There was an earthquake a couple of days ago, near Swansea. People I know in South Wales didn’t feel it but quite a few people in Bridport did, including me. It was incredibly mild, but the sofa suddenly wobbled beneath me in a very particular way that immediately felt different to the usual vibrations of passing traffic, or storms shaking my in-the-roof flat.
I’d noodled a tune on the open-tuned (GDGD) mandolin the day before, so ended up writing this patently preposterous song to that tune. I like it on the acoustic mandolin too, but here it is with the electric, just to maximise the pointless melodrama.
This is a collaboration with Tom Rogers, who composed and performed the Bigger Hair track featured. I love the way things emerge from collaborations that wouldn’t have happened with either of us working alone.
This is a new story. It’s longer than the others (about a 20-30 minute read). It picks up the tale begun in The Silvery Sea, but you don’t need to have read that first. The beginning struck me as I was merrily bobbing about in some big waves on holiday recently. I wrote a chunk of it on my phone while still away, and finished it at home. Bits of the very end were also from holiday – written down while watching the beautiful sea from a boat, trying to get the words down while they were in my head, but quickly so that looking at my phone screen didn’t cause me to miss the awesome view that was inspiring me!
But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a story about holidays…
The small chunks of song are to the tune of the 29 second video below (filmed up Allington Hill when I’d just made up the first two verses and didn’t want to forget them).
The Flowing Tide
A sunset is a lovely thing
It makes me wear a great big grin
As all the colours burst through the sky
Reality is wearing thin.
Twilight follows and shadows grow
The lights in the sky are turned down low
As darkness comes you must hold on
To everything you think you know.
That’s how it was a long long time ago. A man had sat one sunset to eat his fish and chips, staring at the silvery sea as it reached into his mind and drew it out in long thin threads, pulling him by those threads on into the waters, and down into the depths; reaching into the world and unravelling all his connections to it and pulling them down with him, down into the deep, until no memory or trace of him remained.
The sea rolls on over the deep
Reality begins to creep
So beware as you stare from the waters side
Its silvery threads may want your soul to keep.
But now, a morning an unknown number of years later: he surfaced.
He trod water amongst the waves, watching the swell roll around him. The peaks and troughs like mountain ranges and valleys, the ridges and lines of the wind-whipped surface like glaciers flowing around him, though the waters felt warm on his skin.
He ducked under and swam smoothly through the waves, surfacing in a trough with mountains of water either side, before slipping beneath the surface again, gliding effortlessly along.
From beneath he watched the sunlight shimmering, fading and growing as the waves rolled on above him. He looked down and saw far into the deep, his vision crystal clear.
He pushed up to the surface. Looking around he saw the shoreline and swam towards it, sometimes skimming through the water where sea meets air, sometimes gliding beneath. His movements were slick, sinewy, with a graceful power.
He soon made the shore, and hauled himself out onto some rocks in a single movement. Out of the water, the heaviness of his body was unfamiliar. When he stood it was clumsily, limbs flailing slightly, as gravity resisted their rise from the rock.
As he staggered and found his balance he was suddenly spotted from further along the shore, where a few people walked along the paved seafront. Voices were raised, one walker remarking to the other: “There’s a guy over there, stark bollock naked!”
Intrigued they headed in his direction. “Oy! Mate! Did someone steal your clothes?”.
Startled, the man tried to respond, trying unsuccessfully to dredge up from some neglected human part of his mind not just the skills of speech but the social conventions of communication and nudity.
As he tried to speak a gargling, sputtering sound came from him, and he choked. He doubled over and a vast stream of sea-water surged up from his lungs, spurting out onto the rocks.
He coughed again, and drew a deep breath, tasting the air for the first time. He took another breath and tried again to speak. “Clothes? …” The words were faint and hoarse.
The walkers were startled by this human fountain and took a few steps back, unsure how to respond, aware that something wasn’t normal here. One of the walkers replied, with much less confidence than their initial shout: “err, yes, your clothes – has someone nicked them?”.
“You’re … you’re not wearing anything”, pointed out the other walker, helpfully.
