The physical component of this piece is a fold-out cardboard lantern and an 8-foot illustrated scroll that feeds through it. One puts a phone flashlight under the lantern to illuminate the illustrations like a glowing light box and advances the scroll according to bells in the audio.
Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.
“DOUTE FLOWER” is written in sand packed so tight it looks like limestone. Over these letters, seaweed spells out words in an indecipherable alphabet, punctuated with shells. The water is already at work, eroding the limestone, erasing the words, and reordering the illegible algae.
[The audio starts. It is hard to know where wind ends and waves begin. Together, they become a dry rustle. Narrator, a woman, speaks.] Whenever you hear this sound [a bell rings], advance the scroll. Pull it forward until you reach the next red dot. No need to move too fast. Douteflower. [Bell rings.]
[Man’s voice] Okay, that was the bell. Time to advance the scroll.
[The dry rustle gives way to liquid undulations. Under the waves there is a pedal note—the sea floor. A sudden drop into a low droning. Out of this deep trench springs, in three obstinate notes, the word “Doute Flower.” There is something hypnotic, siren-like, about this chant.]
Every beach house is destined to be erased by sand, wind, and water. Even here, in this tidy living room (with its wicker chair, perfectly antiquated floor lamp, purple walls, and hardwood floors), one can sense the brine at work. The beach will eventually repossess this house, but in the meantime, to forestall the inevitable, shoes, tote bags, and flip-flops are left outside—next to a box full of empty wine bottles.
A carry-on bag stands next to the wicker chair. The door leading to the beach is open. The shapes of two people waver in a mirror next to the door. Their position matches that of the viewer of this picture. They have been partially erased by the salt smudging the surface of the mirror. A cat, on its way out, stares back at the two figures—or at the viewer of this picture. Outside, the ocean roars on, with patient hunger.
[Narrator returns.] My doubts really began when Lilly refused to listen to my warning. Walter is moribund again, I told her, but she refused to hear it. “He’s just gone out to the sea to look at the seaweed,” she said. “That’s all.”
We were at the shore. It was my day off, and I’d gone to the shore to see Walter and Lilly because I was going out of my mind just in one place all the time. “Walter needs water,” Lilly had said. “Walter needs a drink,” said Walter. “A drink of water,” Lilly said. “Eh,” he says, “not water.”
They had one of those deadlock stares that went on until the cat came in. They both called to it like the cat would somehow decide which one of them was in the right. The cat ignored them both and came to me. I held the cat and watched Walter brick up his face until we couldn’t see into his eyes anymore, and then he left. We hear him walk across the gravel to the shed by the garage, hear him pull the door shut, locking it. Clink of bottles coming down from the shelves. But Lilly refused to speak about it. She just started telling me about a place she wanted to show me. A stone with a hole in it worn away by the sea. [Bell rings.]
The clouds roll into the ocean; the ocean rolls into the seaweed; the seaweed rolls into the tall grass—all the wind’s doing. Down on the beach, a blond woman waves at someone at the top of a dune, but we only see this person’s legs and feet are visible: sneakers, ankle socks, loose pants around the shins, the hem of a green coat grazing the knees. The whole scene is seen from a cat-like height.
[The man, who we learn to be Walter, speaks] I follow you down to the beach from the house and watch you walk out into the water. It’s one of those days when you get to the water to find it has chucked seaweed everywhere on everything. The whole beach choking with yellow, smelling like the underside of water.
[Narrator returns] Lilly and I walk down to the beach. It’s totally covered in this mass of yellow seaweed. We can see it in the water, too. She wades out into it. [Bell rings.]
The clouds have blackened. But this does not stop the blond woman in the blue coat from walking into the water. She rolls up her pants and lets the seaweed wrap around her ankles. The wind moves her hair in just the same way the surf moves the seaweed.
I can see the seaweed wrapping itself around her ankles, but it doesn’t bother her. Or, if it does, she doesn’t show it. She stands there with the weird fleshy knobweed streaming from her ankles like she’s wearing some ritual seaweed costume, inching herself toward the possibility of becoming some entirely different kind of body. Rationally, I know it’s the movement of the water making the seaweed stream past her and then pull the other way, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s Lilly. That she’s asking the sea to wrap her up like she’s trying to take the whole force of the sea with her, into her, like she’s trying to become something that can live out there.
I watch her for a few minutes in silence. [Bell rings.]
[A guitar plays two simple chords over and over, softly. The general effect is that of gentle ripples—even if the sea is wild.
The sound of an engine (a boat?) comes in from the left and moves, in a crescendo, to the right. As it passes and fades out into the distance, its pitch immune to the doppler effect, a humming begins. Is it the same siren-like voice as before? The guitar stops playing; the humming remains—a serenemmm that is not eager to resolve itself into a melody.]
A woman in a red windbreaker and round eyeglasses seems to be looking down—perhaps at the woman ankle-deep into the water. Text overlays the image that reads “Watch her with me.” She is surrounded by seaweed and minnows, some of which weave into her hair. It all seems to be in her mind. This may be why her gaze turns inward and she closes her eyes. She brings her hand to her head, overpowered by the images in there.
