May 21, 2005

Silent above me

Half-moon is a strange time to be on a beach, and it seems especially so on this beach that slopes so gradually out to sea. With the moon in this in-between mood, high tide and low differ only marginally, by a few dozen feet at most. One blazing glorious afternoon, I step out by myself for a swim at what must be the tide's lowest point. The beach stretches on either side of me, must be easily 2-3 km of sand and the occasional jumble of rocks.

On that entire stretch, I am the only human.

Yet in the misty distance beyond the northern end of the beach, I can see the buildings of the city we have escaped from, probably a dozen crow-flying km. Thick bunches of buildings that I know, standing here all alone, are filled with humans enough to turn this beach into a noisy carnival. For the moment, I'm glad they're there while I'm here, contemplating the low tide.

My shirt and slippers deposited on a rock, I walk into the warm water. And I walk, and walk some more. The waves roll steadily in, bumping gently at me as they head for land and dissipation. As I get further and further out, to essentially open sea where I can see the swell of the waves stretches as far as the beach does, and I'm still less than waist deep in the water, they bump at me with greater force, the larger ones sometimes nearly pushing me over. The white-flecked ones, foaming as they crest, are the angrier-looking. But the ones without that foamy fringe, the ones that are only swift long humps in the water, seem more powerful, more silently intent on toppling me.

I'm walking because I want to get deep enough to swim. But I'm already so far out that I can't see my shirt any more, and someone's elaborate sand sculpture beside where I entered the sea is barely discernible -- and it's still just waist level here. So eventually I give up on waiting and fling myself headfirst into the next wave. Nice and easy, I tell myself, keep those arms and legs moving. But as the waves wash over me, I know I am making no progress against them, or certainly less progress than when I was walking.

And when I raise my head to breathe and look, what I see sends a shiver of -- well, not fright, but something, through my body.

It's not that I'm frightened. I'm no expert swimmer, but I'm confident enough in my swimming, and in what I know about tides and the sea -- and besides which, I'm still only in waist deep water! -- to know that there's nothing to alarm me in this situation I'm in.

Yet I am also conscious of how far I am from shore and how alone I am on this beach. And there is this sight in front of me.

Thing is, while walking, the waves were powerful, but visually hardly threatening. But now that I'm swimming, they are at eye-level. Or in fact, substantially higher than eye-level. And I know suddenly what a difference that makes.

So I look up from my stroke to see an enormous silent foam-less swell bear down on me and it feels like I'm looking up at it with my neck tilted all the way back and in that fraction of a second before it hits me, I'm acutely, physically, tinglingly aware of the great relentless power in this thing that rises up as far as I can -- not see, but sense, in that fraction of a second -- on either side of me. A great relentless power that has travelled uninterrupted, as far as I know, from Arabia leagues away over the horizon, to this point where it is poised to break on and around and over ... me.

No, I'm not afraid. That rational part of me says, it's just another wave, what's the matter with you? But it flings me up then down and speeds towards shore, and after several more do the same, that tingling finally gets to me. I turn to head back. Within the minute, my chest bumps gently on the sand below with each stroke.

I stand and walk the rest of the way. I'm still alone, and I can still see those bunched towers of the big city. The waves? Piffle.

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