Owl cries at night

There are two scops owls nesting near the villa in Hyères where we’ve just spent the past three weeks. Their cries at night sound like very regular, neat sounds like a practiced flutist blowing one perfect note in their instruments, always the same, every few seconds. You only hear the note grow louder or weaker as the owl flies about. There are two of them, one living further away and who sings with a slightly deeper note. I’ve never seen them at all, in all those years. The closest I’ve ever been was finding a regurgitated pellet full of tiny bones in the garden, once. Other than that, they’re as inconspicuous as the wind in the trees.

Friends of ours were staying with us for the weekend. As I chatted with one of them, I asked him if he had heard the owls at night.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, and laughed. ‘My girlfriend wanted to know what that beeping sound was!’

‘Huh. Beeping sound?’

‘Yeah. City girl.’

That’s when I realised that, to people who have never heard owls before, the sound must be confusing indeed, and perhaps not entirely pleasant. I still didn’t tell the owls about their ‘beeping’ voice. You never know. They might get offended.

The Island Girls

I posted this story a few years ago on melimuses, a Livejournal community created after the publication of Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month. One of the challenges was to write stories, in the spirit of pastiche, inspired by various sorts of honey. I thought of a rare sort of honey made from the flowers of arbutus trees, trees with clusters of white flowers and red berries that grow around the Mediterranean. Having recently come back from a holiday in the place this story references, I wanted to put it back up. It is loosely inspired by a legend about the islands in Hyères, or Golden Islands, although I have no idea how ancient this ‘legend’ actually is.

They were four maidens, swimming in the tideless sea. They were maidens, but they were turned into islands.

Pirates from Greece and Barbary often swooped on the kingdom, yet the king let his daughters swim in the high sea, alone. His warriors liked to watch them from their ships, glittering like nereids, and hoped to catch a peek of their naked breasts, yet the king let them swim. It was said that the maidens could swim so fast that their hair turned into seaweed and their arms into foam, and if you tried to catch them your hands would close on sea water, and you would only hear their laugh.

One day the king heard bells, and saw foreign sails on the horizon. He ran to the shore and heard his daughters playing. The enemy sails were approaching and he called out to them, Swim back!

They dove into the waves and darted to the shore. They were so far, the ships so close. And what king believes folk legends about seaweed and invisible girls?

So he prayed that the gods would spare his daughters’ honour. And all the time they swam, desperately. One, the fastest of all, was almost touching the shore. But her father prayed on. Soon the gods heard him: for the honour of a king’s daughters, they can be moved to act. One by one the girls froze. They swelled and rose in the waves, their bodies breaking, screaming in agony, engulfing the pirates’ ships in their death of rocks and salt. For they were dying; and the swiftest one gave one last cry to her father and clung to the shore and her arms turned to sand, and her pleading tears gathered in a bitter pool between them.

They’re maidens still, stranded in the deep sea. But they grew fruitful: like Daphne gave men her laurel leaves and Arethusa her sweet waters, their rocky limbs bore myrtles and arbutus trees. Summer or winter, they flower, green and fragrant with pines, shrub oaks and heather, and centuries have made them drowsy and appeased. Yet how could they forget how their father prayed on, when they called to him for mercy? How he gave up their lives while his warriors feasted in the port? The gods made the arbutus trees bloom with chaste white bells in their honour, every spring. But the islands couldn’t forget, and when the flowers turned to fruit, their berries were prickly, hard and tart, and bright red, like the blood the maidens never got to shed.

So the gods sent the bees and told them to turn the flowers into the whitest, sweetest honey they could make. But the bees knew how the maidens had been wronged, and thought that men shouldn’t forget. They harvested the thick white honey so the gods would be pleased, honey whose first taste was sweet on the tongue. Only after came the bitterness: a choking taste like poison, coating the throat, stinging the palate, yet mingled with such delicious softness that it is impossible not to taste it again, and again, until it is so bitter that the eyes fill with tears and the throat contracts into speechlessness, so strong is the taste of grief long forgotten, so pungent it made even the gods cry.

Thus the bees keep the memory of the island maidens.

When the still sea conspires an armour

Under certain conditions the sea turns into metal. It takes a cloudy sky with a bright sun right behind, and several layers of thin clouds, not large storm ones. Then the grey reflects into the sea, and with the sun shining through, and the tiniest bit of wind to raise the waves, it turns into gleaming, moving sheets of iron. If the wind blows from the East, you cannot see through them. They will carry enough sand and debris to mask your fingers if you dip your hand in to the wrist.

In the morning, with just enough thin clouds to mask the rays, the sun itself will become a spotless moon. A white, perfectly pure moon over a sea of metal. It’s far below what it takes to make the sea menacing, but it’s uncanny.

If the clouds lift but some great white ones still hover, and the wind abates until there are almost no waves at all, there will be no distinction between the sky and the sea. There will be clouds in the water and all will be a uniform, burning blue. Sailing there will feel like flying. It will not matter how many metres lie underneath. There will only be a mirror smooth enough to walk on (or so it feels), blue everywhere, clouds to cushion the fall.

When the wind is just right about the islands, the water will turn clear enough to see the ripples in the sand twelve metres below. Swimming or sailing then is even better than flight, because the salt in the water will carry you through like a pair of arms. There is nothing that feels smoother, more peaceful. When you come closer to the shore, you can see the details on the seashells.

