Sublimity in Turquoise Blue
Saltwater, turquoise blue, climbs into alpine waves, inchoate, and white foam crests at the tips. They reach to the sky as if the foam might lift off and float into the clouds.
It could happen—saltwater clouds. It could happen in a poem, on a canvas, a symphony. Saltwater clouds are a metaphorical possibility for an artist, for a painter, but I'm not an artist today, nor am I a painter. Today, I'm drowning in Mexico.
Survival for Artists 101
When faced with near-death experiences, artists tend to take pause. Artists are no good at survival. They see pain as swatches of experience, and the mere act of survival is too precious to ignore in lieu of life. To the artist, sublimity is a rare gift, so it is one not to be wasted. For this reason, never leave an artist alone gazing into the face of death. The artist will likely fall in love.
"Swim! You have to swim!" Peter is at least five yards away, and I'm still watching the turquoise wave as it forms before me. So tall, so beautiful.
"I can't." It's all I can manage out of fear and beauty, and Peter cannot hear me; he has disappeared behind another wave. The churning water twists my arms and legs, and I kick wearily. "I can't."
I can't fully taste the saltwater on my lips or feel the drops of saltwater trickling down into my lungs. I can't fully sense these things. I know they are there, but I can't experience them as they're meant to be experienced, because the turquoise water is coiling higher onto itself, arching over me, and my breath is shallow. I'm caught in the depths, in the salvage azul. The ocean is more powerful than I'll ever be.
Survival for Artists: Drowning
A shock must be administered to pull an artist out of herself. Even threat of death is not enough. One must ruffle the most primal and inward sensibilities in order to break through an experience of sublimity. One must Snap! the artist out, so to speak. Using the ego is most often the best way. Even in the face of sublimity, an artist can always feel her need to be better than what she is.
Sublimity gives way to terror when I turn toward the beach, the narrow expanse of dry, safe sand. There I see the beachcombers and walkers now taking pause in their strolls to watch the two tourists caught in the waves. What must they be thinking? It can't be good. They just stand there, watching.
Foolish. Yes, I feel foolish.
A creeping, vulnerability pulses at the back of my skull, erupting in tiny fissures: fear, excitement, lack of oxygen, humility, embarrassment, the kids, God, the kids.
God? Agnostic atrophy.
Time spreads seconds into slow chronologies of one instant after another—kick, breathe, kick, breathe—and a drop of white foam falls down ricocheting off the water's surface. It lands in my eye. Saltwater in the eye. Salt water tears. No, not tears, just one tear. No need to be dramatic.
But there are so many drops—water, water everywhere—but this is a story about water, not water itself, and so one drop will do.
Saltwater tears are for the crocodiles, and they don't swim in the ocean. Crocodiles swim in the lagoon on the other side of the peninsula, I think, and I'm full of adrenaline now, not tears. Tears are for after, so it is a false tear that has landed in my eye. Just one. One before the wave crashes down.
Turning toward shore, the wave grows behind me. I don't see it, but I know it's there. I'm watching the rocks. They mock me; the flat rocks that all but hide in the sand, lining the edge between surf and beach. They know. They know they're the only reason I can't let the waves roll me into shore. They know.
I saw them before, the rocks. I felt them, too. They felt like foreboding.
"Foreboding how?" my professor would say.
"Foreboding what," I answer. "Death warnings."
Survival for Artists: Collecting Resonance
Details. Always the details. An artist should never let details go unnoticed. Painting the right details will resonate with the observer one hundred years from now.
"Think before you swim," the rocks said to me forebodingly. I heard their warnings, and I had even thought to pause, but I'm always pausing, always thinking. For once, I wanted to swim first, think later. And so I did. I swam first, think later, thought later, will think, will have thought.
I'm thinking now.
The rocks seem so far away now that I'm in the water, but one strong wave, one wrong break. . . . I push the thought away.
It's much easier to recognize danger when in the moment, but so much easier to consider the danger thereafter.
Breathe. The turquoise coil falls, breathe, and I dive beneath the foam. The wave pulls, beating against my back, churning my arms and legs. Air, I need air, but the wave churns, and it won't let me surface.
How far behind is the next one? They're coming much faster now. From shore, they had seemed so graceful.
My chest hurts.
Survival for Artists: Hallucinations
Let hallucinations take the artist where they may. Life, death, whatever the outcome, at least the surreal will offer something more than the humdrum experience. The upshot is, if the artist survives, she will have something much more interesting to share.
Stay beneath the water, the voice says. It's my voice, I know this, but it's the only voice speaking, and so it would be rude to ignore it. Stay here, beneath the water, where it's safe. I can feel the beginning of the next wave pulling, and so I swim to the bottom and stay. I stay and open my eyes.
