Thalassophobia: The Black Boy and the Sea

By

On the northeast coast of Trinidad rests Balandra beach, a familiar escape and a home to many. Here, where the Atlantic kisses the Caribbean, I remember. I was a pre-teen, curious and stubborn, and I had never learned how to swim. This rarely bothered me because whenever we did visit the sea I managed to maintain a close distance to the shore. My toes always stayed grounded and despite the lingering bodies pressuring me to venture toward the sun, I was not easily moved. It was a sunny Saturday morning, and the beach was teeming with people. My family had returned back to shore to set up for lunch, which we always packed in the trunk of our car. I had remained at sea like a lonely buoy basking in the duality of body temperature; the heat on my head from the sun in its glory and the coolness of the waters that embraced my lower body. Suddenly, I was rendered helpless by the underwater currents. With half my body underwater, I lost balance and the wind slapped me upside down farther and farther away from the shore. Water immediately filled my ear; only my thoughts were audible. Then, another wild current swept me away with a quickness, leaving no time for me to fight back and refix myself. There’s a saying that my parents and their parents have maintained over the years, who don’t hear does feel—a warning that translates to “if you choose to not listen to the rules or to common sense, you’ll suffer the physical consequences.” My reluctance to follow my family back to shore for lunch had left me to face the consequence of an oceanic beating. Gasping for air, all I could muster in my mind was the idea that the waves had come to teach me a lesson and take me under, because who don’t hear does feel.

My battle with the sea felt like hours. My small body became a powerless load. The sea salt turned my eyes into a furnace. The currents grabbed me like a lover pulling me in close. It is a mystery of mercy how I was released from this undoing. In all the turbulence, I managed to get my toes to the seafloor and push myself up, just enough to give me some leverage and to struggle my way out from sinking and from becoming fully swallowed. Of course, upon attaining control of my body, I quickly waded back to shore, maintaining quiet composure even if I breathed a bit heavier, because all of me, from my weak legs and my beating heart, felt like I deserved it. I had taken it upon myself to ignore the warning reinforced by my parents time and time again, “When you reach by the beach don’t play you big and want to go out far—stay close to everybody, and when we come out, you come out.” This may not have been said on that day, but it had been said before, it had become an understanding, a binding contract between adult and child. I had grown a bit older, so it was no longer told to me directly, and I’d taken it as permission to stay in the water longer than usual. When my battle was over, I felt ashamed, because I had decided to disobey the unspoken command to follow everyone else and leave the water. When I reached my family, they seemed unfazed by my decision to take a few extra minutes in the water; they were more occupied with dishing out rice into plastic plates, and when my name was called to collect my plate, I was present. I would never reveal my almost-drowning to my family, after all, Who don’t hear does feel! And I had felt it, the consequences of self-abandonment in open water. On so many occasions, people in my country drown as a result of venturing deep into the sea when out with family, being pulled in and under by the powerful currents only to be pulled out too late. In addition, there are multiple reports of fishermen becoming lost at sea, with their bodies being found days or weeks later, or in many cases, never found at all.

Fear is hard-headed and arrogant. It can destabilize a person, as if they swallowed a fish bone and began to choke. As with any other lasting fear, I suppose my fear of water is embedded in myth and experience, more specifically my experience of almost-drowning. It is from this episode that I etch my early thalassophobia, and it has since only increased. It is the unpredictable swallow, the dark unknowing disguised as blue allure that places the sea in dialogue with my fears of drowning and my body becoming lost, never to be recovered. Of course, there are the stereotypical pathological tropes that revel in Blackness as a prerequisite for not knowing how to swim, or pinpointing the violent connections between Black souls and the sea post-transatlantic slave trade. This does not escape me, for the sheer audacity of my Blackness ensures that I am trapped within this cog of postcolonial afterthought parading as intellectualism. What I am grappling with is a fear that is fossilized into our unconscious, a discomfort that we’ve learnt to live with, the idea that the sea is a knowing entity. The mass of history that is embedded in the sea speaks to the fact that there are more unknowns lurking beneath its surface than above. An inventory of past lives, unidentified creatures, and wrecked machines all culminate in a litany of stories that only the sea knows all the endings to. This too contributes to the fear, the notion that at any moment, upon drowning, you can become part of that underwater inventory, giving the sea another story to keep.

 

Years have passed, and I am a twenty-three-year-old university student sitting on my great-grandmother’s rocking chair, neatly positioned in the corner of my room, a small place. The news tells the story of another almost-drowning. We are presented with Errol, a middle-aged man who retells the events as he remembers them. He woke up and took a walk down the road to visit his longtime friend Arnold at his home. When he doesn’t find Arnold there, Errol then proceeds to the sea, where Arnold is a known conch catcher. Errol expects to find his friend at the oceanic altar performing his morning duties. To Errol’s surprise, Arnold’s clothing rests on a rock by the shore, but he himself is nowhere to be found. Errol first calls out for his friend but comes to the realization that Arnold has been swallowed by the currents, and only the sea knows where his friend is resting. The news spreads with a quickness as sharp as the sail-fish, and the community soon hears of Arnold’s demise, his drowning, while Errol holds his friend’s clothing as evidence of the death. Arnold’s friends and family begin planning the wake, funeral arrangements are in motion. A few hours later, Errol is confronted by an angry voice at his home; his friend Arnold has reappeared and is irate. As the reporter questions Arnold about his brief disappearance, he confesses to being at the bar all alon, only to hear someone say, “Arnold I hear yuh’ dead this morning!” He could not understand why his friend had assumed him dead because he usually attends to the sea every day like clockwork. But I understood why his friend had presumed him dead. Errol, too, is in dialogue with the sea—he, too, had figured the sea operates from a position of uncompromising power. So when his friend had left his clothing abandoned near the open water, leaving no notice of his bar trip, only one assumption clouded Errol’s mind: My friend must have drowned. I am afraid of the ease with which we accept this unpredictable swallow, the carefree acceptance of such common tragedies. Both Arnold and Errol laugh it off and remain friends; the camera pans to the sea.

I am now twenty-seven, and I still do not know how to swim. I live on an island surrounded by water and remain somewhat reluctant to visit the seascape. There is no relaxation for me there; there is no dramatic release of burdens or a particular feel-good calm that washes over me when I do visit. I am confronted by anxiety and the possibility of drowning when I pass by the sea in a car.

I recently visited our twin island of Tobago and took a walk to the water. The breeze lashed me at the shore, greeting me in my stillness. I took this as a warning, because I hear the murmuring of waves, they shout—Don’t come in if you can’t handle me, don’t come in if you can’t swim, don’t come if you still frighten—as they crash. All of this has only deepened my appreciation for the sea, for its theatrics and quiet nuance, for the ways in which waves persevere, how the water claims and reclaims the land and its attendants, in spite of a millennia of human abuse. I hear them this time, so I make my way back to the villa, because the sea has spoken, and I know now that Who don’t hear does feel.

 

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Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen


Akhim Alexis is a writer born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds an MA in Literatures in English from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. He was a finalist for the 2020 Brooklyn Caribbean Lit Fest Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean for his short story "Gone America," and a finalist for the 2021 Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The McNeese Review, Transition Magazine, Chestnut Review, Juked, Finished Creatures, No Contact, Welter, Moth Magazine, Blue Earth Review, JMWW, Moko Magazine, The Caribbean Writer, and others. More from this author →