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Tattoo the Sea

Lawrence Murray

Fat rain poked the terrace. Separate splots—caliper-sizeable, measurable, aged and faded by the sun and vanished back to sky. I counted them like kindergarten—with thoughts of desert rain—blown in from Marrakesh—to grow me whole again.

The ocean groaned a weary morning. The tide backsquat another wave against the sea wall thump and the ocean groaned again. It seemed something of a compromise—the tide—some purgatory of ideals—the mad sea’s concession to the mechanical sky with its days and nights and planes and planets and exoplanets and galactic grand vista black and spritely colours of the nebulae. Its hierarchy of many magnitudes.

The sky seemed very orderly.

I waited, with no clear course of action, on this terrace in Essaouira, atop Abdullah’s riad, where the tide mixed fortunes of sea and sky and I sought to recover

—A faded red flag limped under a bent pole of Atlantic flotsam, jammed in a breeze block the next roof over. Not like the poppy red flags of Marrakesh, that hoist on ivory lances thrust obliquely in the ground—like the cavalry rode that way and claimed every roundabout—this was UV dull and flop, only poppy on point-patterns of wet.

Which was the problem that I sought to surmount.

Like I could have climbed a mountain instead. Mountains, at least, are well-defined.

Abdullah had emphasised the twist lock and two bolts inside the terrace door, “Remember to lock it when you come back in,” he said.

I think the problem was cats.

A white one appeared on a neighbouring terrace from a portal that cats use to navigate rooftops. It hopped across the four storey plummet in between—one thought there were unsaid customs discouraging this—and begged at my feet with a flawless baby cry except for a feline twang—it couldn’t help but end its waaah- with an -ow.

I had nothing to offer but a book (it was The Daybooks of Edward Weston). It did not seem interested in this. It wove itself through the railing, I followed with my eyes and then my whole body leaning over but it vanished through another mystery.

A gull skid-landed on the railing next to me, scuttled about to right itself like nothing had happened really, and stared out to sea with a majestic air of indifference. I straightened next to it, twisted my arms inward, noticed the salty residue on my elbows, contemplated the misty white-wash sea spray white-noise ocean roar of new town traffic on the other side of Essaouira.

The gull squinted its eyes, parted its huge grey wings and took flight upon the purple sky, lifting to the great conveyor of its kind, cradled upon updrafts along the full length of the sea wall to circle roundabout the far tower and glide back in melodic formation with the other gulls. They soared high to the fishing port at the other end, and clapped wings to drop like semiquavers off the stave, disappearing down there out there somewhere in the immense Atlantic yesterday, beyond this horizon line of terraces, white-painted houses, spotted desert tiles and peeling blue-paint timber railings and window frames and doors and such—

—From where sounded a tinkering on cheap keys. A synthesised piano, tinny as a harpsichord. No touch-sensitivity, every note the same volume, bar by bar by bar by bar, crotchet crotchet crotchet crotchet—then broken to variety, unsteady and timid like a child’s homework.

I felt like that melody.

I combed through the glossy plates of The Daybooks of Edward Weston and wondered what to feel like next: a twisted pepper or silken lettuce, a cactus, a whorling nautilus shell. Something of the wild sea and menace, not the rotary sky.

I wandered behind the sea wall, through dripping alleyways off the ruinous road, where ancient timber scaffolds propped open narrow lanes, and weary-worker murmurs kept the sides from closing in.

Briny puddles pulsed to the beat of the tide, heavied the air with seaweed tang, oyster shucked, squid and muck. A shallow cardboard tray held a litter of kittens. One chewed on a plastic wrapper. Another slept. The other was dead.

The road emerged near Bab Doukala, a great stone archway leading north to the new town, with ranks of beige grand and blue petit taxis smelling of petrol fumes, and horse taxis munching on feed bags. The main market had warmed to action and as I stepped into it—“I’m not really a mint tea person,” I heard. I wondered what is a mint tea person?

—Found a store that sold batteries and asked for a bottle of water. The storekeeper said fifty dirham and I protested. “No, fifteen,” he replied, “this is not Marrakesh.”

Soukaina came from that villainous city in a hurricane cape of desert red that chased the 8.30 CTM bus.

We sat at a round table looking Parisian. Morning shadow peeled across its chequered surface and she told me about her architecture studies, the new airport, how she prefers Moroccan movements to French, a watch in her parents’ jewellery shop where she works part time—“It has the cycles of the moon,” she said, and how she tries it on at the start of every shift, then hides it from customers at the back of the cabinet, “I need the moon, no one asks for the time anymore.”

She quipped a smile across the square, to another table where her two elder sisters sat, making glances back and the odd text message for clarity. “My oldest sister came to visit, she lives in Lebanon with her husband, so we all came to Essaouira together for the weekend.” I did not catch her sisters’ names, so I thought of them as Scheherazade and Dunyazad—I think they saved her from a sultan once, and could be called upon to do so again.

