it was, could never find it before. It could be revealed only by something that had never happened, the greatest paroxysm of our earth ever measured on the Richter scale.
He takes it up, the object, the mirror, the sand pours off it, the water that was the only bright glance left to it streams from it, he is taking it back with him, taking possession at last.
And the great wave comes from behind his bed-head and takes him.
His name well-known in the former regime circles in the capital is not among the survivors. Along with him among the skeletons of the latest victims, with the ancient pirates and fishermen, there are those dropped from planes during the dictatorship so that with the accomplice of the sea they would never be found. Who recognized them, that day, where they lie?
No carnation or rose floats.
Full fathom five.
Copyright © Nadine Gordimer 1999. All rights reserved.
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.