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Me and the Sea

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

At the end of September I’ve had it with life. Life had so fatigued me, and especially such of its components as the drunken mugs of people, the eternal crunch of the subway, shortage of essential goods, lines, quarrels with my wife, summonses to school due to the shocking conduct of my son during recesses, unpaid debts, my secret girlfriend’s ditching me, an aggravated 12-fingered intestinal ulcer, worn-out shoes, violent thugs, the disgusting quality of foodstuffs and, finally, a cemetery-like view of Moscow, that I decided: either I commit suicide or I go somewhere for a rest.

After sober meditation I concluded that I lacked good enough reasons for suicide. Then, I managed to wheedle a ten day vacation—at my own expense—out of the authorities and set out for the Black Sea coast. And I’m lucky that I have a sister working for the railway or, God damn-it, I’d have been able to get as far as our rifle-making-and-gingerbread-baking town of Tula, beyond which tickets for local trains are invalid.

I rented from fishermen a tiny summer cottage about 50 kilometers from Odessa and approximately 10 kilometers from the closest human habitation. More precisely, it was a small hut where the fishermen took cover from bad weather. It had one small window, completely begrimed with flyspecks, a door upholstered in checked oilcloth, three iron bunks and, for some reason, on the wall a portrait of Kirov. I paid off the fishermen in advance with vodka, brought from Moscow and saved for the occasion, since, as I had rightly assumed, money had no value here, and I began living like a hermit, just me and the sea.

I would never have thought that solitude could “train” a person as it does, or rather not “train,” but “transform,” and maybe even not “transform” as much as—but I can’t find a proper verb for this. It appears that solitude is able to return people to their definitive, true organic condition as insulin brings the mentally ill back to reality. To start with: on the next day of my hermitage I was already going naked, in my birthday-suit, so to speak, and felt marvelous, just as if from birth I had never known clothes.

Mornings, I would wake at the crack of dawn, filled to the brim with salty oxygen; I’d set water for tea boiling on the pre-historic stove I carry everywhere with me, naked, leave my hut and sit atop an over-turned scow. At that time the sun hung low over the sea and was a perky, pink-orange color, like coals smoldering in the night. But the sea seemed somnambulant, like a man who had just woken, and, speaking figuratively, hardly touched the shore’s sand with the edges of its clothing. There wasn’t a soul around; to the right and left there was everywhere an endless, flattened, steppe-like shore, distinguished by gray-yellow sand, a dark, multicolored stripe of pebbles mixed with seashells, the foamy curves of the surf, hardly conspicuous at this time, and the dirty green mass of the sea; only gulls, big as chickens, would stroll carefully along the sand and cast questioning glances in my direction, as if estimating to what extent they should be cautious of me. What was I thinking about at that time?. . .well, about nothing; my brain hadn’t fully woken and it was as if something clumsy but pleasant stirred under my hair.

The fisherman’s kettle had a whistle and, hearing its call, I would drag myself back to the hut in anticipation of the mysterious delight of drinking tea in solitude. The kettle boiled vigorously, filling the premises with a fragrant and thick steam, and Kirov, as if through whiffs of gunpowder, looked at me from the wall, all puffed-up. I threw a pair of pinches of tea in an unattractive mug with a cover, having doused it beforehand with boiling water, and the shack would instantaneously fill with non-European aromas, among which, it seems, St. John’s wort dominated. Letting the tea brew, I would go out again into the air and sit by a painted pillar on which a weather vane with a propeller buzzed fly-like: looking in the direction of the Bosphorus, I would relish my tea and chew the Moscow-baked gingerbread. Meanwhile, the sun was beginning to burn, gulls were circling over the beach contemplating what they could prey on, the surf returned to normal, i.e. without any help from the wind, and made noises, and between them were inanimate gasps such as an automatic door makes opening and closing. What was I thinking about at that time? At that time I was feeling rather than thinking. And what I did feel, with all that my soul was capable of, was probably the same thing that God-Jehovah felt before life began, namely an infinite, universal solitude which made me sad, majestic, and naughty. I vividly visualized a Jehovah, who sat on the ocean’s shore in approximately the same pose Nikolai Ge used to paint Christ: he sits and, filled with the melancholy of omnipotence, thinks up what sort of things to populate the oceanic, nourishing environment with. And there, quick as a wink, various cuttlefish started to crawl from the water to appear before the creator, one nastier than the next, more absurd—which I suddenly saw so clearly that I jerked in revulsion, although these were my own remote ancestors. So you see what kind of imaginative powers complete loneliness can evoke when there is a steppe behind, in front: the sea, the sun in the sky, on the earth . . .yes, actually, you are just alone on the earth and, you have the feeling that you are entirely alone, like God-Jehovah before life began.