Mint tea arrived, in a stainless steel pot with curled spout and paper napkin folded around the too-hot handle. I poured us both a glass—“That’s not right,” Soukaina said, and swiftly the glasses looped back in the pot above her head and I thought I saw that hurricane cape of desert red again but was transfixed by two perfect arcs of tea that fountained forth on high to fill each glass with a stop-motion splash of desert rain across the Parisian table.

She broke my awe stare with a half smile and said, “The sugar needs to mix right.”

Her phone buzzed.

I looked up, to a pigeon marching along the gutter. It reached the corner and looked at me for too long, then continued its patrol on the other side.

She put down her phone, glared at her sisters.

I asked her more about her family.

Her father was from Marrakesh, she said, her mother from a village near Taroudant, between the High and Anti Atlas and Marrakesh and the free. One day she would save enough to buy a restaurant in Essaouira and furnish it all upcycled with junk from the market there, where rolled carpets stand like monolithic pillars gaudy painted, milk comes in self-service cows next to a mechanic who works on a Citizen MBK, clothes in all the colours of Morocco (that is, all the colours) and enough old radios, retro cash registers and cable reels to furnish the cafes of Melbourne, “If I had a boat,” she said.

There are no boats in the mountains.

She told me about that village of her mother’s, where the concrete blocks of the old bridge splay like vertebrae between dry river banks broken by the last flood. There are family courtyards and mud-brick houses quick-fixed with breeze-block, open basements where livestock and chickens are kept, fields of alfalfa, pomegranate, dates, tangerines—none of which she could name—“Nevermind the desert, I would not survive if lost on a farm”.

The industry of the village is ceramics. She was introduced to a potter making bricks. This potter, Soukaina gestured, would sprinkle a mould with sand, flop a hunk of clay into it, squeeze it into the corners, smooth it across with his palm and shift the new brick to a pile. He could make four hundred a day this way, and each pile would sit in the sun for another day again before firing in the kiln.

Any rain in this time would destroy the bricks.

So she checked the weather forecast on her phone and showed it to the brick maker, “It will rain tomorrow,” she said—to which the brickmaker replied, “Inshallah, let it rain!” and continued making bricks.

Morning sun cast over the sea and I pulled a half-drunk bottle of Cabernet from a box I’d pilfered from a German couple—they’d offered it kindly but I accepted so eagerly that it felt, in essence, pilfered—and a tall tumbler provided naughtily by Abdullah (whispering, “Is it white, or is it red?”).

So I gulped that down on a deck chair with feet up on the railing that criss-crossed the ocean while the wind flicked through mad pages (it was Jack Kerouac, Big Sur) and I thought about deserts and imagined words like don’t die me now the sea and watched this big Atlantic wave bash at the rocks below the sea wall never near me, and twist about in white foam bubbling sands on the beach–don’t die me now the rocks.

It didn’t make any sense, but it felt good.

I thought about people. The skyly ones who sought to tattoo my sea. But the sea does not hold lines well. The sea does not hold narratives well. The sea does not eddy to skyly cues—it hearts in the deep. And friends—it’s not that I don’t have any friends, it’s just that work is always there for me.

Unsure that I still understood the topic—people—it helped to think of them as fish. As in, what would a fish do in this situation? It would stay in the shoal or hide in the coral and fear the deep blue sky—its mechanical gulls and airplanes, planets, exoplanets, et cetera, and the spritely colours of the nebulae.

I peered over the railing over the bulwarks over the old sandstone concrete-mended sea wall below and watched the weeds rocking in on patchwork rafts and dump over on the next breaker splat on the rocks.

“Do you need mint tea?”—Abdullah, alarmed—me, startled—alarmed that I might have been sitting there for more than a moment without assistance—“I put the deck chair out for you,” he said.
“Yes, thank you, I like it very much, I will make sure to lock the door for the cats.”
“Not for the cats, for the tourists—do you need mint tea?”

No—I poured another glass of wine instead—that’s not right I thought and tried to pour the glass back into the bottle not even above my head but it didn’t go back I mean it’s not mint tea—that’s not right—oh what decadence to splash one’s wine!—that’s not right it’s kind Abdullah’s terrace—

—I saw a person on the rocks. On a mushroom-shaped lobe that rose from the pumping waves—must have sprinted there through a gap in the swell and vaulted up before the next one claimed their life and legacy and dingy soul—all you need is soul, and something to sell—but this rock was dry on top but for a little spray in the thick of it all. They just sat there unharmed against the assault under the sea-wind rain-spray high-tide hulk, the raging debate of sea and sky—how can I forget delusion if I cannot forget myself?

