The Child of the Open Sea

 

This short poetic story is by Jules Supervielle, a French poet who spent much of his life in Montevideo,Uruguay.

Waves

How had that floating street been created? What sailors, with the aid of what architects, had built it in mid-Atlantic, on the surface of the sea, over a gulf thousands of fathoms deep? That long street with its red brick houses, so faded that they were turning French gray, those roofs of slate and tile, those unchanging, humble shops? And that richly perforated belfry? And this place which had nothing but sea water in it, though no doubt it wanted to be a garden, with enclosing walls set with broken bottle glass, over which a fish would sometimes leap?

How did it remain standing without even being tossed by the waves?

And that solitary twelve-year-old child who walked in her sabots with a firm step down the liquid street as though she were walking on dry land? How did it come about?

We shall relate all these things as we get to know and understand them. And if anything remains obscure it will not be our fault.

Whenever a ship approached, even before it could be seen on the horizon, a great drowsiness took possession of the child, and the village disappeared completely beneath the waves. And thus it was that no sailor had even seen the village, even at the end of a telescope, or even suspected its existence.

The child thought she was the only little girl in the world. Did she even know she was a little girl? She was not very pretty, because of her rather wide-spaced teeth, and her rather too tip-tilted nose, but she had a very white skin with a few speckles—I mean freckles. And her small person, dominated by gray eyes that were shy but very luminous, sent through your body, right into your soul, a great surprise which hailed from the night of time.

Sometimes in the street, the only one in that little town, the child would look to right and left as if she were expecting a friendly sign from someone, a slight wave of the hand or a nod of the head. This was merely an impression she gave without knowing it, since no person or thing could come to that lost village that was always ready to vanish.

How did she live? By fishing? We don’t think so. She found food in the kitchen cupboard and larder, and even meat every two or three days. There were also potatoes for her and a few other vegetables, and eggs from time to time.

Provisions appeared spontaneously in the cupboards. And when the child took jam from a pot, it remained as intact as before, as if things had been thus one day and had to stay the same forever.

In the mornings, half a pound of fresh bread, wrapped in paper, was waiting for the child on the marble counter of the bakery, behind which she had never seen anyone, not even a hand or a finger pushing the bread towards her.

She was always up early, and she would push up the metal screens of the shops (one labeled “Bar,” and others “Blacksmith,” “Modern Bakery,” or “Haberdasher”), open the shutters of all the houses, carefully fastening them back because of the sea wind, and, according to the weather, leaving the windows closed or not. She would light a fire in a few kitchens so that smoke should rise from three or four roofs. An hour before sunset she began, very simply, to close the shutters and to lower the corrugated metal screens.

The child accomplished these tasks, moved by some instinct, some daily inspiration which drove her to look after everything. In the summer months, she would hang a rug over a window sill, or some linen to dry, as though the village must at all costs look inhabited and as lifelike as possible. And the whole year round she had to take care of the town-hall flag, which was so exposed.

At night she used candles, or sewed by the light of a lamp. There was electricity, too, in several houses in the town, and the child turned the switches easily and gracefully.

On one occasion she put a black crepe bow on the knocker of a door. She thought it looked nice. It remained there for two days, after which she hid it.

Another time she started beating a drum, the village drum, as though she were going to announce some news. And she had a violent longing to shout something that might have been heard from one end of the sea to the other; but her throat contracted and no sound came out. She made such a stern effort that her face and neck became almost black with it, like those of drowned people. Then she had to put the drum back in its usual place, in the left-hand corner at the far end of the big hall of the town hall.

The child reached the belfry by a spiral staircase whose steps were worn by thousands of unseen feet. The belfry which, the child thought, must certainly have five hundred steps (it had ninety-two) showed as much sky as it could between its yellow bricks. And she had to satisfy the weight-driven clock by winding it up with the crank handle, so that it should sound the hours exactly, day and night.

