2017-SA-SSCOMP
SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED | WINNERS ANNOUNCED 31 MAY

2009 Fourth Place - The Swelling Sea by Tarryn Saunders


The Swelling of the Sea - by Tarryn Saunders


The seagulls are like banshees. The waves swell and grow like little bellies. She holds the child tightly in her thin arms. As she speaks, her lip lightly brushes against its gemsquash head. Its head bobs up and down like a buoy on the water. And she wishes that they could change places, that the little pink gemsquash head could be out there in the waves. The thought is almost amusing.

Darkly, darkly it buzzes, this strange ocean current reeling her mind to strange thoughts. The ebbing rhythm and the frown of the windy evening make her lethargic. She tenses her body. She knows that if she drifts into a dream she will drop off the bridge and be carried away by the current, and she will drop the little pink child into the sea. She bends her head slightly, and looks down at the ocean. She imagines breathing deeply, letting go, and falling, almost accidentally, into oblivion.

“Do you see them?” she says to the child, and to herself, “And do you hear them screaming? They are like you.” And as if the child understands, she feels him start to whimper, the prelude to that horrid, soul destroying screech from which he cannot be disassociated. Again the creature in her mind shares an amusing thought. What if she were to throw him high up, up, up, into the sky among the gulls? Would he fly away with them? Would he fight over fish entrails and peck at his brothers and sisters and go away to preen and to roost and lay eggs?

The child’s head is like an egg, squirming about on a plump neck. She places a cold salty hand on it, and tries to keep it still. No use. Its flesh is warm and clammy. There is a line where some saliva has dried. It disgusts her. Drool falls from the mouths of gulls as they rip a fish head in the sky, coming closer, closer. She begins to drift.

Once the child was a fish inside her womb. Warm. Wet. Wriggling. It swam around its bloody fishbowl like a parasite. Sometimes she would wake up in the dark of the night, delirious with dreaming that it would eat all her insides through the umbilical chord. Her kidneys. Her lungs. Her heart. She would wake up feeling the poisonous nausea and bend over the toilet bowl, retching. In her confusion she would fear she was bringing up the foetus through her gut.

For the first little while, she would wake her husband up to comfort her from these nightmares. He would smile vaguely and turn to face her, where she sat distraught, her vision blurry with a cataract of night time and tears. “Don’t worry, little one” he would say, tenderly touching what was then almost invisible. But as the weeks went by, her visibility was taken from her. The baby grew bigger as she disintegrated, become nothing to him. The woman, the lover, the wife, the friend, all she had been to him, was gone. She was merely the safe holding her husband’s investment.

Daylight and smiles and grocery stores. Colleagues and friends and doctors. Always, “how is the little one?” and never how she was. She longed to be asked how she was, and to be able to give an answer, the long, honest answer waiting to be set free. She would walk into a room, foetus first, as if it ran ahead like a messenger, telling everyone what she was soon to become: a young, happy mother, with a handsome, responsible husband. The glow of expectancy, the bright eyes of a new life. As the bump became larger and heavier, so did rumours of a little house with lace curtains. Pink dresses and whole-wheat bread. Church on Sundays. She hated the way people wanted to place their hands on her stomach. The way they joked about the pain, cooed about babies, stared at her belly with hungry eyes. She had to shop for maternity clothes, buy baby things. Linen with gaudy animals. Things that smelled sickly sweet. All this was supposed to be exciting. They always promised it would be. But all she felt was a deep, deep dread, waiting for the day it would not be able to grow any bigger, and erupt, to butcher her body.

It came into the world screaming, looking like an alien creature. She vomited for days. It came into the world screaming, and it still was. Inside her still was a tiny child that screamed and screamed and wouldn’t be lulled to sleep. 

