First Published on February 13, 2018
So this, dear reader, will be the last part in my blog series about my mild brain injury. Writing these blogs has given me a means of expressing something which is profoundly abstract. The experience of neurological disruption provides one with a clear and simple truth that our perceived realities and experiences are just that: perceived. When I enter a noisy space and feel threatened, the fear is as real as if the threat were. When I experience intrusive and malignant thoughts, my reality is altered, and the constant ringing in my ears is a real sound, even though no-one else can hear it. Of course I always understood that we are the sum of our experiences and the faculties through which we perceive and interpret them, but to have one’s world altered so completely, albeit subtly, is to have this theory put into practice.
There is still some way to go before I will be able to say that I am fully recovered, I am still not fit for work, which is a cause of further anxiety, but these things, and more, will be resolved in time. My time off has given me a fresh perspective on my own life, my skills and knowledge, and it has brought me closer to the profession that I trained in but choose to apply in more unconventional ways. I have been asked to write some content for the Kawa Model development team, with whom I have spent many a happy hour discussing the river metaphor and all it’s applications. Kawa is the device that keeps me connected to the world of Occupational Therapy, and I hope that this blog has been in part a small contribution to that field.
Furthermore, I am at a point in my recovery where I want to start looking forwards more clearly. It would be possible for this blog to become an obsessive and unhealthy immersion into the symptoms of post concussion syndrome, and I need my situation to change. All things end, including suffering. So although I had intended to keep writing this until I was back on my feet fully again, it now seems more appropriate to leave it here and get on with the job in hand.
Finally, what this blog has done for me more than anything else is to get me writing again. The fact that a strange little creative element emerged from this diary is no coincidence, the story of the black fish is a device that I have created to try and understand my own journey. It is written in the spirit of the transformation tale, and it is possibly also no co-incidence that just before my injury I had been reading “The Old Man and The Sea” with a year 11 group. I cannot help myself, everything flows into a story in the end and it is a joy to capture these narrative nuggets and play with them, spinning them into yarns and weaving them together. Anyway, enough of the tortured metaphor, on with the story.
Who Am I?
In my mind there is a storm raging, I am no longer the fish, but nor do I feel human. I am a presence in my own waking mind, but beneath the surface the cave still sings to me. Beneath the waves, beneath consciousness, behind an empty space there is only absence and foreboding. I no longer understand my presence here. I am in the blackness of perpetual night, surrounded by the hollow creaking of nervous bows adrift on a dead sea. There is nothing here, no life, no feeling, no meaning. Here, trapped in a razor’s cut between sky and sea, I lie exhausted and surrendered to the cloying embrace of oblivion.
The fish told me that I was a curious creature for diving so deep, for confronting monsters to justify my fear, but now the fear has gone. I became the fish – I became the monster, I am the monster. My thoughts descend into insane spirals of guilt and self loathing. Like lead weights in water they plummet to the bottom of everything and sit there like cankers on my heart. I know that I am losing myself to the will of the monsters, I know that I cannot stay in this place, but there is no wind, and I am too weak to swim. The hate and fear form swirling clouds in my forehead and blur my thoughts, and with hypnotic rhythms they beckon sleep come take me.
I sink into the depths once more but the cave has gone, the landscape is flat and featureless as far as the eye can see. There is nothing.
I hear the tarpaulin being pulled aside then the bright sun is burning my face, my eyes tight shut against its brilliance. My mouth is dry and acrid with salt and sweat and my throat feels cut to ribbons with dryness. I reach out a hand to shield my eyes from the blazing sun and pull back with fear when I feel the stranger’s hand grip mine. His face is silhouetted against the bright blue of the sky and with the sun behind him he is little more than a kaleidoscope of patterns and vague shapes. I sense strength in his arms as he holds me steady with one hand and moves the tarpaulin out of the way with the other. Under the tarp is my fishing gear and cooking equipment, there are scraps of food and utensils scattered around creating a scene of tragic neglect. As the stranger pulls the tarp back further so that I can get out from underneath, he reveals the body of a large black fish, half filleted, the knife stuck into the back of its head.
