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Authors: Austin Clarke

The Origin of Waves

BOOK: The Origin of Waves
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The Origin of Waves

“There is a wonderful cadence to both the narrative and dialogue in this book, a seamless rhythm that seduces the reader and makes it impossible to put down.”

Edmonton Journal

“A vital, exquisitely written, and memorable novel.”

– Quill & Quire

“Uncommonly talented, Clarke sees deeply, and transmits his visions and perceptions so skillfully that reading him is an adventure.”

Publishers Weekly

“A book built to stand the dual tests of tradition and time.… Clarke’s prose shines.…”

Toronto Star

“Compelling.… Clarke writes a truly engaging story that’s hard to put down.”

Word Magazine

“A work of love, charm, wit.… Enchanting.…”

– St. Catharines Standard

“Clarke is magnificent in transferring to print the music, the poetry, the complete aptness of the West Indian dialogue.… As near poetry as prose can become.”

– Charlotte Observer

“He succeeds in making his pages brilliant.”

– Boston Globe


The Survivors of the Crossing
Amongst Thistles and Thorns
The Meeting Point
Storm of Fortune
The Bigger Light
When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks
The Prime Minister
When Women Rule
Nine Men Who Laughed
Proud Empires
In This City
There Are No Elders
The Origin of Waves
The Question
The Polished Hoe
Choosing His Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke

Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack
A Passage Back Home
Pig Tails
Breadfruit: Rituals of Slave Food

The Austin Clarke Reader

Copyright © 1997 by Austin Clarke

Trade paperback with flaps published 1997
First Emblem Editions publication 2003

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Clarke, Austin, 1934-
The origin of waves / Austin Clarke.

eISBN: 978-1-55199-606-6

I. Title.

PS8505.L38O74 2003     C813′.54     C2002-905533-4
PR9199.3.C526O75 2003

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

Quotation on p. vii from “Prelude” in
Rights of Passage by
Edward Brathwaite, Oxford University Press, 1967. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.


McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9


For Denise

“Memories are smoke
lips we can’t kiss
hands we can’t hold
will never be
enough for us;
for we have learned
to live with sun
with sin
with soil
with rock …”

– Edward Brathwaite, “Prelude,”
Rights of Passage

“Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface In thee thy summer ere thou be distilled: Make sweet some vial: treasure thou some place With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.”

– Shakespeare, Sonnet N


e were sitting on the sand. The sand on the beach was the same colour as the shell of the conch. The conch was empty, dead and old. Its pink insides, so delicious and crunchy when half-raw, were eaten years ago. Its shell reminded me of its sweet taste. And it had been thrown back into the sea, from which it had floated back onto the sand, like the flotsam and the jetsam of the sea, and for days now, perhaps months, it lay on the sand, like an unused instrument. It could have been years. On this afternoon, we just watched the conch-shell, as the waves came in and covered it, and changed its colour for just one moment, and then the waves hid it from our sight two times. Once, when the wave brought the sand in its thrust, making the wave look like Cream of Wheat, and once
again, the second dying time, when the wave went back out to sea, without the sand on its back, the conch-shell was hardly moved from its stubborn and insistent posture of voicelessness. Sometimes, when we were at home, a few hundred yards from the beach where our fathers and uncles had sat before us, and at night, especially on dark nights when their tales matched the heaviness of the night and their memories, they would remember a fisherman who had been dragged up from this same beach, filled with water, drowned and blue; and how someone had put this same conch-shell to his lips, and had blown a signal, a tune, a warning of things to come, and sounded the declaration of the tragedy. And the entire village would come out to mourn.

We were sitting on the same sand where our fathers and uncles used to sit in the long storytelling nights of accidents at sea, and of women they had loved. And sometimes, of women who loved them back, and of women who had died before their declaration of love. When the waves sped back into the sea, we were left sitting in the sun on the sand, beside the old conch-shell the fishermen used to summon villagers for their catch, and summon villagers to a death by drowning, of a fisherman. The sun was going down now, far out behind the water, beyond the power of our eyes to focus; and the afternoon was still hot, and the water was washing in, lazily and without the rising waves, and no sand mixed in the waves, washing our bodies up to
our waists. The water mixed with the sand had the same consistency as the Cream of Wheat porridge our mothers made us eat for breakfast and for strength, to make us men. The conch-shell did not move, or lean over from its majesty, from the touch of the waves.

Our bathing pants, as we called them, were made of khaki. They had tabs, and five buttons to protect our small parts and keep our manhood private. They were the same pants we had worn to high school, when they were new. Now, they were tattered. They were torn in many places, always in the shape of an L. They were cut down, and they reached almost to the knee. We did not wear the leather belts through the tabs as we did when they formed part of our school uniform. And now that they were being soaked in the salt blue waves, they became heavy and were sticking to our bodies, like a second skin.

