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.

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From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

Moana

On Thursday, we went to see Moana, Disney’s latest (which was translated as Vaiana in France for rather obscure reasons). Aside from the fact that the film was a little bit heavy on the cutesy songs, we loved it. Disney has gone a long way since the days of singing mice and wide-eyed princesses. They’ve yet to produce films as thought-provoking and imaginative as Pixar’s best gems, and the songs really get a bit kitschy for my tastes, but it’s well worth the price of the tickets. Also, I never imagined that a daft chicken on a boat could offer so many possibilities for comedy. And also, Mad Max: Fury Road references. Just what the doctor ordered.

But my favourite point, I think, is that this is what I would call a genuinely environmentalist film. I’ve struggled for a while to figure out what environmentalist art might look like: having a clear message about not hurting our poor planet is one thing, but 1) for the last time, our planet is doing fine; it’s the species on it that are suffering, and it’s humankind that’s going to be radically screwed over if we keep on like this; an 2) it’s not enough to deliver a message; if it’s going to end up like those countless movies that blather on about how the female lead is so strong and self-reliant and then show her tied up and helpless waiting for the hero to rescue her, then it’s completely useless to lecture the viewers.

However, Moana goes beyond delivering a message. In fact, there is no lecture to speak of. The film never says a single thing about respecting nature and living beings. It simply shows a group of people who are all going to die because they haven’t done so. At the beginning of the story, they’re not even questioning their way of life: as they see plants and animals dying out around them, they only consider planting trees in different places and sailing farther away to fish. Moana herself has no more reverence for nature than the rest of her people; she even eats pork ribs with delight right in front of her pet piglet. It turns out that they’re not even individually guilty: what caused their plight was the decision of a hero who thought he was only helping humans make the best of their environment. I think that, so far, it’s about the best ways to sum up our current environmental issues I’ve seen in any film.

There is another reason why I would say this was a great environmentalist film. The ocean is not just a setting: it’s a character in itself, and it’s portrayed in a gorgeous wealth of detail, all of them relevant. The heroine has to learn to interact with the wind and the water to sail her ship. Coral reefs are depicted up close, with dozens of different species, each one playing its part in the journey. The ocean is not just something Moana uses to get to her destination: she has an intimate relationship with it, she gets water and salt in her hair, she feels the current and the waves and learns to love every part of it. Her sidekick Maui turns into a variety of animals depending on the purpose he’s trying to achieve. Animals, plants and water are far from being decorative: their part in the story is as important as the humans’, and that’s all the more impressive considering that they’re hardly ever anthropomorphised at all.

I loved it, I was impressed that it too a child’s film to offer such a successful take on what the environment means to us, and most of all, I was grateful to see the sort of story children will grow up with today.

Ripples in the sunset

Walking on the Old Port back from my flamenco lesson threw me back to the last time I saw my brother in person: the same milky water with the bare hint of motion of the ships, the same smell of tar, but none of the hugs and tears and receding violin as the ship sailed away. Six months already, and more to come. My brother is in Brazil now, just back on the ship after exploring the Amazonian forest. Here, the first rains of autumn are already coming, although as always, summer clings as long as it can.

They did meet with whales, eventually. But the only one that collided with their ship was a newborn calf which had just emerged from a cloud of blood in the water, and it swam away unhurt. Although the hull is painted bright red, it must still look like a mother whale, somehow. That is a sight I would like to see before I die.

Last time I dreamed of my brother, we were walking together on an iced-over bridge, hanging over a cold, white torrent. I stayed safely inside of the railing, but he stepped outside on the ice with his camera, to get a better picture of the deathly cold landscape. I kept walking, afraid that he would lose his footing, and panicked when I heard the loud crack of ice falling off the bridge and into the river. But when I looked up, I saw that my brother had safely reached the bank, and was taking pictures of the ice in the water.

Get naked. It’s an order.

Since the latest terrorist attacks have been driving much of France crazy, we seem to wait every week for the newest controversy, outrageous statement or ridiculous debate, with varying degrees of anxiety. In the past two weeks, some seaside towns have decided to take a completely unnecessary and possibly quite illegal step, as you’ve probably read in international media: they have forbidden bathers to wear burkini, a type of swimwear used by some Muslim women to hide their bodies while they bathe.

My first reaction was to feel a little bit more exhausted than usual. I’m not the target of those regulations, I’m not part of a religious minority, and I won’t pretend I’m the victim of anything here. But I still have to live in this country. Most of my students are Muslims. Part of what makes my job so complicated is the wedge that these politics are driving, day after day, between ‘people like me’ and ‘people like them’. I’m using quotation marks because that’s how my students see it. I’m not part of their world, so why should they listen to me? Once again, I have to thank some clueless politicians for making my job a little bit harder. Great. I can’t way for the first school days.

