A circle so wide

October 17, 1995|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

TC The huge concentric waves of universal life are shoreless. The starry sky that we study is but partial appearance. We grasp but a few measures of the vast network of existence.

Victor Hugo, ''William Shakespeare'' (1864).

IN THE SUMMER we returned to the small cottage by the great sea. The regularity of the tide's advance and retreat, and the sun's daily journey from east to west, almost convinced me in our first few days here that things do not change. Each day the sun began as a faint hint of pink on the eastern horizon. In moments it became a fiery red ball, emerging from beneath beveled glass. As it died in the evening, it illuminated the western sky in pastel colors that defy adequate description. All this happens with a daily regularity. It is predictable, and thus it seems changeless.

This year's life guard knew he had muscles, as last year's did. His girlfriend spent the day beneath his stand. She was blonde and beautiful. She smelled of baby oil and innocence, as she always has. Back in the city, I generally can manage to exude a patina of political correctness at the sight of a beautiful woman, but here there was still the secret stir of testosterone when the right woman made her way up the beach. I looked just long enough to trigger that amused side-glance my wife employs to watch me watch.

'Sacred carvings'

In the late afternoon, the sandpipers and gulls spread their hieroglyphics across the wet sand, as they have for all the summers we have come to this place. The Greeks gave us the modern name for the ancient Egyptian pictographs. These hieroglyphs, or ''sacred carvings'' were reserved for stories about the gods, tales of the changeless and invisible.

The sea and salt air still healed minor cuts and abrasions faster than any medicine found back in the city. The surf always managed to work its magic on our more secret wounds as well, the silent kind of wound from which not all of us recover.

When there was a land breeze, the flies took over. After dark the beach was still the domain of lovers and feisty mosquitoes who waited patiently in the western marshes until the sun had set. The stars continued to spread themselves blazing across the darkness of the firmament, as they have since the first days of creation.

Our cottage remained bereft of a decent spaghetti colander or six matching wine glasses. The same folks as last year lined up for the Sunday paper at the small show in town. The newspaper brought word of a world where things change too quickly and clearly. But here, if one did not think too much, the world was predictable, perhaps even eternal.

The fish head

In a few days, though, the notion that this was a changeless place began gradually to fade, like the ever-shortening summer light. There were many clues that this place will not guarantee me, or those I love, eternal life: a pelican's swift and deadly plunge for an evening meal; the vacant shells of horseshoe crabs washed ashore, like the forgotten helmets of foreign soldiers long since drowned at sea; an enormous gray-speckled fish head tumbled ashore, eyes gone from its sockets, skull bones exposed on one side.

The fish head smelled like death. In a moment it drew a crowd. A dozen people surrounded it with muteness and reverence. As a stiff-armed lifeguard carried it off somewhere, an older woman, lips ringed with zinc oxide, commented to no one in particular that the lifeguard was a brave young man.

The old woman's remark reminded me that the ocean is a great cemetery, as surely as Forest Lawn or that parcel of land in Arlington, Virginia, that holds so many of our war dead. The appearance of the horseshoe shells and the disembodied fish head revived in me thoughts of my uneasy relationship with the dead. I continually struggle to find a meeting ground with the dead. I am never successful. I cannot treat the dead as if they are truly and wholly gone, for that would reveal in me a want of affection and possibility. And yet, I cannot treat the dead as fully among the living, for that would imply a denial of time that only the young so effortlessly achieve.

By late afternoon on our third day, the beach again had transformed me. This was not a place where immortals may be found. In my first few days here, I had been trying, in my own way, to deny the passage of time. In order to achieve my goal, I had to agree not to think too much. A tumbling fish head changed all that.

I began to look more closely. My 9-year-old son no longer held my hand when he entered the surf. His 2-year-old brother still would not venture very far into the churning ocean. But he now called the treacherous current the ''undertoad.'' Protective lotion for his skin was still referred to as ''sun scream'' but last year in this place he barely spoke at all.

The circumference of time

By the evening of the third day, everything about this place whispered in a language of finitude. I finally understood that the time I have been trying to deny is the linear variety, time measured in discrete bits with appointment calendars and anniversaries. But here, by the sea, time has no length. It merely has circumference. Here time moves in a great circle -- a circle so wide it cannot be apprehended in its entirety. By the evening of the third day, I understood that this place is not much different from any other place: The dead are always holding hands with the living.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His most recent collection of essays and stories, ''The I of the Beholder,'' will be published by Cathedral Foundation Press.

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