The saltwater stings, but I keep them open anyway. The water pushes, and I push back, letting air bubble out of my nose.
The tide pulls me to where the water is deeper, gentler, but my lungs won't hold forever; I know this, but there's no negotiating with water and waves.
My chest hurts.
Survival for Artists: Emotion
When the artist is angry and unable to change or control the situation, it is best for the artist to blame the offending situation on someone else. It will not change the outcome of the situation, but it will help to funnel the artist's emotion. Family and friends are good for these purposes. They offer the most opportunity for practice in times of minor stress, so when trauma hits, the artist will be prepared.
"Come on, the water's fine." I can still see Peter's frame against the approaching waves, calling me out. It's all his fault, and now I'm in this damnable ocean beneath the waves.
Just off in the distance, beneath the water, I see two figures playing and laughing on the ocean floor, just as they were on the beach before I swam out.
Two figures—boy and girl. They are playing in the sand, and I know who they are, even before I can see their faces, hidden beneath blue and pink sombreros. They are as familiar to me as my own skin. Giggles erupt from under the wide hats.
We had purchased them, the sombreros not the children, at the Mayan market, along the dirt road that led us to Chichén Itzá. The Mayans stood in front of the market passing out free shots of tequila.
The hats were so big that we couldn't help but laugh. "Look, Mommy." My daughter grabbed her hips and clapped her feet on the floor. The Mayans had laughed with us.
"Look, Mommy." My daughter's voice is now muted beneath the water. She eyes me with big brown eyes and sunburned cheeks then points to the hole she's made in the ocean floor. A perimeter of little red flags stands guard around it.
"The flags mean that you shouldn't go in there. The water is too rough." My son was always the practical one.
I reach out to them, my daughter and son, a gesture I've repeated so many times over the years, a stroke to their cheeks, their hair. A quick, gentle gesture that always meant there would be more of them. Never had I touched their cheeks believing it to be the last.
Certainly, this is the last. Just one more touch.
In a flash of light they disappear, and in their places appear litters of laughing resort tourists reclining on plastic chaises holding margaritas and bottled waters in their hands. One man holds up a tiny plastic pyramid.
"I came to Mexico, and all I got was this plastic Mayan temple." He thinks he's funny.
He hands me the temple. The inscription reads, "Chichén Itzá." I have one back in the hotel room, but I don't tell him this. I would never have bought it if not for my daughter's batting eyelashes. These things help me sleep at night: "I'd never have done it if it weren't for the children's eyelashes."
"What would the ancient Mayans think?" I say more to myself then the man, but he answers me anyway.
"They're dead, you know." He looks at me the way a conservative looks at a liberal, and I look back at him, a liberal watching a conservative. "You know they're dead, right? These new Mayans, they aren't the ancient ones."
I might have said something spiteful, certainly sarcastic, but I'm drowning, and so I nod. I'm not proud of it, but sometimes placation is the mother of survival, and if it works . . .
The man seems to dismiss the tension between us and looks at the plastic pyramid in his hand. "I bought this one off'a one of those contemporary Mayans at the Chicken Itza walkway. You know, outside the watering hole. They wouldn't sell them if they minded."
I almost correct his 'chicken,' but it would be a waste of air. Besides, he said it just to rouse me. I can see it in the narrow of his eyes. The man sips his margarita then disappears into the blue water.
In his place appears Rafael, the Chichén Itzá tour guide. Rafael reclines, grinning on his chaise lounge. He's holding a bottle of water.
"What're you doing here?" I ask with an emphasis on you.
"I'm a guide aren't I?" He holds up the bottle. "Gringos can't handle the Mexican water. Our water is too rich with . . ." He pauses for the right word. "Minerals? Yes, the minerals. Our water is too rich with the minerals. Our water flows through the caves, through the Earth. Earth water, like blood."
I nod in understanding, but water knowledge has little consequence when a person is drowning.
"But why are you here?" Emphasis on here.
"I'm your tour guide."
"But I'm drowning."
"Yes, I know." He smiles.
"I need a lifeguard."
"You're in Mexico, Señora. There are no life guarders here. In Mexico, you have to guard your own. Didn't you see the flags?"
I would have offered the obligatory sigh, out of frustration, but being under the water and all.
"I can't help you. I'm not real." Rafael shrugs then stands. "But I can guide you through your drowning." He smiles and turns to face the Mayan temple now rising from the ocean floor. There are red flags all around it. Rafael points to them. "The flags, they're there for a reason."
"Yes." In my youth, I'd have rolled my eyes, but through the years, I've learned to take my lessons with more grace.