Finishing with morning tea, I would smoke a cigarette with gusto, watching the smoke curl, swirl and diffuse, and then I would go bathe and tan until dinner. Near the scow I would arrange a neat place for myself to lie. On the sand I would spread a soldier’s overcoat with a thick nap, which I had discovered under one of my three bunks; above it lay a thin blanket; under my head I would place a casing from a 200-kilogram German bomb and cover it with a waffle-patterned towel; on my left I placed cigarettes with matches, on my right, a bound volume of the journal “Science and Life,” dated 1973—and I would fall to the ground like someone knocked off his feet. The sun, figuratively speaking, accepted me in its flaming embrace; highly heated air enveloped my body in waves, my lungs completely filled with gaseous iodine; the sand, as if fried in a skillet, smelled like Jurassic sediment, the gulls kicked up a row—and here all of me would fall into a state of dull bliss, practically unknown to modern man. Could it be that I had temporarily left off being human or, just the opposite, daringly had reached for the heavens, attaining some natural essence? I don’t really know what it was—but it was certainly good. What was I thinking about at that time? The gist of the matter is: my state was beyond thought.

As for bathing, I didn’t bathe much: well, at the most I may have climbed into the sapphire depths three times, and for some reason, exactly at that point my pale continental behind would painfully embarrass me, and I would dive into a roller that was making for the shore, cling to a stone on the bottom and look around: I would see gilded twilight of an olive hue, the cleanest sand, as if the living seaweed and rocks had an architecture of their own—and then I would begin to feel like the primeval cuttlefish, my remotest ancestor, and you know what: this feeling didn’t insult me in the least. Sometimes I would float on my back in the water, handing half my body over to the elemental sea, and the other half to sun and atmosphere, and then I really was visited, as they say, by a sensation of amphibiousness. In this way, unconsciously, I played out evolution; and I find it hard to define what moved me to this strange mischief: that in addition, I would usually emerge from the water on all fours.

Meanwhile, dinner time would arrive, around three, when the sun would already burn my skin like a cattle brand, and something dazed, languid and capable of making my eyes scrunch as a bitter taste puckers one’s cheeks, appeared in the noise of the sea; I would raise myself from my breeding ground and return to the hut to prepare dinner. I would boil water in a large pot, then fill it with a concentrate of vermicelli soup, add a couple of tomatoes, which I would then rub through an aluminum colander, place a small laurel branch in the concoction, a handful of crushed pepper, an onion and, at approximately half past three, was already sitting beside the painted pillar, supporting a wooden cup filled with soup on my lap. In my right hand I had a wooden spoon, in my left, a huge piece of bread; I gulped down the spicy soup, burning my mouth, and looked at the sea, which at this time would noticeably alter its color in the direction of blue.

After dinner, as most Russians do, I would take a nap. I lay on my bunk, situated by the window, took up “Notes Concerning Sherlock Holmes,” but at once the lines would begin interweaving into figures; my head filled with involuntary images, my body fell into a state of weightlessness; in a word, a sweet lassitude descended on me and I slept like a log. In the daytime, as a rule, I would dream about nasty things: either I had offended someone or someone had offended me.