The crypt, the altars, the stone saints giving silent orders, all those faintly whispering chairs which waited, in straight rows, for people of all ages, those altars whose gold had aged and hoped to age still more—all that attracted and repelled the child, who never entered that tall house, contenting herself, when she had nothing else to do, with sometimes half opening the padded door and darting a rapid glance at the interior, holding her breath as she did so.

In a trunk in her room there were family papers and some postcards from Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, and Hong Kong signed Charles or C. Lievens, and addressed to Steenvoorde (Nord). The child of the open sea had no idea what those far countries and this Charles and this Steenvoorde were.

She also kept an album of photographs in a cupboard. One of them showed a child who looked very like the little girl of the Ocean, who would often gaze at it humbly; it was always this picture which seemed to her to be right, to ring true; she was holding a hoop in her hand. The child had looked for one like it in all the houses of the village. And one day she thought she had found one; it was the iron hoop of a barrel; but hardly had she begun to run down the marine street with it than the hoop bowled out to sea.

In another photograph the little girl was seen between a man dressed in sailor’s clothes and a bony woman in her Sunday best. The child of the open sea, who had never seen either man or woman, wondered for a long time what those people wanted, even thinking about it in the dead of night, when lucidity sometimes strikes you suddenly with the violence of a thunderbolt.

Every morning she went to the village school, with a big satchel containing notebooks, a grammar, an arithmetic, a history of France, and a geography. She also had, written by Gaston Bonnier, member of the Institut and professor at the Sorbonne, and Georges de Layens, laureat of the Académie des Sciences, a little field guide which listed the most common plants, as well as useful and harmful plants, with eight hundred and ninety-six illustrations.

She read in the preface: “During the whole of the summer, there is nothing easier than to get hold of a great number of field and forest flowers.”

And how were history, geography, countries, great men, mountains, rivers, and frontiers to be explained to someone who has nothing but the empty street of a little town in the most solitary part of the Ocean? She did not even know that she was on the Ocean, the very one she saw on the maps, although the idea did cross her mind one day, for a second. But she had driven it away as mad and dangerous.

Now and then, she would listen with complete obedience, write a few words, listen again and begin writing again, as though at the dictation of an invisible mistress. Then the child would open a grammar and remain for a long time, holding her breath and bending over page 60 and exercise CLXVIII, of which she was particularly fond. In it the grammar seemed to be speaking entirely for the benefit of the little girl and the open sea:

— are you? — are you thinking? — do you

speak? — do you want? — should one apply

to? — is happening? — is being accused? —

are you capable? — are you guilty? — is the

matter? — do you like this present? — are

you complaining?

(Replace the dashes by the appropriate

interrogative pronoun, with or without

preposition.)

Sometimes the child felt a very persistent longing to write certain phrases, and did so with a great deal of concentration. Here are some of them, among many others:

Let’s share this, shall we?

Listen to me carefully. Sit down and don’t

move, I beg you!

If I only had a little snow from the high

mountains, the day would pass more

quickly.

Foam, foam all round me, won’t you at last

turn into something solid?

To play a round game you have to be at least

three.

There were two headless shadows walking

away along the dusty road.

The night, the day, the day, the night, the

clouds and the flying fish.

I thought I heard a noise, but it was the noise    of the sea.

Or else she wrote a letter in which she gave news of her little town and herself. It wasn’t addressed to anyone and she put no kisses for anyone at the end of it, and on the envelope there was no name. And when the letter was finished she threw it into the sea, not to get rid of it but because it had to be that way, and perhaps in the manner of navigators in distress, who consign their last message to the waves in a despairing bottle.

Time never passed in the floating town: the child was always twelve. And it was in vain that she swelled out her little chest before the glass-fronted cupboard of her room. One day, tired of looking, with her plaits and her very bare forehead, like the photo she kept in her album, she got cross with herself and her picture and scattered her locks roughly over her shoulders, hoping that this would give her age a jolt. Perhaps it would even affect the sea all round her, and she would see coming out of it great goats, with foaming beards, who would draw near to look at her.