A wave sprinkles her hair and face and she raises her eyebrows and whispers: “Shall I tell you about the sea?” she almost waits for an answer. “Listen now. Just listen. No one knows how big it is. They think they do. But nobody really knows. No one has been to its very depths, seen its deepest secrets, withstood the wrath of its highest waves, its most fearsome anger. Isn’t that how we are? You see those people playing on the beaches? They are just flirting. They think they are safe. Surfing, floating, splashing, being coy. Now wait until one of those children is sucked beneath a wave,” her voice grows stronger, more confident, she no longer speaks in a whisper, but as a teacher in a class. She sees the child’s eyes, now large and deep blue, as if her very soul is held somewhere beneath them, “Wait until she inhales some of the water and starts to cry. She will run to her mother, run to what she knows. She will become angry. First with the salt and the water, and later, as she realises what she is, she will become angry with herself. Wait, you will see. Just watch them. People think they are clever. They think they understand what is dark, what is enormous. We all long to swim the lengths into the unfathomable. But when we see that it is not all wonder, we stop. That is how you will be. The first time you realise that you have a self. That you have your little pink mask, and that you have your secret self. Wait until you have your first friend. Your first rejection. Then your first lover and all the hate that can be hidden. How you will want to pull them back, reel them in and keep them there. But the tighter you hold on, the stronger they will struggle, and the further they will run. They don’t really want to know how you are, or who you are. If you really want to survive, lie to them, and don’t let them dive in. And then you will realise that no matter what you do, you are ultimately alone.” She feels that she is finally speaking the truth, speaking what is real, what she knows, letting out the first tiny trickle of the silent stream that has lain locked inside her, she has let it out and it is flowing, flowing, the fear becoming stronger, and she wants to dissolve in it, become nothing and everything, so that the emptiness will cease. 

The child is writhing now, and squealing with more determination. “Hold still!” it makes her angry and she shakes it. It does the opposite and cries harder, louder. “Can’t you just listen to me? I just want to teach you!” she holds the child tighter, bruising the soft skin with her desperation. “Don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you. One day you will see that it really is like this. That we really are lost. You will learn to speak and to lie and to walk and to hide and to understand, and slowly, slowly, you will regret it all. You will regret sliding out of the womb!” Its face contorts. It is ugly. Its tongue lolls about in its pink mouth emitting spit and shrill squeals. Why is it here? Why is it still here? She wants to weep. She wants her tears to grow bigger and fall down, under the bridge. She will become her tears. She will merge with the sea. She will be gone, unrecognisable, unfathomable, not to be distinguished from the other drops that flow.

“What the hell are you doing?” her husband has returned from wherever he was. He stands, outraged. He looks so thin and frail. So lost and disorientated. Like she could just pick him up by the waist and snap him in half, or take him and stretch him thinner and thinner like toffee. It is almost funny. His footsteps bite the cement as he goes to her and takes the child with her contorted face and drool and gemsquash head and places her, like a crystal ornament, safely in his arms. He takes a moment to whisper something and rock his daughter slowly to the rhythm of the waves. Then he notices the tiny blue circles on her shoulders.

“What the hell are you doing? You’ve hurt her! Have you gone mad, Cecilia?”

Mad. Cecelia hates that word. But it doesn’t phase her now. Slowly and feebly she stretches out her arms and her fingers toward her husband.

“Give her here. Let me hold her. I want to hold my child. I was only telling her about the sea!” For a moment she feels the old pain, her body broken and bloody. She wants to be safe, curled up in a dark, dark, warm place. She does not have the energy to smile anymore, to laugh away the pathetic sight her husband has just witnessed. She can’t tell him it was one of her nightmares. A part of her wants her husband and her daughter to believe that sorrow doesn’t happen. That joy always follows pain. That people don’t hate. People aren’t ugly. They aren’t alone. They don’t want to die. That everything is fine.

Simon looks at the shadow of his wife. At the flying strands of hair, dark eyes, thin spectral face. He does not know her. He almost can’t fathom that she is this child’s mother. He kisses his daughter’s forehead and begins to walk back to the car.

“My little one. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” He feels his chest swelling. He is the protector of his child. He will bring her to the car, wrap her in a blanket, and make sure she is fine. He is a good father, all the others always said he would be when Cecilia was pregnant. He used to nod and laugh and stroke her swelling belly, keeping it safe, keeping it warm as the child grew, and the marriage didn’t. He wipes the tears from his daughter’s face, round and ripe like a peach. She murmurs, grows still, and closes her eyes.

The seagulls scream. The waves beat. The wind passes by. Cecelia closes her eyes and falls, over the bridge, into the dark, dark sea.
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