I would wake somewhere around six. Afterward, I would laze on my bunk for another ten minutes or so, as I had done once, long ago, in far-off childhood, then arrange my tea ceremony again, not acting at all mechanically, but consciously, with a sort of earnestness. After tea accompanied by Moscow-baked gingerbread, I would take off for the overturned scow and a smoke. By that time, the sun was already hanging fairly low above the horizon and burning rather politely, delicately; the gulls had calmed down, as if tired out by the day’s bustle. As for the sea, it had a dirty-blue color and rolled its waves as if fulfilling a certain responsible work. And what was I thinking about at that time? Well, first of all, at that time a thought just started to peck at my consciousness; I looked at the foaming waves which crashed into the shore with such hissing—as if the shore were iron made red-hot under the sun’s rays—and, for instance, I thought about an ancient Scythian, who, wandering these shores thousands of years ago, had not been one iota happier than I, if, of course, you understand happiness as a spiritual balance, and spiritual balance as the product of the organized mind; and I, in my turn, was not one iota happier than the Scythian; and even if you understand happiness simply as the ability to feel oneself in time and space, and even if you understand it anyway you want to, all the same, it’s as plain as the nose on your face that the Scythian had not been one iota happier than I and I not one iota happier than the Scythian. Then what were all those thousands of years, full of suffering and fighting, for? Well, I clearly and vividly picture this very Scythian riding a small, disheveled horse, which, producing damp sounds, stepped with its hooves along the sand which, through thousands of years, has come down to us in its original form. What’s the Great October Revolution to the sand? What, after all, is the stock exchange, cybernetics, the Fifth Congress of Soviet Cinematographers to it, when even at the time of King Midas the same possibilities for personal happiness existed with respect to, let’s assume, the understanding of oneself as a petty god? Or to put it figuratively: you only feel your liver when it begins to hurt, and the ancient Scythian was no more sensitive than a bulldog; a pair of millennia filled with suffering and fighting were definitely required so that some sort of idle thought, not having any connection to the needs of the body, could dawn on a bare-assed Muscovite tormented by so-called real socialism. If that’s so, then fine, because it is reasonable, or to be more exact, accessible to the reason of a normal man. But what if that’s not so, what if at the beginning of time wild Scythians and on the other hand bare-assed eccentrics fixated on their irrelevant thoughts inhabited the earth? Oh no, let it be so, let this matter look as if a human being were brought up on these very deformities of nature the way an infant is fed cod-liver oil.

When I got bored sitting atop the turned-over scow and theorizing with respect to the Scythian, I would take off to wander the surfs edge which formed a zigzag perpendicular to the horizon line. On the right you see the steppe, with its sandy bald spots, islets of wild hemp scantily overgrown with almost camel-like thorns; on the left you see the sea, which never bores a land-bound species, due to its alarming, heavy colors and that stirring distance, which no eye can command— and in front, in the same direction, you can see some sort of board, blackened to a stone-coal state, or a jellyfish, immobile at the border of two elements, the dry land and the sea, or some sort of metallic trifle, stimulating historical fantasies, or a dead sturgeon, self-mummified; in addition to all this, you can smell such a refined odor, it’s as if you’d have found yourself in some non-Soviet, fairy tale store. And what was I thinking about at that time? . . .here’s what: if you go and go along the border of two elements, the dry land and the sea, it’s possible to walk the circle of the eastern hemisphere; you set out and here’s Anatolia, beyond it, the birth place of Christianity; then the Punic lands, the Atlantic coast of Africa, further, the boundaries of the Indian ocean, the sumptuous shores of Southeast Asia, our self-destructive shores, which occupy half the world, the fjords of Scandinavia, the lands washed by the North Atlantic’s waters, Gibraltar, the Cote d’Azur, Constantinople and—like a bolt from the blue, again, this very hut in suburban Odessa! . . . When you complete this excursion around half the world, you will sit by a painted pillar and utter: so what? That’s just the point: so nothing. And isn’t our utterly dark life just like this: we wander along in an allegorical sense from the hut in suburban Odessa to the hut in suburban Odessa, God knows why, meeting on the way a multitude of filth and wonder; we struggle and suffer, but what’s most important is that we think as if everything rotates around this vicious circle, and have no idea that there is almost nothing or nothing at all to it, that everything is inside us, both the French Riviera and the self-destructive shores, that it may be sufficient to sit all your life by a colored post, so that you go to another world a happy and distinguished person. In any case, if two or three days after full solitude and contact exclusively with the elements, a deeply land-bound species is capable of feeling its own independent value, then you can’t treat it unfairly or frighten it because of the circumstances that have come into its life such as a physical existence by a painted pillar.