But the Ocean remained empty and she received no other visits than those of the shooting stars.

Another day destiny seemed to forget itself for a moment, as though there were a sudden crack in its will. A real little cargo boat, all smoking, as obstinate as a bulldog and riding easily although it was not heavily loaded (a beautiful red band gleamed in the sun under the water line) —a cargo boat passed down the marine street of the village, without the houses disappearing beneath the waves nor the little girl’s getting overcome with sleep.

It was just midday. The cargo boat sounded its siren, but this voice did not mingle with the voice of the belfry. Each kept its independence. The child, hearing for the first time a noise which came to her from men, rushed to the window and shouted with all her might:

“Help!”

And she flung her schoolgirl’s pinafore in the direction of the ship.

The helmsman did not even turn his head. And a sailor, who was puffing smoke from his mouth, passed along the deck as if nothing had happened. The others went on washing their clothes, while on each side of the ship’s bow dolphins separated to make room for the cargo boat, which was in a hurry.

The little girl descended very quickly into the street, lay down on the track of the ship, and embraced its wake for such a long time that, when she got up, nothing remained of it but a stretch of sea with no memory, quite intact. On returning to the house, the child was dumbfounded at having shouted: “Help!” Only then did she understand the profound meaning of this word. And this meaning terrified her. Could men not hear her voice? Or were those sailors deaf and blind? Or more cruel than the depths of the sea?

Then a wave, which had always remained at some distance from the village, clearly not wishing to intrude, came to look for her. It was a huge wave, which spread much further than the others on each side of itself. In its crest it had what looked exactly like two eyes, made of foam. You would have supposed it understood certain things and did not approve of them all. Although it furled and unfurled itself hundreds of times a day, it never forgot to equip itself with those two well-formed eyes, in the same place. Sometimes, when something interested it, you would catch it lingering for nearly a minute, with its crest in the air, forgetting its wave nature and that it had to begin again every seven seconds.

For a long time this wave had been wanting to do something for the child, but it did not know what. It saw the cargo boat disappearing and understood the anguish of the little girl who remained behind. Not being able to bear it any longer, it carried her a little distance away, without saying a word, as though leading her by the hand.

After having knelt before her, wave-fashion, and with the greatest respect, it tucked her under itself and kept her for a very long moment, trying to confiscate her with the collaboration of death. And the little girl stopped breathing to help the wave in this serious plan.

Failing to achieve its object, it flung her into the air until the child was no bigger than a sea swallow, catching her again and again like a ball as she fell back among the foam flakes bit as ostrich eggs.

Finally, seeing that nothing was of any avail, that it could not succeed in giving her death, the wave took the child back to her home, with an immense murmur of tears and excuses.

And the little girl, who had not received a scratch, had to begin opening and closing shutters again without hope, and disappearing momentarily under the sea the moment the mast of a ship showed on the horizon.

WaveFLourish2             Sailors who dream upon the high seas, with your elbows propped on the handrail, be fearful lest you dwell too long in the darkness of the night on a beloved face. For if you do, you risk giving birth, in places that are essentially deserted, to a being gifted with ever human sensibility, who can neither live nor die nor love, and yet suffers as though he lived and loved and was always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like that child of the Ocean, born one day in the mind of Charles Lievens, of Steenvoorde, deck hand of the four-master Fearless, who had lost his twelve-year-old daughter during one of his voyages, and one night, at a place 55 degrees latitude North and 35 degrees longitude West, thought of her for a long time, with terrible intensity, to the great misfortune of that child.

ShipSailingNeighborhood

Le Theatre de Nuit has made this interpretive short film based on this story.  Theatre de la Nuit website with this story.

 

 

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About D. L. Pughe

Freelance writer and artist. https://thedreamofknowledge.com/about/
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