The man stood there boldly, but in some confusion. “Of course, clothes”, he managed. “I don’t have any”.
“Do you have a towel? Maybe you should, you know, cover yourself up a bit?”
The man looked blankly. He had been lost for an unthinkably long time. He had been absorbed by the sea. Only a small part of his original self remained. He had no idea how he came to be here, and little idea of who or what he was. Issues of clothing and nudity were just a bit extraneous at that moment.
More people had spotted the man now, some exclaiming and turning away, others staring, some muttering or shouting about covering up; that strange cultural way that the natural state of nakedness could be both abhorrent or the subject of abject desire.
The man himself stood paralysed, overwhelmed by unknowns, by this alien place, this culture – though he knew in some way he had once been part of it.
He turned and dived back into the sea, swimming fast underwater until he dared to surface again at an empty beach. Here he stood up and staggered uncertainly through the waves until he collapsed above the water line. The effort of moving on land seemed immense, but worried about being seen again he stood and walked up the beach, beginning to find his land-legs and achieve balance without the support of the water.
He had gained an athletic and seemingly un-aged physique whilst living as part of the sea, though his skin had become pale and thin, almost translucent. He sought shade and pondered what to do about clothes. His encounter had alerted him to the need for clothing, and he knew his pale soft skin would need protecting from the sun. He had a vague memory of tales of lost beings stealing clothes from washing lines. This seemed a little too convenient, but perhaps he would be lucky.
A path led uphill away from the beach, following a fast flowing stream. He could see no-one on or near the path, so up it he went, enjoying the closeness of the water, sometimes preferring to walk through the stream rather than next to it. When he came across a deeper pool he lay in it for a few moments to cool down and feel the water on his skin, before continuing up the path.
As the crest of the hill approached he saw a small house, facing out to sea. The roof overhung a porch stretching across the front of the house, providing a space in sight of the sea but sheltered from the sun.
The man hunkered down below the wild hedge that lined the path, and slunk along out of sight of anyone who might be in the house. At the crest of the hill he turned and looked back, seeing for the first time the full expanse of the sea stretching out before him, sunlight reflecting off the crests of waves and casting shadows in the troughs. The fields and woods either side of the path shone various shades of green in the same light, glowing with life.
He drew breath suddenly and held it, in complete awe. Eventually he let the breath out in a long sigh. He felt overwhelmingly melancholy. He knew that somehow he was still part of the sea, though he felt excitement at being on the land, feeling himself at least in part a separate being again. He knew he had once had a life here, though he could remember none of it.
As he turned away he suddenly felt the full force of gravity, his feet dragging across the ground. He remembered childhood dreams of trying to run but making no progress, as if the air was solid and his feet were moving through glue. He felt the air thickening around him. He pushed on.
Immediately he was blinded by an immense pain and collapsed into a ball. His mind was being wrenched from him. He had passed out of sight of the sea, and those long threads that it had once drawn from his mind suddenly drew tight. It pulled on them in anger, calling him back, screaming at him for trying to leave, and the man screamed too. A long, high, wailing scream of the soul.
A hand seemed to come from nowhere, grasping his wrist and trying to pull him to his feet, but the pain was crippling. One gentle but strong arm passed beneath his knees and another around his shoulders and began to lift him from the ground. A voice spoke urgently “I have screamed this scream – I know your pain, and its cause. You cannot pass from the sight of the sea. Come with me”.
He allowed himself to be lifted fully and quickly felt the air thin and the pain begin to recede. With each step the pain eased further though he felt shattered. His vision returned and he saw he was being carried by a woman, lithe and strong, with pale skin very similar to his own.
She carried him towards the house and sang:
“The sun climbs high above the tallest tree
It makes the land glow and it shimmers on the sea
But although you may bathe in its life-giving light
Do not presume that you have been set free.”
The man was in shock at the sudden consuming pain, and the almost-as-sudden release from it. The woman allowed him silent space to recover, bringing him onto her front porch and wrapping him in a blanket.
They watched each other for a while, seeing something of themselves in each other.
