Not all children are safe…
A ribbon winding north, by day it was just another highway with its shoulder pressed against the trees. Newly built, only starting to show signs of wear from chains and the predations of frost. In the dark beneath stars which burned brighter than anything they’d known down south, it was so black that it ate up the light wherever it fell outside of the white guiding lines and the sunken reflectors. It was a road that gave J the creeps.
- from Dark Beneath Stars
Pushing through the reeds was a throng of ghost tourists. They queued to get aboard the ferry, much as they had in life. Eternity was tedious, and it was important, everyone said, to get out and do as much as you could in death. See the world you were no longer a part of.
First on the list of stops was one of those northern ghost towns. An abandoned coal mining settlement on the largest island of the archipelago. Not a town filled with ghosts, that would be gauche, but one empty of the living. Most of the native ghosts, if there were any, tended to keep clear of the settlement for that same reason.
Only gulls, the occasional curious traveler or misguided adventurer, and the thin wild dogs who were dying, but slowly, fading out of the ecosystem, what that it was, yellow eyes gleaming like lamps from beyond the boundaries, haunted it. And the ghosts of course, who came in small groups, fanned out down the avenues where grass was springing up through the frost cracked tarmac, pushed their faces through the mostly intact windows, and just as silently as they had arrived, after a few hours, gathered back on the boat to Longyearbyen when the ghostly whistle blew.
Next: an old electrical testing facility somewhere deep inside Russia. They all felt eager, if you could call it that, for the tour to move on.
“There are waters and then there are waters; some which we cross, others which cross into us.”
I have been walking around the act of writing, tossing in words like stones. Pacing the boundaries in such a fashion makes one only more hesitant to plunge in, to make the necessary break with a firm position on the bank and to strike out for the centre. Trepidation has time to set in, weakness, doubt. Every surface hides a snag, every ripple becomes a cataract.
All these things feel lethal to the process of writing a novel, lethal to learning, to continue with the analogy, how to swim. How to move from hesitation to effortless strokes, one falling naturally after another in a satisfying rhythm. To stop fighting one’s own progress through the medium, to give up this falling back from faint-hearted efforts that leave you exhausted and gasping for breath but no farther from shore, becomes the first puzzle you have to solve. It is the first crossing you have to make.
But how exactly does one get over a fear of water when what you fear after all isn’t water but drowning? For hidden in the wave that lifts the swimmer is always the one that pulls him or her down. Divine waters typically destroy as often as they provide succor. Stories especially those which spill out from trickles into greater bodies, are treacherous to the novitiate. Even a modest stretch might as well be a Hellespont when starting out.
You have to have faith, I suppose. But for the faithless, is this possible? It certainly isn’t easy. And faith, importantly, in whom exactly? In such an unfamiliar place where landmarks quickly fade, which direction does one turn?
Gods of the water are old gods. Often as their role demands, they are polymorphic in nature. Namma, the primordial ocean goddess of the Sumerians who gave birth to heaven and earth and the first gods and whose role was taken over in part by her son Enki, transforms into Tiamat, that mother of monsters and fishy terrors. Sobek the crocodile headed god of the Nile, displays in his visage for all to see, the danger that lurks under the skin of the brown god that takes life as plastically as it gives. Varuna was there before Indra, ruling, riding a sea-monster, dispensing law but holding a serpent-noose its shape echoed in the god’s naga attendants, never letting us forget that he is of the underworld and not just of the waters.
When I swim out to sea as I enjoy doing, it is always amid a certain terror. Perhaps the thrill of it lies in that, as much as in the pleasure which comes with this change in buoyancy and locomotion. A transformation of self but never complete, holding me as I dive or progress, suspended between two worlds, and in between two states. Customarily I will make my way until the shore is just a line, where my worried spouse awaits. Below, there are currents of cold water, patches of warmer sea, rays, eels, barracuda even. I have been stung by Medusa, but as of yet never taken by Cetus. Sometimes the only threat that seems to exist is my own burning lungs or the waves that pull and pry as I navigate through a rock archway that booms with both my heartbeat and the surf.
So why does shoving out amid mere words, produce such a fearful response? I suspect it is because there are dangers in it, no doubt. And real consequences though not as final, as those I risk when I set my body and not just my fingers into motion. But there is joy in it as well, and a sweet mystery. An act of faith, of veneration perhaps, which is saying much considering the apostatic view I take on such matters.
Until now I have been content with half-measures. Mostly I’ve just foundered, a feeling of being pushed back into the sand as much as by my own incompetence as by the wave. I haven’t reached the drop-off let alone the open sea. I fear it shows and not just here, spelled out plainly. But what can one do, but try again? If you can view the body as a vessel and be willing to hazard it on the pretense of a mere holiday, then I should consider writing my ark, vouchsafed.
Thus sheltered, I think it is time to release the raven, if not yet the dove.
After several years of knocking around in other people’s cemeteries, I’ve made the jump to my own patch of ground.
But I’ll also be posting thoughts and shorter articles here. Which will dovetail with my new writing projects, such as the publishing of The White Owl And Other Small Stories, and my next three novels which lie in a valley which is left of horror and right of literary fiction.