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Patricia Schonstein

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Some chilling parallels between the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and my post-apocalyptic novel, The Master’s Ruse

An extract: The demise of the ocean, which happened in my lifetime, was brought about by overfishing and by endless, indiscriminate dumping of military and industrial waste.

Once, the ocean was vibrant and pulsing, reigned over by the gods of fish and manta rays; gods of porpoise and squid; gods garlanded in fronds and waving sea grasses; gods wearing brooches of anemone and coral. Once, the vastnesses of water spiralled and plunged colourfully around the globe in hot and cold currents, forming unpolluted gyres as they met, dancing, then moving on to caress the outer edges of the land in homage, the way a diligent lover might do. These currents were made jubilant by great shoals, amassing as dense, lithe, silver, underwater clouds. Pelagic winds, perfumed by kelps and illumined by phosphorous, invigorated all who breathed of them.

Now, the ocean is like a vastness of dark, thick, melted velvet, forlornly moving between the land masses, searching for lost meaning. The waters are funerary and despondent, weighted by mourning, burdened by a contagion of floating, cadaver-grey, sun-bleached plastics. Vast lengths of fishing nets drift like hungry ghosts, seeking life, themselves, in vain. Black-blue rolling tides try to empty themselves of their affliction, throwing flotsam at the high-water mark. Calcified carcasses, delivered with the detritus, wash up, covered in lesions, their shining and gills corroded, their radiance dulled.

I understood from an early age that oceanic life was doomed, for I have loved and felt an intuitive bond with the creatures of water for as long as I remember. My bones hold memory of fish and marine cartilage in them. I sense myself as though once gilled, as though marine wilderness had been my home in an ancient, ancient time. So it was my bones that confirmed that sea-life’s end would be realised before my own death, for they would flail at night, like the tails of fishes, as though in water, drowning.  I knew of the ocean’s fate in the way one knows when a donkey, after a lifetime of abuse, finally succumbs, lowering itself onto the tar, down on its knees, and no amount of whipping will cause it to rise again, though it may want to.

Sometimes I felt a startling pain in my chest, as though a length of platinum had stabbed a ventricle, allowing the last mourning calls of whales and dolphins to wheeze through that hole. I was haunted by the cries of sharks as their fins were hacked from them by ruthless fishermen. I watched their butchered, bloodied bodies thrown back into the sea, fighting to swim, but failing. I heard the sighs of fishes, entire dynasties of them, surrendering to the muck and sinking to the ocean floor. They cannot sink in death, they would float I tried to reason, wanting to make of it all a nightmare from which I could wake. But still I felt them spiralling down, down, down, thousand upon thousand, to the very depths of the ocean.

There, on the bedrock, they spread like metallic, futuristic carpeting, covering the scattered cargoes of storm-wrecked galleons – ingots, pewter, porcelain and faience. Those shipwrecks were the first layers of human debris, benign and beautiful in comparison to the lethal waste that would follow. Carnelians, agates and jades, long liberated from their threading, tried to shine through the shades of oil and sewerage that superseded them, but couldn’t, for they were too delicate.

At full moon, I would go down to the beach, to offer some word of lamentation, for then the water took on a softened though macabre beauty under the lunar witch-white. Once I fell down out there, mesmerised by the black tide, and when I did not return next morning my manservant came looking for me and found me wandering and confused. He lead me back to the homestead where he helped me undress and wash myself of the beach’s foulness, but I could not rinse away the sense of oil that permeated my very dreams for ages afterwards.

Many a time I called out towards the waves, over the rippling sheet of gun-metal silk, that vast mercurial waste, to whatever life might remain in it. I sought to summon whales, though these were long extinct. I hoped that in the waters some remnant of their spirit still moved. I wanted to inform whatever was left of those leviathans (even if only their spines and baleen) that their death was not my doing. That I had had no power to halt the harpooning. That I had not been able to stop their home from becoming a cesspool. That it was not I who had poured solvents and radioactive waste into their domain.

The instruments of their demise, if they escaped the whalers, had been many. Behemoth shipping vessels had collided with them. Ropes and buoys had entangled them. Plastics had suffocated them. Chemicals had burnt and blinded them. But it was the loss of their song that killed them off in their entirety. Their hymns were muted by human dissonance. They could no longer hear each other in the depths. Their lexicon had once been one of cantata, of a cappella, of duets and sonar hymns.  These songs, cathedralic in their scope and majesty, would circle the whole globe. But they had no timbre against the booming engines of container ships and oil rigs, against the frequencies emitted by submarines and underwater military installations. Their songs failed against the explosions and cacophony of dredging and deep-sea mining.

Without chorus, they had no purpose and would throw themselves upon the beaches, whole pods at a time, great carcasses, sacrificed upon an altar of dirty sand. They should have been recognised as emissaries, come to warn of the sea’s doom and the earth’s coming plight. But few men gave them ear. They lay until all flesh had fallen from them. Until their bones crumbled.

If any living thing heard me calling, there was no response, no whisper of forgiveness. The only sound was that of the waves crying against the shore as they continued to seek meaning, in acts of faith. In the end, everything merely succumbed. The over-heated coral reefs bleached and broke. Mangroves and river estuaries, long stripped of vegetation, drowned under polluted, rising waters. Aquatic colours let go their hold of sunlight and sank to darkness. It was a closing down, a surrendering.

The Master’s Ruse

Patricia Schonstein

African Sun Press

ISBN 978 1 874915 16 4

 

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