I walked around port, amongst the fishing fleet, all small wooden boats, all painted blue. A larger boat was in dry dock for repair, its metal propeller exposed, timber hull, planks removed around the stern looking skeletal, a worker in a harness dangling down the side repainting the sky-hammered blue with a freshly wet one.

I felt like that sky-hammered blue.

Gulls soared in from the sea wall and descended lee-side the port breakwater, arranging themselves systematically like picnickers on a lawn, each its own place amongst the others, yet as far away as possible. The weakened waves lifted and lowered their crooked rows gently, then regathered strength along the curved concrete promenade to a vicious left hook that scooped away at beach sands.

A new gull arrived and hovered above the water, waiting, beating, it’s spellcast wings turning a vortex to carry it.

A pigeon in its beak.

The broken wings of the prey beat arrhythmia—each pulse its exhausted last, yet from nowhere one last fight for life again and again one last time surely—and the gull just waited, hovered, carried calmly on its vortex—no last time surely—the pigeon in its beak—and at last the pigeon drew breath for nothing but spasm and the gull grew impatient—

—It landed on the water and plunged the pigeon under the surface. Energetic new beats splashed about the gull’s face—spasm of fight for life then lethargic then slow and heavied and futile—its feathers soggy, wet, heavy—not like the gull’s to shear away the salty water—then no oxygen, no energy, no life.

The gull took flight, its back hunched and wings rapid, audibly thumping on the air, struggling with the extra weight of the drenched dead. It flopped the rag doll remains on the promenade. The other gulls gathered.

I wasn’t sure what I felt like.

“So there’s this monkey”—Soukaina was reciting the Story of the Second Callander—“he can’t speak, but he can write, and he writes the most beautiful poetry in the most beautiful calligraphy, so the sultan has taken him in, and even plays chess with him”
“Who wins?”
“He beats the sultan but he’s not allowed to beat the sultan really so he lets himself lose right before the end.”

We wandered along the city beach from the port, away from the date-palm promenade, instead barefoot on the wet flats where low wind wove ribbons of dry sand between us.

“The sultan is having so much fun that he invites his daughter, the princess, to join them.” She enters with her face covered. He says she may remove her veil, as she is only in the company of close relatives, but she insists that this is no ordinary monkey. She senses the signs of magic—was taught by her maid, as a child, the spells to move cities across the mountains stone by stone. “This is a prince,” she says, “cursed by a genie.”

Embarrassed, the sultan suggests another game of chess, and begins resetting the pieces.

“But I can heal him,” the princess says.

The princess takes her father and the monkey to the palace courtyard. The sun has dropped below the outer arcades but still lights the sky—the courtyard rose and ochre, the white marble floor sombre in the late afternoon, a fountain in the centre that shoots crystalline water from a lion’s jaw, and a grand old pomegranate tree at the far end, manicured to perfection, branches slumping at the tips with bright ripe fruit.

The princess moves to the fountain and takes a brush with black ink. Crouching on the floor, she paints around herself in a circle—a ring of characters, some known to the sultan and monkey, but many perplexing—and not like the monkey’s graceful calligraphy of acclamations and blessings and laudings on the king—it is sharp and admonishing graffiti, it accuses and it challenges. And as she paints the final character to close the ring, it condemns, too.

The sultan shivers. The princess stands. The sky quakes—cracks appear as dark lightning—the ground warps as choppy liquid—the sultan and monkey retreat to the safety of the perimeter arcades—

—The princess stands unwavering.

Disembodied shadow darkens the fountain, spreads through the water, bubbles black in the void. The water parts, and bulges from within a humanoid form. At first it is merely curious. A bizarre mutation of water to embodiment. But the shape holds too long to be coincidence. It stills, and expands, and soon emerges a figure of demonic proportions, of a monstrous chest and scorching face—

—The genie’s voice booms, “Do you dare break the oath between us?

The princess spits on the ground and retorts, “No welcome to thee and no greeting, dog!”

The genie’s eyes flash with offence, and a burning wrath within intensifies. The body fits in anger, flashing through animal forms of menace and lost control and calamity—bear, chimpanzee, lion—feline muscles bulge into place down the flanks and a wild mane whips about a banshee maw—lion.

The princess calmly twirls at her hair with a finger. The strands slide off one by one until only one remains.

Infuriated, the genie pounces.

She crouches, the lion soars above her head and she plucks the final strand from her head—it stiffens sharpens lengthens to a mighty sword she swings to cut the beast in two.

The halves tumble across the courtyard, writing blood where the princess wrote ink. The bottom half crumbles to ashes, the upper convulses spasmodically again and changes shape to a scorpion. But its pincers and tail have barely set before the princess becomes a serpent and strikes at the creature with iron fangs. The genie is forced to shift again—legs web to wings and tail sheds to vulture that snaps with a hooked beak—but the snake recoils and strikes back as eagle. The vulture stumbles, trips and tumbles onto the tiles, rolls over and launches into the vacuum sky, the eagle in pursuit.