Rafael gives me a fatherly glance then leads me to the temple. We walk hand in hand. "The temple isn't particularly big," he says, "not like the sun temple, but it's tall."
Not tall enough to crest the water's surface, of course. Irony and all.
"Kulkulkan," Rafael points to the long stone serpents that border either side of the temple steps. "The feathered serpent god." Both mouths gape open with fangs and rolling, distended tongues. "The temple faces the sun's path." Rafael points up to the surface where the turquoise blue waves still roll. "The Mayans followed the sun and the moon."
"What is the serpent for?"
"A reminder that life renews."
"But I don't want to renew. I want to live. I want to live this life, now."
He smiles and points to the red flags again.
"I want to go home."
"You can't go home yet, señora. You're on vacation." With a wave of his hand, the temple turns into a ball court with high stone walls and carvings of eagle-headed warriors. Spectators line the wall tops and risers at either end. A temple rests at one side, and in it, a stone jaguar sits. Priests gather at its sides and bear their jade-encrusted teeth. They're waiting, watching.
"To give one's blood to the Earth is an honorable and worthy death," Rafael says. "Are you worthy?" He looks at me, running his eyes over my body, and suddenly I'm no longer afraid of the waves, the drinking water, or even the saltwater crocodiles. I'm afraid of that look in Rafael's eye.
"The Mayan women . . ." He reaches out his hand. "They wear white dresses with bright floral patterns. The dress signifies purity and connection to the Earth. Are you pure, señora? Are you connected?" Rafael smiles and moves his hand over my sunburned skin, my neck, shoulder, the curve of my breast and waist. Salt water pushes into my nostrils, but I push the water back out again, and Rafael rests his hand on my belly. "Mothers who die in childbirth have a place in heaven."
What about mothers who kill their children in childbirth?
With his other hand, Rafael presents a necklace made of stone beads and seashells. He places it around my neck then presents another necklace like the first and places it around my neck, too. He layers the necklaces, one after another, weighting me until I can no longer move. My feet are like anchors at the ocean floor, and my arms drift gently with the blue turquoise water, churning, churning. At least I'm not caught in the waves.
I look down to see the stone and seashell beads and notice instead that my bathing suit is in fact white with bright floral patterns. Woman sacrificed, neither pure nor connected.
Rafael turns as another man approaches. This man is smaller and bronzed. A mop of black hair drifts atop his head. He has a hooked nose like an eagle, and at either side sit eyes like almonds. Pieces of jade hang from his nose and ears. He says something, but I can't understand his words. We both look to Rafael.
"I don't understand him either. My ancestors were Aztec." Rafael turns in a huff, swimming away. Apparently, we have offended him.
The Mayan holds a ball up in his hand, and with the other, he points to a stone ring at the top edge of the wall. He wants me to put the ball through the stone ring. I've seen the movies; I know what they'll do if I hit this ball through that ring. I don't want to die, not like this. This is a man's death, not a woman's.
Did I say that aloud? The necklaces are so heavy.
The Mayan points to the stone ring again, and I feel a length of wood in my hand. It's a bat. Damn, where did this bat come from? Mayans didn't use bats.
He throws the ball, and it wobbles through the water. When it pauses in front of me, I hit it. I hit the ball through the ring.
I didn't mean to do it. Reflex and all.
Applause grows in ear piercing waves, and the Mayan smiles. A jaguar priest approaches from the end of the court. He wears feathers and jade. His jade-encrusted teeth make me shudder, almost as much as the long flint knife in his hand, and he motions to the sandy floor where I kneel, no strength left for fighting.
Head down, I see the weapon's shadow. It lengthens then shortens as it raises above the priest's head, and I think, this will be painful. He won't be able to slice quickly with that blade. He'll have to saw and cut.
Survival for Artists: Blood Sacrifices
When the end comes, the artist will give up. No need to fight. Dying will be more beautiful for the artist, if she accepts her end. Then she can focus on the details of the experience.
Do it quickly. I think this but don't say it. Honorable death . . . I can hardly hold my head up, and the priest is taking too long to strike. It's impolite to play with food and sacrifices.
The stone and seashell necklaces are so heavy.
I try to keep my head parallel to the sandy floor for the priest—might at least die well—but the necklaces pull me down like magnets to the ocean floor, and I rest my forehead against the sand. The necklaces slip off, one by one, and lighter now, a new wave, powerful, pulls me into its coil. The blade grazes my back, and saltwater stings at the cut. Blood and burning never felt so good, and air washes over me.
Survival for Artists: Second Chances
If life gives an artist a second chance, the artist should take it, kicking and screaming. This is it. Don't fuck it up.
"Help." I try to scream, but my breath is shallow. I'm back under water again, and the waves are moving me closer to shore. Sand brushes my feet. When the wave spits me out, I hear Peter's voice.
