I could see it. It made some sense. I could see the pale dead as easy as a crowd at a fair. I dreamed sometimes I was among them, freezing inside and out, lungs full of sea and salt in my mouth, never changing, never moving in the crushing embrace of the deep.
'Course Rawney Moss had never been to sea in his life, even though he'd spent all of it in a port. The waters frightened him. He never learned to swim. The wettest he got was on hot days when he'd roll his trousers up his dead-white shanks and stand gingerly in the wash and foam that slanted up and down and up and down the beach. He was a railway man, at home with scorched diesel smells and hot engines, shiny big drive wheels and the endless run of twin steel rails through the firm green land. At peace with the deep powerful growls and the click and the clack of steel on steel, mile upon the many miles.
But one day, so many years ago, my grandda came rushing in as I was slicing the soda bread for his supper, full of the news that a drowned man had washed ashore in Cobh. He must show me. He took me by the hand and walked so fast I had to trot to keep up. Twice I stumbled and scraped my knees a bit bloody on the shingle. Less than a mile from our house there was a crowd of fishermen, dockies and a lone Garda clustered around what looked like a bloated blue canvas bag, except that it wasn't all of a piece. Rawney shouldered in, me clutching his trousers the way a scared child will. The fishermen all reeked of wet wool and fish guts. But the body smelt of the clean ocean. Its face looked like unbaked bread, doughy and lumpy. There were red holes where the eyes and nose and lips should have been. Its hands looked like flippers; the fingers were gone.
"That's the doings of the crabs and the lobsters, once a body's near beached," Rawney said, telling everyone what they well knew. "Real gourmets, they are."
"Plug it," the Garda snarled, and Rawney reddened, went tight-lipped and narrow-eyed.
"Foul play can't be ruled out," the policeman announced as four of the fishermen carried the body away. "I'll be wanting yeh all for questioning later."
"Ah Frank, anyone can see he was fishin' and went over," one of the carriers said, not looking back at the Garda. "There's a fuckin' hook through his palm."
"Still, I'll be making my investigations."
"Make 'em up yer bum," Rawney muttered when we were out of earshot.
"That's the sea for yeh," he said to me. "A treacherous evil devilish thing."
I was never afraid of the sea, despite Rawney. I was swimming at five. What I loved was to stroke out fifty yards or so, where it was way over my head, and float on my back, absolutely still, rocked by the swell, my face to the blue sky. I felt I could never sink, that the water would carry me freely and forever so long as I relaxed and let it. How could anyone drown?
It wasn't until I was nearly twelve that I learned my grandda was an ignorant tale-spinner. It was a few plain words spoken by my teacher did it: Water cannot be compressed. Which means that although its pressure increases with depth, water's density does not. It will support no sinking thing. Even an old soup spoon or an oyster shell that slips beneath the waves will make the long, slow journey to the deepest of deeps, though most stuff will be crushed on the way. The ocean floors are littered like a town tip. Masts, engines, belt buckles, sailors' knives, sextants, nails, cases of wine, hogsheads of pickled herring, helms, keels, rudders. And dining chairs and cocktail tables from luxury steamers, cleats and winches and anchors from humbler craft.
But never a body, never a trace of flesh. People don't reach the bottom because they are devoured on the way down-first nibbled by eels and crabs and small fish, then dismembered in chunks by blue tuna, swordfish, big cod. And sharks in certain waters. Think of that the next time you're sprinkling salt and malt vinegar on your paper cone of fish and chips. I always do.
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