The sea, the sea, the always unpredictable, beautiful sea.
Floating feet-up with my friend Stephanie, in the Mediterranean, age 14.
We have just learned that the French title for Jaws is Les Dents de la Mer (Teeth of the Sea), and so we are being Feet of the Sea - Les Pieds de la Mer. We are grinning from ear to ear in that photograph, French sun off tan skin, off American braces, off the future none of us can see.
The sea, the sea. Stephanie will have her braces off. We will swim again together, in Florida and in North Carolina, but we do not swim again as Leviathan until the day many years later, in Tennessee, when I follow my nose in painting, and find a green sea, a nine-story pagoda, a school of red fish, a teapot floating with myself as its finial, and a tiger blowing clouds in the sky.
I know this is a story, and I know I am not the one to write it. So I call Stephanie, already several years into her brain cancer diagnosis, to ask whether she'd like to write some stories for some weird paintings that have started showing up. Sure, she says, but you aren't allowed to see the story while I write it. The deal will be: you make the paintings, and send them to me in groups of six. We agree there will be twenty-four paintings. We agree I will not know. We agree the sea is at the bottom of this, and we are floating in it.
I dream I am on a small boat, with a guide, on the sea. The dream has a voice-over, telling some official story of the sea that I know to be untrue. What I know to be true is: underneath the sea, there's a nine-story pagoda full of treasure that belongs to me. As long as I do not take the dare of diving under the surface to claim it, thieves will plunder it. It is my choice, my birthright either to claim or to squander.
A few weeks ago, I see this pagoda in San Francisco, in the tea garden, glowing red from between cypress trunks. It's not underwater anymore. I've claimed it.
So Stephanie (aka JS van Buskirk) writes the story of Unless and Until, the story of traveling and forgetting. Two creatures inclined to do not-much return home from a journey they cannot remember. Where were they? What happened? One day, an old, battered trunk arrives at their cottage, full of paintings and odd objects. It is like the pearlized purple suitcase I bought from the Narcotics Anonymous thrift store in Atlanta. It has stickers from the Sands and from Cairo. Who knows where it's been? Who knows where we come from?
Unless and Until slowly piece together their journey. Unless falls ill, and goes to the bottom of the sea, where they meet a whale - a fever-whale, a loss-of-voice whale, a whale of dying. The whale is the tumor growing in Stephanie's head. The whale is the suitcase we've each inherited from numberless befores, full of stories, including the one that spells our endings.
I remember that painting. It's dark indigo, with glowing cobalt lines, with stalactites and stalagmites, with time itself, and with the spotted whale-shark Atlanta was arrogant enough to bring to its aquarium. Here, O Citizens, is Leviathan! Marvel at our powers! Leviathan promptly died. Or died slowly, which in this case is worse.
Anyway, the whale is there in the painting. It's there in Stephanie's lyrics for Unless' song of illness and love, a song she herself would soon be singing to her husband, as the tumor leviathanized itself within her head.
The night I lost my voice I lay in bed and felt with each swallow there was a double-edged knife in my throat. It was more pain and different than the usual sore throat. It was the sea and I was floating in it, head up. La Gorge de la Mer. I rose, took ibuprofen, drank tea, and settled in to read, as I seldom do anymore, recklessly into the night. A blind girl and her appointments with the sea. An enormous war. A boy listening for the whale-song of radio transmissions across the steppe. I read and read, and the knife slipped away, leaving behind silence.
Today I can make a sound like a bagpipe, if I try very hard. Yesterday, my friend Ewa made me laugh so hard I found a squeak left over in one corner of my breath. It will come back. I whisper my way through a dinner party and realize the advantage of closeness with my host. Full-voice, I don't know quite how to approach him. In whispers, I find he tells me things that come from deeper in the ocean. Things not to be declared out loud. He is solicitous. I sip a hot toddy by the fire and find everyone in the room spontaneously lovable. Many things, under the sea.
So, what did I find in that pagoda? The body was there, my body, with a knife in its throat sometimes, but also with the fullness of dance and the steady ballast of its solid frame. I found a willingness to see even what's uncomfortable to see: how the arrogant young philosopher brings wrinkles of pain to my friend's face, and how, in turn, his brashness is a symptom of feeling no one will listen if he talks any less brashly. The pagoda has mediocrity in it, and its opposites. Secretly, it's stupid to talk about what's inside the pagoda as though that were any different from what's inside this room:
Arms sore in a living way. Nose moist in a living way. This writing writes itself, with permission to do so. This breath breathes itself, better with permission than without. These pen-strokes in concert. This sense of time unspooling deep within the timeless sea.
Give me one wild word.
Give me thousands.
The end is the hardest part. One momentum has spun itself down, and another hasn't shown itself yet. The North. The pause between things. The whale blinks her eye and the pagoda's so deep inside every bit of experience, it makes no sense anymore to say thief or not-thief. Fishes flit in the grey mud Jacques Cousteau showed me as a girl. There are Frenchmen and Frenchwomen down there, Facebookers disputing the correct forms of grief. There are suicide bombers in their vests, and in their grisly post-vest messes. There are train whistles, and all the voices that ever whispered, sang, or questioned.
And of course there's the small golden statue of Athena, nestled in the muck, ever-bright, waiting for the thief who will at last bring her back to the surface. She's there saying:
Give me one wild word, or
dissolve me forever in this sea.
* Give me one wild word is a prayer I first heard from Terry Tempest Williams.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.