Water on the Heart
Written by Lucy Butler
Illustrated by Hojjat Azampour
I can always conjure your approach: the little figure coming into focus, composing itself step by step from shimmer and sea foam and cloud fleck. Closer. A momentary dispersal as the sun cuts a great swath and an oyster catcher dips impossibly black, avian calligraphy against the pearly sky, and then you are before me.
The advantage of being able to see people coming from such a distance is that I can disappear. You thought you saw me coming around the side of the house with a blue bucket in my hand, some mussel shells maybe to toss back into the tide. But you are disoriented by the sun which is low and sinking in and through what could be me, coming around the house with a bucket full of shells.
Deep colours bleed, my beach towel tells me. A bucket full of bloody water, perhaps. Water on the heart can kill you.
Resting my head on the image of you for a moment: I thought it would fall away at the slightest pressure but in fact it holds firm. I am not defeated but I am black and spiked and strange like the fish that washed up today. Something washed up, but things only wash up when they’re finished, right? Everything interesting happens so deep you can’t see it without extraordinary equipment (probes, cameras) and we don’t even have a television, we don’t even have a light switch, so where does this leave us? Wandering the shoreline being so surprised by the shadows, the scraps, the remnants of things; having surrendered their own meanings to great battles in the depths, they are vessels for mine. What about you, then? Washed up, washed out. I was hand-washing socks when you arrived, socks were in the bucket, not shells. Because you saw me, of course you did, and I didn’t run, even as I put your pieces together.
Your clay chest sticky and silt-smelling, where the hold I have on you will be fossilised: those who come later will look warily and wonder at the hands that held fast there–angular hands, angler’s hands–I say you washed up but we both know better. Artist’s hands, my grandmother said, and I suppose they are, busily sculpting your insides.
Flicking a cigarette butt into the ashes of a driftwood fire: those gestures, the tilt of head and turn of wrist that keep you in the flow. It takes a lot of patient observation before these movements become perceptible, movements beyond pragmatism, closer to grace. Composing you single-handedly? It’s what I do, and I’m not alone. I have a paint-by-numbers, but my mind’s eye is squinting deeply seaward, and I realise: it won’t do, it won’t do for you at all. It would be a waste.
So, it’s impossible to touch this without going right over-the-top. Gritty shifting wind of thought inflames my mind’s eye, streaks it sunset colours, while I bake myself black in the campfire of an obscure courtship. My tongue is still an open road and my good eye is on the horizon and no it isn’t always metaphorical with me, to answer your question, which was anyway rhetorical. Where are you in all this? A question I ask myself often and I would sincerely like an answer. A broad hand print in your soft seam of self, fingers spread. I am holding on in the washings in and out of what is there all the time, in the bucket of soapy water spilling over my calves because I’ve always been impatient to go nowhere in particular: it’s the nowhere made particular for which I can’t wait.
Coming around the corner of the cottage with my blue bucket full of sloshing good sense and domesticity, the whole scene archaic and romantic and ridiculous. I feel sensible and clean and here you are composing yourself from fragments of my beachscape, coming towards me not in a smooth and logical progression, but in fits and starts. You disperse and recompose. You, in this comically non-technological domain, are pixilated, and each time you reappear in that jerky digitised way your resolution is better, until finally you are opaque, or so my eyes inform me (eyes are informants, the children’s game clues us to this: eyes are spies). I find myself flushed and striding forwards on strong limbs dripping soapy sock water, but I am far from resolved. I guess I’d better put this bucket down and test your flesh.
This isn’t a test, you tell me, but surely these are the matters by which we are judged?
Still overcast by the image of your return. Rinse and repeat. Another domestic aphorism.
You are as forthcoming as the river stones that you collect and arrange so artfully on the window sills, where they soak up sun as if they could ripen, soften, give. As if. You dive for them in deep green stillness, and that counts for something. Counting the stones now as I wait for you to dress, counting them from left to right and back again.
A crystal turns nonchalantly in the kitchen window, its iridescence muffled by cobwebs. I woke this morning feeling better about things, but now there is someone coming. Visitors are always frightening when you live so far away.
I dreamed this morning that some strange men gave me a baby, saying, Here just hold this till we get back. But it was unsafe to wait, so I wrapped the baby in a purple beach towel and started walking down the coast. The longer I carried the bundle the more I doubted that it was a baby. It could’ve been a stone, a swaddled stone, or a large potato. I began to wonder if I could set it down beside the sea and go on unburdened, arms swinging. More than once I stopped, glanced around me, and bent to put the bundle down, only to be stilled just short of the ground by a barely perceptible twitching from inside the towel and a deep sense of dread. When it emerged from the towel, whatever it was, it would be purple. The towel’s tag told me in no uncertain terms: deep colours bleed.
