“You remind me of love, and love does not belong to me today.”
The Ballad of Joey Slitherton.
Over the centuries of hurling waves against the coastline, the ocean carves curious and jagged paths into the grasslands. The softer soils get swept away first, and then the rockier crags begin to show forth, causing the formerly smooth green grasslands to betray what looks like an enormous skeleton being unearthed, and clutching at the water before it slips through its mangled fingers. And after so many years of pulling the sands out to the sea, the incessant gnawing of the water carries so much land away that what we see nowadays is cliffs. Tall, deep rutted cliffs that look like morbid sculptures carved from stone.
It was up these cliffs of stone that Joey Slitherton clumb one day when he was about the age of eighteen. With fingers grasping at the sharp teeth of the stone face, he pulled himself up inch by inch. Up to the top was where he was headed, and he had to make his up there the hard way because the determination within him was raging so strong. But grass, the grass from the first day of Earth’s creation, was still up there: Joey could see it tapering over the ledge. Grass that had survived the washing away. And when he was no longer able to find a rock to lock his fingers on, and his fingers touched down instead at slippery blades of grass, he knew he was at the top. The ill-tempered rocks bore down against the soft flesh of his cheek. The grasses tickled his nose. But his eyes were free to roam the open arena, and he discovered the ancient root of a sycamore tree sticking its head up from the grass. Joey grabbed it.
He grabbed that root and with the last jolt of energy left in him, he gave himself the final heave ho and suddenly there he was, straddling the top of all creation. The grass was soft against his bleeding feet. He’d started out with shoes but lost them at the very start when a wave rushed up and surprised him and, catching him off guard, stole his shoes right off his feet. He’d have been swept away as well had it not been for the jut of a boulder that snared him squarely in the groin and locked him into a tight spot. He survived that blow, but it cost him his shoes. And now, someday; sure as blonde hair in California, there’s going to be a fisherman who’ll be reeling in what he thinks is a giant sea bass only to discover it to be Joey’s shoe. A person can only brag about his bait so long before the truth pops up and slaps him in the face.
So Joey, exhausted beyond strength, crawled towards the old man who was sitting at the base of that ancient sycamore tree. It was a terribly haggard sight, that old man in that tattered robe that was bleached white from years of ocean salt and sun. The man himself was a composition of leathered, dry skin and wrinkles sufficient to make a raisin feel glamorous in comparison. Joey snaked his way forward and, lifting his face up so he could see him, groaned, “I think I’m in love.”
“Don’t come to me with questions,” the old man replied calmly. “If you have to ask, you are not in love.”
Joey coughed with a hack and cleared his throat of the salty brine that lingers long after swallowing the waves. He stumbled to one knee and then lifted himself up to somewhat of a stoop, but at least he was standing. Hands on his knees for support, he craned his neck and looked out at the horizon. The ocean can be a glorious sight from atop the bluff. With the blue of the waters and the blue of the sky both coming together at about the middle. It made Joey smile once again. “I didn’t ask,” the boy replied with a smile. “I was bragging.”
“Tell me about this woman,” the old man replied.
Joey was taken back by that request, and he turned sharply back to the man in almost a swirl of jealousy.
“What?” the aged man said with a shrug. “I don’t get many books to read up here! Tell me your story.”
“My story?” Joey replied, and a smile eased back onto his face. “My story,” he bragged. And with that, he filled his lungs with invigorating air, opened his arms wide and boasted proudly, “Look at her! She’s beautiful to look at, isn’t she?” Looking across the horizon into the distance of the seven seas, he continued.
“I can feel her heartbeat. It is the beating of her heart that gives me life. When I look at her, how can I not fall in love? She’s deep. There are depths to her that are un-seeable, and yet I long to discover them all. There are mysteries about her that I might never learn the meaning of, but I want to spend every day of my life at least trying. When I wake up in the morning I can smell her aroma, and it carries me to the window for a peek. When I lay down at night, I can hear her heart still beating. It is an eternal quest on her part as well, I think, this longing within her to reach me. Look at the shoreline. She is day by day carving a path to my doorstep and she is relentless in her quest. She will not be stopped despite the hardships. Her love for me is even deeper than my love for her and I will not neglect it. How can I overlook a passion as strong as hers?