And then, she turns around and says that she wants to show me something and let’s take a walk. And she slides her feet from the seaweed as if just stepping out of a pair of shoes, as if it’s nothing more than stepping softly out of her slippers. And she walks on.
“But, what about Walter?” I ask. “What are you going to do about Walter?” She just says, “Come on, I want to show you something.” We walk down the beach without talking, along the bluffs at the edge of the dunes. We go a long way down the beach, far enough that there’s no more seaweed choking it up. You can see a person here and there setting up to swim even though it’s still cold. I see something shining near the water, and I ask Lilly to wait [Bell rings].
[The perpetual rustle of the wind and the waves. It seems inconceivable that it could ever end. Over it comes a sustained, mineral sound. Glassy, melodious, impersonal. Not even human. Perhaps this is the true voice of the sirens…]
I walk toward the shining stuff. It’s thousands of tiny fish, minnows.
We look down at the woman in the red windbreaker’s feet from her height, as if we were standing across from her. A vortex of minnows spins around her ankles. Among themwhirls a minuscule incarnation of the woman. This tiny twin, red windbreaker and all, is smaller than most of the minnows. There is despair in her swimming strokes, as if she were in freefall.
They’re everywhere silvering the sand, flashing sunlight everywhere as they thrash around. They’re still alive. I scoop a handful up so I can deliver them back into the sea, but when I get to the water, I see that there are thousands, maybe millions of these tiny fish, swarming in the knee deeps. I wade out into the water, and I feel them hitting my ankles and shins. I release my little handful of fish, but even as I do, a small wave sends a thousand more to strand and thrash anew. My gesture of rescue is useless, utterly useless, anti-nature.
And then I see these other larger fish weaving their way through the shoal of minnows. Maybe one large fish to every three thousand minnows, just following the same loping path as the little fish. Mouths open, sucking in any minnow that managed not to get washed up on the sand. [Bell rings.]
The water is saturated with fish. In fact, it is so dense with fish that fish, all these fish, have coalesced into a new element, distinct from water. And just like water, this new element is capable of great violence. Every predator is prey, every prey is preying. An endless circle of teeth and flesh.
And then I look a little farther out and now I see there are even larger fish than the minnow eaters, and they are swimming after the ones who are swimming after the minnows. Maybe one of these even larger fish to every thirty of the minnow-eaters, so one even larger fish to every ninety-thousand minnows. And then I look a little farther out, and I see a seal head. A little mound of brown and eyes above the water. The seals must come in to eat the big fish. Say one seal for every four hundred of the eaters of the eaters of the minnows, so a seal for every—let’s say—thirty-six million minnows, thousands of which seem to be hitting my legs every second as I stand out in the water, when something collapses and effervesces in me at the same time. And I start to laugh, laugh at the idea of my own life’s sanctity. I start to feel this sanctity, this feeling that I should be preserved into an old age, is a gigantically stupid conception, especially all the time I spend worrying about the details beyond am I alive or am I not alive. [Bell rings.]
A great white shark devours the minnows and the minnows’ devourers. The abyss of the shark’s mouth, encircled by ridges of serrated teeth, surrounded by wide gums—all resolving itself in a rocket-shape head. There is, however, an incongruous sort of sadness in the shark’s eyes.
And then I remember that all of the summer before there were sharks. Sharks taking the limbs off humans and humans bleeding out within twenty feet of their towels and coolers, and some little jingle of beach wisdom that’s been deposited into my brain lights up: where there are seals, there are sharks. And, even though, yes, I am standing there laughing as millions of minnows cascade themselves along, against, beyond my knees, forcing the knowledge that my life is no more or less cheap than the lives of thousands of minnows getting swept into fish mouths or piling up on the sand, I also have the clear knowledge that, cheap or not, I and the thirty-six-million minnows would prefer not to be eaten, so I run back to Lilly. I am alive. [Bell rings.]
The beach, seen from the water—probably some fifty feet in. The silhouette of two people holding hands (the two women?). Sitting on the horizon, two beach houses and a lighthouse. The sky is purpling behind the black clouds. Yet, on the surface, the ocean remains as vividly blue as ever. But wherever the waves disturb the turquoise waters, it is to reveal a great darkness underneath. The words “THIS IS THE SOUND OF BEING ALIVE” bob on one of these patches of darkness, hinting to the sound collage that has just begun.
[The amplified, distorted torrent of blood, coursing through veins and arteries.
The most intimate rush. Life:
A siren—not the mythical one.
A foreign language.
An opera I can’t place.
Bells knell, crickets respond.
Amplified men always think they sound authoritative:
A vague crowd sliced by a passing vehicle.
A bored rumor filled with a dirty void.
In the end,
All that remains is the pedal note that was always there,
from the beginning:
a deep note, on the surface of which higher ones used to glide.]
[Walter speaks] I am out at sea, and I see Lilly standing there and you behind her. She’s not looking at me, but I know she senses me. I track you as you walk down the sand. I’m sure she must be taking you to the widow’s stone, but then you stop part-way there and are standing with your hands in the water. And I swim in closer, but you see me, I think? But then you get scared. Is it of me? You don’t recognize me like this. You get scared and run. [Bell rings.]
