The sun was setting at the back of the ocean. I could see it from the beach where I was standing. I stood on a risen shoulder of sand, a few paces away from the edges of the sea where the licking fingers of the waves, rippling and splashing, drew back and forth, and back and forth.
The setting sun itself was of the utmost beauty. It was like a magical shield full of life and light, its fire subdued but radiant, warm and red, the beginning of seven colours and a million and one unnameable hues.
They stratified the wide ocean into homogenous groups and, riding on the waves, transferred the sea of water into an ocean of colour. Every wave was a house of tonal creativity. Every cloud above was a surrealistic masterpiece, briefly floated upon the skyscapes of our hearts. Catch me if you can.
Transfixed, I stood, gazing out at the setting sun.
Normally, on the west coast of Africa, looking south, the sun sets, when we face the Atlantic, on the right side of the ocean. But sometimes a curvature of coastal line, a geographical comma, nature changing its mind, like we all do, produces a long stretch of beach where, standing as I stood upon the risen announcement of hilly sand, I, gazing ahead, gaze straight into the setting sun.
And the sun was a stone, nay, actually it was a shell, a little white shell glittering in the sand just beyond the tips of the reaching fingers of the sea.
You should have seen this shell. There was something about it. It glittered white in the orange sand and seemed to be a stranger. More than glittering, it seemed to glow. My imagination conjured up pictures of master craftsmen in the merrealm just off the West African coast of the Atlantic, leftovers from Atlantis. Silver-bearded, golden ebony, nobly finned, hardworking merfolk, shaping and polishing. Then I thought of gently swaying mermaids, wiser than the wisest housewives of yore, with nimble fingers, moulding, weaving, shaping and polishing. And one of them had formed this shell and polished and polished it until it shone.
Then she had flung it out.
The sea was jealous. It had hardly been in possession of this shell, this beautiful white shell that glistened so beautifully in the sand beneath my gaze on the beach. Now the ocean reached with even longer fingers for the shell, my shell.
For, as soon as I laid eyes on this enchanting, pure white sea shell a few paces beneath me, just beyond the rolling waves, I knew that she, the beautiful mermaid who had made it, had made it just for me and had waited for me to appear on her beach today and then flung it out to me.
But like in all things in life, I also had to fight for it, I had to carry out an action which symbolically or really encapsuled my recognition of this thing’s worth and my need for it, my claim to it. That is to say, I had to walk down the risen shoulder and snatch the shell away from the reach of the sea’s licking fingers and possess it.
But a cloud bunched up against the sun for a moment and I remained there, squinting in the direction of the veiled Settingsun until it had been unclothed again.
Then, with a spring, I alighted Risen Shoulder and walked towards the white shell glowing in the orange beachsand.
The wave was faster, and it came without warning. I guess the sea was afraid, that was all. When it saw me move, it knew I would take the shell and keep it with me forever. Seas, being deep, always know such things, for they rest in the depth of heart. So it mustered up all the strength it could gather at such short notice and lunged at the shell.
In Creation, everything happens within the boundaries of space and time. Nothing is instantaneous, as long as it is a process, a development, a translation from one part, or one form, of space to another. The space here can be innerspace or outerspace. By outerspace I mean the physically tangible and, even if only to an extent, measurable, however vanishingly small it is, and by innerspace I mean the conceptually graspable, however large.
If a thing changes position in space, it also does so in time. There is nothing that does not take time to happen; not even light is that fast.
This means that between the ocean’s beginning to summon up all the strength available to it at that moment and its lunging at the shell, moments must have been bypassed in time by both the ocean and me.
If I had not dallied in carrying out my decision, by remaining there squinting at the cloud that had bunched up before Settingsun, the ocean would not have had a chance because the distance in time it had to traverse in order to overcome the inner and outer spatial distance between it and the shell would have been too long. Its time was too short. Had I moved.
I, however, remained there on Risen Shoulder, gazing thoughtfully at the temporarily veiled sun, thus allowing the ocean, who had read my intention, to prepare for me.
And it did.
For the wave was faster.
I was three steps away from the glittering white shell when it was suddenly swallowed by a swift and smooth beaching wave.
The wave was also a mocker, something like a teaser.
It retreated slowly, slowly into the sea. If I moved just a little faster, surely I would overtake it, thought I. A little faster … faster … further out … further in … I was in the sea. Suddenly I saw the shell again, lunged for it.
I did not realise how deeply in I was until it was too late, I slid in the wet sand, the water was above my forehead. I do not know how to swim. I began to drown. I fought, I grasped, gasped, swallowed, choked, drowned. I heard voices. I heard the ocean’s roar.
I thought I felt a hand, a delicate hand, a firm grip … I could not be sure. I passed out.
In how many seas, rivers and lakes have I drowned? From how many been rescued?
The strong hand was still holding mine when I opened my eyes. I was lying on my back in what looked like a garden. The bare walls were trees side by side, green with pulsating life, the red sun had been replaced by a white one whose blue light hurt my eyes and warmed my heart.
The hand was strong. I turned my head to the side. It was a woman whom I did not know. She was wearing a milky white sleeveless wet gown that clung. Her bare arms were slim and chocolate brown. The strong fingers that enclosed mine were long and fine, the kind of fingers only paintings have.
All in all she was slim, with slight and graceful curves, delicate in appearance. Her face … she did not have the beautiful features of a model, she had the beautiful features of a loving friend, yet I knew her not. Her lips were full and soft, and curved into what looked, oddly, like a proud smile.. Her nose was round and flat, open, a negro nose. Her face was oval. Was she the sun? I could not see her eyes, it was covered by her hair, braided, beaded and woven, which clung heavy and wet to her head, hanging down like a curtain across her forehead and eyes, down to the bridge of her beautiful nose. With her other hand she opened the curtain and hung the braids behind her ears. As she did this, our eyes met. She was starring at me worriedly. It was a strange experience.
“Not yet,” she said, with strong emotion, “You can’t go yet.” I did not hear her voice, because her lips did not move. I only heard what she said.
When I woke up, I was lying on the beach with the white shell in my hand, and it shall be my sign and my memory of your promise. It was dark. The beautiful red sun had set, the orange sands had changed colour, grey was its name now, this beach. We had journeyed through time, and space had changed. But one thing remained, unchanged, even up until today: I’ve never forgotten her proud smile or her face or her eyes or the worried, very worried, look in her eyes.
“Why not yet?” I had asked her.
“Because I’m waiting for you on earth in the future, and we’ve not met yet. We have work together to do.”
che chidi chukwumerije.