John was showing me again how double-jointed he was, and was walking on his hands, with legs buckled back. He looked like a crab. He was laughing as he walked on his hands, and I was laughing too. He was laughing as he walked too close to the water, into a wave which threw him into the sea. He lost his balance. And then he screamed. He had stepped on a cobbler. The cobbler, from its colour, which is black, is the dangerous cousin of a sea-egg, which we ate, and which is pink and very delicious, like the meat of conchs. The cobbler, John said, was angry with him. John was reading books about the mysteries of the East. The cobbler
broke off about ten short and ugly needles into his foot. The ten needles were visible. Black against the rich pink of his heel. The needles were circled by ten spots of blood. Just the tops. I could see them clearly against the dark, fat pink of his sole near the heel. All ten were in the heel of his left foot.

He had just told me that he was double-jointed, like an Indian swami. He had shown me how double-jointed he was. The evening before, while sitting on the sand, he had grabbed his right leg with his right hand, and put it over his head. I had closed my eyes, expecting to hear his joints break. But nothing happened. All I could hear when he did this trick was the lapping of water against the pink shell of the conch. He looked like the old man who walked on the seat of his pants, with his hands moving his crippled body, propelled inch by inch, over the hard concrete pavement of the main street in Town, where he begged for pennies, looking up at the towering passengers in the buses which looked like the buildings he had stormed in France when he fought in a war that ended before the Second World War began, when he lost his legs, when he could walk, when he stepped on a mine.

When John did the same trick with his left leg, I closed my eyes again. And when I opened them, I thought John had turned into a large soldier-crab. All I could hear was the water running back into the sea, passing over the stationary conch-shell, laughing and ignoring the inability of the shell to follow it back into the deep. His
joints did not break. He believed in the mysteries of the East. I knew then that he was double-jointed. And I told him that his joints were made of rubber.

“Rubber?” he asked me. “Like the rubber in our inner tube?”

“Indian rubber,” I said.

Our inner tube, patched in many different colours of rubber, black, brown, and red, was just then drifting out to sea. The tide had come in while I was watching John’s transformation into a soldier-crab, and a wave falling back upon itself had dragged it, like a thief, out of our reach. Stealthily, the wave took the inner tube on which we would sit in the lolling sea, like it would take a crab, transparent through to its stomach, who scampers up the beach, grabs its prey, and disappears into the retreating waves that hide the prey and the crab because they have the same colour as the predatory crab. The waves were filled with these killing crabs. John was able to swim. But the ten black points circled and highlighted by the ten spots of blood in his pink heel were stinging him. He had washed his heel in the salt water twice, but with no relief.

John could do almost everything better than me, better than any boy in the neighbourhood could do, or was supposed to do: playing cricket, football, running to victory as the young champion athlete, playing tennis in the road with wooden rackets he made himself, fishing for sprats, coming first in class, and talking to three girls at the same time and making each of
them his confidante. And he was head boy and soloist in the choir of St. Matthias Anglican Church. John was the star. The ten cobblers were still stinging his foot. He had promised many times to teach me how to swim, but he always forgot. He made this promise every long vacation, but he never remembered. And anyway, the sea at this time of year was often rough, with the winds of hurricanes and storms.

“The tube! The tube! Man, look the inner tube!”

And I got up from the sand, which had caused my bathing pants to be wet in the entire seat, and I ran towards the water. And stopped dead. And I thought of the waves coming up to my shoulders, and then to my neck, and then to my head, and then into my mouth. And I saw again, as if it was happening in front of me, as I faced the waves, my uncle’s bloated body, filled with sea water and with some sprigs of moss that had got into his mouth, heavy and dead, while the other fishermen were dragging him in the same way they had earlier dragged the two-ton body of a shark over the beach, out of the water, along the sand, and the dragging of my uncle was the leaving of the trail of his limp body and legs over the sand, scratching it in two places like the lines of a railway track, the evidence of the passage of body and legs over the sand that remained the colour of the shell of the conch, the marking-out of his last journey from the sea. When the shark was dragged in triumph over the pink sand, the mark it left was the one thick imprint of its tail. We ate the shark
afterwards, in two hours, in vengeance, fried or boiled in steaks thick as our hands. And we ate it with the same glee as my uncle had told me sharks ate men, including fishermen. That Sunday afternoon, after church and Sunday school, when my uncle was returned home, as large as a buffalo with the water in his body and his lungs, someone blew the conch-shell, too. It was a man. He tried his hand and his talent at a hymn from the book of
Hymns Ancient & Modern
, something fitting for a fisherman, something fitting for a man whose life was lost at sea. The man tried his own lungs against the pink coral makeshift instrument of the conch, and made the village sadder with a mournful rendition of the hymn sung in the Litany for those in peril on the sea. Hymn 624. John and I knew the hymn. It was sung every morning for the whole week at school, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (which was the day we ate shark soup for lunch), Thursday, and Friday, (which was choir practice at St. Matthias Anglican Church, fifty yards from our homes); and we sang it too, in memory and in honour of uncles, brothers, and fathers who had tried their luck with employment, by fighting on the side of the “Allieds” in the Second World War. We sang that hymn more often than we sang “Evening Shadows Make Me Blue,” sang it so often that John and I knew it by heart, although we could never find it in the hymnbook, unless the Headmaster had first told us the number and the page. But that Sunday afternoon, the man blew the conch-shell, without benefit of music lessons
and the right key, and we still were able to recognize that it was the hymn for those in peril on the sea.

BOOK: The Origin of Waves
4.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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