From the surface I could see a large dome about fifteen feet below. I took a deep breath, folded my body at the waist then lifted my legs out of the water. Their weight caused me to slide effortlessly down. The mask squashed against my face and it felt as if a needle was being inserted into my ears. The water was closing in on me. Everything with air in it my lungs, sinuses and ears was being compressed. Even a foot below the surface the compression on my chest was equivalent to a weight of over 180 pounds. It was the same on my abdomen, pushing the diaphragm up into the chest cavity and squeezing it still further. Three feet underwater the pressure differential is so great that it is impossible to suck down air through a tube from the surface, but I soon learned that snorting into the mask pushed it out again, and swallowing hard took care of my ears.
It was a painful lesson, but I couldnt be distracted. Being underwater was more exciting than I had ever imagined. A kaleidoscope of new images overwhelmed me: the elegant untidiness of lazily swaying seaweed, the uncontrived encounters with silver sand eels and crusty crabs. I had walked through some woods without seeing a single squirrel or badger, but here wild animals came out to meet me.
On the bottom, the dome I had seen turned out to be a ships rusty boiler and I stared into its dark and dangerous interior. Who knew what might be lurking inside? In the surrounding sand, softly lifting and settling in the swell, I found a rudder and a brass propeller with its shaft. It was my first wreck and it had waited sixty years for me to find it. I surfaced breathless, more from excitement than lack of air.
I went down again and again. Suddenly, while I was below, something stabbed the water in front of me, a dark javelin in a cone of bubbles. It transformed into a cormorant. Having misfished for a sand eel, it escaped back to the sky. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen and I have never seen it since.
This, I decided, was the real world. The air-bound attic up there beyond the surface was no place to live. This fresh and alive sea was everything that the land wasnt. We plod around on land, victims of gravity. It is merely a surface on which to stand, the wind a mischievous nuisance. But underwater, weightless and often powerless in the current, you become one with the flow.
On my final return to the surface a fluttering shoal of pollack parted to let me pass. They were neither anxious nor curious. I was just one of the boys. It was as if the sea had been expecting me.
Sitting on the rocks and trying to dry myself in the wind, I watched a heron pluck green crabs from the pools then soar away like a tired pterodactyl. Flights of knots and oystercatchers came in with the tide to feed or to loiter on one leg. It was a super place to shiver. There were a couple of cormorants chatting on a rock. Perhaps one was my cormorant, boasting to his chum about the one that got away: I saw the queerest thing today. Put me right off my fishing. So ugly. And it couldnt dive for toffee.
The next day I sawed off the end of my snorkel and threw away the ping-pong ball. I would never again mind the taste of the sea. After all, the world was seven-tenths salty water and so was I, and the chemical composition of my blood was almost identical to that of sea water. The ocean was truly in my veins and briefly, when still in the womb, I even had gill slits.
Copyright 2006, Trevor Norton. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Da Capo press. All reights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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