Varieties of Oblivion
Alexis M Slade (University of Melbourne, Australia)
From a great height the ocean looks a lot like the land. Acres of whitecaps suddenly stall at the edge of an expansive calm just as a flourishing forest can be brought to a halt at the verge of a prairie, and a strong current can slice through a magnificent swell much like the river that slips through a cluster of mountains. The breath of the wind can lift mist off the shallows the way cascading rocks down the side of a cliff spit dust out over the valley below. Viewed from the air on a cloudless flight, this patchwork of sea surfaces could as easily be a continent carved up into nations, each one with its own unique topography and with its boundaries brushing up against a scatter of independent neighbouring states.
Once a year, for seven years, I had a chance to take in that view as I set aside my life in one continent and fled abroad to another. I have at some stage settled either side of the Pacific Ocean and of the Atlantic, spurred on in each case by some sudden loss, the loss of a job or a lover, or a deterioration in health or in a sense of belonging and purpose. The first few times I felt my life slip away, I boarded the plane to my next destination and spent the flight trying to set down on paper some explanation of what I had done in the place I was leaving, what had gone wrong while I was there, and what I would do to avoid the same fate when at last I arrived where I wanted to be. But after two or three fresh arrivals were followed by just as many abrupt departures, I quit trying to keep any firm record of past mistakes and future hopes and instead I let my attention drift to the seascape outside my window and its vast federation of ripples and waves.
Those last few words are my own invention, but the concept underlying them is not. On one of the seven journeys I made I read a book, now lost to me, which documented the efforts made by a range of expansionist forces to control the sea-lanes at the height of European imperialism, and especially their efforts to deter, circumvent, negotiate with, and eradicate the pirates who prowled the untamed oceans and swore allegiance to no power on land. But as the nineteenth century eclipsed the eighteenth and a flurry of declarations, proclamations, treaties, and charters emerged from fledgling nations both east and west of the Atlantic Ocean, those outlaws who had settled the ocean itself were all but compelled by their neighbours on land to make their positions known and so to clearly and publicly state their intentions. According to the book, some of them had even gone so far as to stake claims to particular patches of water by appointing shipboard statesmen to draft and publish formal notices of acquisition. Below decks, beneath the very boots of the crew who would survey the horizon for fresh prey or else mount a defence against an enemy siege, space would be made in the cargo hold for a scribe to sit at a desk and sketch out a map of the sea surfaces that the men above him had claimed as well as a summary of the laws by which they would jointly attempt to govern their territory.
Some laid claim to a swell the size of Ireland just off the Ivory Coast. Others purported to own a deep ocean channel that stirred up a thousand-mile chop running north-south in parallel to the eastern seaboard of the United States. Had every distinct patch of water been claimed by a different scribe on a different ship, the entire Atlantic would have been as riddled with principalities and republics and theocratic dictatorships as is now the land that stretches away from its shores. But that never happened, of course, because even the roughest waters must subside when the gale that whips them up finally falters and even the most placid seas will grow restless under the fist of an encroaching squall. With pressure fronts warbling over and across the waves, entire nations were propelled into the cliffs of the Hebrides and there collapsed in on themselves while others were snagged on and shredded apart by the isles of the Florida Keys. Countless more were smashed together with a ferocity that plunged innumerable men into the depths beneath an all new sea surface and swept away the countries they founded as if they had never existed at all.
Alexis M. Slade was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he obtained his undergraduate degree in literary studies in 2009. He has been a graduate student of creative writing at the University of Melbourne since 2010.