When the man seemed calmer, the woman spoke. “I think you are like me. I was taken by the sea, I became part of it. I had no sense of my own existence, except as part of this awesome, world-encompassing thing”.
“I have no idea how long I was in the deep. I don’t remember how the world was before I was lost, so can’t judge how much it had changed”.
The man listened, watching her intently.
“One day I surfaced. Suddenly I was swimming alone in the rolling sea. Much happened to me once I reached land. I arrived naked, with no idea who I was. People thought I’d nearly drowned. They tried to take me inland, to a hospital.
“The moment we left the sight of the sea I was filled with pain, I felt my soul screaming and my mind being dragged from me. I escaped and ran back to the hilltop and collapsed as the pain receded and the sea could see me”.
She suddenly sang the children’s rhyme: “I can see the sea, and the sea can see-ee me-ee”, letting out a short hollow laugh and drifting off.
The man spoke. “How did you reach me, just now? If you must stay in sight of the sea, how were you able to get to me”.
She remained silent for a few moments before answering quietly. “I was taken inland. I was dragged back into an ambulance and taken to a hospital. They thought I was ill. But they found no records of my existence anywhere. The sea had been thorough when it took me.
“They kept me in a room inland for several days. Despite my screams, and my pain, they kept me. I think I scared them, with my translucent skin, and my screaming.
“I yelled for the sea. Eventually, probably just in desperation for some peace, someone decided to try it, and drove me back towards it. As soon as we were over the last hill, the screaming and pain stopped.
“They found a way to satisfy their paperwork and let me go. Since then I’ve been able to take a few steps out of sight without being crippled. I suspect it is only because the sea allows it. It knows I will never really try to leave”.
She looked at the man for a moment. “Did anyone see you?”.
“Yes”, he said. “I first came ashore near the town. I was seen, and shouted at. My nakedness was a problem. I struggled just to talk. I jumped back into the sea and ended up here.”
“They may look for you. I don’t know if they’ll think to look here. If they do, they’ll probably call, and pry, but perhaps will leave you alone. Most people are wary of me. They see me as human but somehow recognise that’s only partly true.
“You should have a name, people seem to leave you alone more easily if you have a name. I took the name Ebba – it means flowing tide.”
“Do you have a surname, Ebba?” the man asked.
“Ha! I picked one from the map. Ebba Thorncombe, at your service.” She held her hand out in mock formality; he looked puzzled for a moment then remembered and shook it.
“No-idea-who-I-am, at yours,” he replied, smiling. He suddenly looked more serious: “I really am at your service. I don’t know what would have become of me if you hadn’t rescued me from the pain. Thank you.”
Ebba smiled, but brushed off the thanks. “Is there anything you’d like to be called?” she asked. He shook his head, looking slightly panicked. Ebba thought for a minute. “How about Kai? It means ‘sea’ in Hawaii I think.”
“That’ll do! I’ll try it for size anyway,” said Kai. “Maybe I’ll find a surname later.
“How long have you been here?”, he asked.
“It’s hard to say. Many years, I think. There are times when the sea calls me back, and time in the deep has no meaning. Somehow I am allowed to remember this life, here, each time I return – though nothing of my previous life remains. I remember the last things I saw before the sea took me, but nothing else.
“This is the first time you’ve emerged? Do you remember anything from before?”
“Yes”, he said. “I sat watching the sun set over the silvery sea. That’s all I remember. Then a sense of dissipation, of absorption”. He paused. “Then, like you I found myself at the surface”.
They each digested what they’d heard, and the realisation of what they shared.
Kai broke the silence first. He had questions:
“You’ve been back? To the deep. What happens?”
“I still don’t really know what actually happens. But yes, I’ve been back. Sometimes it’s a conscious thing – I feel physically pulled back to the sea and down into the depths; other times I just find myself again treading water at the surface and know I have been gone again.
“I don’t really know how often it happens”.
Kai thought about this. “What are we?”.
“Now that, is a good question”, Ebba replied. “I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what I am. I’m no longer completely human. In some way I am part of the sea, all the time, whether or not I am in it. I’m unfeasibly fit and healthy. Ageing is almost imperceptibly slow. I can swim like a fish underwater. You must be the same”.