I am hauled to my feet, the stranger catches me as I fall forwards and balances me with skilled dexterity. I crane my neck round to look behind me, to look at the body of the large black fish. Memories of the deep flicker in my mind and I hear a familiar and unsettling WUBWUBWUBWUB in the pit of my chest. “You are okay? Yes. You have been lost – do you remember?” The man is talking to me, his voice is distant but clear. He is holding my shoulders to keep me facing him, his grip is safe and solid and reassures me that he has found me just in time. How did he find me? Even I don’t know where I am, so how did he know where to look. “Okay?” He asks again, concern and compassion shine brightly from his blue eyes. “I’ve come to take you home.” I try to speak, I want to ask him where he came from, who he is and how he knew where I was, but the effort of forming words causes me to wretch and I twist free of his grip as I turn and lean over the gunwales and vomit into the ocean.
The stranger lets me go, he does not try and stop me freeing myself from his grip, as I lean over the side of the boat he places a hand on my back. He waits patiently until I have stopped heaving and gasping. The sickness has burned my already dried throat and all is pain. All is sickening pain. There is sweat in my eyes and my chest is burning with acid and the stink comes off the still sea under the heat of relentless sunshine. I am wretched and broken, delirious and psychotic, lost in the Doldrums with my giant fish and my delusions and daydreams and we are drifting further from land. “Let’s get you comfortable friend,” says the stranger kindly. He half walks, half carries me to the other side of the dinghy and helps me step from my craft to his. “Careful,” he says, “my boat sits lower than yours.” Somehow I understand what he is trying to say to me and I adjust my footing to take into account the different drafts.
The stranger sits me down aft and then returns to the Dinghy. He lashes the sheets and cleans the detritus from the hull, throwing the bits of rotting food overboard. He picks up the body of the large black fish and sniffs it. He holds it up and calls over to me, “its a shame,” he says, “there’s some good eating left on this, but its been bad for a day or two. Good for bait though.” He picks up a pail and half fills it from the sea and shoves the fish in the bucket. Over the next half an hour I am aware of the stranger moving back and forth between the two boats, salvaging what he can, taking care of my redundant sails and stowing the tarpaulin. He brings my fishing gear over to his rowing boat and stows it in the stern before settling himself down. From under the bench he produces a canteen of water and some oranges which he profers to me before taking one for himself.
We sit in silence and eat and drink and I feel a small part of my strength return.
In this place my experiences under the water become distant and vague. The giant black fish is little more than a feeling, or the sensation of memory now absent. Here, gently bobbing on the great blue ocean with this stranger, all that has come before is becoming less; as if this new person was somehow pulling me out of my own past and into a present about which only he knew. “How long have I been gone?” The question comes suddenly; the signal from my brain to my mouth is automatic, I am no longer in control of these things, I am simply being.
“Not long,” says the stranger smiling, “A few days.” He ties my dinghy to the stern of his smaller craft and begins to row with a quiet but solid strength. For the first time in many days I feel safe in the presence of another. We are towing my boat behind us and heading towards the western horizon.
We continue on our way in silence, him rowing steadily and I sitting in the stern of the little boat watching the water crease around the hull and slip away behind us. Down there is another world. I remember becoming the fish, I remember swimming through caves where sharp stone jutted at dangerous angles. I remember being in the belly of the beast and the smell. I remember sounds and lights, the deep dark places where there is no meaning or sense to existence. Down in those lonely places I left myself sleeping on the ocean floor as my conscious self was transported away to the upper world, to the surface world of sunlight and dreams and shore lines and this strange new companion that had so casually assimilated himself into my life.
His hair is short and dark, he is shaven but wears a thinly shaped beard like a chin strap. His eyes are crystal blue with dark, heavy lids which hang like forest edge canopies. In his full lipped mouth there resides a hand rolled cigarette which at glance seems to be inscribed with complex patters, like veins. There is a dreamlike quality to this individual, an otherworldlyness, but he seems to know something of me. “How did you know where I was?” He pulls on the cigarette and inhales to the full capacity of his lungs, he exhales slowly and as he does so tilts his head to one side and looks at me. He smiles and stops rowing, takes the cigarette from his mouth and flicks it with deft precision in a slow arc which sends the smoke trailing like a vapour trail, on the steady breeze the smoke forms a ragged tangle which almost looks like words in a foreign hand.
“You told me.” His answer surprises me more than anything that has happened since I set off. I sit open mouthed and dumbstruck by his response, but he appears distracted and indicates that I should look behind me. On the horizon a thin black line is forming, rolling forth from the world’s edge and striking a course towards us. Just as I see the storm front I sense a change in the wind and feel the breeze flicker into life. I look back to him and he is smiling. I feel it too, the thrill of action, after all this time we finally have a wind, the doldrums have been broken. We are going home.