“I’ve touched her. I remember the first time, when I was so young and timid. When I stood there at her doorstep and I could feel the power radiating from her heart. She was calling to me to enter in. So I did. She rolled her waves towards me one by one, patiently, oh so patiently, constantly inviting me with wave after wave like a gloriously open smile that just kept returning despite my timidity.
“So I stepped. I went ahead and stepped and when she wrapped herself around my ankles, I went racing whole-heartedly in. But how was I to have anticipated the thrust? She knocked me right back onto the sand, and I fell over backwards and got salt water all up my nose and I couldn’t breathe. I ran back to shore, all upset and confused and wondering why she’d tricked me.
“I was about to give up and head home, but her fingers grabbed my ankles once again. Was the struggle worth it, I wondered? Is there a reason why a man should have to fight for love? Should I have to battle every wave just for my desire to be with her? Her waves are unending! They are eternal. All I see for the rest of my life is struggle after struggle after struggle. And I wonder, is there a woman on Earth who is worth it?”
“If you have to ask questions,” the old man groaned again.
“I’m not asking yet!” Joey replied, head high and proud. A smile grew onto his face. And there was silence. A long, dramatic silence like when you’re behind a car at a four way stop sign and there’s somebody else at the other side and you wonder who’s going to make the first move, and you consider honking for someone, anyone to just go. “Okay, now I’m asking,” Joey blurted out with a laugh. “But only if you’re really answering! None of this ‘if you this then I that,’ crap. I need a serious answer!” he demanded as he lunged toward the man and threw himself at his feet.
“The answer will not come from me,” the aged man whispered with quiet confidence. “Listen for the voice of another.”
Joey stopped breathing, and listened so hard his eyes squinted fierce as anger.
“What have I done to hurt you, to so deeply offend you, that you have turned your back on me?” asked a feminine voice from across the horizon.
There’s a certain amount of apprehension that can build within a man despite how much he might deny it, even to himself. And after so much time of having packed away the pain into the unreachable parts of his soul, it had festered to quite a boil within him. And at the sound of her voice, a key was turned, causing Joey to lose all control and the floodgate of emotions within him burst loose into a torrent of tears.
He threw himself up to his feet and looked at her defiantly. His chest was heaving in and out as he breathed, because it was like fire was raging within him. He looked down just then, around at his feet, and upon seeing a stone he picked it up and hurled it as hard as he could into the sea. “Love does not belong to me!” he screamed. And he fell to the grass once again, weak and sobbing with his face buried so deep in his hands he was trying to gouge his eyes out. “And the sight of you reminds me of love.”
The stone landed into the expanse of the water soft as a single teardrop, hardly even making a sound besides a little itty bitty bloop. But as anyone in love would certainly know, a single teardrop can completely change the tide.
“Look at her,” said the graybeard, “Look at her!”
Joey stood up, wiped his eyes, and looked down from atop the cliff.
“There’s waves out there, big enormous waves. You think they knock you back? Turn yourself around, you young fool. Don’t fight them, and don’t let them fight you. Lift up as soon as they arrive, and they will pick you up and hold you, for they are the arms of the ocean herself,” he stated with a calm, beaming smile. “Let yourself get carried away!”
“Oh,” said Joey. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” And suddenly he could breathe again. He was calm and instantly relieved as soon as he realized something as simple as that. “She’ll hold me up!” he shouted with bounding delight.
Joey ran to the edge of the cliff, and planting his feet firmly on the grass, he shouted an immediate poem to the sea, “I will claim each breath that you exhale and I will let it fill my lungs. The rhythm of our beating hearts is exchanged upon our tongues…”
“I hate poetry,” grumbled the old man, and he shoved the boy off the cliff and into the sea.
“I can’t believe you did that!” shouted the boy over his shoulder as he was falling.”
“It’s only a ten-foot drop,” yelled the old man as he peered over the ledge and studied the boy treading water directly underneath. “Enjoy the ride.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay,” said the boy. And with that, Joey indulged himself as he let the sea wrap her arms around him. And the old man walked out; off the grass, up onto the sidewalk, and across the street to the 7-Eleven for a Big Gulp.
The Ballad of Joey Slitherton.
© Stephen Martin 3/26/2007