At sundown the wind invariably abates. There is a moment of quiet, and if the sky is clear enough, the waters put on an undefinable colour, mostly white with glimmers of blue, pink and yellow at the tip of barely distiguishable waves. It seems like a beautiful thing to paint, except that this is a light that could not be captured by physical means, to subtle even for photographs. Then the sea is so calm that when night has fallen, you really think you could walk on it. It turns black, perfectly black like stone. The boats embedded in it are the only thing telling you it’s still water.

In places there are only rocks or sand. In others there are weeds brushing the surface. They are long and very thick, and somewhat unsettling. For real reasons first: it you step in there, there is no way to tell if there will be urchins underneath, or fish with poison spines. For not-so-real reasons as well: where there are blankets of weeds, there is no way to tell if there is still a bottom, or even real water, or anything except undulating vegetal quicksands.

There is a place where all of this is real.

So far away

I used to dream of the sea. For longer than I can remember, I’ve dreamed of storms with huge waves that swallowed everything they touched, including me. But even at their scariest, they were never really nightmares. I was never truly frightened even when I went under, because I could always breathe under the water (a strange feeling, like breathing through thick cloth, but I suppose you cannot forget that your body is comfortably in its bed and not drowning for real). Sometimes you have irrational fears, and sometimes you have irrational absences of fear as well. Where I grew up, the sea is enclosed between the isthm the house sits on, and the islands; it is quieter than elsewhere, with few storms and no strong currents, and you never quite face the open horizon, so it looks like a quiet lake more than anything. I could never quite imagine the sea as something dangerous, even in my dreams.

These days, however, I dream of rivers. Huge overflowing rivers with opaque waters and silent, mighty currents. And they terrify me. On night I dreamt I was standing at the window and watching the waters rise and destroy everything in their wake, and as some part of me remembered that this was a world controlled by my own brain and thoughts, I desperately tried to bring them down, without succeeding. I don’t know if everybody’s dreams work this way, but in mine, what I think will happen always happens. So I tried to convince myself that the water would go down eventually. But I didn’t manage to believe it, and it kept rising, rising.

The next days, as the bus crossed the Saint-Charles river at the place where it joins the Saint-Lawrence, I felt lightheaded in a way I hadn’t in years, and I made myself breathe deeply before the panic attack set in.

Two nights ago I dreamt of the sea, my own little spot of the Mediterranean enclosed by islands and peninsulas. It had snowed, in my dream. But it wasn’t the flimsy, powdery stuff we sometimes see where I come from. Instead the islands had turned into monstrous mountains covered in ice, there were icebergs dangling in the waves, and currents that led to who knew where, and the boat I had to travel in was rocked from side to side and I knew that this time, if I fell over, I could not simply swim to safety on the nearest island. I would freeze to death.

Then last night I had another dream. I came to a strange man’s house, with a pair of broken wings and nowhere to go. He fixed my wings and gave them back to me, and I launched myself from the highest place I could find, and flew up, straining my arms, flying against the wind or along with the wind, gliding, soaring higher and higher to the places where only the swifts can go, and I was never scared of getting lost, because there was the moon to guide me. When I tried to come back to thank the stranger, he was already gone. But it didn’t matter, because I had wings and I could find him anywhere he went, I could go wherever I wanted.

I so badly want to go home.

Between clouds

We're back from a few days in Hyères, a small seaside town where my grandparents once had a house built. As holiday places go, this is one where all cares seem to vanish at the door, a place where sitting around and doing nothing takes on a ritual quality. There are he breakfasts on the terrace, the reading afternoons near the sea, the ice-creams and the walks in the gardens, and the evening at the restaurant at the other end of the beach.

The house is on an isthmus, a rare geological formation that looks from above as if an island had sprouted two long arms and clutched the shore, enclosing a salty lake that looks like a little sea of its own, populated by flamingoes and elusive fish and gulls. The larger arm, the one the house sits on, is still very narrow; there's just enough room for the beach, a couple of houses, dunes covered in weeds and pines, and the road by the lake. In one evening, as our friends and ourselves usually do, we took the walk along the beach to reach a little cluster of houses that calls itself a port, have a meal at our favourite restaurant, then walked back after the night had fallen, in near-complete darkness, trying to tread as steadily as we could on the beds of sand and seaweed. The sky was very cloudy and even darker than usual, and then one of our friends pointed to the horizon and practically shouted, 'Look at that, it's–look–wow!'

The moon, that's what it was–a full moon just barely starting to rise, magnified by the horizon until it looked like an enormous gold plate turning to ivory as it rose. The reflection had dug a gleaming trench in the sea, a wide beam that stretched down to the beach. In the large disk of light around the moon, the clouds were etched in pitch-black and silver, so unusually framed that we couldn't tell which strip of darkness was a cloud and which one was the naked sky.

For several minutes, we just stood there, waiting for the moon to finish its game of blinking between clouds, so we could see the whole of it. When it finally appeared, it was striped like Jupiter, but its entire outline was visible, and its golden reflection was still burned into the sea.

A rising mon doesn't look like the mirror it is. It looks like a window on another world of perpetual daylight. Walking back in the now-clear night, we acted as if it was just another beacon, but for a few moments, we looked in another universe, wondering how we were even permitted to see it.