He nodded. “Why are we back here, on land?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve mostly stopped asking that. All I know is that I am here. In the absence of knowing why, I just try to enjoy it.
“And I always stay in sight of the sea”
Kai looked around at the house; “what about indoors?”
“That’s okay, as long as there’s no land between the sea and me.”
Ebba suddenly stood up. “Lets get you some clothes. I have some that might fit you. I once had a doomed fling with a completely human guy, but he found me too weird and ran off. He left some clothes here somewhere.”
She went into the house. Kai heard the sounds of rustling and rootling through cupboards, and a fair amount of creative cursing. After a while Ebba emerged with some clothes, and passed them to Kai. He picked out some trousers and a long sleeved shirt and put them on.
“I’m hungry,” Ebba said after a while. “I hope you like sushi.”
She stood up and set off down the path. “Come on,” she said, looking back at him. He followed, feeling steadier now.
They reached the sea in silence. She pulled off her clothes and dived in. He followed.
Through the water Kai saw her lithe body chasing fish, and he deftly swum to join her. Ebba caught a fish, rose to the surface and began to eat it, raw. She offered him some, and he gratefully took it, taking hungry mouthfuls whilst treading water. When they finished that she said “your turn” and mimed catching a fish.
He soon caught one. Perhaps he had been doing this all the time, lost in the deep, or perhaps he had been so fully part of the sea then that he didn’t have a body to feed. Pondering this, he rose to the surface next to Ebba and offered her the fish.
After they ate it she gestured to Kai to follow and headed for the shore. There she gathered some leaves and flowers from various plants, and handed half to him. “Salad” she said, with a grin. She showed him where she had picked it, and which plants were good to eat. Shaded from the sun by the cliffs on this private beach, they didn’t bother with clothes. Being creatures of the sea now, neither of them was much aware of nakedness expect that it caused a problem in public. That said, Kai did quietly appreciate Ebba’s physique, and thought he read in her glances a reciprocal appreciation.
They clothed before walking back up the path.
Ebba showed Kai around the cottage, offered him a place to stay, and introduced him to her well-stocked garden, from which they later ate more. She pulled a map out of a drawer and opened it out on the table. “Surname time!” she said. “This is us” – she pointed out the house and the beach on the map.
Kai stood next to her and looked. “That must be where I first came ashore,” he said, pointing at the harbour town a short way along the coast from the house.
“Oops!” Ebba replied, half grimacing half grinning. “No wonder you were seen.”
Kai studied the map for a while before finding a name he liked. “How about Burbitt? Kai Burbitt. I think I like that.”
“Pleased to meet you, Kai Burbitt.”
As the evening came they sat on the front porch, watching the sunset and the sea transform through many states of being, before finally all they could see was a dark, brooding mass. They felt the sea in their minds, plucking at the threads it held from both of them, connecting them to it. Today it just tugged gently, reminding them they were part of it, but allowing them to remain.
Time slipped by and their lives became entwined. Kai helped tend the garden, catch fish, and forage along the sea shore. Ebba showed him what needed doing and worked alongside him. They swam together, enjoying sharing the experience with the only being they each knew like themselves.
One morning Kai awoke and found himself alone. Ebba was gone – in the night the sea pulled the threads from her mind and drew her back into itself.
In the days that followed, Kai spent all his time on the shore or moving through the waters, looking out for Ebba, hoping she would resurface or at least that he would catch a glimpse of her. Gradually he spent less time searching, and a little more looking after the garden and the house.
But he always kept an eye to the sea. Not just hoping for the woman’s return but contemplating his own journey into the sea and back, pondering again the questions he had asked on his first day out of the water. What had he been before? What became of them both while taken? What was this new existence – what should he do with it? And the big, unanswerable, “What am I?”
He had much time to consider these things, but no real answers. He loved to swim, to glide through the water, diving and tumbling in the sea. Then he just was.
Out of the water he tried to follow Ebba’s advice, in the absence of answers “just try to enjoy it”. Much of the time he did. He embraced the little world he had ended up in, and the challenges and rewards it offered.
