Writing of her own experiences of under water diving, Tilda Bowden describes a world of wonder beneath the surface of the sea by day, and its celestial transformation by night.
Tines of light reach beneath the surface, the only stillness in the rippling underwater world. Fish, inquisitive, nudge and probe, delicate and agile where I am unwieldy. I am the fish out of water here, and yet the sea forgives my landlubber nature and urges me fin-ward. I reach the ridge where shallow warm water separates and sits on top of a deeper cold layer, and watch the confused haze where they meet.
A mist of blue-green Chromis flickers in front of my mask. Hundreds of the small electric lights flit and flip. I breathe in their midst, tiny fish the pinnacle of my ambition for a moment. All else is forgotten as I pretend to belong in this cloud of fish.
Shall I while away this tide with the opium-like absorption with the Chromis? I know there are other familiars to visit before the water recedes, and makes my watery fraud impossible. Low tide will see me spat out on the beach again. My water-borne lightness gone, replaced by my gravity-bound mass. Not yet; there is still time, not measured in minutes but in inches of water.
The tyranny of land is forgotten as the silent current makes me believe I am strong, I am fast, I am agile. I surge onwards and revel in this borrowed element.
I know they are here, shy, hiding somewhere. My visit must be blessed by my talisman fish; Platax.
Singularly, they are odd and misshapen; a cumbersome flat triangle in a sea of efficient aquadynamic torpedoes. As a herd, however, their geometric beauty – perfection even – defies their singularity.
Six or seven batfish appear, and in perfect synchronisation turn and flick, unfolding before me like inspired origami. Sun floods through their yellow dorsal fins like opaque stained glass, and the thrum of the impossible humbles me; awed, unworthy spectator.
The batfish stay with me, our non-verbal communion, no less eloquent for the absence of words. When the water is almost gone, like the last party guest, I reluctantly leave, and sit on the beach; landbound again. I replay the time atop the coral, among the seagrass, eye to eye with the denizens of the reef.
Decades of sun-soaked hours combine to an ownership of this most loved place. Or has my love of this small stretch of the African Indian Ocean claimed me? Definitions and classifications have less meaning than the grains of sand between my toes.
And that sand. What is sand but a nomenclature of many things? I smooth a modest pinch across my palm and see raspberry red, black, grey and white flecks which our minds homogenise into sand yellow. There is coral, shell, pumice from Krakatoa, glass and rock; millennia of erosion and eruption in my hand.
Later, I watch the sun disappear, and from land, the sea darkens to a mass. I know the watery world is still there, yet I resent it is only revealed to me in daylight.
A torch – waterproof – why not? It can guide me back into the water, carve a line back through and beneath the waves where gravity-freedom lies. The pufferfish, eagle ray, batfish and Chromis wait and know I pose no threat.
The water laps at my ankles, and I pause. I see surface only; the waves white foam reinforces the opacity, unfamiliar obsidian water. Familiar, I say, and shine my beam into the water to break the dark illusion. Something scuttles, and I jump. I follow it and see it is seaweed yanked by a current. I push onwards, hesitation only undermining my resolve.
I plunge, as I always do, face-first into the knee-deep water. Fear slams into me in the dark. Nothing is familiar, I am blind.
I fumble with the torch, my fingers made clumsy by panic. The single shaft of hard light cleaves through the dark. A tail disappears, and the narrow canyon before me is empty. Particles fall endlessly to nowhere. Hollow silence clicks in my ears. The beams efficiency flattens all colour, and shadow and texture are lost. The dimension I love is denied. In the monochrome light, nothing is revealed.
A shape lurks in the edge of the beam. I lurch in combined fear and anticipation. The porcupine fish casts a wary eye my way, afraid of the unwanted attention my light will attract.
My presence here is not welcome. The torchlight too alien, too searching. I switch it off, relieved, and roll on my back. I float on the surface: water beneath, air and space above. There is no liminal haze as these layers combine, but a line without compromise defines each.
The stars flit and flicker, released by the moonless dark. Celestial movement is revealed as I wonder, not classify. The rigidity of knowledge seems absurd as I bathe in the shifting constellations above. I forget what I know, so insignificant in this grandeur beyond the wildest of human ambition.
A carnival of light – without any terrible backstage deprivation. An eternal spectacle which needs no audience or applause.
The lofty ceilings of cathedrals are like paper dolls, flimsy and pale to this limitless exuberance of the Infinite.
And in awe of the night, I lift my hand. Languid stars drip from my fingers and kiss my skin. Baffled I blink and wonder. Ignoring definition, transcending the divide, the phosphorescence plays, winking in the dark; the nebula of the sea.
About Tilda Bowden
Tilda Bowden is the Creative Writing editor of the Lucy Writers’ Platform. She is currently running a creative writing workshop in Kenya at a maximum-security women’s prison in Nairobi, as well as working on a historical fictional novel based on the life of British sculptor Kathleen Scott. Her work has been shortlisted for the Louis de Bernières Fiction Prize and the Lucy Cavendish Chronicle Fiction Prize. She writes poetry and short-stories and, like many writers, edits for a number of upcoming fiction writers. Tilda is always involved in numerous creative projects and collaborating with artists from diverse backgrounds. Contact: email@example.com
This piece was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.
Feature Image: Paul Klee’s Fish Magic, (1925), Oil on panel, Philadelphia Museum of Art.