The Inland Sea
None knew the meaning of the inland sea or how, in the hours of darkness between one day and the next, it should have appeared where all had been grass and stones with, here and there, a settlement of families together with their animals. Nor could any of us imagine by what engendering force the vast steppe had been transformed into water and something more than this: an object of reverence for some, of speculation for others, and, for those like me who regard the world’s motives as hostile, a source of profound uneasiness. For me the world has an alien consciousness whose impulses end invariably in catastrophe. I mean to say that Earth’s least movement, as of a giant restless in its bed, will turn fire to holocaust, wind to tempest, air to a fatal brume, and water to flood.
Because the inland sea appeared, from the vantage of each one who stood upon its shore, to be limitless—its depths impossible to sound—it was treated as a symbol. But it was also water in motion to the farthest limits of its shore, roused by wind or made to lie down when the wind ceased, where clouds might sometimes be seen herding across the surface according to the sun’s intensity. And for these reasons, the inland sea was real, which is to be more than a symbol or less than one. We thought it might have power to uphold us; we knew it had power to drown us. We dared not prove its intentions toward us one way or another by entering it.
Because it had materialized while all were asleep (later, talking among ourselves about that night, we could discover no one who had not been sleeping), the inland sea was believed to be an annexation of the night that holds sway over sleepers—no matter that it came to be a central feature of our daylight hours. By this we meant that some strange and unaccountable fracture in night’s substance, if so palpable an aspect could be attributed to so tenuous a condition, had precipitated our inland sea.
“I am not one of those who believe it to be well disposed or even neutral toward us.”
“But why should night have turned against us?” Ivor argued as we stood at the water’s edge, fishing for the plentiful bream. The water was fresh, as one would expect in the middle of a continent. I watched the net leave his hands, momentarily weaving a figure-8 in the air before settling on the water.
Ivor and I were not the only ones who had come to the inland sea once the city had finally stopped—its lights out, machines at a standstill. Hunger had driven many to the edge of the mysterious water, which may wish us—who knows?—well or ill.
Ivor pulled in his net, the bronze-armored fish quivering in sunlight.
“It feeds us.”
I shrugged as, at a short distance away, the body of a cow rode before the wind.
Sleepless, I went to the shore of the inland sea and watched an ocean liner sail out of the darkness. White light shone at every porthole and on the black water below. The ship moved with the majesty of a moon swinging round its planet—silent, serene, contemplative. Had its enormous weight not crushed the surface of the water, causing it to rise in waves against the shore with the noise of something being dragged over stones, I might not have believed my eyes—might have thought I was home yet, asleep. (I call it home, but it was no more than a few boards hammered together to make a kind of lean-to.) The shore was empty of all life save mine. Not even a night bird was there to jar the immense silence. The ship came as though out of a dream—not mine: the water’s and the night’s.
“What shall we do?” I asked Ivor while he sat on the shore, crosslegged, and mended his net.
“What do you dream of?” I asked him, looking at the place where the ship had appeared to me.
It is dangerous to hold men back from death.
Another night, and while I watched, a boat swung out from the side of the great ship and was let down onto the water. It came toward me, in brief spasms of motion, in and out of the wavering lights cast by the portholes. I seemed to see men leaning in the benches, each at an oarlock; but perhaps I was remembering how, on another night when I had been a young man, a boat had come out of the darkness, rowed by men who searched among the wreckage sown upon the water for survivors.
I gave my hand to the darkness and was taken up.