But there was an underlying sense of unease that he couldn’t shake off. To test himself he tried walking down the path away from the sea; with his first step downhill he immediately felt the air thicken around him, his limbs dragging, his mind being pulled from him. With his second step the full blinding, crippling pain struck. He collapsed as before, screaming in pain from the depths of his soul. It took all his will to crawl back the distance of just those two steps, until the air thinned, the pain lifted and his limbs lightened.
The first time he had attempted to walk down the hill away from the sea he hadn’t known what would happen – this time it was wilful, and the sea was angry. He was pulled back down the path to it. That first time he had sat with his fish and chips staring at the silvery sea, he was unaware of what was happening, almost anaesthetised in the same way that a mosquito painlessly punctures the skin to draw blood to develop her eggs. This time the sea let him feel it, physically aware of his mind being drawn out into the sea in long thin threads. It wasn’t pain but a deeply unpleasant feeling, an unravelling of self, the threat of total dissipation.
When Kai reached the beach the sea was raging, wave after giant wave crashing against the shore and rolling on up the beach. The wash took his legs out from under him, dragging him into the breakers, where he was thrown repeatedly against the hard pebbles, the sea pounding him into the ground, filling his mouth with rocks and half-rotten debris.
He felt the rage and hurt of the sea viscerally. He prepared to give himself to it, to be taken permanently by it – and that was enough to appease. A large wave carried him up the beach, dumping him unceremoniously at the base of the cliffs. The tide began to head out, the waves grew smaller. Kai scrambled on to his knees and spat out the stones and debris and shame, before falling back on the sand – beaten.
He came round once again to gentle but strong arms enfolding him, helping him to his feet, and Ebba’s voice singing:
“The sea sees all within it’s reach
Try to leave and your soul will leach
Though you live and you breathe once more above the sands
The sea’s will is a wall you cannot breach.
“Idiot,” she added, but not completely unkindly.
Kai could not talk yet. They helped each other up the path to the house: Kai unsteady after his punishment by the sea, Ebba still finding her land-legs after emerging once more from the timeless deep of the sea.
Neither of them talked about what had just happened. Kai was chastened, but relieved that the Ebba had returned. He realised he would have to come to terms with the uncertainty of their existence. They could both be taken again by the sea at any time – to fight this would just bring very real pain. There were benefits, of course. The fitness, the plentiful fresh food, the wonderful feeling of swimming and diving like no other humans could. And after everything, or perhaps because of everything, because they were part of it – they both found the sea a beautiful thing, and loved to live in sight of it, to see it through all the seasons, through all it’s moods. Occasionally Kai was aware that it was a somewhat abusive relationship the sea had with them, but it was clear there was no alternative available.
The next time the sea called, it was to both of them. Neither of them was aware of it happening.
Kai returned first, alone. He swam to the shore and walked unsteadily up the path to the house. The chill air told him he’d returned in a different season, but not whether it was the same year or not. The trees in the woods didn’t seem too much taller. However, the garden was somewhat overgrown with brambles and weeds, no sign of Ebba or of the crops they had planted. He understood why she had learned to forage as well as grow food. She needed to eat regardless of how long she had been consumed in the deep, whatever the state of the garden on her return.
After resting a while Kai headed back to the sea to fish and eat, then slept a very long time.
When he woke he began to clear the garden, and plant what seeds he found in the house for winter crops. As before, he waited for Ebba’s return but could not know that she would. He had little sense of how much time passed before they were reunited. This time he spotted her surface, and set off down the path to meet her. They embraced, then he caught her some fish and picked some leaves.
They passed their days like this. Life on the surface revolving around swimming, food and enjoyment of each other. Time in the deep forever unknown but ever present. Sometimes they would both be taken again, sometimes one or the other, but always they ended up together at the house, with the covered porch looking out to sea.
Ebba became pregnant. They were excited, but apprehensive. What would their children be? What would happen to them when their parents were absent?
Whether by chance or by design, the sea left them alone throughout the pregnancy.