I want to be completely honest about one thing, even though it may not be the safest admission to make. I have very little sympathy for women who insist on dressing ‘modestly’. I think women’s modesty is a very loaded issue, and I don’t feel very comfortable around people who insist that coverig your body is a sign of moral virtue. What does it mean, then–am I a bad person for not wanting to hide my body? I’m certain that lots of people would reply that obviously, women who cover themselves up do not do it for or against me, they do it for their own personal reasons and it has no implications about my personal virtue or lack thereof. They would certainly be right, although that doesn’t make me more comfortable. When I walk around Marseilles, I get more or less unpleasant comments from men on a regular basis. The idea that I deserve less respect because I wear short skirts doesn’t seem so foreign to them. That’s why I’m not comfortable around people who parade female modesty as a sign of virtue. Like it or not, it does impact my life.

But there’s one thing this does not change: I’d rather have a real conversation about this, rather than see people toss humiliating regulations around. I know I’ll never get to discuss the implications of female modesty and the presence of the female body in the public space with my students, because one question will always come back to pollute the debate: if women should be able to wear whatever they want without being judged, why are religious clothes prohibited? And I know I can’t answer that question, becuse there’s no good answer. Yes, France is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion, and yet some religions should not be seen in public… Also, I don’t believe that the purpose of law is to make people comfortable, and it’s certainly not to make me comfortable. I’m fine with being uncomfortable as long as I can discuss why. The only thing we’ve gained is that now, there will be no discussion. Only hurt.

There’s another thing. Earlier this year, I considered shopping for a burkini myself. Not for religious reasons, but for a very simple practical one: my skin is extremely fair, burns very easily, and I want to stop using sunscreen on the beach as much as possible, because sunscreen is very damaging for marine wildlife (just imagine that blanket of clouds that blocks out all sunlight in The Matrix, only the blanket is made of sunscreen particles diluted in the water–you get the idea). I didn’t, because burkinis are not form-fitting and I assumed it would be a pain in the arse to swim around wearing one. But there was one thing I couldn’t help noticing: apparently, when you’re on the beach, you’re supposed to be as naked as possible. Long-sleeved swimwear is almost non-existant, and I found nothing that could cover my legs. Seriously, am I the only person in this continent whose skin is prone to burning? If I want to take a swim while protecting my skin, what is the fucking problem with that?

It’s summer. Go naked. Wear a bikini even if you’re a little girl with no breasts. Bare your legs even if you’re a self-conscious teenager who’d rather stay in her bedroom. If you can’t be bothered to shave, face the judgement that will inevitably come, you don’t simply have the option of wearing something on top of your unsightly legs. Groom that skin cancer or hide in the shade, there’s no alternative for you. It sucks. A lot. That’s why I raised an eyebrow today, when reading an article by a famous French (female) polemist, who argued that yes, of course banning burkinis is probably illegal, but that’s a shame because ‘people go to the beach to relax, not to collide head first with other people’s convictions or ideologies’. Fair enough, but who are these mysterious ‘people’? Apparently not women who would like to wear burkinis, because they will definitely have to confront other people’s ideologies (and have to disrobe) instead of just being able to enjoy a nice day in the sun. Not people like me either, because life’s a bitch and now it makes me so sad to put on sunscreen and realise how I’m contributing to killing off the sea I love more than so many things in the world, and so I don’t always get to relax either. It must be nice to feel so important you imagine that the purpose of your society’s laws and organisation must be to help you relax. Don’t worry, the police are here to make sure that just the right people are publicly humiliated and that ‘other people’s convictions’ won’t hurt your nice day on the beach.

Another world

In the Mediterranean, there are special kinds of reefs covered in long, tough leaves called posidonia. From above, they look like waving pillows, or particularly coarse hair. From further away, they make wide, dark spots on the sea floor. Underwater, they look like prairies, with myriads of grazing fish.

Posidonia are the Amazon of the Mediterranea sea floor. Stumbling on a reef underwater feels like crashing a party. Coloured fish swim all around you, others burrow in the sand and dry leaves, waving their barbels and tails, others flee in schools when they see you approach. Starfish and anemones make bright spots on the bottom. Clams as wide as two hands gape at you, covered in hair-like seaweed. Every now and then an octopus hides from sight. If the sun is bright above you, its rays will make milky curtains in the water. It’s an exceptional sight, a few dozen metres away from the beach.