The monkey is agape, the sultan trembling. Time passes in peculiar ways. The sky is vacant. Does not understand. The pace of planets in this philosophy. Blood and ink creep into marble. The sky is vacant. The sultan pinches at his arms.

A black cat springs nimbly from the fountain. It shakes its fur casually and saunters toward the pomegranate tree. Halfway there it turns, puffs, and reclines like a sphinx, facing the arrested fountain.

The breeze turns in gentle ways, the cat relaxes and licks at its paws. Still trembling, the sultan conjures enough strength to lift himself onto one elbow—

—The cat jolts back to action, drops its tail and pirouettes, sprinting for the tree as a great wolf bounds through the fountain in pursuit. The cat hisses and leaps, stretching first like an arrow, then like a worm, to bury itself amongst the branches.

The wolf buckles into a rooster, its eyes fixed on the tree. Among the branches, a pomegranate expands, ripens and bursts shrapnel of seeds across the whole courtyard. The rooster frantically rushes around pecking them up one by one until the voice of the princess demands from everywhere, “One thousand! Is there one more?” and the sultan and monkey shrug and the rooster turns to see one last seed on the fountain ledge—it hops and shakes into a fish and flops into the fountain.

The water erupts.

The genie emerges as monstrous fire that sets the blank air red but the princess, woman again, casts back with fire of her own. They breathe at each other immersed in flame and smoke through the entire courtyard, palace and apparently world, until the genie turns upon the sultan and monkey and sets a wall of fire arcing toward them. The princess runs to cut off the flames, catches them and launches back at the genie—

—Who is caught off guard, ensnared in the fire, cracks striking over bodily surfaces like magma and split and rain to the ground as ash in death to the sunset sky again.

Exhausted, the princess collapses.

The sultan hurries to the fountain and back to his daughter with a cup of water. She takes the cup, but not a sip—instead she splashes the water on the monkey, and with her finger traces one last character of damnation on the floor—invisibly—consigning the genie a finality.

The prince is restored to human form. He reaches out to thank the princess, but she recoils, as though contagious, grits her teeth in tremendous pain, and pushes words between them: “Few are saved, upon whom the gate of fire is opened.”

She screams, “I burn!” and crumbles to ash.

We lounged at Beach and Friends. A whorl of cloud spiralled through the sky to an apex above old town Essaouira: a starry Van Gogh painting, if only the light were less real, the colours less Renaissance.

“She makes a mistake by missing the last seed,” Soukaina explained, “if she’d found it, the genie would have died right then, but instead escapes and opens the gate of fire.”

Mint tea arrived. I took the handle while Soukaina covered her face and peeked through her fingers as I started to pour—splashed a bit unsteadily, lifted the teapot higher and spilt some more in sugary puddles across the table while she hid her eyes and laughed and when there was no more mess to make she clapped encouragingly—for next time perhaps but unlikely to be—separate buses tomorrow, to the airport, to home.

“You’ll like the new airport,” she said, “the interior architecture I mean.”

It was not a long walk home, but it might have felt that way. Wind clipped the crests off curling waves, sending comet-tail spray behind tumbling white heads. A fading cobalt sky. A pink apparition where the sun used to be.

Alone on the concrete beach promenade, a guitarist strummed Aisha, and wicker lights swayed above my mind. “I don’t care,” he sang next, because everything is wrong and some things are stupid and he switched to a simple sound, arpeggio melody with an alto kick where every note resonated to some higher mood—a sort of indecision—but a slow convergence to coherent things. The strumming hastened, the chords crescendoed up a mountain in the Atlas, like every age the same, the same, but a different mood, a different weather, a different road up that High Atlas peak—

—He bent his knees and tapped his soles and shuffled sideways and smiled.

I took the ruinous road. An empty cardboard tray lay at its entrance. Nightly sparrows nested in the walls, bathed in twilight calm. A hand held a glowing cigarette through the calligraphic tin of an ornamental shutter.

Abdullah had lit orange-flower oil. The scent filled the riad up out through an open pane in the roof to the terrace, then fanged away on a beast of Atlantic westerly. The same big wind to carry me home tomorrow.

I drew the last bottle of Cabernet from the now-empty box and thought of a Japanese film I once saw—When The Last Sword is Drawn—poured, switched up some music on my phone—Lisa Mitchell, Bless This Mess—gazed at the crisp-pock crescent lune afloat out there in wild sea and sapphire sky. Then the battery was skimp, the charger broken, the last pulse needed for a bus ticket home so until then I’d ask the time from strangers and turn over paper pages—

—Where Jack Kerouac lopes down the beach in Big Sur, and bellows self-exception at the sea, “I am a Breton!”

To which the sea booms its reply: Les poissons de la mer parlent Breton.

© Copyright 2024 Lawrence Murray. All rights reserved.