The only recorded statement of Thales, the presocratic: “Everything is water, water is all.”
Los Angeles: weekend summer afternoon at the Ganges off Santa Monica Beach. Parking lots and freeways, jammed. North and south as far as the eye can see, hundreds, thousands of people of various races and ethnicities being lifted in the curl of the breaking wave. Pause; gather; surge; drop.
Hours and hours in the sun, day finally waning. Nearby, a woman with blonde hair and enormous blue eyes begins to glow in the dusk, gaining force in the waning light like some summer planet moving toward the horizon. On her back, propped up on her elbows, staring out to sea. Giving me a smile each time I pass, coming in from yet another session of porpoising in the shore break, a nod as if of approval: as if only the two of us can comprehend the secret of this light, these waves.
She heard it, she says, as a riddle. A bell rings. A man dies. A bell rings. You can ask questions to get at the riddle, as she had to. For example, is there more than one bell? Did the man die on land? It turns out the “riddle” would be very hard to solve without clues, even once you establish that the man died in the water, and that at least one of the bells was a ship’s bell.
The story of the “riddle” is, finally, that there was a blind man, a very good swimmer, who swam in the ocean every day. Apparently the blind man’s practice was to put an alarm clock in the sand set to ring after a half hour. He’d hear the bell ring and would come in, guided by the sound. One day, however, a ship was passing just before the half-hour mark, and the bell the blind man heard—sound travels well in the water, she explains—was the ship’s, so the blind man began to follow the ship out to sea. This, she says, is a true story, that is, the person who told the “riddle” to her said it was a true story.
Blind man in the water, alarm clock on the beach. Improbable; unsatisfying. Nonetheless, the idea of a blind swimmer following a ship’s bell out to sea…now this image lingers, provokes. One can see the blind man in the swell, stroke after stroke after stroke. One can hear the ship’s bell. One can see the blind man, a very strong swimmer, ship pulling away, blind man ever more distant from shore. Ever more alone.
God, what a fate. Blind and alone at sea. Surely a nightmare, to be in water without knowing where the shore is, how far. Not to know what else is in there with you.
Thinking about it, one searches for firm ground. At the very least, all this is good reason to knock on wood at the thought of being blind, to thank one’s lucky stars. Good reason too, one concludes, not to swim in the ocean on moonless nights. Yet is there not something more that disturbs in this story? The sense that, somehow, all of us are blind, all of us alone at sea?
(Drowning in) the sea of love. Soon after they met, one night they walked arm in arm on the long pier out on the bay, stopping every few minutes to embrace and kiss (at a suitable distance from the shark fishermen huddled in the cold by their coils of line and chain), sweep of water below and behind amplifying, extending, their falling in love.
Almost seven years later, she said, “We have to talk.”
“Let’s wait until next weekend,” he replied, and on Sunday it was to the pier and the bay that they went. A bright morning, fog burning off by eleven, lots of families out with their children, Latinos, African-Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Anglos of various ethnicities and persuasions, Serbian to post-punk, the multicultural/multiracial northern California of the very late twentieth century.
When, as they walked, she asked him the question she’d waited to insist on getting an answer to, the question he’d long been avoiding, when she at long last demanded to know, he could not believe he was actually saying the words. The truth if not elicited then made feasible by the expanse of water, the space above it, the light. As if only such open water allowed him to give so much pain.
Selected from Thomas Farber’s book, On Water (The Ecco Press, 1994).