I can’t really explain why, however, but for a few years now, the thought of swimming over posidonia has filled me with dread. If I feel long leaves brushing my legs as I swim by, I feel close to panicking. Especially if they’re really close, which makes no sense because if the water is so shallow, there would be absolutely no risk of drowning, and stepping on posidonia is much like stepping on a bed of dry leaves in the forest. And yet, somehow, they’re frightening. Not just to me, either: I was a little relieved to discover that a lot of people I know share this fear. Why, I have no idea.

So I recently decided to fight the fear, put on a snorkel and diving mask, and go swimming above the reefs. And it was wonderful. I stopped there for a moment, trying not to disturb the fish, hearing nothing but my breath amplified by the mask, watching schools of fish swim all around me, paying no attention at all. The sun was high in the sky and the water crystal-clear. It was beautiful, peaceful beyond saying. And yet… I still felt ill at ease. I swam away and came back every now and then, so I wouldn’t stay for too long above the sea grass.

There is something about those reefs which cannot make one entirely comfortable. However warm the water, however long you spend getting acquainted with breams and giant clams, this is not your home. You’re not truly supposed to be there and you know it. You’re disturbing something, and you’re only safe as long as that something tolerates you. This is not your geography, not even your geometry. Spend too long swimming from reef to reef and you won’t know where you are. Well, you will know if you raise your head above the water, but once it’s down again, you’ve crossed the line back into that world that isn’t yours. There are no sounds aside from your breath, no feelings except from the water, and as for sight, you have to choose between the familiar surface, or the depths of the sea. It is beautiful, beyond compare. But it is not your home.

And sail into the sunset

Three weeks ago, my brother departed on schooner Sonate as part of a crew of five, for a round-the-world trip that may not bring them back until next year. They left from the Old Port of Marseilles, on a white-skied morning with just enough wind to flap in the sails. There were two hours of hesitation and near-stillness in the harbour as families and friends took coffee on the deck, the stocks of fuel were replenished and a hundred little details nobody could see except for the sailors were fixed. Then they navigated out of the harbour, motor growling, sails unfurling little by little until they glided past the levees. Then they took out their violins and accordions, and sang a goodbye song which said something about a harmonica, even though none of them had one. They sailed very close to us one last time, waving their hands. With that, they were gone.

There are few real goodbyes left today. Usually, you hug and kiss and almost walk backwards as you leave so as not to lose one precious second together, only to storm back through the door five minutes later because you forgot your coat, blow a hasty kiss and go. Or you follow people through a window pane when they go through security at the airport, feeling vaguely stupid as you look at each other in the eyes but can’t hear anything and wonder how long the awkwardness is going to last. As soon as you’re out of view, you exchange a couple of text messages, or skype each other as soon as an internet connection becomes available. It’s goodbye, but watered down.

As that ship grew smaller on the horizon and we grew further apart with every passing minute, we knew there would be no turning back, no forgotten mobile phone in the car. It’s not the first time I’ve hugged my brother goodbye. He’s left before–to Antarctica, to Norway–and I’ve left too, and we’ve ended on opposite sides of the globe quite a few times. One year will just barely be the longest time we’ve been without meeting. And yet, there will be no skyping out on the open sea. He’ll have no solid ground under his feet for a while. I trust the sea, and yet there’s something more poignant than I imagined about a ship putting wide golden waters between you and your brother.

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Before he sailed away, he came to visit my school and tell my students about his travels and his future work on sea life. He told them about young albatrosses dying of hunger after being unwittingly fed plastic scraps by their parents, about chemical pollution and the gigantic plastic maelstroms twirling at the center of the oceans. But what one of my students really wanted to know about was the whales.

‘What will you do if a whale crashes into your ship? Will you sink?’

‘Well, there are very few whales left today,’ my brother said. ‘It’s very unlikely. They also have a sonar to help them swim, so they won’t crash into us unless they have a big problem. If it does happen, we’ll sink. But then it would also mean fate is after us and we’re meant to die, so there’s no point worrying about it.’

I’m not sure this is what she expected to hear, but she was still all ears for the rest of the conference.

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A few days ago I dreamt of a river, frozen over and quite still under the snow. But when the current broke again, the ice went away one chunk after another, and under there in the deep, large shadows were revealed, monstrous, quiet catfish placidly weaving under the ice.

They swam away, in one slow swarm, huge slithering shapes too large to pay attention to us.

I hope the whales swim clear of my brother’s ship.