Cleo and the Sea
Is love a practice or a place? And where does it go, when it comes?
“Paco came from the sea,” she said. It was all she had ever said.
Long before the wind was captured. Before a word was ever spoken. Before darkness became more than its nature: Cleo was the self-same substance of the sea. She was the wild-unrestful weak-tranquil blue body of secrets and voices where eternity began and ended. She was bellowing laughter, passion, and when the sun fell on her as if through the windows of the angels, she was divinity itself. At her centre an island, as timeless as the sky. It was beyond imagination that it should have a name. It was utter and unpeopled and she loved it more than day. She cared for it with an innate conscience: swept cobwebs from the stars, dust from the air and lichen from the slumbering rocks; even her footprint faint as if a fog had tread there. Too much sea, too much air, too many stars: the solace of isolation was her delight. But inside solitude, a little close to hope lies a loneliness that few have conquered. Some carve it up to overpower it, others reach out, more surround themselves with things. With more loneliness than she needed, Cleo would overcome it with jetsam.
By gathering the treasures that washed ashore from the live-blue big-blue, she would keep her world from dying. Hers was the night-dark obsidian and tumbled agate, shiny as cat’s eyes; the moon-shells and conches and smiling cowries that breathed the breath of nature when held tight to the ear; the drift-glass, marbles and oyster pearls that hung gleaming like bejewelled calamars inside the mutable mystery of herself. Yesterday, a fragment of mosaic, a floor-tile from a crumbling Algerian mansion perhaps. It may have taken centuries to get here. Like Paco. Today Paco. Today was big. Big as a whale, and it swallowed every yesterday in one enormous gulp. A herd of white horses raced him ashore. Entwined him in foam and seaweed, rolled him up tight like sushi and deposited him in the sand. She found him there, coiled and lichen-covered. A masterpiece of loneliness to wrap around her like an aureole.
Deftly, as the deep roar of the torrent softened on sand golden as a lion’s pelt, Cleo dusted the surfeit silt from around him and gently lifted him into a burlap sack. She carried him home. His unblinking eyes staring back at her like a stuffed trout. She laid him on the floor and began unravelling this molluscular mystery. She unrolled his legs and arms. Blew sand from his eyes and nostrils. Tore small skewered fish from the prongs of his forked hands and dried his scaly skin, rubbing with olive oil the diaphanous membranes between his toes. This detritus she kept and placed in the middle of the bed as if transplanting a geranium or acclimatising a goldfish. His amniotic sac, a little of himself in her. He lay there. His body was inert as a clam, but his unfastened eyes were vigorous. She stood over him, peering into his giant pupils. It was like looking out to sea. On a clear horizon, fishing vessels, tankers and passenger ships with small starboard children waving furiously out, sailed from one dark sphere to the next.
The following morning, on the shore of a barely breathing sea, Cleo found Paco watching the ocean. He stood still and silent as a lighthouse. He was like someone waiting for the world to be made, wondering who he was, trying to remember what he must have forgotten. He did not notice her standing next to him. The ripeness of her skin, sweet and white through a gossamer shift. She searched for a little of herself in him, but out of the mists of his eyes came ships like chimaeras sailing by.
“The sea is big because our tears are many.”
Her voice startled him and turning towards her, he for the first time, blinked.
“Are you the hope?” He asked.
And there she was, vibrant as a dolphin breaching the horizon of his steel-blue eyes. She was more beautiful than the word itself. Her face was big and bright like the moon. Her breasts soft as the wind and supernatural, like rosebuds materialising from beneath a veil.
“You make me forget,” She said, “forget about wondering what it might be like.”
Paco swelled like the sea and with emollient love came the lost tangibility of youth; a fecundity of feeling she was unaware had been waiting inside. Her body was a wonder-room of sea-stars and sea-palms, jasper and fire-red coral. Her voice, the magico-music of the sea. In each the true complement of the other. For, Paco too was the colour of, the very movement and strategy of the sea. The huge and heavy rush of it, the way it kept coming, wave after wave. And like a wave he arrived in her, wetting the unexplored landslips of her body, her coves and salt marshes, her coastal lagoons. She followed the map of his back like a landscape, lost to ink-blackness, surfaces, raging torrents, diving in and out of one another like cormorants, railing and resounding in a storm of flung spray until their souls at last transmuted into sea; exhausted seabirds too long on the wing.
Subjoining his thoughts to hers, Paco named the stars. He quantified the air and mapped the sea. So, consumed by the interiority of love, they did not notice the magic of their solitude dissolving into the curse of human intimacy. Alone, they saw into the heart of the ocean and deep inside the heart of things. But that which kept their worlds from dying – the watching, the relics – now lay neglected and death was everywhere. Over time, the rocks and boulder stones of the island disappeared beneath layers of unkempt moss and algae. The metallic anger of the sea brought terrors too. The ships and skiffs and liners, once peaceably sailing the seas of Paco’s face, now shipwrecked the shores of love like a mass migration. A bounty of sorrows and all he had forgotten: the shoes without feet, the trawler bones, the vests without lives in them, entwined in grief and fear and wondering what happened. Beneath the weight of disregard and inattention, the island began to sink. Paco was the hope. But a hope attained is a hope lost. Now Cleo, with nothing to hope for had become the hopeless thing.
So, this night as Paco slept, and resolving to return to the time of too much sea and too much air and too many stars, Cleo wrapped him up as he came: tight like sushi and pressed him into a periwinkle shell.
“The gulls, the shells, the white horses will forever sing to your heart, sweet Paco.” She said. “Sing to your memory that is greater to me than your loss.”
She stood before the ocean and watched it leave, love, on the wing of the last albatross who circled the island before disappearing like a leaf into the redemptive sky. Perhaps one day a woman in a crumbling mansion might prise him out of that shell with a toothpick and fall in love. As if it were a gaping hole, labyrinthine and dark and almost impossible to escape from.
“Paco came from the sea.” She said.
It was all she had ever said.