Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Shadows

“The wish — that ages have not yet subdued — In man to have no master save his mood.”

BYRON.

Before the coming of the obscuring grey of these wet-season days, when the tranquil sea absorbed the lustrous blue of the sky, I discovered myself day-dreaming for a blissful moment or two ere the crude anchor of the flattie slipped slowly to the mud twelve feet below. The rough iron and rusty chain cast curious crinkled shadows, and presently, as the iron sank into the slate-coloured mud and the chain tightened, the shadow was single but infirm. Light and the magic of the sea, which, though it takes its ease, is forbidden absolute rest, transformed it until imagination created similitude to a serpent in its natural element. Its half-concealed, formless head was verified by a flake of rust just where a watchful eye might have been, and the sun played upon it.

So here at last was the sea-serpent with alert eye and without end. It was all so realistic and endowed with such benignity and such gentleness of motion that I gazed at it with the gladness of a discoverer. In response to a slight motion of the hand, the sea-serpent wriggled as though in haste; but wriggle as it might the end never came.

The boat drifted back. The serpent became seriously elongated, but though the beginning was now a grey blotch in the mud, the end was not. I might beat up a little foam with the chain, and see below a giddy dance or at least lively flourishes and swaying. Yet there was something lacking — the end. But for that very commonplace default did there not here exist a very good beginning for another romance of the sea?

The phantom, born of light and limpid salt water and iron into which rust had deeply gnawed, gave zest to the pursuit of shadows. What is commoner under the tropic sun? The boat was now over the sand of the steeply shelving beach, where the water takes the tint of the chrysolite and creatures of fairy lightness come into view. Often on still days small sea-spiders sport under the lea of the boat, each of the eight legs supported by a bubble. With astonishing nimbleness, the spider slips and glides over the surface as a man in laborious snow-shoes over the snow. Having basked in the sun and frolicked with its kind, the spider abandons its pads, takes to its hairy bosom a bubble of air, and dives below. The shadows, not the spiders alone, gave pleasing entertainment. Each vague shadow and the eight bubble-shod feet formed a brooch-like ornament on the yellow sand — a grey jewel surrounded by diamonds, for every bubble acted as a lens concentrating the light. When the frail creatures darted hither and thither — the majestic sun does not disdain to lend his brilliance to the most prosaic of happenings — the shadows of the bubbles became jewels or daylight lightnings. The hour was so restful, the light so searching, that many of the spiders, long of leg and pearly-grey of body, gathered about the boat, the shade of which seemed to be grateful. A wave of the hand dispersed the gay assemblage, but in a few seconds the playful creatures — not too easily to be deprived of their place in the sun — reappeared from nowhere, and the beads and flashes on the floor of old Ocean once more began to glitter.

Small, slim fish took shelter from the intense light. Some hung motionless in the water; others nibbled daintily the green and lazy slime on the batten at the bilge, their gently waving shadows being barely perceptible, for their delicate, semi-transparent bodies absorbed but the merest particle of the brightness of noonday.

The unnoticeable swing of the tide took the responsive boat out from the beach, and again the serpent swayed sleepily. Down in the mud an organised conflict was taking place between a tiny soft-bodied crab and four molluscs which used whip-like tentacles with unceasing energy, while the crab defended itself with ever-ready claws. Borne down by numbers, it sank into the mud, the energy of the victors creating a tiny spiral of slush. A huge stingray passed on its way, the edges of extended wings rippling never so gently, its shadow half the size of the boat; and presently, with ghostly glide, a dull-skinned shark came into view with motion so steady and apparently effortless that it might have been a spectre. The pectoral fins swayed listlessly. The swirl of the tail was as tender as a caress. Passing the boat a few yards, it turned with a gracious sweep and nestled in its shade, and, though motionless, it was wide awake. The eyes on each end of the projecting extremities of the head blinked up at the boat. It was comfortable, but suspicious. Was its conscience quite clear? The hammer-head has not the reputation of being an active enemy of man. Why should it be distrustful? This hammer-head would not sleep in the shadow, so let it be made aware of the serpent. I took hold of the chain cautiously, the shark watching, and with a quick turn of the wrist the docile serpent lashed offensively. Then did the shark, frightened of a shadow, flee with mud-stirring haste, like the wicked when no man pursueth.

The hour of day-dreaming was past. I slip over the side of the boat to roll and splash in tepid water limpid almost to invisibility, and to test the wondrous buoyancy of the substantial part of man. Sit down, the lips just awash, so that the accurately ballasted portion cushions on the cleanly sand. Stretch out the legs so that the heels barely rest. Head thrown back and arms extended, fill the lungs to their utmost capacity with the placid, revivifying air, and you will find yourself so uplifted that the heels alone gently touch the sand. At each inspiration almost sufficient air is imbibed to float the whole bulk and machinery of the body. And when the radiant air is all one’s own, why be niggardly? Let it be gulped greedily, strongly, wilfully, and let the smiling sea, responding to the embraces of your widespread arms, salute your lips with ripples.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32