We both busy ourselves untying the boats and transferring the equipment to my larger dinghy. The stranger unwinds the sheets and begins raising the single sail as I re-tie the rowing boat to the stern of my craft. I feel awake again now that we are back in my boat, as if I have some purpose. As if reading my thoughts the stranger turns from the mast and says to me, “Now I am glad that you are here, I would be lost in a storm with just my little boat. We need your sail, perhaps we could outrun the worst of it and make land.” It is the most he has said to me since he found me under the tarpaulin, and I am comforted by his words. I am troubled though, by something so obvious that it has only just occurred to me now.
“What do they call you?” I ask, in abstract response to his encouraging sentiment.
“Call me?” He seems confused by my question, which is odd, because as questions go, it is one of the basics. His answer is even stranger. “They call me when I am needed, as do you.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“The wind is picking up well now, this is our chance.”
“But who are you?” I can take little more of this mystery, I have been stranded in these doldrums for months, I have dived to the depths of ocean and been tortured by monsters before becoming one myself; only to find myself buried under tarpaulin, dehydrated and barely conscious to be found by this stranger, with no reason to be out here, and claiming that I have only been here a few days and that I told him where to find me. “Who are you, tell me – now.”
“The storm is upon us and we have no time, we must…” But his words are lost in the wind and rain that suddenly flood the skies. The waves swell and buck the boat, pitching it at sickening angles. We struggle with the sail as it flaps free in the wind, the sheets lashing the backs of our hands. We manage to get the craft in shape and the sail fills with the sudden wind and we are carried forward in rakish jerks which cause us to cling to the gunwales, hanging on for dear life, sweating and out of breath with the exertion of it all.
“It’s going to take us, we can’t outrun this.”
“You have to believe in me, I can’t do this without you.” We are both bellowing above the roar of sea and wind and bruising skies and waves that toss the boats about like cork. He slips backwards over the edge of the boat and I see the splash of water. Then there is a finger tip and a hand, then two and I see his head appear.
“Help me up!” I rush to him and haul him on board, soaking and freshly brined, but he is smiling and gets up easily. We are both stood there face to face in the midst of a storm on this little boat. We look into each others faces, into each others eyes and exchange a thought; a single thought, without words or content or meaning or anything, just a single moment that hangs in the melee then melts away.
“We are the same you and I,” the salt water runs down his cheeks, salty droplets, like tears from the sea, and he nods, and we set to work.
Riding the storm is not a clear memory for me now, it is a series of frozen images of he and I wrestling with sails and rudders and cutting the other boat loose when it was obvious that we would lose it anyway. The storm was brief but violent, it took us nearly five hours to ride it out, but eventually we did make for calmer waters, and the next day we made land. The cove was lined by a semi circle of short scrubby trees which provided the shore line with a plentiful supply of fallen wood. There was a small tattered jetty jutting out into the shallow bay and it was towards this that I now made. I made a fire that night and sat there alone in the orange glow. The next day I start the long walk home, but at least now I was on solid ground. I don’t know how long I had been gone, days or months, or even years.
I talk of him very little these days, that other man that I found out there drifting in the doldrums, scared and alone and always diving to the depths to find the monsters. After the storm we settled into silence and he eyed me cautiously. Who could blame him; he had no idea who I was or where I had come from, but it was my burden to not reveal the truth of the situation lest he be traumatised further by the strange world that he had sunk himself into. After we made land he wandered off into the forest and disappeared, he said nothing, he did not look back. I think his experiences with the creatures of the deep had finally driven him out of his mind. Sometimes I hear stories from the fishermen who tell of a giant black fish that always eludes them, a fish that swims alone and lurks in the estuary of the river that flows from the hills and down through the forest.
I do not take to the sea anymore, it’s allure has been tarnished by my loss. I knew what I was sacrificing when I went in search of him, and I knew that only one of us would return safely. I do still like to listen to the waves though, and hear their tales from other worlds. I sit on the jetty and watch the children splash and play. I watch the fishing boats on the horizon and my mind is taken back to that curious encounter, and sometimes a thought occurs to me, a single thought, without form or meaning, a thought that has no content and could never be expressed in words, or sound or shape. I shake it free and return to the world as it is now. It is time to put this one to rest, after all, I have so many other stories to tell.
In the utter depths of the deepest sea, in fissures which plunge to the very guts of the earth, there is a giant black fish. In this dark world of crushing pressure there are primordial forces which still shape our world and which we humans can never fully understand. The fish turns its eyes towards unseen imaginings in the current and with a powerful flick of it’s tail it disappears into the black.