The boy dreaded bath time till his mother came up with the brilliant scheme of linking that loathsome ritual with the telling of fanciful stories, hoping, thereby, to lead him by sleight of hand to the virtues of cleanliness. His mother was of an unusual cast of mind, some might well call it morbid, and her stories were always on the macabre side and quite often preposterous, therefore a great delight to her son. Years later, as a grown man, a renowned poet no less, he still remembered those times and tales fondly, one in particular…
One day as he walked on the beach, sun high in the sky and climbing, he saw a golden chain lying on the sand across his path. It ran straight down to the shoreline and disappeared into the sea. The chain was archaic, burnished links of circles and infinities ending in a serpentine ring. He looked around to see if anyone else had noticed, but there was no one nearby.
Greed getting the better of his reluctance to dirty his hands, he reached down and picked up the chain, giving it a little tug and expecting to see the other end leap from the waters. Instead, the chain grew taut and held tight. He tried again, but to no avail. Unwilling to forgo his lucky find and determined to see what was at the other end, he stood firm and pulled with all his might. His efforts were not in vain: when he pulled as hard as he could, he felt a little give — as when a tug of war starts to turn your way — and whatever was at the other end of the chain inched slightly closer.
“Eppur si muove,” he smiled to the sea.
The gain was short held though and was taken back with a swift counter tug from the deep — not as if the chain were snagged but as if there were something at the other end pulling back. He paused for a moment, caught his breath, and dug himself in for one last try. Mustering all his strength, with a final heroic heave the resistance gave way and sent him sprawling backwards onto the sand.
Then a great din arose: from far out at sea it sounded like a roaring whirlpool, and from deep within the planet, like machinery grinding to a halt. Worry washed over him as he stood up, brushed the sand from his body, and looked down at the chain coiled loosely at his feet. He noticed people starting to gather in small clusters along the beach, gesturing emphatically toward the sky and the horizon.
He wanted to wash his hands.
But the sound grew louder and his alarm grew with it. He imagined a tsunami in the making, a great wall of water rushing toward him. He thought about grabbing the chain and making a quick getaway before anyone noticed him, but something prevented him from moving.
Emerging from these turbulent thoughts, looking up from the chain and back out to sea, he was dumbfounded by what he saw: the water had receded far down the beach, farther than he had ever seen before, even at the lowest of low tides. Following the water’s retreat, first with his eyes then with his feet, he ran toward the ebbing sea but just couldn’t catch up.
“Come back, come back,” he cried to the sea, but it turned a deaf ear and the waters did flee.
He looked with horror at the ground all around him, littered with myriad fish and creatures of the deep, some familiar but many strange and wonderful, all flailing about in the violent frenzy of unexpected imminent death. And in the distance, a sight that sucked his breath away — two dying giants, a mother and her calf, beached in the middle of the ocean floor, crushed by loving gravity, their song turned muffled scream.
The man remembered the time as a boy when he accidentally smashed the aquarium and how all the fish jittered about on the floor, dancing spasmodically till they suffocated, while his mother looked on and laughed. This was worse.
Sensing the gravity of the situation and suspecting somehow he was to blame, he stopped dead in his tracks as the sea disappeared over the horizon with a final gurgling slurp — then all was silent. As far as his eyes could see, what was just a short time before a vast heaving ocean brimming with life, was now a motionless desert strewn with corpses, glittering in the light of the stationary sun.
And the people, who had formed a mob by that time, slowly advanced upon him. They glared at him and whispered to one another words he could not hear, and some pointed to the chain at his feet and others to the sun hanging still in the sky.
His eyes followed the chain as it ran out of sight in the distance, and an intimation of the truth rippled through him.
“Oh why, oh why, did it have to be me?” He cried to the dead, for no more was the sea.
He fell to his knees awash in guilt-grief, transfixed like the earth on its axis.
The mob encircled the kneeling figure and without words, without protest, looped the chain around his neck. Splitting into two groups, they took up the chain on either side of him and tugged till his head popped off his body and landed on the sand.
Eyes rolling in their sockets, the grimacing head seemed to be trying to say something, mouthing words slowly and deliberately. A few people gathered round and tried to read his lips, but decided it was a language they didn’t understand and soon gave up.
The man remembered splashing in the tub and laughing with delight as his grinning mother rolled her eyes and pointed to the drain, and how he’d jerk the chain and watch the sea gurgle away yet again.
Joseph Messina lives in Osaka, Japan. He graduated from Vassar College.