The two women are at the edge of a rocky point. At its center there is a hole that resembles the concave side of an enormous oyster shell. It could probably hold one of the women, curled up. One can imagine the hole will become a pool after the approaching rain and the crashing waves fill it with water. The woman in the red windbreaker sits by the hole, looking up at the woman in the blue coat, standing next to her. The scene’s point of view is strange: the women are seen from above and at an angle, and the slanted perspective plays tricks on the rock.
[Narrator returns] The stone is on the bluff nearest the lighthouse by the point. Lilly tells me to climb up onto it. A flat boulder, a rectangular-ish boulder. I take off my shoes and ease onto it, sand in the crevices, a little lichen growing in the tiny bits of soil. Those ones I recognize, they’re called British soldiers. Red flowers as in red coats. Yellow ones, too, a different shape, I’m not sure of the name. The wind is hard. Up on the stone, the view is panoramic. [Slowly, a guitar plays a descending modal scale three times. It is one of the Greek modes—Phrygian? Which one of the Greek modes would the sirens have favored?] “It’s called the widow stone,” Lilly says, pushing her voice upstream through the wind like the widow’s walk on all those old houses. The highest vantage to look out to sea to see if the boats were coming back in or to watch them not come in, more like.
I look down at my feet, and there’s a hole in the center of the stone. I can see all the way through it to the dune ground below. More lichen, ants carrying the body of a lizard. [Bell rings.]
A man is wrapped up by the waves. Passive. Rolled by them. Decomposed by them with every roll. Mutated by them. Was this the fate of those who jumped overboard, following the sirens’ song?
[Over the descending scale played by the guitar, a woman sings. She sounds a bit like Karen Dalton. A second voice comes in. If the first voice had a slight nasal quality to it, the second one feels more neutral. It is easy to forget there are two voices singing—they blend into one focused yet warm beam. Was this how the sirens sang? All their voices merging into one?] I can’t explain it, but I begin to cry. “That’s good,” says Lilly, “that’s what you are supposed to do. Hang your cheek, let the tears drip onto the stone.” I am crying heavily now. I don’t know for what or who. I am not the one whose person is drinking himself dead. Maybe I am crying for Lilly. Proxy without... anticipated proxy without, who knows? Proxy anticipated without. Tears on the stone. [Bell rings].
After being rolled by the sea, the man’s metamorphosis continues: from decaying flesh to specter to seal.
Maybe I am crying for all the widows. Wonder if they actually stood here. Wonder what it would be like to wait like that for so long. Like those nights when you become certain there’s been a car crash. Or, something violent has happened, and no one will be coming home to you ever again. Like that feeling, but for years—how many days are there in five years? [The pair of singing voices return, still over the descending Phrygian scale. The sweetness of this half-melody (parts of it seem almost spoken) and the warmth of the voices only highlight the desolation of the words.] Three hundred times five plus sixty-five times two is a hundred and thirty times another two that’s two hundred and sixty plus another sixty-five that’s three hundred and twenty-five plus the one thousand five hundred, so—) That many nights of no one coming home to you ever again. [Bell rings.]
The two women seem to be at the edge of the world. Marooned, cut off by the ocean on one side and darkness on the other. They are seen from the mid-distance, as if someone were peering out at them from the dark.
I start to think of erosion, about how much water it takes to erode stone. Start to try to count how many widow tears it would take to erode stone. How many millennia of widows and proxy widows? [Rather than singing, a series of looping deep voices repeating the same sound, trying to articulate something. It could be “doute” it could also be the “dow” in “widow.” It is unclear, this rolling stutter. Over it, singing resumes.] And I wonder if this happens to everyone who stands up here because you’d need a lot of tears for a hole that size.
The lichen down there starts to bloom on my tears. I am watering the garden. [Bell rings.]
A seal, wrapped in seaweed, stares at us through the hole in the rock that resembled an oyster shell. And even if out here it is dark and cold, as if we were adrift among the stars, in there, inside the hole, where the seal is, the storm has passed and the sun shines.
Lilly points out the sea. “Look,” she says, “it’s Walter.” I can see a head bobbing, a seal head. “That’s not Walter,” I say. “That can’t be Walter. That’s a seal.” I say it even though I understand it is, it really is. I say it even though there is not a doubt in my mind that that seal head bobbing out at sea is Walter. Watch the head move, skirting the shore as if he’s watching back.
Karinne Keithley Syers is a teacher and artist whose work spans plays, sound, song, essay, animation, choreography, bookmaking, and points in between. She founded 53rd State Press, maintains an A/V web treasury at fancystitchmachine.org, and teaches independently through the Pelagic School of Writing.
Wesley Allsbrook was born in Durham, North Carolina. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Wesley has been recognized by the Art Directors Club, the Society of Publication Designers, the Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Communication Arts, the Sundance Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the Raindance Film Festival, the Television Academy, and the Peabody Awards. She writes and draws.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award, Hernan Diaz is the author of two novels, In the Distance and Trust.