Completing only the most insignificant part of my semicircular-world journey, I would return to the cabin and warm up the remaining soup for supper. Then I would sit beside the painted pillar and, as for some reason natural smells “discharged” by that time and lost their original intensity, a vermicelli-tomato-laurel odor would envelop me, becoming a part of my own atmosphere. I usually carried off the leftovers from supper to the seagulls, and if I accidentally ate everything down to the last crumb, then the seagulls would gather in an excited group beside the German bomb—for some reason always beside the German bomb—and with displeasure cast glances at me, as if giving me a piece of their minds: look here, they would say, you, the guy over there, you’ve gone too far, you’ve absolutely lost your sense of responsibility toward all creatures on the earth.

Immediately after supper a most refined time commenced, which is to say, a time for meditation and feeling, a time when the feeling of solitude sharpened to the extreme and something solemnly sad, something rooted in me would begin a direct dialog with nature . . .or with an absolute spirit. . .or God knows with what. By then the sun would start dipping into a blue-gray haze which concealed the horizon-line and sent some kind of seductive luminescence over it. In the sky, still bright in the west, but already charged with signs threatening night, the first tiny star would ripen, an evening star resembling a distant diamond tear, which seemed to hang, about to fall any moment now. The sea was peaceful to such an extent that it looked like a boundless plate of aspic, and only with its very tip would lick the sand the way a child falling asleep licks his lips. The seagulls must have fallen asleep already; there was no wind at all and, if not for a pair of steppe-crickets chirping in staccato here and there, you could have claimed that universal silence had been established. That was when I established my direct dialog with nature, with either the absolute spirit or God knows what. Let’s assume that my solemn-sad self utters a question which, turns out afterwards, to have been borrowed from a classical author: “Lord, why among thy people are wickedness, disorder and various confusions observed? Just have a look-see at how well balanced nature is; so why in the world do we struggle and suffer so much?” And in answer, the answer is: “The reason is you are utter fools, you sons-of-bitches!” This explanation, appeared to me, of course, as a fundamental one, but left unclear a certain moment: then why in the world on the first day did the light shine for us if, all the same, we were utter fools? The following remark, I would say a contextual one, followed, i.e. it seems to me as if someone were reading the text in my ear:

“—What’s up with you—Gregor asked, threateningly peering at him from behind his glasses.—Nothing, sir. The Lord God created light on the first day, and the sun, the moon and the stars on the fourth day. How in the world could the light have shone on the first day?

“Gregor was stunned. The boy mockingly gazed at the teacher. There was something arrogant even in his gaze. Gregor couldn’t endure it. “I’ll show you where from”—he shouted and furiously struck the student on the cheek.”

That’s how I understood it: my almighty interlocutor in a roundabout manner aspired to furnish me with this idea—why interrogate when delight awaits one?