"You have to swim." He's close.
"I can't hold you. You have to swim."
"So am I."
I look toward the sandy shore and the rocks, all in a row. More strangers are watching us now.
"Help!" Peter calls, but they don't come. Strangers are too smart to help strangers when the water is dangerous.
"Give me your arm." I duck beneath the wave, but I'm a fraction too late, and it takes me with it.
Such a simple thing, an arm, but the feel of Peter's skin is like a deep breath of dry desert air, and he drags me through the water closer to him, closer to the shore. Treading.
"Swim!" Peter pulls, and I kick, pull, breathe. We climb our way toward the shore, but this is not a mountain, it is an ocean, so we tread, kick, breathe. The wave crashes down, and we duck, roll, kick.
There is a gulley of sand at the shoreline, soft, between the rocks, red flags interspersed between the strangers still watching us from the safe, dry sand.
The next wave comes—breathe, duck.
When we push up again, our feet are touching. Touching. Just barely, but finally touching. Breathe.
We cut our bodies sideways as the next wave crashes. The water rolls us, but when we stand, again, our chests are now out of the water.
Waists, knees, calves.
We fall in two salted and fleshy heaps, turning, panting, and watching the turquoise coils. The white foam tickles at our feet.
Yes, it's beautiful, but we are not romantics at wartime. We're lovers survived.
"Are you okay?" A deep, accented voice calls from behind, and Peter turns to answer it.
"You shouldn't . . ." The rest of the man's warnings fall away into crashing waves and my heavy panting. I can hear Peter's tone, if not his words. He's agreeing with the man.
A great humility, it is, letting others see the edge of one's self.
The man with the deep voice walks on, whispering about "gringos" and "tourists." I turn to Peter, and see the fear and exhaustion on his face, the line between his brows. They are the same fear and exhaustion that most certainly rests upon my own.
"You didn't leave me," I say this without smiling. Death does not take its passing with smiles, but Peter smiles. With fierce eyes, the color of avocados, he smiles, still panting. Then he kisses me, and the saltwater tastes good on his lips. "You gave me your arm."
Never give your arm to a distressed treader. Unless you love them, only if you love them.
"Of course I did," he says this as if it was principle, a scientific fact. Love and science, they are not always so complementary.
Survival for Artists: Afterword
Survival is more beautiful for artists. It is a taste of death, a renewal of life. It is the essence.
We both turn to the turquoise coils and their foamy tipped edges, where, somewhere between them, we met our breaking points. We don't speak of it, edges and breaking, but we know the truth of it as we sit side by side and panting on the wet sand. We know the truth of it, and we share it in a squeeze of our hands. Another coil of water crashes to the earth. The echo of it pounds in our ears.
Rising slowly, careful of the ebb and flow, we start back to the resort beach just a few yards away, ignoring the straggles of spectators still watching us. We walk back to our children still playing in the sand with their resort club friends and Señorita Maria. We walk back to our lives, our blue and pink souvenir sombreros and plastic Mayan temple. Shame or courage walks with us. Perhaps both. Yes, it is both.
The kids are giggling and digging in their holes, and they wave to us.
"Mommy, look." My daughter smiles. "Can I bury you?"
Peter and I share a silent understanding.
"Me, too. Dad, you can get in mine!" Our son grins, and both of them bat their eyelashes.
So Peter and I kneel, both of us shaking, unable to do anything but be near them. We do as they say and climb into our holes that they have dug for us while we were drowning. Yes, the irony lay palpable within them.
The children giggle, throwing sand on our bellies, and Jorge, the resort waiter, walks by.
"Bottled water, please." And I take pause at the request before turning to Peter. "Do you know why we can't handle the water in Mexico?"
He isn't listening. He's laughing and shaking and gazing at our son. Precious time gifted.
"It's too rich," I say to no one in particular. "The water is too rich."
"I thought you said the water had poo in it." My daughter offers this much louder than necessary and throws a pail of sand on my legs.
"Yes, honey, I did, but I've learned a few things since we've come to Mexico, things I didn't know before, and on the point of water, I was entirely mistaken."
Rae Bryant is a short story author, poet, columnist, assistant editor for Fantasy Magazine, on staff with Weird Tales, and a reviewer for The Fix. She is a 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers' Prize and editor nominated for StorySouth's Million Writers Award. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Whidbey Writers MFA Zine, Farrago's Wainscot, Literary Traveler, and Southern Fried Weirdness, among others. With a Bachelors in Humanities/English and Literature, Rae is currently finishing an M.A. in writing at Johns Hopkins. She lives in a little valley just outside Washington D.C. Read more about Rae at RaeBryant.com.