As the pregnancy neared full term, they both began to feel an increasing tug toward the sea, like it was watching them more closely. Finally it reached fully back into their minds and drew them both to it, but in a way neither of them had experienced. They were fully aware of it happening, powerless to resist, but felt cosseted.
As they walked down the path to the shore before the setting sun, Ebba’s contractions began in earnest. As they reached the shore her waters broke, an unfeasibly large amount flowing out. Still the sea called them on. Its waters were calm, the surface smooth, reflecting the vibrant, warm colours of the sunset with just the merest of interference, a gentle ripple the only hint of bleeding realities.
Feeling both scared and comforted, the couple were drawn on. They threw off their clothes and entered the sea. They were in a circle of almost completely flat water. At the edge of the circle the swell rose and became fearsome waves, towering high above them but never breaking into the calm around them – a protective wall of water. At first the couple barely skimmed the surface, uncannily buoyant, but with a last gentle pull the sea beckoned them under.
They dived down, the sea growing darker with the depth and as the twilight above faded. Ebba’s contractions now felt huge, waves of pain flooding through her. She pushed and pushed, gripping Kai’s hands tightly as they spun together slowly, suspended in the water.
After what felt to Ebba like forever, her first child pushed out into the world, followed by her second – twins. Whether it was a trick of the shadows, or of the thinning boundaries between realities, the two children appeared to be many things as they swam next to their parents: perhaps a swirl of water, perhaps a human baby, maybe a seal, a dolphin, a fish, or all these things at once.
A sudden current lifted them all to the surface, and bore them to the shore where they landed, visibly human in form, twin babies, a boy and girl, rapidly growing cold as the standard earthly reality reasserted itself.
The couple grabbed their clothes and each used them to wrap a child. They whisked them back up the path into the house and began many months of learning, sleep deprivation, discovery, frustration and joy.
For a while they lived relatively normally, apart from the swimming. No completely human family would have been swimming so far, so deep, or from such an early age. The sea for its part let them be, keeping them safe when they swam, providing them with food, but never completely letting go of the threads, always pulling gently.
Several years passed. The twins were walking, talking, and sometimes catching their own fish.
Ebba and Kai began to feel the sea reaching into their minds, beginning to call them back to it. The twins felt it too. It was a magnetic, yearning desire to be in the sea, to slide beneath its waters, and be part of it.
Steadily it grew until it developed an urgency and a finality. As another sunset began to bleed colours into the sky and onto the water, the sea called them all to it, commanded them down the path and into its waters. Before they knew it they were treading water, together, in the gently rolling swell. They knew this was different to anything they had experienced.
They looked around. Anywhere each of them focussed seemed frozen in time, but when they moved their eyes the whole sea was boiling, writhing. The surface was dark, heavy and oily. When the waters calmed, they took on the same slick silvery skin that they had so long ago when first calling Kai to them. The sea had been rougher then. In the calm now, smooth ridges and ripples formed a diamond netting of black shadows across the surface, across which the colours of the darkening sky spread.
As Kai scanned the sea and turned away from the direction of the fading sunset, he saw a duller grey world, the landscape beginning to loom heavily amongst the silvery shadowy mist. He turned back to the sea and the sunset, and with his growing family by his side dove down, taken finally and forever away from the land, to live as part of the sea, subject to its will, but allowed each other.
The raging sea is a powerful thing
It can hold your life like a puppet on a string
It could take you, feed you, bathe you or sink you
If it chooses you it’s no passing fling.
The sea: it takes but it nurtures too
More powerful than any witches brew
It could take you, feed you, bathe you or sink you
Never think it’s hold on you is through.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this, in a highly obsessive and thoroughly procrastinatory manner. But the result is a song and video that I’m really pleased with. There are couple of other newish songs I haven’t sorted out to record yet, but this one needed to come out now. It seems timely somehow!
I hope you like it. There are harmonies aplenty, animations, a two-faced ooby-dooby backing singer monster, bushes, trees, sky, sea, and me being a bit daft. Also ukulele (of course) and bass guitar.
It’s an ultimately optimistic response to a bit of a full-on year or so, personally and globally.