Gradually evening would thicken to the consistency of twilight, a twilight which perceptibly flowed into night and directly overhead a starry scattering called the Milky Way appeared, which pointed surely in some orienting direction. Night encircled me like something inessential, but substantial, material, complex even animated—it seemed as if a huge throng of black angels had spread their velvet wings over me. The one-eyed moon looked point-blank and appeared to be the unseeing orb of night; the stars seemed luminous parasites; but the sea—it was like a huge, scaly foot. Night is a creature of incomprehensible structure; it was the night, putting it figuratively, that embraced me warningly, day after day at about nine o’clock in the evening. What was I thinking about at that time? . . .just between us, about this: that evidently all this had its reason. Since nature from morning to evening does nothing but indulge the organs of my senses and amuses me with living pictures of fairytale performances—and mind you, namely me, since the seagulls along with the crickets can hardly find delight in such—then that means, I am not only nature’s favorite and the object of her care, but, possibly, I am, with respect to the universe something like what Crown Prince Alexander was with respect to his tutor Zhukovsky—strictly speaking, a ruling object. Proceeding from such a consideration, this conclusion mainly follows: in my former life I underestimated myself; in my former life I used what was of value to me in a crude way, not as it was intended. This attitude of mine was more appropriate to an Amazon savage, who, given a compass, will attempt to split nuts with it or will wear it in place of an earring, or will taste it. It’s interesting that I heard my own breathing at the time these continuous thoughts occupied me.

At about ten o’clock I’d go to bed. I locked the door of the cabin from inside with the handle of a shovel, slowly undressed, then lit the candle tied with twine to the back of the neighboring bunk, and slid under the blanket. At that time I felt a bit uncomfortable; somehow I felt a kind of unpleasant expectancy, was on the alert, and I imagined someone might peek in from outside through my little window any moment. On top of that, at that time the surf would begin its threatening mechanical work, rats would scrape under the floor, the light from the candle streamed an antiquated light, and furthermore, I was reading a frightening work by Conan Doyle: “It was in the spring of the year 1894 that all London was interested, and the fashionable world dismayed, by the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair, under most unusual and inexplicable circumstances. The public has already learned those particulars of the crime which came out in the police investigation; but a good deal was suppressed on that occasion. . . .”—my god, what nonsense! Putting the book aside, I couldn’t take my eyes from the rectangle of the night sky, visible through the grimy window and within me there arose a miraculous melody which resembled “Luchinnushka” or “Saratov’s Sufferings,” which drove me to a lofty sorrow. What was I thinking about at that time? . . .about what a strange happiness it is to live in our country, among our restless people, strange because, in a way, what kind of happiness is it; but it is happiness because that is exactly what is called happiness, a life of the sort that when the thought of suicide first starts to haunt you, you go on to settle in a hut outside of Odessa and what’s more, the suicidal idea vanishes into thin air and even further, some tempting ideas occur to you. Oh well, can you imagine an English stockbroker who would suddenly throw everything to the wind and settle in a sort of kennel somewhere outside Wetting, and yet be possessed by tempting ideas at the same time? Of course not, and we have enough grief as it is, but you see grief is nothing but the language which God has to use when dealing with people. . . .

I would also think that apart from life, in the ordinary sense of this word, there also exists, so to speak, an inner life, a life wrapped inside itself, which has quite a list of curious components. First of all, it seems to me, the inner life is what principally distinguishes man from everything else that exists on earth. Second of all, as practice has shown, it is quite simply a marvelous life, if only because of the fact that even should there be grief in it, that grief is of a somewhat refined, acceptable intensity, one of those that inspires. Third of all, you must admit that if inner life is just the kernel, then outer life is just the shell. In a word, it is simply amazing where your thoughts can take you, if one day you come to your senses, if you live a bit like a hermit—just me and the sea. After this, you’ll recall the drunken mugs of people, the eternal crunch of the subway, shortage of essential goods, lines, quarrels with the wife. . . .—Good lord, what trifles!

The main result of my hermitage was that now I spend half my day sitting in the bathroom—that’s the only place where I really live.


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