Right, ready. You emerge, wooden, not stiff but solid, irrefutable, chin a little red from shaving. Your face could well have been whittled: all raw angles corresponding to some rustic map of male beauty. And you perversely weigh this disintegrating beach house down with river stones. You disappear into the mouth of the inlet and you follow it upstream until it runs deep and narrow and the bush creeps down to the water to caress its own reflection. Eventually it becomes a gorge with sheer rock sides and there is nowhere to go but in, there is no way of staying dry, you have to dive. It is so green the water, the colour of the heart, and if you were evolved enough you could probably breathe it. You have never taken me here, but I’ve been twice on my own, and I know that this is where you go. This is where you find the stones. This is where you sever me. I suspect you have some ritual, so that you remain steep, deep, sheer.
Meanwhile, I splash and drizzle, holding nothing in reserve. Keeping nothing for a rainy day. You are the only person with whom I would play this silly bloody game, this is my oath (without a television we play a lot of games). You are the only person with whom I will shuffle symbols from square to square, invested in the unreality of winning and losing. Playing anyone else, I have the urge to shout: But there’s nothing at stake! At which point they’ll invite me to put down a couple of coins. But with you it’s different. With you, there is always something to lose.
You produce words like stones: smooth, impervious offerings, utter in their shape and weight. I fill my pockets with them as we walk down the beach, sinking deeper every step. Here, you say suddenly, sadistically, Catch!
It’s just the ego, you tell me, again, through a mouthful of toothpaste. We scrub our teeth at an old enamel sink attached to an outside wall of the beach house, a mirror fixed above it; the sink empties straight onto the sand below. A shower head extends from the wall and we shower in full view of the world. It’s a solar shower, so on grey days the water is cold. Not a perfect system, but I feel cleaner after showering here, surrounded by sea and sky, exfoliating my body with handfuls of sand, than I ever have emerging from a steamy shower cubicle. You spit and finish your sentence: . . . creating these dramas of acceptance and rejection. Feeding off these dramas like some insatiable animal. The ego will never be satisfied by the truth of things.
I spit a foaming white patch on the sand for the seagulls to puzzle over, stick my toothbrush in the cup, and go back inside.
It’s becoming crowded: the cottage isn’t big enough for the two of us plus two egos, and you increasingly insist on making the distinction. I say things like: Could you ask your ego to make me a cup of tea please, mine can’t be bothered getting up? But you are starving your ego, apparently–it’s curled up dying in the corner–leaving my rather large and robust ego to take care of the domestics.
I spend most afternoons out walking, to give you and your ego some space. Wandering down the beach in a red summer dress, my ego glides along beside me, feeling quite pleased with itself, while your ego watches wanly from the veranda. I take my ego to the cafe, read it a novel, or find it someone to talk to. But walking back home along the beach at dusk my ego goes pale and begins to quake, threatens to take a turn like a gothic heroine and has to be sat down. I hold its hand and say: It’s okay, you’re okay, be brave, until the colour returns to its cheeks.
When we get home we find you lying on the couch, your face eroded, eaten away like the beach beneath us. Must be a combination of the angle and the candle light. Without thinking, I say: My ego asked me to ask you to tell your ego that it has a crush on it. You lift your half-formed face from your book, stare at me for a moment, make a disgusted noise, and return to your reading. I go straight to bed but my ego prattles on about this and that, rerunning the day’s conversations, keeping me awake long into the night.
Stroking the surface of your brow as if to smooth the black furrows of thought. Your cheeks are blank pages, the empty, unnumbered, place-holding pages at the beginning of books. I run my fingers lightly left to right. You turn on the lumpy sea-smelling sofa with your eyes closed. You have a migraine I guess, or maybe you’re depressed. You are soluble, after all. You are a body of water in retreat.
Even now, it is as much curiosity as the desire to give comfort that moves me. (The baby I’m forever given in my dreams, that damn swaddled stone.) I press my palms flat and firm against your cheeks, closing the covers. Pressed flower between the pages of a strictly seasonal story. I’ll open it on a wintry afternoon in a city far away and still smell the sea in it.
Sub-something seasick blues. So deeply sick of casting word-stones into your well to find they make no splash, when I’m a puddle person, stirred up by the slightest breeze. Or so you would have me believe.
Coastal erosion of my critical faculties. Returning to civilisation, I find car commercials moving. I become immersed in the quality of light.
Here I am, pegging washing in the rain. Because it will be fine again. Nothing much new to say about love. But still. Thunder claps erratically above me. Yes, just like that, my laughter wide enough to let the rain in. Love is like thunder, giving itself a rousing round of applause while the audience, the intended object, runs for cover.
Lucy Butler recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has published fiction internationally, most recently in Snorkel, Turbine, and Hue & Cry. She currently lives in Golden Bay, New Zealand, where she is working on her first novel. (Updated Sep. 2012)
Hojjat Azampour is an Iranian animator and illustrator. He has a BA in graphic design and an MA in animation. He currently lives in Tehran. (Updated Sep. 2012)